I decided to take a week of holidays during the traditional Japanese holiday of Obon, so that I could go to Hokkaido with some friends. Hokkaido is the northmost of the four main islands of Japan. It is said to be quite beautiful, and is much cooler than Tokyo in the summer.
Unfortunately, my travel arrangements were made at the last minute, a week and a half before my departure. (This is last-minute by Japanese standards). The travel agent seemed to think I was crazy to try to plan a trip so late during Obon, but I convinced them that I was determined to get there no matter what method (so long as it was cheap). The best way to get to Hokkaido is by airplane, which takes an hour and a half. The fastest train takes 11 hours and costs almost as much as an airplane. Unfortunately, almost everything was booked. Thus I decided to try taking the ferry.
I was aware that the ferry took a mighty 30 hours. But it's cheap. I was looking at the lowest two classes of accomodation, one of which was a bunk, and the other merely a section of floor in a big room. From the picture the travel agent painted of these two options, I began to think of them as Army transport-style and refugee-style respectively. I imagined the boat as some rusting tub left over from transporting prisoners of war during WWII. Then while looking at some travel literature from Hokkaido, I saw the ferry described as a pleasant ocean cruise, conjuring up images of sitting in the on-deck jacuzzi all day with a cocktail in one hand and a bikini-clad woman in the other. So I was a little uncertain what to expect. Nevertheless, it seemed like the best option.
For the return trip, the ferries were all at bad times, and the trains were all booked. I considered just hitchhiking back, or taking local trains, but in order to get the train pass I wanted while within Hokkaido, I had to have a return trip. Fortunately, the travel agent found an overnight train back. Normally these are more expensive, but since my ticket was for an ordinary seat, not a sleeper cabin, it was actually much cheaper. So I was set.
So on Saturday night I set off on my adventure. I took the very spiffy new Yurakomome line out into the Tokyo harbour, where I beheld some of the most bizarre buildings ever known to humanity. When I got off of my train and saw a 30 foot tall handsaw sticking out of the ground, I concluded the only thing one can conclude in such a situation: someone was on drugs, and they got a hold of a whole lot of landfill in Tokyo Bay and tried to recreate the experience.
The ferry turned out to be pretty nice. It had a restaurant, a snack bar, vending machines, an ofuro (hot bath), arcade, televisions, sitting areas, and karaoke booths. There was no jacuzzi on the deck, but there were benches. My room was a very nice Japanese style tatami room. I had about one and a half tatamis to myself, and there were about 30 other people in the room. The first night I didn't sleep too well, because of the rumbling and movement of the ship, and other people snoring. But the second night it seemed like the most comfortable bed in the world.
On Monday morning I arrived in Sapporo. First I went down to get some tourist info on the places we were visiting. Then I went to see the famous Clock Tower, since every tourist has to get a picture of themselves in front of it. But I looked and I looked and I couldn't find it. Sapporo is a incredibly regular city compared to the rest of Japan, so it shouldn't have been hard to find. Then I heard some bells ringing -- where was it coming from? Right behind me, as it turned out. The tower was under repairs and completely obstructed by scaffolding. But I got my picture taken in front of it anyways.
I guess I just came to Sapporo on the wrong day, because as I walked along I came across a huge fountain, which was being cleaned, and a big obelisk, which had workers hanging things all around it. So I headed back to the station to meet my friends.
Our next stop was Abashiri, clear on the opposite side of Hokkaido. On Tuesday, we went to see some fabulous wildflower gardens. Unfortunately, the wildflowers were mostly dead. But we got to drink some holy water. Many places we went to claimed to have magical water that would cure diseases, grant eternal youth, and so on. Some of it tastes like rusty pipes, but this stuff was pretty good.
On Wednesday, we went to see Sulfur Moutain. It was pretty cool... we got off the train, and there in the distance was this great smoking moutain. We hiked through some thriving, sparse, dying, and then just plain dead plant life until we were right up with the poisonous gasses. You could see all of these steam vents in the mountain with sulfur caked around them. There were many Japanese there, apparently not in the least bit put off by the stink. In fact, some people were cooking eggs in the steam, others were scooping up bags of sulfur. The onsens (natural hot baths) with sulfur in them are supposed to give you smooth skin, so perhaps these people were going to put some in their bath. We went off to a nearby lake to hike around, and then tried to find one of those onsens. Our map indicated some quite nearby so we went to look.
Unfortunately, the onsen we found was not quite what we had in mind. There was no one there handing out towels, no bathing area to wash yourself off first, nothing like the resort-like onsens we had heard of. This one was, in fact, just a hole in the ground next to the beach. The water was about 50 degrees -- must too hot to enter. Whether this explained the dead frogs littered around the pool I don't know. Somewhat disappointed, we went back to the station. There we found a small onsen place and managed to get our soak.
The next day we had planned to go see some fields of lavender, but with our recent bad luck with flowers, we decided to go see some landscaped fields. Perhaps the rain made me cynical, but I wasn't overly impressed at first. I've spent 19 years living next to fields, and these ones weren't all that different. However, there was a view from a hill that was pretty nice. One of the other big sights was called the "Mother and Child Trees". This consisted of a field on a hill, with three trees at the top: two big, one small. All the tour buses stopped to take pictures.
At one of the farms we decided to try some of Hokkaido's famous ice cream. Aside from seafood, Hokkaido is famous for ice cream, milk, cheese, corn, and potatoes. To my great surprise, the ice cream came in the following flavours: vanilla, chocolate, milk, cheese, corn, and potato. I just had to try some corn-flavoured ice cream, and actually, it was pretty good.
Saturday was my last day in Hokkaido. I wandered around Hakodate, which is a very neat city. It is built on an isthmus, and on the sticking-out part of the isthmus there is a mountain. So I walked up the mountain a ways and got a good view of the city, on its narrow strip of land with the ocean on both sides. There are also some interesting old Western-style buidings in Hakodate's Motomachi district. This one area has a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, a Roman Catholic church, and a Russian Orthodox church all right next to each other. I can imagine the competition going on there.
I also wanted to try an onsen in Hakodate, since the previous one was pretty small. This one was very big, with room for 660 bathers. There were three pools: Hot, Too Hot, and So Hot My Little Toe Didn't Speak To Me For A Week After I Stuck It In To Find The Temperature. Of course the onsen was divided into men and women's halves, but that doesn't mean that there aren't cleaning women walking all through it. This can freak some foreigners out, but I had been in Japan for two months, using urinals in washrooms with no doors, etc., so I wasn't too concerned.
As I rode my train back to Tokyo that afternoon, I noticed the first patch of blue sky I had seen the whole trip. Hokkaido looked even more beautiful. Just then, my train shot into the 58 kilometer tunnel that runs under the ocean to Honshu.