Thursday, 30 August 2018

Homeward bound

We got up a bit early today to account for last minute packing.  Got ourselves organised and then went down for breakfast - toast and pancakes today.  It was a horrible day, the rain was pouring down, so Mr Kimura took us to Hirosaki station so we wouldn’t get wet and we would be sure of a seat.  Then it was a day of transport: local train from Hirosaki to Shin Aomori (trundled along) then the Hayabusa Shinkansen from Shin Aomori to Shin Hakodate (horror of horrors it was 4 minutes late arriving into Shin Aomori, but it did make up time, a Super-Hokuto Express from Shin Hakodate to Minami-Chitose and then a 3 minute ride on the Airport Rapid to Chitose Airport.

Me and a monkey or is it an ape?

We were in no rush, so we walked slowly down ‘Smile Walk’ which had loads of massive Steiff toys set up in kawaii formations.  Then to check-in, straight through security and passport control and into our business lounge.  The lounge wasn’t massive, but then Chitose airport isn’t massive - mainly internal flights and international flights to south-east China - saw departures to Seoul and Taiwan and of course us to Hong Kong.

So, another good holiday in Japan.  Aren’t they always?  Must say that in the last two years, the amount of English around has significantly improved again, making travel a lot easier for us non-Japanese speakers and this in Hokkaido which is in the boonies really.  We didn’t hear another English accent the whole time we were here - we spoke to a Kiwi, a couple of Aussies, but apart from that it was all Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese.  It will be strange to go home to where everyone is white and speaks like us again and of course I will relish the fact that I will be able to read everything again.

I was able to do a lot more research this time into day trips - tapping into trip advisor and finding various blogs (many of which seem to be Singaporean - which is funny as it was a Singaporean blog from which I got loads of ideas for Malaysia last year!) .  It was this research which got us to the science muesum in Asahikawa and the lavender fields of Furano.  I can only imagine it will be even easier next time we come.  However, saying that I still think there are lots of hidden gems in Japan which we have no chance of finding.  The biggest source of tourism is still internal tourism, meaning that there isn’t a massive need to get brochures and ideas printed into English, especially as there are so few of us are around and if you print your material in English, that could mean that foreigners may turn up, expecting staff to speak English which could be a stretch for places stuck in the middle of no-where.  Although Matt can read and speak Japanese, that doesn’t mean that staff in tourist offices readily tell him about places off the beaten track.  That science museum for example was AMAZING but we didn’t see one flyer for it even in the town it was based, however, their staff did speak English and they gave us a well written multi-lingual brochure to guide us round (which we stupidly left behind - real shame!)

Rubbish bins - there are no rubbish bins on the streets of Japan anymore.  Neither of us remember this from previous visits so it must be new.  It is a real pain if you are a visitor on day trips.  There were a number of times when we were walking around with rucksacks full of empty packaging after having a bento for lunch and cold drinks.  And of course, in Japan they package everything up to the hilt so our bags were very much stuffed with it.  It got ridiculous and there were a number of times when we thought about getting a train one stop down the line and back just so we could get rid of our rubbish into the train bins.  On the day I went shopping in Sapporo by myself, I was having to carry extra bags because I had the empties of a lunchtime bento and about 4 bottles of drink (it was a hot day) to carry around with me as well as my shopping.  In the end I found a large convi store with a bin and stuffed it full of my rubbish after buying yet another cold drink.  I can understand reasons not to have bins but surely if you provide takeaway food in plastic packaging, you should provide a bin to put the empties in as a matter of course?

Oh, notes to ourselves for next time:
+ Don’t take rain coats, take retractable umbrellas.  It is too hot to wear coats - too much like boil in the bag.  Big umbrellas are a pain to carry, but retractable ones would be perfect and that’s what everyone uses - for rain or sunshine
+ Matt - don’t take too many clothes, just one pair of jeans and one pair of shorts.  Take extra pants and only a few pairs of socks
+ Look into doing another homestay - more fun and more Japanese for all of us.

Train Circuit

Excited for his journey on the resort train
Today was our last day, continuing our theme of having easy days not doing much, we decided to spend it on....trains.  We had spotted a local 'resort' train, Resort Shirakami, earlier in the week and Matt had booked us tickets.

Mr Kinura drove us to the nearest station where it stops.  It arrived on time and we got ourselves settled.  The train had huge big windows and the scenery was amazing.  We got a proper view of Mt Iwaki today - no clouds, but plenty of haze, but even so it was good to finally see it.  We travelled past loads of apple orchards, some apples were wrapped up in paper bags - I'm guessing to do with keeping the colour right etc.   Then we headed to the coast (Japan Sea coast) and we hugged the coast for a good 2 hours.  We were treated to a shamisen performance and sing-a-long (well if you knew the words!)  Here the train slowed down so we could take in the scenery.  It even stopped at one station to let us all off the train and wonder down to the shore.  This was the spot where a famous poet comes from - so there was a dedication to him which people were crowding round - obviously no interest for us, so we looked out to see and were hoping to see a shark or whale or something, not to be though.

The elusive Mt. Iwaki
The train then hooted 3 times and we all got back on again.  We trundled through the scenery, there were loads of rice fields which were attracting lots of birds.  The most common was a long necked white bird with a long beak, we aren't sure what they are, but they looked like storks / herons.  We also saw lots of birds of prey.  In fact we were all glued to the windows, watching the world go by ad enjoying the rural scenery and nature, a very pleasant way to spend 3 hours.

Our posh train at Senjōjiki station
At the end of the scenic part of the trip we hopped off the train and waited for the Tsugaru Limited Express to take us back to Hirosaki.  Once again the scenery was beautiful, as we went through a virgin beech forest (World Heritage site) looked down over vallies, enjoyed watching the wildlife in the rice fields etc.  At one point Matt yelled out sharply!  I thought he had forgotten his computer or something, but it turns out he saw a brown bear down by a river.  No-one else saw it, but we believe him, he was overjoyed and alarmed all at the same time (I wouldn't be surprised if the bear heard him shout!)

Hottest onsen of the trip
We got back to Hirosaki around 3, and then got the bus back to our house.  I then sent Matt and Tom out to play baseball whilst I packed the three suitcases.  This time trying to even out the load so they weigh the same (turned out I did good, 13.1kg, 13.3kg and 16.3kg - considering our suitcases vary greatly in size I was quite impressed!)

