Hirosaki Exploration Day

Tali woke up this morning not feeling well, so we took some extra time at our hotel in Aomori to get ready for our sightseeing day in the very pretty town of Hirosaki.  We walked over to the JR Train Station, and caught the next train bound for Hirosaki, less than an hour south and a bit west of us. The TIC at the Train Station when we arrived was very helpful in providing us with an excellent sightseeing map, and also advising us to take the 100 yen, hop on-hop off bus that stopped conveniently right outside the terminal, in order to start our wanderings at Hirosaki’s most famous attraction, its feudal castle, which is the symbol of the city.  

Hirosaki Castle’s history dates back to the early 17th century, though not much of it remains today.  The first of the Tsugaru feudal lords established his rule over this area in the early 17th century, and the second lord, Tsugaru Nobuhira, completed the castle in 1611. Remaining on the grounds are a castle tower, three turrets, five gates, and three beautiful moats; there are numerous red bridges crossing these moats, and some areas have thousands of water lilies, while some have carp swimming merrily.    

After the original five-story castle tower was struck by lightning and burned down, the current three-story Tenshukaku tower was built to replace it, and now houses a small museum with a few feudal era artifacts.  The castle grounds are a lovely public park famous nationwide for its cherry blossoms, because there are about 2,600 cherry trees planted along all of its many paths – perfect for strolling in Sakura blossom season, although we could only imagine what that must look like!  Even now, in the middle of summer, there were many senior citizens (including one wheeling his oxygen tank!) and families strolling the park and enjoying the cool breezes and beautiful views of Mt. Iwaki, not far away.  

After we had strolled through the park, we came to the Neputa Village, at the park’s northeastern corner, which is where the festival’s floats and memorabilia are held outside of the Neputa festival season.  The Village showcases a particularly large 8×10 meter float (!!!) that is now too big to fit under the electric wires along the Festival’s path through the town’s streets!  This festival is a bit different than the one in Aomori, I learned – first, it’s called the Neputa festival, rather than Nebuta, as in Aomori.  Also it is much more of a locals’ festival, attracting nothing close to the 3 million people who flock to Aomori.  Also, all the floats here are in the traditional shape of fans, rather than the giant 3-D creations we saw in Aomori.  We got the feeling of more personal involvement in the Festival of Hirosaki right at the beginning of our visit to the Neputa Village, when we were both invited to play the huge Taiko drums, to accompany our host, who played the Shakuhachi (traditional Japanese wooden flute)!  What fun!!!

We had a great visit to the Neputa Village, but we had one more place to visit before we took the train back to Aomori…and, as Tali and I agreed,  we needed to walk the long distance it was to get there, as a sign of devotion and respect…because we were going to see the Zenringai, a collection of 33 Zen temples and Shinto shrines moved or built here in 1610 to spiritually safeguard Hirosaki Castle, by the second feudal lord, Tsugaru Nobuhira.  

The two streets which these temples line, along with houses for various monks and students, stretch out quite a distance from the Castle grounds.  This has been a protected area for about four hundred years, and so the streets are lined with huge, very old evergreen trees, giving us an extremely quiet, magical feeling as we walked.  Unlike in the West, where such beauty might be behind high fences, with locking gates and alarms sounding directly in the police station, here in Zenringai everything was open to our wandering, even to our picture taking.  

We slowly walked and absorbed the blessed atmosphere until it was almost dark, and then a taxi appeared out of nowhere (divinely-inspired, without a doubt – Thank you, Buddha!) to take us back to the JR station, so we could return to Aomori and our comfortable hotel room – two very tired, and now apparently sick children of God, needing a hot shower and a good night’s sleep.  

