A few years ago I was living in Obihiro, a city that is in the middle of Hokkaido. I was in Japan at the time for motorsports purposes. Mum and Dad and Aunty Jenny came to visit me in Japan in the autumn, when the leaves change colour.
They are all good travellers, despite their well documented struggles with luggage (Eleven Luggage Lessons).
Heading west over the mountains, our first stop is Asahikawa, next to Asahidake. The leaves are vibrant but the fields are browning off. Local people are bracing themselves for the extraordinarily cold and long winded winter. So much snow fell one weekend in winter that my car disappeared.
Asahikawa is on the edge of Daisetsuzan National Park. There are six national parks in Hokkaido and one UNESCO Heritage listed park – Shiretoko. It gives you the unexpected feeling as you drive around that it is a bit of a wilderness.
One of my favourite things in Japan, and something that I missed after I left is the onsen, and the ganbanyoku. ‘Onsen’ being the public baths where the water comes from hot springs; and ‘ganbanyoku’ is where you lie on a heated stone bed in a steam room until you can’t stand it any more. In fact you are told to leave the steam room every 15 minutes and take a drink of water and the time limit is normally about one and half hours.
I should add a note here that if you havn’t already and you want to try the onsen or the ganbanyoku, there are rules that you must follow, like having a shower before you start. It is pretty clear once you are there, but do take it seriously.
We’re quite a conservative family and even in adulthood I’m not comfortable sitting around naked with my Mum and Aunt but in Sapporo I did convince both Mum & Dad to try ‘ganbanyoku’ where you get to keep your pyjamas on. Dad did the forbidden thing and fell asleep in the men’s side, risking dehydration. Being an ex-farmer, his only comment when he was woken up and retrieved by the attendant was ‘it’s a bit like driving the harvester, you sweat like a pig’.
The main office for Rally Japan was in Sapporo and my boss kindly invited us to dinner at the Sapporo Beer Garden, in the ‘Jingisukan’ or Genghis Khan Hall. This is not so much about the beer, more about the Mongolian barbecue. We wear bibs and cook lamb and other meat, along with Hokkaido vegetables on shared hotplates that are built into the tabletop. Amid much laughter – always laughter.
Hakodate is a port city, still in Hokkaido, where the Americans originally arrived in 1854 (landing in 1859). Before that there was more than 200 years between when the Japanese kicked all the foreigners out and when they came back. Up until about 1650 Japan had been interacting with the Europeans and other traders and missionaries but from then until 1859 they became isolationist, killing foreigners or deporting them (simplified version of history). Very interesting and worth knowing more about, but not today’s subject!
There is a rail link between Hakodate and the main island of Honshu, the Seikan Tunnel and as the name suggests excitingly it goes under the sea. I read recently that the authorities intend to upgrade the tunnel to allow for the Bullet Train, the Shinkansen (or the ‘shink’ as groovy people call it). This creates all sort of engineering challenges, not the least of which is that the shink would do well over 200km/h through the tunnel and create a shockwave of air powerful enough to derail a freight train coming in the opposite direction. Watch this tunnel shaped space!
At Sendai* we changed onto the Bullet Train (2nd class), and traveled through Tokyo and to Osaka. We had a great hotel with a handy mall underneath linking it to the train station, full with restaurants. Down in the mall we had dinner at a random place, and Dad was delighted. It was a kind of yakiniku combined with teppanyaki. We were fed many unidentifiable and delicious skewers of food until we couldn’t eat anymore and rolled out.
In Osaka we visited the Castle and enjoyed the Chrysanthemum Show in its grounds, and also did a tour of the Kirin beer factory. More relevant for me than the others as they don’t drink alcohol.
We jumped on a bus tour to go to Kyoto for a day. Kyoto is one of the places that you must see, but because of this is packed with tourists. We got some good photos but didn’t love it as much as Osaka and Hokkaido.
Then back on the train the Tokyo. Not many people know that Tokyo also has an Eiffel Tower, only red and taller … by about ten metres. We visited the Emperors Gardens, looked at the Ginza. One of my Rally Japan colleagues was based in Tokyo, and she booked dinner for us one evening. It was the Akasaka Ninja Restaurant.
The night began with us waiting outside a nondescript door in a wall. At the appointed time the door opened and we were let in to a pitch black corridor! We followed our host ninja over bridges, through holes it the wall, we looked through passing windows at pockets of guests sitting in the semi dark eating dinner. Finally we were led into a dark room that we had to ourselves and sat on the floor around a table. The ninja wait-person came in and took our orders and then set fire to the menu and somersaulted out. At odd times we would realise that we were not alone in the room and that a waitperson had appeared from the black and was waiting to take our plates. Some of our food burst into flames. But the food that didn’t catch on fire was sensational – as always in Japan.
Being fearless, we rode the Tokyo Subway. On one train we had had help from other passengers pulling Dad into the carriage and squeezing him in. But otherwise we were catching links that were not on the main commuting route and so not too crowded.
One of the links of course was out to Narita Airport on the way back to Australia. My boss was letting me escape the worst of the winter and I would spend two months working from Australia before returning to Obihiro. Hooray!
*Sendai bore the brunt on the tsunami in 2011.
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