Hokkaido on my mind


We are on the train going south(ish) from Sapporo to Hakodate, both on the northern-most island of Hokkaido. It is beautiful country out here. On one side of the tracks are amazing green hills still showing signs of the harshly cold winters (permafrost in some spots). To our left we have been coasting the Pacific Ocean and passing many small, quaint little fishing villages and as well as large industrial complexes. Everywhere we go, there are these juxtapositions of tradition and progress all over the place.

We have taken a LONG train ride to come to Hokkaido, making excellent use of our 7-day Japan Rail Pass. We’re sure getting our money’s worth out of this one. Each way of this trip is already worth the price of the pass itself. That means all of the other round-abouts we’ve been taken have been on bonus time. Yay, us!

The way up from Tokyo (Ueno Station) to Sapporo was on a sleeper train. Ok! THAT cost a little extra, but it was SO worth it. How fun it was to be in a little cabin-nest, top bunks with lots of space for us to sprawl and sleep comfortably much of the night. Adding to the comfortable space (with many supah clevah amenities that slid, swiveled, popped, latched) was the swaying of the train, the rhythmic clickidy-clack of the wheels on the tracks, the whistles and bells along the way, and the muffled laughter of the party-all-nighter neighbors down the car.

14 hours in a train and we slept very well. We also spent quite a bit of time walking from here to there, passing a number of different style cabins (solo, duo, fancy, etc). The lounge car was cool, with a long sofa on one side and bar chairs on the other. There were showers on that one too. We walked by the restaurant car, but didn’t eat there cuz we had a whole bunch of snacks (Jun Pan Sandwiches) to eat. Yumm.

After Sapporo stop, we switched trains to head to Asahikawa to meet up with  chibi Mako and his clan. Oh, yeah, we missed the intended train to go there.  We were seating in the train with plenty of time before ‘take off’, eating yummy soba noodles and noticed that it was 3 minutes late…  Ummm… Bad news bears cuz they NEVER be late on departures in these here parts, you see! Next came a couple to tell us we were in their seats… Ok, we are fo sho in the wrong here.  Turned out, we found out the next day, that was THIS train, the very same time-track for the train we were to be taking NOW. Cool, huh!? So we got off, found a helpful station attendant and got the info for the next train. All’s well. Texted Mako to let him know the new schedule and were on our way.

Side note: little rental smart phone/pocket wi-fi is a VERY handy thing to have while traveling thru Japan.

Side note: with ALL trains, planes, and automobiles we have taken (and I like to think of us as well traveled people) this is only the second time WE have missed a leg of any kind on fault of our own. There have been missed flights because of delays and missed connections galore, but this train and ONE flight from Hawaii, when we had the Pleasant Holidays passes, are IT!  Had to stay in Oahu one extra day; oh, darn. Thanks Doogie for the rides.

When we arrived in Asahikawa (river of a famous beer brand, by the way is an easy way to remember the town), where the famous Zoo is, the weather had turned sour earlier in the day and the family had already been getting wet at the zoo for a couple of hours. So we all went to the science museum, where we had SO much fun playing with all the nifty science gizmos and watching the presentations. I was blown away because two of the exhibits resembled SO MUCH the two projects I did while in grad school (the curtain of water projection screen and motion capture interactive station). The themes were slightly different, but the technology very much the same. Go figure!

Then, we were all hungry hippos so we went to a ridiculously yummy sushi restaurant. Kuru-Kuru style, it was awesome to have the kids make a ruckus getting the plates off the conveyer belt. We also had some “just cut into” Saba, or mackerel.  That was simply amazing.

Back on the train to Sapporo to meet up with Mako’s old gym buddy (Saki’s dad, that is), Shimakura San. He came to the station to get us and take a cab a few minutes to the old Sapporo Beer factory, now a museum and restaurant.

Unfortunately we were a bit late for the museum experience, but the restaurant was quite an exquisite time to be had by all. They served one liter mugs of Sapporo beer (of course) and the meal was called Genghis Khan, named after the famous Chinese Samurai. It is said that the warrior slaughtered sheep and used his hat as a skillet for his meals. There you go! We ate a fabulous shmorgusboard (sp?) of vegetables, meets, squid and such goodies. The burner placed in the middle of the table with a skillet shaped like the island of Hokkaido with the middle of it a bit like a Mongolian BBQ hot plate. Shimakura San would place the goods on the skillet, turn it a few times, than put it into our sauce bowls for us to eat. The sauce, an apple/soy/ginger/vinegar bowl of yummness, was the perfect complement to the solids being served.

Oh, how blessed we are to have had two fantabulous meals back to back!!  Thank you Abe and Shimakura San(s) for these unforgettable experiences.  Our bellies, our bodies and our souls are grateful.

We slept comfortably, rubbing our bellies for many ours in the room we reserved earlier today at the J.R. Travel Information Booth, at the Sapporo Eki.   Apparently we were very lucky, for there are two big events in town this weekend: Japanese Hand fighting and the Lilac Festival — what did I tell you about Japanese Cultural Juxtaposition!? The contrast is evident everywhere we go.  Anywho, our hotel was one block from the train station. Other than it being a smoking room, problem that was easily averted by opening wide the windows of the room, it was a great stay. 8,000 yen each and breakfast was included. Go, Best Western!!!

In the morning, a great shower before a very fulfilling breakfast. We checked out and headed to the train station. We dropped our stuff into some cute-as-hell lockers and went about walking on the cold, windy streets near the station. We made it to a street with a wide green island. The stretch of gardens and vendors led to the TV tower, a common site at big towns in Japan – think “Tokyo Tower.”

We found a small flea market and spent some time looking at old Japanese chachkies. Bought yummy corn on the cob and steamed potatoes for the trip.

When we noticed that we had, in typical Breeze and Saki fashion, dillydallied for a bit longer than we should have, we RAN back to the station (about 10 blocks) to catch the train (the one we sat in by mistake the day before, remember!?). Made it with a few seconds to spare – workout of the day: check!!!

Now, train two of three, from Hakodate to Shin-Aomori, we are calmly eating some local goodies (cookies) and enjoying the view before going into the tunnel linking Hokkaido to the main island. Godspeed, Super Hakucho 40! A beautiful new(ish) train with an excited conductor.

Quote of the day: “This one gets excited about his toot!” – breeze talking about conductor on train from Hakodate to Shin-Aomori before a tunnel.

End note: the tunnel between islands was 23 minutes long.

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