I think Sapporo was my favourite stop in Japan despite missing the snow, the ice festival and being too early for spring sakura. Travel is often full of these sorts of pleasant surprises and it once again proves that people and experiences make the place. Not the number of things to do, not the number of bars, clubs or festivals and certainly not the price tags.
Three and a half hours on the rapid local train (no shinkansen up here) from Hakodate and we found ourselves in Sapporo. The hostel in Biei hadn’t responded to me so we made a last minute booking at our 2nd preference Tom’s House (¥2,600 in a 4 bed dorm). It was only 2nd because it was 2nd on the list, but this turned out to be my #1 hostel in Japan – sugoi!
The owner, Hiroko, gave us directions and kindly picked us up from the subway station. She explained everything to us from restaurants, to buses to things to do in the city and surrounds. Hiro was incredibly kind and is one of those people you know is and was the most amazing mother.
She gave us a bag of fresh popcorn to snack on and invited us to try on kimonos at her place. Naturally we were thrilled by the opportunity and Rachel even managed to score us a Japanese cooking lessons in Hiro’s kitchen too.
We headed down to an izakaya down the road where Hiro recommended we walk. I can’t remember what it was called, but it had a red sign and was some of the worst food I’d had all trip. Every dish was messed up in some way, even chocolate ice cream, but yet it all just added to the hilariousness of the evening.
The staff were extremely patient and kind. They spent forever helping us translate things and make recommendations. We enjoyed a couple of good bottles of sake, which this time I photographed so as not to forget them. After loads of laughs we were froze our butts off and walked back to the hostel.
The next morning we took the bus as recommended by Hiro and headed off into Sapporo city. Just make sure you have the right change or use the change machine because I stupidly lost my ¥500 coin when the fare was only ¥250.
Before you reach Sapporo station there is a huge promenade that stretches across the city with gardens, benches and play equipment – a great public space.
We grabbed some breakfast at the Doutor coffee chain. For once not an American style coffee place like the rest of Asia, but still just a Nespresso style cup of crud anyway.
So we went in search of the museums and for Hokkaido cheesecake. I didn’t realise it when I was headed there, but Hokkaido dairy is quite famous. We found a chocolate place that did cheesecake, but it still felt like our cheesecake needs weren’t satiated.
Afterwards, we went to see the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. It’s quite small by most museum standards and cost ¥1,600 for the special exhibition and the spring showcase. I really enjoyed the traditional Japanese watercolours on the big canvas scrolls.
We had to get back to the hostel to meet Hiro and go shopping for dinner so we grabbed a quick hotdog and a Mos Burger and took the bus back. Hilariously my bus fare calamities continued. This time I put in the exact change for the fare shown and the bus driver asked me for another ¥180?! I have no idea why, but I figured there was no way I could have owed more especially since I paid double just this same morning.
We met up with Hiro and grabbed groceries. Finally a proper Japanese supermarket! This whole trip I’ve only been finding convenience stores. Everything was so cheap! Probably half the price of Australia and two thirds cheaper than eating out in Japan.
Hiro invited us up to her place and began the preparation. She seemed to want to do things herself at first so initially I talked with her husband Sato who showed me all his crazy old cameras and hiking exploits.
He gave me his forty year old Mamiya medium format film camera to play with, which for anyone who doesn’t know, is a serious camera. The huge aperture lens projected a crystal clear movie-like image onto the 3″ viewfinder. It was fully mechanical and came with a light meter.
I think three was a crowd in the kitchen so I vowed to make breakfast and continued to learn about Sato. He worked a long hard office life and after retirement he had pulled off some incredible journeys. Since retiring in his 60s (now 73) he climbed the 100 highest peaks in Japan and had a book with all the maps and every mountain ticked off. He also completed the pilgrimage around Shikoku island three times on foot and once by bicycle. Needless to say he was my hero and I really hope I have that kind of energy and good health when I’m his age.
Hiro and Rachel prepared a Katsu-don course with panko scallops. The roes were used in a traditional Hokkaido side dish with potato – oishi! The second course variation was a Katsu curry which is apparently for winners 😉 A meal for soldiers and athletes.
After dinner we got try kimonos. Rachel insisted I wear a kimono, but after seeing how much preparation goes into wearing a kimono we let Hiro off the hook because it took her 30 mins just to dress Rachel. Instead I wore Sato’s yukata from his pilgrimage of Shikoku. Many laughs, good times, great photos.
The next morning I think we were all looking a little tired from the long night. Hiro dropped us at the station on her way to a meeting for one of her many community groups. I tried to give Japanese coffee yet another chance because the shop had lots of different roasts, but sadly before I’d even played for it, the machine produced another watery cup of liquid crap.
Fortunately though we found some sweet Hokkaido cheesecake tartlets in the station and these thoroughly made up for the coffee! Best enjoyed with some strawberries.
Alas, it was time to begin our epic journey to Nagano for the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Crossing. Eight hours on trains lay ahead of us as we pretty much traversed half the country. A long journey, but it all becomes a sinch in good company. Good times in Sapporo!