Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Day 11 - Hakodate (Hokkaido)

10th February, 2003 - Arrived in Hakodate... had curry rice (a local specialty), then started looking around town. Nearby the train station is one of the many fish markets where you will see all number of different types of sea life (at least I think that they're from Earth) that you wouldn't normally see back in Australia. Not being a natural sea-food person (and you married a Sapporo girl?!?!) it was all a bit strange to me.

The one thing that we quickly discovered however was that T-chan's family weren't really the best people to ask regarding weather things... Hakodate was... well... FREEZING. The Japanese language is replete with many different ways to describe cold and snow etc... we invented another one. Ha-koDATE! (meaning - colder than you thought possible with a wind that goes right through your soul!). One of the first things we did was go shopping for gloves for T-chan.

As mentioned previously, Hakodate has a special place in Japanese history as it was one of only a couple of ports that were initially opened up after the intervention of the US. However - it's also well known for the final battle ground of the Meiji Restoration. As the Tokugawa shogunate lost control of Japan in the 1850's - 1860's, there were a number of last ditched efforts to restore the previous order. 

The last of these rebellions was known as the Boshin War, where a small army had formed a Ezo Republic (Yezo was the former name of Hokkaido) centred in Hakodate. The Imperial forces stormed the city, and routed the rebel army from Goryokaku fort... interestingly the last battle would not take place somewhere essentially Japanese - but rather one of the most westernised parts of Japan. 

Goryokaku fort itself is a Japanese design based on European citadel towns, and was constructed in 1853 - the same year that Matthew Perry forced his way into Japan. It's a 5 pointed star design that was created to allow greater coverage of approaches by cannons. Despite the fact that whole fort is surrounded by a deep moat - you wonder about the value come winter - when it all freezes over. Having said that - it was a brave Japanese soldier to go campaigning in the winter time in Hokkaido. Nowadays the fort is an open public park, especially good for cherry blossom viewing.

You can pay about 840 yen to ascend the lookout Goryokaku Tower. Other than a reasonable vista of the fort (the only way to really appreciate the unique design) there's not much else to up there. In my opinion it's a bit pricey for what could be 5 mins of taking photos. Having said that - having come this far, you may as well. Nowadays there is a new tower (the one pictured below dates from the mid 1960's).

Day 11 - Train Travel (Hakodate)

10th February, 2003 - One of the great presents that T-chan gave me on this trip was a side holiday to Hakodate (which is in the southern end of Hokkaido) about 4 hours (and about 8,500 yen) by train away from Sapporo. Every one ot T-chans family said that Hakodate would be much more mild, being by the sea... so we took their advice and packed for lightness rather than for the cold. We left early in the morning - a hard task, first catching a train into the city then the line to Hakodate. Looking at the schedule now, it appears to leave around 10:21am arriving just before  2pm. Not all trains in Japan are shinkansen - the train we caught was a stock standard train... hence the long travel time.

Travelling past Tomakomai... this is a fairly industrialised port city - with a large dependence on oil transport. During my stay in Japan, I didn't experience any earthquakes - but just before my second trip to Japan, later in the year, Tomakomai was made famous due to a huge oil storage fire caused by a very large earthquake (8.0 on the Richter scale - which is a VERY BIG quake).

Arriving in Noboribetsu you might be forgiven if you thought you'd suddenly stepped through a tear in the space-time continuum... and found yourself in Europe. Actually - you might find this hard to believe but this replica Dutch castle (Castle Nixe) is also a famous marine park and contains one of the largest acquariums in northern Japan. It's perhaps most famous for it's penguin parade where penguins are marched (perhaps a little unceremoniously) through the crowds. Japan has a number of these tourist attractions that seem to be from a different age...

Noboribetsu Station. Noboribetsu is a Japan-wide famous Onsen-town... and as such the stream of tourists through the small town has lead to the inevitable tourist-cringing moments. Nothing like being welcomed by a cardboard cut-out, and a moth-eaten bear. Maybe this is like some form of totem - warning off all tourists with good taste. We visit Noboribetsu in a later trip - but for now it's full steam ahead... we're half way there.

You see some strange sights on the train - for example, I had not thought to see ice-fishing in Japan (don't ask why not... it just seemed... foreign to Japan to me). Not being a fisher-person, I think this is taking the past-time to new extreme (obsesive) lengths.

The scenery on the way to Hakodate is fairly bleak - the mountains bereft of most of their cover feel like ancient bones uncovered from ground. A hard place to live.

It's an interesting way to see Hokkaido - but if you don't have a JR pass, it's pretty expensive and slow... but much quicker than driving!
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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 10 - Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo)

9th February, 2003 - After a rest day - and my making a good traditional meal of Lasagne and garlic bread (actually it's not always that easy to find ingrediants for Western foods in Japanese supermarkets). We got ready for a night-time expedition back into Sapporo. Sapporo is definitely a winter city, and you have to wonder really at how their gardens survive the thick snow that buries them each year. The answer is - with a lot of care (and wooden supports to bear the weight of the snow).

