Robert and I met in the 6th grade of school in Munich and have been best friends ever since. I missed him a lot during my year in New Zealand, and I was afraid I’d miss him just as much again during my time in Japan. This time, however, it turns out to be quite different, for Robert decides to visit me here in Japan for three weeks, and together we should embark on a jolly journey…
It all begins with me picking up Robert at Narita Airport on 5-May-2018. Since he’s only staying for three weeks, his luggage is not quite as extensive as mine.
After a heartfelt welcome full of jokes and friendly jibes (boy have I missed those), we return to our hostel so Robert can shed his gear, and then we’re all set to start with…
The Tokyo Throughput
5-May-2018 – 7-May-2018
Now that I’ve been here for a whopping 3 months, that makes me the ideal guide to give Robert a tour of…
As I already mentioned in the last chapter, Robert and I are staying in the Asakusa Smile Hostel in Sumida-Ku. The bathrooms outside the rooms are kinda crappy, the beds are uncomfortable and squeaky with weird blankets that come off easily, and we have to share a dorm room with another person. At least there’s good free WiFi, and it’s warm and close to everything. The price isn’t too bad either, though I still feel it’s about 40% too high.
Also, there’s a wee bit of a problem with the stovetop in the kitchen.
On the other hand, it does have its amusing Engrish moments.
Fortunately, we do spend most of our time outside, starting with…
The Great Tokyo Round-Trip
Robert gave me a list of places he wanted to visit in Tokyo. Today, I should try to hit as many places as possible on that list, and we would travel all over the map as a result, making liberal use of the Tokyo Transit System in the process.
Our first goal is Odaiba, and it goes without saying that we take the Yurikamome to get there, racing across the roofs of the town.
Arriving there, we are soon privy to a sight that’s about as wrong as it gets… and on so many levels too.
It’s not like we want to be there, nor is it open at this hour, so we move right on, and after showing the giant Gundam Statue and the Odaiba State of Liberty to Robert (see Book II ~ Chapter 2 ~ Touchdown in Tokyo), we move right on and take the Yurikamome across Rainbow Bridge, and past this ship sunken in a theatre and into the heart of the city.
The original plan was to go and visit the Imperial Gardens. However, since I don’t pass the security check at the gates due to my incredibly dangerous leatherman, we have to change our plans. Frankly, the one thing I'm most disappointed about is that they stopped me because of my leatherman, but didn’t even realize I had an even more perilous Swiss army knife in my pocket (they did superficially check my backpack though).
Oh well, that just means we can proceed to our next attraction all the sooner: A ride with the fabled Marunouchi (丸ノ内 “Inside of the House”) Metro Line.
One of the reasons is that it takes its role as a subway pretty liberally and features extensive above-ground segments along its route. And then, it also has a station in the 2nd floor of a freaking building.
And then, we arrive in Ikebukuro (池袋 “Pond Pouch”), the famous entertainment district of Tokyo. It also has a thing with owls (梟 “Fukurou”), a pun on the “Bukuro”-part, which would explain the many owl spots around here.
It’s here that we get hungry and Robert drags me down right into the rabbit hole, where we get served delicious Omrice (オムライス), a mixture of omelette and rice. In addition, I try out an interesting combination of apple-vinegar juice, and make a mental note of trying this one by myself once I get back home, for I find that the acidic taste of the vinegar balances the sweetness of the apple juice perfectly.
Alone the size of the dessert is a bit disappointing.
Subsequently, we proceed to walk towards Rikugi-En, passing Tokyo’s one tram line along the way.
Rikugi-En (六義園 “Six Honours Garden”) turns out to be a bit of a downer for Robert, who expected to see the whole place in full bloom, and I, too, am a little bit disappointed considering that we 300¥ apiece to see what effectively is only a 4-hectare park, not much different from any of the free, public parks. The top attractions here are a semi-natural stone bridge, a small bunch of blue flowers in the middle of a “no trespassing” lawn, and the former site of a tea house.
Moving on from there, we take the Yamanote Line past a number of very interesting hotels…
…and arrive at our next stop, the Toukyoukokuritsuhakubutsukan (東京国立博物館 “Tokyo National Museum”).
There are many interesting pieces on display. However, what’s a bit of a bummer is that they are just standing there without much description about what they are or how they were used. For the most part the descriptions resemble those found in an art museum, even if some of the pieces on display are historical artifacts from hundreds if not thousands of years in the past.
After that, we walk through Ueno Kouen, past the statue of the Water-Puking Frog…
…and into Akihabara, which is quite busy with today being a Sunday and all.
We do not spend too long there, however, for our final goal for the day is one that we need to reach before sunset. I’ve been building up the suspense for the past three months, and now, with Robert here, it’s finally time to ascend the mighty Tokyo Skytree.
With 634m, the Tokyo Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa of Dubai with its 830m. Completed on February 29th 2012, this architectonic masterpiece has ever since become the new landmark of Tokyo and primary broadcasting tower displacing the Tokyo Tower, which is no longer quite as impressive or functional ever since it was surrounded by high-rise buildings. Beneath the Tokyo Skytree, there’s an impressive shopping- and event megaplex including famous cafés, restaurants, an aquarium, and even a Pokémon Centre.
But enough stalling. Up we go onto the Skytree, and although the majority of the ride in the elevators is inside the building, there is a short, 15-second segment where we can see outside on our way up.
The Skytree is divided into two decks: The lower Tenbou (展望 “Outlook”) Deck with three floors from 340m to 350m, and the upper Tenbou Galeria from 440m to 445m, meaning that you can get almost half a kilometre above the surrounding area, and the view is absolutely fantastic!
Even only from the Tenbou Deck, we already get an amazing view on so many of Tokyo’s defining features, such as the Sumida River…
…Sensou-Ji and the Five-Story Pagoda…
…and even the mighty Arakawa (荒川 “Rough River”) in the distance, forming the eastern border of Tokyo City, though the radiant metropolis stretches far beyond its shores.
Also, there’s what I’d call Skytree-targeted advertising, because this is probably the only place from where you can see this particular add.
Much like the Sky Tower in Auckland (see Book I Chapter 2 ~ Absolutely amazing and astoundingly awesome adventures at Auckland), the Skytree also has a glass floor segment. However, this one is not nearly as impressive as that of the Sky Tower, since it has way too many steel crossbars for a clear view down.
Afterwards, we take the next elevator up to the Tenbo Galleria. One clever marketing trick the Japanese use here is that there is a second sales counter up here at the Tenbo Deck selling extra tickets for the Tenbo Galleria. It’s 2060¥ per person to get to the Tenbo Deck, and another 1030¥ per person to proceed to the Tenbo Galleria. That makes it about 50% more expensive than the Sky Tower in Auckland, but since you can get more than twice as high up in exchange, it’s more than worth the price.
From up here, we see the last piece that was still missing to perfection. The snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji is visible on the horizon.
And now, we wait for night to fall. We have managed to time our trip well enough that we arrived close enough to nightfall, and although the weather conditions prevented us from seeing a nice sunset, we still get to experience the Radiant Metropolis at night from on high.
The Tokyo Tower in particular seems tiny from up here.
For the Grand Finale, I take some long-exposure shots of the Radiant Metropolis stretching indefinitely towards the horizon in all directions…
…and then we get in line to get down. Just like in the Metropolitan Government Building, getting back down proves to be a more difficult endeavour than getting up.
But eventually we do get in, and then it’s a ride back down the massive shaft of this colossal building.
Down in the Megaplex, we start looking for a place to have dinner. Sure, there was a restaurant up in the Skytree, but eating there was out of the question for a variety of reasons, the first and foremost one being that dinner there is prohibitively expensive, ranging from 12,000¥ to 15,000¥ – a price range at which I could easily buy a month’s supply of Kitsune-Udon! Lunch and dinner!
Instead, we eventually turn in at an Okonomiyaki Restaurant in the Skytree Town megaplex. This one is a slightly different kind, and the food is not prepared at your place, but rather in the kitchen. However, in exchange you have a direct view into the kitchen, as it’s pretty much part of the dining area.
As for the Okonomiyaki itself, it’s as usual satisfying and filling, both to Robert and myself.
And with that, this day comes to a close, and we return back to the hostel on foot. Tomorrow, there should be another big day of exploring Tokyo, and a very special one at that, for I of all people was summoned to give…
I probably should have seen this coming, but I didn’t. Having travelled to Japan for the primary purpose of visiting Inari Shrines and seeing foxes, I have familiarized myself with the matter quite intimately, and now I appear to have reached the point where people are starting to see me as an authority on the subject to the point where they want to interview me about it. And what better place would there be for such an interview than the big-ol grand-daddy of all Inari Shrines, the Anamori Inari Shrine in Ota-Ku? Also, it’s the perfect pretext to ride the monorail down there with Robert, and tick off a few more items on his list on the way back.
The people who want to interview me are Nathanel Creson and his grandmother Safta from Israel, the two of whom are on their own backpacking adventure through Asia and making videos about what they call “The Gran Adventure”.
The weather holds up just long enough for me to give them an elaborate rundown about the Shinto religion, the goddess Inari, and the role of foxes in Shintoism, Nathanel filming me all the time, and eventually editing his recordings into a little teaser-like video which I am free to share with you.
After the interview, the weather gradually starts to become more rainy, but that won’t stop me from showing Robert more of Tokyo. Our next stops are Shibuya, Harajuku and finally Shinjuku.
In Shibuya, we briefly stop by the Moyai-Statue again – which has two faces, as I’ve found out by now, so I use the opportunity to take a picture of its other face.
Afterwards, we stop by the CoCo Curry House and have some yummy vegetarian Cheese Curry Rice. I'm still very fond of it, yet it doesn’t turn out to be one of Robert’s favourites.
Subsequently striking out towards Harajuku, we pass by a rather queer Hachiko Statue in front of the Tower Records building. Must have been one heck of a windy day.
Speaking of adverse weather, the rain around here is also gradually becoming more insistent, yet Robert remains determined to explore more of Tokyo, and bound by friendship and hospitality, that leaves me little choice but to continue guiding him through the elements’ wrath. After all, there is still stuff I want to show him myself.
A little later, we arrive in Harajuku, another of those “must see” spots in Tokyo. Upon seeing it Robert and I both ask ourselves “Can someone please explain to us why we had to see this so badly?”. I mean, sure, it’s a nice shopping district, but nothing you wouldn’t find in any other major city like, say, Munich. Maybe with a little extra flair, but still…
Our next stop is the Meiji Shrine, which is almost completely devoid of people this time due to the meanwhile Lv4 Rain that has penetrated my coat and started soaking my clothes beneath. I have to admit that it is a majestic sight and I'm happy that Robert gets to enjoy it, but my own excitement is somewhat dampened by the wetness seeping into my undergarments.
Wish that we could just call it a day there and then, but unfortunately the Meiji Shrine is rather isolated in the middle of the park, so we have to enter the rain again to get out. Imagine my joy when we finally Finally FINALLY arrive at the southernmost reaches of Shinjuku’s extensive network of nicely dry and warm underground walkways.
It is in one of the buildings connecting to the underground walkways that we observe what happens if two escalators get close and comfy with one another.
As we tour the shopping malls of Shinjuku, we realize that there are entire buildings filled exclusively with clothes stores for women. This is a result of how traditional Japanese families work: The husband works, and the wife manages the family’s finances, and since the husband usually spends six days a week at the job with only brief intermissions at home for sleeping, that gives the wife some liberties as to how to spend her day and… allocate budgets (hard working Japanese husbands are usually too tired from work to ask questions about such things and don’t have time for hobbies anyway).
