we said goodbye to Sapporo Aspen
At Sapporo Train Station, we had just enough time to grab a quick breakfast at Doutor Cafe...
a salsa hotdog - good sausage with a nice snap
egg and ham sandwich
... purchase two onigiri for the ride and board our train with luggage in tow.
We were headed first to Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city, and from there, to Biei. This was such an adventure - the first time we were travelling around Japan, by train.
the train was comfortable and clean
we passed by a number of towns, big and small
the landscape became more and more rural (sadly, the dark clouds did look like they were tailing us)
The transfer was easy, if a little tight; we had all of ten minutes to change trains. We left Sapporo at 10 a.m and arrived at Biei at 12.03 p.m., not too bad at all.
our train at Biei Station
the welcome wagon
inside Biei Station
outside Biei Station - kawaii ne!
We dropped by the Biei Tourist Information Centre, just across from the train station. There, we found the most helpful staff, "aunties" who, speaking just a smattering of English, were able to answer all our questions.
Biei Town, as depicted in the Biei Tourist Information Centre
We left our bags there (500¥ per day) and headed out to explore the little town.
it was indeed a small town
in a very planned way
It was about this time that we got peckish. A little lunch seemed like a good idea, before the next item on our agenda.
Biei Okanokura - this looked promising
Shaped like a big barn, the building housed a cafe and a souvenir shop selling Hokkaido products.
This seemed like a good time to try out another of Hokkaido's trademark dishes.
curry rice made with minced meat and vegetables
Neither HM nor I were big fans of Japanese-style curry rice back home. Made with, believe it or not, pulped fruit rather than coconut milk, the mild curry was usually disconcertingly sweet rather than savoury. Interestingly enough, this version was spicier than the norm, and the freshness of the ingredients, everything from the vegetables to the rice, was evident. And so, we learnt that there was curry rice and curry rice.
After lunch, we made our way back to the train station, to join our first Twinkle Bus Tour. Run by JR Hokkaido, the train company, the tours were meant to complement the train services. You rode the train to whichever town, you joined a bus tour that would take you to sightseeing spots in the vicinity (for an additional fee of course), and then to you caught the next train back or onwards.
Biei was a town renowned for the beauty of its surrounding landscape - rolling hills, patchwork fields and luscious flowers. Without the benefit of a car, the Twinkle Bus Tour was the next most efficient alternative.
our tour guide
The tour was in Japanese, but there were printed explanations in English and other languages on board.
the Takushinkan Gallery
The highlight of the Takushin-kan Course tour was of course the Takushinkan Gallery where the works of renowned landscape photographer, Shinzo Maeda, were on display, specifically his photographs of Biei. To say that the photographs captured Biei's sublime beauty in the various seasons was an understatement.
Outside the gallery, we had a moment or two to admire the pretty setting of the gallery itself.
the bus and our guide waiting for us
Much of the tour involved staring out of the bus windows and attempting (or not) to snap photographs through less than pristine window panes while the bus swayed and the tour guide chirped on cheerfully. We did get to stop at another location though - the Hill of Seasonal Colours (sic).
here, there were stalls selling local produce
like these fresh as fresh tomatoes
and pet food made from organic products, we guess
There were also snack shops where we had...
a pumpkin ice cream and a korroke (yes that is a potato croquet)
The guide gave us ten minutes to walk around.
the view of the hills and fields
From here, it was apparent that it was a little early in the season, too early for the flowers that Biei was well-known for. Still, there was much to see.
fields coaxed to produce some flowers, so as not to disappoint the tourists entirely
we bought another ice-cream, in Biei's signature flavour - lavender
ah, no flowers yet but there the plants were
What we did like were the picturesque buildings interspersed amongst the fields.
like the Ozawa Family Dairy Barn!
Many of them had been turned into boutique accommodation or hostels for tourists.
And why not? Biei's landscape was certainly its selling point.
The tour was over in 90 minutes and we were each given a Shinzo Maeda postcard as a souvenir.
By this time, a cup of tea sounded like a good idea.
Okirakutei Cafe Restaurant - this place on Biei's main drag looked promising
cosy and intimate
We had a cup of tea each and shared a...
slice of pear tart
Then it was off to the bus-stop to wait for the bus to Shirogane Onsen.
