We had been in Japan for almost three weeks and our impression of the country was primarily influenced by the charming people we met. We were always treated with respect and everyone appeared interested to hear who we were and where we came from and they went out of their way to offer us help whenever they could.
The Japanese appeared to us to be very cultured and civilised, their food was delicious and healthy and made with the freshest of ingredients. There were very few fat Japanese, particularly the older generation. The countryside in Hokkaido was, in the main, unspoiled and extremely beautiful. The city was litter free, efficient and dotted with lovely parks and gardens.
We left the country feeling we would like to return some time soon to visit a people genuinely willing to treat a foreigner with a bow and a friendly smile. We felt they were delighted we were visiting their country and they did everything possible to make sure we were helped when we needed it. Not many spoke more than a few words of English but we were often understood if we showed them a word written down. Those who did speak our language seemed delighted to stop and have a chat.
Our thanks were due to our generous hosts, Rita and Brian Shell who were kind enough to invite us to join them on the trip and especially to their son, Jonny and his wife Ayuko who did so much to make our stay enjoyable. We very much appreciate their kind generosity.
We returned to the Flower Carpet the following morning, Saturday, and enjoyed listening to a choir of school children looking very smart in their school uniforms. We took a stroll around the city’s botanical gardens created in the early 1900s on a site that had been inhabited for a thousand years by the indigenous tribes that lived on the fertile plain of the Toyohira river. The beautiful arboretum contained vestiges of the broad leafed forests that existed on the site before the gardens were created.
Back in the city centre we wandered around stalls selling street food, beer, garden plants and crafts. We had a corn on the cob for lunch – cost about £1.50 each.
One afternoon we were a little disorientated when we got off a bus close to our hotel and we’re spending a few minutes deciding which way to head back. A smartly dressed elderly gentleman in a hat and tweed jacket offered his help but indicating he didn’t speak any English. We told him the name of our hotel, it was just a hundred yards behind us, and he walked with us, escorted us carefully over the pedestrian crossing and waved us goodbye at the door of the hotel.
Sapporo had lots of parks dotted around the city. This one was quite small, just a garden in front of a museum but it was so tranquil, in spite of being surrounded but skyscrapers. This tiny azalea water garden was outside our restaurant window on the fourth floor and, again, surrounded by high buildings. There was a lone duck swimming around, I wondered how it got there .
We visited the ski jump used in the Winter Olympics, travelling to the top in a cable car and giving us a wonderful view of the city and surrounding hills.
We were taken to admire a statue of a local hero, Dr William Smith Clark, who in 1877 became head of the new agricultural college that later became Hokkaido university. He was an American educator who brought Christianity to his students. His motto was “Boys Be Ambitious – not for fame or personal fortune but for knowledge and righteousness. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that man can be”. Obviously the Japanese thought very highly of him as coach loads of visitors posed by the statue, imitating his stance for the camera. We bought “Boys Be Ambitious” tee shirts to give to our grandsons! Sorry!
We spent a few days staying in the largest city in Hokkaido before we caught our plane back to the UK. Sapporo was famous for Sapporo lager beer – tried and thoroughly tested by us and found to be very good. The city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972.
We enjoyed our stay in Sapporo, the streets were wide and tree lined and getting around the city was easy by trams, buses and underground trains as well as on foot. Tony said the cleanliness and orderliness of the place reminded him of Singapore.
During the winter months the city was under several metres of snow and there were huge subterranean shopping malls connected by underground walkways so business could continue when sub zero temperatures brought the city to a standstill.
The food halls were extensive and in front of each counter stood a salesperson with a tray of tasting samples. I tried several different types of tasty morsels not quite knowing what I was eating, but it all tasted good. I bought a bottle of sake (rice wine) but not before I had sampled a tot of several different types – and this was at 10 am.
We watched a large group of people sitting on the pavement removing petals from bunches of flowers; I was told they were making a carpet of petals.
We returned later that evening to admire their handiwork. The smell of the petals was almost overpowering in the warm night air.
