Hokkaido in a Nutshell

Sapporo

Sapporo is to the west on the large island of Hokkaido. If you look at a map, it’s the bit of land that makes up the ‘head’ of Japan. This part hasn’t got the same sort of history as the rest of Japan because until the 1800s it was inhabited by the indigenous people, known as the Ainu or Aynu people, after which the Edo Shogunate took direct control.

Anyway all history aside I think I was mainly just pissed for the first 2 weeks. What a lovely time. These are the only pictures I managed to snap in Sapporo:

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Mario doing spins. (Not pictured: Wario and Luigi.)

Mario doing spins. (Not pictured: Wario and Luigi.)

Taken on a ferris wheel slap bang in the city centre.

Taken on a ferris wheel slap bang in the city centre.

Important beer sampling at the Sapporo beer factory.

Important beer sampling at the Sapporo beer factory.

 

Asahikawa

After Sapporo we moved on to Asahikawa where I begrudgingly entered my late-mid-twenties. ‘Kawa’ means ‘river’ in Japanese and Asahi is a brand of beer, so I had high hopes for this place.

Alas, no rivers of beer, but a lot of beer was certainly drunk. In Sapporo we at least made it outside to izakayahop, but here we were in such a lovely hotel we rarely made it outside. I saw my birthday in at out hotel’s rooftop bar, with Chris ordering a bottle of fine champagne at midnight (a decision we both regretted the next morning for separate reasons).

Happy birthday to meee!

Happy birthday to meee!

After sampling pretty much all alcohol within a 2 metre radius we thought it would be a FAB idea to rent out a karaoke booth, with a free beer tap inside. (And it was.)

We definitely got one word right.

We definitely got one word right.

Again, sorely lacking in photos, mainly due to consuming a little too much of the ol’ wobbly water – but we did finally venture outside of Hotel Paco, our eyes squinting at the sun like moles resurfacing after a long period underground.

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More incredibly important beer sampling.

Japanese gate known as a Torii (鳥居). Traditionally found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine, marking the transition into sacred land.

Japanese gate known as a Torii (鳥居). Traditionally found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine, marking the transition into sacred land.

Shinto worshippers write their prayers and wishes onto these small wooden blocks, known as Ema (絵馬), and leave them hanging in the shrine for the spirits.

Shinto worshippers write their prayers and wishes onto these small wooden blocks, known as Ema (絵馬), and leave them hanging in the shrine for the spirits.

Sacred rock. (At least I left the house.)

Sacred rock. (At least I left the house.)

We managed to shovel some food down in between drinking, which was nice. Japanese food is always nice actually. This time though we found an intriguing little alleyway and followed the lanterns to a Korean BBQ restaurant. If you haven’t been to one already, WHY THE HELL NOT? It’s amazing. Go.

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You get to cook your own meat so it’s done just how ya like. Not sure what makes this meat so much tastier than in other restaurants, but I like to think it’s because I cooked it myself. The dipping sauce that comes with it is DIVINE. So divine, in fact, that I’ve accidentally dipped my cooked meat in it after giving the raw meat a nice marinade bath on no less than 4 occasions.

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Furano

And now for something completely different; out of the city and up to the mountains. In season, Furano is a popular skiing destination. Off season it’s just a beautiful, quiet place to relax amongst the mountains, lakes and lavender fields . When Chris & I chose this destination we pictured hikes up the mountain followed by drinks at a local ski chalet bar in the evening, but as ever we chose the time of the year when everything is rainy and ~dead~. We did attempt a slog up the mountain on the first day but turned around within approximately 7 minutes, our shoes and socks saturated and umbrella threatening to Mary Poppins me away.

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The next day we did have some reprieve as the rain stopped long enough for us to walk to the Furano Winery and lavender fields. The winery itself was quite small but they offered us a few free thimbles of wine which made up for it. (If you hang back from the small group of people you can give yourself a cheeky top up – or so I’ve heard..) Just up the hill is the winery’s restaurant overlooking the town of Furano, where we ate steak and drank lavender wine.

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If you’re planning on visiting Furano I’d recommend going during ski season so there is more to do, bars that stay open past 8pm and possibly even contact with another human being. In all though, it was a lovely little break thoroughly enjoyed. (Apart from the lavender wine, that was cack.)