We round off the day with a stack of Sushi at the same running sushi restaurant in Shinjuku that a local Furry by the name of Phyxius originally showed me. This time, Robert is absolutely amazed by the selection and quality of the food, and even though it shouldn’t be the best sushi he should eat on the trip, he still admits that he could easily eat enough sushi here to burn a hole in his wallet. It’s a good thing he’s still partially satiated from the curry rice, but even so the stack of empty plates in front of him reaches a sizable height.
And with that, our stay in Tokyo already comes to a close. 2 days may not quite be enough for Robert to gain the same amount of familiarity with it that I have obtained over the last 3 months, but nonetheless, we have managed to tick off the majority of items on Robert’s list for Tokyo. As for me, I’ve seen quite enough of it by now. Having been here for pretty much exactly 3 months, I’ve visited 14 of the 23 special wards that make up the core of the Radiant Metropolis (plus the nearby Kanagawa Prefecture)…
…plus I have walked what must be hundreds of kilometres of different roads and encircled a total of 107 km².
But now, it is time for us to leave the big city and appreciate…
The Nature of Nikko
8-May-2018 – 10-May-2018
After pretty much exactly a quarter year in the Radiant Metropolis, I am finally on the road again. On the morning of 8-May-2018 we depart from the Asakusa Smile Hostel, and ride the Metro towards Ueno-Eki with only minor complications, such as an unintentional kilometre-long walk with all of my heavy luggage due to me misinterpreting the directions of a station attendant. Either way, we eventually arrive at the platform from where our train is due to depart, and I am excited to be officially on the move once more.
Our route there leads us first to Kurishashi-Eki (栗橋駅 “Chestnut Bridge Station”) with the JR Utsunomia Line…
…and from there on to Nikko with the faster, cheaper and somewhat more comfortable Tobu Nikko Line. The one downside is that the announcements here are incomprehensible due to being in Japanese and at a volume where even a native speaker would struggle, but since we are headed for the final station of the line, I'm sure we’ll be alright.
I may have already mentioned that there is a number of different railway network services in Japan, and while JR (Japan Rail) is still the biggest one, the Tobu Lines are a perfect example for a different provider, running alternative lines such as the one to Nikko, but all of them eventually arrive at the same goal.
Now, since we are about to begin our travels through Honshuu (本州 “Main Island”), the largest of Japan’s four primary islands, let me give you a short overview of its geography: Just like the South Island of New Zealand, Honshuu is divided by mountains from north to south. Unlike New Zealand, however, that division is not as complete, and there are numerous routes to get from the west to the east coast and vice versa. The most mountainous region are the Japanese Alps to the west of the Radiant Metropolis, which form a knot in the middle of Honshuu. Meanwhile, our travel route leads us more or less directly north through the valley next to the Echigo and Ou Mountains.
For now, we are off on the first leg of our grand journey together, eventually leaving the Radiant Metropolis behind us, and entering the fields, and later the mountains of Tochigi-Ken (栃木県 “Chestnut Tree Prefecture”), and with it the valley of Nikko.
The Nikko Tobu Station, one of the two train stations in Nikko – the other one being the JR Nikko Station – is one of those very definite final stops.
The hostel I booked for us is called the Nikko Park Lodge, which is a little ways out of town and up the hillside, which turns out to be quite fun with my heavy luggage.
But we eventually make it, and arrive at what should be our base of operations for the next three days.
With that, we have now officially arrived in…
Well, literally, Nikko translates into “Sunbeam”, but unfortunately the weather does not quite want to agree with that description at the time of our arrival… nor during the following two days.
Yet that doesn’t stop Robert – whom I’ve never realized to be quite this adventurous up until now – from dragging me out of the hostel almost as soon as we’ve dropped off our luggage to go on a tour through Nikko under my barely capable guidance, and so we’re off to…
The Nikko Town Tour
This should be more or less an impromptu trip guided by geocaches, but it should nonetheless (or maybe because of this) lead us by quite a number of nice places.
Even during that initial exploration, we already come across quite a number of Shrines and Temples…
…most notable of which is probably the Shougi-Shrine. Shougi (将棋 “Generals’ Board Game”) is a traditional Japanese board game not unlike chess with distinctive pentagonal wedge-pieces as seen in this Shrine. One of the most distinctive differences from chess is that in Shougi, players can return captured pieces to play under their own control, meaning that the number of pieces on the board remains relatively constant throughout the game.
Another thing that catches my eye is the large number of private Shrines in backyards and gardens. It would seem that the Shinto faith is indeed strong here in Nikko.
We also pass by the Shinkyo (神橋 “Sacred Bridge”), which spans the width of a beautiful meltwater river. Unfortunately, the bridge itself is currently undergoing repairs, so we have to cross the waterway via a nearby road bridge.
Subsequently, we turn in at a traditional Japanese restaurant…
…where we have a hearty lunch of Yakisoba, followed by the experiment of fried quail eggs. The Yakisoba is both to mine and Robert’s liking, and the fried quail eggs too are not bad, but nothing I’d pay extra for either.
As we continue to explore Nikko, we pass by a number of restaurants advertising their dishes, and while I'm used to the plastic replicas of food in the windows by now, the flying forks and pizza are definitely new.
At dinnertime, Robert and I share an experience set of Sushi, Sashimi and Yuba at another local restaurant. I’m assuming you’re all familiar with Sushi, and Sashimi is pretty much the same thing without rice. Yuba, however, is a local specialty of Nikko. It is food made from layered tofu-skin, which forms while boiling tofu, and turns out to have a rich and juicy taste.
Afterwards, it’s finally time to return to the hostel for good and have a better look at it. The common room is nice enough and features a furry friendly fluffball companion, and the dormitory is okay, although the beds are really hard. Futons simply were not made to rest on wooden lattices. Most notably, even this hostel has its own little house Shrine.
The next day – our first full day in Nikko – should be loaded! Not only do we complete a full tour of the entire Shrine- and Temple-Hill of Nikko, but we should also scale a nearby mountain, for better or for worse. This would be…
The Nikko Shrine Swing
For historical reasons, the majority of Nikko’s Shrines and Temples are concentrated on the foothills to the northeast of the city, which should make it easy for us to construct a route that passes the majority of them.
As you might imagine, this means that the number of Shrines we would visit today is quite substantial.
Perhaps most notable of those are the holy stones, of which we encounter a few on our path. With Shinto being an animistic religion, it is not particularly surprising to find stones being venerated the same as trees, but I have yet to grasp the concept of why certain stones are chosen, and not others.
Then, there’s the famous Sake-no Izumi (酒の泉 “Spring of Sake”), the water of which is supposed to taste like Sake. However, since I don’t fancy the taste of alcohol, I don’t pay it any particular heed.
We also stop by the major Shrines and Temples in the area, those being Taiyuu-In (大猷院 “Large Plan Temple”), Futarasan-Jinja (二荒山神社 “Two Wild Mountains Shrine”) and Toushou-Gu (東照宮 “East Shining Shrine”), the latter of which contains Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb. However, since there is an admission charge to each of those and tourists abound despite the rain, we decide not to visit either of them, and instead proceed to the next item on our list.
Toyama (外山 “Outer Mountain”) is the name of the peak we want to climb today. It starts relatively harmlessly with a hike along a forest trail…
…but while the trail leads us to a glade filled with vibrant, fragrant flowering trees…
…it does not quite seem to be the right track, and so we soon have to fall back on some impromptu cross-forest mountaineering.
Fortunately, we soon enough come across a clear guidepost leading us back on the right track.
A track which soon enough becomes quite steep and even a bit tricky, I might add.
But eventually, we reach the top, which has a small and slightly dilapidated Shrine. This Shrine was erected to ward the Demon Gate, which according to Shinto Mythology is the north-western cardinality – an inauspicious direction from which evil spirits and demons are thought to come. As such, this Shrine was built atop a mountain to the northwest of Nikko to intercept the evil spirits approaching from that direction.
Now that we have successfully scaled this mountain, we are rewarded with a majestic view of the valley of Nikko.
Well, at least we get the satisfaction of having made it all the way up to 880m on our own. Granted, Nikko itself is already at 580m, so it was only a net total of 300m, but that’s still something, especially factoring in the treacherous way up here.
On our way back down we pass through a total of three Torii – which is two more than we passed on our way up. Also, it is already beginning to get noticeably darker, and since we heard that there be bears around, we’re eager to be out of the woods by nightfall.
And we almost make it. But then, within sight of the first houses, a beast crosses our path. Fortunately, it is only a shy Tanuki, and the little racoon dog makes his exit far faster than I can brandish my trusty camera. Nonetheless, this makes this otherwise disappointing endeavour suddenly worthwhile in my opinion, since this was the first time I have ever seen a wild Tanuki, and at a distance of little more than ten meters too!
Next, we strive to find some food. Not an easy task in a tourist hotspot – at least not on rainy days when all the shops are closed due to a lack of customers, as we have to find out. It is only after a long search that we find a single open shop selling food – and even there the two of us are the only customers. On a plus note, this restaurant sells Yuba-Ramen, so we have an opportunity to taste this speciality of Nikko in a different context.
Working and Washing in Nikko
The next day should be a work day for me, and while Robert should use this day to explore some more of Nikko’s attractions such as the Kanmangafuchi (憾満ヶ淵 “Full-of-regrets Abyss”) and the Imperial Villa, I remain at the hostel and earn some money doing remote work for my job as a software developer, and occasionally petting the dog
Also, I have to make some time to get the laundry done. Unfortunately, the hostel doesn't have its own laundry machine, so I have to walk all the way down into the city to get my washing done at the coin laundry. The upside to this is that I can take care of Robert’s laundry as well and thus buy him a little more time for his explorations since the capacities of the washing machines and driers at the coin laundries start at “Uh oh…” and go up to “Dafuq?!?”. Incidentally, I seem to be one of the few people who does not come here by car.
Conveniently, there is a rather sizable supermarket nearby, so I can get my shopping done while the laundry is in the drier.
One thing I find there is a Japanese specialty by the name of Melon-Pan (Melon Bread), which should become part of our last breakfast here in Nikko. Much to Robert’s dismay, this turns out to be a cookie-dough pastry that is only shaped like a melon. I, hover, find the taste quite appetizing.
Another interesting specialty is Cheese Egg, which turns out to be… something… probably involving cheese in an egg-like shape… that is edible. Words fail to describe it properly, so I can only recommend that you try it yourself if you get the chance. Either way, it’s not going to be one of my favourites.
So much for our stay in Nikko. Coming up next is the one place I’ve been looking forward to visiting for the last… uhhh… few years? Either way, concrete plans have only existed for a few months, and now I'm finally on my way to…
A Village of Vulpines
11-May-2018 – 14-May-2018
On the morning of 11-May-2018, we take our leave from the Nikko Park Lodge, but not without me putting a little something in the guest book.
Since we planned liberally, we arrive at the station a bit early. Since I'm a big fan of “Bis repetita non placent” (repetitions do not amuse), I have planned our trip to continue with the JR Nikko Line, so we can depart from Nikko’s other train station and take a different route out of the railroad-wise dead-end valley.
Our coming here early gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the humorous info graphics, such as the instructional poster for how to open doors or the “have a nice trip” poster warning about the excessively wide gap between train and platform.
But our personal highlights are still the tri-lingual advertisements for the “Free Bus Pass”, a convenient and economic travel pass for “T-O-U-R-I-N-G-N-I-K-K-O”.