Mr Kimura took us to the onsen for 5pm.  This time we had booked a family bath as the boys were feeling sorry for me always having to go by myself.  The problem with doing a family bath is that you don’t get the range of baths you get when you have a regular onsen, but for me I have someone to share it with and talk to.  We had already been to the main onsen so we weren’t ‘missing out’ by having a family bath.

With the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Kimura
We got to our room and went in - the first room had sofas and a tv in it.  Good start, then a changing room, and then the shower and bath room.  We opened the room to the bath and wow, the heat hit us, this was going to be a hot one.  Tom got in first, he pulled a face as he lowered his body in.  He turned red pretty quickly.  Then Matt braved it - he confirmed that it was quite hot.  I was last and yes it was hot, hot, hot.  None of us could stand it for too long, so we spent the hour going in, coming out, dousing ourselves in cold water, having a sit on the sofa, and then going back in again.  An hour was more than enough and as you can see from the photo we all had comedy red faces by the end of it.
A bit of miso ramen for tea

Mr Kimura picked us up at the pre-arranged time and took us back home.  We then went out looking for tea.  We had decided on Ramen as there was a ramen shop quite close to the house and we all had floppy legs after the onsen, but when we got there, we found it closed - they had run out of soup!!!!!   We then walked until we found something, the only restaurant we could find was a Chinese, so that is what we went for.  Tom had an enormous bowl of ramen, Matt had fried rice (he missed the karage on the menu much to his disgruntlement) and I had mahboh tofu which is a dish I’ve always wondered about (sort of spicy savoury mince and chopped up tofu in a sauce) I quite enjoyed it although think they were a little heavy handed on the old msg.

We then walked back to the house, got a photo taken of all of us together and gave them the last Ingleton pebble to pass on.  Then bed for Tom and whisky, dodgy cheese and chat for us.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018


Eye on the ball?
Today we had another easy day.  The morning was spent having a late breakfast all alone.  I haven't really explained the set up in this B and B.  It isn't what I would call a regular B and B, more a homestay.  Mrs Kimura is an admin person at the local elementary school (they went back last Tuesday) and Mr Kimura used to be a national gymnast - there are news clippings and momentos of his time being a gymnast all over the house (you would never guess it now to look at him).

Winding up to pitch
They live in an absolutely MASSIVE house, there are rooms absolutely everywhere and it is typically Japanese - in that there are sliding doors and the layout doesn't quite make sense e.g. the shower room  is immediately adjacent to the kitchen - and it is only a blind that separates the two (modesty isn't as important in Japanese houses).

Mt. Iwaki from Hirosaki
The house is comfortably messy - i.e. there are piles of stuff everywhere, momentos everywhere, the furniture is haphazard, nothing matches, all manner of stuff on the walls, but it makes it friendly and comfortable.  In our room we have a fridge and outside we have a microwave and another fridge /freezer and she has provided plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, chopsticks etc, meaning we can heat stuff up and eat it in if we wish, which is a godsend as we are next door to a massive supermarket selling great and cheap food.  As you know we are in a massive room, next door to us is a room which has 'Private NHK' on it.  It is basically the local office for NHK translation services (we think).  Downstairs, there is an office where more people work.

Basically people are in and out all day, sometimes people bring their children with them whilst they work and the kids just hang out downstairs.  We don't have a key to the house because the house is never empty, even if it was I don't think they would ever lock it.  I wonder if there is even a key?  Matt says there is a plaque outside the house saying Aomori Prefecture Gymnastics Association - so that is happening here as well. It is a community hub, all very friendly.
Apples - symbol of Aomori Prefecture

They said that they set up the B and B business after their two children left - a big house, too quiet etc and they like meeting people.  They are certainly friendly.  Their daughter is married to a Finn and living in Finland and their son went to Oxford University and is married to a Japanese lady, they live in Tokyo, so I guess they have a new family of workers and B&B guests to keep them happy and the place busy.

We aren't sure if they ever sleep, we tend to leave them by the telly around 10/11pm and today when Matt got up for the toilet at 5.45, he could hear them up already.  They must think we are really lazy!!!!

Anyway, I digress, we had breakfast and then headed out to the park for a spot of baseball.  It is hotter today so we did everything a little slower.  We got back to the house, got our day sacks and headed out for the bus to Hirosaki Station, from where we were to get the bus to the Ringo Kōen, or Apple Park.  This place is the biggest apple producer in Japan and very proud of them.  We got there and found out that we missed the bus by 1 minute (and of course being Japanese, the bus left on time!)  The next bus was in 2 hours time - no!!!!!!  Matt made a pained expression to the lady in the information booth, so she told us about another bus we could get which drops us 5 minutes walk away - hurray.  We still had to wait about 40 minutes, but way better than 2 hours!

Carefully picking apples
Tom's 3 fruit
We arrived at the Apple Park at noon.  It was hot, and as seems to be usual, it was empty, almost ghostly empty.  It was open though.  From the park is a lovely view of the local mountain, Mt Irwaki, it is a bit like Fuji in that it is a perfectly triangular mountain.  However, we haven't seen it in its full splendour since arriving in Hirosaki because it has had a hat of cloud on it.  We were hoping today would be different, not the case, it stubbornly held on to its clouds!!!!

After admiring the view, we headed to the cafe where we had been promised all sorts of apply based treats.  We weren't disappointed, we all chose the same: apple katsu curry.  The katsu was slices of apple, wrapped in thin slices of pork and dipped in egg, panko  and deep fried.  They tasted really good and the curry was full of apple too.  It came with a salad: cabbage and apple, with 3 different apple dressings to choose from.  All this was washed down juice and it was all delicious.  We were going to have apple pie for pudding, but we were all too full - shame.

We then went to do some apple picking.  Apple picking season starts in late August, so we were there just in time.  We were limited to 3 apples each, not a problem, we wouldn't be able to eat anymore!  We were taken down to the orchards and told where we could pick them from (only the one variety was on offer: Miki Life) and how to pick them.  You don't twist them, you gently yank them.  They were a beautiful apple: plump, nice and red, perfectly formed.  They were pretty cheap too - for 9 huge apples we paid approx £4, would be more in the UK, I'm sure.

