Frozen in the Fall: A Trip to Sounkyo Onsen

Autumn is my favourite season. I love watching the landscape slowly turning from lush greens to a patchwork of red, orange and yellow hues. I still remember my first encounter with fall in Japan five years ago, when I visited Tokyo.

Streets were lined with row after row of yellow gingko and red maple. It was almost like one of those scenes from a jigsaw puzzle. Shrines in Japan are most beautiful, in my opinion, during fall. There’s an inexplicable tranquillity and spiritual energy in these places.

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Watching The Clouds Drift By – Muroran (Part 2)

I woke up to a bright and sunny morning in my budget hotel room in Higashi-Muroran (東室蘭). The original plan was to take the train back to Tomakomai after check-out. But looking at the weather, it seemed such a massive waste to just pack up and go home. Yesterday’s exertions (and disappointments) were still fresh in my body and mind. After mulling over the options over bread and coffee at the hotel café, I decided to give Muroran another shot.dsc01826After a quick browse through Tripadvisor, I decided to check out Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬) and seek out one of Muroran’s specialty dishes – curry ramen. I must say this had to be one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. If there’s one place you ever need to try curry ramen, it’s Aji-no-Daio 味の大王. Though it’s still 11.30 a.m., the tiny restaurant was already packed with patrons. The curry is viscous thick, and the noodles are springy. Sweat was oozing from all pores down my face, but I was savouring every drop of the curry. Needless to say, I polished the bowl down to its last dregs.img_20160919_115042My belly folks were humming a tune, and I hopped along to it as I made my way to Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬). Google Maps informed me that the trek to the cape would take about an hour on foot, but this time round, I decided to try my luck and just board any bus that would take me as close as possible to the cape. Last night’s misadventure told me that bus no.14 might be my best shot. And so it proved to be, though I had to ride my luck and guess the stop to alight. From my alighting point, it was just another 300 metre walk to the cape, which took less than five minutes.dsc01840dsc01841Although less celebrated than Cape Chikyu (judging by the fact that besides me, there were only three others), Cape Etomo, in my opinion, has more to offer. Not only can you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific, but also a perfect vista of the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spans the port of Muroran and its marina. I spent a good half an hour just taking in the scenery.img_20160919_142753img_20160919_143820_hdrHowever, the best find had to be Café Mutekirou, perched at the edge of a small knoll along the coast. The interior had a minimalist feel to it, with a granite wall accompanied by two humongous speakers as the dominant centrepieces. Jazz music was playing, and the entire café was drenched in sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I slurped my Americano and leaned back on my wooden deck chair, content to just watch the clouds drift by over the Hakucho Bridge. What a way to spend the long weekend!

Ç’est la vie.   LS

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Dead But Uglily Beautiful – Muroran (Part 1)

dsc01829Muroran is dead, and pretty ugly.

These adjectives came to mind as I was researching on this port city, where I had booked a night’s stay to spend the Silver Weekend (The Japanese celebrate Respect for the Aged Day on 19 September, a day to honour the elderly). Most of the search results on Google were travel tips and “Top 10 things to do in Muroran” from Tripadvisor. It also talked about the mesmerising night view of the steel factories. I was struggling to put the words “mesmerising” and “factories” together. Surely, this must be a joke fashioned by the local tourist office. However, there was also a pretty lengthy and nostalgic piece on Muroran titled “Muroran: The town that time forgot” and while reminiscing about the halcyon days of Muroran, it also lamented its steady decline.img_20160918_155752_hdrDespite knowing what to expect (well, kind of), I was still disappointed by how dead the city felt. I was the only customer in a tonkatsu restaurant at a little past noon on a Sunday afternoon. Outside, I could count with my hands how many people I had actually met on the way to this restaurant from the station. Never mind, I told myself. After all, the reason I came to Muroran was to seek out its natural wonders. While Muroran is not famed for onsens, shrines or man-made tourist attractions, it boasts some of Hokkaido’s best scenic views (the locals call it the 8 Sights of Muroran or 室蘭八景). And I’ve come here in search of arguably its most famous sight, the Earth Cape (地球岬).img_20160918_160001img_20160918_160203The Earth Cape is a 2.7 km uphill walk from Bokoi Station. Apparently, there are no buses to the Cape, so you either walk or drive there. Unfortunately for me, my legs would have to be my wheels. Perhaps it’s the weather, or the fatigue from the upward trudge, but to be honest, the view of the Pacific, with the Earth Cape’s iconic ghostly white lighthouse only lasted mere seconds.