The train itself is not quite as comfortable as the Nikko Tobu Line, but it does have a dedicated station plan which not only accurately depicts the stations’ relative distance and height, but also the sights one can see when looking out of the windows on one particular side. I guess that means that these trains always run on the Nikko JR Line, and always face the same way. Talk about dedication.
Our route this time should be somewhat of an odyssey. Sure, we could have taken the fast way and travelled to our next destination of Shiroishi (白石”White Stone”) by Shinkansen , but instead we opt to take the scenic route and travel by local trains, which takes about 5 hours and involves changing trains a total of 5 times in Utsonomiya (宇都宮 “Heavenly Capital Shrine”), Kuroiso (黒磯 “Black Beach”), Shin-Shirakawa (新白川 “New White River”), Koriyama (郡山 “County Mountain”) and Fukushima (福島 “Lucky Island”). Yes, the Fukushima. But don’t worry, the reactor accident was not actually in the city of Fukushima itself, but rather in a coastal town by the name of Ookuma (大熊 “Big Bear”) within the prefecture of Fukushima. Our closest approach to that place is actually in Koriyama, and even there we are still a comfortable 55km away, and there’s an entire mountain range between us.
The trains we travel with this time are all relatively small, but although they are all different in design, you can actually get a nice view out front in all of them as we zoom through forest, fields and towns.
It is on this trip that we should first get into a Wanman (ワンマン), though we shouldn’t realize the full implications of that until later. The first indicator that something is different in this “train”, however, is this display at the front.
Being able to read at least some of the Kanji, I eventually figure out the purpose of the display: Each cell refers to a station and the number within is the fare you have to pay if you got in at that station and get off at the current station. That’s why the current and future stop’s cells are blank, and the numbers in the previous cells continuously count upwards as we pass more and more stops. However, the exact process of how to pay should remain a mystery to us at this point. Fortunately, this shouldn’t cause any major problems yet since normal tickets and IC cards such as our Pasmo card work just fine at major stops like the ones we get in and out. Well, at least they kinda work, but more about that later.
Now, on the topic of Wanmans, and what we should eventually figure out about them: These are actually railbuses – either a single one or two of them joined together.
“Wanman” stands for “One Man” and describes the fact that these vehicles are operated by a single person. Now, the special thing about this is that they also serve minor rural stations that do not have ticket gates, station attendants or even ticket machines. So how do you pay? Well, you have to get in at a certain door – usually the middle or back door – and pull a ticket that records which station you got in. Then, when you get out, you get out at the front door and hand your ticket to the one man who incorporates both engineman and conductor and pay your fare as displayed on the screen. It’s easy if you know how. Unfortunately, the instructions are a bit hard to follow if you don’t know at least 1000 kanji.
When we arrive at Shiroishi-Eki, we run into a slight problem right away: Although there are IC-card readers, they do not accept our IC cards. It turns out that the IC cards only work for trips inside certain areas, and we unknowingly crossed over from one area into another. Fortunately, the station attendant is able to manually book the fare from our IC cards and remove the lock placed on them, so everything is fine for now, and we have thus successfully arrived in…
Shiroishi is located in Miyagi-Ken (宮城県 “Shrine Castle Prefecture”), one of the six prefectures of Touhoku Chihou (東北地方 “Northeast Region”), and marks my entry in the first other region of Japan after Kanto since I arrived here three months ago. With a population of 9,335,088, Touhoku is the fourth-smallest of Japan’s eight regions, and has about as many inhabitants as Belarus.
Since our destination is a bit off the public transport grid this time, we’ve rented a car for this leg of our journey. Fortunately, I have pre-emptively taken the precaution of getting a translation of my driver’s licence a few months ago (see Book II ~ Chapter 3 ~ Living, Learning and Working), so I am actually allowed to operate our cute little Suzuki Wagon R.
The place we’re staying in are the Kamasaki Onsen (鎌先温泉 “Previous Scythe Hot Springs”), which are about 6km out of town, and also 200m up into the mountains.
As we drive the distance and go up the hills, I am sincerely grateful that I’ve invested in a rental car this time. I wouldn't have wanted to walk this distance – and especially height – while carrying my luggage.
Our accommodation is the Suzukiya Ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn (旅館: Ryokan “Travel House”) – which may not look like anything special from the outside…
…but the rooms are really something, featuring traditional Japanese tatami mats and even a tea set complete with finest tea herbs.
Naturally, that also means that we sleep on Futons.
Next, there’s an outdoor Onsen on the roof that gets its water directly from the Kamasaki Hot Springs…
…and also an indoor-version for colder days. For those of you who are not familiar with Onsen: These are not for washing, but rather for relaxing, so before you enter the hot bath, you have to thoroughly clean yourself at the nearby shower stations.
Since the only proper way to use an Onsen is blissfully naked, there are separate baths for both men and women. Fortunately, the division is unambiguously stated on the curtains in front of the entrances.
Anyway, it goes without saying that Robert drags me right out of the door again as soon as we have dropped our baggage, and thus begins…
The Lesser Yajiro Romp
There isn’t really much in the direct vicinity of the Ryokan worth exploring – much to Robert’s dismay – but that apparently won’t stop us from exploring it anyways, and so we set out to walk north to the nearby village of Yajiro (弥治郎 “Increasingly Calm Retainer”) and back again.
Along the way, we pass a house that’s clearly gone downhill…
…and walk across a bridge adorned with interesting cylindrical dolls that we should yet learn more about.
We also come across a lone and old shrine on a knoll in the woods next to the road…
…and make our way through what can only be described as idyllic untouched nature.
Night is already rapidly approaching by the time we reach Yajiro, and so we eventually turn back and return to the Ryokan.
Now, another great thing about this place is the food. Although the entire stay should not come cheap…
…Robert and I agree that it was probably worth it for the food alone. Dinners at this place are served right into the room, and consist of a mix of traditional Japanese food, including all sorts of fish, rice, soup, vegetables and meat on elegant plates arranged in a way that indubitably maximizes Feng Shui. Once I inform them that Robert is a vegetarian, they even go out of their way to prepare equally yummy meat-free alternatives.
One more perk is that part of the meal is cooked right in front of you on special boiling platters that are ignited by the staff as the meal is served.
Overwhelming though the dinner might be, the desserts still fall into the “cute” category. Must be a Japanese thing.
Afterwards, we wrap up the day by donning the Yukatas (浴衣 “Bathing Clothes”) provided by the Ryokan, and taking a relaxing dip in the Onsen on the rooftop.
Afterwards, we quickly go to bed. I am especially excited, for tomorrow should finally be the day on which I would visit…
The Foxiest Place on Earth
We begin our day with a hearty Japanese breakfast served right into the room. With both dinner and breakfast being this plentiful, even Robert agrees that we probably won’t need any lunch.
One particularly notable dish here is the Natto (納豆 “stored beans”), fermented soybeans with a rich, earthy taste. They are also quite sticky, and tend to fall into the “love it or hate it” category of foods. Much to my delight, I seem to belong into the “love it” group. The trick is to mix the Natto with just the right amount of soy sauce (the perfect amount of which is conveniently provided as part of the breakfast arrangement) to create a harmonious symphony of flavours yet still leave the Natto sticky enough that it can be conveniently eaten with chopsticks.
And then we’re off to the one place that is heavily advertised all along the roadsides around here.
It’s another 8 km to get there, and while we ostensibly could have walked that distance along the dotted line, I still say getting the car was worth it.
At first, I’m so worried we might accidentally miss it that I end up driving up a back-country road, but as it turns out that fear was completely unfounded since you couldn’t possibly miss the place if you tried.
So, after over three months in Japan, and what feels like a lifetime of looking forward to this day, I have now finally arrived at the one place I always wanted to visit. Welcome, everyone, to Miyagi Zao Kitsune Mura (宮城蔵王キツネ村 “Princess Castle Storehouse King Fox Village”).
The following section contains many cute foxes. I will not be held accountable for any cuteness overloads that happen as a result of reading the following section, viewing the pictures in it or watching the videos. Also, it’s probably going to be really long.
At 1,000¥, the entrance fee is ridiculously cheap. Yet before we can enter the actual we have to read the safety instructions which are illustrated by the cutest pictures, and written in the most adorable Engrish.
The entire village is divided into two major parts: A caged area where foxes are displayed in a zoo-like fashion, and the main attraction, the open fox range, and areal about 1 hectare in size where you can walk freely surrounded by real life foxes with no barriers whatsoever.
The caged area serves as a hub of sorts, as well as a resting place since you can’t just sit down inside the open fox range for “Hi, butt! Meet fox teeth!”-reasons.
Apart from foxes, there are also other animals on display, such as goats, ponies, fox food and family-sized fox food (aka Patagonian Maras, large relatives of guinea pigs).
Then, there’s the fox nursery, which apparent contains three-headed foxes. Actually, this is another instance of Engrish, whereas the correct translation would be “Three foxes”, with “heads” being the counter, as in “heads of cattle”.
And then, there’s also a fox hospital for sick and injured foxes.
The main attraction, however, is without a doubt the open fox range, where well over a hundred foxes freely run around and play in what really can only be described as a fox village. There are even plenty of houses for its vulpine population.
Roughly at the centre, there’s the feeding station…
…which is constantly surrounded by leagues of hungry foxes in a charming siege from all sides. Radiant!
At just 100¥ a bag, fox chow is incredibly cheap to come by. Naturally, I don’t miss out on the opportunity to generously distribute a few delicious titbits.
Another central element of the open fox range is the Kon Kon Kaidan (コンコン階段 “Yip Yip Staircase”) running from the entrance to the feeding station and past it.
With up to three levels of balconies on either side, this makes it really easy to get face-to-face with the foxes without having to risk crouching down.
Also, there naturally is an Inari Shrine here, only this one has live fox guardians in addition to the stone statues.
But the one thing I'm really looking forward to is the “Invent of Holding Fox”, which comes at another 600¥.
This is probably the one time in my life when I actually get close and cuddly with a fox, and since it’s that time of the year I actually get to cuddle with a cute kit. Unfortunately, the little rascal doesn't seem to enjoy it nearly as much as I do, so I refrain from coming back for seconds.
After that, it’s back into the open fox range, where apart from foxes, there are also many informative billboards around. It’s a shame I can’t read any of them, but this level of Kanji usage is simply beyond my capabilities at this point.
The only one I can figure out is this fox to human age conversion chart, according to which I would be a three-and-a-half year-old fox. Also note that apparently different Kanji are used to denote the age of humans and other animals.
Meanwhile, the foxes start raising quite a ruckus as feeding time approaches in a nearby breeding station.
Which makes for a need transition to fox vocalization. I mean, you’ve probably all heard of this by now…
…and while the basic answer to that question would be “Yip” (or maybe “Kon”, since we’re in Japan), the more factual version would be that amongst the vocalization of foxes there are many diverse elements such as barks, whines, chirps, yaps, growls, yelps and screams. Unsurprisingly, they’re at their most vocal while fighting.
Yes, I could veritably stay her forever, surrounded by these delightful balls of cute adorable fluffiness on all sides.
Interestingly enough, they do seem to be naturally drawn not to me, but rather to Robert. Maybe that explains why I stick around him as well? =^,^=
Anyway, eventually the closing time for the day approaches, so I grudgingly leave this vulpine haven behind… but not without hitting the souvenir shop hard and leaving over 9,000¥ at the counter, more than tripling the amount I spent on souvenirs thus far. Oh well, I got lots of exceedingly cute stuff from it, and in the end the foxes will profit from it, so I guess it’s alright. My exorbitantly overpriced spoils include a shopping bag, a tail-pouch, a fox-head purse and a bag of mixed goodies. “You should have bought the pillow too”, Robert says even as we leave, but with no space to spare in my backpack I really don’t know where I would have put it.