We then went for a wonder around an old thatched building and Tom went to play in the children's playground.  There was supposed to be a children's apple experience corner with games etc, but it wasn't open.  Oh hum, never mind, there was plenty of green grass for Tom to run on and play with his cricket ball so he was happy.  We sat down and ate an apple each, they were very juicy and sweet, very lovely indeed.

Apple tree
We then got the 2 buses back to our B and B, did a quick shop in the supermarket - including some more of that good cider and then had some down time before tea.

For tea we went to sushi go-round with the shinkansen just down the road.  It was fun, but the quality of the sushi was nothing on the quality we enjoyed in Sapporo.  Here you could get lots of 'novel' sushi - hamburger sushi, hot dog sushi, roast beef sushi etc as well as all the normal stuff. My favourite was ebi sushi with avocado, mayonnaise and onion.  Once again not traditional, but really yummy.

Then back home for an early bed for Tom (he's way behind with sleep) and downstairs for us to drink our nice Japanese cider and to chat to our hosts.

Farm Workers enjoying their produce

Monday, 27 August 2018

Quiet Day in Hirosaki

So, we were all shattered yesterday - mainly the hot humid weather just drained us.  We decided we were way overdue a quiet day and as our room in the B&B is so huge, it is actually nice to hang around and use it.

Eye on the ball
First job after breakfast was to do some laundry - there is a coin laundry just round the corner.  We stepped outside and were very happy to find it was cool and breezy.  We put our clothes in the washing machine and then took Tom's new baseball kit to the local park for a try out.

Initially we were all rubbish, but gradually we got better and better.  Basically the key is to catch the ball in the leather webbing rather than in the palm of your hand, it is a great feeling when it goes right, and of course you can catch balls you wouldn't normally because your hand is a couple of inches bigger.

It was fun playing in the park and nice that it wasn't so hot that all you did was sweat.  We returned to put our wet laundry in a dryer and then went back to the park to carry on catching practice.  We were having to share the park with a group of old people who were playing ground golf, basically golf without the holes.  They were having a great time, lots of giggling and breaks.

He jumps...he catches
When our laundry was finished we headed back to the house to put it in our room and then headed into Hirosaki on the bus to get some more seat reservations.  We had seen a rather nice looking tourist train on the tracks the other day so Matt did some investigating.  It is one that hugs the coast, the full trip takes 5 hours, but we can shorten it.  We wanted to go tomorrow but there were only 2 seats available. Argggh, however, there were seats available for Wednesday so we decided to do that.

We then had a rather cheap lunch in a noodle shop in the station.  We had forgotten to bring Tom's chopsticks with us, so he had to use the usual disposable ones.  Although he hasn't quite worked out how to use them yet, he did a very good job.  Maybe that is the way he learns to use them - out of necessity - either use them or starve, quite an incentive in Tom's world!

We then decided to look around the high street of Hirosaki, and sort of lost quite a bit of time, mainly in a home furnishings store where they had a set of massaging furniture.  They had moving back cushions, hot back cushions, foot massagers and a rather fierce hand massager - so fierce that Matt squealed in pain and had to remove his hand rather quickly!  Tom loved them all, he isn't shy in trying out these at all, in fact we had to walk out the store and disappear in order for him to leave!

Decent cider!!!!!!
We seemed to end up in an 100 yen store (of course) until Matt noticed the time and we had to get back to the station for the bus back to the B&B (there is only one an hour).  We stopped off early so that Tom could visit the big electrical shop that our host had pointed out - he was hoping to get another train.  He could, but it cost more than he could afford, he has bought a lot of stuff here, so we figure he should be happy with what he's got.  Can't spoil the boy too much!!!!!  Oh, almost forgot to say the bus stopped outside a sushi-go-round.  We peered in and guess what - the sushi is delivered on shinkansens.  We will be returning!

We then went to the supermarket to purchase tea: a bento for both of the boys and salad for me followed by apple pies.  Then back to our room for scrapbooking and blogging.  Oh and get this, we cracked open another bottle of cider which we picked up in the supermarket, and guess was drinkable, so much so that we will be buying another before our time is up.  Hurrrrraaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy.

 A lovely quiet day, just what we all needed.

Meeting with friends

About to get on the Hayabusa
Today we had another trip on the Shinkansen as we headed due south to Sendai to meet up with Doug and family.  He and his family, including 11 month old baby Dominic came to stay with us in Ingleton 3 years ago.  They couldn't repay the favour (Japanese houses are on the whole very small) but was happy to meet up with us for the day.

Our host took us to the train station and we got the local train to Shin Aomori.  We had to stand all the way which was a bit of a pain, but at least it wasn't raining so we got to see the scenery and we were in the back carriage so Tom could look out which made him happy.

Thirsty weather
We then got the Hayabusa Shinkansen to Sendai (the green one).  This was perfect scrap booking time and as we gave Tom the day off yesterday he had two days to catch up on.  Oh dear, he went into a big sulk, even though he agreed yesterday to have a day off and to do it on the train, today he seemed to think it a bad idea!  As we keep saying to him - this is a trip of a lifetime, many of his friends would never have the chance to experience anything like this and it doesn't come free.  We spend thousands of pounds on him on this holiday, the least he can do is record it AND he loves going through his old scrapbooks at home, he gets them out very often at bedtime to read and remember his holidays.  I won't let him off it - it is good to spend 1:1 time with him and to see how his writing has come along.  Put it this way, Mrs Bromley told us there was nothing at all wrong with his concentration, well as far as I'm concerned his concentration is as bad as it has always been, I have to tell him again and again and again to concentrate, to write, I have to help him formulate his sentences and he has trouble drawing straight lines etc.  He also still holds his pen in a weird fashion.  We were very very surprised when Mrs Bromley told us his concentration was fine, but I don't think it has changed at all.  Hummmmm, one for Mrs Clements...

Jōzenjidōri Street, Sendai

Anyway, an hour and a half later, he finished his scrapbooking and we arrived in Sendai.  The weather was awful, really really hot and very muggy.  We were met by Doug, Akemi and little Dominic - he's changed loads as he is now 4.  He wasn't in the best of moods today and had to be coaxed to do anything.  You can always rely on children to be unpredictable!!!!!  Oh hum, we couldn't do anything quickly today as it was so so hot and humid.