For some reason, the viewing platform, which would have offered a more panoramic (and beautiful) view of the ocean and setting sun, was closed. There was a dirt track along the wooden fence that seemed to lead to somewhere, perhaps, a secret scenic spot! Buoyed by my curiosity, I followed the stampeded track, only to find that it ended abruptly in a clump of bushes. dsc01771If you ask me, I felt the descent proved to be far more interesting than the ascent. Instead of returning to Bokoi Station, I took a left instead, in the direction of Muroran Station. Along the way, I came across a stunning view of a cove and a cemetery deep in the woods. Truth be told, I was walking at twice the pace because daylight was fading fast, and I was desperate to make it to the city centre before it got dark! Thankfully, I just about made it when the last rays laced the evening sky.img_20160918_172606After a quick dinner, I headed for my next destination – the Hakucho Bridge. In a sense, I had to say I had asked for it. I had already spent a good part of the afternoon walking, and despite my aching legs screaming for me to call it a day, I decided to check out the Hakucho Bridge. Once again, Google Maps informed me that there seemed to be no bus connectivity, so I would have to make the 40-minute walk on foot. So I did, past empty streets, and empty roads. And this was just a little past 7 p.m. but it looked as if the city might already have gone to bed. For what seemed to me like eternity, I kept urging myself on, tucking my hands deep into my sweater in search of some warmth in the chilly air. As the bridge loomed larger into view, I realised that the start / end was a massive loop which meant that I would have to make a huge detour just to trace the entry. Just a little more, I egged myself. And then there it was, a sign that said “No entry to pedestrians, bicycles and motor-cyclists”.

Damn!

I had trudged for more than an hour in 14 degrees cold just to discover that I couldn’t get on the bridge. I checked Google Maps again, and realised it was directing me to some unknown location after the bridge. I had come so far, I thought, I might as well give it one last throw of the dice. I followed the arrows on Google Maps, past a creepy deserted road buzzing noisily with crickets, past a row of warehouses with “No Entry” signs. And then I saw the gleaming waters. Besides the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spanned the Port of Muroran, I found myself standing before the famed night view of the JX Nikko Nisseki Energy factories, glittering like a swarm of fireflies. It was the most unlikely place to behold such a sight!dsc01809I spent the next 15 minutes snapping away, zooming in and out, even attempting a ‘live’ broadcast on Facebook. And then, the thought of having to trudge back to the train station suddenly hit me. It’s well past eight now, and I’m pretty sure any chance of a last bus was slim, since it was a Sunday. Along the return journey, I stopped at any bus stop I happened to come across and used my handphone as a torch to check the bus schedule. I had no luck for about two to three stops before I found one that told me that there might be a chance that I might still be able to catch the last bus. I decided I would take the chance.

I didn’t have to wait long.

Like a glowing beacon in the encroaching darkness, a bus slowly lumbered into view. I flashed a grateful smile.   LSdsc01806

Jazz It Up, Jozankei

Fall is in the air. After two weeks of consecutive pummeling by typhoons, the dipping temperatures and clear blue skies are a much welcome respite.

Fall also happens to be my favourite season. It’s the season when leaves turn into brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow – a phenomenon the Japanese term 紅葉 (literally, “red leaves”) or もみじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district.

