Hokkaido · Japan · Travelling

Days 20 to 24 – Hokkaido, Japan

Day 20 – Tokyo to Hokkaido

I left Tokyo today for a more sedate pace of life. I jumped on the Shinkansen train to Hakodate, which took about 4.5 hours. Riding the bullet train is a quintessential experience of travelling in Japan. I did what most Japanese people do and bought myself a bento box to take with me, and amazingly I found a VEGAN box! It was so beautifully presented, with carved vegetables, different types of rice, beans pulses, and other things I had no idea what they were, but it was tasty!

Of course the train was perfectly on time! I then changed onto a local train for a short hop down to the port of Hakodate. It reminds me of towns I visited in New Zealand funnily enough. I arrived at 3pm and headed up the nearby mountain by way of the cable car. It is pretty quiet here, and so much cooler than the south, about ten degrees cooler in fact which has been a welcome change. I found a park and lay on a bench and had the place to myself and it was wonderful.

Mount Hakodate
Mount Hakodate

Hakodate is really just a stopover for my journey tomorrow up to the main city of Hokkaido, Sapporo. But it does have its charms. I wondered through the older area of the town, a few schoolkids said hello to me and I ended ups at the supermarket for dinner – a running theme of this trip so far! I also discovered the oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. How lucky I am to have seen that. I like visiting smaller more out of the way places, as you get a truer sense of what it is like to live in a country. Electricity poles and everything.

The oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan
The oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan

Onwards to Sapporo.

Day 21 – Sapporo

Local trains in Japan are quite different from the whiz-bang-whallopp Shinkansen bullet trains, but they are still pretty good, though slightly reminiscent of British Rail in the late 1980s. It bizarrely took almost as much time to travel from Hakodate to Sapporo than it did to go from Tokyo to Hakodate, and if you look on a map you’ll see how outrageous that is!

Sapporo is the largest city on the island of Hokkaido and perhaps most famous for beer! It certainly is very laid back and so much quieter than Tokyo! The weather is about 10 degrees cooler too. The level of English is also noticeably less and therefore the old Google Translate app has been coming out a lot more. The hotel I am staying in is great as it has its own Onsen (Japanese spa). On the first day I went down twice and floated in the soothingly warm water, it was amazing!

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I also discovered a great Indian restaurant called Jyoti. It was like being back in the UK, loads of familiar curries and can breads to choose from and more importantly loads of veggie options! To round off my evening I stumbled across a fantastic five night outdoor free dance festival called ‘Yosakoi Soran’. It is an annual event apparently and celebrates a particularly energetic group style of Japanese dance and it is amazing! If you watch my video you’ll see some examples. The coordination and costume changes are stunning.

Day 22 – Hokkaido

Today I spontaneously decided to go on an adventure! Within ten minutes of waking up I decided to go see some of the island as the weather was good, so I grabbed my rail pass and headed to the station.

My ultimate destination was a town called Furano. The journey itself was lovely, trundling through the Hokkaido countryside, with rivers and mountains. The place I ended up at was an area famous for lavender and flowers. It was a long journey but was beautiful. I was a little early for the full effect of the fields and fields of lavender but what I saw was still great. You can buy lavender everything – lip balm, ice cream, cakes, pillow cases, perfume, you name it! The area is also famous for its melons.

Hokkaido flower fields at Farm Tomita
Hokkaido flower fields at Farm Tomita

I did have a funny experience too, whist looking at the nearby mountains. There seemed to be this low lying white cloud hanging around one particular mountain. Whilst sitting there pondering why it hangs around that mountain especially, it suddenly dawned on me that I was staring at an active volcano!!!?!

I ended my evening back at the dance festival and got myself a front row seat! After all that sitting I thought I should indulge in the Onsen experience once again which was a soothing way to end day 22 🙂

Day 23 – Beer and the eternal frustrations of a vegetarian abroad

Bit more of a lazy day after yesterday’s exertions. I started the day by booking my onwards train trips, from Kyoto to Horishima, then to Kobe and lastly to Osaka. The lady who helped me at the station spoke perfectly English which in Hokkaido seems to be quite unusual. I then took the old green line streetcar to find a veggie restaurant that I had seen recommended online. However, a tale as old a time proceeded to unfold, as I walked for ages to try and find it. But couldn’t

It has happened so many times that I have decided to stop trying to search out veggie places anymore using Google maps. It frustrates the hell out of me! I am just going to try and find veggie food in normal restaurants and chance my luck. Today was the second day in a row that I ate from a 7/11 store! Literally just rice and edamame.

I then walked over to the Sapporo Beer Museum. The brewery was set up in 1876 because the Japanese government were trying to develop the island of Hokkaido, as it was largely just agricultural in the 19thC. They had originally chosen Tokyo as the base but decided to bring it up here. You can walk around the museum , look at the history of the brand and see some interesting advertising posters (all using women to advertise the beer!). Apparently it is the most popular beer in Asia. I bought myself a limited edition  classic beer and sat on a bench and enjoyed a nice chilled brewskie! (I don’t drink beer much).

