Thursday, August 3, 2017

Japan: Hokkaido 2 - Toyako to Hakodate

July 8 - Toyako to Hakodate

Starting our first JR pass today (6 days of travel over 14 days), we train back to Sapporo, then to the lakeside resort of Toyako. It’s a heavily developed resort that has seen better days, I’m hoping for some picturesque decay to offset the big hotels along the lakeshore.

It’s good to be on the long distance train trips at last, like so much else in Japan, the system is efficient, well-organised and designed for human comfort. It is expected that you will be picnicking on the train, and stations all have takeaway food options for the purpose. It’s also expected that you will take gifts home for friends and relatives, and even larger stores display heavily packaged gift food items (see previous post). From Furano it’s a 4.5 hour ride, with two changes, to Toya, then a short bus ride to the lakeside of Toyako Onsen. It’s an infrequent local bus with no luggage facilities - one assumes the upmarket resorts run shuttles? I was worried that the hotel (Granvillage Toya Daiwa Ryokan Annex) would be tacky in spite of its grand name, but it’s fine - a smaller, no-frills, slightly shabby alternative to the big expensive hotels along the strip. Our room is large and tatami floored with a large dusty picture window framing the lake. We have a sink, toilets are shared, and bathing is communal - very Japanese-y.

We take a walk along the lakeside at sunset then find a ramen place for dinner. Mine is shoyu ramen with no extras, and is ok, but Chris’s miso ramen is delicious. We are back at the hotel in time to view the nightly firework display over the lake. Wow! It’s surprisingly fabulous!

View from our room
Chris in yukata
Sunset swans
Night-time fireworks

9 July - Toyako

What a nice view to wake up to! There’s really only one excursion out of Toyako, and it’s to Mt Uzu, a (barely) active volcano, and its baby, Showa-Shinzan, born 1943-45, documented by a local postmaster. It’s a brief bus ride to a row of tacky gift shops, saved by their decrepitude, then an expensive cable-car ride to the crater and a short hot walk to the summit. It’s underwhelming really. We mooch around taking photographs of other tourists, before taking the cable car down again. At the base, there are apparently an Ainu museum, and one dedicated to intrepid vulcanologist/postmaster Masao Mimatsu. It’s quite a trek, un-signposted, past carparks and shuttered shops, to a reproduction of an Ainu house, with old photos displayed, and a fire burning inside - lovely. Then to a small ‘cultural centre’ for the MM museum. It’s a tiny, charming display, full of old paper artefacts - drawings, papers, plans and journals. But I have only 10 minutes before the bus goes, dammit!
Back to the hotel for a bath, which is SO hot that I and three other women are all crowded into the one end that is cooler! Then another picnic, by the lake while we wait for fireworks. It is a beautiful, soft summer evening, and slowly the hotel guests come out, some in yukata, to promenade and see the show. The crazy kitsch cruiseboat ‘Espoir’ glides across the lake like a fantasy floating castle - more Miyazaki - it’s a sweet holiday atmosphere.
Chris with 'baby' volcano Showa Shinzan
Tourist at the top
Ainu museum
'Espoir' at twilight

10 July - Toyako to Hakodate

It’s just a short train ride, less than two hours, from Toyako to Hakodate, so we have time to ride in the ‘Espoir’ around the lake, and to Ojima Island. At the island we have just 25 minutes before the return boat, but that’s ok, the map shows a forest walk that’s ten minutes each way. It’s a good thing that Chris decides to wait by the dock, as the ten minutes each way is more like 15, and I’m almost sprinting as I get back to the dock, where the boat is at the point of leaving, five minutes early. Phew. Takes the whole ride back for my heart to return to normal, definitely not as fit as I should be!

Back on the bus, and to the station, for the Hakodate train. Looking at the map, it will be a 20 minute walk around the waterfront to our guesthouse, Jokura. In the event, it’s a hot, mostly shadeless walk through the fishmarket (one of our first sights - a giant octopus in a tank, awww!) and along an industrial dockfront, until we reach the old brick warehouse tourist strip more than halfway along. Still hot, but a more pleasant walk.

Our hosts greet us with a cool drink and warm welcome. Mr and Mrs Sato, a kind and generous couple manage their small and impeccably clean guesthouse like a family home, crammed with artefacts from Japan and abroad. I particularly admire an Ainu gown, and find that the Ainu Museum is just down the road.

After the usual siesta we walk to the waterfront warehouses, the touristic centre and the site of many restaurants. As we haven’t yet tried it, we choose a conveyor belt sushi place.  Have no idea what to do and no English is spoken, but the ipad ordering system has an English option so we order one or two things that arrive promptly - then go for it: salmon, grilled eel, salmon roe, tempura prawns … it’s all good. Not sure what to do about dishes on the conveyor - are they up for grabs or pre-ordered? Seems that some are, some not, so we leave it alone (find out later that pre-orders are specially marked, so will have to try that later). After a satisfying amount (about 10 dishes? Nowhere near the 30+ of the couple next to us!), we settle the bill - with sake, about $20 each, pretty good value. Grabbing some more supermarket sake we head to the waterfront for a post-prandial tipple as the sun sets, and drink in the balmy summer air.
Chris and giant octopus

On the waterfront

11 July - Hakodate

We haven’t booked breakfast at the guest house, because the Hakodate morning fishmarket is famous for seafood breakfast. So we head over there (had a glimpse yesterday on the way from the station), and it is huge. Wander for some time through street stalls and a restaurant arcade, with relentless displays of plastic seafood donburi (rice bowl). One of the promoted dishes has a newly decapitated squid (with eyes intact) sitting atop a rice bowl. A video display demonstrates how it squirms as sauce is added, sometimes toppling right onto the table. Not appetising to me, but it does have a ghoulish fascination.

