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Monday, February 22, 2010

Hokkaido to Honshu

The 61st Annual Yuki Matsuri 雪祭り, Snow Festival took place from February 5-11, 2010. I have always wanted to see the ice and snow sculptures in Hokkaido so this was exciting for me and a perfect opportunity since just to fly to Hokkaido from Tokyo is about $500, one way!

I took the night train up, departing Tokyo around 5:30PM on Thursday night. I took a total of 3 trains to travel the approximately 500 miles up to the northern island. The last train, night train, was the best. I actually got a 'sleeping' area. I call it 'area' because it wasn't a seat nor a bed. It was a rectangular space with little dividers. We were all provided with a blanket and slept in a line. Luckily, I only had one 'neighbor' next to me and no one on my other side. Arrived in Sapporo at 6:30AM and was going to make my way to the hotel. I had used my points to book a 2 night stay at the Renaissance (Marriott chain) Hotel but had no idea where it was in respect to the train station! Did not do much planning and the only thing I made sure of was that it was in Sapporo; oh and that there was a station nearby. Turned out that the hotel offered a free shuttle service but the first transfer did not start until 820AM. So, I chucked my luggage into a locker so that I could walk around.

FREEZING! Seemed to have forgotten about the cold! It reminded me of college life in Indiana. Found my way to Odori Park which was about 5 blocks from the station, about half a mile away. The park stretches about a mile and is one of the main attractions of the city. The annual snow festival which takes place here was set-up and you could walk through the different sections to view the snow sculptures. Also, learned that the opening ceremony was going to take place at 10:00AM so decided to stick around to see it. In hindsight, it wasn't anything special, Japan's Special Defense Forces band played music and introduced foreign dignitaries (diplomats, chamber officials, etc). After spending all morning walking around, finally caught the 12:40PM shuttle back to the hotel. The hotel was nice and my points well spent! I think I may have received an upgrade because it was pretty big and on the top floor; okay well just the 11th floor but still, the top floor!

Another long time 'dream' of mine was to be able to go to a rotenburo 露天風呂 (outdoor Japanese hot spring) while it was snowing. Sapporo is one of the few places that this is possible since they have many onsens and it is usually snowing! So after settling into my hotel room, decided to make my way out to Jozankei Onsen 定山渓温泉. In the little research that I was able to do on onsens in Sapporo, I had seen a few posts on this area. Accordingly, this is where the hotel staff recommended. I also learned of a Y1500 ($17.00) special which provided round trip transportation by bus (approximately 1 hour one way) and free entry into your bath of choice (entry fees range between Y800-1000). There are more than a handful of hot springs on Yu no machi 湯の町 or 'Street of Hot Springs' so it was hard to decide which one to go to. The visit to the onsen here would be the first of many on this two week trip...

Someone had suggested Shika no Yu (鹿の湯) so I decided to stop here. They provided a free towel which was great because I hadn't even thought about bringing one! I guess I had been out of practice and it had been years since I had been to an onsen that I actually forgot to bring a towel! Usually there are two towels you should prepare: 1) to dry yourself when you come out 2) to take in with you to scrub yourself in the bath.

I had my first onsen experiences as a child so I was never really 'taught' the proper way to enter the onsen. On this trip, I learned two new things that I was not aware were rules to the onsen. 1) Don't stand to shower (okay, I never really thought of doing this) 2) Don't put the scrubber towel in the water. The second rule I admit, I did not know. Often times I would use this towel to cover myself up as I was going into the baths. I swear I saw other people do this too! I wonder if this is a new rule...Since my Japanese reading skills are much better now and because I get bored while sitting in the baths, I try to read the signs. 'Do not put towel in hot water' is usually what is written in bold print on the wall. No wonder I would often see these towels folded and placed on other womens' heads. So on this trip, I did the same and folded my towel and tried to balance it on my head.

Although Shika no Yu was nice, the outdoor rotenburo had a roof over it! Although it was snowing only very lightly, this is not how I imagined I would enjoy myself in a rotenburo in Hokkaido! After spending an hour or so here, I decided to leave and make my way back to Sapporo. At the reception area though, I decided to ask the front desk if they knew of any other onsens that did not have any roofs over the outdoor baths. The guy at the front desk suggested Yu no Hana which he said was within walking distance but would require me walking up a But then I thought about it, I had already paid Y1700 to get out there so it's worth it for me to check out this second onsen or I would die having come all this way and not be able to fulfill my 'dream'! So I made the trek in the snow...

