David Chart's Japan Diary

September 21st 2004

This weekend was a long weekend here, as Monday was Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday. As one of our teachers noted in class, one of the few such days when the beneficiaries don't generally mind if you forget to send them a card. I took advantage of the extra day's holiday to go to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. Hokkaido was the last main island I hadn't visited, so I've now collected the set.

(There are over a thousand small islands in the Japanese archipelago; I don't plan to collect the full set.)

The reason for doing Hokkaido over a long weekend was that it is a long way from Okazaki. While it would be possible to do it in a normal weekend if you flew both ways, I didn't want to do that, for a number of reasons. First, flying is horribly environmentally unfriendly, so I'd rather not do more than I have to. Second, flying is rather more expensive than getting the train. Third, the trains, even the non-shinkansen trains, are a lot more comfortable than aeroplanes. Fourth, going by train meant that I got to see a lot more scenery, both in Tohoku (north-eastern Japan), and Hokkaido itself. Finally, the train journey naturally broke at a couple of places I wanted to visit anyway.

The first place was Tokyo, where I stayed at Sawanoya (again), and had dinner with Yuriko. That was a very pleasant evening, and we had a conversation about attitudes to fox hunting in Britain (so I now know the Japanese for 'fox hunting': kitsunegari). There was a major festival on at the Nezu Shrine, just down the road from Sawanoya, but although I got to see the o-mikoshi (portable shrines) all set up for carrying around, I didn't get to see any of the festival itself.

On Saturday morning my shoelace broke when I was putting my shoes on, so an unanticipated trip to a shoe shop was added to the schedule. Fortunately, I had plenty of time before my train, so it wasn't a problem.

Pretty Scenery The view from the train window in Tohoku.

Saturday's journey was from Tokyo to Hakodate. Hakodate is the southernmost major city on Hokkaido, and the place where the trains from Honshu drop you off. The shinkansen goes as far as Hachinohe, where I changed to the 'Swan', which goes to Hakodate. The whole journey took about six hours, and I spent most of the time looking out of the window at the scenery. Tohoku is, indeed, very pretty. It's much less populated than the more southern areas of Japan, and the view was enhanced by the fact that it was rice harvest time, so I got to see Japanese farmers working in their paddy fields, bringing the crop in. The line in Hokkaido goes along the coast, which also provided some spectacular views.

In between, the line goes through the Seikan Tunnel. This is, apparently, the longest tunnel in the world, at 53km, and it's 240m under sea level. There are also two railway stations in the tunnel itself. They now serve as bases for tours of the infrastructure, but I suspect they were built to supply the workers in the tunnel, as they are pretty close to the two ends. Apparently, they are the only railway stations in the world at the bottom of the sea. This may be because no other nation could see the point of building such.

City Lights Hakodate by night, from the mountain.

My accommodation in Hakodate was the Niceday Inn. This is, as the guidebook says, very basic. On the other hand, the manageress is very friendly, and it's only 3000 yen per night for foreigners. (It's 3,500 for Japanese people.) The main thing to see in Hakodate is the night view, which is one of the top three in Japan. Hakodate is on a peninsular, with Mt. Hakodate at the end out in the sea. Thus, from the top of the mountain, you can see Hakodate's lights filling the peninsular. The shape of the bays on either side contribute a great deal to the beauty of the scene.

I timed my visit to the top pretty well, as clouds moved in soon after I'd looked and taken photos, and I'm not sure how much of the view people would have been able to see after that. It was also pretty cold on top of the mountain, which actually made a nice change, since it's been really hot for the last few weeks. I had dinner in a restaurant on the sea front, which was fine.

On Sunday morning, I had a few hours to look around Hakodate in daylight. First, I went to see the morning market, where you could buy squid so fresh it was trying to jump out of the tank. There was a nice moment when one of the people on the stalls got completely consternated when I replied in Japanese...

Brick Warehouses The Manchester Ship CanalBrick warehouses in Hakodate.

