Archive for – hokkaido

2014 Japan Trip Day 1 – Hokkaido : Asahikawa

3 Oct 2014

having my company’s corporate event at Shanghai Dollies before rushing back to pick up our luggages for a 1am flight. I was probably 50% drunk when we were on the plane, and this was my first time being intoxicated on a flight. It was rather fun ūüôā

Our flight with SQ departed Singapore for a 7+ hours flight towards Nagoya and we landed in Chubu International Airport around 9am Japan time. We had a good 3 hours to stroll around the Nagoya airport before boarding our domestic ANA flight to Asahikawa Airport. Nagoya Chubu International Airport was where we started our first ramen (with many others to come) in Japan. The ordering concept is rather unique. We had to choose our orders at a vending machine and were issued with tickets for the chef to prepare our noodles. The ramen was decent but not overly fantastic. Each bowl of ramen cost around ¥800 (SGD9.40), which is the usual price in Japan but it only came with 1 piece of chashu. If you are not in the airport, the same price in other ramen shops would probably have gotten at least 3 pieces of chashu.

I stayed up the flight from Singapore to watch X Men : Days of Future Past, and the fatigue made me slept through the domestic flight to Asahikawa. From Asahikawa Airport, we took a bus (¥620 each) to Asahikawa Station. Being first time, we were unfamiliar with their transport system. There is a vending machine near the exit of Asahikawa Airport (it is a rather small airport and you will hardly miss this) which sell the bus tickets. There were around 10 people that boarded the bus but we were the only 2 that purchased tickets off that machine. We later learnt that you could have just pay the amount when you are alighting. The schedule for these buses are always about 15 minutes after each flight touch down, so it can be pretty tight if you are picking up luggage, going to the toilet, picking up maps, and still trying to figure out the ticket machine. It is safer to board the bus asap as the intervals can be more than an hour apart.

The walk from the Asahikawa Station to our hotel (Asahikawa Grand Hotel) was pretty quiet and we did not see many people or traffic. We felt that there wasn’t much shops or interesting things to do at that time. It started to rain when we left our hotel and the hotel staff was nice to lend us 2 umbrellas. The first thing that shocked us was the sun setting around 5pm. Given the late arrival, there wasn’t much to do except for a nice dinner. Having read reviews of the¬†Asahikawa Ramen Village, that became our first checkpoint for Hokkaido. We boarded a train towards the the Minami Nagayawa Station and the sky was total darkness when we alighted at 5.30pm.

Unlike Asahikawa Station, the¬†Minami Nagayawa Station was just a one track station with a small shelter as the “station”. I was shocked to see a 1 track station and my immediate reaction was to look for the station that has an opposite track. There was none in site. I took out my iPad and from Goggle Map, I verified our location and confirmed that there is only one station by the name of¬†Minami Nagayawa Station. There was no other station in sight and I started to panic. All these while thinking that trains only travel in one direction and the track we took would be heading further away from Asahikawa Station.

Feeling lost, I checked with a Japanese lady who helped to confirm that last train heading back to Asahikawa Station was 7.45pm. I was asking how could I get back when it is a 1 track station but we could not really communicate in English vs Japanese. I had learnt basic Japanese years back but it was too limited to conduct a decent conversation. After awhile I got the sense that this is the station and the only 1 track would serve trains moving from both directions (was finding it hard to believe). While not too certain if we were correct about the station and having fear that we would be strangled if we missed the last train, we decided to take the leap of faith and walked towards the Ramen Village. We found the Ramen Village after a 15 minutes walk in the rain.

By looking at the photos, we could not really tell which is the best among the 8. I read from reviews that each has its own unique taste and and we eventually went into one that had quite a bit of customers, thinking that it must be good if the locals chose to dine there. During the meal, we realised that those customers were a bunch of family from China (which makes them tourists rather than locals), which render my concept of choosing the shop with the most amount of customers useless. The noodles tasted normal but their chashu was rather good. I also ordered Goyza but it was not as crispy or tasty as our Singapore version. This simple dinner cost ¥1,850 (SGD21.70). It was our first day in Japan so having ramen for both lunch and dinner was still pretty satisfying (it was only later that we gotten sick of ramen).

