Soaking up the sights in Sapporo…
Friday the 13th proved to be more grey than black for us here in Sapporo today. It was overcast and drizzley all day today so we couldn’t go climbing mountains as we would have liked. We weren’t about to let a bit of rain dampen our spirits, however, and still had a good day seeing the sights around Sapporo, stretching our legs after yesterday’s long travel day and adjusting to being back in “travel mode”.
Our original plan had been to head out of Sapporo early and go trekking around Niseko (most commonly known for its powdery snow and winter offerings, but also very pretty in summer – or so we’re told). Due the rain, however, we chose instead to start the day a little slower and just focus on the sights in and around Sapporo. After a much needed sleep in we found ourselves, at 9:00am this morning, at a great little cafe enjoying a great cup of coffee and watching the rain. The “mooningu setto*” at Tokumitsu Coffee House was delicious and warm – perfect fuel for a morning of (damp) sightseeing. Talking to the extraordinarily genteel husband and wife team who ran the place, Shane found out that the name tokumitsu translates to something like “Coffee House of Shining Virtue”. A sign from the Gods maybe?
*Westernised version of breakfast available just about everywhere in Japan for those who, like us, balk a little at the thought of raw fish for breakfast. Generally consists of a coffee (often served very weak and milky compared to what we generally enjoy at home, but hey, coffee is still coffee), and some kind of sandwhich. Not very adventurous, we know, but good value and nourishing. We save the more adventurous meals for later in the day.
Fortified with caffeine and a breakfast “sando” we headed out into the drizzle to see the Sapporo Clock Tower. Built in 1878 this wooden structure is the oldest standing building in Sapporo and, as the locals will tell you with pride, the clock continues to run and keep time. Like many of the historical buildings in Sapporo, the Clock Tower is not a stereotypically Japanese structure. It is of American design and is an example of the Western-style architecture that dominated in Hokkaido in the late 1800s.
The reason many of the historical buildings in Sapporo are Western in design is because this part of Japan was developed with the assistance of the American government. Hokkaido was only really developed by the Japanese in the 19th century in order to defend against Russian expansion. Originally inhabited by the Ainu people, Hokkaido had, until the late 1800s, been little more than a wild, rural outpost for the rulers of Japan. With the threat of the Russian empire looming across the Sea of Japan, however, the decision to bring the island more firmly under Japanese influence was made. Unsurprisingly the USA supported this move. Buildings like the Sapporo Clock Tower and Old Government House are legacies of this partnership.
Sapporo’s Old Government House was built in 1888, and was designed, at the time, to be one of the largest and tallest buildings in Japan. Its grandness symbolised the prestige and importance the Meiji Government placed on the development of Hokkaido. Today the building houses a museum and the gardens around it are open to the public as a green oasis in the middle of the mini metropolis that is modern-day Sapporo.
We walked through Sapporo’s other famous park, Odori Koen, and stopped briefly to admire the facade of the Old Courthouse. The building, which used to be the Sapporo Court of Appeals, is now also a museum. At this point the heavens decided to open up a little wider and Sapporo a really good watering. Luckily we’d brought our best waterproof gear so we remained (mostly) unwatered.
We didn’t stop to check out the museum but continued instead, through the incessant drizzle, to Hokkaido Jingu. This beautiful wooden temple is nestled in the forested folds of Maruyama (translation = Mt Maru) just a few kilometers West of the city. It is one of the oldest Shinto temples in Hokkaido and is still in use today. The temple is dedicated to 3 powerful kami* is a wonderful, serene place to visit.
Like many of the Shinto shrines we saw last time we were in Japan, Hokkaido Jingu was a pleasure to visit. Dedicated to nature spirits as they are, we’ve found Shinto shrines are often in amazing natural settings that, even for agnostics like us, inspire a sense of calm and awe.
*Kami are the nature spirits revered as part of the Shinto religion – they are embodiments of the elements, natural forces or animals.
As the rain eased off a bit we ventured beyond the temple grounds into Maruyama Park. Here we got to enjoy some of the verdant green that characterises Japan in summer and even got to watch some squirrels foraging for foods.
Despite the rain it turned out to be a good first day. We got to do a bit of walking, see a few cool things and refamiliarise ourselves with some of the quirks of being a gai-jin (translation = foreigner) in Japan. It’s so great being back in Japan – this place was on the top of our list of places to come back to after our last epic adventure and we’re pretty excited to be here again. This would have to be one of the most beautiful, safe, comfortable, traveller-friendly, and yet non-Westernised, places on Earth. Watashi-tachi wa Nippon ga daisukidesu!