 

Otaru

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After Furano we head down to the romantic little port city of Otaru. The city faces Ishikari Bay, where the key ferry port is found. It’s not too modern (I struggled to find one of my beloved 7/11 kombinis here)  which I quite enjoyed; you get a real sense of what it looked like in times gone by with its canal moving alongside the city and well-preserved architecture and historical buildings of early modern Japan. Otaru is less built up and western than other places in Hokkaido and mostly everything is within walking distance, so in one day you can visit the suggested points of interest including:

  1. The Music Box Museum – a strange sort of mini-museum exhibiting all manners of music boxes, tinkling out well-known Disney tunes and classical music, and offering information about the development of these delicate inventions. You can buy one ready-made or ask to put together your very own one.
  2. The Steam Clock – a Big Ben-esque mini tower clock that’s powered by steam. On the hour it gives you a little whistle, which I painstakingly missed every time. Here’s a YouTube vid I found instead:
  3. Venetian Glass Shop – Otaru seems to be quite famous for its glasswork. There are a couple of glass shops featuring delicately crafted souvenirs, masks, bottles, plates and my favourite: Venetian pens made entirely of a hollow length of intricately decorated glass which you dip in ink to write with. Being around so much glass makes me really shitting nervous though, so it was a quick in-and-out for me.
  4. Sushi Resturant – it’s a port city, go figure! 12003401_10153080217551603_7747704122321250934_n
  5. Mt. Tengu Ropeway – take a cable car up Mount Tengu for a beautiful day or night view of the city. There are a few things to do at the top so I’d go earlier rather than later – I was too late to feed the chipmunks sunflower seeds. Gutted.
Make a wish! Rub the Tengu's nose for good luck.

Make a wish! Rub the Tengu’s nose for good luck.

Night views of Otaru from Mt. Tengu.

Night views of Otaru from Mt. Tengu.

There are plenty of other things to enjoy too. Beer halls, antiques shops,  markets, sake brewery to name a few. If you go during cold season it’s a magical place blanketed by snow and they have events such as the Snow Light Path festival (the name is self-explanatory).

If you ever find yourself round these parts, look up the Otarunai Backpacker’s Hostel MorinoKI. It’s quirkily decorated as I’d like my future home to be, with comfortable bamboo rounded seats and hammocks, a decking area and comfortable bunk-bed rooms. The owner is friendly and helpful, and there is a lovely dog for you to pet. And a cat but he’s an asshole.

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There’s a fox wearing denim shorts in my room.

 

During this time the Tokyo area was having a bit of a time with typhoons and general shitty weather so instead of making our way from Otaru slowly down Japan, Chris and I made a sensible decision (possibly our first) to take a cheap plane from Sapporo down to Nagoya, where we would be greeted by sun, fun, and more beer. Kampai!

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It’s been 66 days since my last real travel post. 66 long days and all I’ve managed to write about is how I haven’t been able to write. Here’s the cliff notes on what’s happened in the past 2 months; I left Tokyo for good (sob), visited Mt. Fuji (yay!), explored Hokkaido and had a birthday before zipping down to the south of Japan from Sapporo to Nagoya, Ise Shrine, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara.

 

End of an era.

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My teachers, fellow students and friends at my Japanese language school. また会いましょう!

Leaving Tokyo was a little bit very difficult. I’d made a nice little home for myself there, studying Japanese and teaching English part-time, cycling around on my little green bicycle, sipping whiskey with my good friend and owner of the jazz bar next door, karaoke-ing my heart out, eating sushi at the Tsukiji fish market, Book Town browsing, pedalo boating, Hyatt Hotel movie scene re-enacting, beer garden roof top partying and sex shop visiting (not necessarily in that order). Still, it’s always an idea to leave a place while you still love it, so onwards we go.

 

Fuji

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I couldn’t very well leave Japan without visiting Mt. Fuji could I? I hadn’t actually had the chance to see it before as whenever I eagerly went up one of Tokyo’s tall buildings to have a peek the day I chose wasn’t clear enough. The area to stay in is called Kawaguchiko, about 2-3 hours from Tokyo. For ¥2600 (£14) a coach will take you all the way to Fuji 5th Station – the start of the climb. There are a few relatively well-priced ryokans you can stay in which have windows opening out onto a beautiful view of Fuji. Inevitably I went at a shit time and got a face full of cloud instead, but the framed pictures around our room made summer/spring look quite promising.

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My place was a hop, skip and a jump away from the large and statue-still Lake Kawaguchi (河口湖). I took a walk around the lake, had little sit and a think in a boat while looking out at the whale and swan shaped pedalos gliding across the water’s surface; it was all very profound.

