For my final day in Japan, we decided to visit Kobe. Partly to see a giant robot in the park and partly for a fountain pen store I was curious to check out. But first lunch. We had okonomiyaki, a kind of savoury pancake that they cook right at your table.
Kobe was a quick train ride from Osaka and after transferring to the subway, we were a few minutes’ walk from the giant robot. I’m not at all familiar with the manga this guy is from, but it’s pretty cool to see. He’s officially known as Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man 28) and is a symbol of Kobe’s reconstruction after the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 because the artist was from Kobe.
We explored the city a bit, finding a gift shop full of souvenirs related to Tetsujin 28 and another manga based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There was supposed to be some kind of diorama but the reality was less than impressive.
Then off to the pen store. A short subway ride and then a search through a maze of shops before we found it. And, I’m sad to say, it was my first awkward experience in any store in Japan. Most everyone has been helpful and kind but the clerk at the store seemed less than happy to help me. I’d asked to take a closer look at a pen she already had out. She gave me a look that I can only interpret as hostile and reluctantly handed it over. I thought I was imagining it but Rob and Tommy both noticed it. Maybe she was just tired of dealing with tourists.
Regardless, we had a good time in Kobe and headed back to Osaka for dinner. The original plan was to get some rest before dinner but that got sidetracked as I needed to pick up some last minute souvenirs for the kids.
Of course, my last dinner in Japan had to be ramen. But this time, it was Tsukemen, dry noodles that you dip into a broth. I’ve had it before in Toronto but this was so much better.
And that is essentially the end of the fun part of the trip. All that was left were the logistics of getting home. My flight was at 08:00 the next morning so I got up ridiculously early to catch the first train to the airport. It was interesting to see people still coming home from the bars and clubs at 4:30 am with some establishments just closing up for the “night”.
I’ll close with my we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment. I’d gotten used to the gentle overhead announcements on the trains and at the terminals. When I had to take the shuttle bus between terminals at Chicago O’Hare Airport, as I got to the bus stop, the lady in charge screamed “the bus to terminals one and two is leaving, we gots to go!”. And that, emphatically and undoubtedly, told me I was no longer in Japan.
After a good night’s rest in the nicest hotel room I’ve had this entire trip, we made plans to venture out to Kyoto after breakfast at the hotel. Along the way, we stopped at a couple of Osaka landmarks.
I haven’t visited many temples or shrines so far, aside from ones I just happened to stumble upon. So to proactively redeem ourselves for the upcoming days of gluttony and insobriety, we decided to visit two major temples in Kyoto: Kinkakuji and Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Kinkakuji is a Zen Buddhist temple known as the golden pavilion because the exterior of the top two floors are covered in gold leaf. The entire temple complex is beautiful and totally Instagram-worthy, if that’s your thing.
The tourist crowds weren’t that bad and the grounds were nice and relaxing to stroll around. In contrast, Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine is built on a hill and if you want to see all of it, you have to make the climb. Tommy and I managed to do it, which isn’t saying much, but it is a climb.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is best known for the roughly 1000 torii gates that line the pathway. I suspect most people have seen at least one photo of the place. We had a theory that most people came in just far enough to get a nice photo of the gates and then left. And this theory was proven when we noticed the crowd thinning out after the first half of the climb, which made the walk up more bearable.
We arrived back to Osaka more tired than expected but, after a quick nap at the hotel, we were ready for dinner. We met up with Rob who, after about 20 years in Osaka, I guess can officially be called a local. He took us to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. You grab whatever you want from the bottom conveyor and they charge you based on the number of plates you eat.
There’s a second conveyor belt above the first one where you receive special orders you enter on the touchpad. These orders come out surprisingly fast, like within 30 seconds of placing your order, on that conveyor. I had images of sushi chefs slaving away in the kitchen, being whipped to go faster as the orders came in.
Rob abandoned us after dinner so Tommy and I did some bar hopping. Asia may be one of the last bastions of smoking in the world. Everyone must be aware of the cancer risk but no one seems to care. This is a major downside to bars and clubs here.
Another variable when going out are the people you may meet. Everyone was very nice, but there were some tense conversations, such as with Eric from Hong Kong. He was a 25-year-old guy we met and Tommy couldn’t get over the fact that in spite of being so young, he was pro-China. Despite all the muttering under my breath, Tommy insisted on engaging. But, as quickly as a conversation can sour, when the alcohol flows, they can turn back just as fast. Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
With my last half-day in Sapporo, I thought I’d do the touristy thing and get a photo of the clock tower. But first, one last meal at the Ramen Republic.
Sapporo, like much of Hokkaido, is younger than the more southern parts of Japan. The clock tower was built in a European style which puts it well after the country had opened up to the West. While I appreciate the historical importance of the clock tower, I was more interested in the fact that there was a Tony Roma’s right across the street.
With some time to kill before I had to catch my train, I wandered north from the station, away from the entertainment and shopping district. This brought me towards the University area where I stumbled on this Buddhist temple. I have no idea why it’s there but I imagined students stopping here on their way to an exam for some last-minute luck.
