Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Japan: Hokkaido 1 - Sapporo to Furano

3 July - Sydney - Tokyo

It is not an auspicious start. We wake at 4am to get to the station at 5, the airport at 5.40 - to find that our flight is delayed by two hours. And we will miss our connecting flight to Hokkaido. But don’t worry, says the check-in guy, there are plenty of other flights. So, after a long wait, the flight is fine, and the sake delicious, though the food is bland. Arrive in Tokyo to find - all other Hokkaido flights leave from Haneda (we are in Narita, 90 min bus ride away) , and it’s too late to connect tonight. Not  happy … but nothing to be done … we are given a ticket to Haneda, voucher for hotel and meals, and flight in the morning. So - the hotel is bland but smart and comfortable. Dinner a beyond-boring school meal, but breakfast a fresh and extensive buffet of Japanese and western food. No, didn’t Instagram it! But at last I feel as if I’m in Japan.
Bus-ing between airports, Tokyo

4 July - Sapporo

Early flight to Sapporo - small scare when check-in girl says that the flight is full, but she just means that we can’t sit together. No problemo. It’s just a 2 hour flight, and easy to find the train to Sapporo central. A 20 minute walk to the Weekly Sapporo 2000 hotel turns into 40 minutes with detours. The CBD scenery becomes grungier until we are in a downtown neighbourhood of bars and love hotels. This would be it then! The room is small but crammed with facilities including kitchenette, ensuite (with bath!), desk with LAN, small double bed, couch and coffee table.

After check-in, with free soft drink, off to explore and find lunch. We are making up for lost time, and just a few minutes away is Uonosuke seafood restaurant, where we order seafood bowl, tempura and chilled sake. Totally delicious! The bowl has salmon and other raw fish, prawns and salmon roe, served over rice. The tempura has prawns and vegetables - eggplant, asparagus, pumpkin, onion … crunchy and succulent. Price including wine -  about $60. No, didn't Instagram it!

The rest of the afternoon, wander in a sake haze, exploring the city. Seafood market, pachinko parlours, that crazy Japanese mix of modern, kitsch, crusty and rustic that reminds me of Miyazaki movies. Wonderful to see a city dominated by bicycles, with little traffic, and great courtesy to pedestrians.

After a nap, off to find dinner at one of the tiny local izakayas. We walk over to the fish market, mostly closed at this hour, then to ‘Ramen Alley’, famous soup arcade, but aren’t inspired. Near to our hotel is a strip of small places - one is Italian, one is sushi (and packed), the next looks just right, a casual yakitori place with a dozen seats. We drink more sake, and eat a variety of skewers - (chicken, chicken liver, pork and ginger, stuffed shitake, eggplant) with a crunchy cabbage, seaweed and sesame salad. YUM! No, didn’t Instagram it!
That’s it, we are exhausted. Back to our tiny bed.

Our 'downtown' neighbourhood
Seafood delights - in plastic
Sapporo bicycles
Mix of modern and rustic
A Miyazaki moment ...
More plastic food!
Our yakitori joint - ginger wrapped in pork, yum!

5 July - Sapporo

First thing to do is to find breakfast. Not so easy in this night-life neighbourhood - everything is closed. Unlike many other places in the world, no-one is grabbing coffee and/or breakfast on the way to work.

At last in Odori Koen, the pretty central park bedecked with competitive flower displays, we spy a sweet corn stall, selling hot grilled cobs for Y300 (about $4). It’s good, and sustains us until we find a great bakery, where we pick out some delicious snacks - bacon roll, fried chicken and sweet, creamy cheese tart - divine. In Japan even the fast food is mostly great.

Today we plan a day trip to Otaru, seaside fishing village of reputed charm. After a scenic 30 minute train ride, it looks just another middle sized, modern utilitarian Japanese town, the charm all squeezed into a strip of restaurants in old warehouses along a canal near the waterfront, that is teeming with daytrippers.

We skip out asap and take a boat to Shukutsu around the point, where we are deposited at the end of a long crusty wharf in a very authentic fishing harbour. This is a real fishing village, very few tourists, but lots of old nets, buoys, boats and other functional (and picturesque) detritus. On the small main street along the harbour is a large fish bbq cafe, speciality: herring. They have no English menu so we are forced to select by picture - a bbq herring ‘set’ and a raw seafood ‘set’.

If the seafood bowl we had yesterday was the tourist version, this seems more ‘authentic’ - how many ways can you eat raw squid (including fermented in squid ink)? There’s also octopus, an unidentified raw fish and some kind of sliced shellfish. Accompaniments are the ubiquitous grated daikon, shredded daikon and cabbage, wasabi, pickles and miso soup with small whelks. All very fresh, but maybe more more interesting than delicious. The bbq herring is very good, with guts and all, charry and salty, with another set of accompaniments and more raw squid! We do our best but can’t quite manage it all, absolutely stuffed for Y3900 (about $45). No Instagram! OK, I give up, there will be no food pics on this blog, but lots of grungy street scenes and gardens!

Now, we need a walk. Up the hill to Nishin Goten, a fishermen’s dormitory and dwelling from the herring fisheries heyday in the late 19th C. Then to Nishin Goten Villa, the big boss’s house - a gorgeous, elegant Japanese mansion with garden, so incongruous in this tiny fishing village. Can’t help thinking of the indigenous (Ainu) locals who lived on the herring here before mainlanders came along, commercialised, and made their fortunes, the ‘illiterate’ locals reduced to labouring for them, or displaced entirely.

