So I mentioned last time [Rising Monkey 2008/1: Not The BBG In Japan] that the police questioned me when I first arrived in Sapporo. That's no big deal, really: they were questioning anyone who looked a bit unusual, i.e. non-Japanese. You see, Sapporo - like all the other places in Japan we visited in the latter half of June 2008 - is on the northern island of Hokkaido. And a few weeks after our visit, the G8 leaders were due to hold their 2008 summit in the Hokkaido spa town of Toya.
As a result, the whole of the island was in a flap while we were there. On the one hand, increased security precautions and escalating paranoia over the arrival of outsiders: on the other, local traders attempting to outdo each other with cheesy souvenirs, and restaurants offering special menus from all the G8 countries. Local media coverage in the runup to the G8 summit assumed that the event would put Toya on the world stage: but two months after the event, it's sad to look back and realise that the world wasn't all that interested. It's possible that the one abiding legacy of the Toya summit will be Guilala, the new film from maverick director Minoru Kawasaki, which depicts the G8 leaders being terrorised by a giant monster.
We didn't visit Toya ourselves: that's so 2006. But the second half of our holiday commenced in another Hokkaido spa town, Noboribetsu Onsen. It's a small place, small enough that it failed to attract the attention of the Google Street View van when it toured Japan earlier in the year (unlike our other destinations of Sapporo, Hakodate and Otaru). We stayed at one of the best hotels in town, the Dai-Ichi Takimotokan (booked via Japanese Guest Houses), whose excellent service started early with a free shuttle bus to carry us from Sapporo straight to the front door. The hotel backs directly onto the volcanic mountains, quaintly referred to as 'hells', where the hot water comes from. It offers a bewildering variety of bathing pools with varying degrees of temperature, mineral content and exposure to the elements. A quick investigation of the hotel plan suggests that, as ever, the men get the better of the deal, with more pools on offer and the ability to parade your nakedness in front of the steaming mountains (not to mention in front of any passing hikers with binoculars). Still, even though I only do it once every two years or so, it always amazes me how quickly I drift into that slow-motion daze you enter while wandering from one hot bath to another.
The baths are the main reason why people visit Noboribetsu, but once you've got all these tourists in one place, it makes sense to find other things for them to spend their money on. Tourist attractions in the town include an aquarium and - thanks to the Rough Guide writeup - what we kept referring to as Deplorable Bear Park (as seen on TV). But the best option is Edo Wonderland, a theme park depicting Japanese life in olden days. There's a packed programme of scheduled events: no sooner had a samurai greeted us at the front gate than he was shooing us to the other side of the complex, in time for an oiran parade like the one in the movie Sakuran but without the Ringo Shiina soundtrack. There was a period theatre show which turned out to be an excuse for Generation Game-style hilarity, as an audience member was coerced into playing the lead role, reading his lines off a fan. There were not one, but two ninja shows: an outdoor one with lots of OTT action, and an indoor one with cunning use of lighting for its effects. Outside of the scheduled shows, there were lots of funhouse attractions too: a ninja house with hidden passageways and other tricks, a yokai demon display, and a temple haunted by demonic cats.
All this, and restaurants too. Here's The Belated Birthday Girl's pick of the best places to eat and drink in Noboribetsu, in convenient bullet point form:
- Dai-Ichi Takimotokan, where we were staying. Noboribetsu is the sort of resort town where, once a hotel has you, they like to keep you there. So Dai-Ichi Takimotokan's restaurant offers a huge range of food in their all-you-can-eat buffets for both breakfast and dinner, included in the stay price. The crab on the dinner menu was a particular highlight, while the breakfast includes both Japanese and Western favourites.
- Tanukichi is one of the restaurants inside the Edo Wonderland complex: look for the big raccoon outside (hence the name). Their katsu curries were rather fine. Beware if you're running to a tight schedule in the park, though - the service can be a little slow sometimes, particularly if (to take an example at random) you're stuck behind a party of Koreans who've decided to bring their own food in with them.
