After checking in at our Sapporo hotel (Gracery, across the street from the station) we visited the huge food market adjacent to (or in?) the train station before hopping a few subway trains across town to find the famous Genghis Kahn BBQ restaurant for Jingisukan.
After failing to find any documentation in English of what we might have done wrong with the thermostat we called the front desk. A man came up with a fan and explained that today the AC units only offered heat. This made little sense since today was hotter outside (sunny and nice) than yesterday (cold and raining), but there you go. He said the entire building had been switched from cooling to heating. So, because the window in our room didn’t open (and in a country with higher suicide rates than most, I don’t blame them), we set up the fan and blew air from the hallway into our room for an hour, which earned us some strange looks from other guests.
After breakfast at the train station we went to Hokkaido University to see the avenue of ginkgo trees which were changing color.
We also visited a little pond on campus.
Across from the pond, I found an iced black coffee that remains the best I’ve ever tasted, but also the most mysterious. The only Germanic alphabetic characters on the bottle said “black” and “Grandia.” I found the convenience store brand online and a page that describes its coffee. There’s a photo of a smaller can version of what I bought, but google searches for “Grandia” as a brand come up empty, so the manufacturer must be written in kanji and the translations of the store’s web page offer no help. A little bit of internet sleuthing, including what appears to be a drawing of a translated version of the can, shows that Seicomart, which is a sub-brand of the larger Japanese company Secoma, makes their own coffee (I think). Whatever. I lost you three sentences ago, didn’t I?
Our next stop was at the Sapporo brewery for a tour and a pint of beer made and only sold in Sapporo.
After the brewery we took a train to…a mall somewhere to eat dinner. Then walked about a mile to the Japanese version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: Shiroi Koibito Park.
After that, the party split and Sam and I took the subway to the TV tower.
We ran into Sam’s sister and brother-in-law at the Gucci store nearby, which was sort of Sapporo’s version of Rodeo Drive. Sam claimed that the Don Quijote store there had a good selection of watches. I didn’t believe her.
To my surprise, we found an interesting selection of Seiko and citizen watch models not available in America. So interesting that I bought one: the Seiko Tokyo Toro Wired model 420. I only got that one because the somewhat cooler (more expensive) ones weren’t available at the shop. The model 420 was only (approximately) $160. And it was a good thing I picked it up, too, because after we came back when I pulled the crown on my citizen to change the time it came all the way out! So my citizen eco drive will be set to Tokyo local time forever.
On the last full day in Japan The Fam walked to the Nijo fish market for sashimi breakfast.
For me, it was one last chance to pile on the delicious fresh caught salmon, which, surprisingly, became my favorite thing about the trip.
After breakfast, we took The Fam to Don Quijote for souvenirs. After sitting around the mall for a while we went to Suage+ for curry. The hole in the wall place had a squid ink curry with boiled fatty pork that was surprisingly good (the pork part).
Our next stop was the dollar store, Diaso, at the subway station for more souvenirs before going back to the hotel as a group to say last goodbyes because everyone else had early morning flights on Monday.
Sam and I went to the mall under our hotel and had gelato ( black sesame and Hokkaido berries), and yakatori while finding ways to spend the last of our yen and leftover Pasmo balances.
Another few trains and a bus ride later we arrived in Noboribetsu, also known as “Demon City,” which welcomes you with a big angry club-wielding demon at the train station.
On the bus ride to the hotel we went past a giant blue demon, like Paul Bunyan’s evil brother at a Duke game. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of that, but he appeared again later in the forest (albeit smaller).
Why all this devil worship? Noboribetsu’s claim to fame is the natural sulfur hot springs that bubble up out of the mountain. Over time, the Japanese assigned what I guess you’d call mascots to the phenomenon (they tend to do that with everything, but usually are cute, not demonic) and demons were an obvious choice, especially since the valley between the mountains became known as Hell Valley due to the sulfur.
We checked into the hotel and hiked to Hell Valley.
We walked to the top of the hiking trail and The Fam, eager to disrobe in front of each other, decided to go back to the hotel to check out the onsen. Sam and I continued on through the forest and discovered a natural onsen at the foot of a small waterfall in the valley.
We took our shoes off and walked into the hot (but not too-hot) spring. The rocks under the water were fine-grained volcanic leftovers. At least I think. They were black and cleaved into tiny spheres. After relaxing there for a while we walked back down the mountain road among the fall foliage to the hotel.
On the road we passed another statue of the blue demon, this time with child (and much smaller than the other statue).