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Yep, that’s me up Fuji in short-shorts and a crop top. DISCLAIMER: This was ill-advised. I didn’t make it all the way to 8th station because I got told off by the danger rangers who pointed at my footwear disapprovingly. “Bad shoes!” (Um excuse me no they’re fabulous.) “No jacket? Very cold!” Don’t worry, I’m not a complete idiot, I did have a thick jumper and raincoat stuffed in my satchel, but it still paled in appropriacy compared to my fellow hikers, who had gone gung-ho on the whole outfit thing, poles in hand and specialist clothing adorning each limb. To be fair it was getting pretty nippy the more I ascended so I was secretly glad to be turned away.

After Fuji I nipped back to Tokyo to catch a flight to the biggest city in Hokkaido (4th biggest in Japan), Sapporo. Posts to follow..

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laptio

If only I could take my own advice. I’ve been hop skipping and jumping all over the place since my last post but, like a kid avoiding his homework, I’ve found every excuse under the sun not to write about it.

I convinced myself that I’d get some good writing done once I was able to sit down with my laptop, at some sort of serious looking desk. Then I thought I’d write on one of my many-hours-long transport journeys. THEN I considered casually writing while on an extended toilet break. (Once I made it into Malaysia and saw that the lavs were primarily drop toilets, I decided against this last one. I reckon even Hemmingway would have struggled.)

Now I’m sat on a comfy sofa on a balcony in the Malaysian highlands with a cuppa in hand and laptop firmly on lap.

IT IS TIME 👆

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I’ve been exploring again – and wonderfully bizarre Japan did not disappoint.

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The Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku isn’t so much a restaurant as it is a full-volume-maximum-theatrics-epilepsy-inducing-cavalcade-fusion that is, in parts, accidentally hilarious. One peek at their website should give you the general gist. It’s a little pricey at 5 to 6000 Yen (an extra 1000 for a bento box dinner) but it’s worth it, and you’d be following in many famous people’s footsteps:

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Go to the Robot Restaurant and sit in a seat that was potentially previously graced by Katy Perry’s bum.

As you wait to go downstairs for the main show, you’re led into the most garish lounge I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in (think Vegas, now add more rainbow lights, and mirrors.. a little more.. bingo) while being serenaded by scantily clad robot women. You couldn’t make it up. Or, you could, and someone did, and it’s awesome.

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There’s not much more I can say about this place so here’s a compilation video I put together of the ridiculous events that unfolded:

*  *  *

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I spoke about visiting a cat cafe in this post, and how although it was quaint, the ratio of cats-to-sophie was less than satisfactory. Undeterred, I visited yet another one based in Shinjuku. I’ll let these pictures speak the thousand words I cannot:

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Greg and Fleayonce Knowles caught in the act

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Time enjoyed wasting putting hats on cats is not time wasted.

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Plotting his escape.

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For more info on this gem, see here (though I’m pretty sure we paid ¥1500 instead of the advertised ¥1000.. however there is an outside chance we accidentally bought a package deal).

I’m leaving Tokyo to explore Japan a little better in 3 days, but I still have a few more Tokyo-related posts to put together. There’s nothing like an impending deadline to get your butt into writing gear.

😹

Lucky.

When I tell people where I’m off to next, or where I’ve been, I’m usually faced with the same responses. And I’m here to elaborate.

 

Common reactions include: “Please don’t die” and “Oh you’re just so LUCKY!“. While I do agree I am a fortunate girl as the world goes (money in my pocket, a roof over my head, food in my belly) it really gets my goat when people put my lifestyle down to “luck”. I’m not trying to come across as sour, I know its an automatic reaction, bear with me..

 

I’ve put quite a lot of effort into getting where I am today. I’ve had to navigate my way across the correct sequence of stepping stones which took time, risk and a LOT of thought. I’ve quit jobs, attended Skype interviews for new ones in new countries, worked my butt off and stored money like a squirrel preparing for winter; for this reason, I don’t want to give Lady Luck any credit. Anybody who has taken the leap to sell their worldly possessions (bar what you can carry on your back – which for a tiny girl like me, is not much) and up sticks to a foreign land is blessed with one scrap of luck: the balls to get up and go!

 

Another thing I irrationally dislike is when people ask “When are you coming home?” or “How long is your trip?” The answers to which are NEVER and FOREVER. This isn’t a trip to me, this is a way of life. (That sounds so wanky and awful doesn’t it?) To me, a trip is spending a few weeks or even months in a new place before going back to a home; a base, where all your things and people are there waiting for you upon your return. I don’t have this. Every time I leave one country and enter a new one I have to set up house all over again. I don’t even remember what it’s like to live back “home”, and I certainly don’t want to be reminded until I’ve explored as much of this earth as my little legs will allow. Home is where the heart is, but what if your heart is in a million places at once? With the people I’ve met along the way, the cities I made a living in, everywhere from the tops of the mountains in New Zealand to the bottom of the ocean in Thailand. This is where home feels like; my new normal.