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Stormy Travel Day as we enter Northern Honshu (Tohuku) – From Hakodate to Aomori

We are entering the final third of our trip – the first third was in Okinawa Prefecture, the second third, in Hokkaido, and now we take the JR train under water, through the Seikan Tunnel from Hakodate to Aomori, entering Tohuku (Northern Honshu).  This railway tunnel, under the Tsugaru Strait, is the longest and deepest in the world, at about 54 kilometers long, and a depth of 240 meters below sea level.  The Japanese Government expedited the planning of the Seikan Tunnel when five ferries capsized and sunk in the Tsugaru Strait during a typhoon in 1954, killing 1430 passengers.  Construction of this engineering marvel actually began in 1971, and the tunnel opened in 1988.  

The time has passed by so quickly!  We have had several first-time-ever experiences so far on this trip, and we look forward to getting to know another part of this lovely country that will be new to us, even though we are now on our fourth visit to Japan.  

It poured overnight in Hakodate!  It was still raining lightly as we had breakfast at our guesthouse, and, in between the morning soap operas, the television news showed footage from Kyushu of muddy waters rushing down already flooded streets, up to the roofs of the unfortunate mini-cars parked in the wrong places at the wrong time!  The waters looked to be at least a meter deep, possibly more in places!  

I tried to artfully rearrange the items on two or three of my breakfast dishes without actually eating anything on them – it was just too early for me to do the proper thing, which would be to eat the raw squid our guesthouse hostess had placed before us; honestly, it was too early for me to even manage the minimally polite thing, which would be to eat a bite or two…  So instead, I just pushed them around a little bit with my chopsticks, and then ate all of the rice and nori we were served!  Tali made an excuse for us, in Japanese, that we were still full from our dinner the night before…or possibly what she actually said was that the big church bell fell on our heads, so we couldn’t eat any more…I’m not totally sure myself, but Tali is positive she got it right..

In any event, a little raw squid at breakfast is certainly not enough to change my view that this guesthouse stay in Hakodate, just like the others we have had on our Japan adventure, was a wonderful and unforgettable experience – a great way to interact with real local people in their homes, instead of with hotel clerks doing their jobs efficiently and well, but without much chatting, or sharing…  

We walked over, with our backpacks, to the JR Station, only about ten minutes in the light rain that was still falling, and quickly got our reserved seats on the next train to Aomori.  Shortly after noon, we arrived in Aomori, where it was raining much harder, and decided to take a cab to the Richmond Hotel, rather than trudge about fifteen or twenty minutes in the rain.  We were momentarily at a bit of a loss about what to do for the rest of this rainy day – up until now, we’ve had a rental car at our disposal for all but a few days of this trip, so, even if the weather was “moist,” it was still easy to hop into the car, and do some sightseeing that way.  Now, relying on the train or the bus, as we do, means that there will be lots of getting wet if we decide to sightsee outdoors, despite the weather.    

We decided to walk back over to the train station, as the rain had begun to lighten, to catch a bus to take us to the Aomori Art Museum, about a half hour’s ride from where we were.  We stopped along the way to have lunch, and by the time we’d finished and were standing in front of the station, it was already past 2:00pm.  I’d seen a small sign to “Nebuta House Warasse” right in front of the station, and instead of going to the Art Museum, we decided to follow this sign, to see where it might take us.

After a short walk from the station to the waterside, we wandered into the Nebuta House Warasse, still not knowing what to expect. To our surprise, it was a huge contemporary building, just opened in the past year, displaying five gigantic floats from the annual Aomori Nebuta Festival, which will be replaced by new ones every year.  These floats are art at the highest level, encompassing drawing, painting, and sculpture in a most delightful way!

The Aomori Nebuta Festival held from August 2-7 every year, is one of Japan’s best-known fire festivals, more than 300 years old,  and is famous throughout the world, attracting about 3 million visitors last year.   Through the streets travel more than 80 fantastically executed floats with a brave and fierce warrior figure known as the Nebuta. Illuminating the floats from within are electric lights, which have replaced the lanterns of old, and around the float, hayashi musicians play instruments while haneto dancers perform, all the while chanting, “rasse, rasse,” filling the town with joy to celebrate the short Aomori summer.  

