One last small-town stay as I leave Otaru heading for Highashi-Muroran. I picked this place because it is reasonably close to the hot spring town of Noboribetsu and it had more affordable hotels. But, because of the distance, today is going to be taken up mostly by the train ride.
There is very little to say about this town – it’s small and it’s close to where I want to be. Even Google had very information about it. I did find a blog post from 2010 that was long, rambling and depressing but captured the sense of the place pretty well.
I said it once and I’ll say it again – how do Japanese people stay so slim with all the food options they have, especially the deep fried ones? I found a place that serves kushiage, basically food on a stick that’s deep fried. Delicious but oh, so unhealthy.
Back at it today with trips to a whisky distillery in Yoichi and a quick jaunt over to Sapporo, both shortish trips from Otaru.
The founder of Nikka Whisky travelled to Scotland in 1918 to learn how to make whisky and started up Nikka Whisky in 1934. I can’t say I have much of a palette for whisky, but the stuff is pretty good.
The tour is mainly in Japanese with a few spots of English here and there. The highlights are the whisky museum and, of course, the tasting. The entrance to the museum is through a set of sliding doors from the outside and it makes a hell of an impression when those doors open into a darkened room with a giant pot still in the middle. This area is almost entirely in Japanese but you can buy tasting samples at the bar in the back.
They also have some cool bottles from through the years.
And after a couple of paid samples (I can highly recommend the Woody and Vanillic 12-year single malt), they had free samples at their tasting room.
With a nice buzz on, I hopped the train to Sapporo. I have to admit, I needed a taste of big city after my days in Otaru. On top of that, I need to get the most out of my rail pass. I only stayed for a few hours but I’ll be back soon enough, after one more small town.
I had dinner in Sapporo and discovered this place called Ramen Republic. It takes up half of the tenth floor in the Esta shopping tower and consists of eight ramen restaurants. I circled the area for 20 minutes just trying to decide where to eat. In the end I settled on a restaurant that served spicy miso ramen. It is, so far, the best ramen I have ever had.
My sleep schedule is still pretty messed up and having access to Netflix isn’t helping. I’m hooked on American Horror Story, which I don’t get on Canadian Netflix, and I can’t seem to get out of the hotel before 11 am.
I pretty much gave up on today and figured I’d get a ton of sleep after lunch, then head out in the evening to see what the town’s like at night.
Otaru also isn’t very old compared to other Japanese towns. So those little alleys feel more contrived here. Like they tried to recreate the charm but couldn’t quite do it. Overall, a nice side trip from the big city but four days was a bit much.
The canal area is pretty at night but walking through the same tourist districts I had yesterday, both were essentially closed for the night. There was one stretch where I didn’t see another person for half an hour. Guess they roll up the sidewalks around 8 or 9 pm.
I passed on two restaurants that looked like they were full of tourists which is how I ended up at a German beer hall. The local craft beer was the draw, that and the fact that they were open. The beer was good, the grilled cheese and bacon potatoes, not as good as it sounds.
Otaru is a small town, just outside of Sapporo and popular with tourists because of the canal and its history. I think there are even more Chinese tourists here than in Asahikawa. They’re everywhere and it seems like they’re always arguing or yelling about something, especially the Cantonese ones.
I figured Otaru would be a nice place to slow down. With all the walking, my right knee has started to hurt and stairs have been a challenge. Luckily, I did find some stuff at the drug store that has helped.
The highlight of the first day was lunch. I was looking for a place that wasn’t too touristy and ended up at a barbecue restaurant where I was the only patron. Maybe that should have been a warning, but I was hungry from missing dinner the night before.
What little research I did on Hokkaido did mention a dish that’s sort of specific to the area. Jingisukan is basically lamb barbecue. If you put on a heavy, racist Asian accent, you can translate Jingisukan as Ghenghis Khan.
There are essentially two main tourist areas in Otaru, the canal and a street that runs parallel to the canal a few blocks up. I walked both areas today, dodging tourists the entire time. That’s pretty much all there is to see in the city.
After the debacle at the Ice Pavilion, I hoped that Asahiyama Zoo had more to offer. It’s billed as the northernmost zoo in Japan and they do a pretty good job with animals from colder climates. In fact, the only complaint I had about the zoo was the tourists, mostly Chinese, who acted like they’d never seen snow before.
I was surprised how close you could get to some of the animals. They sure do put a lot of trust in the animals and the visitors.
The highlight of the zoo is the Penguin Walk. Again, they seem to put a lot of trust in the visitors to stay away from the little guys.
And from one sleepy little town to another. I left the zoo to gather my luggage and hop the train for Otaru. This was the first day it had really snowed during my whole trip. While it probably didn’t compare to the storm back home, it was still a solid blast of winter.
For some reason, just being on Hokkaido feels neat – I’ve never been this far north in Japan and it’s also my first time off the main island. Compared to the rest of Japan, they get real winter up here and they try to make the most of it.