We jumped on the subway and headed off to Odori Koen for another perspective of the Yuki Matsuri.

Even outside of Yuki Matsuri, Odori Koen is normally lit up - especially during winter to really look beautiful... but you have to watch out for those streets... during the night ice forms on the roads and even though they don't look that bad, they can be as slippery as hell! Odori Koen was apparently developed over a century ago as a natural fire break between north and south parts of the city - 100 metres wide and 12 blocks long. Perfect place to have a snow festival!

Sapporo TV Tower looks much more scenic at night.,, surrounded by a fairy garden of lights.

One of the scenes captured in snow was that of Captain Matthew Perry - a critical figure in Japanese history... and an American. Perry came to Japan with one mission. To open it up to American trade. This he aceheived using quintessential gunboat diplomacy... The first impact of this was that the port city of Hakodate (in Hokkaido) and Shimoda were officially sanctioned as open trading ports. More on Hakodate later...

A return to Edo-jo... looks different under lights!

Not sure those stairs would be easy to climb...

Stitch meets Mickey and Minnie... why - who can tell?

What happens at night? Many of the sculptures get rebuilt! Hard work... especially in the cold!

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 9 - Sapporo City (Sapporo)

Sapporo Tokeidai 8th February, 2003 - Leaving Hokkaido Jingu we made our way into the city centre again to visit one of, if not the, sights of Sapporo. In fact it's an icon of the city - and a very good example why one should never put much weight on icons. The building is the Sapporo Tokeidai, or clock tower. The building was constructed in 1878 as part of the Hokkaido University - and is presently the oldest building remaining in Sapporo. There are few things remarkable about this building (beyond perhaps the colonialist design that marked the development of Sapporo)... what is remarkable is how much of a tourist attraction it is... and is supposedly one of Japan's three great disappointments in terms of tourism. If you do go and see the tower, there are exhibitions on the top floor (200 yen entry fee) - but also for a good photo op, go across the road (out the front) as there's a building with stairs and balcony from which you can take good photos. If that's your thing.

Leaving the inspiring Tokeidai, we then walked down to the former Hokkaido Government Building (built in 1873) which is now largely used as a public garden - and is quite spectactular in spring (see later trips). There are a number exhibitions inside, and is free to enter. Today however, we were admiring another of the sites for the Guinness World Record attempt.
Hokkaido Government Building

After a day of sight-seeing, T-chan's family took us all out to a dinner of sushi at a very, very nice restaurant. We had a private room - and it didn't take a genius to realise that this was something special. And like most special restaurants, you could just tell you didn't deserve it... T-chan's family spent much time taking in the atmosphere, commenting on each dish as if it were a work of art, and especially considering each choice of plate. To me, it was nice sushi - but then again, until 6 months earlier, I had hardly eaten any Japanese food at all! ? : p  Of xourse, like most very nice cuisine - volume was not the main selling point.

It was very yummy - shame I'm such an uncultured swine! Arigatou otousan & okaasan!!

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Day 9 - Hokkaido Jingu (Sapporo)

Hokkaido Jingu in Sapporo 8th February, 2003 - After visiting Ookurayama we drove back towards the city, stopping off at Hokkaido Jingu - the main Shinto shrine in Sapporo. It's a good time to catch up on some good luck, and buy some charms.

Shima Yoshitake
Hokkaido Shrine lacks some of the grandeur that you find in other shrines around Japan - but it's definitely well liked (if you get a chance to visit in New Years, you'll be surprised at just how busy it is here). At this time of year it's a little more subdued.

In the shrine grounds you will come across an enigmatic bronze statue that stands at the boundary of the forest, as if a long lost explorer having finally returned to civilization. His name is Shima Yohitake (1822-74) who was a samurai of the Saga district who was deeply involved in the job of planning the new city of Sapporo in the late 1860's - and especially the location of the new shrine. Unfortunately for him, he joined in the Saga revolt (against the ruling Meiji government) and was captured and subsequently executed.

The Japanese are renowned for their innovative spirit - but I was somewhat surprised to see that the culture of drive-thru-convenience had extended to visiting the Shrine. We were walking past the car-park only to find one of the priests loitering mysteriously around a car - before beginning to perform some form of ritual blessing. Now that's handy - visit the shrine, get a charm and get your car exorcised of bad spirits. All in an afternoons work.

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Day 9 - Ookurayama Ski Jump (Sapporo)

8th February, 2003 - After a big day out, we hit the slopes so to speak and visited Ookurayama ski jump, which is another venue from the 1972 Winter Olympics, and is still used to this day for international ski jump competitions. It has one advantage of having a great view over the city, especially by going up the chairlift to the summit lookout. The chairlift is an nice way to get to the top - and thankfully it's a return trip (no volunteering to go down via the express route on two skis). They do ski-jumping here at night too.