They took us straight for lunch at a craft beer / Italian place.  Tom and Matt had belly pork tagliatelle whilst I had lamb and mushroom quesadilla (apparently quesadilla is Italian!)  Between the 4 adults we managed 12 different beers (small ones of course) but there were about 30 different beers so we had to do it justice.

All 6 of us (look hard!)
We then carried on up a covered shopping street stopping here, there and everywhere to look at things.  I'm still trying to find a drop lid to replace our very warped one which is falling apart.  I failed.  Oh hum.  However, on the plus side we did come across a mini procession complete with drums, dancing ladies and people carrying shrines.  It made a lot of noise in the covered shopping area and was a nice bit of culture to enjoy.


We carried on walking to Jozenji Dori which is a famous focal point in Sendai - lots of trees in a line making a tunnel.  There we gave them an Ingleton pebble in the hope that they are able to pass it on to someone else who will actually post something on Facebook - we live in hope.

As it was heading to 3pm we then headed to Mr Donuts for a sit down and donut before getting the subway back to the main station.  There we headed to Yodabashi Camera where Tom wanted to do a spot of train shopping.  He had to go for his 4th choice as all the ones he initially wanted were sold out. We also got a baseball catching glove set (a small one for him, a big one for us and a ball) This should help me as his throws at cricket practice are now getting harder and harder and therefore hurt a lot!  Mac suggested I get a baseball catchers glove.

Dominic with Ingleton Pebble
Then we said our goodbyes to the Durgees and headed into the station to get a bento each and head home.  I was very happy as I found a bento which was mainly veggies.  We had an uneventful trip back, we all ate our bentos in record time and then enjoyed the smooth trip home on the Shinkansen before bumping along on the local train.

It was a long, hot and humid day, we were all exhausted.  We were met by Mr Kimura who had just returned from a business trip in Sendai (of all places)!  He drove us home in their boxy car which Tom was delighted about.  Then showers all round.  Bed for Tom and we sat downstairs to chat.  We took the remainder of our bottle of whisky down, which went down very well and before we knew it we were being treated to supper: a huge tray of sushi came out, as well as some roasted chicken and edamame.  We were forced to eat some, and more and more.  Wow!

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Castle, gardens and little samurai

Hirosaki Castle in its new location
What a difference a day makes - today we woke up to a hot and sunny day and when I say hot, I mean HOT!!!!!! Whatever we did, we would have to do it slowly or risk overheating!
Tom and his staff

The plan today was to go into Hirosaki, as it is a tourism spot with a nice castle.  It is famous for sakura and autumn colours but of course we are here at the wrong season for that!  First of all though was breakfast, our host provided us with (thankfully) a continental breakfast: toast, jam, yoghurt, boiled egg and cereal - we were all quite pleased to dig in.  A nice change from our usual bakery bun.

We got ready and walked down to the Universe Supermarket and got a diddy bus towards the city centre, getting off as near to the castle as we could.  We walked slowly to the castle - boy it was hot, hot, hot.
Samuri Family

Boy on a rock
We found the grounds easily enough, but it was quite a walk to the castle, over some lovely looking bridges (it had a fantastic moat - looked like a river!) and through some magnificent wooden gates.  We then came to a massive construction zone - cranes, tarpaulins etc etc.  We were slightly worried we might come across a 'wrapped up castle' but we were OK, the castle was hiding behind a tree.

It was a cute diddy castle - just 3 stories but perfectly formed.  There was a view point, so I went to have a look and discovered that the castle had recently been moved!  It used to be directly above the moat wall, where all the construction was taking place, but had been moved, so they could repair the wall.  How?  We didn't have to wonder about this for long as we headed into the castle for a look around, where there was a time lapse video of how they moved the castle.  Basically they jacked it up and moved it on rails 75 meters onto a new concrete platform.  It was amazing, guess it is easier when your castle is made from wood, but even so, quite an achievement, think it took 6 weeks to actually move it, but much longer to prepare for it.

So, we had a look around the castle, which was the usual Japanese castle: empty rooms, no furniture. It, as usual isn't the original castle - it had burned down at least once in its history (lots of Japanese castles have burnt down numerous times).  Once we were done at the castle, we went to look at a lovely view point of Mount Iwaki - sort of the Mt Fuji of the area - i.e. a proper mountain, the way a child would draw it.  It was a good view, but it had a hat of clouds on top of it - which didn't lift for the whole day unfortunately.  Still a good view.

Waterfall and bridge
Our next stop was Butokuden which was marked on the map as a rest stop and somewhere you can dress up as lords and princesses.  Tom was keen, so along he went.  It wasn't long before he had two ladies dressing him up as a Samurai: a hakama - sort of wrap around trousers in a stiff material, a black under cloak with long sleeves and on top of that a grand embroidered sleeveless waistcoat.  He looked very grand.  He was then given a sword, and to top it off a chonmage (top knot wig).  He looked fab and loved lording it around, being upper class comes very naturally to him - hummmmmmm!

We had a good rest at Butokuden as it was very well air conditioned, bought ourselves some apple mochi - this area is famous for its apple production, so there are apple products everywhere you go.  Makes a nice change from red bean paste - which I can't get on with at all.  They seem to favour French style apple pies - i.e. with flaky pastry lattice works etc which is great.  They also make 'cider' with them.  We bought a can of their 'cider' today from the supermarket knowing it would be bad, but feeling we had to give it a go.  We gave it a go, it was bad, REALLY BAD!!!!!

We then walked around a lap of the grounds, through the cherry tree tunnel and to the botanical gardens.  We did a quick tour of the botanical gardens, but it was hot and we weren't really up for walking aimlessly so we cut our losses and went in search of lunch and air conditioning to cool down.  We headed to where we saw tourist information on the map and was very pleased to find that it was in a huge air conditioned building with a restaurant, bingo, we headed in.

There was just the one restaurant and it was tourist prices, but it was too hot outside to go looking for something more reasonable so we stuck with it.  As seems to be the norm in these places, Tom opted for the full sized adults katsu curry and hoovered the whole thing down, I went for teriyaki chicken-don and Matt went for katsudon.  The curry and the katsudon both came with a liberal sprinkling of mushrooms, the teriyaki chicken didn't, so we swapped. It was very good, but a bit larger than we would like.

