Get ready, this is a good old fashioned “I went on a trip and now I’m writing a blog about it” kind of post. Last week my school was closed for a summer break, which coincides with the Obon holiday. Without going too into Obon history, it’s basically a time when Japanese people return to their hometowns and pay respect to their ancestors. It’s nothing like Golden Week in terms of travel volume but a lot of people still take time off work. Because the Tokyo August heat was killing me (but actually, over 160 people have already died from heatstroke in Japan this year), I decided to go to Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan.
Some people questioned why I chose Hokkaido, a place most famous for seafood in every disgusting size, shape, and form. I’ve always had an interest in Hokkaido because it looks beautiful, is home to six of Japan’s 34 national parks, and is also famous for it’s ramen and sweets (two food groups I do love!). Finally, while still hot in the summer, it doesn’t get the humidity that Tokyo does, and I desperately needed some fresh air.
In the end, Hokkaido was a few things I expected and a lot of things I didn’t. As I lack an international driver’s license and the bravery/stupidity to hike alone during bear season, I ended up sticking to cities easily accessible by Hokkaido’s somewhat limited public transportation (at least relative to the Greater Tokyo Area). This left me with Sapporo, Otaru, and Hakodate.
I’ll come right out and say that I was pretty disappointed in the overall “look” of these cities. Sapporo in particular, which is the capital of Hokkaido and the fifth largest city in Japan by population, I found to be kind of run-down, a little dirty, and honestly boring. Let me clarify that I’m comparing this city to my experience with other cities in Japan. Compared to San Francisco, Sapporo is spotless, the homeless people look fairly clean, and it smells terrific. But in comparison to other Japanese cities I’ve been to, the buildings seemed to lack character, the roads and sidewalks were aging, and for the first time in Japan I felt just the slightest bit uneasy walking back to my hostel in the dark.
One of the most surprising parts of my trip was that I could probably count the number of western tourists I saw on one hand. While Tokyo isn’t too diverse, I don’t really get any special attention for being a foreigner. I found that in all three cities I went to at least one local was very excited to chat with me, which was great for my Japanese practice! That’s not to say there weren’t tourists. Most of my guesthouses were full of Japanese and Chinese families who appeared to be on road trips around Hokkaido. And I found the locals to be incredibly friendly. One woman even went so far as to follow me into a park toilet stall to make sure I knew how to use a Japanese-style toilet correctly (most parks are still equipped with old-school Japanese squat toilets). I also had a very drunk man attempt to help me with my Japanese studies…
Here and there I was able to read a bit about Hokkaido’s history and was reminded of how close Japan is to Russia, especially Hokkaido. There is an ongoing dispute as to the proper ownership of a group of four islands that stretch between Japan and Russia. The back and forth agreements and disputes date back to the early 1800’s but the current dispute regards the details of treaties signed post-WWII. If you’re interested, the wikipedia page is quite detailed!
On the other hand, I learned that many port cities in Hokkaido, like Otaru and Hakodate, have been significantly influenced by international communities. Hakodate, along with Yokohoma and Nagaski, were the first three Japanese ports to open up to international trade in 1859. An entire district in Hakodate, Motomachi, was a designated area for foreigners to live, which is immediately obvious as the prominent feature of the neighborhood is a giant Russian Orthodox Church.
The best word I can think of to characterize Hakodate is weird. The architecture changes styles from street to street and building to building, restaurants and shops are flashy and at times over-the-top (a stark contrast to Japan’s generally simplistic style), and there seems to be a strange obsession with Christmas (I visited in August).
True to its reputation, I did have fantastic food (even without trying any seafood!). Hokkaido is home to many famous ramen varieties including miso ramen in Sapporo and shio (salt) ramen in Hakodate. Sapporo takes it one step further and incorporates the islands well-known corn and dairy into a butter corn ramen. My favorite was a spicy miso ramen from Ramen Republic, near Sapporo Station.
Sapporo is also famous for curry soup, which is a kind of thin spicy soup full of vegetables and chicken. It’s rare to find a Japanese dish which features vegetables so I had to try this one and it was really really good.
All of Hokkaido, but Otaru in particular, is famous for sweets, stemming from Hokkaido’s numerous dairy farms. I made sure to sample a few…
A few more food shots including famous Hokkaido melon (meh), sweet corn (good but too expensive for corn), the best tonkatsu I’ve ever had, some local Otaru beer, and of course a Chinese chicken burger from Lucky Pierrot (see the weird clown restaurant photo above).
In a small world travel coincidence, I happened to overlap travel plans with a fellow solo-traveler I met in Budapest nearly two years ago; it was especially nice to have a friend to enjoy Sapporo’s month long beer festival with and to protect me from bears while hiking Mt. Moiwa.
A few more photos from the trip:
Sapporo (TV Tower and Nijo Fish Market):
Otaru Canal: People went nuts for pictures in front of this canal and honestly I didn’t get it. You’re looking at the back of buildings, there’s no cafes to sit and enjoy it, the water was kind of dirty, but anyway…I sat on a bench and drank a beer while getting weird looks from tourists.
I took a day trip from Otaru to Cape Kamui, about a 2 hour bus ride. There’s a too narrow path that leads all the way to the edge of this peninsula and it was really beautiful. The bus ride was also really nice as it mostly went along the coast. I learned that when Japanese families spend the day at the beach they rent/bring giant tents!
From the top of Mt. Hakodate. I decided to enjoy the view from a stadium seat behind the crowd. It got crazy around sunset.
Hokkaido is a hard one to sum up. I was literally stopped in my tracks when I arrived in “Marchen Square” in Otaru. A Hello Kitty Cafe sat next to a Music Box Museum, followed by LeTao, a famous cheesecake shop with a red brick bell tower. Everywhere I went I was generally confused about what country I was in. I had to adjust my expectations immediately; I suddenly wasn’t there to see some more cool Japanese cities, I was there to experience a different culture entirely. It’s probably not somewhere I’d go back (except for snowboard season!) but I am really glad I experienced it.
In other news, in case you missed it, I moved! I still live in Tokyo, just much MUCH closer to the center. I’m in a ward called Koto and while my personal living space has downsized significantly, I now have an incredible view from my balcony and a rooftop terrace!