Take My Breath Away

I have been waking up to this every morning (see picture above), and if this doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will. Lake Toya (洞爺湖) is probably one of the most understated attractions in Hokkaido, ironically, in contrast to neighbouring Noboritbetsu (登別) and its stinking sulphur. In fact, after a day trip to the “Hell Valley” (a.k.a Noboribetsu), I would say Lake Toya (洞爺湖) takes the cake hands down. Not only the view but no rotten egg smell too. I mean, just look at this!DSC09899And that’s not all. If you make the short hike up Nishiyama, you would be confronted by another view – on both sides. One side takes you to a baby caldera lake, the other opens up to the Sea of Japan.  Toyako (洞爺湖) or Lake Toya, when written in Japanese kanji, literally translates to “hole grandfather” (not sure who named it). It should really be called the Playground of the Gods.DSC09942One of my personal highlights on this trip to Hokkaido are the train rides. I know train journeys can be boring, monotonous, painful, even nauseating for some people. And some popped the sleeping pill almost as soon as they boarded the train. But I assure you that in Hokkaido (unless you’re a local of course), train rides are an excellent opportunity to marvel at the natural beauty of Hokkaido.DSC09960Every time the train emerges from a tunnel, a new snow draped mountain unfolds before my eyes. And like the curtains on a stage, the peaks start to reveal themselves one after another. I zipped past endless rows of snow-spangled cones from Furano (富良野) to Niseko (ニセコ). My trips from Sapporo (札幌) to Otaru (小樽) took me to the ocean, where the tracks literally hang precariously next to the crashing waves. I was rewarded with a huge flock of seagulls dancing above the waters on my journey from Lake Toya (洞爺湖) to Hakodate (函館). Every turn is a postcard. Every turn a surprise. I found myself humming to the lyrics of Roxanne.  LS

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What’s Snow Without Spirits?

It has snowed almost the entire day in Otaru (小樽) , and that really sucks! Sorry for all the romantics out there but snowing and walking on the streets don’t go together. I’m all wrapped up in four layers of clothing sans my gloves but I’m still shivering like a fully plucked chicken! Fortunately, I stumbled on Osa, a boutique winery. The spirits in me desperately needs one glass right now. Just one glass, I promised myself. As it turned out, this place was an unexpected find! The owner of this boutique, winery cum café, Osa-san, is polite and friendly. We soon struck up a conversation. He told me that his hometown is in Kyushu, but he now lives in Otaru (小樽).DSC09687DSC09684DSC09688DSC09685Outside, the snow continued without any signs of calling it quits. On a day when I had decided to venture to Mount Tengu (天狗山), the snow really was of no help as far as getting a bird’s eye view of Otaru (小樽) was concerned. However, I managed to snap some shots during the intermittent times when the snow decided to take a ‘smoke’ break.DSC09656DSC09639DSC09631Because of the snow, there was really nothing much I could do but check into the Mt. Tengu Ropeway Café. I plonked myself down on one of the seats at the observation deck which offers a stunning vista of Otaru (小樽) below. I was resisting the urge to drink again because I’d had beer almost every meal for the last 10 days that I was in Hokkaido. Instead, I ordered a coffee to warm my body (and spirits). Fresh from its break, the snow was all geared up for Round 2. I decided I needed a Round 2 myself, so I ordered a beer. And continued watching the snow fall.    LSDSC09628DSC09623

Soak In The Mountains

The Japanese love their baths, and so does this Singaporean. However, despite my affection for the bubbles, I planned this trip according to the places I felt fit in with my route. It wasn’t a conscious decision to select hotels / inns with onsens but I somehow ended up doing that anyway. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan, and along the way, I chanced upon a few onsens that I had not penciled in originally.

Take the Ryounkaku Onsen (凌雲閣 温泉) deep in the mountains of Tokachidake(十勝岳) for example. I never intended to visit the onsen, and in fact until last night, was headed in the opposite direction for a day trip to Biei (美瑛) as I had previously read about the beautiful scenery that decorates this little town. I was also keen to get out of Furano (富良野) because other than skiing, there’s really nothing much else to do. Visits to the Furano Winery and Cheese Factory on the previous days had been disappointing affairs.

DSC09123DSC09149Anyhow, while reading up on Biei (美瑛), many of the reviews centred on the lavender fields (which you won’t be able to find in winter) and the eerily charming Blue Lake (青い池) – which I figured would most likely be frozen in this chilly weather. That made up my mind to explore another vicinity. And that’s when I stumbled on Kamifurano (上富良野町).

Like its sister town, Kamifurano (上富良野町) is also renowned for its lavender fields. However, Kamifurano (上富良野町) is also the access point to an onsen that is apparently at a whopping 1,280m above sea level. Call me nuts but there’s something liberating about freezing / frying your ass off in a piping hot tub way up in the mountains (nope, not the part about being naked)!!!

