Japan is not a small country; no matter what the Japanese themselves may think. The main island of Honshu alone is larger than Great Britain. Were Japan in Europe, it would dominate the continent. Japan is larger than Italy, larger than Norway, larger than Germany…on a map Japan looks small because it is surrounded by the largest nations on earth: China, Russia, Canada, the United States, and Australia.
Three years ago we spent three weeks in Japan. It was a happy, almost magical time for my family and we had excellent adventures. There was no plan to return but Japanese culture made a deep impact on all of us and here we are again for a month travelling with our JR Passes around this nation of islands.
The Australian dollar is weaker but Japan can be affordable if you plan carefully. We splashed out on a top end ryokan and a couple of hotels for a night or two but mostly were frugal. Last visit we found apartments via Trip Advisor but now AirBnB provided more than half our accommodation. It is not only the least expensive option but also tends to provide more space and features, like clothes washing and cooking facilities which are important if one is on the road for a month. As always, food is excellent and often at a good price. Anyone used to Australian prices, especially in Sydney, will be pleasantly surprised.
We flew to Tokyo and then boarded a connecting flight to New Chitose airport in Sapporo. Winter has arrived in Hokkaido and we were warned that our flight may have to return to Tokyo if the airport was closed due to snow. We landed but over the next week I saw more snow than at any other time in my life with temperatures as low as -10. No fan of the Australian summer, I am revelling in the experience (noting the weather was very ordinary, rainy and low 20s, back home).
Australians fly to Sapporo to ski in the glorious powdery snow. Walking the streets of Sapporo we did not see any Westerners at all (in three days) even at the train station or airport. Many people probably travel after Christmas and others go straight to the ski resorts from the airport but it is unusual to not see other overseas tourists of European appearance. There were clearly many Japanese people on holiday enjoying the sites and sights. We also met Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Malaysians and there were many Chinese travellers, some from Hong Kong. It is always interesting to listen not just to the answers but also language usage. American English accents amongst these travellers were often heard.
In Sapporo, we ascended to the 38th floor of the JR Tower for sunset and to see the city at night. It is a relaxing space where once can sit contemplatively for hours. The kids were tired from walking all day so they were happy to recline and look at the view. The other space we all enjoyed was Nakajima Park. Nestled in the city, the park has a concert hall, museums, a forest and the frozen lakes impressed us all. Many a snowball was thrown by the kids who have never really spent any prolonged periods of time with powdery snow all about. Of course, we found somewhere fantastic for lunch too.
I have been reading vociferously about Japanese culture and attitudes from Western as well as local voices (and will do a post just about Japanese literature and travel writing in January). Walking Sapporo many questions and thoughts came to mind from my reading and observations. How are these Nothren Japanese people different from those in the other big cities to the south? What did school children learn about the Ainu? Why do Japanese people see themselves less as Asian than other nations in the region, if indeed this is true (and I have been reading about these issues of identity).
The day trip to Otaru resulted in good food and views from the train which hugged the coastline. The waves were good and to our amazement there were quite a few surfers out in arctic conditions. The town was an important administrative centre and has many impressive buildings. The walk along the canal was slippy but fun. We had some phenomenally inexpensive seafood ramen which was mostly crab, the local speciality. As this was one of our first days back in Japan we just loved walking around and soaking up everything.
There is always amusement at Japanese signs and this has proven a peculiar delight on our return to the country. Often, as English is learned in a very formulaic way there is a sort of grammatical sense but contextually, it is just not what one would say. Sometimes it is just the poor spelling and weirdness that amuses. We also love Japanese billboards. I really should be saving a collection of billboards and signs.
We had heard from friends the Japanese have some weird connection with KFC and Christmas Day. It is true, many, many Japanese eat Kentucky Fried Chicken to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. One imagines it must be a result of a successful advertising campaign* like that of Coca Cola in the mid-20th century which impacted on Santa’s dress sense.
*A quick Google search and I now see that an advertising campaign in 1974 started the trend.
My only regret about our trip to Otaru was that I will never know what happens at the ‘Thriller Karaoke’ place above. It must be a truly authentic Japanese cultural experience.
Onsen culture, especially when seeking shelter in a ryokan for the night, is absolutely my favourite experience when travelling in Japan. Our family have been lucky enough to check out thermal springs from Iceland in the north to Rotorua in the far south, in New Zealand but there is something special about the culture of bathing in Japan. Our whole family loves it and I often quip that we need to build an onsen in the backyard at home (which will necessitate moving to a thermal springs area and finding a new job).
