Sunday, January 30, 2011

Timeless Jozankei... Flying Carps Splash Over Our Heads, Homeward Bound They Dance

15th April, 2009 - It was a somewhat lazy start to the day after our night of... well... eating orgy. Needless to say, T-chan and I managed to have a relaxing morning ... but not much of a sleep-in as it was off to the onsen for an early bath followed by a quick tour of the immediate area. The hotel shuttle bus would be arriving (too) early to allow for a real sight-seeing adventure. For those that are interested in visiting, the Jozankei site can be found here.

View Sapporo Map in a larger map

Whilst the hot-springs are why people come to Jozankei, there's plenty of stuff to do... in Autumn you can pop down to Houhaikyou Dam to see some brilliant scenery, and in winter you can ski. Autumn alas is another 6 months away, so we'd just have to make do with the small things, like the koinobori suspended over the river.

Now if you are wondering what all the koinobori streamers are for... well, they're more like pennants than anything. The name koinobori comes from koi (鯉) being carp, and nobori (幟) meaning banner. These are the traditional decoration that is put up for Children's Day (kodomo no hi) which occurs on the 5th May each year... and which is one of the public holidays that makes up Golden Week. Actually the festival originated in ancient times (from before the Heian Period) as the lunar festival Tango no Sekku. This was one of five seasonal festivals, and the one associated with the start of the summer rainy season... though the seasons are quite different here in Hokkaido it was still quite wet (but for different reasons).

The festival became associated with the celebration of boys, and indeed is often still referred to as the Boy's Festival... One of the aspects of the Boys Festival is that koinobori would be hung outside of the family house. The number and size of koinobori was dependent on the number of sons in the house (the biggest koinobori belonging to the eldest son). The significance of the Carp comes from an old Chinese legend that tells that if carp can make it to the top of a certain river (in China) they can become a dragon. The koinobori is therefore a symbol of the parents wish that the sons will endure and persist hardships to go on to great things.

Somehow in post-war Japan the Boys Festival was modified to be gender-non-specific. Was this an attempt to soften the Japanese culture, or to rebalance the gender bias? Strangely girls still have their Girl's Festival on 3rd March... And the name doesn't much matter anyhow as the trappings of the boys festival (koinobori and the samurai helmet displays known as kabuto) are still going strong in Japan.

Now for those that have read my other blog, you might recognise the chap below... it's a Kappa, the mischevious spirit that are said to inhabit just such areas as this. And like many parts of Japan, there are statues and art memorializing the little fella. Jozankei is said to be one of the places were you can find Kappa... or be found by them... so they have even more statues than normal.

In fact, they REALLY like Kappa statues here...they are all over Jozankei. As you can see by the nonchalantly held umbrella.... it was a slightly damp morning... whilst it may not have been the best weather for carp-flying, it was however perfect weather for an industrious Kappa-folk to come visiting. And still I have yet to see my first live kappa! ?;-)

Now we didn't have much of a chance to have a deeper look around, but there was one place I was curious to see... Iwanto Kannondo (otherwise known incorrectly as Jozankei Jinja, or shrine). Now this unimposing shrine hides a great little secret.
Care of Google StreetView

Inside the small building you'll find a doorway (on the right) that leads you through to an underground tunnel that cuts 120 metres into the mountainside before ending up opening up on the other side. It actually it looks more like a service tunnel than a cave (as it's often described). Entrance to the tunnel is by donation... so be honest and drop a coin or two in the collection tray.

Along the tunnel you will find a number of alcoves, and inside each of the alcoves you'll find a statue of the Kannon; ranging from the slightly gaudy to the more honest and rustic rough cut stone statues. Actually there's 33 statues of the Kannon to be exact. Kannon is the Japanese form of Guānyīn, who is also known as the Goddess of Mercy. Now... that means that this is not a "shinto shrine" at all, but rather a place of Buddhist veneration. I have read somewhere that this site was built for the many workers that were killed making tunnels in the local area. I would have thought it somewhat tempting fate then to build another tunnel to house these statues... 

It makes for an interesting, if slightly unnerving 5-10 min diversion whilst you're waiting for the bus. Just a word of advice however - being inside a tunnel 100 metres under a mountain is not a great place to hear a bus approaching. Make sure you leave plenty of time, just in case. Also - don't be surprised to get a little bit wet as there's often water running down from the ceiling of the tunnel (that's the unnerving part).

And speaking of water, if you've got the time and inclination, you can always try out the inumerous hand and feet baths that can be found around the area. They're free to use, and might ease some aching bones from walking through the mountains (especially if you up to see autumn colours).

