Having gotten the photo I wanted at Onuma Park, I caught the next train going north from Hakodate to Sapporo. Since the shinkansens (bullet trains) don’t yet go all the way to Sapporo I was in for a four-hour ride, but on the plus side it’s easier to take in the scenery when you’re not zooming along at top speed. The train snaked its way across Hokkaido, following the coast for some time and then plunging into the interior of the island. I’ve heard Hokkaido described as something like the Alaska of Japan, and having visited Alaska once myself I could see some of the similarities between the two with their rugged shores and great forests. True, the most Alaska-like parts of Hokkaido are beyond the towns that I visited, but on the train ride I got a few glimpses of the island’s untamed wilderness. In the late afternoon I finally arrived in Sapporo. My time there, and my day trip to Otaru, would be the northern limit of my journey. This would be as far as I’d be going in this part of Japan.
The hostel that I stayed at in Sapporo was about a ten-minute walk from the Sapporo TV Tower, which is pretty close to the exact center of the city. After unloading my stuff I headed out to see some of the city before the day ended. A very light rain was starting to fall but it wasn’t anything that would have you running for cover. When I got to the area around the TV tower I saw an Oktoberfest tent had been set up and inside I could hear a band playing Japanese versions of Western songs. As I got closer I heard the band playing a Japanese version of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and yes, it sounded as hilarious as you would think a Japanese version of that song would. The song ended before I got to the tent but when I arrived the band transitioned to their final act, which was a Japanese version of the YMCA song. As much as I was mentally giggling while watching and listening, I had to admit the band did a pretty good rendition of the song and the crowd really got into it. When the band finished everyone applauded and I moved on from the tent. Shortly after that I noticed that the rain started getting really heavy and lightning flashed in the sky. I deployed my umbrella but it wasn’t enough. This rain was among the most intense I’ve ever experienced and I have to assume that it was a passing typhoon storm. At first I took shelter under an overhang and then I walked into a nearby Mr. Donut store. There had been a Mr. Donut close to my hostel in Tokyo but I hadn’t checked it out, so this seemed like a good time to finally give the place a try. I got two donuts, one of which was shaped like a jack-o-lantern, and waited out the rain along with a bunch of other people. When the rain died down I made my way back to the hostel, stopping at a convenience store along the way. It was there that I encountered something that my cousin had told me about: individually wrapped bananas. Yes, you read that right. Check the photos below if you don’t believe me. Japan, for all of its advanced technology and innovation, has a strange practice of individually wrapping lots of different things that you wouldn’t think would be individually wrapped. On one hand I can kind of understand this in the sense that it allows small quantities of things to be sold while maintaining high standards of hygiene, but the sheer amount of plastic waste this generates seems out of place in such an advanced nation.
Just like I had experienced in Tokyo, the day after the massive downpour was warm and humid. It wasn’t as hot as Tokyo (thankfully) but it was still warmer than I expected for Northern Japan. With only a single full day in town before I departed, I figured I’d look around the central part of Sapporo before taking a day trip to Otaru. I returned to the TV Tower and found that a massive Autumn Festival was going on with tents and food stalls spanning almost the entire length of Odori Park. There were around 100 or so food vendors from all over Hokkaido there, and as I walked around the festival I again noted how much harder it is to be vegan in Japan than in America. Meat and animal products were in practically every stall. I walked to the far end of Odori Park and back, but before deciding on whether or not to get something from the festival I came back to the TV tower and went up to the observation deck for a better view of the city. Sapporo is different from other major cities in Japan in that most of it is laid out in a grid and there are hardly any narrow, winding roads. This is the result of Sapporo being a much younger city than other Japanese metropolises, having been founded in the second half of the 19th Century, and the influence of Westerners who helped design it. With very few skyscrapers, you can get a good line of sight on most of Sapporo up in the TV tower even though it’s not all that tall. Somewhat related to that last point, when you go up to the observation deck you have the option of taking either the elevator or the stairs. I chose the stairs and couldn’t help but notice that the stairwell has signs congratulating you on taking the hard route and offering bits of encouragement at each level along the way. To come down the TV tower I took the elevator and at the ground level I set about looking for a particular ice cream stand. Buying a ticket to the observation deck got me a discount at a nearby ice cream stand but the ticket stub didn’t tell me where it was. It took me ten minutes of walking around until I found it, and while I was searching I somehow wound up in an underground shopping mall.
