Travel Day Interlude

Japan Day 9 - Sapporo to Tokyo

Fletch and I were getting into the groove of packing up and checking out every couple days. We did just that and checked the train schedules heading back down to Tokyo. Most of the trains in Japan run hourly at the least, but for that eight hour journey, our options were slightly more limited. Our choices were 10:44 or 13:30. We opted to try for the earlier itinerary, just incase anything funny happened where tickets were sold out. Best to have 13:30 as a backup option.

We bought our tickets without any issue, and then set about trying to find a quick breakfast. Fletch’s observant eye spotted bagels from a mile away. You don’t often come across bagels in any of the countries where we have spent our last five years. I wouldn’t eat them every day, but when you haven’t had one in months or maybe even a year, you sure do begin to crave that warm, toasted yet chewy bread smothered in creamy cheesy goodness. We even managed to find the cream cheese, which wasn’t half bad considering my experiences with Japanese “cheese” have been questionable to say the least. I texted Jon to let him know where we were, and Fletch went to find coffee. Jon found us and we said our goodbyes, then rushed over to our platform to begin the eight hour journey and two train rides back to Tokyo.

When our first train arrived at Shin Hakodate Hokuto station (it’s really fun to say), I went through the ritual of heaving my backpack over one shoulder and then the other until it was situated squarely on my back. The strap of my dive computer, which I was wearing as a watch, must have caught on the strap of my backpack and broke. Luckily I noticed right away and found the computer, a valuable possession that I would have kicked myself for the rest of the trip and probably eternity if I had lost. The strap could be sent in to be fixed, but I was disappointed to be left without a watch. You don’t realize just how often you glance at them time until the time isn’t there to glance at anymore. I realize that no one wears watches anymore, but perhaps you can relate to that feeling of when you leave your phone behind and continuously go to glance at it, only to find it’s not there.

I bought us some bento boxes at the station before boarding our second train. One of the boxes was shaped like the shinkansen, and looked just like a toy train, except it was stuffed with delicious fish. I stared at it for a long time, wanting to get it for the novelty, but at the same time realizing that it would probably just end up taking up space in my bag. This is why I rarely buy souvenirs anymore. I have fun looking around gift shops, and then come to the conclusion that nothing is worth the space. That’s what five plus years of traveling will do to you.

At 7PM we arrived at Tokyo Station once more, and walked to the Belken Hotel Tokyo this time. This hotel turned out to be in a more residential area. It had been one of the last places I’d booked, and so there hadn't been many options left by that point. The room was 12.5 square meters (135 square feet), and the bed was surrounded by walls on three sides. This was the cramped room that all the Tokyo TripAdvisor reviews had warned about, and this wasn’t even the smallest room available. I said it already, but it’s worth repeating. Always read the square meterage when booking a hotel in Japan.

A giraffe we encountered on our walk to the hotel.

You’d think that the cramped space would have inspired us to flee, and spend as little time in the room as possible, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Once we were all nestled in, the thought of maneuvering out of the shoebox and back in again seemed like way too much effort. So we decided that we weren’t hungry and spent the rest of the evening laying sideways on the narrow bed and watching Netflix.

Black Slide Mantra

Japan Day 8 - Sapporo

Our morning coffee was interrupted by the sounds of music drifting in through the window. The thermostat on the apartment’s heater didn’t work, and we were keeping the window open to cool it down, even though it was still brisk out. I ran over to poke my head out the window, and noticed a small parade making its way down the street below. Day two of the Hokkaido Shrine Festival was apparently in full swing, and how fun to be able to sit and observe from above with a cup of coffee.

Parade making its way down the street below us. 

We met up with Jon for lunch one station over, and he led us to a restaurant that served something called soup curry. I had never heard of soup curry before. The guide book only mentioned miso-style ramen as a culinary specialty in the region of Sapporo, but Jon informed us that Sapporo was the only area of Japan where soup curry could be found. When he mentioned twenty different varieties of vegetables on top, I was sold. The first shop we tried had a twenty minute wait, and so very hungry by that point, the three of us kept walking. We found a second place, and after being seated, followed the steps in the menu: choose a broth, choose a rice bowl size, choose a spice level from 1 to 6, and finally pick some toppings. Of course I went for all veggies and added on some extra avocado. The meal that came out was exactly what I had been craving, a spicy flavorful broth, full of perfectly cooked veggies, each slice of vegetable better than the last. That was definitely my favorite meal I had eaten so far, and it was something I had never even heard of.

