Where the streetlight poles sing Stevie Wonder

Trip Start Sep 11, 2005
Trip End Dec 26, 2005

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Flag of Japan  ,
Friday, November 25, 2005

It turns out that there are no shinkansen bullet trains anywhere in Hokkaido. Which basically meant that it took about 6 hours to reach the northern terminus of the shinkansen from Hiroshima and then another 6 hours to get from northern Honshu to Sapporo. This, I was not happy about.

The reason the train service is so slow in Hokkiado is because it's one of the less-populated parts of Japan, so there's no need for the high-speed lines. It was here that a friend of mine, Thomas, had managed to land what turned out to be a pretty switch English teaching job in the town of Iwamizawa, 45 minutes north of the main city of Sapporo. It's your sort of large, regular, residential town that is easy to get around and live in, but might be a bit quiet for the visitor. Quiet was fine by me, after two solid days of just training around I was ready for a bit of a relax.

Because it's not a big town, there's no room for billboard advertising or advertising posters. So the enterprising local merchants have found that the best way to sell their products is by playing radio-style adverts in the town center over loudspeakers which are attached to lampposts. Of course, sometimes they run out of adverts, so to kill a bit of dead air, that's when they play... Stevie Wonder (see video). And sometimes elevator music. Only in Japan, I guess.

Thomas had pretty much landed on his feet in Iwamizawa - decent apartment, nearby amenities, plenty of free time. Being so far north, however, meant that it was beginning to get cold - while I was there it hit 0C. The landscape in Hokkaido is quite attractive, especially when covered in snow, so we decided to spend a day in Daisetsuzan national park, which is quite a mountainous area. We went up a cable car to a pleatau on a hill where there was supposed to be good hiking. Turned out the hiking trails were snowed over, so we attempted to just make one up. After ending up crotch-deep in snow about 10 minutes after we started the plan was abandoned - and it turned out we were about 6m to the left of the existing skiing trail anyway.

Japan has a great cure for freezing weather, though - the hot spring bath. Hot spring public bath, actually - the only way in is to get naked with the locals. Sounds weird coming from the West but there because Japan is volcanically active, there loads of hot springs. And where there's a hot spring, someone will have put a bath on top of it. The one in the region visited that day was particularly good, because the as well as a regular bath, it also had a sauna and rooftop open-air bath. I don't think anything could have felt better at the end of the day than lying in toasty warm water while snowflakes were falling through the roof onto my head at the same time.

Most of the next two days were spent exploring Sapporo while Thomas was at work. It's a nice city - it has enough of that Japanese city feeling while having about half the crowds. The city has just put up it's christmas decorations and seems to have entered in some kind of partnership with Munich - there's a souvinier village set up in the middle of town staffed by Germans. I'd say two days was enough for a simple tourist visit (it's best known a Japan for being the site of Japan's best-loved brewery), but it made for a nice city experience (and the local brew isn't too bad, either).

Having been north and south, there's just a few niggling things left to do here it Japan. I leave Hokkiado for the long train ride back to Tokyo (but not before I receive an ass-kicking at bowling before I go - cheers for that, Tom)...
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