We have walked off lunch, and now back on bus and train for Sapporo. We won’t need dinner tonight, maybe the ‘Booze and oysters’ bar down the road? Sadly, can’t face more raw seafood today! So it’s a tiny bbq bar for Jingisukan (Ghengis Khan - lamb, grilled on a rounded bbq said to resemble the despot’s helmet), bbq pork and of course sake.

Odori Koen flowers
Otaru canal
Shukutsu wharf
Fishermen's dormitory, Shukutsu
Grilled herring, Shukutsu

6 July - Sapporo to Furano

We check out and head for the station, buying sandwiches for the trip, and an expensive espresso from a flash cafe (Y600 ea, about $7.50). It’s a cheap ($25) bus ride to Furano in the ski fields of central Hokkaido, turned vegetable gardens and lavender farms for the summer.

Furano is another large-ish modern utilitarian town. And HOT! Did I mention that the ‘cool’ summer weather since we arrived in Hokkaido is about 10 deg above average due to a heatwave? Don’t think I’ll be needing the jacket I brought … Our accommodation is a 10 minute bus ride away, but the next bus is over an hour away, so we resort to a taxi. Kitanomine is a bland ski-resort suburb with an artificial air, but as in Kashmir, another cold, mountainous region, the summer gardens are filled with vegetables. Our guest house is cosy and clean, and nearby is a river and beautiful park. The room is Japanese style with a low table on tatami, to be replaced with a make-your-own futon bed in the evening, and the bathroom is communal.

We rest in the hot afternoon, then walk down to the river - surprisingly inaccessible - and through an uncharacteristically unkempt end of the park. It’s a lovely spot, and the sun is setting, so we grab takeaway noodle salad and sake from the 7-11 (convenience food here is quite amazing), and picnic in the park as the almost-full moon rises.

Furano veggie garden

View to the ski fields from our lodging
Picnic park with moonrise

7 July - Furano

Today we must go and see the famous lavender fields. Say Furano to anyone, they respond ‘Lavender!’ And posters show huge fields of purple, striped with yellow, red and white flower beds. I am familiar with the Japanese propensity to enlarge to mythical proportions quite mundane points of interest (Big Pineapple anyone?), and the lavender fetish is a great example of this, so my expectations are muted. It is more an opportunity to see selfie-mad Japanese tourists in the lavender-scented wild.

After checking out a bewildering array of bus tours, we aim to keep it simple - public bus to Biei village, then the ‘Lavender sightseeing train' (Norokko-go) to the Tomita Lavender Farm. The train, an old rattler decorated up for the season, has wooden seats and large open windows, but is already packed when we join it, and we get the last window seat, in the sun. Phew! It’s already hot at 10am, the sun rises at 4am.

The ride is through green farmland interspersed with small towns. Pretty in parts, but no lavender yet. In 30 min we are at Lavender Farm and 100 or so tourists (almost all Japanese) pile off and trundle past melon fields and over the path-less bridge to the farm - an OH & S nightmare. ‘Melon World’ is the first sight that greets us. A giant cartoon melon sign, and accompanying large inflatable, herald a complex of gift shops and snack shops focusing with Japanese intensity on the melon. Newly picked and beautifully packaged specimens are on display (for gifts of course) at $30-$100 each. Or there are melon slices, smoothies, ice creams, cakes … Typically non-compliant, we down a (disgusting) coffee, and head over to the Lavender Farm. Yes, there are a few fields, with pathways between, of lavender and other coloured flowers. No, it is not like the posters, the lavender perhaps not flowering as profusely as usual, or the season is not quite right? Yet there are several dozen tourists braving the heat to wander through taking photos and a thousand selfies (thank goodness for the parasol! So picturesque). Now the gift shop theme is lavender - oils, soaps, bath bombs, potpourri, hats, shirts and parasols … and lavender ice-cream, which we try, and it’s not too bad. A quick stroll through the lavender field then back to the station, Phew it’s hot. A fellow traveller tells us that she went to Australia on her honeymoon, to Sydney and the outback, and it too was hot!

The best option for dinner after a siesta seems to be another picnic in the park. We are 7-eleven’s best customers. Prawn omelette, bread and salad, with a cheap Bordeaux, except … oh, it’s not omelette, it’s a creamy pasta. What happens when you can’t read the label. Still, it’s tasty :)

I bathe late in the communal bath, and tonight I am sharing it. Goes without saying that shared nude bathing is a bit strange for me, I wonder if the Japanese ladies find it equally strange to have me there? Of course, they are impeccably polite.

At the bus stop
The Lavender Train
Melon World
Lavender ice cream
Lavender selfies 1
Lavender selfies 2


The indigenous people of the northern island of Hokkaido were the Ainu, living relatively unmolested until the mid-19th C, when Japanese mainlanders decided there were resources to plunder (sorry, develop), and that they needed to defend Hokkaido from Russia to the north. By the end of the century Ainu customs and language were banned, and Ainu people were forced to assimilate. While this policy was rescinded in 1998, Ainu culture was not formally recognised until 2008! There are occasional small museums for commemoration of the culture of these original inhabitants, but seems no real enthusiasm for celebration. So unsurprising really, the story of indigenous cultures worldwide. But there is some re-development of Ainu culture and language on the SE coast of Hokkaido, so maybe it can eventually survive ...
Ainu Museum in Sapporo

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