Hokkaido and northern Honshu


We spent all day getting from Nagano to Sapporo. 7am train from Nagano to outer Tokyo, then trains up the east coast, through all the places we had promised ourselves we would avoid because of the tsunami and consequent nuclear pollution. We travelled in shinkansen as far as Aomori, then moved to a slower train that took us under the sea through the Seikan Tunnel to Hokkaido, then along the coast and up to Sapporo. The full extent of the tunnel is some 53km, and it goes down to 240m below sea level - it is the longest and the deepest operational rail tunnel in the world.

Arrived 5:30, booked into Gracery Hotel - a quite up-market business hotel that only cost $70 for the night. We had a quick look at the streets around the railway station - nothing too exciting there. Had to have sapporo beer while in Sapporo. In the morning we had a walk around Sapporo - nothing there to interest us. In desperation went to the Daimaru department store - the food hall was good, but we weren't interested. Had a very slow lunch near the railway station, frittering away the time, waiting for a train.

We had decided that Hokkaido was just too big and difficult to let us explore the places I'd ear-marked for visiting when I was back in Australia - we were running out of time, so chose just one place - Shikotsu Toya National Park - and decided to go there. Once that was decided we caught the train to Toya and bus to Toyako Onsen.

We booked into a hotel that is also a ryokan, offering breakfast and dinner - we needed to try one of these types of accommodation, and Hokkaido was the ideal place.

It was very cold here after dusk, and we arrived on a rather grey day, but we walked along the lake edge. Dinner was interesting: As it happened, we were in a western-style room, so couldn't have our meals privately in our bedroom. Instead, te ryokan provided a private japanese-style tatami-floored room with a low table and cushions, and a banquet spread out for us to eat. Dinner was traditional fare - three fish dishes including sashimi, two soups, endless side dishes, rice and shabu-shabu. Pudding was strawberry blancmange and we had green tea. I didn't manage to eat the octopus sashimi, and left a couple of other things, but on the whole it was pretty good.

After dinner we watched the nightly fireworks on the lake, from the warmth and dryness of our bedroom. It was freezing cold and raining outside, but we had a reasonable view from the window.

We woke to a clear day, revealing the extent of the view from our bedroom, obscured by yesterday's gloom. Breakfast was interesting:

We walked over to Showa Shinzan along the trail through the forest - along the old craters from 100 years ago. Showa Shinzan is a dome only formed in 2000 - very new. It popped up in a farmer's wheat field! Along the way we saw the damage from the 1977 eruption. The walk through the forest was great - another day where the sheer pleasure of walking makes you feel like going forever. This was a fantastic day, with clear air and the most scenic views we have yet seen in Japan. The views from the top of the ropeway were wonderful. On the way back the volcano across the lake (Yatei) finally cleared of cloud, so that we had a superb view of it from our hotel room.

Our hotel was also an onsen, but I find it difficult to go to the public baths - I can't bend my body the way I need to, to wash sitting on a low stool. Undeterred, I used the deep bath in our en-suite as a mini-onsen, and soaked away the exertions of the day.

Dinner was fishy:

I've listed the foods just to give you some idea of the variety and extent of meals provided in a ryokan - it is why we wanted to stay in one. After dinner there were fireworks, a nightly event in the season.

After another elaborate Japanese breakfast, including fish cured in seaweed, we caught the bus to Toya. We had time to visit the shrine and to wander down to the very grotty fishing boat area of the ocean-front. I can't call it a beach, although it did have black sand.

While we waited for the train we watched a crow destroy someone's washing. It shook the clothes of their wire hangers, so that they fell in heaps on the ground. Then it threw the hangers down onto the ground as well - in fact, it found a heap of spare wire hangers and threw them all down. It then picked over the hangers, manoeuvred one into its beak, and flew off with it. We saw it take two hangers.

We had a series of trains to Hirosaki, with a long stopover in Aomari, with its surprising plethora of good coffeeshops right at the station. Hirosaki gave us a real shock when we arrived - there were no rooms in any of the cheaper business hotels. They are big hotels, but none could give us a two-night stay. This was fairly amazing, because at first sight this looked like being the only totally uninteresting place we'd come across in Japan. We got desperate and went to the Great Western - two to three times the price of smaller business hotels for nothing better. We should have settled for just one night, or so we thought.

We had a quick walk around the town - it looked like a very very boring place, and we were sorry we were stopping there. The land is flat, the city offered little of interest, and even the railway station (our last port of call if we were desterate for somewhere to eat, in other cities) had no services. We found a Chinese restaurant for dinner, although there were almost no restaurants - not even at the railway station.

We were faced with a whole day in the most boring place we had visited in Japan. There was only the castle and a volcano out of town, so we set off to see the castle. Boring, boring, boring - then we entered the castle gate and gaped in awe at the fantastic weeping cherry trees, in full bloom. Almost instantly Hirosaki redeemed itself. All throughout the nearby botanic gardens, the gardens outside the castle, the castle grounds and the other formal garden we visited the flowers were fabulous. Weeping cherries were just the best, but there were also apple trees, flowering plums, tulips, daffodils, and endless other blossoms. We spent the morning and early afternoon having a real botanic experience - the castle was just a pretty backdrop for the plants. We did the japanese thing and ate a picnic lunch under the cherry trees.

We then walked down to Chosho-ji, an area where there are lots of large shrines side by side, down both sides of the roads, culminating in a large old shrine where a mummy had been found. All shrined out, we went looking for some old samuri buildings. They weren't too exciting, but we did see a man wheeling a large tortoise along in a cart, and we found apple icecream. Back to the hotel for a hot bath and a bit of relaxing. Ate in a Tomato cafe - lucky to find even that in this town!


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