Sapporo brewery
Sapporo brewery

I then headed back to what has become my daily ritual and relaxed in the Onsen. I took a few photos (highly illegal) of what it looks like. Basically there is a single sex bathing pool with hot spring water. Then there are individual cubicles where you can wash, shower, shave, brush your teeth, you name it. I have noticed that Japanese men like to come down later in the evening and it is their evening regime to sit in the pool and have a shower before bed. It is a lovely relaxing way to end the day.

Day 24 – Otaru, a garden and a museum

My last day in Hokkaido today. I started my day in the sunshine at the Sapporo Botanical Garden. It was lovely and quiet, the only other occupants were a group of al fresco painters and some very noisy crows. It seems that people here are a bit scared of crows, there were signs up saying they cause mischief and to be wary of them! That’s why I like them.

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Sapporo Botanical Garden

I then headed to the nearby Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. It wasn’t modern so much, a lot of the paintings are from the 18thC but it was a great gallery nonetheless. I then immediately broke the rule I set myself yesterday and tried to find a veggie restaurant I saw in a leaflet. Big mistake. It was closed. That really is it it now. Never again.

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Sapporo Modern Art Museum

I decided to see a bit more of the island and jumped on the train to the nearby town of Otaru. It used to be a busy fishing and trade port, but that industry died off years ago. That left the town with a series of canals and docks that became redundant and in need of repair. Luckily for us tourists the town regenerated the area and now it is a lovely area for boat rides, cafes and shops. I visited the local museum which was lovely, and I had it virtually to myself. I like to support local galleries and museums, sometimes they are not amazing but if you don’t support them, they won’t be around! Support your locals museums people 🙂

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Otaru

Tomorrow I am flying down to Osaka, then staying for a few nights in the old city of Nara. I have really enjoyed Hokkaido, the peace, the pace of life, the countryside and people. I definitely got stared at way more up here, as there are significantly less white people and less English is spoken. I do however like going to more out of the way places, and seeing the less obviously touristy side of country.

I ended my evening watching the start of the new series of Tales of the City! I have such an affinity with this series, having read the books when I visited my good friend Liz who was living in San Francisco, way back in the day. In fact we visited the inspiration for Barbary Lane last year on a trip up to the city, which is actually called Macondray Lane.

Watch it, it’s great!

 

 

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Japan · Tokyo · Travelling

Days 14 to 19 – Tokyo

Day 14 – Busan to Tokyo

On day 14 of my trip I said goodbye to Korea and headed over to the land of the rising sun – Japan. I had some amazing views of Busan as I took off, see my video. It isn’t very far to get to Japan from Korea, only two hours flight from Busan to Tokyo. I had to pick up my SIM card and rail pass which was pretty easy then I jumped onto a train into the heart of the biggest city in the world! And boy does it feel big!

I immediately felt a difference in the people. On the train there was none of that Korean shoving to get a seat. It was so much more orderly and respectful. I arrived into Tokyo station at rush hour with a large suitcase which was as much fun as you can imagine…! However there are so many rail lines it is actually pretty easy to get around.

First thing I did when I got to my hotel was laundry! I literally had nothing left to wear.

Day 15 – Finding my way around

I just checked and I walked 23,000 steps today and it is only 6pm! I decided to do some sightseeing today and book some of my onward tickets. I have booked a ticket up to the island of Hokkaido in the north next week which I am really looking forward to. I bought myself a ‘Suica’ card for the metro and set off exploring. A few dead ends to start with though, as the Museum of Western Art is closed the entire time I am here and the National Museum was insanely busy so I thought, no. I should’ve known better than to turn up at 12 noon. Going to have to do that another day.

Bonsai trees
Bonsai trees

I did walk around the gardens off the Japanese Imperial Palace which were lovely, and also the Gojo Tenjinsha, a shrine in Ueno Park surrounding the National Museum. I also stumbled across a display of flowering bonsai trees which were beautiful. I know keeping and pruning bonsai is a Japanese art form, the people looking at them were fascinated by the trees.

I then headed on the metro down to the Shibuya district, with the famous crazily-busy pedestrian crossing that seems to appear in loads of films. I tried to go to a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch but like everywhere else here it was crazy busy so I bought some cooked aduki bean rice and salad from a shop and headed to the park instead!

Golden temple door
Golden temple door

Veggie food here is certainly no picnic but it is a little better than Korea so far. In the afternoon I visited the forest park that contains the Meiji-Jingu shrine. There was also a beautiful garden with water lilies and irises so I decided to eat my lunch there in the relative peace. Tokyo is fun but you need to escape the noise sometimes.

Meiji-jingu Gyoen
Meiji-jingu Gyoen 

Finally I visited the famous Harajuku district. This is the area where all the trendy young things hang out and shop, so I was in good company. I went to a vintage shop and bought some sunglasses, as I lost both my pairs already!! It was a really interesting sight, seeing all the crazy outfits everyone was wearing, especially after the conservative nature of Korean young people.