And then, it was off to the airport. They took a long time with the boarding process and most of it was done manually. Even though I’d checked in electronically and it was a domestic flight within Japan, the security checks were significant. I was actually worried about being late for boarding, but everything worked out.
New Chitose Airport is a decent-sized airport with all the expected amenities and then some. The fourth floor had a theatre, spa, public bath and relaxation area while the third floor had a lot of stuff for kids in an area called Smile Road. Each of Hello Kitty and Doraemon had a shop, a cafe and a small theme park devoted just to them. But, the most impressive thing was Royce Chocolate World. Royce is a big chocolate brand in Japan and on Smile Road, they had an entire, multi-room chocolate factory.
I arrived in Osaka late in the evening, meeting up with Tommy for some all-you-can-eat, Korean-style BBQ. In the interest of plausible deniability, I have no photos to prove what did or did not happen that evening, although beer was involved.
After the meat coma yesterday, I decided to have something “healthier” for lunch. Soup curry has become a really popular thing in Hokkaido and is known as something of a local specialty. And it’s real curry, with none of the sweetness that the traditional Japanese curries have and more like the curry we’re used to in the West. When you order, you pick your type of curry, spice level and amount of rice. I didn’t really know how I was supposed to eat it but I figured I’d just spoon the rice into the curry until I was done. If I was wrong about that, I don’t want to be right.
Walking back to the hotel, I came across this magnificent structure. I haven’t explored the arcades in Japan much. This was partly to save myself some money and partly because they’ve been taken over by claw games, capsule games and, in some places slot machines and/or pachiko games.
This one was no different but it had a pretty good selection of actual acade games. It was nice to see some of the old franchises, like Street Fighter and Tekken, still going strong. What I was more surprised to see were some classic games like Final Fight, an old side scroller that I pumped tons of quarters into back in the day. And there were some new twists on the old classics.
Having been bamboozled by the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion, and missing out on the Sapporo Snow Festival, I took a chance to turn this trend around by visiting the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. And I wasn’t disappointed, this is what the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion should have been – structures made of ice, big enough to walk into. There was even a small Shinto shrine made completely of ice.
The town around the lake was pretty, with trails to explore and the Yamasen Railway Bridge, the oldest surviving railway bridge in Hokkaido. I walked along the waterfront and climbed a set of stairs that, in retrospect, was not my wisest course of action. The steps were heavily snowed over with some very slippery and steep sections. Partway up, I wondered what we’d do with a similar trail back home and I concluded that we’d just shut it down to save money on maintenance and avoid lawsuits. Here, like many other things, it’s assumed you’re taking your chances and you’re ok with it.
I was planning to stay into the evening to see the Ice Festival lit up but, checking the bus schedule, I learned there were no buses back after 5:45. And, after wandering the ice structures and the rest of the town for a while, I did get tired of walking so I found a nice little shop to have an ice cream, rest my knee and wait for the bus back. I don’t think I missed out on much. The town itself is tiny, consisting mostly of hot spring resorts along with shops and restaurants for the tourists. I haven’t been able to confirm it with Google, but I swear, the entire population is probably under 1000 people.
One of the bad habits I’ve gotten into during my trip is having sweets for breakfast. It started with custard buns from the convenience store accompanied by a bottle of milk tea. It’s since progressed to more high-end treats. In a mall close to my hotel, there’s a kiosk that sells donuts and buns where you pick the filling and they inject it into the pastry on the spot. Oh what a world we live in!
I got a bit of a late start to the day and walked over to the Sapporo Brewery to check out the tour. They have two options, a free tour where you’re let loose to wander the museum or a premium guided tour that starts with a brief movie. The premium tour is mostly in Japanese but the movie has english subtitles and there are english explanation cards throughout the museum. But, the main draw of the premium tour is the free sample of their original recipe beer, which isn’t available otherwise.
I was pretty hungry after the tour and, conveniently, they just so happen to have a couple of restaurants on-site. The Ghenghis Khan barbeque features prominently in them so I had to try it. There was an all-you-can-eat in 80 minutes option where you get a choice of three meats: beef rib, frozen lamb slices and fresh lamb. It also comes with my favourite vegetables, token ones, that you can order as much as you want too. For an extra 1000 yen, there’s also an all-you-can-drink option, but I don’t need to be a blubbering mess midway through the afternoon.
After recovering from my food coma, I decided to check out the night view from the Mt. Moiwa Observatory. I thought I was done with these, but Mt. Moiwa is touted to have one of the best night views in Japan. The reviews for it were also strong so I made my way out to there. The ascent is in two stages. Part one is on a big gondola while part two is in two smaller cablecars. The view was spectacular, better than the JR Tower. Again, it’s really not possible to capture it all on a photo but they do have a couple of cute mascots.