The three of us walked Odori Park after lunch, which was a beautiful green area, a block wide, and several blocks long. The main parade for the festival was supposed to be coming through here. We wandered around the park for a while, catching up and passing the time, and then got the grand idea to look for the parade from the observatory deck of the TV Tower, which was located on one end of the park. TV Tower was a quirky little tower, with a lot more character than JR Tower, even if it wasn’t as high up. JR tower had been a lot newer and more sophisticated, with an observation deck at 160 meters. TV Tower, with its 90 meter observation deck, packed more charm and character, but without any space to relax. Metal beams criss crossed diagonally from floor to ceiling, meaning that even someone my height had to watch their head.

TV Tower, Sapporo

In Japan, everything must be made cute, including famous landmarks. Therefore, any place you visit in Japan likely has a cartoonified version of itself. The cartoon version of TV Tower somehow ended up looking like a traffic cone with a creepy pedophile mustache. TV Tower wasn’t the only disturbing plushie hanging around the gift shop. Apparently the mascot of a nearby town was a terrifying bear face bursting through a melon, given that the town is renowned for its brown bear habitats and cantaloup melons. Nearby Sapporo stole the bear image and had it bursting out of things that were more Sapporo-famous, such as corn and crab claws. Everything from plushies, to key chains, to socks could be found with the creepy bear emerging from something a bear just should not be hiding inside.

Cartoon TV Tower (Image found on Google)

Scary bear mascot (Image found on Google) 

The observation deck provided us with zero sightings of the parade, so we made our way back down and wandered around Odori some more. Crows, bigger than I had ever seen anywhere else, mocked us and cawed as we passed, eying us suspiciously. The chilly air with the sounds of cawing made it feel more like late autumn than the beginning of summer. We noticed one especially large crow trying to steal food from a couple sitting on a park bench, so Fletch, excited by the discovery that the crows were accustomed to people, sat down on the next park bench and waited. One crow landed on the spot next to him, eyeing him greedily to see if any food was around. The crow who had been stealing from the other couple flew over and landed on the back of the bench behind Fletch’s shoulder. He slowly picked up a morsel of bread someone had dropped on the ground and offered it to the crow. The crow took it and flew off again, and Fletch, amazingly, walked away with all ten fingers.

Just hanging out with some crows...

We hopped over to 7-Eleven for drinks. I’ll stop mentioning the drink runs eventually, but those first few days, every trip to the convenience store surprised us with new oddities you just don’t see anywhere else. This time around we discovered that you could buy a cup of ice for $1, which was quite convenient if you wanted to buy a drink from the non-refrigerated section, which I did. I’m embarrassed to admit that I spent a whole dollar on a single-use plastic cup full of something as cheap as ice, but the novelty was almost worth it. The kiwi drink on the other hand was disgustingly sweet.

If you read the Odori Park section of the Japan Lonely Planet book, it says, don’t miss Noguchi Isamu’s elegant Black Slide Mantra. Nothing about where to find it, or what it even is, just not to miss it. I had filed that odd tidbit of information in the back of my head and forgotten about it, until our park wanderings brought us to a large mound of black stone, polished and carved into an elegant spiral. Before I could even comprehend what the sculpture was, Fletch was disappearing behind the back of it. He reemerged at the top, and slid around and down, as happy as a little kid. Black Slide Mantra was a literal slide. How nice to combine art with something fun and interactive in the middle of a park. Nearby was another slide of sorts that looked more like a bank of snow. I probably shouldn’t have slid down either wearing white pants, but I had already been wearing them for far too many days in a row due to the cold and my poor packing ability. A little bit of childish fun wasn’t going to make them that much worse.