The view of Sapporo City from the top of the mountain is quite spectacular - if a bit cold. Definitely worth going. You can get there via a bus from Maruyama subway stop - which is also where Sapporo's zoo is... unfortunately the zoo is closed during winter (all the animals get shipped to the tropics to improve their tan).

From the summit you can clearly see the city centre, and the towering Sapporo Station complex that sits atop the central train station. Sapporo is low-lying by Japanese standards, and much of the shopping exists either underground (e.g. Sapporo Station, or Pole Town) or scattered between Sapporo Station and Odori Koen (that's the darkish patch on the right (at right angles to the road to Sapporo Station) - about two-thirds up in the photo below.

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 8 - Sapporo

7th February, 2003 - What a day - but still, the hardest part was yet to come. I've already met the family (of course) - but now I have the next biggest hurdle. The nod of approval from the best friend, T2-chan. It was around 8pm, and we had decided to meet T2-chan in the city at a nice little cafe (very swish) for a coffee and an interogation. Hmmm - as we sat and waited, my thoughts turned to the journey so far. That and the fact that we paid 700yen for this coffee. That's damned expensive coffee!

Actually the thing that I'm most probably thinking is... why did I drink so much for dinner tonight? T-chan's Otousan can be so persuasive!

As it turned out, T2-chan spoke English reasonably well (as she'd studied in America), and therefore as my Japanese was pretty well non-existant, we managed still to communicate ok. There were many serious moments, broken only by... "I have a question"... A question. Try about 100 questions....

And yet no one could answer me this very simple question... why in Japan do the Japanese people call green traffic lights "blue". It's not a translation thing - they call it blue in Japanese. Yes - Japanese green lights are the same green as ours - and it's not like they do it for other green things... only traffic lights (as far as I can tell). Questions like this plague me to this day.

Why is it so?

And did I pass the test, T2-chan?...

Actually - after meeting T2-chan, I have to admit the growing discomfort in my stomach finally got the better of me - at about midnight - somewhere between the subway station and home. How embarrassing! Luckily it wasn't an hour earlier - T2-chan might not have such a good impression. Ïn the words of the bard..."Bring me a bucket!...

... and no, it wasn't T2-chan, it was definitely the assortment of beer, shouchu and a few other drinks that did it. You'd think that it would take only one such experience to learn, but alas....
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Day 8 - Ishiya Chocolate Factory (Sapporo)

7th February, 2003 - After a day of outdoor activity, what better way to recuperate than visit a Chocolate Factory... well - ok - there are better ways, but this is not a bad one. Ishya Chocolate Factory is one of the more famous ones in Sapporo (if not Japan), and its not that far out of our way. It's a beautiful old buidling that's had some characteristic chintzy Japanese bling applied. Very good to visit in winter as it looks appropriately Christmasey.

The chocolate is good, but one thing you learn quickly in Japan, is that it's all in the presentation - and they excel at it. Of course, underlying that fine single wrapped luxury is an attention to quality ingrediants as well. Of course - if you want to go inside, it's about 600 yen for adults and 200 yen for children. Whilst it's a bit cheesey, I kinda like that part of Japanese taste. They do it with passion! If you're a bit tight, or you don't like chocolate, you can just take walk around the fairy-land grounds for free. ? ; )

One of the more weird things we did over our holidays was that we participated in a Guinness World Record (successfully I might add). Actually the record was for the most snowman to be made at one time... and we contributed a very special one for the cause... out of about 12,379 similar snowmen. The sites were located all across the city, where they provided you with the resource. Snow. Buckets. Eyes etc. You provided the grunt power and creativity. We made a special Koala version - a small representative of Australia in Sapporo.

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Day 8 - Maeda Shinrin-koen (Sapporo)

7th February, 2003 - A change of pace. Today we went off to Maeda Shinrin-koen, a local council park that offers free cross-country skiing in winter. That's right, you get to use the skis for FREE. I think it's sort of a community fitness and well-being programme, and perhaps designed more for the elderly. I was starting feel a little worn out - but I'm not that old. Anyhow - it was nothing that a spot of exhillerating cold couldn't fix.

Actually this was the first time on ski's and it's not a bad way to start. Ok - it's not that much like downhill skiing at all, but you get the feeling that you're doing something. ? : D ... It's great exercise, and it was nice to get out and just breathe in the crisp Hokkaido air. T-chan is a very good skier - but hadn't tried X-country skiing before. She also found it fun. In the background you can see Teine-yama... Mount Teine - where they held 1972 Winter Olympics ski events. I didn't get there this trip... but it made for a nice backdrop.

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