Not a whole lot of excitement today – just checking out Sapporo, the shopping district (Tanukikoji) and entertainment area (Susukino). Tanukikoji is a covered shopping avenue very popular with visitors. Lined with restaurants and shops of all sorts. Even a few hotels have direct entrances from here.
Susukino is Sapporo’s entertainment district. During the day it’s mostly shopping but at night, it’s all neon, nightclubs and restaurants. Reminded me a bit of Times Square. They also have some interesting buildings in the area that I found just wandering.
Sapporo has a big snow and ice festival coming up. Unfortunately, it starts after I leave but the preparations are in full swing. Odori park is a big walkway in the middle of downtown running about a kilometre and a half. I thought the entire park was under construction until I saw what they were working on.
The last thing I wanted to try tonight was to take in the view from the JR Tower Observatory. For some reason, every major city has an observatory (or several). I had a couple of options but didn’t want to make the trek out to Mt. Moiwa for the view there so I stayed downtown and paid a few bucks to get to the JR Tower Observatory. I tried taking some photos but it’s tough to capture how majestic the view is. Especially since it every photo is basically a bunch of lights without context. So instead, I took a photo of the view from the mens washroom.
On my way to find a sushi restaurant, I came across an all-you-can-eat steak place. To translate the kanji at the bottom left, it says women – 1999 yen and men – 2199 yen (figure about $20 USD and $22 USD respectively). That is a crazy amount of food!
Noboribetsu is a pretty popular hot spring resort town. The big red dude’s name is Yukijin, In some form or other, he’s the mascot for the town. The big draw, aside from the onsens, is Jigokudani, or Hell Valley.
The main part of the town is practically two streets: one full of shops and restaurants and one with access to hotels and resorts. At the end of the shopping street, you arrive at Jigokudani. Like Onuma Park, there are trails that take you into Hell Valley.
The landscape is pretty dramatic with some neat colouration that I assume is from the various minerals in the ground. But, sensitive visitors be warned – there is a unique odour from the hot springs that permeates the town. I’m guessing it’s the sulphur.
Unfortunately, only two trails into Hell Valley were open with the rest being closed for the winter. So, having finished the trails and not wanting to do any more walking for a bit, I visited the onsen in the Grand Hotel. They boast a number of different baths depending on the hot spring source: salt, iron and sulphur were the ones I spotted, aside from just a regular hot water bath. Very relaxing but the highlight is the outdoor section where the sulphur bath is. Unbelievable the scenery you can get in an area that’s part of a hotel.
Feeling rested and refreshed from the onsen, I strolled the town going through the various souvenir stores. On a side note, I’ve been looking for Advil to help with my knee and I notice that none of the stores carry it. Luckily, there are other brands of analgesics I can try.
One thing I’ve learned about the smaller towns is that the restaurants close right after the main lunch rush. And, of course, I mis-timed things here in Noboribetsu so I had to settle for some snacks before I could get real food somewhere else – namely Sapporo.
Luckily, the wonder that is the Japanese convenience store comes through again. There are whole webpages devoted to those products so I won’t go into it much here. Suffice to say the Japanese are far ahead in terms of their convenience store game – you can eat very well just at the convenience store. And not just cold food but hot food too. I recall walking into a convenience store one morning and the staff were preparing some of the hot food, packing rice into plastic bowls and laying out the toppings by hand.
For whatever reason, most of the sources I’ve read have Onuma listed as a Quasi-National Park. Not sure why that is and I don’t care enough to look it up. When it’s not winter, the Park is a bunch of islands connected by bridges, but in winter, the lake freezes over.
There were a bunch of monuments scattered throughout the park. I found a few and none of them had any explanation in English. Even the one that’s explicitly listed on the map doesn’t have an explanation behind why it’s there, just a name. The others I found were a stone pagoda (without any kind of marker or sign) and a stone column that had kanji I couldn’t read.
There were a number of trails available through the park and I tried all but one. Unfortunately, being a beautiful sunny day, the snow was melting and refreezing on the trails making them very icy. In a couple spots, it was safer to walk off-trail on the snow or even on the frozen lake rather than taking the trail or crossing by the bridge. And of course, what’s better after a day of hiking? Craft beer.
Seems like every small town in Japan has a craft brewery, but all the beers were good. I also ordered their Wagyu beef curry for lunch.
Hokkaido is known for its milk products, especially soft-serve ice cream. So, to be a complete tourist, I had to try it. Delicious and not at all inky tasting.
Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, I decided to scout out tomorrow’s stop – the onsen town of Noboribetsu. I was surprised getting off the train that there was really nothing going on. I expected to see some hot spring resorts along with the standard tourist shops and restaurants. The town looked surprisingly dead. I walked down the street from the station for a bit, turning around when I saw the sign saying that the hot spring hotels were 7 km away. I had no intention of walking that far so I popped into a local yakitori restaurant for dinner.
Back at the hotel, I gave the public bath a try. Sort of a trial run before I hit the hot springs tomorrow. Very relaxing, although I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of showering while sitting down.