Friday, September 18, 2009

Hokkaido by Rent-A-Car

Even though I've worked at this cute little game company for almost a year now, I *still* do not have any personal vacation days given to me... since half the time I was a contract employee. But no big deal! There is this great system where the Japanese government keeps making more and more national holidays, trying to keep its workers from overheating.

Not only is there Golden Week (a 5 day stretch in May), Silver Week (a 5 day stretch in September, which I am currently enjoying while writing this), every month has at least one three day weekend. On top of this, we got an extra week off during any time of our choosing in either June July or August. We decided to go to Hokkaido for our week off. No particular reason except that's the one main area we'd never been to that was still inside the country.

Our route took us from Sapporo (the city in the south-west), all the way to Shiretoko, the national park at the very north-east tip of the island, and back again in a sort of oval.
We started our first day in Sapporo: The biggest city in Hokkaido. (And that's about it.)

Sapporo is not that great for sightseeing, as it is just like any neighborhood in Tokyo, completely overrun by office buildings, chain stores and apartment complexes, but there are a couple of places worth seeing, such as the Sapporo Beer Hall (yes, Sapporo is the birthplace of Sapporo beer). That's where we had dinner and consumed large quantities of "Genghis Khan" style barbequed mutton. Or, at least Takeshi had the mutton. I was trying hard to maintain my newly discovered vegetarianism... and failed, as I had one piece. But really, the best food there was the baked potatoes with butter, crusty bread with fresh cheese, the scallops, and the musk melon for desert. Oh and the beer. ;)

The next day we woke up at an early 7:00 (ok, early for *me* anyways) and decided to drive the 300km to Shiretoko in one shot. This was a tricky business, because the only highway stopped about 1/3 of the way, and we were traveling on small back roads where the posted speed limit was around 60 kph. (40 mph!) Of course, I took the liberty of ignoring that, but it still took the entire day to get there.

The main driver for the trip was yours truly . We had rented one of the cheaper car classes which turned out to be a Suzuki Swift, a teeny little hatchback. After Takeshi's love affair with his new suped up Subaru Legacy B4 (Sport edition, natch) , he tried out the rental and wouldn't stop making little exasperated noises any time he tried to accelerate. Finally, sick of the whining, I took over the wheel and found it a perfectly acceptable little car.

We stopped for lunch at a spot on the northern coast which wasn't so much a restaurant, as a whole-sale fish market, with a spot in the back with barbeques open to the public. We picked out some oysters and scallops and started to heat them up, when we got more and more nervous by the lack of other customers, and the cheapness of the oysters, which may or may not give you extreme food poisoning. Also, as we were waiting for them to cook, takeshi leaned over and whispered "I don't like the name of this place, 'wake ga aru'." It literally means "There's a reason". (for what? the cheapness? the lack of customers??)

Indeed, rather ominous.

Luckily we survived our lunch with no apparent ill effects, and took off for the second half of our day's journey . Grumbling, Takeshi took the wheel. We were just trying to kill time by tuning between the two radio stations (kabuki theater live, or some guy droning on about something), when I squeaked "wait!! Go back!!!"

We had passed a huge, no, enormous open pasture filled with hundreds of horses. I could not resist. The only problem was they wouldn't come over to the fence, because what was there to tempt them with? grass that they had plenty of?
"if only I had a carrot", I thought wistfully. But on closer inspection, the orange patch they are standing on in the photo is an enormous patch of carrots.

It's like a little piece of horse heaven. I just really, really hope that they are not being fattened up for eating.

I was finally peeled away so we could get on with the drive. As June through August is the 'high season' of Hokkaido, ie the time when they get the most tourists, everything was at its most expensive. Luckily we got a pretty good deal at a ryokan (japanese style inn), where the fresh-caught seafood dinner, breakfast, and lovely natural outdoor onsen were all included.

As a benefit of having driven all day, we had time for a full day at the national park (aka, 'Bear Country Shiretoko"). There is the habitat of a few hundred Higuma bears, which are about the size of the California black bear. So when we went hiking, we kept to the very well-trodden path around the lakes where the other hundreds of tourists were, so we wouldn't have any unpleasant encounters. The hike itself was nothing challenging, but I'm glad we did it because the next segment was walking up a hot-spring waterfall. This waterfall 'Kamui-wakka taki' or, God's hotspring waterfall, was a wide but shallow path of warm water down a stone surface, laced with quartz. it was breathtaking.

The best part was the bus ride up to the waterfall where the driver stopped to let us take pictures of the foxes and deer that trotted up along the side of the bus.

