Being car-less for the past 8 months has forced us to be creative in selecting our modes of transportation to get around Japan. While trains and bikes are the go-to options for daily life, neither was very practical for a week in Hokkaido. The train system on the north island – particularly the east side – is relatively sparse and infrequent (though I feel silly for writing that, because Japan’s lousiest train system still puts Amtrak to shame). It worked out to be much more efficient to rent a car and to take advantage of frequent regional flights that operate between the handful of airports.
We wrapped up our time in eastern Hokkaido (covered in the previous post) by driving south to Akan National Park for a brief visit before returning to the airport. Akan is known for three beautiful lakes with unusual claims to fame: Lake Masshu is purportedly the most transparent lake in the world – a title preserved by prohibiting access anywhere near the shore – and Lake Akan is the world’s only habitat for marimo, spherical algae formations that can grow as large as basketballs. The souvenir makers in this region certainly lucked out with the marimo, because nothing is easier to turn into countless cartoon characters and keychains than fuzzy green balls.
Even though the culture on Hokkaido is decidedly different from the rest of Japan, certain things never change – such as the obsession with all things cute. Case in point, I found this RV in our Shari hotel parking lot.
We returned our trusty Nissan before boarding our quick flight across the island to Sapporo. Regional flights from tiny airports are awesome – you can show up mere minutes instead of hours before departure and walk across the tarmac to the plane…all while not being frisked by security.
Sapporo surpassed our expectations, which were already high since we’d heard such great things about the city. It was a nice mix of typical-Japanese-city and a more rugged vibe. We noticed far fewer stilettos and much more outdoor gear, both on the street and inside the stores. It was also fun to see western style brick buildings sprinkled among more traditional Japanese architecture.
Continuing our theme of eating our way around the island, we timed our tour of the Sapporo beer museum and garden to coincide with lunch. We enjoyed a famous Sapporo meal called Genghis Khan, an assortment of lamb and (optionally) veggies that you cook at your table. The standard way to enjoy this meal is all-you-can-eat-in-a-given-time-slot… but as we had other eating plans for the day, we skipped the gastronomical marathon and just ordered a la carte. It was an impressive feat of restraint, to say the least.We did a few laps of the downtown area to work off the Genghis Khan and prepare our appetites for our next meal, which was going to be Sapporo’s other famous food: ramen noodles. Ramen is easily obtained just about anywhere in this country, but the Sapporo version is legendary, so we weren’t going to leave without at least being able to cast our own informed vote. The best place to partake is of course the Ramen Theme Park, a whimsical collection of famous shops gathered together to look like a street from a ramen-lover’s fantasy world. With some insider information, we selected ramen from Sora, which seemed to be a well-informed choice since Sora had a line wrapping around the building while other shops had empty tables. Long lines are an obvious signal that something is worth the wait. The ramen was in fact delicious and, in our opinion, lived up to all the hype. If only we’d had another week to work our way through the entire theme park. I did grab this photo from another shop… I don’t usually call attention to bizarre translations since I am well aware that I’ve made plenty of my own Japanese language gaffes, but this one was too crazy to pass up. I can’t even imagine what they were going for. Our vacation/eating-extravaganza was coming to an end, but the adventure was far from over. Rather than more conventional means, we returned home via the Shin Nihonkai Ferry, which operates a 21 hour passage from Tomakomai to Tsuruga (a port on the Sea of Japan, roughly one hour by train from Nagoya). Though I’ve been on plenty of ferries, nothing had prepared me for the Suzuran. The ferry was far more like a cruise ship than any car ferry I had ever been on, despite the fact that its primary purpose is hauling semi trucks to and from Hokkaido. The brand new ferry (just launched this summer) had beautiful staterooms, a movie theater, a few restaurants, and even a white-suit-clad cruise director organizing games of Bingo. It was so nice to relax and watch the Sea of Japan whisk by the window as we made our way south off the coast of Honshu.
Lest I forget that we were on a Japanese boat, I found the curiously named “Cup Noodles Corner” on the map of the ship. Investigation revealed that it was an entire room devoted to instant noodles, which could be purchased from a vending machine, prepared with the available hot water dispenser, and enjoyed at one of the special Cup Noodle tables. We opted for the cafeteria instead, but it was a tough decision.