Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Trips in Japan Tuesdays: Hokkaido

Tuesdays are hereby going to be centered around travel, particularly traveling in Japan. I love talking about cool vacation spots, even if those are one day trips close to home. I’ll start with Hokkaido because we went there for Golden Week last week.

For those who don’t know, Hokkaido is the northernmost island of the main four in Japan. It is shaped like a blotch of ink, and we flew directly to the center of this blotch to a small airport called Asahiyama.

We stayed there for 2 nights: The first night in Biei Village and the second in Shirogane Onsen Hotel.

Upon arrival, we rented a van and drove to nearby Biei where we ate lunch at the Hotel Biei Love (not a LOVE Hotel!). Biei is known for curry udon because local ingredients are used to make the udon (wheat) and curry (potatoes) and the beverage (milk) served with it.

After lunch, we went tree sightseeing. Really. I was pretty shocked about all this driving around, tree-map in hand, searching for specific trees just north of Biei Village. These trees set on the sides of farm fields seemed oddly familiar to me. Wisconsin has tons of scenes just like this. After a while, I got into it though. Many of these trees are accompanied by small parking lots for the tourists, back-stories about why the trees are famous, names, and even a few have souvenir stores. Yes, it’s odd, but some of these trees were used in movie scenes and advertisements. One, called the Mild Seven tree, was used in a Mild Seven cigarette ad, and is therefore a must-see if you go to Biei.

Late in the afternoon, we stopped by Yusuke’s Great Aunt’s house for a visit. They served us a big dinner and we ended up staying for a few hours. Aunt Fujie married a man from Hokkaido when she was a young woman and has lived there ever since. They used to run an asparagus farm. Yusuke’s mom is still close with her but had never visited her and wanted to do so before Aunt Fujie gets too old to accept visitors. She is now eighty, but looks to be sixty! We had a great time and they served Gengis-kan, Hokkaido’s version of grilled meat, along with an array of sushi, crab and veggies. We had a great time and Yusuke’s mom is still talking about it non-stop.

On the second day, we parted ways with Yusuke’s sister and her husband who went to Furano for the day. Furano is known for a cheese factory and a wine factory. There are lots other quaint things to see and do in Furano. If we didn’t have kids, it would have been a great way to spend the day. Apparently, they took the train there and just walked around all day.

Meanwhile, we took the kids to Asahiyama Zoo. You cannot go to this area of Japan and NOT take your kids to this ever-famous zoo. I am still unsure of why it is so famous though because we couldn’t actually see anything worthwhile. It was so crowded that we had to stand in the ticket line for one hour and by the time we entered, long lines extended out of every exhibit. It was a hot day, so we decided to walk around and see a few things while pretending to be excited for Ailin’s sake and then leave just before lunch. We saw two deer, the brown bear, a chimpanzee, a couple of gibbons, the orangutan, and a few Japanese Mountain monkeys, but none of them were doing anything exciting. We missed out on the all the cool stuff that this zoo is known for. In a word, it su-u-u-cked. But, such is life when you live in Japan and try to take your kids to a popular destination during Golden Week.

For lunch, we drove back to Biei Village and ate at a regular old soba shop on the main artery that runs through town. Very nearby is a Vegetable Tourist Center where tourists can sample fresh-roasted potatoes among other veggies, and they can buy and send asparagus to far-flung family and friends. It’s true. Japanese people often send veggies to each other in the mail. My mother-in-law was dying to send asparagus to all her friends. Yusuke and I were just hoping to sit down at the cafĂ© and enjoy a coffee along with a soft-serve cone.

We met up with Yusuke’s sister and her husband in the late afternoon and drove to Shirogane Onsen. It is located just south of Biei about 45 minutes. We enjoyed looking at the hundreds of skinny birch trees as we drove along the road to the hot spring. As soon as we arrived, we prepared to bathe in the hot spring (not an easy feat with 2 small kids, as it was their first time, so Ailin was quite excited until she got into the hot water. Then, she couldn’t wait to get out. Same for Luka.) After the bath, we had a huge Japanese-style dinner served in our room. Then, it was bedtime for the kids. Yusuke and his mom went across the hall to continue partying with Nanako and her husband.

On our last day, we tried to do some souvenir shopping around our hotel and found the waterfalls and the river that feeds our hot spring. If I had known about that, I would have appreciated our stay there much more. Truly magnificent.

On the way back to the airport, we stopped by the Blue Pond, which is located very near that river. We had to park and walk quite a ways to see it, but it was worth it. Reminds me a scene from the Harry Potter movies.

We did a lot more souvenir shopping at the airport before leaving to return to Tokyo. I made sure to bring back chocolate-covered and caramel-covered potato chips for my co-workers.

Eventually, I will post some lay outs about this trip and you'll see a much more personal perspective about our adventure to Hokkaido.


Vicky said...

Funny! You came to Hokkaido and we left!

Shirogane onsen brings back memories - Seiju and I did a lot of dating round there.... Sigh!

What's the name of that blue pool - I am not sure I have ever been there. I'd like to go!

Jill said...

Hey now--wait a minute!! Remember that I wanted to go to Hokkaido SO BAD when I came to Japan??? You said, "IT'S TOO FAR!!!"

I'm so jealous!

I guess Bill and I will have to trip over there and you'll have to take us to Hokkaido!


Mande said...

Vicky, I think the blue pond is actually called Aoi Ike or something like that. It is located on the road between Biei and Shirogane.

Jill, omg, it was SO expensive to go to Hokkaido! Although the plane ride is short, the expense is high! I think we spent almost as much on this trip as we do to travel to the USA. Mind you, it was Golden Week. Maybe in the off-season, it would be a bit cheaper.

Amy said...

I would love to visit the Vegetable Tourist Center! How cool!