Back at the hotel we had time to kill before our pre-purchased buffet dinner so we visited the onsens (separate for men and women) at the hotel. Yes, that onsen, where you have to get naked.
Turns out, though, that the locals (or, as some claim, the experienced Chinese tourists) bring down the face towels from their room and use those to cover certain areas while walking around. Having no idea this was the custom, I followed the directions the hotel gave us and left all my worldly possessions in the locker room…including breaking Douglas Adams’ number one rule of travel: always bring a towel. Because of this, I strolled right out into awkward eye-contact with Sam’s brother-in-law. Fun. I don’t think I need to do this ever again. I expected a bunch of old dudes laughing it up in there, but nobody else at the onsen seemed to be having much fun either. In one of the pools I looked up to discover windows in the adjacent hotel could see right into the onsen. More fun. No thanks.
After that experience, we dressed in matching yukatas and attended a grand buffet.
The “regional” dishes on the buffet were just okay, but I honed in on the tuna and salmon early because the fish there make for the best-tasting sashimi in the world (that I’ve had so far). I must have eaten a whole salmon and they just kept bringing it out. And the tuna. And the red king crab legs. We chased it down with Yuzu (a lemon-ish sour local fruit derived drink so nice we bought two bottles to take home) and a surprisingly well-done dessert table with chocolate cake and (perfect) cream puffs and all sorts of other sugary things. As the internet saying goes: 10/10 would come to Hokkaido again just for the fish. The room cost including buffet breakfast and dinner and onsen use was roughly $200 for one night. In Los Angeles, a meal for two with that much sashimi ain’t gonna be $200. Maybe $200 per person…but not in the quantities we were gulping down.
In the morning, we went to the Bear Park on the top of the mountain via the ropeway across the street from the hotel.
The bears are so accustomed to people that they raise their hands and point at their mouths to ask for acorns and dried salmon chunks.
At first, it’s cute. Then you realize they’re raised in captivity in the concrete cages and it becomes sad to watch. But, hey, guess they’re living better than the whales the Japanese are “studying,” right? (Side note: we did encounter a few places that would have apparently served us whale meat, but we did not want to do that)
The Japanese in Hokkaido have incorporated the bears into another type of mascot: the Melon Kuma, which combines their regional seasonal “melon” (which my Ohio raised taste buds and eyes call a cantaloupe) and their bears. The result?
On Tuesday morning the family assembled for a long three train journey to Hokkaido.
At our first destination, Hakodate, we visited the cape just as the sun started to set behind Mt. Hakodate.
We had dinner at a fancy local restaurant with lots of great food (but few customers) then took a cab (because the ropeway was closed for renovation) to the Mt. Hakodate Observatory on top of the mountain.
The wind rushed around the top swiftly enough to discourage the Fam from staying too long. They went back to the cabs and back to the hotel while I stayed and tried to get some stabilized shots. As throngs of teenagers arrived on buses and rattled the rails my gorrilapod was affixed to I realized that long exposures weren’t going to happen here and took the public bus back to the hotel.
The next morning, before catching our train to Noboribetsu, we walked to the Hakodate Asaichi for breakfast, focusing on super fresh crab and the most delicious salmon/tuna in the world.
We also tried squid ink ice cream, which didn’t really taste like much of anything.
On Sunday we took a Shinkansen from Odawara to Tokyo to meet up with Sam’s family. Both her sisters and their husbands joined us as well as her mother and her brother-in-law’s mother for the rest of the trip. Her sister booked us all rooms in the Shinjuku Prince hotel, a high-rise not far from the subway station and across the street from the bustling core of Shinjuku – the densest part of Japan.
After the family assembled in lateafternoon we took the subway across town to the Thunder Gate.
We looked around at the Shrine and walked over to the infamous Hoppy Street, eating street food.
After going back to the hotel, a smaller group left again to wander Shinjuku at night in search of yakitori.
We found a local standing-room-only yakitori bar and ended up inhaling more cigarette smoke than meat due to the slow service.
Cigarettes occupy a strange space in Japan. They are a society extremely observant of public smoking, with large signs affixed to the sidewalks in many cities banning the behavior. Because of this the streets are clean (which means the rivers and oceans they drain to are clean), but as soon as you duck into a bar… cough cough cough, the smoke hits you like wave. I guess the theory is that it’s your choice to enter a restaurant, but not your choice to enter a public street. Makes sense, though I wish there were more restaurants that banned cigarettes completely like many states in America have been doing. I felt like my lungs got really unhealthy at the same time my stomach was eating really healthy.