Once eaten, we had a good look around the souvenir shop (just enjoying that last whiff of air conditioning) before plunging back out into the heat to find the Memorial Gardens.  These were very nice, what you would call typical Japanese gardens - with lovely landscaping, layers, bridges, a waterfall and even a water cave!  We sort of went round and round in circles trying to find the water cave, turns out to be a water source with a ladle.  You ladle the water onto some stones and then you hear the water hitting things below, so the cave is below what you can see.  It was quite pleasant - is supposed to remind you running water and cool you down.

We found a lovely waterfall and a red bridge crossing over it and some trees beginning to turn autumnal colours.  All in all a lovely place, we finished off our visit with an apple sorbet cone, very very sweet apple sorbet but refreshing and cold.

We then walked down to where we were told there was a line of temples.  We were hoping it would be a tree lined avenue with gates and temples set back.  It wasn't, they were all working temples / monasteries and very much gave off the appearance that they weren't for tourists - more places for locals.  As it was so hot, once again we decided not to walk too far and ended up getting the bus back to the station.  Here the boys had a donut each, I passed and then we got the bus back to our B&B.

A supermarket feast!
We popped into the supermarket - it was huge, we looked longingly at the take away food - huge boxes of sushi for next to no money, Tom's new favourite - pasta salad etc etc.  Then off to the beer section for Matt to get his craft beer, and a couple of sample ciders, some big bottles of soft drink and then to the snack aisle for rice crackers etc.

Then back to our B&B for a rest before tea.  Wow, our room was hot, but we have air conditioning.  We put it on but of course we have a big room, so it took a while to cool down.  We had showers and then started to discuss tea, neither me nor Matt were that hungry - big guts Tom of course was!  After seeing all the lovely food at the supermarket we decided to go there and get some bits and pieces - we have a huge seating area in our room to be able to eat it.  Everyone agreed so we went back, it was much cooler outside which was nice.  On reaching the supermarket a lot of what we had seen had gone, but we did somehow ended up with a feast, including half a pizza which used egg mayonnaise as the base sauce?  Why not!

We got back and ate as much as we could, Tom woofed his huge pack of sushi, pasta salad and ebi fry down, I had ¼ pizza, a salad (vegetables - hurray!) and a dollop of potato salad, all very lovely.  Then a bit of baseball on the telly and bed.

Friday, 24 August 2018

On the move

So today we packed up everything into our suitcases, it all fitted, however, they were very heavy, might have to do some strategic packing next week so that the weight is spread well so we don't have to repack at the airport (that has happened to us before).  We haven't quite finished yet, we have yet to do the food shop, however, we do have a spare 'emergency' bag with us.

We were up at 8.30, finished off our packing and headed down to Sapporo station for the last time, funny, it seemed much further today that on others and we were sweating profusely by the time we go to the station.

We got the Super Hukoto Express train to Hakodate.  It's not actually that far between Sapporo and Hakodate, but the train route twists and turns over 300km, hugging the coast, meaning that we racked up the miles.  It took 3.5 hours to get to Shin Hakodate, where we were ferried straight into the shinkansen platforms.  Our highlight of the day was going to be choosing an eki bento for lunch at the station.  We figured that as Shin Hakodate was at the start of the shinkansen line, lots of people will start their journeys there and that there would be plenty of choice.  How wrong we were!  There was one tiny kiosk selling limited amounts of bentos.  So limited that when Matt went first he got the last children's bento for Tom (in a Shinkansen bento box) and the last 'convi style' bento for him.  When I got there, all that was left was a bento with beef on it - not at all what I would go for and 1,000 yen which is way too much, but that was all there was, so I bought it.

We ate our bentos on the train before it left the station we were so hungry.  I'm afraid mine was very dissapointing - about 8 slices of tough beef on rice with a slice of carrot.  When I think of all the meals I have had here for under 1,000 yen, it was a complete rip off. Oh hum, we allow Japan one bad meal each time we come here, this was it.  On the plus side, Tom had a smoked scallop in his box which he didn't like, I had it and it was a taste to behold!

The Hayabusa took us under the xx tunnel which links Hokkaido to Honshu, it is 54km in length and took xx to get through.  Tom seemed really excited about the prospect of going through it (the longest tail tunnel in the world) but I think he was a little deflated that there weren't any windows through which he could see the sea, although we did try to explain that to him before hand!

Our new room
We got off the shinkansen at Aomori and then got a very rickety two carriage local train that trundled through the countryside to Naijoshi the stop where we were met by our host for the week Mrs Kimura.  It was pelting it down with rain (forgot to mention that the weather has gone off again - a typhoon has hit Japan, further down Honshu but we are getting the effects here!).  We got drenched but it was hot so it didn't matter.  Our host took us to her house and showed us our room - wow, it is massive and when I say massive, I mean massive by Western standards.  You could swing many many cats at the same time in it.  We also all have futon beds, which we are very much looking forward to, as last time we slept in futon (Aoioi) we had a really good run of sleeps.

As it was such horrible weather, our host suggested we go to an onsen, you don't have to ask us twice, so we got ourselves ready and headed off.  It was very cheap, but had everything we like in an onsen - outdoor baths, a very very very hot bath, cooler bath, sauna, cold bath and an in-between bath.  Time went very very quickly and as our host was picking us up at a specified time I had to speed up to get hair dry etc in time.

A saki bowl for a sumo wrestler
Our host then gave us a tour of the area in the car - showing us what was where, although we are sort of in the middle of no-where we are in a town with all facilities, a big electronics store, a huge supermarket next door (where food will be purchased for home), a number of restaurants and of course numerous convi stores.

2?! sumo wrestlers
We were getting hungry so decided to go out looking for food, and found a sumo restaurant where they sell chanko ramen.  The restaurant was adorned with sumo memorabilia so Matt got talking to the owners and before we knew it, they were bringing out momentos that they have been given by various Sumo wrestlers, including a bowl that they drink celebratory saki from - the bowl fits 10 large bottles of saki - it was massive.
They even gave us a 'hard to find' official rankings poster to take home.  Think they were amazed that a) white people were in their shop, b) one of them could speak good Japanese and c) they knew lots about sumo.

We all enjoyed our tea and then after collecting some cold beer from the convi store we returned back to our room as Tom was very very tired.  We put him to bed and headed downstairs, to give him a chance to get to sleep and Matt a chance for lots of Japanese conversation practise.