We find a seat in one of the main market areas, just near the tank where visitors can fish for squid, then watch as it is prepared for consumption (raw of course), and a bbq stall where huge scallops are being grilled on their shell. We try the scallops - delicious, but at about $9 each a pricy treat. More wandering - how do they sell so much seafood? How does it stay fresh? We share a donburi with salmon and prawns, and another with salmon roe and uni (sea urchin roe) - about $15 each. On top of the sushi last night, feeling about raw-seafooded out - never thought I would say that!

Today we get a tram pass ($8 each) so we can explore from one end of the track to the other. First to Goryokake Park, and the remains of an old 19th C fort. The Japanese do very good parks, but in the end it’s not as interesting as the walk on the way there ...

NOTE on Hokkaido history - because (mainland) Japanese and Western history in Hokkaido did not really begin until the mid-19th C, the documented, recorded and celebrated history is quite shallow. As it is in Australia, the history of indigenous cultures is treated as something apart, not relevant to ‘development’, and not leaving many visible traces.

Again, it’s a hot day so we check out the Art Museum nearby. An interesting show on Japanese Realism (trad to contemporary), and a very small permanent collection. For $15 entry, it’s rather overpriced, but cool. On the way back to the bus stop a quick stop at MUJI for stationery gift items and some upmarket snacks. Then out to the end of the line at Yunokawa - it’s uniformly grungy suburban, no tourist spots here. We briefly explore a small temple area, then head back.

Planning a wharf picnic tonight - we still have ekiben tonkatsu left from our last train ride - we buy a few extras (of course, sake) and resume our wharfside spot.
Decapitated squid - plastic version!

Grilling scallops

Eating scallop

Preparing uni (sea urchin roe)

One of a thousand seafood stalls

12 July - Hakodate

We have discovered another gorgeous bakery nearby, so pass by there to pick up breakfast (egg & bacon pie, cream cheese and green onion roll) on the way to JR to make reservations. Lucky we did - Shinkansen are almost booked out! On our way we explore another little backstreet temple area. Like small neighbourhood churches they can be more charming than large, historic edifices. This one is quite crusty, and I find a lovely charred fragment of an old wooden calendar relegated to an incinerator. Then back on the tram to the other end of the line, but Chris is weary, and gets off near our guesthouse, and I continue to the other end of the track - Hakodate Dock and the Foreigners’ Cemetery.

What a gorgeous walk it turns out to be! The neighbourhood is quaint and crusty, the street lined with flower shops. Because out near the point there is not only the Foreigners’ Cemetery, where Europeans were buried in the times of early settlement in Hokkaido, but also a Chinese cemetery, Russian cemetery, and an enormous Japanese Buddhist cemetery, where a monk is conducting a graveside ritual. It’s a bit hot and sunny for the best atmospheric cemetery photos … but still … a monk gives me a pack of incense, and there’s a nice pathway along the coast.

I have promised to find lunch and hurry home, stopping for bento at a supermarket on the way. There’s a great selection, including a fab sushi tray - I’ll remember that for dinner. Back home to Jokura, for lunch and rest.

We had planned to go up the ropeway for sunset views from Mt Hakodate, but online reports of the tourist rush there is off-putting. Instead we walk through the scenic old area of Motomachi, via the Old Govt House, back to the cemeteries. I know what we can eat and where to sit!

It’s a pleasant and picturesque late afternoon walk. But it’s almost sunset by the time we reach the cemeteries and we haven’t bought anything to eat. There’s a cafe, not quite closed, and we have a quick coffee and snack. Gorgeous cafe lady is a sailor who has been to Sydney, and the view is also gorgeous. Now it is seriously dusk, and we hotfoot it back to the supermarket to find sushi. Alas we are too late! Only leftovers - limp fried shrimp, chicken and salad. And of course sake. We head back down to the waterfront, but it’s quite industrial here at the docklands. Finally we spy a pathway to Midori-no-Shima (Green Island), a man-made promontory park. It’s properly dark now, and hard to see what we are eating, but it’s fairly ordinary … Y’know, I think I’m a bit over supermarket takeaway.

Walking home, I need to eat something NICE, and close to home we see a Spanish restaurant and stop for a glass of wine and garlic prawns to share. Expensive, but worth it!

End of the line - evangelising at Yunokawa
Crusty streetscape - on the way to Hakodate docks
Other end of the line - Buddhist cemetery

View of Hakodate from Motomachi
View from cafe, Foreigners' Cemetery

13 July - Hakodate-Hirosaki

Sadly the Ainu museum has been closed the last two days, so I will not get to visit. So, a quick visit to the Old Haberdashery museum, showing the history of trade in Hakodate, then train ride off Hokkaido and onto Honshu, via the longest underwater tunnel in the world.
The Old Haberdashery Museum

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