There were some department stores around and we went to Uniqlo where I purchased a sweater. We wanted to check out their Toys R Us but decided not to risk missing the last train. Indeed, at exactly 7.45pm, a train coming from the opposite direction picked us up and we were transported back to Asahikawa Station. We now know that this world has train station that operates like this, and felt pretty much like “mountain tortises”.

Amber’s boots cracked and the sole split when we were walking back to the hotel. It was really funny as she had to step higher in order to land on full sole. She seemed to be marching with a single leg. Due to this mishap I had to tweak tomorrow’s itinerary as she needed to get a new pair of footwear. The initial itinerary was to be collect our rental car at 8am and head straight to Sounkyo Gorge, follow up Mt Asahidake. These 2 destinations requires 4 hours of driving and would have taken up the whole of tomorrow. The problem was the departmental stores only open after 9.30am, and that delay would render it rather impossible to execute the initial itinerary. Left with no choice,¬†I made some plans to push Mt Asahidake into Day 3. One of the good thing about free and easy travel, is the freedom to make changes if need be.

We got a mini cake from the bakery to celebrate our wedding anniversary (4 Oct), and officially started our first day of Japanese junk food (tibits).

I was determined to end the first night only after trying a Japanese Onsen. Some hotels provide it for free but for Asahikawa Grand Hotel, it costs ¬•1,000 (SGD11.70). While I had done some research before the trip and do know that the Onsen for different gender is separate, I was caught by surprise when an old lady greeted me in the changing room. She did a quick tour to show me the lockers, the pools, and the lounge. The locker room is where one is supposed to undress and it was the same room that she was walking around. For a moment I kept thinking if I was suppose to undress in the pool area but it really did not make much sense to me. Feeling puzzled, I checked with her a few times but the language barrier made it difficult to understand each other. Unfortunately there wasn’t any other male patrons to demonstrate how it was done. Still trying to figure out where to undress, I saw another lady walked into the pool area where naked men were. It was then that I realised it was alright for these female staffs to be around. While it was weird for me but the rest of the male patrons did not seemed to be bothered with these ladies. They seems oblivious to one another. However the female customers have their own section and males are not allowed to be in. I wasted no time in enjoying the various pools (with varying temperature) even though this Onsen is similar to a typical Singapore Spa. I ended the night looking forward to those Japanese Onsen that are filled with minerals water.

2014 Japan Trip Day 2 – Hokkaido : Asahikawa / Sounkyo Gorge

4 Oct 2014

We started the day early to collect the rental car at 8am. I rented a Nissan (unable to¬†remember the model) for 6 days at¬†¬•39,600 (SGD465).¬†The earliest department store opens at 9.30am so we had to spend some time loitering around empty streets. We gotten some sushi from the convenience stores, only to pass by a McDonald’s (with some regrets). Authentic Japanese food would be preferred over fast food at any time, but those convenience stores sushi weren’t that good, and McDonald’s would have been a better choice.

Up till this time¬†Amber was still wearing her slipper (with socks). We jumped into the 1st department store at 9.30am sharp and took 10 minutes to walk out of it. The shoes are so expensive and it doesn’t make sense even though we were rather desperate. Fortunately we found some affordable shoes in another department store. Amber chose a Fila boots that cost around¬†¬•6,000 (SGD70) and we managed to drive out at 10.30am.

While Japan is also right hand drive, it still took me quite some time to be familiar with their traffic system. Firstly, their traffic light is placed after an intersection, unlike ours that is infront of it. What it means is I have to look further and stop a great distance away from their traffic lights. If I stop just infront of it, I would have technically breach it. Secondly, most roads do not have arrows and that caused some confusion when there were multiple lanes at a junction. They uses direction signs that are mounted on the traffic lights. An example is a double lane with a direction sign stating front and left only. This would allow me to turn left or go straight. However if the sign shows front and right, then a left turn is not allowed. For a Singaporean driving in Japan for the first time, it is really confusing. I was driving rather slowly and keeping to the speed limits.

The purpose of visiting Hokkaido at this time of the year was to view the magnificent autumn. We have seen greenery, flowers and snow. The only thing missing was an autumn maple leave. Having done some research, I have found Sounkyo Gorge as a highly recommended place for autumn viewing. It is one of the first few places where autumn takes place before moving southward.

