My fourth visit to Japan: you already know about the other three. But you probably also already know that this year's trip was undertaken in different circumstances from the previous ones. Since the beginning of April, The Belated Birthday Girl had been out in Sapporo on a ten-week language course. When I went out there in mid-June to bring her back, it became a holiday of two halves: the first week spent in Sapporo while she wrapped up her course, the second week spent touring around other towns on the northern island of Hokkaido.
So this travel piece will take its structure from the holiday, and come in two distinct chunks (with a break for the Edinburgh Festival in the middle). In Part One, I'll look at Sapporo, trying to avoid overlapping with The BBG's own bloggings on the city. In Part Two, we'll focus on our tour of Noboribetsu, Hakodate and Otaru: The BBG may pipe up once or twice in there to let you know about the food and drink options available. Audio-visual supplementary material is available from a number of sources: photos on my Moblog and her Picasa, videos on my YouTube channel and (New Thrill Alert!) hers too.
The trip started with my first long-haul flight in nearly two years, thanks to our Year Without Planes initiative in 2007. The process doesn't seem to have changed all that much, apart from the Japanese now taking the paranoid American approach to greeting foreign visitors with photos and fingerprinting. Happily, Japan Airlines continue to treat their passengers in a more civilised fashion with their splendid in-flight entertainment system, where the games now include sudoku and the movies include a large selection of subtitled Japanese hits. Highlights from the June 2008 programme included The Chasing World, a bonkers bit of carefully disguised science fiction: Free And Easy 14: Big Picnic Pilgrimage, a charming episode in a long-running comedy franchise based on a fishing manga: and Tsubaki Sanjuro, a redundant but entertaining shot-for-shot colour remake of Kurosawa's original.
The reunion with The Belated Birthday Girl after 71 days apart was all you'd expect, apart from the bit where I was taken aside for questioning by the police. (A story for Part Two, I think.) Our catching up was done at the Hotel Monterey Edelhof, our base camp for the Sapporo leg of the holiday. It's a perfectly serviceable city centre hotel which probably suffered by comparison with the JR Tower, where we stayed last time we were in town. The Edelhof has a high-rise bar and restaurant just like the JR does, but its view is of the less interesting side of the city, and the addition of a Y2000 cover charge on top of our Y4000 bar bill came as a nasty surprise. Still, the main purpose of the Edelhof was as a study location for The BBG's final exam week, and it worked just fine for that, with free internet and a handy branch of Tully's nearby for breakfast and snacks.
But this wasn't our only Sapporo hotel. To get ahead of ourselves a little: after our week at the Edelhof and another week touring Hokkaido, we needed to spend our final night of the holiday back in Sapporo to catch an early plane home. And after a lot of faffing round - mainly caused by the hotel changing its name from Mitsui Urban Hotel while we were planning the trip - we ended up spending our final night in Hotel Coms, which is actually inside the New Chitose Airport building. It's perfectly placed for the airport, of course, though you should note that the terminal doesn't open until 6.20am and plan your alarm call accordingly. Plane spotters will have a whale of a time: our room overlooked one of the departure gates, with a perfect view of planes taking off and landing on the nearby runway. (Relax, the last plane's around 10pm.) It's also possible to have a great view of the action from a window seat at the hotel's Rob Roy bar, and grab a cheap glass of sake while you're doing it.
Our weekdays in Sapporo had a well-defined structure. In the morning, breakfast at Tully's, then back to the Edelhof where The BBG could do her Japanese homework while I goofed off on the hotel broadband. In the evening, we'd both go out for dinner and a bit of an explore. But in the afternoons, The BBG had three and a half hours of lessons at the JLI, leaving me to fend for myself in a city where I didn't speak the language. I usually make a token attempt each holiday at increasing my tourist-level Japanese, and this year I tried Earworms. The theory is this: we remember words better with music behind them, which is why to this day I can rattle off huge chunks of the Kennedy assassination news coverage verbatim. So if someone reads a tourist phrasebook over a musical backing track, that should make it more memorable, right? Well, that might be true if the music was in the least bit interesting. A few phrases managed to stick - irritatingly, ones I already knew - but it may work better for you. (Yes, I know that example's in Spanish. It uses the same tune and structure as the Japanese version, for maximum confusion.)
To be honest, finding your way around Sapporo with virtually no Japanese language skills isn't that difficult. With a city built on a numeric grid, it's hard to get lost: and personal experience has shown that knowing the Japanese for "thank you" and "I'm sorry" gets you a hell of a long way. And there's lots of fun visual stuff in town that doesn't require the language to appreciate it. Such as TV Tower, the huge red landmark in the centre of the city. As its Japanese name 'terebito' sounds a little bit like the phrase for 'TV Dad', it's given people an excuse to anthropomorphise a 150m metal structure into a kindly father figure (apparently, a Japanese sexual fetish in its own right). So when you get to the observation deck at the top with its excellent views of the city, you can also buy tons of souvenir crap featuring TV Dad and his immediate family. My favourite was a cute little TV Dad single by local band Curly Girly, which fiendishly plays on an infinite loop in the gift shop.
A slightly higher level of language skill is required to negotiate Sapporo's bus system (as opposed to its excellent subway): but a number 14 from Maruyama Koen and a short walk will get you to Sapporo Winter Sports Museum, which has pre-recorded guides in all the major world languages. The 1972 Winter Olympics is one of the first things people think of when you mention Sapporo (yeah, we'll get to beer in a minute). The museum has a fine display relating to the event, but also looks at how skiing became popular in Japan in the first place: inevitably, it's down to members of the Japanese Royal Family with too much time on their hands. You also get a host of fun interactive exhibits (though on the day I visited, a few major ones like the ski-jump simulator were out of order): and for a few hundred extra yen, you can take a chairlift to the top of the Okurayama Ski Jump ramp and look across the city from there.