 

Let’s flash back in time to last week, so I can show you what being “lucky” really feels like to me…

 

There’s someone dancing almost violently on the sofa next to me, while someone else is screaming out an interesting version of “La Bamba”. I’m in a karaoke booth. I look up and around at the crazy, amazing people I’ve collected during my time here in Tokyo and feel overwhelmed with pride and happiness. If only I could capture this moment and send it to the pre-travels Sophie of early 2011 and say “Look! It’s going to be all right!”.

 

This is the part of travelling that makes me feel richer than MC Hammer pre-bankruptcy; the people I connect with and the unique situations we find ourselves in across the globe. Usually these people have moved around a fair bit too, which makes for some interesting conversation. These are the times that make me stop and think, “Gosh, aren’t I lucky?

 

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Nyan =^.^= ~

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Did you know cats around the globe have their very own kitty language? In English they say Meow but in Korean they say Yaong. “Nyan” is supposedly the sound a Japanese cat makes. (Hence the name choice for uber popular Nyan Cat.)

As well as Nyan Cat, Japan is home to Hello Kitty, Doraemon, the lucky “Maneki” cat with its beckoning paw (said to bring in good fortune and wealth – stick it by your door or window!) to name a few. I’ve heard a few things about why the Japanese love this animal so much – probably none of which are true, but I’ll tell ya anyway: supposedly cats were a huge helper in a country big on agricultural farming, chasing away the pesky crop-eating rats. Another theory is cats became a safer option than dogs. This is because  in the Edo Period, each time a criminal was captured they would be tattooed on the forehead. The tattoo strokes were done in such a way that once the criminal was caught and tattooed for the fourth time, they would form the kanji for “dog” – inu. The fifth capture meant the death penalty. The ol’ “five-strikes-and-you’re-out” rule.

Read more about Japanese people and cats here.

You may have gathered by now that I am up for all things animals, especially cats, something I’m glad Japan and I have in common. I’ve picked up a fair few cat “souvenirs” as I keep calling them, or “pointless shit you don’t need” as Chris calls them.

So far I have:

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My lucky calico cat (招き猫 maneki neko) stamp, a “good” stamp to give my students’ homework the cat of approval, my cat coin purse from Kichijoji, and a pencil case that reads hunter.. action.. hungry.. so busy. (I am basically a cat.)

And that’s it!

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..Okay and these cat paper clips.

 

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Aaaand these post-its. (How else am I meant to remember to buy “miruku” for my coffee?)

 

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I found out about a cat fair (!!) through the website timeout.jp (great site for those of you looking for things to do in Japan) and so made my way down to Asakusa to attend “Nekosen 2015“.

 

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It was held in one large room on the 3rd floor of a building; lots of people had set up their stalls. You could buy little collars for your cats, framed photos, stuffed animals, jewellery, key rings.. you name it! Heavenly.

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On the way out I was given this excellent “cat newspaper” with 2 comic strips on it. It’s meant to be read downwards, right to left. So put your finger on the very top row, right hand square, and work your way down, then move to the top row second-to-last square on the right, down, etc. (Seems obvious now, but I spent a good amount of time trying to read it across, left to right as you would a traditional English comic, which is quite a challenge. I just thought it was being all Japanese and quirky.) Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

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If this didn’t fill your daily cat quota, then you can also read about the time I went to a cat cafe here.

I also visited one of Japan’s 11 cat islands (!) and saw.. wait for it.. 7 WHOLE CATS! I don’t know, I seem to have a knack for accidentally choosing all the wrong places. I’m still holding out hope for the rabbit and fox island; the dream is not dead.

Edit: To be clear, the “rabbit island” and the “fox island” are two separate ones – if they were all on the same little chunk of land I suspect this would soon just become an “island”.

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Spot the Kitty

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Beautiful Enoshima

I recommend giving Enoshima a visit; it’s about an hour and a half from Tokyo. On a nice day you can paddle at the beach, eat some of the (very) fresh seafood, and buy some seaside souvenirs as you trek up and around the island.

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Alright I also bought these teeny tiny note papers with cat envelopes. I will stop soon, maybe.

And that brings us to the end of this post, but inevitably not the end of my catventures here in Japan.

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さよならSayonara!

 

Published!

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A magazine from my sunny home town wrote a lovely article about me and my travels! I bet my mother has already bought every copy in Gibraltar..

Luckily, you can view it online here.

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