It was a 70km 1.5 hour drive from Asahikawa (śó≠Ś∑ĚŚłā)¬†to¬†Sounkyo Gorge (ŚĪ§ťõ≤Ś≥°). Getting there was easy with a GPS. All I had to do was to punch in the telephone number of the resort. I could have used the map codes but I read several reviews that telephone numbers are more accurate and recommended. Once the destination is identify, the GPS will list down multiple options (via expressway, via normal roads, shortest route etc) and upon selection it would start guiding me at every junction. Their GPS system is really accurate and it was about able to detect proximity down to 10 meters.

We passed by many traffic junctions in Asahikawa. It decreases as we drove out of the main city area, and eventually disappear when we enter the rural area. I was driving on an endless route, over a 30km stretch without any traffic junction. That was also the stretch where the autumn colours started coming to life. Amber and I was going “wah wah wah!” and I was tempted to stop for a photography but there wasn’t enough space to park by the roadside. I didn’t want to take the risk of getting into trouble, especially when I was still very unfamiliar driving in this country.

The sky grew darker when we were nearing to Sounkyo Gorge. We arrived Daisetsuzan Sounkyo –¬†Kurodake Ropeway¬†(telephone number¬†01658-5-3031) at 12pm. Hungry after a 70km drive, we walked around the ropeway compound that is lined up with souvenir shops, as well as restaurants. We settled for lunch in one of the restaurants that was crowded to the rim. It seems to be popular with tourists and the smell was so alluring that we were sucked in right from the doorway. Having had ramen for the whole of yesterday, we decided not to order any form of noodles. After flipping the menu, I ordered a Katsu Don (tasted quite terrible) while Amber ordered fried rice (super tasty). This lunch cost¬†¬•2,360 (SGD27).

With our stomach filled, we proceeded to the ropeway station and ready to ascend up Mount Kurodake. A round trip via the Ropway cost ¥1,950 (SGD23) per ticket, which will bring you up to the 5th station of Mount Kurodake. The autumn scene while ascending was awesome. The best of the autumn during our time of visit was probably around 500 meters above sea level, where the trees turned into a sea of red, yellow, orange, brown, and green. We made a mistake for getting into the ropeway at the end of the queue. A better choice would be to have give that ropeway a miss, allowed the queue behind us to board, so that we could be the first passenger for the next ropeway. Doing so would give us the choice to stand anywhere in the ropeway, which would then get us the window position that presented the best view. By making that mistake, we were squeezed into the middle portion of the ropeway and I had to bite my fingers in regrets when I was unable to capture those spectacular view on my camera. Given my position in the ropeway, I only manged to captured the following shot.

The atmosphere started to change when we ascended higher (probably above 800 meters). As this year autumn started 2 weeks earlier than the predicated period, we kind of were late for the golden period at Mount Kurodake 5th station. That explains why we saw the best colours during the ascend and dull colours withered tree when we were nearing the 5th station. To make the trip even more unfulfilling, the withered surrounding was covered with layers of mist coupled with rain. We didn’t want to waste the time and effort of getting up here, so we did a bit of hike but ended up capturing just misty backgrounds. We could only imagine how awesome it would be to be walking among autumn colours. The rain became heavier and we retreated back to ground level.

Beside heading up to Mount Kurodake, Sounkyo Gorge is also well known for its many waterfalls. Out of which, the 2 most well known being the Ryusei Falls (shooting star falls) and Ginga Falls (Milky Way falls). I did not have the map code for the viewing site and I tried navigating it using physical map, which resulted in us missing the turn and driving into a 8km single direction lane long tunnel. There was no way to stop or make any u-turn and I had to finished the 8km stretch before making an illegal turn between the tunnels break. Driving back was another 8km and we wasted petrol for 16km. Turning back, we missed the turn again (because we did not know that was the turn) and landed in a resort. After some help, we managed to identified the correct spot to turn and finally found the viewing site for these waterfall.

