I had a chance to visit Hokkaido this summer, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands.
A trip to Hokkaido used to involve flying, or a very slow journey by boat, but a new extension of the shinkansen network to Shin-Hakodate station opened in March 2016. We were now able to go there by train thanks to the Seikan Tunnel — a 53km long underground section, 23km of which sinks 100 metres below the sea bed.
While the Hokkaido Shinkansen normally zips across the countryside at 260km/h, it has to slow to 140km/h through the tunnel because the route is also used for cargo, and these so-called “bullet trains” generate a shockwave of air powerful enough to derail a passing freight train.
Anyway, I was in Japan to see my in laws in Iwate-ken, and to spend a week in Tokyo. My wife’s brother suggested we take a short trip north together to the city of Hakodate on this new rail line.
Two days later we received an itinerary by email in which he had listed every train departure time and tourist site in a detailed schedule.
This would be Japanese-style travel.
To travel in the Japanese-style, it is essential that you visit all the accepted places at the correct times. The ones the guidebook tells you to see. The places where everyone goes. By going to those places and checking them off, people feel like they have done their duty as a tourist.
We got our first taste of this after checking in to our hotel. There would be no time for loafing. Our first sight was the famous night view from Mount Hakodate.
We walked through town, past the old brick warehouses of the former port, now filled with shops, and up the long hill to the ropeway station that would whisk us to the peak.
The ropeway car was packed like a subway in Tokyo, and the dominant language was Chinese. But the crowding of the cable car was nothing compared to the crush of humanity which clung to the top of the mountain.
A guidebook had described this as one of the must-see views in all of Japan, and the Chinese tour groups had picked up on it. It was impossible to see anything at all, apart from the backs of people’s heads.
After shuffling around waiting for sunset and making vague observations about phrenology, we made our way back down and secured two taxis to take us to the next — and perhaps most essential — element of any Japanese tour: eating.
I had mentioned my love of uni, the humble sea urchin, for which this area is well known. It’s the sort of delicacy I might treat myself to once with a meal of sushi. But Tatsuyoshi found a place which specializes in this dish. And so we dined on bowls of rice topped with uni and delicate raw scallops, washed down with lashings of cold draft beer. The evening was salvaged, and my memories of jostling crowds were already fading away.
The Japanese have an incredible capacity for eating, and they begin talking about the next meal the moment they’ve set down their chopsticks. I was rubbing my bloated stomach and contemplating a digestive walk when they informed me that the food focus would resume straight away the following morning.
A hotel breakfast in Japan is often an elaborate event, but it would not work out for us.
Me and Tomoko went downstairs at a rather early 8am, but when the elevator door opened on the restaurant floor, the landing was already crowded. Everyone was facing the same way, most of them dressed properly in their hotel yukata and plastic slippers. And no one was moving.
“Surely this isn’t the queue…” I said.
It was. The line began at the elevator doors. It was at least a 20 minute wait for a table, and you had to queue to get back on the lift, too.
We took one look at this, turned around and left. We were expected to be downstairs and ready to leave in less time than it would take to get a seat. And so we ended up grabbing a sandwich and coffee at the first place along the day’s route — much to the amusement and chagrin of our travel companions.
“That hotel has the number one breakfast in all of Hokkaido,” Tatsuyoshi said as we drove. He was implying that we’d missed something essential. He’d already been to the public bath that morning, too.
I‘d gone the night before and decided never to go back. There were far too many people, even at 10pm. After I went in, every washing station was full. The bath itself wasn’t too crowded, and I had a nice soak while contemplating the mountains in the distance, but people came and went constantly. Tomoko said the women’s bath was even worse.
But we had transgressed an unwritten rule of Japanese tourism by not shuffling along with everyone else. And clearly we were odd.
The thing is, we simply had different strategies. Tatsuyoshi’s method was to get up extremely early — as early as 5:30am — in order to beat everyone else. Our strategy was to sleep late and show up at the last minute, after all those people had gone.
Each secretly thought the other a fool. They thought we were lazy for sleeping so late and missing out, whereas I felt like a sheep, duped or led into going to those places at all.
We made it for breakfast the following morning, and it was good: slices of raw fish and squid for assembling your own rice bowl, alongside the usual baked fish, miso soup, salads, and western-style dishes. But it certainly wasn’t worth waiting in line for.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our first stop that first day would be the main historical site in Hakodate: Fort Goryokaku. This star-shaped earthwork fortress was built in 1857, based on European fortress design. It had seen action during a minor rebellion in the dying days of the Tokugawa shogunate, as Japan ended centuries of rule by the samurai military class and brought back the Emperor in the Meiji Restoration.