After that, I went to have breakfast. I ate at a different place, and the second place was definitely better. The dish I ordered was nominally the same as the one I had the night before, but there was more, and better, sea food, and more things with it, for the same price (slightly less, in fact). After breakfast, I went for a little walk around Hakodate.

When Japan first opened up to the rest of the world in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hakodate was one of the few ports that was opened. (I think the others were Nagasaki and Yokohama, although Nagasaki was already a bit open.) As a result, it has a lot of buildings from that period, in a western style. The waterfront is famous for its brick warehouses, which are almost unique in Japan. They reminded me somewhat of somewhere else I've been...

Hakodate also had a number of foreign consulates in the nineteenth century, including a British consulate, so I went to look at that part of the city, and took a few photographs. There seemed to be more churches than temples around, including the Orthodox chuch, which was called 'gangandera' for its bells. The tourist board translated 'gangandera' as 'church of the melodious bells', but I believe that 'temple of the pounding headache' is equally possible. I wonder what people really thought of the bells.

That made it time for my next train, three and a half hours from Hakodate to Sapporo. Again, this was mostly along the coast, with hills and mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The scenery in Hokkaido does look spectacular, and I can see why Japanese people like to go for driving holidays there.

Yuka in Sapporo Yuka in front of the old City Hall in Sapporo.

In Sapporo I was staying in the Yugiri Ryokan, which was near the station and rather nice, as well as quite cheap. After I dropped my bags there, I went back to the station to meet Yuka, once of the Japanese women I met in Cambridge. We worked out, a bit later, that it was about two years since we last met.

Since Yuka is a Sapporo native, she took me to several places she'd never been. The first was the old, redbrick, city hall, now containing exhibitions and a tourist information centre. On the way there, I got to see the first signs of damage from the typhoon that struck Hokkaido about a week before I went; a large part of the park with the building in was closed off while fallen trees were cleared.

A really Japanese-looking building The Sapporo Tokeidai.

Our next visit was to the Tokeidai, a very famous Sapporo landmark, as it was one of the first buildings in the city. Sapporo was basically founded in the mid-nineteenth century, on the model of the cities being built in the American West at the same time. It's on a grid pattern, and most of the old buildings are in a western, and sometimes Western, style. The Tokeidai, or clock tower, was built as the drill hall for the agricultural academy. The Japanese colonisation of Hokkaido and the American expansion into the West were very similar, down to the presence of a native population who were largely exterminated, the remnants being herded into restricted areas. In recent years the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, have received rather more attention, but I get the impression that they are still a rather disadvantaged minority group.

After the clock, we went to Odori Park. Odori means 'big road', and the park does, indeed, run down the middle of a very big road. It marks the centre of Sapporo; the roads north of it are North 1, 2, 3, etc, and those south of it South 1, 2, 3, etc. The east and west roads are also numbered. Sapporo addresses are thus of the form N5 W4, which is the grid reference for the block containing the building. Sapporo is possibly the only Japanese city where you can find a building from the address. Odori Park is the site of the TV tower, which is a good place to get a view of the whole city, so we went up it.

Afterwards, we had ramen for dinner, and I had the tourist ramen, seeing as I was a tourist. After dark, we went up Mt. Moiwa to see the Sapporo night view. This wasn't as pretty as Hakodate, because Sapporo isn't as pretty a shape, but it was still nice to see.

Yesterday we had originally planned to go to the Botanic Garden, but that was closed completely due to typhoon damage. Instead, we went to another park, Nakajima Park, and visited some more historic western-style buildings. After lunch, I got the train to Chitose airport, which is some distance outside Sapporo, and then flew back to Nagoya. The return trip took about five and a half hours in total, so flying does, indeed, have one major advantage over taking the train.

So, now I'm back in Okazaki, and there's only one half day of school left this quarter. I'll probably do another diary entry a bit later this week, to reflect on the end of my first year of studies.