There is a fleet of stairs leading to an alleviated spot that allows both waterfalls to be captured at the same time. We tired climbing those steps (many of them had worn out over the years) with our umbrellas while taking hit from the rain. After around 5 minutes I decided to turn back as it was not worth the trouble or risks (Amber was going rather slow and I could sense that she was struggling with the climb). We walked around the parking area and picked up a red maple leaf that happened to drop before us. It was really beautiful but we could not enjoy the viewing as the rain became heavier. Feeling ruined by the downpour, I decided to head back to Asahikawa (another 70km drive).

We reached our hotel at 6pm and was trying to understand how to get our car park in those mechanic carpark. The hotel staff could not understand English and we had a hard time understanding their Japanese. Ended up I drove away and went around the hotel compound a few times (even turned into a single direction opposite lane as I failed to check the direction signboard) before giving up and heading back to our hotel for a mechanic park. Amber alighted and the staff guided me to the precise point before my car can be locked in and slotted away like a storage. It was my first time using such car park and it really was an experience.

From the lobby staff we found out the stretch of restaurants from Asahikawa Station to our hotel. This is the same stretch where the shopping malls are and where Amber purchased her boots. We couldn’t decide where to dine for dinner. Places that looks good are¬†pricey and places that have affordable menu did not look as good. After more than 30 minutes of trying to find the ideal restaurant, our stomachs took over and we headed into one that had a menu with impressive pictures. We were taken to a cozy “small cubicle” and were offered a¬†¬•980 drink¬†menu. Unable to understand what that was,¬†I declined that offer and opted for a normal menu. Knowing that we aren’t Japanese, the staff brought us an English menu, which I then realised that it was more worth while to take their free flow drink menu at¬†¬•980 (SGD11.50) where I could get to order as many drinks within a 2 hours timeframe. The rule is we can only order a new drink after finishing our previous drink. A mug of beer cost around¬†¬•300 so my decision was a no brainer.

This by far was the best dinner (in term of taste) we had since touching down in Japan. Out of the various dishes we ordered, I personally think that the omelette was best. We tried to have as many combination of the drink list and ended up ordering 6 rounds. I wanted to get a few more rounds but Amber was feeling tipsy. I normally do not drink Japanese Sake in Singapore so I tried to have a bit more during this trip. This dinner cost ¥5,600 (SGD65).

After the fulfilling feast, we went into a Pachinko shop and tried our luck. Not knowing how the game was played, we slotted in ¬•1000 (SGD11) and literally starred at the machine. After a “short” 5 minutes of poker face, a staff came over to teach us how it was supposed to be played. The aim is¬†to stir the ball bearings into the centre slot (which there is no way to control, so it is pure luck). I managed to get quite a number of the balls in and¬†after all my balls were depleted, the screen went into some animation and we had no idea what that was. It doesn’t seem like i won anything so we walked out. That was ¬•1000 worth of 10 minutes fun.

The walk back to our hotel crosses an alley that look rather interesting. It is a stretch of eatery that seems like a great chill out place. Ended the night packing bags as we will be heading to Furano tomorrow.

2014 Japan Trip Day 3 – Hokkaido : Mt Asahidaka / Furano

5 Oct 2014

Woke up to a clear blue sky and realised the red maple leaf from yesterday had withered. This is how fast death and decay can take over life form. We did an early check-out at 8.30am, collected our car and drove to the convenience store Lawson. This outlet did not have a sitting area and we ended up having breakfast in the car, rather pathetic. The drive to Sounkyo Gorge consumed slightly more than 50% of the tank and we had to pump it back to full tank before making the trip to Mount Asahikade. Petrol (Regular) was going at an average of ¥163 (SGD1.90) per litre. One thing interesting about their petrol kiosk is the ceiling hanging pump.

Along the way, we came across this Japanese garden that looked rather interesting. Given the flexibility of self drive, we did an impromptu stopover. There was some autumn colours and the garden had little visitors, making it rather serene. There is a lake but it was almost dried up. We spent around an hour capturing the following.