“Is there an airport near here?” I asked as we approached. The fort was in the middle of the city, but an odd structure like a control tower was looming above it.
This was in fact a 107 metre tall viewing tower, built to provide an aerial perspective of the fort’s layout, and it was a hideous monstrosity.
We shuffled into the gift shop at its base as Tatsuyoshi rushed ahead.
“1000 yen for tickets,” I said. “What sort of fool would even want to go up this thing?”
Apparently we would. He returned with a fistful of tickets and proceeded to hand them out.
As we shuffled obediently over to the elevator, I turned to Tomoko and said, ““You can see how small bad decisions add up to big mistakes.”
We made the obligatory circuit of the tower and posed for the obligatory group photos, and then we split up down below to wander the fort. Tatsuyoshi and his family paid a few yen to go inside the reconstructed building at the centre of the complex, while we walked off to explore the further reaches.
After living in Malta amidst the bastions of Valletta, these walls didn’t strike me as very imposing.
“I’m pretty sure I could take this fort single-handed,” I said as we walked inside. And to prove my point, I ran straight up a wall and pulled myself onto the ramparts.
Rather than cluster in the centre, we wandered the perimeter until we found a quiet corner by the moat, where we spent our time sitting under a tree. There were no people over there at all.
The next stop of the day was on a hillside out of town. It was a Trappistine convent established in 1898, and it showed up on every tourist itinerary, but all you could see was the outside of the building. The interior has never been open to visitors.
And so we stood on the steps at gazed at the walls of this western-style building, with it’s aged shingles and peeling window frames.
“Ryan, can you explain this place?” Tatsuyoshi asked.
They assumed that I must understand it — and that I must be a Christian — because I came from the west. I thought for a moment.
“Voluntary incarceration for Jesus,” I said.
“I’m not translating that,” Tomoko said, cutting in.
“See that doorway over there?” I continued. “The faded one with the chipped paint? Once they go in that door, they never come out again.”
The nunnery of course had a souvenir shop, and they sold cookies, which of course everyone knew about and everyone bought.
But why did people go there in the first place? All we could see were photos of the nuns and their little closed community behind the walls, and what I saw was not inviting. Groups of women hunched over their sewing, or worked the garden, or knelt in prayer, and they posed for a group photo in which the scowl of the Mother Superior suggested so much. I could just imagine the bitter infighting, gossip and petty arguments which must spark like brushfires in this closed off community of celibate women. And all I could think of was Pasolini’s film of The Decameron.
Thankfully we were able to blot out these images by taking a wander along the seaside, with views of the island of Honshu in the hazy distance, across the Tsugaru Strait.
Later that afternoon, we split up to explore on our own. Me and Tomoko walked around the Motomachi district, where the foreigners were quartered when Hakodate was designated as an open port for trade with the outside world in the late Edo Period.
We shuffled through the Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, in which middle-aged Japanese tourist put on period costumes and took photos of each other in full cosplay mode. And we spent a couple hours exploring the old Souma house, the home of a rich merchant in the 1800’s, a strange but harmonious blending of Japanese and Western architecture.
That evening’s meal was another local speciality: shio ramen. I’m normally a miso ramen man, or perhaps negi ramen. But I followed suit and ordered my noodles with the simple salt base famous in this region.
The island is also a big producer of milk, and it is famous for soft serve ice cream. Melon is the most popular flavour, given the equally famous cantaloupes of the area. But some of the more interesting flavours I encountered were lavender, squid ink, and wakame (a type of seaweed).
Our last morning in Hokkaido was perhaps the nicest of all. We spent it in the mountains, where we drifted around Lake Onuma on a barge and ate a simple lunch washed down with bottles of local craft beer.
And then it was time to board the shinkansen for the journey home. Our two and a half day excursion was at an end.
A Japanese trip revolves around ⅓ food, ⅓ tourist stuff that you’re expected to do, and ⅓ shopping for omiyage — obligation gifts, trinkets and regional foods that you’re expected to bring back for others, and which no one will remember or look at again.
But I prefer to find my own places, or to search for something that everyone else has overlooked in a familiar place. The highlights for me were finding a quiet corner of the fort to sit under a tree by the moat; visiting that old merchant’s house in Motomachi; and the little boat lunch on Onuma Lake.
But of course those aren’t the things we’ll remember or talk about years later. What we remember most are shared stories. The song about farting I invented in Japanese, to the delight of our six year old niece. And time spent with family that we meet just once a year