I felt as if we had, by wonderfully good fortune, discovered the perfect place to be for the rest of the day!  The floats, and the sounds on tape of the musicians and chanting dancers which played throughout the museum, were all mesmerizing, and we wandered around the floats on the main exhibition floor like kids in a candy store.  What a great experience!  

Our feelings about being in Aomori on a very rainy day had just gone from a bit of depression to elation, and as if to reinforce that, when we left the Nebuta House Warasse, the sun came out and quickly burned away the remaining rain clouds! 

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Hakodate Exploration Day

We were called down for breakfast this morning at 7:45am by the friendly owner of Hakodate Henmi Ryokan.  She had prepared a typical Japanese breakfast of rice, a small piece of grilled fish, pickles, and tea, but also featuring the local specialty of squid, following the traditional system of meal preparation at ryokans all over Japan, to feature local dishes – so there was squid cooked in the miso soup, and squid tentacles, which looked like rice noodles, just chewier in texture.  

After we finished, she asked us if we would be coming back during the day (so she would know to leave the front door to the ryokan, where she also lived, open), and what time we would want to use the shower tonight, so she could make sure there was enough hot water for us.  

This is a small guesthouse we are staying at, with two small guestrooms at either end of the second floor, and one double room, which we are using, in between them.  There is a communal bathroom and sink on this floor.  Downstairs, on the ground floor, there is the breakfast room and kitchen, two additional toilets, and the shower/bathtub room, in addition to the owner’s rooms.  While we ate our breakfast, she intently watched soap operas on the television across from us.  The actors are serious and intent in their daily morning melodramas, unlike Tali and I, who are happily chatting about our upcoming day.  

We’re going to start out by walking through the morning seafood market, almost always a good source of photographs, and then stop off at the Starbucks that is in the renovated warehouse district by the waterfront.  I’m going to spend some time writing here, while Tali strolls around the district, and then we’ll both head out to explore the Motomachi District by the base of Mt. Hakodate.  

This Starbucks, a large two story building in the brick warehouse district at the waterside, features bluesy music from the sixties by Joni Mitchell, Traci Chapman, and more, just loud enough to hear, but not to be intrusive.  As I sit writing, tourists come in sit for a while, most often fiddling with their full size 35 mm cameras and giant telephoto lenses – they look like they work for Sports Illustrated, but more than likely, they’re just looking for close-ups of the ships or birds nearby…

The harbor of Hakodate was one of the first to be opened to foreign trade in 1854 after Japan’s era of relative isolation was forcibly ended by a visit by Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy, accompanied by a fleet of seven naval warships.  As a result, many traders from Russia, China and Western countries moved to Hakodate. Motomachi, at the foot of Mount Hakodate, became a district favored among these new foreign residents.

Many foreign looking buildings remain in the area today. Among the most famous are the Russian Orthodox Church, the Old British Consulate, the Chinese Memorial Hall, the prefectural government’s former branch office building and the old Hakodate Public Hall.  As Tali and I walked through Motomachi this afternoon, we found it surprisingly photogenic, especially in its smaller details, the renovated wooden buildings of traditional design that remain on the smaller, less commercial streets, the beautiful Shinto Shrine next to a large secondary music school, where the sounds of the students practicing pianos and singing excerpts of classical choral pieces floated out of the open windows of the large concrete school building, like the wings of hummingbirds…

After we had strolled through Motomachi for several hours, we returned to the Starbucks we had started from, for me to continue writing, and for Tali to unobtrusively doze a little in one of their large comfortable living room chairs, upholstered in warm browns…

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We Drive from Lake Akan to Sapporo, and Then We Start Traveling by Rail Pass

From Lake Akan to Sapporo by Car

It was a rainy day for the long drive back to Sapporo, but it went by without any difficulties at all.  We checked out of the New Akan Hotel before 9:00am, and returned the rental car in downtown Sapporo at about 3:00pm; unlike our experience with the extra expense of the car rental in Miyakojima, from the parking lot mishap I had, this return was quick and without any surprises!  Hooray!