Yu no Hana was a steep climb up in the snow but I eventually found it. Y800 to enter and NO towel. Well, I figured I was already 'clean' so I would just do a quick 'wash' so people wouldn't think I'm breaking the rules by just diving in. The onsen however DID have a roof as well! It was a little more 'outdoor' than the other onsen but still the snow was not falling on my head! But I had already paid the fee so I decided to make the most of it...I finally made the 1 hour ride back to Sapporo at 8:16PM.

Got back into the city around 915PM decided to have a look around the park again. This time, all of the ice sculptures were lit up so it was beautiful! One of the sculptures on display was a familiar building for me - Iolani Palace; the only royal palace on U.S. soil!  Not quite sure how it found its place at the snow festival but it was cool and so beautiful to see lit up at night! 

The best part of going to the park at closing hour (it closes at 10PM) is that all the food vendors were trying to get rid of their products so many offering specials. My first purchase was a fried chicken skewer for Y250. This was not a special but I saw a container of rice and when asked if I could purchase it, the girl said that it wasn't really for sale but she'd give me one! Freebie #1. I managed to score a nikuman (char siu bao, Chinese bun filled with pork) for Y100 (normally Y150). So I grabbed the last one! This was not a Freebie but definitely worth mentioning! I was also craving a fatty pork skewer 豚バラ butabara so I purchased one for Y400 which was quite pricey but it came with a free soup! Freebie #2. Since I decided to finish the soup since I couldn't take it home, I threw the rest of the food in my bag. Literally. I felt like a food collector just buying things with no intention of eating them!

Finally decided to make my way back to my hotel that night but since the free shuttle was over, I figured the cheapest way back to my hotel would be to take the subway and then to walk. On my way back, I spotted a small Western looking bar that seemed quite welcoming. Inside sat a lone Caucasian guy. *Note to self* this may be a place that foreigners hang out.  Since I wanted to get an early start the following morning I couldn't stop but knew I could sleep in the next day so thought I would try to stop by the following night.

The second day that I was in Hokkaido, I decided to go to 旭川動物園 Asahikawa Zoo which I had heard from several people was a place to go. I wasn't sure what was so amazing about this zoo and why it was one of the most visited zoos in Japan.

The zoo rested atop a hill. Entering the park, you could see everything laid out in front of you. It was cold and I couldn't believe that I was at the zoo in 10 degree weather! What I quickly found about this zoo was that there were a lot of interactive exhibits and what I thought especially cute, moku moku time もくもくタイム or feeding time, was the best attraction. The one that I could not get into and wish I could have seen was the polar bear feeding. Supposedly, if you catch this feeding, you can watch the polar bear dive for its meal. Instead, I watched deer being fed as well as orangutans swinging around on ropes. I also caught a quick glimpse of a giraffe...a giraffe which originally hails from Africa found in an icy cold zoo in Hokkaido? I wish I could have snapped a photo!

Returned back to Sapporo around 5PM and decided to stop by to try some famous Sapporo ramen and where else but Sapporo Ramen Kyowa-Koku = Sapporo Ramen Republic which is located on the 10th floor of Esta Department Store where 8 famous ramen shops have found secondary homes.  Since I am a loyal consumer of Hakata Ramen (where the broth is usually white in color and made from boiling pork bones), I have a hard time eating any other type of broth; I have become a ramen snob! I decided though that Sapporo has established quite a reputation for itself as well as a strong following, that I would need to try ramen in Sapporo. I ended up going to Asjisai あじさい, which on my quick skim of the 8 shops, was the oldest, dating back to the beginning of the Showa Period, managed by three generations of family members (sound a little familiar?).  The ramen was quite light and still rather tasty.
After a filling meal, decided to walk around...

I soon learned that there was yet another part to the Snow Festival!  There was an entire separate section!  The ice sculptures!  Actually got lost trying to find my way here which seems quite retarded as there were tons of people walking the streets...I had been walking parallel to all the madness and had no clue that the Snow Festival was taking place just one block over!  Walked around for a bit but the area was really small and with no one to take my photo, was ready to jet within an hour.  Oh, but the one cool thing that I got to do was slide down an ice slide!  But yet again, no one to snap my photo so all I have is footage of me coming down the short slide.  *boring* The ways I entertain myself.  I realized on this trip to Hokkaido, although it's great to see what I'm seeing, definitely not fun to do solo.  Maybe it was that no one else was alone that made me realize this but traveling alone sometimes sucks! I felt bad stopping people to take my picture since it was so cold and they were holding their partners' hands...oh well, I did manage to bother a few people.