And with that, this very vulpine episode comes to an end. However, this should not be the end of our adventures in Shiroishi by long shot, today we would go out to see…
Mountaintops and Mannequins
Wanting to make sure I get at least one clear day to visit Zao Kitsune Mura, I planned in an extra day into our stay at Shiroishi. And since we do have a car available, we can now use that extra day for a thorough tour through the terrain.
Our first destination is all the way up in the Zao Mountain Range. First, we have to circle the might Mt. Zao itself, with its height of 1841m. The Zao Mountain Range is actually a complex volcanic landform, featuring many spectacular sights, some of which we should come to see today. However, first we have to brave a dreadfully twisting and winding ascent up a curving mountain road through imposing canyons of ice.
The last few hundred meters are a reasonably cheap tool road with an integrated parking lot (or maybe a metered parking lot with an access road), and then we’re off to walk the mountaintops of the Zao Mountain Range, our first stop being Kattamine Jinja (刈田嶺神社 “Reaped Field Peak Shrine”), atop the nearby Katta Peak.
However, the real reason why we came here in the first place lies between here and the next peak over in a crater.
Okama lake, also known as Goshiki Numa (五色沼 “Five Colour Pond”), is truly a marvel to behold. Its apparent colour changes with the weather, and even in these overcast conditions it remains a vibrant speck of colour in the otherwise monochrome landscape.
The lake itself is 360m across and 60m deep. Its peculiar colour probably comes from the volcanic sulphur that dominates this area.
“Hey, let’s go up to the peak over there!”, Robert suggest, and while I’m initially opposed to the idea, I eventually change my mind, and thus we begin our hour-long ascent towards Kumanodake (熊野岳 “Bear Field Peak”) through ragged terrain and whipping winds.
And then, we reach the officially highest peak of the Zao Mountain Range. At 1841m, this one doesn't even make it into the top 50 highest mountains of Japan, but it is still one of the highest mountains I’ve ever climbed, and probably the most arduous thus far what with the rather unpleasantly biting cold wind and occasional showers. Also, since this mountain range marks the border between Miyagi-Ken and Yamagata-Ken (山形県 “Mountain Shape Prefecture”), that means we have no officially visited yet another prefecture of Touhoku.
The weather might not be all that nice, but the panorama up here is still impressive… almost otherworldly.
Naturally, there’s a Shrine up here as well, this one being the one and only Zaosan Jinja (蔵王山神社 “Mt Zao Shrine”), which should also become the highest Shrine I visited in Japan (thus far).
Afterwards, we make our way back down the mountain again, and while Robert suggests that we take the ultra-scenic “another six hours around the lake” route, I'm quite happy to take the easy way back to the parking lot this time.
We make a brief stop at the rest station, which I note is one of the last places where I would have expected to see a sign like this.
Moving on, our next destination is the Zao Yaki Manpuu Kama (蔵王焼万風窯 “Zao Searing Wind Pottery”), which may not look like much from the outside…
…and really isn’t much more interesting on the inside either. Apparently, there are pottery classes at some time, and there’s also a store with the perfect souvenirs to take along in a backpack that will get thrown around like crazy on the plane.
So, moving on, we continue straight to the next point on our list: The Kokeshi-Kan (小芥子館 “Kokeshi Museum”).
Kokeshi are these unusual cylindrical dolls that we have noted earlier being prominent in this area, and this place tells us all about them. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Just kidding, the only shape they come in is “cylindrical”, and the only colours are red, black and wood. However, they do come in a range of different sizes from about a metre in size to only a few centimetres. These peculiar dolls are a regional specialty of the Touhoku Region. The process of making these toys was quite arduous, and is documented on a number of traditional drawings.
Today, only a few masters of this trade remain as Kokeshi have long since been replaced by more popular toys, and have become a cultural heritage. Meanwhile, we have the high honour of watching one of said few remaining masters in action at this very museum – albeit using more contemporary methods.
Our next stop after that should be the Zao Cheese Factory. However, that should turn out to be just a collection of stores selling cheese- and milk-related goods – such as Zao Cheese and Milk Cubes – with some occasional workshops. Further observations along my journey, however, should eventually confirm that the English word “Factory” apparently has come to mean something like “store” or “outlet” in the Japanese language, for I should encounter many more “Factories” along the way.
Instead, Robert and I wrap up the day by going on a stray through the woods near Yajiro.
We start out with a visit to the Kokeshi Shrine near the Kokeshi Village in Yajiro…
…and then proceed through forested hills past Tanbo (田んぼ “Rice Paddy Fields”)…
…as well as another really old Shrine, this one dedicated to a mountain god and featuring an expert-level staircase.
Eventually, we return to the Ryokan just as the Kokeshi-lanterns are being turned on.
There, we enjoy another hearty Japanese dinner, which is most welcome, for tomorrow there should be…
No Rest for the Wicked
I originally intended for today to be a day on which I would work diligently on my blog and get a lot of writing done.
Unfortunately, the winds have other plans for me, such as having me drive Robert into the town of Shiroishi so he can check out the sights, such as the ancestral Shiroishi Castle.
Although we go separate paths from there, I can’t help but at least go for a brief stray through the city, checking out local Shrines…
…peculiar canal constructions…
…and most importantly, the white stone after which the town is named (note: not actually a white stone).
But after that, I drive straight back to the Ryokan and proceed to diligently work on my blog without any further detours.
Okay, actually not really. At the first sign post I miserably fail my will save and take a left straight back to the fox village.
Once again, the foxes are up and at it all over the place. Some of them are quite vocal today, while others have taken to silently fighting out a corner conflict over the shrine.
Also, I take note that part of the Kon Kon Kaidan appears to be undergoing renovations today (not that the foxes mind).
It also goes without saying that I should not make it through the souvenir store unscathed. This time my critical weakness to foxes (and by extension fox-related merchandise) should leave a 15,000¥-wide hole in my wallet. My spoils this time should include another two tail-pouches to properly represent my status as the head of tri-Tail, a t-shirt, a Japanese-style door curtain, and the cushion which I couldn’t stop thinking about ever since Robert mentioned it. Fortunately, by now I have hatched an ingenious plan about how to transport it (that is, having Robert carry it in his less crowded backpack).
But after that, I finally get to work on my Blog… for about two hours before I have to drive back to the outskirts of Shiroishi via a rather adventurous route to pick up Robert at the end of his stray.
And while we’re there, I should also take the opportunity to go geocaching in the nearby hills, which serve as a forested cemetery of sorts.
Afterwards, we once again return to the Ryokan for one last fabulous feast, for tomorrow, we should continue our journey and head for…
The Kingdom of Cats
15-May-2018 – 17-May-2018
After obliterating one last exquisite Japanese breakfast, we are on the way to our next destination, the coastal town of Ishinomaki (石巻 “Stone Scroll”).
This should actually be our shortest trip, and we would only have to change trains once in Sendai, and another time in Ishinomaki to a local train.
Our route should first take us through a fertile valley, and eventually arrive at the coast of Matsushima Wan (松島湾 “Pine Tree Island Bay”).
Short though the trip should be, there are a number of notable peculiarities along its way, such as the protector of the west standing atop a hill near Oogawara (大河原 “Large River Plain”)…
…as well as an aerobatic display of the Blue Impulse demonstration team of the Japan Air Self-Defence Force stationed at the Matsushima Air Base.
Our hostel this time is located in Watanoha (渡波 “Ferry Waves”), which is two more stations from central Ishinomaki with the Wanman, and it is here that we finally run into serious trouble with our Pasmo Cards. Whereas Shiroishi still had the option to manually charge our cards, this little provincial station does not feature such facilities, and thus I have to explain our predicament to the station attendant using what little Japanese I can. Eventually, we end up with one debenture each, our Pasmo cards locked until we can pay it off at a better-equipped station.
Our port of call here should be the Long Beach House…
…which promptly wins Robert’s award for “Least Luxurious Accommodation”, and even I have to admit that this place probably scrapes at the low end of the quality bar (though I’ve already gotten accustomed to similar accommodations during my travels in New Zealand (see the very end of Book I ~ Chapter 5 ~ Ferreting around Marton) .
In accordance with the prophecy, Robert should drag me back outside again as soon as we’ve settled in and take me on a trip to explore…
What Is Left, and What Will Be
In 2011, a devastating magnitude 9.1 earthquake struck the Touhoku Region. This cataclysmic event – now known as Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (東日本大震災 “Great East Japanese Earthquake”) – not only resulted in the reactor accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but also caused a major tsunami that finished what the earthquake had started in major parts of the region. The town of Ishinomaki was one of the municipalities most heavily damaged by this disaster. Tsunamis up to 10m in height travelled inlands for up to 5km, completely destroying half of the town and claiming thousands of lives. The reconstruction effort continue up to this day, and evidence of this event still remains after all this time, such as a stone Toori that used to be whole.
Our route should take us through the neighbourhood of Watanoha on a rather roundabout route, first east to Mangokuura (万石浦 “Ten Thousand Stones Bay”), then up into the forested hills, and finally back through the town.
One thing that catches our eyes right away are the tsunami shelters that are evenly spaced throughout the city. Considering that they couldn’t have been cheap to build, it helps drive home just how traumatic the disaster must have been to the people of this area.
Also, the attentive observer will quickly spot the odd memorial plaque visualizing just how high the tsunami of that day reached even a good ways inland.
Meanwhile, even with the reconstruction effort still ongoing, there are already plenty of Shrines around. Notably, it is only Shrines we should find, and not temples. I guess this can be attributed to renewal and rebirth being classical aspects of Shintoism.
But enough about such grave things. Let us move on to more amusing sights, such as this house the owner of which apparently only knew how to write the Kanji for Tree (木), and thus named his house Kishinrin Rokki (木森林ろっき “Tree Woods Six Trees”).
Much more notably, however, there is an electoral campaign going on.
Back where I come from, such a campaign is carried out quietly and decently, utilising posters on every street corner and political debates and commercials on TV, all of which can be conveniently ignored.
Here in Japan, however, an electoral campaign is a much more “hammer-in-your-face” matter, featuring electoral tanks blasting the neighbourhood with sound at maximum volume.
Since the core of the Japanese democratic system is writing the name of your favoured candidate on a piece of paper and casting it into the urn (as opposed to putting a checkmark on a list of available candidates), the electoral campaigns revolve mostly around making sure the voters know the names of the candidates. As such, the essence of all those inadvertent voice messages can be summed up in the formula [Candidate Name] × [2 to 5] + [Empty Words (e.g. “For a better future with all our strength!”)] + [Please Vote for] + [Candidate Name] × [2 to 5] + [Thank you very much] ×2. On most days, this modern form of courtship display lasts well into the night.
Eventually, we arrive at the Ten-Thousand Stones Bay, and looking at the shore, it’s easy to guess where that name comes from.
After visiting the Shrine on a little peninsula there, we continue across the railway line and up into the forested hills. And just in case you can’t see the forested hill for all the trees, there naturally is also a “This way to the high ground” sign, just to make sure.
Just like in Shiroishi, this forest – which contains at least partially of extensive bamboo groves – also seems to double as a cemetery, for there are graves hidden all over it.
By the time we return from the mountain, it’s already getting late, and we start looking for a place to have dinner at. Little did we know that our quest for supper should be impeded by the rather strange opening times most of the shops around here have, such as “AM 10:00 until however long I feel like it”…
…and much more commonly, “AM 11:00 until PM 2:00”, so eventually we end up settling for a humble meal from the nearest Konbini. It would seem that proper restaurants in this part of the town are yet to be included in the reconstruction effort.