We left the car rental agency by foot with our backpacks, and went over to the JR Station a few blocks away.  We checked our backpacks into a locker at the Station, and got the train schedule for Hakodate. Tali got her hair done at a beauty shop on the top floor of the mall next door to the Station, while I did some writing.  We also ate dinner at the mall, and then walked over to the Cross Hotel to check in.  

From Sapporo to Hakodate by JR Train

After checking out of the Cross Hotel, we walked over to the JR Sapporo Train Station and first went to the Tourist Services Desk to exchange our Rail Pass vouchers, which we had bought in Auckland, for the actual Rail Passes themselves.  This took a few minutes, but was easy to do, and soon we were having tea at Starbucks, waiting until it was time to catch our train to Hakodate.  As our departure time approached, we went over to the coin lockers and retrieved our backpacks (it cost 1,400 yen to store them overnight, as the lockers charge by the calendar day, not by the 24 hour period), and then headed to our track to board our train.  The whole process was very tourist friendly, and really anyone can make these arrangements by themselves, as we did.  

Our 10:30am train out of Sapporo arrived in Hakodate right on time, at 2:00pm, and with the help of the excellent mapping service which came free on our rented iPhone, we easily found Hakodate Henmi Ryokan, a small downtown guesthouse that is our home for the next two days.  As we checked in, we chatted with our hostess, the owner, as best we could in Japanese.  We decided to first catch up on our laundry, which was convenient to do at the coin operated laundry nearby.  While we waited for the wash and dry cycles to finish, we walked around the downtown area of Hakodote, which is not at all a part of the conventional tourist circuit, that runs along the waterfront, and then turns uphill, to the Motomachi district at the base of Mt. Hakodate.   We saw some funky vintage clothing shops, small cafes and restaurants – what looked like entrepreneurial businesses taking advantage of inexpensive rents in a part of the downtown that looks like it’s trying to compete with the swankier renovated warehouse areas that get most of the tourists’ dollars.

The Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses, a commercial business connected with maritime trading, were first built in 1887, and have recently been beautifully restored and filled with reasonably priced tourist souvenir and food shops similar to what we found in Otaru, about an hour north and west of Sapporo.  

Once our laundry was clean and dry, we brought our clothes back to our room at the guesthouse, and headed out for a stroll, to have a look at the Hakodate waterfront and Kanemori Warehouses.  We enjoyed a bite to eat at one of the restaurants there, and then as the clock reached 7:00pm and everything started to close for the night, we headed back to the guesthouse to relax.  

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Winding Down Sounkyo Canyon, We Go East to Shari

After our amazing hiking experience yesterday, we decided to explore the canyon area around Sounkyo Onsen today, and the first stop we made was Ginga Falls, a gorgeous waterfall dropping from a height of 120 meters to the river below.  Even though there were spaces for at least fifty cars and a half dozen busses, the parking area was almost empty, allowing us to walk along the river’s edge below the falls by ourselves.  As we discovered by driving the length of the Canyon on Route 39, most of the balance of the sights are now inaccessible, even to hikers, as there was a major avalanche here not long ago, so the many other waterfalls and rock formations can no longer be viewed.  

Afterwards we stopped in the small alpine shopping area right below the cable car, which was open…but just barely.  It had the look of an out-of-season resort area, even though the summer does get very busy with hikers – it looked as if the true busy season was winter, when the skiers must come up here in force.  We went to a small cafe for a drink, then headed back to Hotel Taisetsu.  Tomorrow we will have a full day of driving, as we head to our next destination, the Shiretoko National Park, a peninsula on the eastern coast of Hokkaido jutting out into the Okhotsk Sea that has recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Driving to Shari, Our Gateway to the Shiretoko Peninsula

We got an early start this morning, as we expected a fairly long drive to get to the far northeastern coast of Hokkaido, where the Shiretoko Peninsula is located.  We found that the driving was easy after we began at about 8:30am, since one road, Route 39, took us from our start in Sounkyo Canyon almost to the door of the Grantia Hotel, an inexpensive business-style hotel in the small town of Shari, at the start of the peninsula, our home for the next couple of days.  