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Outdoor Museum and Onsen

Tom befriending the locals
Today we all stayed in Sapporo for our last day.  We had saved today for the outdoor museum: Kaitaku no mura, which is a sort of a Blists Hill - lots of old buildings from around Sapporo, Otaru and Ashaikawa dating from the late 19th century to the early 20th century have been moved there in order for them to be preserved and for people to learn about history.

Having looked at the weather forecast we were hoping that for once it would be right and not rain (it didn't - yahoooo) in fact it also said it would be pretty hot, so we decided it would be a good idea to go along when it opened at 9am to get the best of the cooler weather.  Also, we needed to pack tonight, and as we have bought quite a bit, I didn't want it to be a rush and for us to end up with loads of bags for our long train trip tomorrow.

Arashi doing his thing
We got the local train to Shinrinkoen and then a bus to the museum and entered.  Think we were the only customers, the museum seemed a little eerie - yet another place where we are the only customers!  We were given a map, so we headed on our way exploring various houses as we went along.  The first part of the museum was a town and the road we walked down was full of old civic buildings, and residences of high attaining business men.  

Quite a few of them were 'Western' - i.e. from the outside they looked Western (American) but as soon as you went inside, the floors were made of wood and / or tatami mats and the walls were sliding doors, there were plenty of rooms with no windows, then rooms with a hearth with a kettle dangling over charcoal, etc etc.  The main difference (I think) between Western and Japanese houses from that period is that Western ones are always rammed full of furniture: tables, chairs, sofas, beds, pictures, decorations, wall paper, etc etc, whilst Japanese ones are nearly always empty: no tables, chairs, sofas etc, just tatami mats and the odd chest of drawers.  One other difference I noticed today was the bathrooms,  Japanese houses tended to have 2 toilets: one for weeing and one for pooing and of course Japanese houses all had bathrooms with a wooden charcoal fired bath in it. 

Meiji era policeman
It was nice to wonder around the houses, some of them were absolutely massive, as many of the rooms wouldn't have windows in them (not a problem to them - partly because of the sliding door system they have - in fact the bedroom in our flat in Sapporo doesn't have a window in it - unheard of in the UK!)  Some of the houses had mock ups of people doing stuff in them, others were completely empty and some had volunteers showing you and involving you in the history of them.  We were shown how to get silk off a silk worm and spin it, we got to use a printing press and we got invited in for tea at the fishermans' hostel in the fishing village (oh, sometimes it is such a joy not liking tea - not!!!!!)

Once we went up the back street of the town, we explored the fishing village which was idyllic to look at - but once you worked out how many men were sleeping in the hostel and the smell associated with them and the fish, it must have been overpowering and maybe not so nice.  We then went to the farm village which had some 'starter' houses which would have been built by settlers when first 'colonising' the area - they were all too thin and without proper insulation to cope with the insanely cold winters up here, then we came across some barns, a dairy farm, and a thatched cottage which were more able to deal with the cold.  It was at this point we got to know some school children.  There was an Elementary School trip taking place at the museum, they had been split into groups of 5 and a boy in one group got excited and started shouting hello at us.  Matt started talking to them, and got quite a conversation going.  They all looked small and young, but on asking them, they were the same age as Tom.  They were as interested in us as we were with them and it added fun to the day as we kept 'bumping' into them.  They went back to school after their summer holidays on Tuesday - poor things.
Logging workers' dormitory

After the farm, we headed into the woods to the mountain village and came across a locomotive shed with trains in it, a charcoal kiln,  and a loggers' hostel, which I think was nicer than the fishermans' hostel - each man got a tatami mat each and 2 shelves each - more than at the fishermans' hostel.  Also it smelt really nice in there (although there were no men living there!!!!)  The logging took place during the winter, so I'm guessing it probably wasn't much fun.  Next was an Agricultural College which was massive.  This was interesting as the boys boarded here, and they had dormitories set up as they would have been.  There were also lots of photos of the boys as they were involved in festivals, and general larking around.  They had a mock up of their meals - which included a huge bottle of beer, I wonder if that was every day?  It was an absolutely massive building and if you fitted in well, I'm sure would have been great fun to attend.

By now our tummies were rumbling, so we headed to the restaurant to see what was on offer.  Matt and I went for pork and veggie soup with some cheese and potato balls and yam mochi, whilst Tom went for a huge serving of tonkatsu curry.  He is currently eating like a child possessed!  We can't seem to give him enough food and hoovers up everything that comes his way.  His meal always seems to cost more than either of ours, but as he eats it all, we can't complain.  

The main street
We then headed to the main street of the town.  There we found a couple of 'relay stations', what we would call 'staging posts', i.e. pubs with accommodation - all as spartan as the houses.  We also found a newspaper office where we were all able to print our own post card, a soba noodle shop, a couple of general stores, a drs (with operating room - urgggghhhh), a barbers, a photographers, a sweet shop, a sleigh makers and a police post.  

The police post was quite interesting, Matt got talking with the guy dressed up in uniform.  The police post was made from bricks using the 'British' system which apparently is much better than the other 'French' way (and so it should be).  As the police post was made of brick they had to dig up the whole building and transport it in one go to the museum (all the wooden buildings they took down and rebuilt in situ).  Apparently he started to quiz Matt about what was happening re Brexit - he told Matt that England need Europe, and why were we messing about with it all.  Of course we agree with him, interesting it's the first thing people want to talk to us about, it was the same in Hamburg.

Oh, almost forgot, there was a horse drawn trolley bus in the village as well.  We managed to get a trip.  The horse, called Arashi, was doing a fab job and was also very well looked after - being taken off the bus and given a snack and water after each outing.  He gave us a pretty smooth trip too.  Considering it was pretty hot, I was impressed.

So that was pretty much the Outdoor museum, it was a huge area and our feet were aching and I hope Tom absorbed something from the day.

Now, when planning our trip last night, Matt noticed an onsen not far from the museum, so as our feet were aching we decided to go home via it.  We were sort of overheating on our arrival, but that didn't put us off and in we went.  Once again it was a 'local' place, my side (at least) was full of old ladies catching up on gossip and watching the baseball and a quiz programme on the telly in the changing room and didn't bat an eye at me.  
Post-onsen floppiness

I had a long shower (mainly because I couldn't work out how to turn the water off?????!) and then had a good dip.  There was an outdoor bath which was so black you couldn't see into it at all and inside 2 other baths (one with a jacuzzi).  I was so hot thought that I actually splashed some water from the cold bath over me in an attempt to cool down (almost unheard of as I am such a wuss with cold water!)