20151215_13153720151215_13233320151215_153204As it turns out, the journey to Ryounkaku Onsen (凌雲閣 温泉) in itself is half the fun . The winding road up into Hokkaido’s highest onsen offers breathtaking vistas of the Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山) and random thoughts of dying. Like, what if my bus skids off the road and rolls off the mountain? Yesterday’s dip at the Furano New Prince Hotel could have been my last onsen experience. And then, it started to snow while I was midway up the mountains. When the bus made a brief stop at the first onsen – the Fukiage Onsen (吹上温泉), it had started to snow with a vengeance.

20151215_13182520151215_140037Thankfully, I made it alive, and soon found myself confronted with this stunning view before me! (see picture above) The water itself may put off some people because it’s actually reddish brown in colour due to the high iron oxide concentration. But if you buy into those healing properties that soaking in an onsen apparently brings, I guess you would dive head in even if the water is blood red. I mean, it’s not like you get a chance to soak in this view butt naked every day, is it?

I think I’ll be contented even if this is my last dip.  LS

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The Snow Less Travelled

Asahikawa 旭川 is the second largest city in Hokkaido, but probably one of the most under-rated ones. There’s good reason to be so – with only a handful of mediocre shopping complexes, and its most renowned attraction being a zoo (the Asahiyama Zoo 旭山動物園), it doesn’t look anywhere like a tourist draw.

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However, as a gateway to both the Daisetsuzan National Park 大雪山 (one of the most carefully preserved nature reserves in Hokkaido) and the Asahidake Onsen (旭岳温泉), it makes for a convenient base from which to make day trips to these attractions.

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If skiing is not your thing, take a dip in one of the onsens (there’s 9 in total) along the main road leading up to the Asahidake Ropeway (旭岳ロープウェー). At the Ropeway, a 5-min ride takes you to a breath-taking vista at 2,291 metres above sea level. Because of its relative obscurity, it feels like having the entire mountain / volcano to yourself!

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I also found another reason to visit Asahikawa (旭川)– food! The city is slowly gaining interest as a gourmet town (it even has a village dedicated to ramen), and though the nightlife is nowhere compared to Sapporo, there’s enough to satisfy my demanding taste buds.    LS

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Have Beer, Will Travel

DSC08607One of the first things I penned down on my bucket list when doing my research on Sapporo was the Sapporo Beer Museum (札幌ビール博物館) and the Sapporo Factory (サッポロファクトリー). I’ve always enjoyed Japanese beer, and in particular, Sapporo (I prefer this over Asahi or Kirin). So how could I not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Grail when I am in Sapporo?

Let’s cut to the brew. To be honest, if time is of the essence for you in Sapporo, I suggest you can safely give both destinations a miss. I hear a gasp…

Yes I mean it! As much as I fancy a tipple from the sacred shrine, I would have to admit that besides the beer tasting (which you can actually experience without a tour of the museum), both destinations do not offer a truly interactive experience.DSC08610DSC08613 Take the Sapporo Factory for example. This former brewery is now a shopping centre, restaurant complex and tourist trinkets trap. The only reason I spent a good hour there – there’s a small tasting room at the corner of a miniscule “exhibition room” where you can taste 6 different kinds of Sapporo Beer for 250 yen each for half a pint.DSC08621DSC08605DSC08608Next, the Sapporo Beer Museum (札幌ビール博物館). It’s a shuttle bus ride from the Factory. The architecture is strangely European and the distinctive Sapporo red star that adorns every steeple and roof kind of reminds you of the former communist Soviet Union (or is it just me?)DSC08720Inside the Museum, there’s two floors of exhibits – both of which took me less than 5 minutes each. The exhibits cover the history of Sapporo Brewery and a special tribute to their bestselling Black Label. I would have preferred a more interactive experience, but sadly, the exhibits are mainly posters and Sapporo beer bottles from the different eras.DSC08647DSC08631Now if you have time, the beer tasting is the real deal. And the best part, you get to sample 3 half-pints of different Sapporo beers at a grand total of 500 yen. This almost makes the earlier price tag of 250 yen per half pint offered at the Factory seem exorbitant. In addition to the beer tasting, there’s an interesting souvenir shop where you can purchase beer flavoured chocolates, beer flavoured cookies, beer flavoured anything… Cheers to that!  LSDSC08724DSC08733DSC08621DSC08637DSC08640DSC08644DSC08602

In Search of A View

I present to you the night view of Sapporo 札幌 – I’m facing the same view as I write this at the cafe on the 38th level of the Sapporo JR Tower (札幌 JR タワー). With a cuppa, of course. I could vegetate here the whole night with this view before me.

Like any first-time visitors to a Japanese city, this is almost like an initiation ritual to the city – a money sucker definitely but it’s not like you do this everyday. Which reminds me, this must be my 5th tower-rite. Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka…and now this! And if you count the views from the castles…well, who’s counting?

Oh by the way, did I mention this is the second ¥720 I spent in a single day. The first went to the Sapporo TV Tower. Hmm…consider the former ¥720 as a donation. Compared to the TV Tower, the vista (and ambience) here is so much better! And the kicker – you get to pee “over the city”!!

Sometimes I wonder if there’s more to the view that attracts people to part with their moolah. What do you think?  LS

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