Before I left for Golden Week I wasn’t really sure what I would be doing. I made a deal with my friend Francis – you do the planning and we can take my car.
Originally, the plan had been to fly to Shikoku, see what there was to see there, and come back. However, the most golden thing about Golden Week seems to be an increase in prices. Also, seemingly everyone in Japan *has* to travel somewhere for Golden Week, so hotels are all full. So the plan changed and we decided to drive from the middle of Hokkaido to the middle of Aomori. Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. It is famous for apples and its unintelligible dialect. For example; youkoso (welcome) becomes yogukitanashi in Aomori dialect.
(Map from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Japan_Aomori_large.png)
After the all clear on my car from the mechanic, we made our way from my home to Hakodate. Only seven hours by expressway! We spent a night in Hakodate sampling the fine microbrew produced by the Hakodate brewery, and the excellent fresh seafood. My favorite of the evening was イカそめん (ika somen) which is very thinly sliced squid, served like noodles. Amazingly good seafood. My friends weren’t kidding when they said Hakodate has the best seafood in Japan.
The next day we caught the ferry from Hakodate for the four hour crossing to Aomori. I was surprised to find that ferries (at least the one we took) are not the pinnacle of organization and efficiency that one would expect from a Japanese ferry system. Not to mention expensive. The next time you BC types start bitching about the cost of taking a car on the ferry, think about taking a 14,000 yen (around $140CDN) Japanese ferry. But perhaps the expense isn’t surprising. Despite being Golden Week, there were very few other passengers on the ferry. The majority were truckers moving produce between Hokkaido and Honshu, and we were two of about a dozen passengers. Basically, transport ferries have been adapted in this area for carrying passengers. Above decks, there were a few vending machines, a couple of tatami rooms, and a shower room. It was a rough crossing, and I learned that I will never be able to become a pirate. Yar, twas a long crossing for me…
Once in Aomori, we had to get to the ryokan my friend had booked, because dinner was served at 6pm. We stayed at a place called Aoni Onsen 「青荷温泉」, an incredible onsen in the middle of nowhere. They have tried to maintain the rustic feeling of an old ryokan, and the lighting is all gas lamps. We arrived at the onsen, were given our onsen uniforms (a yukata and a short, surprisingly warm overcoat), shown to our room and informed that dinner would be in the main room. We had time to drop our gear and change.
Dinner was a group affair, and since neither of us had stayed at a ryokan (especially not an isolated rustic one that didn’t necessarily see a lot of foreign traffic), I was glad that we were seated next to some kind people who helped us to figure out what to do with the huge amount of food set before us. They lit our nabe pots, and showed us where the dashi for the soba was, where to fill our rice bowl, and where to find our grilled fish. The food was very good, and after a day of traveling, I gorged on the nabe, soba noodles, whole grilled trout served on a skewer, and various salads and pickles that accompanied the meal. I love eating fancy Japanese meals because there are always so many different things to sample. This particular ryokan showcased local delicacies and produce of the season.
After dinner, we enjoyed the onsen, and the clear sky illuminated with stars. I must admit, I was a bit nervous when I heard about where we would be staying. According to the information provided by the onsen, the baths available were only mixed sex baths. I have no problems with bathing at the onsen with other women, or bathing in isolated natural springs with mixed sexes (although Japanese women will usually cover up in such situations, I usually go with other foreigners and feign ignorance). But bathing with a mixed sex Japanese crowd was something that had me worried. Turns out it wasn’t anything to worry about. The only bath that was mixed was the outdoor rotenburo, and that had designated ladies bathing times. That, and because the ryokan was so small, the baths were empty whenever I went to them.
What a great way to travel. Get to the ryokan after a day on the move, get into your jammies, eat and drink until you’re full, then go soak in a big tub outside and watch the stars. For Japanese tourists, the next day involves getting up very early to bathe before breakfast, eating, and then getting on the road again. We were very un-Japanese, and skipped breakfast in favour of sleeping in until we were awoken by the man who came in to change the lamp. We decided it must be time to get out and see what Aomori had to offer.