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Weekend Wanders

Weekends can get pretty boring in Tomakomai. After all, this is a port city and an industrial town, whose biggest pride is a shopping mall and ice hockey. I couldn’t count on visiting Sapporo every weekend because that would put a financial strain on my already massively reduced income. (Travelling by train in Japan is pretty expensive!) Still, after two weeks here, I was itching to get out of Tomakomai and explore the neighbouring towns. I figured I could always start from the nearest, and then venture further as I go along. My first destination was the Lake Shikotsu in Chitose.

DSC01504A caldera lake created by the eruption of three adjoining volcanoes (Mount Eniwa, Mount Fuppushi and Mount Tarumae), Lake Shikotsu is the second deepest lake in Japan. It’s about a 30 minute bus ride from Chitose Train Station. On the weekend I visited, there was a huge crowd of mainland Chinese tourists (well, you can’t avoid them, they are everywhere…). And they were milling around a small jetty which offers boat rides in the shape of swans. After checking out the rental fees, I decided to give it a miss. I headed for the quieter end of the footpath, where there’s a wooden platform that leads down to the waters. There, along with a few others, I took off my shoes and treaded carefully into the waters. This was also a good spot to capture the beauty of the lake, with the surrounding volcanoes. I didn’t stay in the waters for long because the pebbled ground was giving my feet a painful massage, so I retreated to the wooden platform and sat there to soak in the sun and beauty of the surroundings. A colleague told me that there’s a secret onsen resort on the opposite end of the lake (from where I was), the Marukoma Onsen Ryokan (丸駒温泉旅館). The reviews on Tripadvisor and pictures on the hotel’s website do seem enticing. However, without a decent four wheels, I would most likely give it a miss for now.

DSC01529DSC01520IMG_20160827_144627_HDRTwo weekends later, my belly tubbies (sorry, Micah, I borrowed your term) are calling out for beer, so instead of paying a ‘pilgrimage’ to my town’s resident shrine, the Tarumaezan Shrine, I decided to book an appointment to visit the Sapporo Beer Factory. It helps that there’s a train station named after it, and walking to the factory from the train station took only about 15 minutes. I was given a detailed commentary by the guide, albeit in Japanese (which means I probably only understood 10% of what he’s trying to tell me). What disturbed me was that my ‘tour’ group comprised a couple of Japanese families with toddlers and 5-year-olds in tow. Surely, this is not the right place to bring your kids for an educational tour, unless you intend to raise alcoholics. Well, at least not yet, in my humble opinion. The kids were creating such a ruckus during the tour that at times, it was difficult to hear the guide. I also made the mistake of picking a weekend to visit the factory, as it was a rest day, which meant that the machines weren’t working and we could only watch videos of the assembly, filling and bottling processes.

DSC01561DSC01552The saving grace of this tour? Two free half pints of authentic Sapporo beer on tap, straight from the source. And you can kick back your shoes at the spacious viewing gallery (which overlooks an expansive golf course) to savour your brew. Depending on your experiences, I would say this tour of the Sapporo Beer Factory beats the one I had at the Sapporo Beer Museum which I wrote about previously, for the simple reason that you don’t pay a single dime for your booze. Call me a cheapskate if you like, but any free beer wins my vote anytime!

IMG_20160827_145347_HDRI guess that’s about all Chitose had to offer, so I was ready to venture further this time. The next nearest destination on my Google Maps is Shiraoi, a sleepy rural town with a decent museum and village on the Ainus, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. However, reviews have been average at best, and I’m all too familiar with the Japanese’ love for dioramas, so this Ainu village may not be an exception. I ditched the idea of looking at fake people and animals and instead opted for Noboribetsu.

DSC01627The last time I was in Noboribetsu, I spent a good afternoon exploring the Hell Valley (also known as the Jikokudani) and even managed to squeeze about an hour and a half soaking in one of the many daytime onsens (of course, I went with the cheapest admission given the limited time I had before the last bus). A word of caution to day trippers, the last bus from Noboribetsu Onsen to the train station leaves at 6.58 p.m., so unless you have booked a stay at one of the expensively mediocre hotels here, you probably should really plan your trip. Having said that though, I am still contemplating a weekend staycation here one of these days because though the hotels are exorbitantly overpriced and grossly underwhelming, their onsens are amazing!