Day 16 – Museums

Learning my lesson from yesterday, I headed out early to the National Museum of Tokyo. I was very glad I did, as for the first few galleries I had the place to myself. The museum is actually four galleries in one, with an entrance fee of about 600 yen which is about ÂŁ5!

Second century Indian buddhas
Second century Indian buddhas

The main gallery has artefacts from Japan including some amazing buddhas, masks and some wood prints images. Similar to Seoul Museum, it was incredibly well presented and laid out. I also went to the museum cafe and after explaining to the waitress that I don’t eat no meat, she found a special tofu burger meal I could have which was very kind of her, and delicious too! The other galleries focus on Asian art in general, with stunning Indian buddhas from the second and third centuries being my highlights. Overall I spent five hours there and it was fantastic.

Japanese masks
Japanese masks

In the evening I checked out the Akhihabra district, otherwise known as Electric Town. Well it was quite the assault on the senses. I looked round some of the game arcades, which were pretty funny, as they were packed with middle-aged businessmen playing retro games, presumably reclaiming their youth after a busy day in the office. The area is also full of ‘maid cafes’. Which is kinda what they are, lots of young women dressed as maids standing in the streets with menus trying to tempt (mainly men funnily enough…) into the cafes, where I think they put on performances and food comes in ‘kawaii’ style – cute. On the flyer I was given the highlight were teddy bear shaped omelettes!

Japanese anime
Japanese anime

 Day 17 – Closed, closed, closed

Well the lesson of the day is to check museum websites before you travel. I went to THREE art galleries all of which were closed. Closed. Closed. What were the chances I turn up when all three are closed to put together new exhibitions. After the weeping stopped, I headed over to the Roppongi district. There is a great art complex there called the National Centre for Art and there was a fabulous Austrian art exhibition on celebrating 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan.

Now, I would not normally consider Austrian art to be high on my agenda, but boy was I wrong, it was fabulous. Gustav Klimt is probably the artist from the exhibition you are most likely to have heard of (‘The Kiss’) but the whole exhibition was very interesting, concentrating on the 19thC and early 20thC. I also discovered two fantastic new artists, Hans Makart and Egon Schiele. The painting below is ‘Sunflowers’ by Schiele and I love it! The most famous painting in the exhibition was ‘Portrait of Emilie Floge’ from 1902 by Klimt, another stunning painting.

Day 18 – Shinjuku, Harajuku and Asakusa

Today I decided to mop up a few of the remaining areas of Tokyo I had yet to visit. I started with Shinjuku. There is a beautiful garden there called Shinjuku Goyen, free to get in on a Sunday and the perfect place to lie down on the grass and do nothing!  Shinjuku is more famous for its nightlife, so I am heading out there tonight to see what it has to offer.

Shinjuku Garden, Tokyo
Shinjuku Garden, Tokyo

I then got the metro over to Harajuku, made famous by Gwen Stefani perhaps, Harajuku girls. Anyway, it is very trendy and hip. I visited the Kawaii (cute) monster cafe for lunch. Oh my. I guess it is more for kids but was fascinating anyway to experience it. The cafe itself is a crazy, neon, OTT visual experience, and the staff put on shows, complete with cute dancing monsters.

Monster Cafe, Tokyo
Monster Cafe, Tokyo

Finally I headed east over to Asakusa. This area contains the oldest temple in the city, Senso-Ji. As it was a weekend it was packed. It is very touristy, lots of things to buy, lots of street food stalls, but interesting nonetheless. It reminds me of what I saw in Korea, a less sanitised version of the city.

Senso-ji temple, Tokyo
Senso-ji temple, Tokyo

Day 19 – Robots

My last day in Tokyo and I looked to the future. Literally. I visited the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation in the Odaiba district. The best part was watching a demonstration by ASIMO, the resident football-playing and dancing robot! It was really interesting to see how human they had made it, and what it could do. ‘He’ could also jump on one leg! The museum had lots of interesting exhibitions, including using cells in medicine and space exploration, where you could look round one of the actual living pods used on the International Space Station.

Robots in the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation
Robots in the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation

Nearby there was also a huge robot thing which my friend Dom reliably informs me is called Gundam, and it is based on some cartoon or something that was popular once. Anyway it was pretty impressive, and it looked like a transformer. Another oddity in the area included a replica of the Statue of Liberty (not full sized). The area also has fantastic views of the city, as all as of the ‘Rainbow bridge’.

I have really enjoyed Tokyo, everyone is so friendly and welcoming and willing to try and speak with you. This goes for everyone who works for the rail system, anyone in a cafe or restaurant, anyone who works in a shopping centre, a 7/11 store, you name it. It definitely is the friendliest and politest country I have ever visited. The most efficient too!

Tomorrow I have my first experience of the Shinkansen trains (bullet trains). I am travelling five hours up to Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. I can’t wait!