Travelling with a Japanese culture and history-buff has some distinct advantages. First of all, they know where the interesting sites are. And they can even tell you what makes them culturally interesting. We drove from Aoni onsen, up the coast of Aomori to Osore-zan 「恐山」. The name literally translates to “fear mountain” and it is said to be one of the most sacred places in Japan. Osore-zan is the Japanese Buddhist entrance to hell.
It was the most interesting thing I have seen in Japan so far. The temple there is beautiful, but it’s the setting that makes it impressive. Bare rocks, statues of various buddhas, piles of rocks, and the overwhelming smell of sulphur. It smelled just like hell should. Like hell! We spent a few hours there, wandering around, trying to decipher the markers dedicated to various people, and drinking in the atmosphere of hell. After a stop at the omiyage shop (of course hell has a souvenir stand!) we returned late to the onsen for more dinner and onsen and stargazing from the bath.
The next day it was back to Hakodate on the ferry. The ocean was calmer, but now Golden Week holidays had officially begun there were many more people on the ferry this time, but much less space. There was only one medium sized tatami room and maybe 40 people.
Once back in Hakodate, we stopped at a local (Hakodate only!) fast food chain called Lucky Pierrot. It's the Japanese version of an American hamburger stand. Maybe I've been in Japan too long, but I thought it was great. Complete with rockabilly on the stereo, ridiculously large orders and milkshakes. The guy at the table next to us ordered the special of the house -- a humburger with everything on it. No -- EVERYTHING. Each hamburger/sandwich on the menu was put on a bun. It was about a foot tall. I desprately wanted to take a picture, but the poor guy already looked like he wanted to melt into the floor when the staff brought it over, presented it too him with much shouting, and ringing of handbells no less. Maybe next time I'm in Hakodate I'll try it...
In the evening, we went to a little yaki-niku/sushi place around the corner from the hotel. It was obviously a tourist joint, but the crowd was boisterous and friendly (read: drunk) and the staff was chatty. We ate and drank like pigs, and I played with my camera. It was a very entertaining evening and a nice last night in Hakodate.
I paid for it the next day, and my planned early morning expedition was (not unexpectedly) scrapped. We still went to the market in search of いくら丼(ikura don) -- a bowl of rice topped with salmon roe. Delicious! Especially when the eggs burst in your mouth. There is a word/sound for it in Japanese -- ぷちぷち(puchi puchi). Not to be confused with ぴちぴち (pichi pichi) which is the word/sound for youth and beauty. I'll be too old to be considered pichi pichi this year...
We did the rest of the touristy things to do in Hakodate for the rest of the morning, visiting the statue of Commodore Matthew Perry, the former British Embassy, the purported oldest shrine in Hokkaido and the multitude of churches (Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Episcopalian). Hakodate is a very interesting looking city, and quite beautiful by Japanese standards. I highly recommend going, even if it is a little out of the way.
We drove back to my home that day with a stop in Asahikawa for McDonalds. Yes, all that glorious food all week and what was I craving? A good old grease burger. I've decided my cravings for such garbage as McDonalds and Starbucks are because I simply can't have it on a regular basis. And we all want what we can't have...
We got back to my house late Friday night, leaving a whole weekend still to use. So we hopped into my friend's car and drove to Kitami, a small city to the east. That's where the HAJET Fall Meeting was last year if you're keeping track of these things. We ate at a very busy kaitenzushi (rotating sushi bar) where all of the staff knew my friend -- he's in there that often.
The next day we drove to Abashiri to see the ocean. In winter, it gets so cold here that the ocean freezes and they offer ice floe tours. Last weekend it was pretty cold too, but not cold enough to dissuade me from ditching my shoes and running into the Sea of Ohotsku. And looking for sea critters to poke. I wish the ocean wasn't so far from where I live!
It was a nice vacation, albeit not very relaxing. Well, the onsen was very relaxing, but all of the driving kind of cancelled it out. As did coming home to teaching, being the HAJET publisher, the start of the musical this weekend, and getting used to waking up for work in the mornings again. My teachers at the Junior High all thought I was crazy for driving so much over Golden Week, but I enjoyed it a lot. It reminded me of family vacations when I was younger, when we'd drive and drive and drive forever. とても懐かしVery natsukashii (another great Japanese word that basically translates to "nostalgic feelings").