I met up with Matt and Tom afterwards - both looking very red and very floppy.  After a cold drink each we walked back to the station very slowly (we were all unable to move very quickly) and got the local train back to Sapporo.  When we got back to the flat I was on packing duty, whilst Matt and Tom headed with an Ingleton Primary School pebble to hide in the grounds of Hokkaido University in the hope that someone finds it who will do something with it (figure that as the game isn't known in Japan, there is no point leaving pebbles to be 'found' as they will probably get 'cleaned up' and unless the person who finds it is on Facebook and has a curious nature, it will never be seen again).  There are a lot of foreign faces at Hokkaido University and as the game is known in the US, UK and Australia, there is a better chance that it might get found by someone who knows what to do with it.

On their return, Matt said he had found an interesting looking kushikatsu (breaded fried things on sticks) restaurant opposite the university, so we all returned there and ate loads.  Some interesting ones including ice-cream wrapped in mochi and deep fried.  We also had the usual 'other' things: edamame, cold tofu, gyoza and in my case scallop sushi - which is one of my new favourite foods.  They also sold beer cheap which was a bonus.

Last meal in Sapporo - very nice too
Then back to the flat, bed for Tom, leaving me to wonder if we can fit everything in our suitcases tomorrow morning as we are off to Hirosaki on Honshu.  For various reasons, our accommodation in Hakodate got cancelled last week, so we are now doing a home stay as that is all we could find.  Should be an interesting experience.  I think we are sleeping in futons in a guest house, so much more opportunity for interaction than we've had here in Sapporo.  

Sapporo has been good though and we've done loads despite shocking weather.  Just as well the last couple of days have been good, otherwise our lasting memory would be of rain!

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Boys' day out to the boonies

Taisetsu (Great Snow) Express
Nik needed a day shopping in the big city, so Tom and I took advantage of our rail passes and toddled off into the wilds of Hokkaido for a little adventure.

We all had an easy start to the day, after which we went to select bentos for lunch (an easy choice in the end) and caught the 11.00 Lilac Express to Asahikawa. Disaster nearly struck, as I had to run back on to the train to retrieve the bentos I'd left on the luggage rack. Phew.

We only had about 15 minutes there, and then boarded our next Limited Express, a "Taisetsu", which winds its way very slowly through attractive mountainous scenery all the way to Abashiri on the Sea of Okhotsk, but we got off at the first stop, Kamikawa, about 45 minutes up the line.

Giant brown bear
We both demolished our lunch in no time, in Tom's case because he was eager to get to the front of the train and look up the line as we headed east. It was a really pleasant journey, along a twisty single track line in an old diesel express from (I'm guessing) the 1970s - you could feel every gear change.

We arrived at Kamikawa, where I knew we needed a taxi to get to our destination. The station forecourt was deserted - I was waiting for the tumbleweed to blow across the square. Rural Japan has serious issues these days. Small towns are absolutely dying all over the country, and it's desperately sad to see. Just as I was about to ask at the ticket office how to summon a taxi, one arrived, driven by a very friendly old driver, who whisked us off the Hokkaido Ice Pavilion in a couple of minutes. This place exists because Japan's coldest ever temperature (-41ºC) was recorded here in the early 1900s, and this allows people to experience that. I have vague memories of visiting the place on a previous trip to Hokkaido, but it didn't ring any bells.

Lunch on the move
Before we went in, though, we wandered a couple of minutes away to see a bear park (bears are big business in Hokkaido), which was an odd sort of a place - the pens didn't look that great - mostly concrete - but the bears all looked in excellent condition, and the staff were giving them all a good hosing down with cold water to keep them cool in the hot weather. Maybe the bears had some greenery to run around in out of sight. I couldn't see. One of the bears was a tremendous specimen - absolutely enormous. Wouldn't like to meet him in a dark alley.

After that, we wandered into the ice pavilion itself, which was quite fun I suppose. They give you thick coats and gloves to stop you freezing. Most of the place is kept at -20ºC which is cold enough, but you can recreate a -41ºC blizzard by pressing a button. We couldn't stand it for long. They also provide a "warm room" where you can get out of the cold for a bit. We immediately took our coats and gloves off as it felt so balmy, and then looked at the thermometer on the wall: +2ºC! It's all relative!

After a few minutes to thaw out in the gift shop, we went to say hello to the bears again, but on our way back to the main road, we noticed an old straw building in the grounds. Turns out it was a replica of an old Ainu (the indigenous people of Hokkaido) house, so we popped inside for a peep. Tom was instantly hooked and put on the only pair of visitors' slippers (yes, the Ainu have been fully colonised by the Japanese), and went for a look around. It was certainly a cosy little dwelling, and the thick walls and roof were presumably good protection against the extreme cold and ridiculous snowfall that winters bring in these parts.
Ainu Tom

Then another ride with our friendly driver back to the station, where we did this morning's journey in reverse. Tom and I had an epic game of UNO on the Lilac express, before meeting Nik at Sapporo station. We were all a bit tired, so it was another dinner at Esta, this time in a sort of traditional Japanese restaurant. Nik had her favourite (nabeyakiudon), I had kara-age with cold soba, and Tom had hot soba with an absolutely colossal ebi tempura. It was so heavy it actually split in half when he picked it up!
Ice bench
Then home for beer and bed. A nice day out. That's as far north as we'll go on this trip.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Hell Valley

Hell Valley landscape
Today we planned a day out to Noboribetsu, an area of geothermal activity.  On consulting the weather forecast it looked like a dull overcast day until 3pm and then rain, so we left early, hoping to get there and enjoy the main bits before the rain came down.  The weather forecast was out.  By three hours.  Not great we were soggy messes for most of the day, we didn't have umbrellas (so clumpy to carry around everywhere) or raincoats (boil in the bag scenario) so we just got wet!