We stopped briefly in Kitami, a bustling commercial center that is the first major town east out of the Canyon, not only because we needed petrol, but also because it was the first place that we were able to use our wireless internet hub in the last three days, since there was no reception anywhere in Sounkyo Canyon.  Tali turned on the wireless as we approached Kitami, and then as we got nearer, she sounded like a lucky (and beautiful, too!) prospector striking gold – “It just started working – I’ve got one bar!”  “Wait, wait, now I’ve got two bars,” she said excitedly, as we got closer to downtown Kitami.  And then, as we got to the downtown, she uttered the magic words, “I’ve got three bars!  Three bars!  We should stop right away!”  So I pulled off the road, and we both checked our e-mails.  Honestly, I don’t know how I survived the last three days without seeing my latest Groupon, Vacationist, and Travelocity offers!  

We were both ready to go in a few minutes, and we cut left, to the north, to drive east along the coastal road, which is a longer way to go, but one we hoped would be more interesting than the inland route.  We came to a wonderful park that stretched along the coastline of the Okhotsk Sea – there were paths to walk through the sand dunes that ran down almost to the waters’ edge, and everywhere there was a riot of color from all of the blooming wildflowers scattered among the sea grasses!  It was absolutely stunning, and we spent a lovely few minutes strolling the paths, along with a bunch of Japanese tourists with frighteningly large cameras photographing the beautiful still lifes, just as we were, with out little hand-held digital cameras.   

We arrived in Shari, a much smaller town indeed than Kitami (with no wireless reception, by the way!), and checked into the Grantia Hotel.  Even though our room is compact, it’s a clean, modern hotel, with the extra benefit of a very nice onsen available mornings and evenings to have a good clean-up and soak.  We took a walk around town, to visit the Information Center to get a map of hikes and sights to see in Shiretoko National Park, and to see what restaurants would be available for dinner.  We happened upon a nice park, with even more wildflowers, and what we thought might be a Buddhist seminary.  

Tomorrow morning after breakfast we will drive east another hour or so to the town of Utoro, which is the entranceway into Shiretoko, and spend the day sightseeing and photographing.  

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Our Hike to the Top of Mount Kurodake, in Daisetsuzan National Park Japan

After checking out of the Cross Hotel in Sapporo, and having tea at Starbucks, we picked up our new rental car this morning, about an eight block walk from the hotel, not a long walk, even though we were carrying our backpacks…but we did chat along the way about taking less clothes with us the next time we travel!  It seems that no matter how often we travel, and how much we cut down on what we take, we still carry too much with us, rather than relying on washing what we do bring more often.  We’ll have another opportunity to travel light, on our next backpacking trip, to India, Bhutan and Sikkim, later on this year.  

Our new rental car, which we will have for the next 11 days as we travel around Hokkaido, is a bit larger and in better condition than the ill-fated one we had in Miyakojima, so I feel more confident behind the wheel than I did before!  

Our aim today was to drive to the Sounkyo Gorge in Daisetsuzan National Park, which, at 2310 sq. km, is the largest national park in all of Japan.  The Park is essentially a huge raised plateau, full of wildflowers this time of year, ringed by dramatic, rocky mountains and hot springs.  Our onsen hotel, the Taisetsu, is located right by the base of Mt. Kurodake, which is accessible by a combination of cable car, chairlift, and hiking.  There are two other major onsen resort towns, located at the bases of two other mountains, elsewhere in Daisetsuzan. 

We planned on seeing as much as possible along the way, by taking the longer route to get to our destination, through the towns of Furano and Biei, which are well known for their gorgeous blooming lavender fields. We took the most rural, scenic route we could discover to make this drive north and east from Sapporo, and we passed through many simple farming villages on the way.  When we got to Furano, we discovered that we were not here in lavender blooming season, so there were few splashes of purple in the landscape we saw.  However, both Furano and Biei had small farm roads surrounded by beautiful patchworks of different colored vegetables, plants and flowers, and it was easy to imagine how they must have looked in season. 

