What's new? How are you? How is the family? Anything special happen recently? Well, I had a pretty busy month in October and there seems to be no sign of stopping. I had a brief respite a few weeks ago this past Halloween. My beau and I took off nice and early on a jet plane to remote, quiet, natural Hokkaido... all the things that Tokyo is not. We needed a vacation from the crowded trains and air pollution. Upon seating myself in 22J* I realized "doh!" that I left my camera** back at home. I was resigned to the fact that I'd have to use my camera phone to visually record the wonders of Hakodate, Esashi, Onuma, and all the winding roads and fish markets in between. Despite that minor set back (turns out my phone's camera isn't too bad), Hokkaido turned out to be the perfect escape. This was mostly due to the fact that no thinking was required at all throughout the entire trip. That was mostly due to Makoto's powers of planning... powers that I was, sadly, born without. The flight, 3 hotels, rental car, and most of our meals were included in our Hokkaido vacation "pack" and it all came to about $350 per person. This is a deal that you definitely have to be Japanese to know about. An airport staff member drove us to pick up our car. Once in the car, a voice said "Konnichiwa" and promptly told us today's date and time. The attractive digital hostess on the GPS screen greeted us and asked us where we wanted to go. Makoto pushed a few buttons and our map to Esashi was charted out for us including the estimated time we'd arrive. Bless Japan and its ever astounding technology!
*not really my seat number ** not really my camera, it's on loan from Nic
The drive was beautiful from the start. Hokkaido was dressed in full autumn colors...all visible from the road. We wound through mountains and down into valleys. It was as if I'd never seen trees changing colors before although I grew up in Northeastern North America where we're no stranger to reds, oranges, browns, and golds. There just aren't enough trees or fresh air in Tokyo to satisfy my autumnal needs. We stopped in Esashi, ate some soba, and then found a little island called Kamome Island (Seagull Island). Looking down into the light blue green water, we saw dozens of sea urchin ("uni")... Hokkaido is known for its fresh uni... I'm not a fan though it wasn't terrible. The water was so clear and pools of ocean water gathered in the rocks. I saw brilliant blue and orange starfish, hermit crabs, and barnacles. Makoto and I took off exploring in different directions but met up again at the top of a cliff. There was a wide open field and a lighthouse. After frolicking in the autumn mist, we climbed down about 200 stairs, passed a quaint cottage, an old stooped grandma burning leaves, and a lonely looking dog. Makoto bought some ika (squid) and hokke (white fish) and we both bought some hotate (scallops) to eat on the go.
Hotel Toyako Manseikaku, our destination for day 1, was surrounded by gorgeous trees in full color and sat next to the pristine lake Toyako. The skinny bellhop was eager to carry our bulky bags to our room. As we stood in our tatami hotel room, the bellhop went through a litany of directions and invitations (I smiled, nodded, and grunted occasionally to show I understood though my thoughts were wandering) bowed respectfully several times and continued bowing while backing out of the door. Again, Makoto and I parted ways as we mosied down to the onsen baths (mineral hot spring baths). Sinking into the water was incredible! It was night time and this outside bath was adjacent to a pond. I peered into the dark shadows deepened by the lamps dotting the shore. The more I stared, the more I imagined shapes moving in the dark behind the trees. It was eerie but my little nightmares were put to rest when two ruddy obachans (grandmas) entered the bath and began their noisy but welcome chatter. A moment of "true Japan". That night we opened our hotel window to the crisp night air...we could hear the repetitious tinkling music of the lake ferry boat's music. It was reminiscent of the ice cream trucks of my youth. Anyway, we waited and waited and were finally awarded with a spectacular fireworks show over the lake. We could see everything from our hotel window. This first hotel was my favorite of the whole trip. The second day, we took advantage of the baths one more time before leaving for our next adventure. This particular bath was right on Lake Toyako. I sat in the outside bath looking out over a pond and gazing down at the koi (carp) swimming slowly and languorously several feet below my fingers.
"Good morning! Today is Thursday November 1st. Where would you like to go?" Our friendly bodacious digital navigator greeted us as we fastened our seat belts. Next stop was Usuzan (Mt. Usu). It was cold a rainy but we rode slowly over the tops of trees on a cable car to the top of the beast anyway. We were the only people up there in the middle of hell. It was a kind of hell that you'd like to visit though. The steam rose up and mingled with the fog bearing down on the mountain. It seemed timeless and ancient but this mountain is just a wee baby in terms of large rock formations. Only about 80 years ago a volcano burst up from underground and created the huge mound we stood on. Scary to think about. I imagined having the earth explode beneath my feet. I don't know that I'll ever trust the ground again since I've moved to Japan.
After conquering Usuzan we made our way back down the mountain and into the Toyota Carola, popped some Joanna Newsom (one of 3 cds I had with me.. the others being American Highlights bluegrass and a mix by Megumi) into the cd player. The road took us to a secretive onsen off the beaten track and finally to Onuma Quasi National Park. There, we walked in the crisp air admiring the colorful trees and the strangely peaked mountain that is Onuma. Here, my memory gets a little hazy and my fingers a little lazy... more onsens, delicious kani (crab), some izakaiyas aka "dive bars" (Makoto should seriously write a book about the izakaiyas of Japan.. he's visited more of them than anyone I know), nice hotels, and walking around aimlessly.. We traveled to the top of Hakodate Mountain, froze off our tookases, and took in the famous night lights of the city. Riding down the mountain in the car took some time (it's a very popular destination) so we passed the time listening to NHK radio broadcast featuring a very dated English lesson. New English phrases included "Hey Annette, let's go to the sock hop" and "Sorry Mark, dancing bores me. Studying is my only joy in life."
Our last day marked our last sip of Hokkaido milk (Makoto's "favorite part" of the whole trip he says), our last walk around Hakodate, a visit to the Ainu museum, and a dip in a local sento (public bath house). The local obachan's showed me how to cool the scalding bath water while they silently tisked tisked at my lack of soap. They saw through my charade of pretending my shaving gel was actually soap... no lather.