In the morning the family headed out “for breakfast” and boarded a shinkansen to Kawaguchi Station. We walked down through the town to Lake Kawaguchi and took a boat cruise in the rain to the Fuji viewpoint.
As our innkeeper in Hakone had warned two days ago, the fog still covered the slopes and Fuji-san eluded us. We trodded back to the station and took two slow local trains back to Tokyo, arriving after dark.
After spending some time in the station reserving our seats on the shinkansen to Hakodate for the following morning we split up. Sam and I went to Shibuya. Me for the famous crossing.
The ramen restaurant is in a very tight underground short corridor of barstool style individual tables separated by partitions. You order at a machine after entering the antechamber after a long wait on the stairs which often backs up onto the street. Each meal stall has a forward wall partially made of bamboo that opens to the kitchen, though not high enough to actually see your server.
The ramen itself was good, for ramen, but not worth the extreme markup in price over the ramen we all had in college and the similar markup in wait (3 minutes in the microwave vs. 45 in line).
As the rain kept falling we took the Oedo Line to Roppongi Hills to visit the sky view of Tokyo with the famous view of the Eiffel-ish Tokyo Tower.
On Tuesday morning we started our JR passes and took the express to Kyoto. On the express, the ride is only about twenty minutes, surprisingly quick. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we walked to Nishiki Market for lunch.
We were a little bit frustrated because we were refused seats at a few restaurants (apparently for being foreigners) and then were served rather mediocre sashimi at a high price when we finally did get service.
After lunch, we walked to Nijo Castle, which turned out to be underwhelming as well. We took a cab across town to Ginkaku-jitemple as the sun was starting to set, walking through lush moss-covered forests with views of Kyoto at the top of the hill above the pagoda.
Outside the temple, we ate ice cream topped with real gold leaf. This is a tourist trap sort of thing they developed where this temple is the “silver temple” and another temple in Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji) is the “gold temple” (you’ve probably seen/heard of the gold one before, but not this one) and so at several locations they sell temple themed ice cream with either silver or gold topping. Since something about eating silver seemed just wrong, we opted to taste the gold.
With gold in our bellies, we pondered the symbolism of literally consuming wealth as we walked Philosopher’s Walk on the way to Honen-in temple. After taking a picture of a hut on a bridge I managed to kick my sunglasses (expensive Ray Bans, a gift from Sam) into the koi pond.
This was all happening after sunset with no natural lighting, which was why the glasses were hung on my neck instead of on my face and able to drop down on the bridge while I fiddled with my camera. The glasses are gold so they stuck out under the dark water of the pond. We were the only people there so we couldn’t ask for help. Looking around the complex we found some portable caution tubes (not sure what these are called since they don’t have them in the U.S., but they had hollow circles on each end to place over the tops of traffic cones. With Sam providing light via our portable crank flashlight (the same one that got me out of a jam in Joshua tree) after a few false starts I managed to fish the glasses of the water.
Triumphant, we celebrated by taking a cab to Nanzen-jitemple, but there wasn’t a lot of light in the complex so we didn’t stay long.
Across the street from our hotel, we ordered a quick bite at a hip place. Sam asked to have the cook put more time into her nearly-rare beef bulgogi. After several more days of this, we realized that most beef is apparently consumed nearly raw in Japan. Also, “American Beef” is a big thing apparently.
Wednesday we set out walking with the goal of weeding our way north until we reached Yasaka Shrine.
We wandered down the back road from Yasaka visiting shrines and temples we’d not researched until we came to the famous one that sticks out in a crowd. Of people. Because it’s also on a busy intersection and crowded with people.
Unfortunately, it was raining most of the day. Doubly unfortunately, Kiyomizu-dera was covered in scaffolding and tarps for a renovation. Triply unfortunate, we bought tickets to the temple of a thousand Buddha’s only to find out no photography is allowed inside. Wet and tired we took a break back at the hotel before walking to the Kyoto tower for night views of the city and a good dinner at the food court underneath.
After dinner, we took the train to Inari to walk the famous orange Torii gates on the staircase up the mountain. What we didn’t know is that the stairs are closed at night after the first flight.
As we walked down a concrete path on our way back from the shrine we heard a large animal grunting and snarling from one of the open areas. The path was poorly lit and the animal was somewhere in the dark patch of grass between our steps and the woods that cover Mt. Inari. When Sam shone a flashlight on it we discovered it was a wild boar a few feet away.