Black Slide Mantra, Odori Park

Sliding down the pretend snowbank, Odori Park 

The three of us wandered over to another scenic park area where no one else was around. We found a park bench next to a lake and sat down under a red, Japanese maple tree. As we visited, we watched as turtles poked their heads out of the water to see who was in their midst. Pigeons strutted around on the shoreline, jutting their heads back and forth with each step like a chicken. Shadows from some very large fish in the lake silently floated past. We slipped into another world for a short while there, at peace with the pretty view and the absence of other people.

Scenic lake view in Sapporo, Japan

When we were ready to replenish our drinks, Jon led us to a little craft beer bar with 33 beers on tap. We had given up on finding the parade by that point. I opted for a flight, which wasn’t preset, but just choose whichever beers you want off the menu. I wish I could say if the beer was decent or not, but unfortunately I’m not much of a beer drinker. It all tastes very similar to me. I know, that’s blasphemy coming from someone from a place with as many craft breweries as Colorado. I can say that my favorite was a concoction called Bitches Brew, and that the atmosphere had a welcome laid back feel in contrast to the rigid structure to which the rest of Japanese society conforms.

Jon brought us to a soba and tempura shop for dinner. It was quite late, as we had spent a good amount of time drinking beer. At that late hour there was only one other patron in the restaurant, a fellow westerner. Noticing the table of other white people sitting down, he tried to start up a conversation and asked where we were from. Niceties under way, he offered us some help ordering in a very thick, French accent. “Whatever you order just don’t get that.” He said, motioning to his full plate he had pushed away with a disgusted look on his face. It was cold soba, which I am actually a fan of. I almost ordered the exact meal, just out of spite. French people: always dissatisfied and in need of something to complain about. In some areas, it’s not as obvious, but in Japan, where everyone is polite, and chefs take great pride in their food, his helpful little tip really stood out as rude. My travels have led me to stereotype pretty much everyone. Apologies.

Hot soba and shrimp tempura

Still a bit tired from the previous night out drinking, we said our goodnights after dinner, and headed back to our little apartment in Nakajima Park. 

Hokkaido Shrine Festival

Japan Day 7 - Sapporo

Fletch and I woke up to the most amazing view from the apartment, overlooking the park and the mountains in the distance. After booking everything, I had realized that we would be spending almost our entire time in Japan in cities, and while cities are definitely a change of pace from our normal lifestyle, they all begin to look the same after a while. It was nice to see some green. I watched the little lake with amusement for a while, where several couples were trying to figure out how to maneuver the oars on little row boats that were scattered around.

View of Nakajima Park, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

We had a relaxed, lazy morning in the apartment after all the traveling the day before, and eventually managed to get ourselves out the door and down the street to the nearest conbini. Since we were in an Airbnb, there weren’t any room amenities in the form of coffee or tea, and we wanted to see if the drip coffee our first hotel had spoiled us with was readily available. It was! And in several different varieties no less. I may have to stock up on this stuff before coming home. It is so much better than instant coffee in travel situations.

When we were all coffeed and showered and ready for lunch, we walked back down to the ramen shop that had been closed the night before to see if it was open for lunch. Today was our lucky day, first coffee and now ramen. We found two of the only empty seats at the corner of the bar. The chef pointed to the menu on the wall which was all written in Japanese, and then laughed at himself and asked us very simply, miso ramen? Miso tomago ramen? Tomago is Japanese for egg, which sounded perfect, so we ordered two bowls.

The shop was a cozy little hole in the wall which is typical for most Japanese restaurants. It had a few extra tables beyond the bar which made it feel a little more open. The place was quite packed, and hardly a voice could be heard over the sounds of everyone slurping away. Slurping is polite in Japan, as it tells the chef you are enjoying his food. This ramen promised to be good, just by the amount of slurping happening in every direction. We waited for what felt like ages, until finally two steaming hot bowls of miso broth with homemade noodles and an egg, hard boiled but still with a gooey center, were served. It was impossible not to join in with the slurping. I got lost in the deliciousness of the meal and the slurping sounds which became white noise around me. The meal had definitely lived up to its hype.

To get to the subway, we had to walk back through the park, where the festival stalls were set up and in full swing by this point. We took our time strolling through the endless assortment of fried foods and games. Girls were all dressed up in their yukatas, which is like a summertime kimono made out of cotton. The lively atmosphere got to us and we couldn’t pass up on some chocolate covered bananas for dessert.