- Er, that's it. Plenty of other hotels in Noboribetsu do their own all-you-can-eat buffets (locally referred to as 'Viking options'), and there are other places in town that we didn't get to try: but if you're staying at the Dai-Ichi there's no real reason to go anywhere else.
Despite the appeal of bears and ninjas, the Hells are Noboribetsu's selling point. If you fancy exploring them, download the tourist association's leaflet A Guide To Walking Trails In Noboribetsu Onsen (6.8Mb PDF) for details of the various routes through the mountains. The nice easy one is the flat route towards the Jigokudani Haridashi observation platform: at night it's lit up with beacons for even greater effect. The path that requires a bit more effort meanders up and down the mountains towards the Oyunuma pond: it isn't lit up at night (though guided tours are available from the bus station), so go during the day and try out the entertaining quiz questions that lead you from one signpost to the next. For maximum nighttime fun, on summer weekend nights catch the Demons' Fireworks at Jigokudani Observatory, a jaw-dropping spectacle when the Hells are occupied by wild drummers and demons carrying flamethrowers. Scenery this dramatic doesn't really need theatrical gestures to enhance it, but they're very welcome all the same.
Next stop on our short tour was a three night stop in the city of Hakodate (easily reached from Noboribetsu, courtesy of JR Hokkaido and the ever-useful Jorudan Train Route Finder). It's a harbour town, so most of its tourism is based around that. Our base camp - the charmingly named Winning Hotel - gave us a splendid deal on a corner room with a view across the harbour, plus a fabulous Japanese breakfast which only cost the £7.50 that a Premier Inn would charge you for sausage and eggs back home. (Booking via the hotel website will need a degree of Japanese language ability or some lucky guesswork, I'm afraid.) Winning Hotel occupies the top floors of a large complex that includes a slightly creepy museum dedicated to local enka singer Kitajima Saburo. The funny thing is, the guidebooks all say that the hotel contains a museum dedicated to local pop band Glay: Wikipedia suggests it closed down in 2007, so I suspect Glay's appeal has recently become more selective, to quote Ian Faith.
What do you do in Hakodate? Whatever you choose, you'll probably be doing it at a 45 degree angle, as a large part of the city is built on the slopes leading down from Mount Hakodate to the harbour. The Winning Hotel was conveniently located in a handy central location at the base of the slopes, allowing you to spend a morning investigating all the slopes to one side, and an afternoon going in the opposite direction. Just going up, along and down the streets makes for an interesting time in its own right: the ones to the west work better, taking in assorted government and church buildings, as well as the former home of Carl Raymon, the Sausage King of Hakodate. And, of course, you've got the biggest slope of all at the end: Mount Hakodate itself, best accessed via the ropeway, even on misty days when (as a sign warned us in English) 'your view may be bothered'. At the top you've got one of the best views in Japan, plus an interesting movie on the history of Hakodate with a sneaky twist in its tail, and a giftshop that sold me my third novelty single of the holiday - Marimokkori by Coricori, an ode to the Hokkaido cartoon mascot whose name literally translates as Algy Bigknackers.
And on that appetising image, let's move on to The BBG's food and drink selections for Hakodate...
- Kuraya was a discovery we made just by wandering around the backstreets: look for a big blue bar named The Very Very Beast, and Kuraya is on its ground floor. A friendly atmosphere and a great selection of food: we can recommend the squid, which is a local speciality. A lot of the tables are cook-yourself, so if your fish ends up overdone you've only yourself to blame.
- Mei Mei Tei specialises in jingisukan, the Mongolian self-barbecued lamb that's a Hokkaido favourite: but seafood and vegetable options are available for those who prefer them, though you've still got to cook them using a big lump of pork rind. It's great fun, but be warned that like a lot of places in Hakodate they tend to shut up shop around 10pm.