On the way back to my hotel, I decided to stop at the bar I had spotted the night before: Lady Luck. Little did I know what I was walking one was there so it was quiet and the leather jacket wearing, hair streaked back from the 60s, gentleman greeted me and brought me a cold draft beer.  Made some conversation and within 10 minutes a group of about six came in to the shoebox sized bar.  I really didn't know how all of them were going to fit without me having to leave.  Somehow, these small Japanese bodies managed.  It turned out to be a very fun and entertaining night with the guys at the bar making conversation with me, surprised that the girl that they had thought was one of their own, really wasn't.  Chatting up with them and all of them with so much interest, reminded me of my job back in Kyushu.  I missed those days where everyone was so interested in me because I was a gaijin, foreigner.  I guess it's a treat for me when I can experience the superstar status that my non-Asian counterparts commonly do while in Japan.  Usually, I carry no interest to the Japanese because they think I am one of them...sometimes it's nice to be exotic and mysterious...we snapped photos and they practiced saying my name: "Re-gina", trying so hard to pronounce the 'R' sound without rolling their tongue so far back as it usually comes out as "Le-gina".  I had three beers (which shows off my drinking tolerance level a continued work-in-progress) and eventually left the bar around 12:30AM.

The following day, I slept in...and was able to get a late check-out (1PM vs. 11AM) - yay Silver Platinum status! I am such an elite status whore but it surely pays off!  Decided that I would spend my final day at Houheikyou Onsen 豊平峡温泉 since I was tipped that this place would be the best to find a rotenburo with NO roof!  This time, the location was 1.5 hours away, one way.  Arrived in Houheikyou Onsen by 3:30PM.  Also here as suggested by the owner of Lady Luck was an Indian Curry restaurant.  I was in Japan so wanted to eat Japanese food, not Indian food, but was told by a few other people that the curry at this restaurant was quite famous. So I settled for the vegetarian curry with humongous size naan.  It was good!  Before heading up to the onsen thanked the owner, who I learned was Nepali, and was on my way.

Yes, the rotenburo here at Houheikyou was definitely without a roof!  Unfortunately though, there was very little snow! :( *sigh*.  I had initially planned to catch the 5:40 bus back in to the city but thought the scenery may look better at night so decided I would go for the 6:15PM bus. I waited for as long as I could but just as it was slowly starting to get dark, I needed to get ready otherwise I'd miss my bus and my train!  Although it snowed lightly, I did feel that I did get to live out my dream!

Made it back to the city shortly before 8:00PM.  I still needed to buy omiyage, gifts, for the people that I'd be visiting and wanted to check out another ramen restaurant that I had found in one of the guidebooks.  The reason that attracted me to this restaurant was the name: Ramen Toguchi らー面とぐち。The night before, I had asked a security guard where this was and he pointed me in the right direction.  I had located it the night before so I wasted no time in getting here the second night.  I had 2 hours before I had to catch my train. I ordered their red miso ramen which was one of their specialities and produced my [redeem for free gyoza] coupon....I know, I'm cheap!  After my ramen was served, I asked the worker that brought me my dish, why this place was named as it was.  He answered that it was because it was the name of the store owner.  I asked him how to write the name and he excused himself and went to find out.  He came back and flashed me the same characters as my name!  A fellow 渡久地 in Hokkaido?  Turns out though that his family is from the northern town of Motobu in Okinawa whereas my family is from Ginoza.  His father had come up to Hokkaido because he was with the Japanese Special Defense Forces.  He had come up for training and met his mother and the rest is history.  A young entrepenuer, he was only 24, and seemed to have very little interest in the fact that I was from Hawaii and we had the same last name; which is very unusual in that there are 3 different ways to write it in Okinawa and Okinawa is not a big place to begin with.  At the end, he offered me his business card and I noticed that his name Masayuki 政之 (I think that's how you read it) bore the same first character as all the men in my family.  According to our family records, the males in our family are all supposed to use the character 政 pronounced Sei or Masa.  When I mentioned to him the similarity, he also mentioned that all the males in his family used the same character.  "I think we are related!" I told him but he didn't really seem to care...regardless, I was the customer and I wanted a picture of this!  So, I dragged him out in the cold and I took photos with my long lost cousin.