Hokkaido Shrine Festival fair food stalls in Nakajima Park.

We rode the Namboku line back over to Sapporo station and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to find JR Tower. My friend Jon had promised good views and a cafe at the top, which sounded like a perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon and escape the cold. Finding our way up to the top of the tower proved to be surprisingly difficult. There are whole underground cities that exist in Japan; shopping malls and rows of restaurants go on for long enough that I’m beginning to wonder if you might be able to tour Japan without ever actually seeing the daylight. Even at ground level, the train stations are usually connected to so many of the surrounding buildings, that it is hard to know exactly where you are. We finally had to go outside and look skywards for the tall tower, then go back inside and try our best to walk in that direction. A map finally told us that we would have to ride up to the reception of JR Tower on the 6th floor. There we could buy tickets, and then ride another elevator up to the observation deck on the 38th floor.

View of Sapporo from JR Tower

At long last we found the observation deck, and it was worth the search. Floor to ceiling glass windows, gave us a 360 degree view of the city. Signs on the walls labeled which direction we were facing. Photos of the view we were looking at, labeled what all of the buildings were. We ordered some cappuccinos from the cafe, and sat and marveled at the view, from the peace and quiet of the observatory. The bathroom was an experience in its own. It also had large, ceiling-high windows. Of course no other buildings in the city were anywhere near that high, so you could take care of business while experiencing a slight sense of vertigo, and no one was around to see in.

View from bathroom at JR Tower.

Jon sent a message that he would be out of school and over in 40 minutes, so we started making our way down to the main levels. We found a cinema, and wandered around to see what movies might be playing in Japan. The Incredibles 2 was supposed to be coming out soon, but a quick search on my phone informed me that the release date in Japan wasn’t until August. Over in a corner we found coin dispensers with toys. They didn’t just have toys, but little fruit-shaped or teddy bear hats for cats. How could I resist the novelty? I know a kitty who is not going to be the least bit amused when I come home.

Cat hat dispensers! 

My phone eventually buzzed with a message that Jon was playing 'spot the gaijin', and by the time we turned around from the cat hat dispensers to look, he had already found us. We had a happy reunion and then he led us through the busy station in search of an art exhibit. That’s how massive the underground parts of the cities are; art displays can be found in hallways that double as galleries. We found some interesting photos of some of the city’s early roads being built, but not the exhibit that was supposed to be there.

After deciding that the art display currently wasn’t there, we headed over to the Hokkaido Shrine Festival to enjoy the festivities. While half of the festival was in full swing at the park where we were staying, the other half of the Festival was being held across the city at the Hokkaido Shrine itself. We left the subway for the cold, dusk air, and walked along a serene path through the woods. The forest was quiet, which brought back memories of Thailand’s jungle parties, and trekking through the jungle before emerging into the midst of an epic party. This wasn’t quite that amped up, of course, but the contrast between quiet nature and lively festival was a fun experience. Colorful stalls with games and fair food wound their way along the remainder of the paths leading up to the shrine gates. Along with the okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) and takoyaki (dough balls stuffed with octopus), I was surprised to see fried spaghetti being served as a treat. It didn’t look particularly appetizing, so we just took Jon’s word that it was good.

Apparently Hokkaido Shrine is only open a few days out of the year, including during this three-day festival, and so we were just about to head inside when the sound of music alerted us to the start of performances. We hurried back over to the steps, where people had been congregating, and found what was essentially a color guard performance. Many school kids were dressed in brightly colored robes and waving flags in every color of the rainbow. The dance was very modern while still embracing some traditional elements.

Dance performance at Hokkaido Shrine Festival.

Next was a drum performance by the little kids. It was funny to watch and see which ones were really getting into it, and which ones were just going through the motions, with bored expressions on their faces. A band of all women put on a flute performance, and finally we saw what we had been waiting for: the adult’s drum performance. Eight or so drummers lined up, and put on an impressive display of a performance. Each swing of each drumstick had each of the players waving their arms through their full range of motion. The majority of the players would be perfectly in sync, while one by one, each of the musicians played their own solo. The vibrations from so many large instruments were enough to forget the cold, until all at once they stopped and there was complete silence.