The final straw to our hostel’s inhospitability is that we are not even allowed to eat our dinner in the common room/bar, but have to take it into our cramped room, and warm it up in the extremely luxurious and well-equipped bathroom/kitchen.
Oh well, at the very least we have a delightful day to look forward to, for tomorrow we will depart via ferry to…
The Island of Felines
In the Ishinomaki Bay, there lies the Island of Tashirojima (田代島 “Field Substitute Island”), which is famous for its large cat population, outnumbering the humans living on the island by a factor of 6 to 1. Ferries to and from the island commute from the port of Ishinomaki several times a day.
Unfortunately, the ferry terminal is quite inconveniently located, so our choices are limited to walking there directly, or taking the train to the centre of Ishinomaki and walking from there. In the end, we decide to walk there directly and explore the promenade along the way.
Even more regrettably, the route there is not very scenic, and apart from the somewhat impressive tsunami wall…
…and some lovingly designed manhole covers…
…there’s not much to see on the way apart from industry buildings and ongoing infrastructure reconstruction efforts.
In order to catch the early ferry, we got up at 5:30 and departed from the hostel at 6:30. Now, this may sound gruesome, but considering that the sun rises ludicrously early here in the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s actually not a big deal at all. Today for one, the sun rose as early as 4:22. This early sunrise time can be attributed to two factors:
1.) Japan does not employ Daylight Saving Time, so that already accounts for one hour earlier.
2.) This part of Japan is located at the far eastern end of its time zone, thus accounting for another half hour earlier (actually, Japan’s full width would be enough to cover three time zones, with half of Hokkaido (北海道 “North Sea Road”) as well as Minamitorishima (南鳥島 “South Bird Island”) geographically falling into the GMT+10 time zone and the western Ryuku Islands falling into the GMT+8 time zone, but for convenience’s sake, all of Japan uses GMT+9).
Anyway, we eventually arrive at the ferry terminal at 8:00, an hour early for the ferry.
With the help of a friendly attendant, we purchase round-trip tickets to Tashirojima for 2460¥ each. Quite a reasonable price I must say, though it’s more than twice of what we paid for Zao Kitsune Mura.
Eventually, it’s time to board the rather modern ferry, which not only has a cosy passenger deck, but also an open-air observation deck that we choose to sit on.
And then we’re off to race across the waves for the better part of an hour, through the bay of Ishinomaki and towards the island of cats.
Tashirojima is a small island, a mere π km² in size, and populated by no more than 100 humans. It’s considered a Genkai Shuuraku (限界集落 “Terminal Village”) since the vast majority of its population are elderly, and the number of people living here has dramatically declined from 1000 in the 1950s to it’s current number. As it is, most of the houses on the island are already empty, some of them starting to be reclaimed by nature.
The island features two villages: The southern port of Nitoda (仁斗田 “Benevolent Dipper Field”) – where we arrive – and the northern port of Oodomari (大泊 “Large Anchorage”). Originally, the ferry from Isihinomaki stopped at both ports, but ever since the tsunami of 2011, the port of Oodomari has been under construction, so the only way onto and off the island is via the southern port. Either way, Robert and I should visit both of these villages on our round-trip (or rather, figure-eight-trip) around the island.
“That’s all well and good,” I can hear you say. “But what about the cats?”.
Well, about that… while it is true that there are about 600 cats living on the island, the cat-density is somewhat disappointing after we’ve gotten used to having foxes all around in Zao Kitsuna Mura. Sure, there are cats around, and there are notably more cats around here than in an ordinary city, and yet… I really wouldn’t call it a cat island. Not after having been to the fox village… or the Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel, which beats Tashirojima’s cat-density by at least one order of magnitude.
At the very least, there’s some cat-themed infrastructure around, such as feline barriers…
…a group of cat-houses to the south…
…or even a cat shrine near the centre of the island.
Fittingly, there is a group of cats next to the shrine being… well… catty.
There even is a Geocache hidden near the shrine, and as I go about retrieving and logging it, I am instantly surrounded by curious cats who want to see what I am going on about with that mysterious object.
Eventually, we arrive at Oodomari, which is… well… existent.
On the way back to Nitoda, we visit a number of other shrines, some of which are in a better state of repair than others.
And of course, the trip to Tashirojima could not possibly be complete without a healthy dose of cat pettings.
We briefly consider having lunch at the island, but that plan fails due to there not being a single restaurant around. So, with not much else to be seen here, we decide to take the 14:15 ferry back…
…and spend the rest of the day exploring the centre of Ishinomaki before taking the Wanman back to Watanoha.
One particular thing that caught my interest earlier is Hiroiyama (日和山 “Sun Harmony Mountain”), a Shrine Mountain near the ferry terminal that I noticed as we crossed the bridge over the river.
Now we brave the approximately 200 steps that make up its south approach…
…and arrive at the top to marvel at Kashimamiko Jinja (鹿島御児神社 “Deer Island Honourable Child Shrine”) and its Side Shrines, which for obvious reasons have been spared by the 2011 tsunami.
There’s also a billboard with adorable Engrish detailing some of the local attractions, most of which appear to include food. Unfortunately – contrary to what was written – facilities explanation was not performed translation of when I read QR code with my camera.
Anyway, we also have a nice overview of the city from up here, and can see the Ishinomori Mangakan (石ノ森萬画館 “Forest of Stones Manga Hall (Museum)”), which should become our next stop…
…but not before stopping at a local canteen of sorts first to get some grub. I for my part choose a dish of Tenpura (天ぷら “Deep-fried fish and vegetables”), which I find be quite enjoyable.
Afterwards, we continue on to aforementioned Ishinomori Mangakan, which turns out to be a museum dedicated to Shotaro Ishinomori, who was an influential manga artist of the 20th century, who contributed to creating the manga culture we know and love today. His possibly greatest work was Cyborg 009, which when created in 1963 introduced the first superpower-hero team created in Japan, featuring a cast of nine cybernetic heroes fighting an evil organization.
Ishinomaki takes great pride in having been the home town of this local legend, and as such, there are life-size statues of the characters he created all along the roads leading from the Ishinomori station to the museum. This route is also known as the Manga Road.
As for the station itself… well, let’s just say that they do take a lot of pride in Shotaro Ishinomori and Cyborg 009.
Since we still have a little bit of time left at this point, we decide to explore the surroundings a bit more, and as a result come across a number of interesting Shrines and Temples, first and foremost of which being Zenshoji (禅昌寺 “Bright Silent Meditation Temple”), which honours the crew of the Wakamiyamaru, who were the first Japanese travellers to take a round-trip across the world – albeit involuntarily. What would begin as a simple journey from Ishinomaki to Edo in 1793 should turn into an odyssey as they shipwrecked and drifted all the way out to the Aleutian islands – the southwestern tail of present day Alaska. From there, they moved to Irukutsk in Russia, and four members of the crew should eventually embark on a Journey around the rest of the world in 1803.
And then, it’s back to head back to Watanoha, this time with valid tickets, and riding a train full of school kids returning to their homes… at 18:15.
Once again, we have a humble Konbini-meal at our cramped little room at the Long Beach House. For me, it’s a Ramen cup noodles today, complete with some slices of spiral-patterned Naruto fish cake.
Now, since we’ve done quite a bit of walking today, I'm glad that tomorrow should bring…
A Brief Breather
For once, my “free” day of a segment should be rather uneventful. Sure, I once again have to walk to a coin laundry because the Long Beach House’s laundry machine required the owner’s permission, and said owner was nowhere to be found. but fortunately, this time around the nearest coin laundry is only 10 minutes away, so this doesn't take too long.
And then it’s back to the cramped little room in the Long Beach House again to get some “Home” Office work done to finance my travels. My legs are quite grateful that this job does not require any further walking whatsoever.
Meanwhile, Robert admirably is off exploring the city of Ishinomaki some more, walking all the way to the centre of Morioka and back. With him happily hiking and me making more money, the day passes without much worth of note. At night, there’s one last meal of Cup Noodles – Yakisoba this time.
After that, both Robert and I are genuinely looking forward to…
Make for Morioka
18-May-2018 – 20-May-2018
The next day should be rather rainy…
…which means that after not having needed it for all of New Zealand, I finally get to try out this nifty anti-rain cover of my backpack.
It works perfectly! As soon as I’ve put it on the rain lets up, and we manage to reach the station relatively dryly.
Having learned our lesson, we this time purchase good old paper tickets to our next stop of Morioka (盛岡 “Prosperous Hill”). It’s a good thing that there’s a station attendant around, because trying to figure out the fare chart could have been a tid-bit of a conundrum, what with the station names being all written in Kanji.
Since we had nothing to hold us back at the Long Beach House, we’re actually at the station rather early, giving us some time to take in the peculiarities, such as the 17-Ice vending machine that grotesquely sells only 15 sorts of ice.
Eventually, however, the Wanman should arrive, and we would be on the road (or rail) once again.
Our route to Morioka should require us to change trains a total of two times, once at Kogota (小牛田 “Little Cow Field”), and then again at Ichinoseki (一関 “One Gateway”).
Since the weather should not clear up all day, we are happy to be inside a warm and sheltered train as rows of rainy rice fields rush by outside.
Just like the landscape is mostly consisting of monotone Tanbo, this journey doesn't really feature anything noteworthy, apart maybe from the Hopital Ohshu (let’s hope their doctors are better than their translators)…
…as well as a visual demonstration of the rule that allows you to put your feet on the seats in the cars if you take off your shoes.
Anyway, eventually, we arrive in Morioka – and with it in Iwate-Ken (岩手県 “Rock Hand Prefecture”) – and it’s still rather rainy.
Fortunately, our hotel is not too far away from the station. This time, we stay in an affordable property known as the Hotel Simplicity (Note: Photo taken on a sunnier day)…
…where we have a cosy twin room with real proper beds. Both Robert and I are instantly taken by it.
One more thing of worth note is that one floor seems to be missing in the elevator’s control panel. This is not due to the Night Watch having set up their headquarters in that floor, but rather because “4” is considered an unlucky number in Japan since it’s pronunciation (四 “Shi”) is homonymous with that of “death” (死) (As well as poetry (詩), city (市), magazine (誌) oneself (自) and then some, but let’s not go crazy here).
It goes without saying that Robert should drag me back outside straight away despite the rain in order to explore…
A Quick Shower Stray
Since it’s already well past lunch time and the two of us hadn’t had anything but a meagre breakfast so far, we venture out in search of a nice place to eat. Unfortunately, all we find in the near vicinity is a church.
Thus, we should eventually extend our stray all the way back to Morioka Station. Unfortunately, not yet having grasped the full extent of my backpack’s powers, I foolishly removed the anti-rain cover upon arrival at the hotel, and thus it starts pouring down cats and dogs, piercing my jacket and making me quite miserable. Once again, Robert doesn't seem to mind. His elemental affinity must be significantly closer to water than mine.
Eventually, I kinda snap and we just run into the first shop that looks like it’s selling something edible. It turns out to be a Ramen-Ya, and the menu is somewhat of a challenge to understand.
In the end, we end up ordering something along the lines of Susume with Susume and Susume (Recommendation with recommendation and recommendation). As we wait for the food to be prepared, I manage to figure out that the second two recommendations apparently were about how fatty and flavourful the food was supposed to be. AAs for the first recommendation… let’s just say that Ramen is probably not going to be either mine or Robert’s favourite dish. There’s something about the way it tastes that makes me not want to eat more of it. It might be good to think of it as the opposite of potato chips in that regard.