Then, as I was walking back, debated where I could do my shopping...remembered I had seen an omiyage shop the night before. I thought I would do a quick stop there and see if they would take credit cards. I knew I'd be dropping a lot of money and there was NO WAY I could pay for it in cash.  Luckily the store took credit cards so I started to look around...what does one get from Hokkaido?  Ideally, I would have wanted to get them something from Hawaii but since I had been traveling, and my dad couldn't bring it up for me, this was not an option.  SEAFOOD!  There were several different displays of Crab Gift sets...starting price was Y5000 ($55.00) but this was what Hokkaido was known for.  I ended up purchasing 2 - $117.00 sets, 1 - $100.00 set and a $55.00 set as well as a whole bunch of other ridiculously priced but nicely packaged treats.  My bill came out to a whopping $550.00!  Yikes! I don't even spend that much on myself, let alone I managed to do this all in 15 minutes!  But, these people that I was visiting had done so much for me while I lived there that this seemed to be the only way I could show them my gratitude.  It had been 8 years since I was back.  My one friend Junko, who would be picking me up at the train station had actually invited me to her wedding in 2004, which I attended.  She had me stay with her while she prepared for the wedding, bought me a beautiful pearl bracelet and then gave me Y50,000 to cover my travel expenses!  She snuck this in a letter and sent it off with me when she dropped me off at the airport 6 years ago, I found the money when I opened the letter on the plane as she instructed me to; the least I could do now was buy her a $117 crab set! Sucked that the rate was at its worst $1.00 - Y89 but oh well; I couldn't turn up empty-handed.  Got everything done so made my way back to the station.  Managed to walk back and get on in time!

Unfortunately it was not a sleeping train so I had to ride the entire way back in a reclining seat. The good thing though was that these seats seemed to go back farther than the norm. Had a 12 hour train ride to Yamanashi and went out to visit my friend Eri who is a friend from when I was an exchange student over 13 years ago.  Eri recently picked up surfing so comes out to Hawaii almost every year.  I had never really been able to visit her, so made sure I made a stop on my rail pass; it was also a good way to break up my trip otherwise, I'd be on trains for over 24 hours going from the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern island of Kyushu.

Eri had warned me that there would be little to do in the area.  She was kinda right.  But, I told her, I just wanted to see where she lived especially because she would be making a new home at a new university within a few weeks.  The town that she lives in is so small that we were actually able to ride the same train into her town.  I had to wait almost 30 minutes at the stop because trains rarely came through.  We met on the train and I got to see her campus and her office.

Eri had lots of work to do so I decided to get out of hair. Went to the next station over - Kofu - which was a bigger city.  There was an information booth there and the lady there told me about the free wine tasting that goes on everyday at another town. Ooh, free wine tasting?  Yamanashi is known for its fresh fruits which is why they are probably one of the better known producers of wine.  The lady also mentioned the famous temples that were in the city one station over. I decided to head to the wine tasting and then I would go to the hot springs (they're everywhere I tell you!). As I was waiting for the train to come, I decided at the last minute that maybe I should check out these temples as this was THE FAMOUS temples of the area and it may be a loss if I don't go...

So I switched trains and went to another track to wait for the next train 15 minutes later.  There, I managed to find these temples by foot.  But, if you see one temple, you've seen them all is what I later realized...what I also realized is that there is a certain way to enter a temple and pray at a temple and I knew known of this!  The people there must have thought I was a stingy visitor and quite awkward as I didn't do any of the rituals and offered no money. I didn't know! So I just walked around...a bit waste of time but at least I got to walk a bit. I visited two of the temples that were well known in the area made famous by Takeda Shingen, a feudal lord of the 16th century. Also looking at the map, Eri's university looked like it would be in walking distance and so I decided to try to walk back.  On my way back, I caught a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the distance! Also turned out that, sure enough, I was very close to Yamanashi Gakuin and got there in 15 minutes!

Stopped by to check in before I decided to go back to the train station to make my way to the onsen in the next town over.  Got to Isawa Onsen 石和温泉 and found the cheapest one there.  After 3:00PM, only Y500 vs. some that were charging Y1200!  Soaked for about an hour and then made it back to meet Eri at her office building.  That evening, she took me to eat Houtou  which would be best described as udon noodles - thick noodles - but really isn't anything close.  The noodles are much thicker than udon noodles and it's not really served in a soup but more like a stew.  We both ordered the pumpkin houtou. We also tried avocado tempura which was surprisingly not that good.  It was bitter and I hate bitter!

Later that night, we went back to Eri's apartment and I decided that I wanted to sleep under a kotatsu! This is one of the greatest inventions known to man! A table that has a heated lamp underneath!  A thick comforter usually goes between the table frame and a square table top goes over that.  During the winter, this is what most families have in their living room, everyone snuggles in to stay warm.  It is said that sleeping under the kotatsu is not a good idea but I didn't care! We don't have kotatsus in Hawaii and I wanted to be warm...maybe I should have listened to the warnings...I ended up burning my leg because it was directly under the hot lamp! Oh well, the burn was minor, I'll survive; it felt good to rest under the heat anyway...

Left the house the following morning at 7AM and made my way down to would be several trains before I made it to Saiki at 7PM...

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