Jumping from the oil to the frying pan is normally associated with a very negative turn of fortune.
However, in our case we were jumping from the winter in Europe to the one in Japan! On our home leave at a time of European closure, instead of staying in the warmth of Singapore we joined a package tour all the way to Hokkaido!
It was a journey that started close to and ended on the eve of Christmas.
The journey started with an overnight in Osaka and a trip to Universal Studios. Read more about how we enjoy theme parks in Japan (under construction).
It was an early morning flight from Osaka to Sapporo airport. Actually Chitose airport is 52km from the city. As we arrive in the morning, the tour group was whisked off to the Jidai Mura theme park modeling life as it was during the period of the initial migration of the Japanese to the island.
The park modeled along the villages that used to dot the rural parts of Honshu. Many immigrants from Honshu were brought to Hokkaido to be settled. This reason : to ensure that the islands would remain Japanese!
You see, in the 1800s the Russians were fast expanding across central and north Asia. Having taken Siberia they were poised to claim the northern islands (some of which remain in Russian control till this day).
The park has apparently also transplanted bridges to the park as well as houses typical of Honshu island. We watched a traditional theatre show and posed with the ladies in traditional kimono costumes. It’s just too cold to change into one.
Then there was the ninja demonstration, which was kind of wacky. The transplanted buildings are now made into shops where you can buy all kinds of snacks, so commercialized. Wish they had left the building as a real museum for us to see how folks lived at those times. It was all nice, but walking outside in the snow for nearly 2 hours is not our idea of fun – since the cold really starts to set in.
So it was quite a welcome relief to Jigokudani (hell valley!) where sulfur fumes are continuously emitted. The Japanese islands lies on the edge of the Pacific and Philippines tectonic plates in what’s known as the pacific ring of fire.
This means that ruptures such as these are common in all the islands of Japan and they come in the form of smoldering volcanoes or dormant ones.
And hot springs. Definitely in many places there will be hot spring water rising to the surface after being boiled up by the hot magma rocks many kilometers beneath. Here, the smell of the sulfur is very strong and can be overbearing. So if you are allergic, it is best to avoid such places. We also noticed that the Jigoku valley has many ravens, some rather big ones too!
Since it is close to Christmas, Sapporo was decked out for a white festival. A replica of the Eiffel tower stands in the middle of the Odori park.
We were walking around in the snow, that in some places get to be 1½ feet deep. It’s freezing, yet we see many Japanese girl students that were just walking around in their short skirts! Amazing!
Otauru in winter
We arrived in Otaru early and were treated to a sight of the old waterfront. This is where the city used to have its warehouses and it used to be famous as the major port for Hokkaido, though it is now more of a tourist town. The day was gloomy as the clouds set in. It was a surprising thing that the canal was not frozen over despite all the snow!
Next stop, Music box factory in the town. This factory has been in business for more than 100 years.
As usual, the shop is very busy with Japanese customers eager to buy…now we could have stayed a little longer to create our own music box, but with the limited time on this package we could not spare the time. Maybe we’ll be back!
All along the side streets are shops and some of them are selling crabs. Hokkaido is famed for seafood, particularly in the winter as hotpots filled with delectable array of the sea’s bounty are a common sight.
For animal activists, our stop at a fox farm will put a hole in your heart. We are driving on our way to Lake Akan and had made a pit stop here. This farm rears the foxes for their fur. Yes, their fur.
So these seemingly cute creatures are destined for the slaughter. So that someone can have fox fur coat or scarf etc. We bought some meat jerky (not sure what it was) to feed the critters. Brown, White and Black….. But they are really ‘crafty’, walking away when you have no more feed in your hands, moving about looking for handouts from all the tourists much like scavengers.
Hope it’s not because they are feed enough. Looking back now, it is a paradox that foxes be reared and slaughtered in Japan given they are suppose to be emissaries of the rice god (the Inari, read more here). Indeed these are beautiful creatures, such a pity that we as tourists back then did not come to the realization of the cruel fate that awaits the foxes.
As we drove along the northern coast of Hokkaido, we observe the tempest of the sea of Okhotsk pounding the shores. In the distant on a clear day we might be able to see Sakhalin, occupied by the Russians at the close of the world war.
It’s still early in winter we are told, and so the sea ice has not formed up. In the depth of winter, it is said that the coastal waters freeze up such that you can walk on them (with a guide of course) in wet suits. There are also ice breaker ships operating in those times to bring you out to sea to observe the flow of ice floes. It could look almost like Antarctica!
Lots of mountains and lakes
The thing about Hokkaido is that you come here because of the mountains and lakes. You might think this to be trivial, but for tropical folks living on an island with no mountains, this IS a big deal. And so we got to visit two lakes during this journey.
The first was Lake Mashu, an inland crater lake that is said to be formed within the caldera of a potentially active volcano. Wow, should an eruption take place, imaging the amount of steam that will be generated.
Getting late here meant that we did not have any setting sun to augment our views. But that gives the lake a nice grey look, especially with the overcast of clouds.
Lake Akan on the other hand is a not a crater lake. Supposed to have taken a boat cruise on the lake, but it was frozen over! Have you heard about the Marimo (毬藻)? It is an algae that grows into large green balls with a surface that looks ‘velvety’.
Said to only occur in the northern hemisphere, it has also now been discovered in Australia. Our guide claimed that it takes a long time to grow to even a significant (not defined) size. But as far as literature is available, the marimo can grow at a rate of 5mm per year.
At Utonai lake (ウトナイ湖), we stopped at a sanctuary where there were many whooper swans. It was definitely risky but we walked at the edges of the frozen lake to feed the swans and pose for photos. We recalled an incident here where a local slipped and fell on his back. Fortunately he was not badly injured but that tells us how slippery the ice is!
Our trip ended in Tokyo, where once again we headed to the theme parks – this time Disneyland. Read more about it here.
Instead of snow and ice in Holland, we traded it for the same in Hokkaido. While this was not the first time to the land of the rising sun, little did we know that this was to be the beginnings of a long term “affair” we have with Japan. As time wore on, we dived deeper to appreciate the cultural and social norms of Japanese society, one that is steeped in tradition but seemingly rebellious at the same time.
We have posted quite a few pages on our journeys, or should we say adventures in Japan. Enjoy reading them!