- Ichimonji in Yunokawa Onsen tells you on its menu exactly what their speciality is: "only ramen... but ramen." Another local speciality that vegetarians will have a problem with, as even the meat-free versions use meaty stocks and a pork base. But ramen makes for the perfect Japanese lunch, and this friendly local place does it beautifully.
- Lucky Pierrot is a Hakodate legend: a chain of crazy burger bars, each one decorated to a different scheme. The most famous is the one near Jujigai streetcar stop, which is covered in Christmas decorations all year round. The burgers themselves (including fish ones) are huge, juicy, drippy, multi-napkin affairs, great fun to eat and easily washed down with green tea or their excellent mocha milkshakes. We also visited the branch just down the road from Winning Hotel, and ate ice cream while sitting in swings.
The slopes are one way for a tourist to navigate their way through Hakodate: the other is via the city's streetcar system, whose two lines - peculiarly numbered 2 and 5 - trace through the spine of the city. For Y600 you can get a one-day unlimited travel pass, in the form of a souvenir booklet that includes a cartoon map and space to keep an hour-by-hour log of the weather. Both routes will take you to the Goryokaku Tower (with fine views over the city, and some nice historical exhibits too) and the historic star-shaped fort next door. A bit further along will take you to Yunokawa Onsen, where it's possible to avoid the big resort hotels and blag a free footbath on the street near the tram stop. Meanwhile, at the other end of the line, the 5 will take you out to the foreigners' cemetery, while the 2 will drop you off at Cape Tachimachi with - if you're brave enough to walk down five minutes of steep stone steps - terrific views of the sea.
A couple of wholly unrelated items for the end of your Hakodate tourist checklist. If you can get yourself out of bed in time for the first tram at 7am, head down to the morning market to catch the restaurant owners picking up their requirements for the day. If nothing else, it'll convince you that market selling techniques are the same the world over: we ended up marvelling at a fish trader literally hurling live crabs and scallops to the ground as he kept renegotiating his price for them. It's also possible to grab breakfast while you're there, either by blagging free nibbles from the stalls or by going into one of the early-opening restaurants. Look out for the one with the Dancing Don, a patented donburi rice dish jazzed up a bit by the addition of a live squid on top. More sedate pleasures can be found at the Museum Of Northern Peoples, with lots of fascinating information about the life and culture of the Ainu people who used to live in Hokkaido.
Noboribetsu has hot springs, Hakodate has a harbour: but our water in Otaru, the final stop of our tour, comes in canal form, and the Hotel Sonia had rather nice views of the canal from its bedroom windows. Although I'm ashamed to say that I'm more interested in how the Sonia is the first hotel I've ever stayed in with a high definition TV as standard. You'd probably expect, in a hideously stereotyped fashion, that Japanese HD TV would be more impressive than anything we have back home: but the thing is, you'd be right. Everything looks crisper and shinier, although the heavy use of on-screen captions make it painfully obvious how much dead space is left at the sides of the 16:9 widescreen for people with old square tellies. It gave a whole new dimension to the shows that had become The BBG's favourites during her three months in Japan: language-based gameshows like Tamori's Japonica Logos and Quiz Hexagon II (the latter's notorious for its complicated rules and simple contestants), the cheery sports reporting of Hiroshi Mochizuki on the NHK morning show, and the 8.15am soap Hitomi whose opening credit music told her she was late for breakfast. Sadly, there's no way of seeing these shows back home in England without forking out for a new satellite setup. Nope, no way at all.
Otaru's a sleepy little place, mainly geared towards day trippers. They come in early in the morning, spend all day clogging up the shops that sell music boxes and the like, take some time out to wait for the steam clock to do its thing, and then come 6pm they're all off home again. After seven, the streets are literally deserted save for the odd skateboarder in the public squares. But there are certainly things to do in Otaru, and the tourist information office will tell you more. I recommend you visit them even though they conned me into buying (unheard) yet another novelty CD, Otaru-nami. I didn't discover until I was well clear of the till that it was just 63 minutes and 27 seconds of field recordings of the sea at Otaru. A better musical souvenir of the town turned out to be the song Genkai Funauta, which we caught Kiyoshi Hikawa performing at the end of his TV variety show in a Mike Yarwood-style 'and this is me' moment. (Yes, Jonathan Ross fans, you've seen him before.)