It was eating and seemed annoyed that we interrupted. After a few more snarls in our direction, it loped off into the woods. We would later come back to the shrine in daylight and see warning signs all over the place to avoid the boars. Woops.
In the morning, we walked to Kyoto station to travel northwest to Ashiyama to ride the “romantic train.” Unfortunately, the leaves hadn’t changed yet, so the view from the train was not very impressive.
We actually had more fun in Ashiyama-proper at the souvenir shops and eating the traditional “Japanese Pizza.” (the last bit of the video at the top of this post) Our last daylight trek took us across the river and up the mountain on the other side to visit our friend and see some monkeys.
Our friend (from Hong Kong/LA/Michigan) joined us at the monkey park as she recently moved to Nagoya.
We walked back through the bamboo garden at night together, which, curiously had none of the lights we had seen in photos and had nearly completely cleared out by nightfall. It left the place curiously creepy feeling (American horror movies often take place in the deep woods, so maybe Japanese ones could be deep in the bamboo forest?).
We walked back to town and visited the Kimono Forest again since the “trees” light up at night. And the people.
We took the train back to Kyoto together and our friend found a BBQ restaurant within a few minutes walk of the station. The place was a pork-only joint with a small circular burner at every table. The locals sitting on the same bench with us asked where we were from and how we found the place because “this restaurant is for regulars only and foreigners don’t know about it.” Only one employee (the manager, we think) spoke any English. No pictures allowed. They cut the meat from pork carcasses on the same counter we paid for our meal. You want more meat? Whack! Here you go. Ralphie’s mom wouldn’t have liked this place one bit, but we did.
After the meal, we walked back to the station to see our friend off to Nagoya, but not until eating some ice cream first. Japan sells fully formed ice cream cones in the freezers at convenience stores.
On Friday we took a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple or “golden pavilion.” There were thousands of Chinese tour groups and Japanese kids on field trips. Maybe the largest throng of tourists we’ve seen in any one spot on Earth in our travels thus far.
We’re talking Trevi Fountain levels of tourists here, all scrambling to get that perfect shot of the gold-adorned Pagoda. We figured if you can’t beat em, join em, and started taking pictures with the children (who delighted in saying “Herro! Herro!” to us to practice their English).
We took a cab back to the nearest JR station to visit Inari during the day and finish our hike to the top, but first, we sated our hunger with a stop at the floating sushi restaurant.
Back at the shrine during the day we were determined to hike through the thousands of torii to the top of Mt. Inari. And so was every other tourist in Kyoto.
On our way there we misunderstood the map and took a wrong turn into the forest valley at the base of the mountain where we found a small shrine covered in moss and a tiny man-made waterfall.
The trail took us by a small town and back up the hill, where the torii started again and relieved us that we weren’t totally lost.
We finally reached the true top of Mt. Inari about an hour later only to discover there were no views at all from the small shrine. I ran back down the trail to the earlier viewpoints to take photos of the sunset over Kyoto.
After walking out of the mountain in the dark we took a cab north to the park behind Yasaka Shrine and ate at a kaiseki restaurant recommended by our cab driver who assured us it was just as good as the others that cost $200 per person up the same street.
After dinner, we took night photos at Yasaka shrine and walked down Shijo Dori looking for the real geishas our driver told us about. Most of the geishas you will see in Kyoto are just Chinese tourists who rent kimonos at souvenir shops. After a while, we didn’t see any geishas and it was getting late so we hailed a cab. As the cab drove through an alley we finally saw two real geishas, and even though the driver stopped, they ducked inside a doorway and we didn’t get any photos.
Saturday we took a Shinkansen to Odawara. I can’t stress enough how wonderful the Shinkansen experience is. It’s insane that we do not have this option for travel in America. I travel to Oakland for work often and I’d much prefer to take a high-speed train than take a southwest flight. Remove the time of checking in at the airport, boarding, deplaning, etc. and the train would actually be faster (if we can make them as fast as Japan does).
After the shinkansen, we took local trains and buses to Hakone, a small town nestled next to Lake Ashi with a view of Fuji-san. Or at least that’s what the internet said. Even though clouds covered up the mountain we still took the pirate ship lake tour en route to the ropeway.
The sulfur gases escaping from the mines adjacent to the tourist trap on the top of the mountain in Owakudani stung our eyes and noses. All a ploy to get you into the souvenir shop, right? The main draw inside: black eggs.
