To start off, we had intended to travel up to Hokkaido on the Hokutosei, an overnight train that goes directly from Tokyo to Sapporo and includes a dining car and a lounge car. However, we received conflicting reports about whether megory and wednesday_10_00 could use their rail passes for a discount on the fare, which delayed our attempt to make reservations. By the time we tried to get tickets, it was completely booked. On top of that, wednesday_10_00 had the misfortune of missing the last shinkansen from Tokyo on August 3rd, so she had to take an overnight bus, not arriving in Moriyama until the morning of the 4th. She called me from Tokyo on the evening of the 3rd to relay this news, and we decided that the best we could hope for on the 4th would be to ride the shinkansen north to the end of the line at Hachinohe. I scrambled to make hotel reservations there, but none of the hotels had vacancies. I finally managed to locate a place in a small town near Hachinohe (called Hon-Hachinohe) and reserved a double.
The morning of the 4th, we met up with wednesday_10_00 and gave her a bit of time to recover from her trip. Then we set off on our journey north. In Tokyo, we decided to try to get tickets on the Hokutosei for our return trip two weeks later and just barely managed to reserve one two-person room before the private rooms were all sold out. (Private rooms have doors. Non-private beds are only separated from the corridor by a curtain.) Once we had that accomplished, we continued on to Hon-Hachinohe...and somehow managed to get completely turned around, exiting the train station from the wrong side. We had walked several blocks before we stopped to ask directions and discovered our error.
When we exited from the correct side, we noticed there were a lot of people around. More people than would be expected at such a small town. As we continued down the road, we ran right into a HUGE festival. There were food stalls everywhere and giant floats lined up in the streets. Once we dumped our stuff in the hotel room, we went out to enjoy the sights. It turns out we had happened upon the Hachinohe Sansha Taisai, one of Japan's most famous summer festivals. The main attractions are the floats (see a closeup), which are simply breathtaking. There are often people riding the floats playing taiko drums, and children in festival costumes playing traditional flutes in the streets. We bought food at the street stalls for supper, with multi-colored ice cream for dessert.
That night the three of us all squeezed into one double bed, since that's all we had in the room. (With all our luggage, there wasn't even really any space on the floor.)
The next day, August 5th, we headed on to Sapporo. Our main goal for sightseeing in Sapporo was to visit the Ishiya Chocolate Factory. Since we still had about seven more hours by train ahead of us, we had to be at the train station by 7am if we wanted to reach the chocolate factory before it closed...which meant waking up by 5am. Poor wednesday_10_00 hadn't gotten much sleep on the bus the night before, and isn't a morning person to begin with, but she was willing to make the sacrifice for the sake of the chocolate. We arrived at the station in plenty of time to acquire tickets...or so we thought. To our dismay, the man in the Hon-Hachinohe Japan Rail ticket office had no idea how to carry out our request for tickets to Sapporo and had to call someone for advice on how to operate the computer. We were getting really nervous when they started announcing the train we needed to take, particularly since there was neither an escalator nor an elevator at the station and we would have to carry our luggage up about 25 steps to the platform. The man managed to hand over our tickets just in the nick of time, and we dashed for the train.
That day, we encountered something quite fascinating: a tip box. It's not just ANY tip box. This box is situated on the wall outside a public restroom. The proceeds from donations to this box go toward purchasing toilet paper for the stalls. Please contribute to the cause! ^_^
We made it in time to have a leisurely tour of the chocolate factory and eat some of their delicious cake, though we didn't get there early enough for their all-you-can-eat cake buffet. We then strolled around the garden outside, which was elaborately landscaped with roses and small houses for children to play in. One item that amused us was the sign for Hokkaido summer time. Essentially, this is showing what the time WOULD be if Japan used daylight savings time...which it doesn't. (Most Japanese people I've encountered tend to find the whole concept perplexing.) On the hour, the clock in the garden played a song, and statues of various people and animals popped out to sing and dance to the music. (There were even some potted trees that "danced.")
On August 6th, we allowed ourselves to sleep in...until around 8am. Then we headed off to the town of Otaru for more sightseeing. Otaru is famous for its beer (the name of the city comes from the word for "keg") and glass blowing. We wanted to visit a particular glass blowing shop that makes glasses in the shapes of owls, so we set off, armed with the address of the shop and a map. Amazingly, though the road twisted and turned and went steeply uphill to the point that we had to stop and rest every few yards, we found the shop! We were rather proud that we managed to spot it through its concealing greenery. It's a tiny, one-room establishment with its wares on a couple of shelves in a little alcove. The products were indeed beautiful. The proprietors also gave glass blowing lessons to interested customers. We were glad when we finished our shopping, though, because the furnace made the inside of the shop incredibly hot--hotter than standing in the sun outside, and that's really saying something.
We moved on to the main shopping district, where we looked at a lot more glasswares. Just when we were getting hungry for lunch, we chanced upon Otaru Beer Warehouse Number One. None of us ordinarily have much interest in beer, but the menu on display had several vegetarian items, so we gave it a try. Patrons entering the restaurant are shown through a "tunnel to the Middle Ages." The staff of the restaurant all wore Renn Faire-type outfits, though not overly flamboyant. The inside of the restaurant was dark and atmospheric, and the food was absolutely delightful. The restaurant had a small shop attached to it that sold Italian masks.
After our day in Otaru, we returned to our hotel in Sapporo. We were glad that there was a convenience store only a block away where we could purchase food and snacks...and, most importantly, use the ATM. We were quite amused, however, at some of the "limited to Hokkaido" items available. I took a picture of the wide selection. (I actually bought a box of potato caramel, but I haven't had the courage to try it yet...)
~ To Be Continued ~