DSC01632For this trip, I decided to check out the Date Edo Ninja Village (登別伊達時代村) instead. I’ve heard about the famously notorious bear park here, but didn’t fancy the idea of seeing bears trapped in glass enclosures. I must say the admission tickets, priced at 2,900 yen, did shock me a little because by Japanese standards, the prices are slightly on the high side (not including Tokyo Disneyland). Still, I relented since I was already there. The Ninja Village was a good re-creation of a normal feudal town during the Edo period. Of course, there’s the requisite diorama showcase of life during the Edo period, what’s like inside a samurai’s residence and a whole street of trinket and games shops. You could even dress up as a ninja if you like, but for an additional 2,000 yen, I would recommend you do your ninja cosplay at home.

DSC01640What made this trip worth it though were the cultural performances, and I was really fortunate to be able to catch all of them, almost back-to-back! There were four altogether, including two ninja action shows, a comedy featuring the village mascot, a samurai cat/dog called Nyan and my favourite, an Oiran show. Oirans were top-ranked courtesans a.k.a prostitutes during the Edo period. They actually enjoyed prestige and social status during the Edo period, even invoking a sense of mystique among the common townsfolk.

DSC01691IMG_20160904_161119_HDRThere’s also a whimsically eerie Cat Temple (O-nyanko), with an interesting “haunted house” experience. In fact, the Cat Temple was probably scarier than the adjacent Haunted House (incredibly named the House of Ghosts and Monsters), which turned out to be more lame than horrifying. I also found the Ninja Maze pretty entertaining, seeing people (myself included) struggling to balance themselves on 30-degree inclined rooms. Overall, I had an enjoyable two hours stepping back in time to feudal Japan, and for a while, fantasising about how cool it must have been to be a ninja or samurai. For a split second, I even contemplated lugging a katakana or Oiran doll home from one of the souvenir shops. LS

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Winds of Change

Today marks my first full month of living in Japan. And what an introduction I had. The night before, I was bracing for a grade 10 typhoon in my apartment, wondering if the winds would somehow tear my roof away. This was the fourth typhoon to hit Hokkaido in 10 days! According to one of my colleagues, typhoons seldom land on Hokkaido. So much for that!

Life in Tomakomai started with me going around to get the necessary documents completed, for example, opening a new bank account, getting my Japanese residence card and signing up for a new mobile contract. The shock and disgust that had registered when I was “welcomed” into my new apartment (a decaying Japanese civil servant’s block that could have survived World War II) was temporarily cast aside for these urgent matters.

DSC01545I spent the next couple of days scouring Nitori (the local version of Ikea) for furnishings, Daiso for household items and the various supermarkets around my vicinity for groceries and to get acquainted with the different grocery options nearest to my apartment. My first priority was furnishing my otherwise empty shell of an apartment. Except for a bed, a table, two chairs, a fridge and a washing machine, I had nothing else in that stinkhole. And did I mention it stinks? So badly! From years of non-occupancy and I suspect, the fresh tatami mats. Gosh, I have never hated tatami so badly! The kitchen floor was sticky and feels uncomfortable on the feet. The stove had a lot of wooden fragments and chips. On top of that, rust has almost consumed the ventilator fan above the kitchen stove. This wasn’t really what I had envisioned when I first signed up for this!