With that we say farewell to Jozankei for now. I'm sure we'll be back!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jozankei... A Night of Abandon...

14th April. 2009 - Today we were in for a treat. A parents retreat. Two days of fun... with or without the sun. Indeed, the sun had beat a quick retreat behind thick grey clouds. That, however, would not deter us. T-chan and I were on our romantic 2 day mini-break. Just the two of us. At last! It might, or might not, surprise you to know that this was our first night away from L-kun. Full stop. Of course - as all good parents did we worried about him horribly... for about 5 mins, and then we enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

And how did we do that? Well, we jumped on a bus... a bus bound for Jozankei. Sapporo's other "romantic" getaway. Jozankei is the main onsen area, about 28 km from Sapporo Station by bus... actually, T-chan will most probably berate me here, as in her view Jozankei is still part of Sapporo. For a mere visitor however, it's on the other side of the mountains, and an eternity (and a 2 yo child) away. Autumn is the best season to visit Jozankei... and if you're interested, check out this older post when we were there during the golden leaves season.
View Larger Map

We stayed at the Hana Momiji onsen that sits alongside the river Toyohira-gawa, in the heart of the town of Jozankei. This particular onsen has two parts, the Hana-momiji portion is the taller Hotel to the left, whilst the lower (older?) Hotel wing by the riverside is known as Shika no Yu. There are a number of onsen, in the building itself,  but within the Hana-momiji section the main onsen is actually on the roof-top. Now... I'm most probably more a "natural" onsen person, but it's quite a bizarre feeling sitting (naked as you do) in a hot bath on top of an 12 storey building overlooking the town and across from the mountains.
Hana Momiji Onsen From Google StreetView

Actually, there are two onsen at the top floor - one for men and one for women, that alternate in the morning and evening. The onsen in the other wing are located on the 2nd floor, alongside the river itself. In terms of the onsen itself, I'd rate it 3 out of 5... it was a good onsen, but I'm a sucker for lakeside onsen or distant views of the mountain peaks... also, if I'm staying in an onsen hotel I prefer to stay where there's a good variety of different styles of bath.  As you can't take cameras into onsen (I certainly would feel uncomfortable if someone else did), you can check them out here to see a sample of the onsen baths themselves.

Of course - on the important issue of the onsen water... I have very little opinion. I'm sure most (though not all) Japanese enjoy onsen - and I'm sure there's just as many opinions about which water is best. Japanese certainly have a  greater appreciation for the water: whether it's temperature, smell, texture of skin following a bath, (supposed) curative powers - or just the particular array of minerals that are contained within the waters. For me, it's all about the degree of relaxation...

Our view was a slightly mixed bag. Like many onsen towns, Jozankei had evolved a fairly ugly concrete skeleton amidst the rugged beauty of the mountains. But as May was rapidly approaching, the town also like many parts of Japan, was already decked out in the koinobori (or carp pennants)... we'll see more about them later.

Another hint that the boys festival was approaching was the traditional kabuto, i.e. samurai helmet and armour (the armour part is optional), that was displayed down in the lobby. 

Returning to our room, to which we had been initially been guided to by one of the very helpful kimono-clad staff, we were able to relax even further. We had booked a "couples plan" (about 12,000 yen per person from not cheap), which meant a nice dinner in the room, and a little extra special attention. The room was Japanese style, so that meant that we'd be sleeping on futons... which had to be prepared once the dinner was completed (often done whilst your off enjoying the onsen...). Personally, for me, if you can I'd always recommend a Japanese-style room. It adds that extra special dimension to your stay... after all, you can experience a western-style hotel room anywhere. 

After a very relaxing afternoon and evening of onsen fun, we were ready for dinner in our room. It wasn't a huge feast, but we were quite happy with the variety, quantity and quality of the food. First off - there was the wine... a unique (seasonal) cherry-blossom flavoured sparkling wine.... actually this came on top of a bottle of white. Given that T-chan doesn't drink much more than fumes, this presented a different sort of challenge to myself. I mean, we couldn't let it go to waste.

Then came the main meal which consisted of a range of sashimi, tempura, grilled fish (forgotten what sort), salads, beautifully cooked rice (gohan), a type of Cherry-flavoured soft fish cake (kamaboko), and the main attraction, our own personalised shabu shabu dishes (see the white "cloth" dishes sitting over the tea-candle burners... something I've not had before. We also had some savoury jelly, desert (and we hadn't even hit the cake as yet).