As Otaru-nami reminds us that the sea isn't too far away, one enjoyable thing to do is to take a ferry boat out to Otaru Aquarium. The boat ride is part of the fun, as the boatmen cunningly use fistfuls of bread to ensure that you're accompanied by a cloud of seagulls for the majority of the journey. As for the aquarium, it's as much fun as aquaria can be: the main highlights are to be found outside the main building, with scheduled shows by the walruses, sealions, and the worst trained penguins on the planet. (By the end of the penguin show, the trainer had given up persuading them to do high dives and was reduced to literally pushing them into the water.) Take the charming half-timbered Stroller bus back into town, and you can stop off on the way at the lavishly decorated Kihinkan Villa, former home of Otaru's leading herring family, the Aoyamas. By which I mean they traded in herring, not... oh, you know. Anyway, that leads us on nicely to The BBG's culinary selections for Otaru:
- Kihinkan Villa is pretty enough in its own right, but it becomes even more attractive when you visit its restaurant with views over the gardens. Their reasonable soba lunch options include herring (of course) and tempura.
- Otaru Beer is easily the best of the Hokkaido microbreweries we visited on this trip. Their beers are tasty, interesting and served in most local restaurants, but their beer hall is an experience in its own right: Japanese beer served in a German environment with old English music and a menu partly written in Russian. The meals are enormous - huge potatoes baked in salt, giant herrings for a measly three quid each - and can be augmented with various beer nibbles if they're somehow not enough for you. We were so astonished that we forgot to use our 10% discount voucher (see the widely-available Otaru Beer promotional leaflets for details).
- Uomasa is just one of the dozens of sushi restaurants that Otaru is famous for - we only picked it because a couple of our usual guide books recommended it. We went for two different sushi sets, and mixed and matched between the two. Not quite as earth-shattering as our sushi in Niigata in 2006, but an enjoyable experience anyway.
- Kita No Ice Cream is a legend in Otaru - a backstreet ice cream stall that sells some of the most barmy flavours possible. Their highlights include sea urchin, squid ink, natto (sadly unavailable on the day we visited), tofu, wasabi and beer. We can report that the sea urchin and wasabi are tasty but alarming, and we wish we'd had time to try more of them.
We spent our final afternoon in the Otaru Museum annex building - the main one's a bit further out of town, but accessible via the Stroller bus. It's effectively two museums in one: the first depicts the history of the town, the second is a more traditional natural history museum. The highlight of the latter is a 'hibernating' stuffed bear with compressed air subtly breathing out of its nostrils: while the centrepiece of the Otaru historical artefacts is the stuffed corpse of a dog who famously rode with the local fire brigade and helped them out, somehow. It's an enjoyable place to visit, and I wish I could find a proper website for the place to round this paragraph out properly, but I can't. Sorry.
From there it was back to Sapporo and the airport hotel, and you know how it goes from there. The G8 leaders may not have particularly enjoyed themselves during their time in Hokkaido, but I can tell you that we certainly did. And given that new camcorder I mentioned a while back, inevitably there are holiday videos for you to look at. They've been scattered throughout these two pieces in assorted links, but they're also available in a one-stop shop YouTube playlist called Japan 2008. A mixture of events we've filmed ourselves as well as commercial videos of TV shows and music we caught over there, it's become such a complex affair that it has its own credit roll. It's about an hour long in total, and here it is:
Remember those days when you could avoid someone's tedious holiday videos simply by staying away from their house? I'm rather amused that those days are long gone. Being a monkey, and all.