With my quest for ice cream completed, I went over to Sapporo’s old clock tower and got photos of it before returning to the Autumn Festival to take a closer look at everything. The vast majority of the food stalls were operated by Japanese people from around Hokkaido, but there were also a few run by expats living in Japan. Most memorable was an American one that had the word “Kamikaze” in its name. I didn’t know whether to find that funny or disturbing. After a lot of looking around I decided that I needed to buy two things: first a small meal, and second a cup of Sapporo Beer. For the meal I got some chicken on a stick and then I walked over to the Sapporo Beer stand and got my beer. To be completely transparent I actually don’t like the taste of beer and consequently I rarely drink, but it felt mandatory for me to drink a Sapporo Beer while in Sapporo. I sent both the chicken and the beer down the hatch and near where I was sitting I encountered something that anyone who has visited Japan can confirm is a rarity: public trash bins. One of the things that seem to really weird out Westerners is that Japan has very few public trash bins in its cities. Rather than throw away your trash in a public bin, you’re expected to take your trash with you and throw it away at your home, place of employment, or somewhere that actually has a trash bin. I took a photo of those trash bins just to show everyone that I had found one of the fabled unicorns of Japan. Then I made my way towards the train station to take a day trip to Otaru. Near the station I came across another group of tents that appeared to be showcasing and selling sweets. I didn’t have much time to stop and look but I made a mental note to come back there when I returned from Otaru at the end of the day.
It takes about thirty minutes to reach Otaru from Sapporo. Located on the northern coast of Hokkaido, Otaru is a town with one main attraction: its scenic canal next to the harbor. In that sense Otaru is kind of like Pisa in Italy, and to this day I refer to Otaru as the “Pisa of Japan.” Just FYI, that’s not intended as an insult. From the Otaru train station it takes about ten minutes to reach the canal area on foot and once there you’ll see why it’s a popular spot. Much like Hakodate’s redbrick warehouse district, the canal area in Otaru has been revived and redeveloped with new businesses moving in and the whole place being beautified—sort of like what you see with gentrification in the West. Most people stick around the scenic southern half of the canal but I walked nearly the whole length. The northern half of the canal is occupied by small boats, a few warehouses, and more stuff that most people wouldn’t consider worth seeing, but also out there you can find a historic building where the end of the Russo-Japanese War was negotiated. I’m guessing most people don’t find that sort of thing interesting but history buffs like me like to discover these lesser-known spots. I came back around on the far side of the canal, passing part of the harbor where several ships from Japan’s Coast Guard are docked, and walked down to the southern half of the canal. There are some really great pictures that you can get in that part of the canal, and my timing proved excellent as the sun was getting lower and providing fantastic warm light. When I finished at the canal I started back towards Otaru’s main train station. Before getting there I walked along some old train tracks that appeared to no longer be in use and I stepped into a covered shopping mall just to see what it looked like. Sometime after 5:00pm I got on the train and left Otaru.
Back in Sapporo I returned to that place with all the sweets but unfortunately I got there too late and everything was closing down. It shrugged it off and returned to my hostel, stopping at a convenience store along the way for a bit of food. Later on I got some night photos of the TV tower. In some of them I tried to take a long-exposure shot of the fountain by the tower, but I had forgotten my Gorillapod and thus had to use a bench to hold the camera as steady as possible. The photos turned out ok but could have been much better.
The next morning I got up and went to the social area by the hostel’s front desk for breakfast, and after eating and cleaning my dishes I accidentally convinced the young lady at the front desk that I spoke Japanese. I said “good morning” to her in Japanese and apparently my pronunciation was so good that she thought I was fluent and started speaking Japanese back to me. Of course, my knowledge of Japanese is limited to only a few basic words and phrases, and I had to inform her that I’m not actually fluent in her language. She very graciously switched to English and told me that my pronunciation was excellent. As I walked back to my room I realized that I had unintentionally completed a travel goal that I didn’t know existed: I had fooled a Japanese person into thinking I spoke their language. Maybe one day I’ll actually posses some level of fluency and if I’m fortunate enough to return to Japan perhaps I’ll be able to talk back when a Japanese person speaks to me.
I then loaded up my backpack, checked out of the hostel, and made my way to Sapporo’s main train station. It was time to leave Sapporo and I needed to get to New Chitose Airport to fly back down to Central Japan for the next leg of my journey. A long day of travel was ahead of me, but I knew I’d be paying that price when I decided to take this detour to Northern Japan. This was the end of what I referred to as “Phase 1” of my journey across Japan and Korea.