The clouds never cleared and we went back to the Inn a little disappointed. The inn turned out to be the only place to eat (I guess nobody actually stays in town at night like we did) after dark so the Innkeeper chatted us up while we ate. Yes, this was where the Trump questions came during the trip. Or rather, the Trump proclamations. The Innkeeper noted that Trump has asked Japan to buy American cars. Looking around the streets it became obvious what a joke that idea is. At a time when Ford is discontinuing the manufacture of its small cars, the president is asking a country that only buys small fuel efficient cars…to buy giant gas guzzling american cars. Other than that interaction (which was otherwise pleasant) it was nice to not have to think about the blind, deaf, and dumb bull in the china shop back home.
When the conversation swerved elsewhere we learned from the Innkeeper that Fuji-san is actually hidden by cloud cover “95% of the time” and the only time when you have a better chance to see it is after the frost sets in and the humid air can no longer rise. “Come back in a few weeks,” he said. Great…
But Fuji isn’t the only thing to see in Hakone. The next morning we braved the rain to walk up the street to Onshihakone Park and then continued on to the more famous Ancient Cedar Avenue.
Even more famous than the short walk through old trees is what they’ve done with a few of those trees and some red paint. Seen in many photos and videos a giant Torii “Gate of Peace” sits literally in the lake’s edge a staircase below Hakone Shrine.
This gate served as the turning point in our trip. From there we took a bus back to the Inn, a bus to Odawara, and another Shinkansen to Tokyo to meet up with six members of Sam’s family.
Before I could see the bus, we had to get to Japan. Our flight on JAL was nice. (international flights always tend to be “easier” than long-haul domestic) the large seats with ten-inch screens and new movies made the nearly twelve hours on board somewhat comfortable. The food was decent for an airline and stewardesses kept checking back to see if I was okay after I asked about nuts (and they couldn’t check ingredients, so they just kept checking to see if I survived). The best thing about the flight was the 2+4+2 design which let Sam and myself have our own two seater section by a window.
By the time we got through security in Japan and collected our bags it was already evening in Osaka. After a train into town, the only thing we had time for on the first night was checking out the 7/11 next to our hotel. Yes, what you’ve heard is true: the food is worlds away from 7/11’s in America; hot yakatori, cold sushi and sandwiches, entire refrigeration cases filled with beers not made by Anheuser Busch or Coors. Side note: while Americans like to say we’re super serious about coffee, we really aren’t. The Japanese have hot and cold coffee vending machines on every block instead of starbucks and market it like we market coca-cola (Suntory hired Tommy Lee Jones to fill the real-life role Bill Murray had on screen).
As someone who got into the coffee drinking game much later in life, I prefer cold coffee with no extras (if only because all the sugar and milk in the sweeter drinks make me very uncomfortable after the coffee is long gone). Simple, inexpensive, not sour, cold black coffee is hard to come by in America but is available on every street corner in a variety of brands in Japan (even in the small towns).
Suntory “Boss Black” seems to be the best widely available iced black coffee. I found something better at Hokkaido University, but that’s for a later post.
Monday morning, while Sam waited for me to wake up, she went next-door and went up and down the escalators at Don Quijote. It’s a sort of department store, Japan-style with things crammed into every corner of the compact multi-story building.
After breakfast at the hotel we walked to the famous Namba Yasaka Shrine.
We walked north to check out Dotonburi on our way to the Owl Cafe.
At the Owl Cafe we had an hour to interact with all the owls. Sam’s favorite were the two little barn owls, which definitely had the softest feathers and bobbled around when touched.
Back at dotonburi for lunch, we found the tepanyaki wasn’t as good as we had heard. Bellies sorta full we took a cab up to the castle and walked around the grounds, catching the processional of a wedding at one of the surrounding temples, which was – to be honest – more interesting than the actual castle.
Another cab right took us to tsentenkaku(Hitachi tower) for a late afternoon view of the city. There were many exhibits about the famous “muscle man” Kinnikuman, apparently as popular (in Osaka, anyway) as Superman in America, including a large-than-life size (at least I hope so) sculpture. Unlike Superman, muscle-man looks . . . well . . . weird. He had trendy botox lips way before the Kardashians made it popular.
By the time we left, dusk was arriving, so we walked to Dotonburi again to take a few photos of the famous food/shopping Mecca with the Glico Man.
We took the subway to Abeno Harukas 300 (across the street from our hotel) to take night photos of the city from the observatory.