Managing to fly to and from America and navigate myself around New York City without any problems gave me a huge boost of confidence. Once back in Japan, I started to think about a holiday to the prefecture I’d been dreaming about since before I even got the job in Japan (and where I’d secretly hoped I might be placed): Hokkaido. My image of Hokkaido was a second Japan. I pictured pine forests, wild bears, enormous lakes, fields of cows, restaurants serving lamb (I can’t tell you how much I miss lamb), as well as cool weather and an absence of mosquitos. Basically the opposite of Ehime.
I had my top five musts before I started planning: lakes, mountains, cycling, seafood (and lamb) and lavender. Given that I was flying on a bank holiday weekend to the other side of Japan and that I wanted to cram a lot into less than one week, I knew that it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I decided to go alone.
And so I started planning. Every day, even if just for half an hour, I put some thought into my itinerary. I read my Japan guide book, scoured the internet and made myself endless lists: top fives, possible routes, places to see, places to eat. I asked friends who knew Hokkaido well to give me recommendations. I spent hours struggling to understand Japanese bus timetables. Sounds tiring, doesn’t it? At times, I did feel like I was going around in circles in a scramble for information, but after three months, I had a beautiful Word document to show me how to get from one spot to another, with departure and arrival times, durations and prices, and reservations for one ryokan and one hostel. Some people told me it was excessive to plan everything down to the minute details, but I knew that I had to optimise my short time. Six days for a holiday is, quite frankly, nothing at all. Once you’ve taken out almost two whole days of travel (I had to fly via Osaka), that’s barely four days.
I had endless lists of places I could visit in each location. For a moment, on the plane from Osaka to Sapporo, I realised that I didn’t actually have a fixed itinerary for anything other than transfers. I started to panic, and flicked through my homemade guide book. There was too much to see and I hadn’t given myself enough time to see it all! Then a wave of calm came over me: I was coming to one of Japan’s most beautiful prefectures, what did it matter if I didn’t see every famous spot? I would allow my curiosity to lead me around and I would see whatever I wanted to at the time.
It worked. My holiday gave me everything I needed: relaxation, peace and quiet, delicious food and some exercise. And all of that surrounded by some of the most beautiful nature I’ve ever seen.
After a long (but inexpensive and incredibly beautiful) train ride from the airport, I arrived at my first destination: Toyako Onsen. It was much more geared to tourists than I had expected, but once I had settled into my ryokan and walked to the edge of Lake Toya, I found that I could easily turn my back on the town and look straight out to one of the most serene views I’d ever seen. That night I embraced the touristy town, though, having a delicious burger steak and watching an impressive fireworks display on the lake. Afterwards, the owners of the ryokan invited me to eat some daifuku and drink beer with them. Following that, I took a dip in their natural hot spring bath. Needless to say, I felt quite warm and fuzzy by the time I was tucked up in bed. My struggle to sleep every night in the humidity and heat of Ehime seemed like a distant memory.
I woke up to a crisp morning, and as the sun crept up behind the trees, I set off for my adventure around the lake on a mamachari (a chunky, very un-sporty bike) belonging to the kind folks at the ryokan. I stopped so often to take photos and to swim in the lake that the 38km took me just under four hours.It felt much later than midday by the time I got back, but I pushed on to make the most of the beautiful day. I took a bus and a cable car up to the top of a nearby volcano. The exhaustion hit me while I was up there, so rather than walking around the crater in the midday sun, I just walked closer for a good view of the steam bellowing out and made my way back down to the mid-way station. In the cable car, a lady sidled up to me and asked where I was from. She excitedly introduced me to her son who had lived in London for 8 years, and we made some polite small talk. In my tired state, though, I decided to wish them well and head back to my ryokan for a rest. A few moments later, I heard ‘MEGAAAAAAAAAAAAN!’ behind me, and turned to see the mother hurrying towards me. She puffed and panted and said that if I were to come to Sapporo, I should call them. They gave me their numbers, and I agreed that, if I had some free time, I would certainly call them.
My arrival in Sapporo, the prefectural capital, the next day was a bit of a shock having come directly from the countryside, and so despite my usual suspicion of strangers who urge me to take their phone numbers, no matter how friendly, I gave them a call. They were absolutely delighted, and we decided to meet so that they could show me their city. I rejoiced when they took me to a jingisukan (lamb barbecue) restaurant. After a real feast, they insisted that we drive up to Mt. Moiwa for a panoramic view of the city. We spent hours chatting and exchanging stories, and I felt like I’d known them (mother, father and son) for months by the time they took me back to my hostel. They told me that if I needed company at any time during the next days, I was to call them.
That night, I felt so energised and alive that I couldn’t sit still, so I went out to explore Sapporo by night. I remembered that an ice cream parlour owned by the drummer of our band’s former patisserie teacher was in the neighbourhood and headed there in the hope that it would still be open at 10 o’clock. It took me a while to find it (it was on the sixth floor of a narrow building), and I had to queue for fifteen minutes to get a seat, but it was so worth it. Hokkaido milk ice cream, three liqueurs (earl grey, rose and mandarin), and many toppings, plus a free ice cream refill and a conversation with the owner about his dog (despite him being run off his feet in the busy café). I was so full of good food and high on life.
The following day, I took a long, long bus tour of Furano and Biei to see some of Hokkaido’s most famous sites: the lavender fields, Aoi Ikke and the picturesque hills of Biei. The whole experience was surreal: everything looked a little too perfect and almost other-worldly, but I felt thoroughly relaxed. Well, except when my iPod ran out of battery and I had to listen to the tour guide in the bus. The tour included lunch, which included Furano pork and Furano melon. That, followed by two lavender ice creams at the lavender farm, left me in a happy little food coma for the bus ride back to Sapporo. Of course, I still managed to find room for some classic Sapporo ramen when I got back…
The next day, my mission was to see the cute port town of Otaru. It was uncomfortably hot that day in Otaru, so I did little other than sample some cheese cake and wander near the water for a little while. My day didn’t feel wasted though, because I’d actually found some time to fit in a (rather expensive) treat on my way there. I walked from Hokkaido jingu, a beautiful famous shrine, to Sapporo jogai ichiba (curbside market) early in the morning. Sat surrounded by suited businessmen, I indulged in a rice bowl topped with salmon roe, crab and sea urchin. My taste buds rejoiced (and my wallet groaned – but it was worth it).
That night I called on my new Sapporo family again to join me at the beer festival in Odori park, which runs through the centre of the city. We drank plenty of beer and chatted in the Sapporo beer tent, then moved on to an Izakaya because they were desperate for me to try hokke, a local fish.
The next day, I came back to Ehime. I was filled with an incredible feeling of calm for the weeks that followed. Even now, just thinking back to the sight of Lake Toya, the smell of the lavender, the taste of the uni (and the ice cream, cheesecake, milk, melon, fish…) sends me into a comfortable daydream. I wouldn’t say I’m nostalgic, just in love.
Hokkaido is heaven!