We spent one day in five trains to get from southern Honshu to Hokkaido. The trip was fast, the trains were punctual and clean and the shinkansen (high-speed trains) had oodles of leg room. The experience was very different from what we had in Russia, but by that I don’t mean better or worse.
In Russia we could spend days on one train getting to know our neighbours, but in Japan we took five trains and the people around us changed all the time. Everything seemed to go at a slower pace in Russia, with long stops at selected stations, while in Japan you need to be ready to leave when your stop comes up or your trip will be longer than expected. Booking online in Russia is easy and the tickets are cheap for European standards. We were told the Japanese online booking system was so complicated that there was not point even trying, so we did our booking at the station, and if you go far enough often enough without a special rail pass the prices equal those of a cheaper trans-Atlantic flight. Return.
Our first stop was Hakodate, in the very south of Hokkaido. We stayed in a hostel with separate dorms for men and women. I got lucky with quiet, young Japanese girls, while Christophe ended up with snoring bikers, grabbing extra mattress space and, occasionally, his legs. The lady of the house had two obsessions: Making sure no one sneaked in to take a free shower (they cost 200 yen) and teeth – her own and those of her dogs. She’d spend a good 15 min meticulously brushing her teeth before rolling out some floss to perform dental care on all the family dogs (3 x 15 min).
The town is located on a narrow strip of land with a forested hill at the very edge of it. It’s one of the first Japanese ports to have been opened to foreign trade and the sights include old European-style buildings and brick warehouses. Quite pretty and clearly popular with Japanese tourists.
If you go to Hakodate you must see the view from Hakodate-yama. Preferably by night. Most people take a bus or a ropeway up there, but we did the hike around the hill.
On our way to Sapporo, we did a quick pit stop in the Onuma Regional Park to walk around some of the lakes with a view of the volcano Komagatake.
Sapporo is a great city. I had high expectations and they were met and surpassed. It’s one of those places it seems so easy to live in. Large and lively, but not noticeably polluted, close to mountains, forests and the sea coast, and promising variety with four distinct seasons. It was our first encounter with big city life in Japan and the reality was just as neon-lit as we had imagined.
We were there during the Buddhist holiday Obon. The Japanese believe that the souls of their ancestors come back to earth then. In Sapporo, we watched people of all ages sing and dance close to the TV tower – have a look here.
Our trip also coincided with the local summer beer festival, which meant lots of people eating and drinking in the park Odori Koen. We had just finished some jingisukan barbeque and noodles when we got talking with our table neighbours. Cana Assi, Misato Imai, Junnpei Yamaguchi and Shunsuke Nishizaki (bear with me with the spelling, please) took us around Sapporo to show what the city nightlife had to offer. Do you know the movie Lost in Translation? The part where Johansson and Murray are whisked around Tokyo at night by some young Japanese? It got me thinking about that – minus the karaoke.
Sapporo by day is pretty good as well. The weather was gorgeous and we did lots of walking.
Sapporo organized the winter Olympics in 1972. We had a look at the facilities and got a surprise show.
Not far from the sports area is the Hokkaido Jingu, one of the oldest shinto shrines on the island. There’s always people at the city shrines, stopping by for a quick prayer.
Before leaving Sapporo and heading for our countryside road trip, we took the train to the small port town of Otaru, which is full of shops selling glass products, and Yoichi, famous for Nikka whiskey.