By the time we made it to the Hotel Taisetsu, it was already late in the afternoon, so we walked around the hotel before dinner to get oriented.  The hotel itself is a bit dated in terms of its appearance, but it is clean and well maintained, and our room was spacious – more than ten tatami mats in size.  There are three separate onsens, all available almost 24 hours a day, with baths of different temperatures, with either mineral-rich or spring waters. As with all Japanese onsens, there is a washing area to use before you enter the baths (and if you’ve bathed in the sulfurous mineral waters, you also wash or shower again afterwards).  

Dinner hour begins every night at 5:30pm, and the tour group busses don’t arrive until more than an hour later, so there is a perfect window to dine with only a few other guests, if we go to the dining room at about 6:30pm…so that’s what we did!  The dining room is set up with tables around a long buffet in the center, filled with many different dishes of vegetables and seafood, and a few of meat as well.  There is also a table with desserts, and another of hot and cold drinks.  The food seems fresh, and is simply seasoned, but very enjoyable in its variety – it’s easy to eat a pleasant and filling meal here that is also healthy.  After dinner, Tali and I each went to the onsen we had chosen (each of the onsens is segregated by sex) on our earlier tour of the hotel.  The baths are fantastic – clean, restful, and nearly empty, to my surprise!  I especially liked the onsen that has an outdoor bath, and was in the most modern style of the three, and I decided that would be “my” onsen while we were here.  It’s possible to just sit and soak, undisturbed, allowing old and unexamined thoughts and feelings to melt away, just as any muscle aches and pains do.  

We began our first full day at Hotel Taisetsu by changing rooms in the morning – twice, in fact!  We were trying to get a room away from the large hotel parking lot, because the tour busses, that had arrived at dinner time the evening before, loaded up their many tourists and left quite early in the morning for their next destination, right outside our window!  Our first effort for an “atarishi heya” got us a room at the far end of the same parking lot, better but not quite right, but our next attempt was successful, and we moved to the other side of the hotel, with nothing but the forest outside our window – so much better!  As always when we travel, a positive attitude and a friendly manner can usually overcome most any language barrier we encounter.  

Once we got settled in our new room, we headed out for our hike of the day, up to the summit of Mount Kurodake.  This is a very popular hike in Daisetsuzan National Park, judging from the full parking lot at the entrance to the cable car, which takes you part of the way up the mountain, and accesses the chairlift that goes further up, to the beginning of the hike.  We really appreciate the location of Taisetsu, at most a few hundred meters from the cable car, so we can just walk over to begin our adventure!  

The sightseeing was fantastic from the cable car going up the first 1300 meters through the forest, heading towards the base of Mt. Kurodake – the trees grow very densely, all different types of evergreens, spruce and birch native to Hokkaido, and the surrounding mountains are still capped with quite a bit of snow. We got off the cable car (which was big enough to carry about a hundred people, even though there were less than a dozen visitors on our ride up, including us), and walked over to the chairlift, to continue another 220 meters up to the trailhead.  

Once there, we took a look at the steep, rock-strewn path in front of us, and knew that we were in for a challenging and exciting experience!  We signed the logbook and saw that almost all of the hikers were Japanese, and their ages ranged from late forties to early seventies.  These Japanese people take their hiking seriously!  We knew beforehand that this was to be a “serious” hike, so at least we had worn our hiking boots, but we were woefully unprepared compared to our Japanese fellow-hikers, most of whom were fully equipped with gaiters, walking poles, professional day packs, technical clothing, and, lest I forget, bells to let the native Hokkaido brown bears know of their presence.  

What a fantastic experience this hike was!  It was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and exciting hikes that either Tali or I have ever taken.  Much of the hiking path was strewn with boulders of all sizes that we needed to make our way around – much of the path looked in fact like an old stream bed, or maybe a seasonal stream that is still flowing during snow-melt in springtime.  Parts of the path were still covered with snow, and parts were very muddy – all was at a steep grade up, with a steep drop off to the plateau below, requiring balance, coordination, and some strength.  