Giant demon
Anyhow, back to the start...we got the Super Hokuto to Noboribetsu (an hour and a half) sat next to a Chinese mum and daughter.  Her daughter was 8 and had been collecting stamps from all the tourist spots they had visited, just like us.  We were scrapbooking on the train and mum was impressed.  We had a good chat in broken English and sign language.  For once a nice Chinese family, so often we find the Chinese to be a little arrogant and annoying.  One thing though, she asked if we were American, which is a perfectly acceptable assumption to make when you think about it, however, I felt quite offended (I didn't show it though I hope)  I wonder if I would have been so offended when Obama was in office?  Once we arrived we were greeted by a red demon wielding a club, we saw him a number of times during the day.  He's a bit careless though because we found a number of his discarded clubs all over town.  He seemed to smile a lot though, so don't think he was too bad.  We got a bus up to Noboribetsu Onsen.  Noboribetsu itself looked very drab - another dead town, no shops open, no-one walking on the streets, houses ramshackle.  Certainly there was no money there.  However, as soon as we headed up into the hills, the houses got bigger and cleaner, this was where the money was.

Lake Oyunuma
It was a 15 minute bus ride to Noboribetsu Onsen, which, as usual was full of huge faceless hotels for the onsen crowds.  Our first stop was a convi store to get lunch - picnic today so we got an onigiri each, some pasta salad (for the boy) and inari sushi and set on our way.  You could tell it was going to be a good place because you could smell the sulphur as soon as we got off the bus.  The smell got stronger and stronger and we could see clouds of steam rising above the town.  Yay.  I like places like this - took me back to my travels in New Zealand.

We got to a park where we could hear water spitting and hissing and were greeted by a spout of water shooting up at furious speed.  We didn't dip our hands in it - it was super hot!  We were just getting into the swing of things when we felt a couple of spots of rain on us.  Surely not, it wasn't even 12 o'clock!  Oh yes, the weather forecast had got it wrong AGAIN.  It didn't stop for the rest of our day out.  Oh hum, it wasn't cold, so we just got wet, not cold and wet.

In the hot river
We carried up the road to Jigokudani, Hell Valley, which is a lunar landscape tinged with red, green and yellow with clouds of steam rising above it.  A great sight to take in, Tom couldn't really believe his eyes and was quite excited.  It was strange in that it was just a tiny part of land that had been turned into a lunar landscape, all around it was trees, I guess just that tiny part of the earth is thin enough to let the steam come up.  We walked around taking it in and walked down some decking to a promontory out into the landscape.  We passed over a milky white river and wondered a) how hot it would be and b) how acidic it would be.  One thing was for certain, we weren't going to find out.

We carried on up a hill to a view point where we found a covered area, so sat down and had our picnic in the hope that the rain would get a little lighter.  We were lucky, the rain looked like it was getting lighter, so we put our rubbish in the bin and carried on.  About 2 minutes later it got heavier again.  Oh hum.  We were under the trees so it wasn't too bad, and the boys had their hats which helped a bit.

The river bed
We climbed a hill and then dipped down to Lake Okunoyu and Lake Oyunuma.  They were certainly hot as there was a fog of steam clouding over them.  However, it was teaming down with rain again, but once again we found a shelter so we sat under it for a while hoping it would calm down.  It didn't for quite some time, so we stayed under the shelter, wondering if we were the only people in the area with no umbrella (think we were - these Europeans obviously have NO IDEA when it comes to Hokkaido summers, although from speaking to locals, Matt is getting the impression that this rain is not at all seasonal and probably something to do with global warming and loosing the 4 distinct seasons).

It wasn't a hardship to stop and wait, we were mesmerised by the steam and smell.  When it finally calmed down (i.e. when the rain was no longer bouncing off the ground) we went for a look at the lakes.  Lake Oyunuma's temperature deviates between 50 degrees and 130 degrees (well that's what Tom said he saw on the sign anyway.)  It was certainly hot.  We walked around it and up over a hill to River Oyunuma which fed from the lake.  This is famous in the area for being a hot river.  We were excited to see it so followed it until we saw some steps down into the water.  I went first, WOW the water was hot hot HOT.  Luckily it was really shallow as I think anymore than ankle height would be impossible to bear.  Matt reckoned it was 42-43 degrees, all I know is that it was HOT.  It was fun though, never been in a really hot river before.  We carried on down the river and found a platform to sit down on and dangle legs.  We did this (we were wet through so sitting down in the wet wasn't a problem)  We found however, that the water was shin deep, so we waded up and down in it.  What a joy, it was a couple of degrees cooler than upstream, making it very very pleasant in deed.  There was deep black sand under our feet which was very nice to walk on.  In the end I think we spent a good 20 minutes there just enjoying it.  We were joined by a father and daughter from South Korea towards the end which was nice, had a good chat and they took a decent photo of us all too.
Family dip - it felt fantastic

We then headed back, we stopped off at the hotter spot again for a quick dip of the toes and then headed down a different track back to Hell Valley.  It rained the whole way and we were quite quite wet and bedraggled by the time we got back to civilisation.  It didn't matter though, we weren't cold.    We walked back through town and were debating whether to do an onsen or not.  Matt went to the tourist office to find out how much it would cost and came back bearing 2 umbrellas.  Apparently the town operate a free umbrella loan system, take one for the day and return at any shop, bus station, rail station etc etc.  Typical!!!!!!!!!

Our little demon
Anyhow, he had found an onsen which was on the high street for a reasonable price and as the rain was getting heavier again we decided to head to it.  It was a local onsen - i.e. most of the clientele were locals, mostly old women and men.  Unfortunately there was no shampoo or soap available so we just had to scrub ourselves in the water before heading in the baths.  The baths were cloudy, hot and acidic. So acidic that a 'silver' ring of mine turned black and my engagement ring when from gold to deep copper - opps.  Next time I must remember to take them off!!!!!  There were two big hexagonal baths which were mega hot, a further bath which was slightly cooler, and a much cooler jacuzzi as well as a steam sauna and cold bath.   I had quick dips in the hot baths and then spent a good 15 minutes in the jacuzzi.  Then got dressed (we had the foresight to pack a clean, dry t-shirt each in the morning just in case we got caught out by the rain) and met the boys upstairs.

We then got the bus and train back to Sapporo, nipped upstairs to floor 10 of Esta for a bowl of ramen each before heading back home.

The weather tried to put a damper on us today - but it didn't succeed, it was a good day out, and I guess the weather is now just an anecdote!