That afternoon we decided to take a 'bear-seeing' ocean cruise, which involves riding up the coast until you get to a riverbank, cutting the engine and getting as close as you can to try to see the bears hunting for salmon.
By close as you can, I mean, maybe a quarter of a mile away, which is why I have fond memories of my bear seeing experiences, ('oh, is that it? yes! that black spot is moving! I think that spot is definitely possibly a bear!!') but no pictures.

But this was made up by the return trip, where we took a route farther into the open ocean, and were greeted by a pod of dolphins playing in the surf made by the boat.They were graceful, playful, close, and ... impossible to catch on camera. I took about twenty pictures, and none of them contain a dolphin in them. Well one has half a flipper, I think. siiigh.

That night we went scouting for a famous outdoor onsen mentioned in a guidebook, but on the way we drove next to a river, on the bank of which were several excited photographers. Curious, we slowed for a look, and on the opposite bank was a bear! but not just any bear, a momma bear with cub, both looking a little freaked out. We got the heck out of there, and I marked the spot mentally to look for tragically severed body parts on the way back. After what seemed like a half an hour of driving very slowly behind a pair of large-antlered deer ambling up the road in front of us, we arrived at a hotel.

Inquiries made at the front desk pointed us to a dimly lit spot a few hundred feet into the woods, which turned out to be a natural, outdoor hotspring. Getting in and out was cold, but the water was wonderful, and we could hear the gentle rushing of the river closeby, and the screams of photographers getting dismembered by bears in the background.

Alright, I made that last part up. Maybe.

The third day was spent driving through seemingly limitless beautiful, bountiful farmlands. For lunch we stopped by the lake 'Akanko' which is famous for Ainu culture (the native people of Hokkaido, which to my untrained eye looked a lot like native americans).
We had lunch at an Ainu-cuisine restaurant. I ordered the 'ponche pizza', which had its crust made out of a root vegetable... chewy but good. Takeshi had a venison rice bowl which he approved of. But in the background, the restaurant was trying a little to hard to have a sufficiently 'ainu-y' atmosphere, and was playing traditional Ainu music, which sounded like a large spring bouncing around: "sproing sproing SPROING sproooooiiing sproing...." The 15 minutes while we were waiting for our food started to feel like an eternity. All I can say is, thank god music has evolved, even to only slightly better teeny j-pop.

We had to get to Furano by sunset to set up camp, so we booked it, pushing the limits of the little Suzuki Swift's power. As I was rushing over the apex of a slightly hilly overpass, I think I might have been caught by the flash of a speed camera(!!) which catches the license and your face. Unfortuately the car was rented in my name, so they'll have no problem catching me if so. I'm crossing my fingers that it was just my imagination, but also, next time I think I'll try the trick they recommended on Top Gear: bring a mask. ;)

We made it just in time to catch the last of the light and pitch the tent, and then wandered into town to try to find dinner and fuel for the car. Dinner was easy, I had a sushi salad with hokkaido cheese on top. News flash: Cheese and wasabi go really well together!

Anyways, the next day we went to the famous lavender fields of Furano, and sampled cheese at the cheese factory, and bought some famous musk melons (if you buy them in Tokyo, the price suddenly inflates to about $100 per melon!!). The guidebooks all mention Furano as the don't miss spot in Hokkaido, and it didn't dissapoint.
One unfortunate point was that the lavender season ends in mid July, and it was the end of August when we went... no lavender flowers. But there was a field of autumn blossoms to enjoy, and more importantly the lavender had been freshly harvested and pressed into various goods, like bath oils, teas, room freshener, and soft-cream flavors. (lavender soft-serve! yum!)

That was the last day, so we made our way back to the airport, with only one minor fiasco of me trying to drive on the right (ie, wrong) side of the street when exiting a gas station. Oops.

All in all, very worthwhile and full of adventures, a proper vacation. And that was our trip!


Anonymous Ako said...

Wow!!You two went to many places.
I really want to go to hokkaido sometime.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Jeri Bissell said...

Just like being there! MORE MORE travelogues!

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Peetie said...

Cheese + wasabi??? Guess I better try it!

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, cuz the Ainu people shouldn't listen to their own music, rather "more evolved" j-pop, because some gaijin says so.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Wow you made it to Hokkaido!!!
(Alright, so i'm a little behind on reading blogs, but i'm still super ecstatic for you) Sounds like you had a good time. :)

Now if only we could convince our government to adopt some of those holidays...

8:16 PM  

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