We each had our own rice cooker/warmers...though I don't know where they thought we'd fit all of that rice?

Oh - and I forgot the  crab miso soup (misoshiru). Yummy.

And I have to tell you... I do have a separate dessert stomach. It doesn't matter how much I eat/drink, I can always find room for desserts... especially mini cheese-cakes and strawberries.

And whilst it's perhaps not advisable to rush down to the onsen immediately after a big meal, we had another special treat to occupy ourselves. We had booked our own private onsen bath for an hour... it's not that easy to enjoy onsen together as a couple as most onsen these days are sex-segregated. But... this is all you're going to see on this blog about the private onsen.

After a huge day of just plain relaxing, in the wee hours of the morning we decided to crack open the cake... ah raburabu keiki (a term of childish doe-eyed love for one-another in Japanglish for love-love). And the evening was yet young (unfortunately, both T-chan and I were not.... alas).

So whilst it was a night of "abandon".... at least in terms of leaving L-kun home with his grand parents, I can honestly say that it was not without some stress (and I'm sure there were moments of stress for T-chan's parents as well). It was a reminder also of our carefree lives, and of those days when we could just go running around the countryside without any commitments... and in those moments there's always a twinge of sadness at something lost. Yet honestly, those moments are quickly filled to over-flowing with the joy of having children. At least until the next time they start crying. ?;-p

I like to believe that whilst L-kun was snug in bed back at obaachan and ojiichan's house, that he benefited almost as much as we did by having re-charged parents coming home the next day. And as for the onsen itself, I'd give the overall experience a 4 out of 5... coz it's nice and close to Sapporo and yet still has the feel of being in the mountains.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Otaru....Sapporo's (Double) Date Spot

11th April, 2009 - Now Otaru is a short drive from our house, and it also happens to be one of the major "touristy" places in and around Sapporo... so we've been here many times before (like here and here). So I've  written about Otaru a lot... but that shouldn't stop me writing again... should it? Now... a reminder of where Otaru is... if you catch the JR Hokkaido line it will cost you around 620yen and take about 30 mintues from Sapporo Station.
View Larger Map

So here we are again in Marchen Square (don't ask me why it's called that)... this is the centre of activities but  it actually lies to one end of the main shopping street, Sakai-machi. The reason we were here... a double date - but more of that later.
The Otaru Orgel Doh stands in the background

One of must-see places is the Otaru Orgel Doh, which is a magical place that just sells Orgels, or music boxes of all (and I mean ALL) shapes and sizes from the very small to the HUGE (and very expensive). Now, if you're like me, you most probably not a big time fan of music boxes - I mean, lets face it, who other than pre-teen girls have music boxes?

Well... apparently a lot of people. And the variety that you can see here (and this is just a small fraction of the shop) indicates a life-long job that for serious collectors. The great thing about the shop is that even if you're not into music boxes, you can still enjoy the amazing sensory assault delight that is the Orgel Doh. 
Actually - no camera's allowed... but...

And - yet another plug for LeTAO le Chocolat cafeteria, also in Marchen Square. Don't forget to grab a free sample on the way past.

The good thing about a lot of Japanese places for the foreign tourist is that the sporadic use of English makes it slightly easier to guess what's going on. Actually, this cafe was one that we had enjoyed on our first trip and is worth a look inside (at least it was). It's a little bit touristy, but for Otaru that's par for the course. Grab a coffee and relax after looking at all of those music boxes.... it's just across from the Otaru Orgel Doh.

Well, the main reason we were in Otaru was because older T-chan's brother (H-kun) had come back to Sapporo with his girlfriend... and soon to be fiance (S-chan). Now, we're actually going to go over to Japan in the next few months to  attend their wedding in Tokyo, and a little closer to the day, we might do a bit of a story on H-kun... but for now, let's leave the two lovebirds alone... And Otaru is a good place for lovebirds to spend time alone in. Especially for a daburu dēto... a double date. Ooooh - how exciting.

Speaking of lovebirds... here's a nice family shot of just me, T-chan (mystery woman as usual) and our lovely T-chan, did we leave L-kun back at the Ampanman shop by any chance?....

Actually, the building style is quite different in Otaru, heavily influenced as it was from early European influence - and there remains a strong presence of especially Russians in and around Otaru. I've never been to Otaru in the middle of a snowy winter, so I can't really say what it would be like. I know a lot of people have complained about how cold it can get, but I suspect that's pretty well anywhere in/around Sapporo outside the underground shopping during a snow storm. However, during Spring / Summer / Autumn it's a beautiful day trip from Sapporo.