We encountered many, many hikers, either climbing or descending – a huge variety of people were making this hike today – everyone from climbing clubs of a dozen to fifty hikers, to a group of young skiers with their skis strapped to their backs (!!!), to a young woman carrying her baby in a backpack (!!!), to lots of families with young children, to women and men significantly older than us, making their way sure-footedly and quickly.  

The scenery was breathtaking – the high plateau was strewn with colorful grasses and wildflowers, with rocky outcroppings at higher altitudes; around the plateau were the many shades of green of the native forests; and then, still further away were the looming mountain peaks that ring the plateau.  The very top of Mt. Kurodake is flat, and so when we finally reached the summit after more than two hours of hiking and picture-taking, there was an incredible 360 degree panorama as our reward.  The hiking path actually continued from here, across to the peak of Mt. Asahi, and then descending to its onsen hotels, but that longer hike required more time than was left in the day.  As it was, when we turned around and descended (on this type of terrain, not much easier than the climb had been), we knew that the chairlift and cable car stopped operating at 4:30, but we managed to make it in plenty of time…tired, but exhilarated!

And what could possibly be better than coming back from a strenuous hike, and going to wash up and soak in a wonderful onsen?  How grateful I feel for all the blessings in my life…

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We visit the seaside town of Otaru

After our morning spiritual study and meditation, we had “hotto-tea” at Starbucks, and then took a walk to the Nijo Fish Market to have a look, and to take some photographs.  It was only a moderate walk, but the blazing-hot sun made it seem longer, by the time we reached the one square block that is the market.   It was interesting to see the giant-sized seafood – crabs, scallops, fish and shrimp, as well as sea urchin and salmon eggs – that Hokkaido is justly famous for, some quite alive in the fishsellers’ styrofoam or glass tanks, filled with water and ice.  Although there are a couple of small restaurants right at the market, neither of us was hungry yet, so after photographing, we headed back to the JR Train Station that’s just a few blocks from our hotel.  

After our day of city exploration yesterday, and the summer heat magnified by the pavement, we were ready to get out of Sapporo today, and we had decided this morning to take the JR train to Otaru, a port city on the Sea of Japan that is less than an hour by train northwest of Sapporo.  

Otaru is a well known destination for Japanese tourists, because of the many buildings in its downtown area that were built of stone laid on wooden posts and beams, dating back to the Meiji era (late 19th to early 20th centuries).  These buildings, with their beautiful restored exteriors, now house cafes, restaurants, all kinds of sweets shops, and craft boutiques, and in many of them the interior wooden framing has been retained, so it’s possible to see the bones of the original structures. Otaru is also especially popular as a summertime escape from Sapporo’s heat, since the breeze that comes from the Sea of Japan is so refreshing.  

We started our afternoon in Otaru with lunch at a popular seafood shop, tasting the well-known specialties of Hokkaido that we had seen in the Nijo Fish Market earlier in the day – crab, scallops, and sea urchin.  Hokkaido scallops, very large in size and very sweet in taste, grilled in their shells, were for me the standout.  Afterwards, we had a very enjoyable time strolling the downtown streets with the other tourists, stopping into a store every now and then, or just window-shopping.  

The most impressive store was the one devoted to music boxes, as part of the store was actually a museum-quality collection dating from the early 19th century. The level of mechanical sophistication of the older boxes (most of which are actually cabinets) is quite remarkable – some were made to automatically switch between a dozen different discs, some were designed to play pieces with three or four parts – and the sound quality of the beautiful baroque and romantic music selections was awesome.  There’s such a harkening back to an earlier time, when tastes were 
refined and gentle…I could have spent hours in this wonderful store, as it appealed to the same part of me that loves to see collections of old musical instruments in museums.  

Otaru begins to close up a little after five, so we made our way to the train station and headed back to the Cross Hotel – this was for us a great way to spend our last day in this area, before heading north and east to the great national parks of Hokkaido.  

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