Afterwards, I hurry back to the hotel with Robert following behind, hoping to stay as dry as possible. We find a Geocache hidden on a bridge on the way, and get some dinner and breakfast from a Konbini, and retire to our room until evening. Robert might not mind the rain that much, but for me, there’s a “breach” point where my tolerances fail and my instincts kick in, making me do whatever it takes to get out, out, out of the rain. Subsequently, back in our room, I should remove my drenched clothes, and cuddle up in warm dry blankets. Nothing should get me back out there again today, and so I spend the remainder of the day working on my blog in this nice and warm and dry room.
A Change of Plans
Normally, Robert and I spend the first day in a new place exploring it and checking out the local sights. Today, however, should mark a change to this procedure, be it because it’s still rainy, or maybe because my breach of yesterday has yet to fully wear off. Anyway, Robert should spend today exploring southeastern Morioka on his own, while woulh get some work on my blog done, briefly stepping out to get a bowl of somewhat perversely named Oyakodon (親子丼 “Parent and Child Bowl”), which consists of chicken and egg on rice.
To compensate for my lack of participation in this day’s events, as well as the lack of proper food in Ishinomaki, I also research an interesting-looking Okonomiyaki restaurant in the nearby backstreets, which we should visit that evening.
Okonomiyaki restaurants come in three kinds: Prepared in the kitchen, prepared at the table, and prepare it yourself. This one turns out to be one of the third variety, which stumps us up at first since we were not aware that such a variety existed. However, once we get the hang of it, it turns out to be quite an interesting way to have dinner (also, it means that the chef canrun this little place in the second floor of a back street property all by himself, thus making the prices very affordable).
The only challenge is not to accidentally bite into the delicious vinyl on the walls while we wait for the Okonomiyaki to be done.
The prices here are actually so cheap that we not only go for seconds, but also adventurously decide to try out another dish by the name of Monjayaki, which turns out to be a thinner version of Okonomiyaki that is eaten straight off the stove plate.
Now well fed (and dry), we return to hotel in anticipation of a sunny day tomorrow, which we should use for a grand tour…
Across Rivers, Around Lakes
Since Robert already explored the south-eastern reaches of Morioka in stark defiance of the weather yesterday, we should focus our exploration today on the northwestern parts of Morioka. This stray should lead us across two of the three rivers converging as Morioka, as well as around the two little lakes of Takamatsunoike (高松の池 “Pond of High Pine Trees”).
In fact, we should pass quite close by the rivers of Nakatsugawa (中津川 “Middle Haven River”) and Kitakamigawa (北上川 “North Upper River”), especially the latter of which is still rather swollen from the recent rains, rendering regions of the riverside run regrettably rapturous.
We should also pass through an interesting underpass. I don’t know about you, but somehow the design of this place makes me want to build a 3x3 chicken farm here.
Also, just in case you ever felt like going Indian Daining, there’s a really nice place to do so near the Morioka Station.
But anyway, our actual route should take us past a number of temples and shrines…
…and eventually all the way to Takamatsunoike, which has a really interesting docking station for its rental boats. I especially would not want to try and to get into one of those paddleboats.
As for the lake itself, it’s quite idyllic. The fish are teeming, the ducks are quacking…
…and the giant active volcano Iwate-San (岩手山 “Rock Hand Mountain”), from which the name of the prefecture stems, can be seen threatening in the distance. However, since its last notable eruption was in 1732, and even then the lava flow failed to make it all the way down the mountain, I suppose we’re safe for now.
Anyway, the second, smaller pond of Takamatsunoike is actually a little fishing pond with a little island in the middle. A few hobbyist anglers have already made themselves at home there for the day.
We move on through a little public flower garden that looks like how Rikugi-En in Tokyo should have looked according to Robert. Apparently, by now we’Ve moved far enough north to catch up with the flowering season of these colourful bushes.
Subsequently, we move on to the former Morioka Race Track, which nowadays is a public park with interesting hexagonal structures.
Also, there appears to be some sort of dog event going on today, for there are pooches and their owners all over the place, with more arriving as we walk by.
Next, we make our way through a peaceful forest known as Kitsunemori (狐森 “Fox Forest”).
It borders on irony that we should only run into Sakakiyama Inari Jinja (榊山稲荷神社 “Evergreen Tree Mountain Inari Shrine”) – the third golden Fox Shrine I should find on my journey through Japan – after leaving Kitsunemori.
Just like Anamori Inari Jinja and Sawazoushi Inari Shrine in Tokyo, the number of foxes in the Main and Side Shrines around here boggles the mind, leaving me with yet another fox-gasm, and a significantly lighter wallet.
Notably, this is also the first time I see a prayer board with fox-themed plaques. I am almost tempted to buy one myself, yet since I don’t know exactly how you’Re supposed to use them yet, and also since my Japanese Skills are not yet good enough to write a proper wish on them, I let it be for now.
Moving on, our next destination is Hoonji (報恩寺 “Rewarding Grace Temple”)…
…where we are somehow “drafted” into paying 300¥ each to visit the interior of the temple by an impressively enterprising old man. As a direct consequence, we get to see Rakando (羅漢堂 “Hall of the achieves of Nirvana”), where 500 so-called Rakans with various expressions sit on shelves all around the room…
…as well as a variety of other rooms, such as Shidoden (祠堂殿 “Morturary Tablet Hall”)…
…a well heated communal prayer room…
…and Zazendo (座禅堂 “Zen Meditation Hall”) in the back.
In hindsight, we probably entered a few areas that were not meant to be publically accessible. However, there were no barriers or signs prohibiting entry, and we also ran into other visitors, so I'm sure it was okay… more or less. I mean, we did pay an entry fee after all.
Moving on, we continue to Mitsuishi Jinja (三ツ石神社 “Three Stones Shrine”), famous for its split stone featuring a demon’s hand print. According to a local legend, a demon by the name of Rasetsu once ravaged these lands before he was defeated by the god of Mitsuishi. The god bound Rasetsu to the three stones, and eventually, Rasetsu swore that he would never torment the people again. To seal his oath, he left his hand print on one of the rocks, which is the reason why this region is called Iwate (“Rock Hand”).
Look all we might, though, even the two of us together should not be able to locate the fabled hand print on the stones. Maybe it can only be seen if the sun casts just the right shadows? Or maybe *gulp* Rasetsu has forsaken his oath and is just waaiting to torment these lands again?
Be that however it may, we next continue on to another local attraction: Ishiwarizakura (石割桜 “Rock-Breaking Cherry Tree”). This 400-year old cherry tree is a symbol of hope and courage for the people of Morioka, signifying the endurance against hardship and defying even impossible odds. Growing from solid granite, the sight of this amazing tree fills me with DETERMINATION.
That’s already quite a lot for one day, isn’t it? But we’re not done yet! Next up is the mighty castle of Morioka.
Well, what’s left of it, anyway. Tragically, the castle itself was burned down in 1634 – only one year after its completion – and was never rebuilt. What’s left of it are an array of nonetheless rather impressive fundaments and trenches, which nowadays serve as a terraced park of sorts.
It also features some interesting peculiarities, such as the fabled Styrofoam tree (so that’s where it comes from!)…
…as well as the Takuboku Monument, dedicated to Takuboku Ishikawa who would often skip school, escaping through a window, and sit on this spot reading literature and daydreaming (somehow, I get the feeling that I might have misaligned my life priorities).
Moving on, we pass by the historic Iwate Ginko Akarengakan (岩手銀行 赤レンガ館 “Stone Hand Bank Red Brick Building”)…
…and subsequently have lunch at a nearby Tonkatsu-Ya, with Robert taking the Tenpura this time while I focus on the eponymous Tonkatsu ¬– pork cutlets.
After that, we slowly head back to the hotel, noticing some interesting road signs on the way, such as “Stop and Really Stop” or “Kinda skewed crossing with no right turn”.
Also, there’s this kinda cute pet shop (Of course it’s cute! This! Is! JAPAN!!!) just a block away from our hotel. Oh wait, that’s not a pet shop. My bad.
Later that night, we should head out again, and since it’s not raining this time we can take in the beauty of the lantern-trees adorning the streets.
Once again, I have looked up a cosy little back-road second-floor store, this time for Sushi.
The people there are actually surprised to see westerners like us here, but positively so. And so we (that is, I), soon find ourselves in a simple yet enjoyable conversation with the people there, telling them where we come from and what sort of journey we are undertaking.
Since the menu here is all in Japanese, ordering is a bit of an adventure, but in the end, both Robert and I end up with an appetising board of sushi, as well as complimentary soup in honour of the unlikely visit of two westerners.
After that, we retire to our hotel room right away, for tomorrow, we should have an early start and head…
Straight to Sapporo
21-May-2018 – 24-May-2018
We get up early in order to get to Morioka Station with time to spare and purchase our tickets for the trip by train to Sapporo (札幌 “Paper Money Canopy”). Not trusting myself to get the tickets from the machine, I get in line and buy them from a clerk at the counter – for better, as it turns out, for we end up with not one, but three separate tickets each.
How come? Well, this is due to the way the train system of Japan works. One ticket covers the basic fare from one city to another, and the other two tickets cover the non-standard trains we are using for our journey. In this case, those would be the Touhoku Shinkansen through the Seikan Tunnel (青函トンネル “Blue BoxTunnel”) – the world’s longest tunnel that has an undersea segment, with 53.85 km total, and a 23.3 km long undersea segment beneath the Tsugaru Kaikyou (津軽海峡 “Unimportant Harbour Strait”) – to Shin-Hakodate Hokuto Eki (新函館北斗駅 “New Box Mansion North Dipper Station”), and from there the Super Hokuto Limited Express to Sapporo.
This is actually the first time I’ve taken the Shinkansen in Japan, and with good reason too: Our tickets from Morioka to Sapporo are almost twice as expensive as the combined fares from Tokyo to Morioka. But that is the price of reliability, I guess. Unlike in Germany, where the entire railway system is more or less entangled and ICEs and regional trains may share the same tracks, the Shinkansen network is on an entirely different level than the rest of the railroads in Japan – quite literally: Not only does it use a different track width (standard gauge as opposed to the 1,067 mm narrow gauge used by normal trains in Japan), but most of its tracks are also elevated on viaducts a good ten metres above ground, as are the stations.
Inside and out, the Shinkansen looks more like an airplane than a train, especially with those tiny windows.
And that’s not the only thing reminiscent of a plane: There are also little fliers at each place, instructing one how to best behave and informing about the facilities found within the train. In addition to the regular cars, there is also the green car (comparable to first class) and the premium car at the very front (comparable to “I have too much money”).
Anyway, with that our fastest journey thus far begins, reaching to speeds of up to 260 km/h as we race over fields and tunnel through hills, past towns with imaginative and diverse names such as Ichinohe (一戸 “One House”), Ninohe (二戸 “Two Houses”), Sannohe (三戸 “Three Houses”), Rokunohe (六戸 “Six Houses”), Shichinohe (七戸 “Seven Houses”) and Hachinohe (八戸 “Gesundheit!”… I mean “Eight Houses”). Gonohe (五戸 “Five Houses”) and Kunohe (九戸 “Nine Houses”) can also be found in this area. Alone a four house town is missing, but that should not be surprising. Remember what I said about 4 being an unlucky number around these parts? Eventually, we pass Tonneru Jinja (トンネル神社 “Tunnel Shrine”) near Imabetsu (今別 “Now Separate”), and when next we see the light of day, it’s in Hokkaido, which looks a lot like New Zealand. Inside the Seikan Tunnel, the Shinkansen slows down to a mere 140 km/h (which is still faster than any other train we’ve used in Japan thus far). This is owing to the fact that the Seikan Tunnel was originally a narrow-gauge tunnel when it was opened in 1988, for use by passenger and freight trains. Eventually, its upgrade to a dual-gauge tunnel commenced in 2005, and the Shinkansen only started commuting this route in 2016, so going to Hokkaido via Shinkansen is actually still a rather new thing. By now, the Shinkansen is the only passenger train running through the Seikan Tunnel. However, since the tunnel is still being used by narrow-gauge freight trains, its top speed is limited to what those slower trains can manage.