The plan today was to check out the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion. From the little research I’d done, it looked like a kind of ice hotel. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I got to the Pavilion it looked like it was more meant for kids than adults – a snow play area with slides and tobogganing with lots of Frozen posters. They advertise that it’s -20C inside the Pavilion and they even hand you a wet towel to twirl around after you get inside to see how quickly it freezes. I get it lady, it’s cold inside.
And the interior isn’t much. A bunch of man-made ice tunnels with some coloured lights and a few rooms with ice sculptures. One other gimmick they had was a room where, if you hit the button, it’ll drop down to -41C. Basically, a bunch of fans turn on and blows cold air at you for ten seconds.
The worst part was that, by the time I got out of there, their restaurant had closed and the town is so small that there wasn’t anything open, not even a convenience store. Aside for some snacks from the gift shop, I had to get back to Asahikawa to get any real food, about an hour’s travel time. On the plus side, I did have my first hit of sushi since arriving in Japan.
I’m always surprised, despite their reputation for being healthy and long-lived, how the Japanese can pretty much batter and deep fry anything. The first time I was here, I discovered kushiage – meat and vegetables on a stick that are battered and deep fried. This morning, I tried croquettes – battered and deep fried balls of stuff (mostly potato). Very similar to the taro ones at dim sum.
I had time to kill before heading out to the airport so I hung out around Shinjuku station. One thing the Japanese seem to love are their giant department stores. Along the lines of the Bay downtown but each tower a different store. 12-stories of retail with a couple floors of sit-down restaurants at the top and a basement floor of food takeout. And even here, in your basic department store, there are fountain pens.
The area right around Shinjuku station is packed with stores, pachinko arcades, restaurants and the obligatory neon. But the beauty of Japanese cities are the hidden, surprise gems. Take a “wrong” turn and you end up down an alley, reminiscent of old Japan.
Flying out of Tokyo, I encountered these self-serve baggage check machines. You put your baggage into the cubby. The machine weighs it, prints out a baggage tag that you attach to your luggage and then issues you a claim check for pick up at the other end. A front cover slides down over the cubby and your luggage disappears. Why am I so fascinated by mundane things 🙂
Asahikawa was quite the contrast to Tokyo. Much smaller, but I guess all cities everywhere are smaller compared to Tokyo, and colder. When I was in Tokyo, the weather was kind of mild, anywhere between a couple of degrees Celsius all the way up to 10 degrees. I checked my weather app when we landed and it was -10 C, feeling like -17. Nothing to do tonight but get to the hotel and hunker down.
A few months ago, as I was planning this trip, I decided to splurge and order a pen from this little shop outside the Tokyo core. Apparently, this is the only place in the world to get this particular pen fitted with a flexible nib. Translation, cool pen, soft nib equals more expressive handwriting.
It was nice to get into the Tokyo suburbs where you’re not bumping into people at every turn and it feels like you have more space to breathe. Guess this is more my speed. This does not bode well for when I have to go to Osaka (sorry Rob).
The shop was down this quiet little street and it’s exactly how I picture these kinds of niche boutiques – small, warm with lots of wood and knick-knacks interspersed with products for sale. I must have spent an hour chatting with the owner, geeking out about pens. When I asked him to suggest a place nearby for coffee, he walked me down to a local cafe.
Although I’ve been to Tokyo before, I can’t help but do some actual tourist stuff so once I was finished getting my pen, I just had to see the Shibuya scramble crossing. The photos aren’t great but I didn’t feel like fighting for a spot at one of the more popular photo spots.
Also had to check out the Metropolitan Government buildings since they have observatories with nice views of Tokyo. Not a fantastic choice on an overcast day but good enough for me since I didn’t feel like actually spending money to go up the Tokyo Skytree or Shibuya Sky (sorry Tony).
Lastly, Akihabara. The place where you can get your fill of electronics, anime and seizure-inducing neon (like the rest of Tokyo).
Some of you may know (and some not), that I’m a fan of fountain pens. So, whether you like it or not, there will be obsessive posts about them throughout this trip because, unlike the West, they’re not savages and still respect the written word over here. Besides, everybody’s got their thing, right?
Ginza is the expensive shopping district in Tokyo. Like, “I don’t feel comfortable walking into this store because the doorman in the white gloves is giving my ragged jeans and running shoes the stink-eye” expensive.
But Ginza also has the mecca for fountain pen fans – Itoya. They’re a specialty shop with 12 stories of craft stuff, stationery, office supplies and other sundries and have been around since 1904. Of course, they have an entire floor devoted to pens. In keeping with the locale, the range is from everyday carry stuff to ridiculously expensive. I won’t bore you with too much detail but, suffice to say, I need to start saving up once this trip is done.
There’s a good steak and curry place in the neighbourhood but this is where I had my first, and probably not my last, food mixup. Tiny place – about 12 chairs around a counter. You step up to the machine, get a ticket with your order and hand it over to get your food. No translation, no pictures of what you’re ordering. I panicked and pushed a button at random in about the price range I thought it would be.
A heavy meal, combined with being tired from crazy amounts of walking and jetlag resulted in me deciding to go back to the hotel for a quick nap. 12 hours later, I was awake again and ready to go!