We caught the bus to the local town of Kutchan, a sprawling and not very pretty place with wide roads set out in a grid system so all the roads were long and straight with little indication whether you were at the town centre or on an industrial estate. None of the buildings were particularly old but nothing seemed to be built with any attempt at style and overhead power cables seemed to complete the dismal scene.
Of course we found somewhere to have lunch helped by a lady in the coffee shop. She walked down the road with us for several hundred yards and pointed out a sushi restaurant, chattering away in Japanese as we walked! We had some excellent sashimi (raw fish) – very fresh and delicious. We also had tempora and what was described as fried tentacles (squid, I assume) washed down with beer and green tea. The cost was just under £10 a head. The chef was delighted with us because, I assume, we ate so much. He enthusiastically showed his various dishes and even demonstrated the proper use of chopsticks when he saw we were making a hash of picking our food up.
The area in which we were staying at Hirafu was a winter ski resort and quite sparsely populated in the summer months and at its busiest from late November to March. We were there in June and the weather was glorious, warm and mainly sunny with a top temperature of 22°. Sunday was a busy day for family outings and we enjoyed watching groups out together enjoying the sunshine. The roads were much busier at the weekend and we saw many motor cyclists on the road as well as Lycra clad cyclists.
The area had been partially colonised by Australian and some European ski enthusiasts so there were a number of restaurants offering western style food – burger and chips, pizza and a more upmarket restaurant serving French cuisine (only open weekends). We tried to avoid these places on the basis of “when in Rome . . .” but once in a while we felt noodled and riced out and craved for something European.
We went to a soba noodle restaurant for lunch and found a dozen or so people waiting patiently outside, so we joined the queue. A Japanese man, also waiting in the queue, kindly told us to go inside and write our name on the waiting list so we could be called when it was our turn. The system worked beautifully and twenty minutes later we were called to our table. Inside the restaurant everything was calm and orderly with no sign of staff rushing about. Iced water was brought to our table which overlooked an area of woodland and we ordered a beer and chose our food. When the food came it was beautifully presented on a tray, a dish of broth with soba noodles and a plate of tempura with tiny dishes of herbs and seasonings. I was so excited I forgot to take a photograph.
At the end of the meal we left our table and went to pay and I forgot to pick up my handbag. When I went back for it a few minutes later, the man at the next table had already noticed my forgetfulness and was looking round for me, showing great relief when I came back for it. In England a Good Samaritan would grab the forgotten bag and run after the owner to give it back (we hope) but in Japan it was not the custom to touch another’s property. Earlier in the week we saw a young man in a restaurant suddenly jump up from his seat and sprint after a group of elderly ladies who had just left the restaurant. He escorted one lady back to their table and pointed out a bag that had been left behind. We were told that if you left a briefcase or purse in a public place it would not be touched (we hope).
Ski Lodge At Hirafu
We visited onsen, a Japanese thermal bathing spa at a local hotel. It cost £4 to go in and there was very strict etiquette on how to behave. It was important to wash thoroughly, including hair, before entering the onsen – and you had to be naked, although it was acceptable to carry a small modesty towel with you. Men could cover their crown jewels with the hand towel but it was a dilemma for me – what to hide? Boobies, tummy or bottom? That tiny towel would not cover all three embarrassing areas – so I gave up totally with the towel and exposed that sad old Caucasian body in the buff to Japanese womankind. There was a sauna as well as three baths filled with hot mineral water less than a metre deep, one of these baths was outside with a view of the mountain, the sunset reflecting onto its slopes. There was a cold water bath too which was great for bring your temperature down in between the hot baths.
After taking onsen we felt invigorated but relaxed, clean but without being stripped of every oil in your body and the feeling of total wellbeing lasted for several hours after the bath. We were hungry after our bath and drove into the next town to a ramen noodle restaurant, packed with locals. A bowl of broth and noodles with vegetables and seaweed cost about £4 – more than we could eat.
I repeated the onsen visit as often as circumstances would allow, slipping in a 50 minute massage on one occasion.
Ramen Noodles, Vegetables and Seaweed