IMG_20160813_225236_HDRI felt like a kid in a candy store in Nitori. The place is massive, and loaded with furniture – beautiful furniture. I would do anything to turn my stinkhole into a more inhabitable (and I hope, cosy) space. I grabbed everything I thought that could aesthetically enhance the apartment. So in came a carpet that costs more than $250 (my most extravagant splurge thus far), two DIY shelves, a DIY wardrobe, 60 pieces of 30 by 30 cm plywood tiles to lay over the disgusting kitchen flooring, a full-length standing mirror, a shoe rack, five floor mats, a fancy standing lamp, fresh bedsheets, bathroom slippers, a frying pan, a pot, cutlery, even a stool (so that I could sit on it while wearing my shoes). I also resorted to buying anything I could from my predecessor – a decently large flat-screen LCD TV, a couch, window curtains, curtain linings, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, a clothes rack, futons, a toolbox, more shelves, all sorts of kitchen utensils, and tons of hangers! Well, my predecessor was going to leave the country and head back home – so I guess it’s a relief to him that he could dispose of all these to any sucker that wants them. And I happen to be that.

I bought tools to saw, file and shape the kitchen tiles, assembled, shifted and rearranged the furniture. After two weeks, the pieces are slowly falling into place. August 15 was a momentous occasion for me because my long-awaited carpet finally arrived – the crowning jewel in my living room. And to top it off, I now have access to the Internet – after an intense and painful two weeks of administration hassle with NTT. There’s definitely more I can do to decorate my apartment, but at least for now, I can say with much pride that this, now feels a little more like home.   LS

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A New Lease of Life

IMG_20160809_171644_HDRIt’s been three months since my last post was published, so I was reminded when I finally got to log in today. Today also marks my first week as a resident in Japan, or more specifically, in the city of Tomakomai in Hokkaido.

I come here as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) of English under the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, and will be based in Tomakomai, a name that probably does not register with many people outside of Japan. With a population of about 170,000, Tomakomai is apparently the fifth largest city in Hokkaido, and one of the four biggest ports in Japan.

IMG-20160810-WA0012Another word that is synonymous with Tomakomai is ice hockey, and you only have to look at the city’s mascot (the Japanese have mascots for everything, from food products to toilet paper) to know. I was presented with a business card of the city’s mayor, Mr. Hirofumi Iwakura, suited in an ice hockey gear.

I touched down in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on 31 July. However, preparations for this day started two months before departure. From visiting Japanese schools in Singapore for lesson observations (to get an idea of how English lessons are taught in a Japanese school), deciding what to pack to scouring Chinatown, Little India, local markets, and department stores for the most quintessential Singaporean omiyage and then re-packing what I have packed, I found myself unwittingly caught in a roller-coaster ride of emotions as I attempt to repack my life in a suitcase.IMG_20160809_074248_HDR

IMG_20160803_172809_HDRIt’s my first time living abroad alone, far away from family and friends. It’s also the first time I am well out of my comfort zone, in a place where English is hardly spoken, and a country whose culture and lifestyle cannot be any more different from mine. I find myself struggling with my rudimentary Japanese, though I could get by with asking for directions and shopping for groceries and buying the train tickets. Anything more is a tough ask. This, I hope, will slowly improve as I immerse myself in Tomakomai, and Hokkaido.

IMG_20160802_191715_HDRThere were also other firsts, for example, visiting the Singapore Embassy in Tokyo in Roppongi, and the feeling of being treated like a pseudo-diplomat. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of something so much bigger than myself. The JET programme celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and coincidentally Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan. I’m excited to be part of this, but at the same time, slightly overwhelmed by my new environment.

I constantly remind myself that everything is going to be alright. 大丈夫 (daijoubu, the Japanese say).

I can do this! 大丈夫.   LS 

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Lake Toya | 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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Asahikawa | 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

DSC08951Asahikawa Yakitori ismDSC08953DSC08956DSC08955DSC08960Baikohken Ramen 梅光轩DSC08969DSC08973Santouka Ramen 山頭火本店DSC08941DSC08945Tenkin Honten 天金本店DSC09077DSC09085DSC09081DSC09093DSC09092DSC09042DSC09047.JPGDSC09046DSC09050DSC09063DSC09056DSC09054