Takinoya is a fantastic ryokan and their onsen something special. We stayed for three days and I spent many hours immersed in the therapeutic waters and my own thoughts. The protocols Japanese people follow when bathing at an onsen during a ryokan stay are really enjoyable to learn about and follow. Basically, one arrives at the ryokan and is offered some light refreshments after checking in. Then one puts on a yukata and heads to the onsen. Men and women bathe separately but it is sometimes possible to book a family onsen. One washes thoroughly before entering the water. Last time I would stand rather than sitting on the little stool but now do it properly (see photo below). After one has washed the onsen is entered. When you have finished soaking there is no need to shower again, especially if one wishes to enjoy all the health benefits of the spa waters.
I would wake and have my first soak in the snow-dusted onsen a little after 5am and wait for the light. I’d find myself noticing many features of the landscape and becoming very mindful. Senses are heightened and one becomes very aware of any movement in the surroundings. The fish in the pond create concentric circles, the waterfall does what waterfalls do. The bird nests in the skeletal, white branches above I noticed on my third or fourth visit and provided a moment that was truly sublime. Once, standing naked in the sulphurous waters with snow falling it felt like binary code descending in a Matrix-like moment of epiphany. Twas a very fine moment fixed both in and out of time. Then I grew cold and sat back down.
We had a mediative, snow encrusted view from our dining table. While most people in Australia were eating traditional baked dinners, or having BBQ and seafood lunches we were enjoying a White Christmas for the first time and some very good banter. Kaiseki, is a traditional multi-course dinner served at a ryokan. It looks like a degustation menu to western eyes but has a particular pattern or order of dishes. The onsen experience is complimented by the exquisite nature of the food on offer. It really is luxuriously relaxing and one feels sated after soaking and such fine fresh, local food.
I am always proud of my daughters for the way they try everything and notes there was very little they did not eat. What follows are some un-edited iPhone snaps of our breakfast and evening dishes.
Noroboribetsu is famous for ryokans and superb onsen but most tourists hop off the bus and visit a national park called Jigokudani, Hell’s Valley. We had a good walk around before heavy snow bucketed from the heavens, forcing us to seek shelter (in my case back in our onsen). There were some good signs too.
On departing our ryokan, Miss 9 took a portrait of me at the train station. True, I helped her frame it and edited but it is a fine photograph of her Dad. Her little hands almost froze taking the shot in the sub zero conditions. She needed a very warm drink to grip in an effort to stave off frostbite.
I also need to mention that my daughters, now aged 9 and 12, loved vending machines dispensing drinks last trip to Japan and to their delight, Hokkaido is equally as well served with an incredibly diverse range of beverages as Tokyo. They noted all our favourites including the ever-omnipresent Pocari Sweat. Against my better judgement, I tried a new drink while waiting, freezing, at a train station. I then ran alongside the train to Hakodate.
We had hoped for snow over Christmas and were blessed with really good falls. They were so good I wondered if the trains would still run, especially when we arrived at Hakodate and the temperature plummeted to -9 and stayed way below zero all day. I loved it, even if my beard was a mass of icicles after 5 minutes walking. There was certainly no opportunity to take in the views from the mountain that overlooks the city. I am not even sure if the cable car up there was running.
The morning markets were near our hotel and I had good fun wandering and looking at the fresh local produce. My beard was such a mass of white and icicles that the locals were greatly amused and it would take one “merry christmas” or “ho” to get them laughing. I am sure, like all the people who work at markets anywhere in the world that the boredom and monotony of the life is broken by checking out weird looking tourists and travellers who wander by.
We contacted a volunteer group of local people in Hakodate some months back who act as guides to travellers. Mr Seto, a retired deputy principal and Moe, a 16 yo student who recently completed an exchange in Newcastle, showed us their town for a day. Mr Seto was educated in the USA as a young man and had excellent English. Interestingly enough Seto-san retired so he could go back and teach English to students again, tiring of the other responsibilities that come with the DP job.
When they met us in the morning, and the weather was so bad, they were surprised that we still wanted to explore. Later in the day both admitted they would never go out in such crazy weather. Lucy and Sarah held down snowball fighting until after we parted ways with our guides and then had a (snow) ball.
We really had a good laugh and very interesting conversations about all kinds of things related to travel, language, translation, Japanese popular culture and books while we walked and over lunch. The girls have more manga to chase down now.
We all deeply appreciated the time these local people took to show us their town.
Next stop: Hirosaki.
Featured image: Our Hokkaido Rail Passes
PS Not everything in Japan is high tech. We had a cool phone and alarm hidden discretely under a cloth, at our ryokan (but note well that the wifi was till blisteringly fast) 😉