Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day 1: Hello Hokkaido

2330 h, June 5 2009: We boarded an SQ flight bound for Tokyo and thereafter to Hokkaido on a Japan Airpass.

the good thing about flying to Japan: the Japanese breakfasts on board

Most Singaporeans go to Hokkaido in winter, for the novelty of snow-boarding injuries and the enchanting delights of the Sapporo Snow Festival, or at the height of summer in August and September, for the sight of rolling fields lush with lavender. And it is conventional wisdom that Hokkaido, with its sights spread far and wide, can only be experienced by way of tour or car. Needless to say, we refuse to tour, and we don't drive and can by no means afford to hire a local driver (not in Japan, no sirree). So why Hokkaido, in June* no less?

* for the uninitiated, June and December are about the only times I get to travel.

To start with, we had been bitten by the Japan bug, having thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Tokyo the previous June. A return visit was in order, especially since HM had picked up some basic Japanese since then; some practice and immersion would be good, no? Then, the December past, a trip to Taiwan had proved to us that, in our advancing years, we prefer to holiday in cooler climes, give or take quick getaways to nearby holiday spots like Bali. That was not all. HM was convinced that most of Japan would be hot and muggy and prone to typhoons. We had heard that typhoons occurred less often in Hokkaido and certainly, of all places in Japan, Hokkaido would be the coolest.

A check with the resident expatriates on Tripadvisor's Hokkaido forum revealed that getting around in Hokkaido by public transport would not be a problem, if not as flexible or as convenient as having one's own transport. This was especially so if one wasn't expecting to pack in all the sights; that was not our style anyway, we who prefer to potter. Last but not least, there was plenty to see and do, they assured me, and travelling during off-peak season had its advantages - no need to jostle with the crowds and so on. So there we were, on our way to Hokkaido.

Back to our flight: our friendly Japanese stewardess, Sachiyo, gave HM two boxes of playing cards. We suspect she thought HM was a child!

Once we landed at Narita Airport, we headed to the transfer counters, a little nervous about the whole business of a connecting flight. The transaction went smoothly and we were checked in for our flight to Hokkaido.

There was plenty of time for a second breakfast. We headed to Royal, where we had supped previously, and had:

kitsune udon

tai (sea bream) chasuke set

We even had time to try our luck at the ticketing counter, for tickets to the Takarazuka Revue, but, as usual, to no avail.

Then it was time to proceed to the domestic terminal and the gate for our flight to Hokkaido.

a novel experience to be bussed out to the waiting plane

The plane was yea big, no more than a 50-seater. For a moment, HM was worried that I'd be airsick but the 90 min flight was a cinch. (Now, propeller planes might be another story altogether..)

our first look at Hokkaido - look at all that farmland

at Chitose Airport - not a big plane at all

We took the train to Sapporo. We looked out the window - this was Japan? We could have been in Scandinavia - the houses were all solid colours, the landscape bigger in scale.

Sapporo was of course all city. We headed straight for our hotel, the Sapporo Aspen, a little tired from having spent the whole night and half the day just getting there. Fortunately the hotel was five minutes' walk from the train station, the reason why we picked it in the first place.

our room

the kawaii touches

ooh, a heated mirror

the standard shower/toilet cubicle

standard issue

The hotel was your typical business-style hotel, but as clean and comfortable as we had come to expect of Japanese standards. We would later discover that the service was excellent, the staff helping us to locate various places on our map, making reservations on our behalf and even pointing out discounts available (that's how we got a 10% discount on our dinner that first night).

After a shower and a nap, we headed out for our first walk around Sapporo.

oh look, Seibu and Loft

Kani Honke, restaurant specialising in crab (more on this later)

Sapporo Clock Tower

Sapporo TV Tower

below the Sapporo TV Tower

This cemented our initial impression of Hokkaido - there was something decidedly Western in feel about the place, in terms of architecture and layout. (I would find out later that much of Hokkaido's and Sapporo's development was influenced by American advisors.) The city had a pleasant relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy madness of Tokyo.

Of course there was no forgetting that this was Japan in all its quirkiness. Only in Japan would we see...

a man in a white suit, walking his bunny (see white blob on floor)

awww... such a pretty ribbon

anime characters on promotional gig at train station - kyaah!

kawaii advertising on car

ume (plum) wine, yuzu (citron) wine and more, all prettily bottled

a frog chorus??

We even saw a crowd lining up outside to get in to a performance of...

crowd waiting for a performance

... Hawaiian dance!

A little before dinner time, we got peckish. We stopped at this stall to get a quick bite.

the girl serving us was Chinese - the first time we encountered migrant workers

these were like donuts, battered and deepfried or filled with bean paste

These tided us over till our crab dinner at Kani Honke.

our choice of dinner venue

There are crab buffet places in Sapporo, like elsewhere in Japan, but we didn't think we had the capacity to do justice to unlimited amounts of crab. Instead we opted for a set meal instead.

At Kani Honke, we were greeted at the door, invited to take off our shoes and coats, and then ushered into a lift. Upstairs we went and were seated in a small private room. There, a obaasan took over, patiently explaining everything to us.

green tea, of course

HM had some ume wine

haha crab everything, from chopstick rest to ashtray

While we sat back and relaxed, we could hear the low murmur from other rooms around us. The setting reminded us of the bath-house scenes in Spirited Away!

And then the dishes started arriving...


cold steamed crab legs

tofu topped with crab

crab "butter" - rich and unctuous

crab hotpot

crab sashimi - unbelievably good, and not slimy at all!

grilled crab claws

crab and vegetable tempura

crab porridge, made with the soup from the hotpot

melon - exquisite stuff

It didn't look like that much food on that menu but the dishes kept coming. We hoped we didn't let our obasaan down. Thank god we didn't opt for a buffet!

Before trundling off into the night, we stopped and admired the restaurant's various ponds.

the staff's pet fish


ahhh, there they were - live!

And thus ended our first day in Sapporo. That night, we slept the sleep of the dead.