The plan was to stay one night at the nearby onsen (hot spring) town. It would in fact be our very first visit to an onsen proper and we were excited, to say the least.
The journey there was easy enough, punctuated only by some interaction with several young PRC women. Having with them nothing more than handbags, they appeared to be resident in Japan, perhaps as migrant workers. (Then again, we didn't have our luggage with us either...) If so, it was odd that they did not seem to be able to communicate in Japanese. This appeared to be an impromptu trip - they were unsure of the bus route and had not made any prior bookings for accommodation. They seemed relieved to find someone who could speak Mandarin (we do speak it, in a fashion) and wanted to know where we were planning on staying.
Anyway, when the bus arrived at Shirogane Onsen, they, like everyone else, disappeared into the rain.
a warm welcome (we are guessing) from Ponyo
From the bus-stop, we sloshed to our hotel across the road.
Hokkaido, being a relatively recently developed part of Japan, could not boast of centuries-old ryokan. What it did have, courtesy of the active volcanoes in the Daisetsuzan National Park, was plenty of hot water and ryokan hotels (regular hotels with tatami rooms)
The Shirogane Kankou was one of them. It wasn't too expensive and it didn't take us long to figure out why. The decor was rather dated, and the furnishings showed some signs of wear and tear. It felt like a state-run hotel, circa 1970s, meant for lower ranking government officials and official guests. At some point, it must have had lots of Russian guests, judging from the number of signs in Russian.
Having said that, the service was warm and professional. Not much English was spoken but this did not mar ease of communication, and our room warm and cosy.
our room with a view
The rain had let up a bit, so we grabbed two umbrellas and went across the road to check out the view.
fast-moving stream in the mist
Across from the bridge, we could see another hotel, with a path leading down to the stream.
a hotel guest making his way down
He was wearing a yukata (Japanese light robe) so we surmised that there must be a rotemburo (outdoor hot spring) at the bottom of the stairs. This must be the famed Yumoto Ryokan which I had tried making an enquiry at. The reply that came in response to my email was three words long: sorry no room. I wondered if it really was a case of no room or no writee Engrish.
Up a long flight of stairs, there was the Mount Tokachi Volcanic Information Centre which was closed to visitors. We hung around in the carpark catching our breath.
always a good attraction - fake birds on carpark fixtures
Then we headed back to the hotel. It was almost dinner time!
The ryokan experience is a double feature - a sumptuous dinner and a hot (make that very hot) bath. We were a little disappointed to find out that dinner would be served in the dining hall, not in our room; Japan Hour is so misleading! That disappointment was ameliorated by the sight of the dining hall.
how quaint - like a hunting lodge, complete with chandeliers
There were several dinner menus, but this is what we had:
A closer look at the dishes:
grilled scallop with mushrooms
apppetisers including goma tofu and pickled vegetables
more seasonal ingredients
simmered or stewed vegetables
beef on a hot plate
soba with grated yam on top
There was even a chawanmushi made with corn, another Hokkaido specialty.
ice oolong tea
Now that was a good meal, just like the kind we saw on Japan Hour!
We returned to our room to find that it had been made over.
Those futons and quilts looked most comfortable, but first, bathtime!
This was our first visit to an onsen. We had done a little pre-reading on onsen etiquette but were a little nervous still, not wanting to embarrass ourselves or make the locals uncomfortable. As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about. Either the Japanese were far too discreet to make a fuss or we did reasonably well.
First we stripped off in the dressing area. Then we entered the steamy bathing area and showered at the low taps. Having washed off thoroughly, we immersed ourselves in the 38 to 40 degree pool. It took a little getting used to, but after that, the heat was immensely soothing. HM tried the 40 to 42 degree pool but that was too hot for me. There was a "freezing" pool which we could have cooled off in, but opting for a gentler contrast, we headed out to the rotemburo. This was very pleasant indeed. The quick trot from the enclosed bath area to the outdoor pool, through cold air, was just the thing for clearing one's head. Then the soak in the hot water, a little less hot than the pool inside, with the slight drizzle on our faces, was divine. We decided that we would henceforth be onsen junkies.
That night we slept well.