Arriving in Shin Hakodate Hokuto, we have to change into the Super Hokuto Limited Express, which departs from two tracks over.
Most notably, they have a very interesting system of sectioning the platform here, using plants and animals to give meaning to what would otherwise only be boring old letters. Even more curiously is their way of informing passengers in which section specific cars of the train will stop: Whereas boring old Germans would simply have put up a poster somewhere, this station continuously broadcasts announcements in both Japanese and English. Eventually, it gets absurd as multiple announcements start running at the same time, making it impossible to understand anything.
Eventually, the Super Hokuto arrives, and we find out that although we paid for reserved seats, that reservation was completely unnecessary since the train is not even half full. Good thing we only paid ¥260 a nose for them.
One very convenient invention in these trains is the ticket holder, into which you can insert your ticket so the conductor does not have to wake you up should you decide to take a nap.
Thus, our journey continues, past Komagatake (駒ケ岳 “Horse Peak”), all the way around Uchiurairie (内浦湾 “Inner Bay Gulf”), past the city of Tomakomai (苫小牧 “Little Rush Matting Pasture”), and then north through the hills all the way to Sapporo. As we enter the city, I notice a foreboding black tower in the far distance. Should that be an omen?
On our way, we also pass by quite possibly the most misnamed place in all of Japan, Mori (森) meaning as much as “Forest”.
But anyway, now we have finally arrived at the final stop of our joint journey:
…apparently, these big Japanese cities have a thing for wanting to be other places. Or in this case, it could simply be because Sapporo is Munich’s sister city since 1972.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost region, and with 83,454 km² also the biggest one (making it the second-biggest island in the Japanese archipelago after the main island of Honshu). However, with only 5,507,456 inhabitants, it’s the second-least populous region after Shikoku, making the population density here the lowest in all of Japan. Compared with other countries, Hokkaido is both a little bit bigger and more populated than Scotland, making the population density about the same.
Interestingly, despite it being the biggest region, it does not have any official prefectures, instead being treated as one big prefecture with subprefectures. Historically, it was divided into 14 provinces (which are equivalent to the current subprefectures), but this subdivision was dissolved in 1882, merging the entire political body first into three, and then in 1886 into one big blob. However, since that makes referring to individual parts of the island rather hard, I am going to treat the subprefectures of Hokkaido as proper prefectures here.
By the way, is it just me, or does Hokkaido look like a giant stingray in the same way that New Zealand’s north island looked like a giant guitarfish? The way these two distant island countries are alike is really uncanny…
Moving on. With a total population of 1,947,097, Sapporo is Japan’s 5th-largest city, and houses over a third of Hokkaido’s population. It is located in Ishikari Shinko (石狩振興 “Stone Gather Subprefecture”), and is about as Japanese (read “cute”) as a city can be.
The place we stay in here is the Khaosan Family Hostel, which is about half an hour’s walk away from the station.
Now, here’s a quiz for you: What’s the difference between these two rooms:
If you somehow managed to answer “About 20,000¥ a night”, then congratulations, you are right! While the room we have is technically a dorm room – unlike the private room we had in the Suzukiya Ryokan near Shiroishi – we effectively still have it all to ourselves thanks to May not quite being peak tourist season for Sapporo (those would be the Snow Festival in February, and the Yosakoi Soran in June, but more about that one later). Also, most delightfully, this place has a kitchen, so I’m looking forward to preparing some delicious meals for Robert using native Japanese ingredients.
And now – you probably guessed it – Robert drags me onto a preliminary tour through the city one last time, and we should go out to enjoy…
A Festival of Food and Flowers
In an amazing coincidence, we have managed to arrive in Sapporo during the closing days of the Sapporo Lilac Festival. The lilac is the official tree/bush of Sapporo, and has been introduced to Sapporo in 1889 by the American educator Sarah Clara Smith. Also, it somewhat makes this place feel even closer to Munich for me, since back home I have a lilac bush growing just outside my window.
Although the main events of the festival have already passed, there is still the International Food Court in Oodori Kouen (大通公園 “Large Street Park”), which was once the large main road of early Sapporo, and has since been transformed into a longitudinal park. As for the dishes available here… something makes me doubt they’re really authentic (quite possibly the semi-dried tomato olive cheese pretzel), but we still manage to find some yummy food either way.
Our stray should first lead us to the eastern end of Oodori Kouen, then south all the way to Nakajima Kouen (中島公園 “Middle Island Park”), and back again via a slightly different route through this chessboard-grid city.
We’ve already been over this, but at the eastern end of Oodori Kouen we find yet another proof that the Japanese really like imitating constructs from other continents, this time in the form of the Sapporo TV Tower.
One thing I haven’t seen anywhere else are these ultra-flat traffic lights. Maybe the lost a truckload to a steamroller?
Also, just like in Tokyo, there are underground walking malls here and – you may not believe it – they are even more extensive than those of the Radiant Metropolis. Starting from Sapporo-Eki, you can walk south for a whole 2km in a straight line before you have to see the light of day again, and almost 2.5km if you turn left at Oodori Station. Also, thanks to just the right methods of lighting, it doesn't actually feel like you’re underground at all.
Infrastructure-wise, Sapporo has three underground bus lines. Or maybe, you could call them subways with rubber wheels? Either way, they are much closer to the Yurikamome of Tokyo than to conventional subways, as they run on tarmac as opposed to tracks.
Innovative though the people of Sapporo may be in that regard, their English skills are obviously not above the Japanese average.
Apart from that, there is also one circular tram line, and the rest is buses. Much to my dismay, there are two separate bus services, only one of which – the JR Bus – is effectively available to me. There is also the Chuo Bus. However, their website is spectacularly unclear, there appears to be no network plans, and worst of all, neither Google nor Hyperdia – the web and mobile app I’ve been using to get around in Japan thus far – seem to know about it, so while the Chuo Bus lines technically are available to me, I have no idea from where to where each line runs and when.
But anyway, since we’re exploring Sapporo on foot right now, that should not be an issue… yet. As it is, we run into enough interesting things already, such as that guy…
…or a building with a freaking ferris wheel on the rooftop.
And naturally, there are lots of Shrines and Temples to be found here.
Eventually, we arrive at Nakajima Kouen, which is… well… a park…
…with a lake, and a few Shrines around, but all in all nothing notable, really.
So we eventually turn back as dusk is slowly creeping onto us. On the way back, we run into a hungry bird hoping for some dinner in front of a Konbini, which reminds us that we should go get some food ourselves soon.
We hit a supermarket on the way back, and pass up the chance to get pizza halves in favour of cooking a hearty meal ourselves.
Also, today should be the day for me to finally taste Calpis, the somewhat famous Japanese milk-like soft-drink, and while it probably won’t become a favourite of mine, I have to admit that it’s not bad at all.
As for the food, I should attempt to whip up a tasty combination of Shiitake and Inari-Age Soba. Unfortunately, I did not use enough Dashi (出し “Fish-Kelp Sose”) for the Inari-Age, and so they turn out a bit… uhh… chewy. The rest of the meal tastes fine though.
And with that, our first day in Sapporo should come to an end. Tomorrow, we should go to witness…
Heights and History
Our last stray together should be a big one, covering multiple parts of the city in a fit of lunatic “why not” insanity. Since our Pasmo Cards are still locked, and for reasons of “the system is stupid” it’s not even possible to unlock them at the JR office at Sapporo-Eki, we purchase a day-ticket for the sub-bus…
…and then take the Tozai Line (yes, it has the same name as a subway line in Tokyo, Tozai (東西) meaning “East-West”) all the way east to Shin-Sapporo-Eki (新札幌駅 “New Sapporo Station”).
Our first goal for the day is the Hokkaido Kaitaku No Mura (北海道開拓の村 “Historical Village of Hokkaido”), which is still quite a walk from Shin-Sapporo-Eki.
Fortunately, we can cover the majority of the distance via less scenic back roads, though I do note a distinctive lack of Shrines and Temples around here.
And then, we eventually embark on a street that has obviously not been used for quite some time indeed. Could this already be considered a part of the historical village?
One way or another, the entrance is not far off now, and in a fit of cultural ravenousness, Robert and I purchase combination tickets that include both the historical village, as well as the nearby Hokkaido Museum for an absolutely affordable 1,200¥ per person.
I’ve been in museums for artworks, culture, dinosaurs, science, trains, cars, plains and many other things, but the historic village of Hokkaido should be the very first museum for buildings I should visit. This open-air museum is located at the edge of Nopporo Shinrin Kouen (野幌森林公園 “Field Canopy Forest Park”) and contains a total of 52 historic structures of the frontier-days of Hokkaido.
Up until the late 18th century, Hokkaido was mainly undeveloped and populated mostly by the Ainu people. It was only in 1869 when the Japanese government issued Kaitakushi (開拓使 “Opening of the land order”) with the goal of securing Hokkaido before the Russians could claim it that big-style settlement of this island began. As a result, all the buildings in the historical village – while still distinctly Japanese – are relatively recent in origin. Conveniently, you can even go inside and have a look around them, although some areas are off-limits, and you have to take off your shoes every time you enter a house, quickly turning this into an exercise in putting on and taking off shoes.
To add to the flair, there is even a horse-drawn street-car commuting the central boulevard, though we do not feel compelled to utilize it.
One of the houses also features a model of how the city looked back during its early days. You can clearly see the thoroughfare that should eventually become Oodori Kouen, as well as the big forested river island at the bottom middle that would become the location of Nakajima Kouen.
Anyway, the houses on display here vary from mansions and huge warehouses, over schools, and stores to the most humble farming huts.
And to make the collection complete, there is also one Temple and one Shrine on display.
We also get to see what the first settlers of Hokkaido understood as a relaxing evening…
…and get the chance to transform into Samurai… well, kinda.
One particularly interesting thing is the historical newspaper printing press.
This is one of those things that should have been obvious at some level, but which I haven’t really put any conscious thought in before: The sheer material effort involved in creating letter blocks for 2000 unique Kanji multiplied by several type sizes. And then imagine having to look for one specific Kanji among that selection. The words “Ineffably Horrible” spontaneously come to my mind, and I wonder just how much more expensive Japanese newspapers must have been before the advent of the digital age.
Also, there’s this interesting sign prohibiting walking across the lake. Jesus would have been appalled!
…as well as this bench for people who prefer to not to look at people walking by.
In the end, we pretty much spend all morning and noon at the Historical Village, making a path through the city, fishing village, forest paths and “Mounyain Village”, and by the time we move on we still have not seen everything this place has to offer. One could easily spend an entire day in here.
However, we yet have different things planned today. For now, however, it’s time for a tasty meal at the Historical Village’s Shokudou (食堂 “Food Hall”), where Robert goes for a hearty Pioneer’s Miso Soba while I reward myself with some tasty Genghis Khan Ezo Deer Yakisoba (which we should later find out to be a local speciality of Hokkaido).