But yes, Sapporo is famous for beer as well. Although, whisper it quietly, I've always preferred Asahi. We visited Sapporo Biergarten back in 2006, so this time we concentrated on their rivals, and the Asahi Brewery on the outskirts of town. The leaflets say free tours are available for 'students of brewing' - I'm not sure if lapsed membership of CAMRA counts, but they let us tag along with a scheduled tour anyway, although I got the impression that they'd prefer you to call ahead first. Our Sunday afternoon tour group was a strange one: us, a couple of families, the entire Hokkaido University Lacrosse Team, and three quiet note-taking girls who we assumed were spies from a rival brewery. The tour's conducted entirely in Japanese, but there are plenty of bilingual display panels to tell you what's going on: though you may prefer to visit on a day other than Sunday, the one day when all the machines are turned off. Three glasses of beer made for a surprising and refreshing end to what I need to remind you is a free tour.
The classic mistake beer fans make in Sapporo is to leap on the first bus they see that goes to the Sapporo Factory: it used to be the home beer's main brewery, it's true, and there's still a room or two full of the old equipment. But nowadays it's just another Japanese megamall, crammed with shops, restaurants and a multiplex cinema. Having said that, it's got an interesting cultural side to it too. The Sapporo City Photo Library has some historical photos of the city, although sadly the Japanese captions were no use to me apart from the dates. But attached to the permanent display was a temporary exhibit by the local Hasselblad Photo Club, whose photos were excellent. Also, in the middle of the usual collection of tat shops you get at these places, was a small enclave of local craftspeople. Sadly, the only thing I bought from there was the most industrially manufactured item on display, a CD of Niiyama Yukihiro's amusingly irritating song about local delicacy Jingisukan.
While we're on the subject of Sapporo Factory and the United Cinemas multiplex... The Puzzle Of God is the new film by our old chum Takashi Miike, which of course we saw in Japanese without subtitles, a game we've played before. I think it goes like this: there are two twin brothers, a science whiz and a slacker guitarist. The science whiz goes off to travel the world, and leaves the slacker to impersonate him at college. Slacker struggles in lectures (cue much comedy gurning), but gets on well with the young female student who's into that current craze for working on a particle accelerator that's about to DESTROY THE FUCKING UNIVERSE. It's heavily dialogue-driven, and dialogue about wave-particle duality at that, so I was always going to struggle. At one point I could even feel my brain rebelling, Homer Simpson style: "they've been in this room for five minutes and they're still talking..." But even if you miss the subtleties that The BBG caught, it's still obvious that Miike is as smart a storyteller as ever, and the inevitable apocalypse at the climax is good fun. Definitely one to rewatch once some English subs have been bolted onto it.
For more traditional (and yet less traditional) visual arts, head for the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. There are two separate exhibition spaces, each of which I think charges a separate entrance fee, although I may well have got that wrong. On the day I visited, the smaller hall had Hokkaido Three Dimensional Art '08, a series of new constructions and sculptures by local artists. This one was at its best when the artists took the title literally, with works that spread across the walls and the floor of the gallery. Meanwhile, the main hall had a hefty retrospective of local artist Tamako Kataoka, who died recently at the grand old age of 103. A single English paragraph on a display panel sets up her story beautifully: as a female artist, she spent years struggling to get taken seriously, but once she'd been accepted by the Academy she began to seriously cut loose. The chronological hanging means you get to see the exact moment when this happened, in the transition from traditional portraits to the wild excesses of Night On Sakurajima (see picture above). It's a lovely introduction to an unfamiliar artist, finishing off with a fun picture of Mount Fuji she knocked off when she was 99.
Sapporo being a big Japanese city, there are festivals happening all the time. I was just a few days late for the dance dance revolution of Yosakoi Soran 2008, but was there in time for the Hokkaido Shrine Festival at the Hokkaido Jingu Shinto Shrine. It's basically the Shinto equivalent of an enormous church fete, an open weekend with dancing, poetry, music, martial arts displays, parades - all good stuff for, say, someone who'd just bought a new camcorder and was looking for somewhere to try it out. There was even a performance by the winners of the Yosakoi Soran to make me feel better about missing it. The climax came on the following Monday, with a huge parade of floats and cars running though the streets of the city.
Shinto may be one of the key Japanese religions, but baseball is another one. So, in the spirit of our 2003 Aussie Rules experiment, we bought a book to bone up on the rules (because we're British), purchased tickets via the local Lawson convenience store, and followed the crowds to Sapporo Dome. The match was a symbolic food fight between the local Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and the visiting Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The venue facilities were fine - junk food stalls aplenty, roaming beer vendors in the aisles - and the crowds were a delight, with choreographed routines every time a new player came in to bat. If only it had been a better game: the Fighters were in terrible form, the Swallows weren't much better, and only a last-minute home run by the Fighters gave them a modicum of dignity in their 3-1 defeat. But as a people-watching exercise it was a hoot, down to the fans politely queueing after the game to recycle their rubbish.
So at the end of the week, The BBG took her final exam (and quite frankly ripped the arse out of it, with an excellent final mark), and I got to tag along with her classmates for the farewell meal afterwards. From there, it was off to Noboribetsu for the start of a well-earned week of Not Learning Japanese. But that's another story...
(to be concluded in Rising Monkey 2008/2: Hanging Out With Algy Bigknackers)
[amazon.co.jp links above, from left to right: The Chasing World DVD, Free And Easy 14: Big Picnic Pilgrimage DVD, Tsubaki Sanjuro DVD, Jingisukan CD single]