There are also a lot of very nice cafe's in Otaru (as well as the overly touristy ones)... here's a nice little cafe that H-kun introduced us to, called Uminekoya.

This is a reasonable walk from the "tourist strip", and this cafe/restaurant is reasonably popular in Otaru. Especially for the exquisite and atmospheric buidling.

Their meals are fairly Italian in style - and I had a very hearty stew. Whilst stews are not the first thing I think of when I think Italian, it's not really what you would think of when you say stew. Very yummy - and as the day was actually quite cool still, it was a nice warm-you-to-the-bones meal. They do all sorts of curries, but principally they do Pizzas, Pastas, meat dishes, salads... and if you're interested, check out the menu (and yes they also do "couple plans" for that romantic lunch/dinner). Our experience was that it was a nice place to sit down and relax. Personally, it's atmospheric, but for me not that romatic (this is a little too country rustic for a date, and the service isn't particularly brilliant). Still a good place to go and enjoy a different experience.

Well - the day was spent, like most days to Otaru, enjoy the canals, enjoying looking at music boxes, Ghibli-esque toy store called Yume no Oto, visit the many sea-food places (Otaru has some of the best fish-cakes you can buy) , and of course glass shops...and more glass shops. There's definitely a lot of walking to be done. Sometimes you just need a good sit down and relax... you never know who you might meet. Hmmm - it makes me wonder, where do statues and sculptures go for their holidays?

And there's always a great drive back (if you have a car) to Sapporo, there's always the nice (if a little dark) views across Ishikari Bay, and the still snow capped peaks along the coast. So overall, it was a very nice place for a double date, and we'll most probably see a little more of H-kun and S-chan over the next few trips I suspect - and Imight even formally introduce you guys on the blog (properly)... ?;-)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Maruyama Zoo... Sole-searching in Sapporo

10th April, 2009 - I have a confession to make... I get very uncomfortable around zoos. Not because I dislike animals. I love animals... and it's because of that I always find the moral dilemma to be difficult to get past. On one hand, it's wonderful to be in the presence of our earthly co-inhabitants, and I think that people that enjoy animals generally are happier, saner people. So there's a little bit of soul-searching for me, everytime I go to a zoo... but at the end of the day, I generally do as these boys (above) are famous for doing - see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. In other words, I tend to suck up my fuzzy moral objections for the sake of sharing things with my son... and just enjoy it for what it is. A day out to the zoo... and the soul-searching will need to be put on hold. Which is exactly what we did. Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo.

Maruyama is not only a Zoo, but also doubles as a bit of an amusement-park known as Kid Land (though it was still in Winter-shut-down mode when we went in mid April) [NOTE - it would seem that Kid Land has gone much the way of many amusement places in Sapporo in the current economic climate.... EXTINCT... at least that's my understanding in Feb 2011]. I can't believe the difference in costs in going to zoos in Japan and here in Adelaide. Adult tickets cost 600yen, or about $7AUD for Maruyama Zoo, whereas they cost around $28AUD here in Adelaide.

Anyway - back to my point about zoos. The first "enclosure" we came across was the Japanese Monkey Mountain. I'm not sure about whether concrete qualifies as mountain-like, but it definitely didn't lack for monkeys. In fact - it was pretty amazing just how many monkeys they had managed to fit in their 20m x20m (approx) enclosure. Especially when the feeding started.... it got awfully noisy and painfully busy.

Now along with the monkey's there was a fairly typical selection of animals. The giraffe (kirin) was by itself, and made a fairly stark portrait.

The Lesser Panda (or more generously known as the Red Panda) was much more interesting... though you have to wonder what sort of inferiority complex you're setting up with a name like that. I get the feeling that he was in a slightly bad mood too... or does he just have beady eyes? I'm not sure if it's just my eyes, but I can't see the Lesser Panda on the current map of the zoo. I wonder if they're no more....

There was also a lot of very large eagles and other birds of prey housed in large cages. They're impressive, but I can't help but feel they should be allowed to fly... I feel a Bette Midler song coming on.

One of my favourites animals were the Tanuki...there's something so cozy about seeing them all cuddling up together. Tanuki hold a special place in Japanese life - like foxes, they are said to possess magical powers of illusion. They are more properly called Raccoon Dogs.... with the emphasis on dogs, not raccoon.

Either that, or it just makes you think how cold the Spring can be in Sapporo.

