17 October, Sapporo, Hokkaido
Scored a great deal on a very flash hotel a block from the station in Sapporo. You have to love some of the online booking sites! Agoda got us into a very nice **** room in the Aspen Hotel for just on $100 a night, a reduction of over $200 a night. We are normally happy with ** or even less but this was just too good to pass up. So next time we come here we'll bring a cat, because this is the first hotel we have stayed in where you could swing one!
We had planned a train trip to a small town in order to do a 10km walk through the Hokkaido countryside, but the forecast wasn't good so we wandered about the city for the day instead. Good call. By early afternoon, the rain had started and the wind came right in behind. Apparently Sapporo can get bitterly cold in winter. If today is any indication, we can believe it. 13C felt like about 5C in the wind and rain.
While wandering around the fish markets, admiring the enormous crabs and bewildering array of shellfish, we spotted a restaurant featuring a local fish delicacy that we had read about on the train. Somehow we managed to pick the wrong set of stairs and found ourselves trapped in a fairly swish sashimi place. Before we knew what we had done, we had ordered something complicated off the set menu. We waited in horror, more concerned about the bill than what might appear on the plate. Our worries were ill-founded. The meal was fantastic and, once we worked out some of the etiquette involved and established that what looked like soup was, in fact, soup and not the finger bowl, all was good. The bill was a tiny $20 for both meals and enough Japanese tea to have a wash in.
Our last effort for the day was a rather water-logged trip to the famous Sapporo Beer Museum. Hmmm - just another one of those things that looked great on paper, but ended up being just ok!
21 October, Hachinohe, Honshu and Shinkansen bound for Tokyo
Back on the main island after our few days on Hokkaido. What a difference! Hokkaido is far less populated than most of the parts of Japan we have visited on this or our previous trip. Rolling hills and farms predominate the further north you go. We took a trip a couple of days back to the small town of Kuromatsunai in the hills of southern Hokkaido and did a 10km walk through the hills to the tiny village of Neppu. Autumn leaves were turning on the hills and even though the clouds were a little dark at times, we stayed dry. As usual, we adapted the recommended walk, just because we got lost, and finished off the last couple of kms with a very brisk walk along a major road, with no footpaths, in order to make the train. Lucky for us, the traffic was light and the drivers very polite.
Once we get started on the rail network in Japan we just can't stop! Following our long trip to the southern hills yesterday, we jumped a local train from Sapporo to Otaru, on the coast, north-west of Sapporo. This is an old port town, with a bit of an historical twist. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Commission to Determine the Russo-Japanese Border on Sakhalin Island sat here. Few locals come here to visit the site of this historical event, but it does represent a major turning point in world history. This was the first time that an Asian power had defeated a European power. The room where the Commission sat has been restored to its original state.
Much is made of the warehouses along the waterfront canals in Otaru, but to tout it as the Venice of the east is a little over the top. One short block was beautiful in the autumn sun, but much of the rest of the area is very run down. Far more attractive was the coastal scenery that we sped through on the train. Hundreds of fishing boats out to sea operating in what appear to be marked off areas divided by lines of orange buoys.
Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and the original ski jump is still in use today as an all year round venue for the crazies who enjoy launching themselves off a ramp higher than a TV tower. A few of these devoted souls were jumping during our visit. No snow of course, but they seemed quite happy landing on the synthetic surface provided for off-season jumpers.
Our journey out to the jump and its associated museum was a bit of a challenge for us, as it included one bus leg. Buses in Japan are way more challenging than trains and, away from the tourist path, the number of English signs decreases alarmingly. Never fear though, we just wander around looking lost and sooner or later a friendly local emerges from the crowd to assist. Often these are older folk, our age or greater, who have some English and the confidence to speak it. Today's 'white knight' was a charming older gentleman who had been an English teacher and enjoyed speaking English to keep his hand in. With his help we managed to get on the right bus, but the problem with buses is where to get off! In a bit of a panic, we asked the driver, who promptly stopped the bus , jumped out of his seat and bowing from the waist, asked his passengers where the our stop was. Enlightened, he resumed his seat and all was well.
Our stop in the town of Hachinohe was just to break our trip back to Tokyo, so we had no real tourist agenda. Hachinohe was at one time the northern terminus of the Shinkansen, but now that the terminus is further north, the town, or at least the area around the station, is in the doldrums. It was a bit like the classic John Denver song “Saturday night in Toledo Ohio”. Not a lot going on. We did manage to find a little traditional Japanese restaurant where we squatted on the floor at low tables, just like the locals. No English menu here, but we are way beyond letting that phase us. Armed with the universal word for 'beer' ie. “Beer” and a bit of pointing, we managed to order a reasonable dinner at an extremely reasonable price.
We are writing this blog on the Shinkansen bound for Tokyo for our last night in Japan. A bit of shopping this afternoon and a couple of activities tomorrow and we will be off to Narita. Given the bargain price we paid for our return fares ($500) we decided to accept the offer of a business class upgrade on the way home. That should be fun!
21 October, Ueno, Tokyo
Back in the same district of Tokyo that we stayed in on our last visit, though a little more up market and a bit closer to the station.
Feeling like locals around this area, we soon found our hotel and dumped the bags, ready for an afternoon shopping. Seems shopping is what most of the 20 million plus citizens of Tokyo-Yokahama do on a Sunday, other than their washing. Coming in today on the Shinkansen we were greeted by thousands of high-rise apartment blocks sporting tens of thousands of futons, sheets and assorted clothing, out to dry in the warm autumn sun.
We were on another train type mission. The home of the Japanese Kato model train company is here in Tokyo. It was heaven on a stick! We were lucky to escape with just a few hundred dollars worth of stuff! A highly recommended attraction for anybody who is still a kid at heart.