The subsequent route to Mount Asahidake was a winding up-slope drive. We reached the Asahikade Ropeway Station (telephone number 0166-68-9111) around 11am and too our surprise, there was no sign of autumn. Unlike yesterday at Sounkyo Gorge where the autumn colours could be seen from the mountain base, Mount Asahidake was a sea of green alpine trees. There is a TV showing live view of the mountain top and clearly autumn had passed. A round trip ropeway ticket cost ¥2,900 (SGD34) each, and I hesitated since there was no autumn in sight. I then started reasoning with myself on the logic of saving a couple of dollars in comparison to the air ticket price and time taken to fly over miles. While it was not too cheap it definitely would be silly of me to miss out this experience. We decided to head up Mount Asahikade in view that we would get to see some snow instead of autumn folio. Not a bad deal after all.

The weather forecast announced the mountain top at¬†2¬įc and we both changed¬†into our ultimate thermal attire. An¬†inner thermal piece, follow by the usual outer wear, follow by a cashmere sweater, and eventually a winter coat. Pretty much the same attire that we used when we went up to Mount Pilatus in Switzerland.

The ropeway ride up was very different from yesterday. The Mount Kurodake ascend from Sounkyo Gorge was filled with autumn colours, but this entire ascend had only green and withered trees. These 2 places are a totally different species of plantation. Upon reaching the mountain top station, we were given a briefing conducted in Japanese. We were unable to understand anything but decided to still stand and listen like the rest of the visitors. There were some sign boards around and we roughly made out that the entire track would take around an hour to complete.

The altitude around the station was covered in white patches of snow, with the top portion of Mountt Asahidake entirely covered with snow. There are¬†several ponds around the hiking route, and the most famous ponds being the couple ponds (Ś§ęŚ¶ĽśĪ†). I was taking quite a bit of photographs and we trekked much slower than crowd. Somewhere nearing to the mountain top is an area where geysers constantly emits smoke of hot air. There is a viewing platform near to some of the geysers and we started taking some funny shots. It was so fun and exciting.

We then continue to our¬†last stop where many hikers rested. Some would continue the journey up the mountain top but this is also the place where most people would loop back towards the ropeway station. There is a bell tower and some hikers were ringing the bell. We rested and had a small cup of Jagebee. I soon got bored and the sudden thought of doing a semi naked shot in a 2¬įc weather came to mind. Initially I was concerned about Japanese being conservative and they might be offended by my action. I later decided to just fuck it and do a quick stun. So I got Amber to ready the camera and i stripped. She took 2 shots and I quickly wore my clothes. By then many hikers were looking at me but I just laughed it off. We continued our way¬†to the ropeway station and descended Mount Asahidake.

On the drive down the mountains, we came across a stop that has a few maple trees that were in shades of red, orange, and yellow.

The remaining drive was towards Biei (ÁĺéÁĎõ) and Furano. We stopped at a supermarket along Biei to pick up some items. I gotten Japanese curry while Amber gotten some biscuits for Jevriel. From Biei it was a straight drive towards Furano, and we drove passed the famous Patchwork Road („ÉĎ„ÉÉ„ÉĀ„ÉĮ„Éľ„āĮ„ĀģŤ∑Į).¬†It is said to offer beautiful rural landscapes around the year. All we saw were brown patches of fields, which we thought to be kind of boring and overrated. It was only when we arrived in our Furano hotel (Furano Natulux), that we realised from a brochure that the Biei to Furano stretch¬†would be beautiful when it is filled with blooming flowers during summer. There were countless of lavender farms along that drive, which during our trip, had all turned into patches of land with dead brown stuffs. We promised that we would return during summer to see this place in that season.

Furano is well known for its curry and we quickly went through a brochure to pick our choice. Punching the telephone number into the GPS, we arrived at Restaurant Nord (telephone number 0167-23-6565). This place is rather remote and inaccessible if you are relying on public transport. We ordered a curry rice and beef set. Both turned out tasty and our first proper meal of the day cost ¥3,000 (SGD35).

After dinner we went to the highly recommended Ningle Terrace, which is located next to the New Furano Prince Hotel (telephone number 0167-22-1111). There is another hotel by the name of New Furano Hotel (without the “Prince”). Make sure you do not key in the wrong address as we made that mistake. Ningle Terrace is really beautiful during the night time. It¬†is a beautiful collection of boutique cottages housing specialty arts and crafts along with their creators. The entire walk way is lighted with strings of light bulbs, giving this place a romantic and cozy atmosphere. We rested in a cottage coffee house for some hot drinks.