Now I'm not sure why there was a statue of a Panda in Maruyama Zoo. There almost certainly was never (as far as I, T-chan, or her family can tell) any Panda in Sapporo. Unlike Adelaide - which as two very much alive Panda (gratuitous plug for Adelaide). Well - if you've only got the Lesser Panda I suppose you have to make do with alternatives....

They most definitely have more flamingo than in Adelaide (which has a paltry two birds). This enclosure is quite amazing... as flamingo are crazy birds that defy common sense. Still, the Japanese don't quite seem to know when to stop. All things in moderation they say... just not here.

The Japanese do know about baths and bathing however - and that seems to have extended to the seals. This one in particular has an amazing resemblance to an onsen-ojiisan IMO. All he needs is a towel on his head, and he'd be a perfect reflection (not of me, of course). The reason, if you're wondering, he looks like he's in heaven is that they were pumping in warm water into the seal pool. It doesn't take a higher mammal to realise that it's nice to sit on the warm spot. Unless of course - you're the one that's making the warm spot. Then it's just wrong.

A different twist on the red-riding hood story... or is that the three little pigs?

Now - they may not have Pandas in Maruyama, but they have the next best thing. Polar bears. By far and away, these are my favourite animals... especially when you can see them under water. Unfortunately, there was no such viewing window when we went (perhaps as there was no water). Still, there's something about polar bears that makes me want to give them a big old hug. There's most probably something about me that would make them want to give me a big old bite.  I think I'm happy watching from a distance.

Awww.... bear cubs. Is there anything cuter?

Bear cub feet. Sugoi kawaii!

My soul-searching was over at least for today. At last I had found my "soles"! And what cute ones they were. I guess it really is nice to be able to go to the zoo and enjoy watching the animals.

You know, parenting - no matter what your species - can be hard work. Especially when you have twins (their names are Ikor and Kiroru who have become quite the celebrities in Sapporo). I have to say, the polar bear enclosure must have undergone a huge refurbishment since we went in 2009 (from what I've seen on the web) which is great, because it looked pretty tired when we were there.

Then again - it's still hard work, even when you don't have children. It isn't made easier when you're a sloth bear. And the indignity doesn't end there... it seems that these guys aren't really sloth bears at all, but are rather "bear" sloths. Still, I think I'll leave this debate for someone that knows somehow about something.

Now - I won't ask you to pick out L-kun. That would rude, and totally inappropriate. He'd be the one wearing clothes, and not made of concrete (just in case you needed help).

But we've now reached the Great Apes... well, in this case, Chimpanzee, who by the looks of it, is not having a good day, and certainly doesn't look like he feels so great at all. You don't need to be an animal body-language expert to tell when you've got a serious Sunday afternoon funk.

And there's something so similar in their faces (er... maybe I'll re-phrase that shall I)... there's a familiarity in the expression that makes it hard not to think of them as human-like- and hence makes their captivity that little harder to accept. Thankfully, he didn't give me one of those look-down-the-camera-lens-stares....

Oh..... there it is.

Ah - now we're on safer ground. Lions. I definitely wouldn't want these to be released... well, not here anyway. Actually, not sure that this girl is all she's made out to be. She looks a little spotted to me... perhaps a leopard can change it spots after all.... and end up being a lioness.

Macho man-lion looks all MANLY, and struts his stuff. Scowl... growl... and prowl. That's the Lion's Way.

After all that strutting however, he just needs a good old lie down...

Next door, someone has got itchy feet. Apparently feeding time is just a wee bit late, and he must have been getting peckish. 

Our friend the hippopotamus was not getting edgy over anything. He had had a long day, and was going to have a nap.

He wasn't the only one either. L-kun, was out for the count. And Daddy was given cartage duties. It was a long, long way home that afternoon, and Daddy was pretty well exhausted after carrying L-kun home on the subway and then walking back to T-chan's house.

So... my overall impression is still mixed about Maruyama Zoo. On one hand, there's some moments there where I was definitely wincing on the inside when I saw how small some of the enclosures were. On the other hand, I know that L-kun had a great time. I don't want to moralise too much on this blog - especially when I've not worked out where I stand. A little later on, I'll write up about our trip to Arashiyama Zoo... that was a much better experience. Still, Maruyama is very convenient and most probably worth a trip if you're in Sapporo for any length of time. Don't expect too much, and you won't be disappointed... and if you're lucky you might even get a little soul-searching done as a bonus. 

Check out my comparative post on Adelaide's Zoo while your at it...