Our next destination is the Hokkaido Museum, which is literally just around the corner. A short walk along the forested walk should take us here and once again we run into some interesting road signs. I wonder what this one could mean? “Honking Mandatory”?
The Hokkaido Museum, for once, should turn out to be highly interesting and informative – which might be mostly due to the fact that its texts feature English translations – as well as a number of other languages on handy color-coded translation sheets.
But there’s more to it, for example, the entrance hall features a floor with an aerial of Hokkaido, as well as an informative slideshow about Hokkaido’s unique climate. Did you know that the unique geography of the warm Japanese Sea to the west and the cold Pacific Ocean to the east make Hokkaido to one of the places with the heaviest snowfall worldwide? The city of Niseko (ニセコ (This is an Ainu name, so there is no direct translation for this one)) on average gets over 16m (!) of snowfall each year, and even the capital of Sapporo is also impressive with a yearly average of 4m.
From there, the next exhibitions contain the history of Hokkaido’s original inhabitants.
Actually, I'm talking about the Ainu, the indigenous people of this area who originally lived in what is now northern Japan and also south-eastern Russia, living mostly in Hokkaido, Sakhalin and on the Kuril Islands.
Their culture arose around the mid 13th century when they first settled in these lands and lived simple lives in simple houses wearing simple clothes.
Eventually, their numbers dwindled as the Wajin (和人 “Japanese People”) – encroached upon Hokkaido. What started out as mutually beneficial trade relationships gradually got more and more one-sided, and eventually the balance of power shifted from the Ainu tolerating the Wajin on their ancestral lands to the Wajin tolerating the Ainu on what they now viewed as their territory.
Conflicts soon ensued, and the traditional life style of the Ainu was gradually whittled away. By today, their traditional style of life has been completely eliminated and only memories of old traditions remain as what is left of the Ainu live their lives integrated into modern society.
Since their history and culture was based on oral traditions, this part of Ainu heritage is particularly endangered, along with their traditional language, which by this point is estimated to be spoken only by a mere 200 people. This museum does its best to at least preserve a little bit of this historical treasure, and does so in an innovative, interactive manner.
But that’s not all there is to the Hokkaido Museum, there’s also a really immersive exhibit on the ecosystem of Hokkaido that seeks to make its audience part of the experience. Here’s hoping I don’t get eaten by a bear here.
Anyway, one interesting thing I learn here is that the Tsugaru Strait separating Hokkaido from Honshu also acts as a zoogeographical boundary known as Blakiston’s Line. That is, the animals living in Hokkaido differ significantly from those living on Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. There’s even a different subspecies of fox to be found here: The Kitakitsune (北狐 “North Fox”).
Finally, there is also an insect preparation exhibit, which seems to be one of these Japanese things. In fact, the entire Pokémon Series was born out of an extrapolation of this more basic “gotta catch em all”-hobby.
After leaving the museum, we move on to see the aforementioned ominous black tower, which just so happens to just around the corner as well.
Anticlimactically though it may seem, this turns out to be neither the Evil Lord’s fortress, nor a monument at which you can resurrect the Dark God again using the words “Klaatu Barada Nikto”. Rather, it is known as Hokkaido Hyakunenki Nentou (北海道百年記念塔 “Hokkaido Centenary Memorial Tower”), and it’s not even black, but only appears that way when viewed under certain light conditions.
At one point, it was open to the public, but currently it appears to be undergoing renovations, so Robert and I move on. Originally, we were going to stray a little bit around this area, but we spontaneously change our plans and decide to continue our stray on the western side of Sapporo. Thus we return to Shin-Sapporo-Eki and make good use of our day tickets by riding the Tozai Line almost all the way to the other end.
On the way there we pass by this cute pet supply store… oh… no wait, this one is actually a casino. I guess the downside of the Japanese applying cutesy themes to everything is that you can’t rely on stores to be “cuteness coded” like they are in most of the western world. A store with a cute bunny might just as well be a baby boutique as a love hotel around here.
Anyway, our first goal at this side of the city is Hokkaido Jingu (北海道神宮 “North Sea Path Great Shrine”), a great Shrine complex in a forest featuring quite a number of smaller Shrines on its grounds.
One thing worth of note is that the prevalent look of Shrines here in the north is distinctively different from the majority of the more filigrane Shrines I’ve seen in Honshu. This is most likely due to the considerable snowfall warranting roofs with steeper inclines to make sure they do not collapse in the winter.
Now, for a fitting finale, we decide to get an aerial view of Sapporo, just like we did with Tokyo. Our first idea is to use the Moiwa-San (“Seaweed Cliff” 藻岩山) ropeway, but since that is rather far away and the sun is already setting, we decide to scale Maruyama (“Round Mountain” 円山) instead, which is conveniently right in front of us. The first part of the ascent takes us to the far side of the forested mountain on a boardwalk that has a heart for trees.
And thus begins our race up the mountain against the setting sun, past curiously shaped trees and through the green canopy, never knowing whether we’ll make it to the top in time.
In the end, we manage to make it just in time, having somehow managed the 150m ascent to the 226m high peak of Maruyama in record time. Beneath us, the city of Sapporo is already being carpeted by the shadow of the mountains as we watch.
Now, with the pressure gone, we decide to continue on to the Moiwa Ropeway anyway and get an overview of the city at night from there. Now, I believe I already mentioned that the bus network of Sapporo is somewhat intransparent, and since neither the Metro nor the Tram neatly connects there from where we are, we decide to walk. After all, it’s only another 4km. Also, along the way we end up making a little “Noblesse Oblige”-detour, as we walk by an Inari Shrine (By now I’Ve been at enough of them that I can actually reliably recognize the Kanji for Inari, 稲荷), that I naturally can’t just leave be. Of course it had to be one of those Shrines with a really long entranceway.
Regrettably, there are no foxes to be found here. However, there must be some around in this area, or how else do you explain this sign asking not to feed the foxes or leave out edible garbage?
We arrive at the lower terminus of the Moiwa Ropeway – which is actually a combination of a ropeway, and then a cable car – just as night falls.
Combination tickets up to the very top (and back down again) are 1700¥ each, which is almost half as cheap as the tickets up the Tokyo Sky Tree. Also, at over 500m, we should actually get even higher atop Moiwa-San than we were at the Tenbou Galeria in the Skytree.
The ropeway itself consists of a pair of two glass cars. The cars are rather big, which is all the better since the ropeway appears to be pretty popular event despite (or maybe because of) the late hour.
Anyway, just like that we are off, rising up the side of the mountain, the city of Sapporo gradually shrinking below us as we ascend through the dark forest.
The second trip aboard the cable car is significantly less interesting, mostly due to the fact that the track leads up along an incline through the forest, which is quite dark by now. Fortunately, it’s only a relatively short trip.
And then, we’re up at the summit. There’s quite a few people up at the terrace, the most audible feature of which is a “peace bell”, which is somewhat ill-named seeing as how the kids’ tendency to ring it loud and often is more likely to inspire a murderous rampage as opposed to tranquil serenity.
It might not be quite as awe-inspiring as the Radiant Metropolis, but seeing the lights of Sapporo stretch out all the way across the Ishikari Plain is still quite impressive…
…especially when taken as long-exposure shots. Maruyama, on which we were earlier, the Ishikari River, as well as the Nopporo Shinrin Kouen – where the Historical Village is located – stand out starkly within the ocean of lights. Even the seashore can be seen in the far distance as the border at which the lights terminate.
Afterwards, we ride the cable car and ropeway back down again. Still not having made any plans for dinner, we debate what we should do. The main problem is that we don’t know the names of any local supermarkets, and the Google Search Results for “supermarket”, “store”, or any variation we can think of don’t really produce any useful results. Fortunately, the search for one last Geocache in the area brings us pretty much right to the doorstep of a Ralse Mart, which turns out to be the solution of our problems.
To wrap up our trip – and to add one more vehicle to the list of vehicles I’ve used in Japan – we ride the Sapporo Street Car back to the hostel. Normally, I would be worried since I have no idea how the fare system works, but by now I'm too exhausted to care. It turns out to be another fortunate turn of events that we run into another pair of foreigners in the street car that can explain how it works to us: Basically, no matter how far you go, you just have to pay 200¥ when you get off. Now that’s what I call convenient.
Speaking of convenient: The street cars also have little displays inside that… oh… well… never mind.
And with that, our long trip comes to an end. As we return to the hostel, we have a quick but tasty meal of Togitsune (飛狐 “Flying Fox”) – one of my own creations, consisting of udon, garlic, Japanese mushrooms, tomato sauce, onions, and today fish cake in place of minced meat to account for Robert being a vegetarian – and rest our weary feet after this epic 14-hour day trip.
I'm quite happy that tomorrow, all that’s left for me to do is…
One Last Wash
Today should be another of those combined work-and-laundry days. Since once again our hostel does not feature a laundry room, I set out to the nearest coin laundry, only to find that there is a slight problem.
Naturally, I came prepared and have jotted down the location of not only one, nor two, but three coin laundries in the vicinity. Fortunately, I only have to go as far as the second one.
And being the efficient little fox that I am, I use the time while the laundry is happily tumbling away to shop for dinner supplies. It’s a good thing I now know where to look.
Looks like I'm already getting the hang of…
As for the rest of the day, I should spend it productively replenishing my travel supplies while Robert is off exploring more of Sapporo, and has the most delicious Sushi ever for lunch – as he should tell me later on.
In the evening, we should enjoy one last home-cooked Japanese meal together, this time featuring sweet potatoes, fish cake, omega death shrooms (aka Eringi) and Inari-Age, this time with the proper amount of Dashi. The result should be an interesting “guess what” dinner: With the potatoes, fish cake and Eringi all sliced into circular shapes, it’s rather hard to tell what’s what until you actually bite into it.
We enjoy this last meal together as we look back on the adventures we shared in these last three weeks. We had lots of fun, and seen lots of interesting things. I wish we could continue just a little bit longer, but now, it has finally arrived…
The Time of Farewell
Just like I picked Robert off from Narita Airport near Tokyo, I should drop him off at New Chitose Airport, which is a comparable distance south of Sapporo. We begin by walking back to the Sapporo Station, this time walking through the Tanuki-Koji Shoutengai (狸小路商店街 “Tanuki Small Path Shopping Street”)…
…and subsequently taking advantage of the aforementioned long linear underground walking mall to get all the way to the station without having to cross another road.
From the station, it should take us about three quarters of an hour to get to the airport…
…and then another half an hour to get to the international terminal, which I still quite a ways further. Fortunately, there are travelators around to facilitate the journey.
The journey there should by no means be boring, however. Along the way, we run into many curiosities which one would not necessarily come to expect at an airport, such as the Steiff Festival Plaza ….
…the Doraemon Wakuwaku Skypark – Doraemon being a robotic cat from the future and one of the top 3 Japanese mascot characters, together with Anpanman and Pikachu…
…as well as an entire freaking chocolate factory because why not???
And since they really do produce chocolate delights in all shapes and colours, it goes without saying that I can’t go by without buying at least one.
By now, however, I have prolonged the inevitable goodbye for long enough, and so I bid farewell to Robert with a heavy heart, and wish him a safe journey home.
With that, I leave New Chitose Airport behind always looking forward to…
The Road Ahead
While my trip together with Robert has come to an end, my travels in Hokkaido have only just begun. However, since this chapter is already bursting at the seams, I shall continue to tell you about those in the next chapter, coming soon™ to a Travelling Fox Blog near you!