Hokkaido’s capital is hip & happening!
We caught our final long-distance Japanese train today, from Hakodate to Sapporo (Hokkaido’s capital). Today’s train journey was by far the longest in terms of duration (3.5 hours to travel the 382kms – there are no shinkansens in Hokkaido, only the slower local trains), but certainly one of the more scenic. As you can see from the map below, the train tracks wind their way around Southern Hokkaido’s bays, before cutting up towards Sapporo. So for the first 2.5 hours of so of the ride we had the deep, dark blue ocean on our right and rich farmlands on our left, before we went inland and the terrain become more mountainous and forested. The landscape was very green and lush, with vast farms planted with corn, pumpkins and lots of other vegetables we couldn’t make out from the train. In winter it’s a very different scene though, with even Southern Hokkaido spending up to 7 months under a blanket of snow (up to 11m of the stuff!). With the winds blowing across Hokkaido coming straight from Siberia, this is one chilly place. Even now, in the midst of summer, the daily temperatures are 10-12C at night and only 20-24C during the day. Compared to the sweltering humid heat we’ve been enjoying further South, this is a welcome relief!
Like all of Hokkaido, Sapporo had no old temples or castles to speak of as the city was only founded in the 1870s. It is a modern, vibrant city with a real buzz to it. With a population of just over 2 million, it’s Japan’s fifth largest city and was great fun to explore today. In our wanderings we saw the old Hokkaido Government House, their Botanical Gardens, the clock tower Sapporo is famous for and Odori-koen, a big public garden that is currently planted with summer blooms. With its orderly streets and plentiful public parks and gardens, Sapporo has something of the Canberra vibe about it, just way funkier. People all around town were really well dressed, with quite a few sporting very trendy outfits (normal-trendy that is, not Tokyo/Harajuku-wierd trendy). We saw heaps of people out enjoying the summer sunshine, and accidentally stumbled across a great flower and plant market that was obviously the place to be if you were over 50. For the under 50’s, the sale at Daimaru department store was obviously too good to pass up – it was madness in there!
The verdict for dinner was that noodles and hot soup were required (it’s cold up here tonight – 10C cold!). So went in search of a ramen noodle bar and found the tiniest little place. It was one of 20 odd micro-restaurants in this little food alley. Squeezed between a couple of izakaya (translation = Japanese pub that serves beer and grilled nibbles), this place had 8 seats in it and served a few variations of just 3 things: gyoza, pork ramen or corn ramen. Not being great fans of porcine meals (except for prosciutto and the odd bit of breakfast bacon), we went for the corn ramen. What we didn’t expect was that the corn noodles would also come with pork, a generous serving of chilli paste and a BIG DOB OF BUTTER. Apparently this is the speciality up here in Hokkaido, designed to be served to hungry sailors and skiers (and ignorant tourists) on cold wintery days to help warm them up and give them sustenance. Shane was initially afraid of the butter and chilli, but all proved well and we thoroughly enjoyed our ramen – butter, chilli and all. Good work Japan – we needed a bit of fattening up! NOT!