Drum performance at Hokkaido Shrine Festival. 

After the drums, we fled the cold and followed Jon to a yakitori place with all-you-can-drink beer. Apparently that’s a thing here, all-you-can-drink for a certain amount of time. Sake was included in that, and so I enjoyed my first sake of the trip. The sake glass itself was served in a wooden box, to catch the excess alcohol as it overflowed. Who doesn’t love receiving an overfull glass of liquor?

We began ordering skewers of chicken and vegetables. The tomago (egg) was good. The quail eggs were amazing, and I was also very happy to have eggplant and peppers. The drinks never ran empty, and each glass of sake was more overflowing than the last, until by the last glass, the majority of the wooden masu box was full in addition to the glass.

I left to find the bathroom after dinner and when I found Fletch and Jon again, they were huddled around the coin toy dispensers, trying to score some matching cat hats for the rest of my mom’s cats. Now I know three cats who are not going to be the least bit amused when we make it back to Boulder.

We wandered around the brightly lit streets, taking in Sapporo’s night life, and occasionally stopping at 7-Eleven (or Seven One One Bar, as we used to call it in Thailand), for more drinks. Some things never change. The conbini stores in Japan are still the cheapest way to enjoy a night out.

Turns out you can buy collared dress shirts at 7-Eleven.

The sounds of Ed Sheeran’s music, drifting through the night, caught our attention, and Fletch was drawn over like a magnet. A couple guys with a microphone and a speaker were performing on the street, sing-along style, and had attracted a crowd of fan girls all dressed up for a night out. Fletch has a fabulous voice, and can’t help but join in when he hears songs that he knows. Ed Sheeran being his current favorite, he was belting out the lyrics from the distance, word for word, and it wasn’t long before the two street performers excitedly tried to wave the white guy over to sing with them. Luckily, we were drunk enough by that point for that to happen, and that’s how Fletch ended up on the street in Japan, singing his heart out to Ed Sheeran in front of a small crowd. He swept me off my feet with a kiss after the song was over, and the Japanese girls went wild with delight. Public displays of affection don’t really happen all that often in Japan, so I’m sure they thought they were watching High School Musical.

All too soon, Fletch had the common sense to ask what time it was, and we realized with horror that it was nearly midnight. We said goodnight and rushed down to the underground, where all the alarms were sounding to announce the last subway of the night. We jumped on, just in time to make our way home. 

Shabu Shabu in Sapporo

Japan Day 6 - Sendai to Sapporo

Fletch and I checked out of Hotel Vista Sendai where we had spent the last two nights, and walked the five minutes across the street to the train station. I had tried to strategically position us as close to the train stations as possible in each city, so that we wouldn’t have to deal with maneuvering our backpacks through packed subways or local trains. Japan is a place where you definitely don’t want to overpack, because maneuvering between crowds and small areas can get to feeling very claustrophobic. I feel claustrophobic at times and I’m about average sized here. I can’t imagine how Fletch must feel.

We picked up Starbucks, and then found the ticket office to buy tickets to our next destination, and uncharted territory for me: Sapporo. I have a friend from college who has been living there for a while now, so we were going to go visit him. Our visit would also coincide with the Hokkaido Shrine Festival.

Before we found our platform, Fletch waited with the bags while I ran to find us some bento boxes. It was going to be a long day of sitting on trains up to Japan’s northern island. Sendai station had an impressive amount of food. The basement was an endless city of restaurants, and the main floor had enough gift boxes of specialty foods to feed a small country. Japanese people are very fond of giving food as gifts. Usually, train stations have large assortments of bento boxes as well, boxed lunches to bring on the train that have a good variety of different foods and are reasonably priced. I ran around for what felt like ages, painfully aware of the ticking clock, without finding anything but dine-in restaurants and gift boxes, containing a dozen of the same kind of sweet. Not exactly what you want for a meal. Finally a “News Stand” had a couple bento boxes for sale, and I snagged the last few before anyone else could eye them too closely.

The bullet train from Sendai to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto was three hours long, the last thirty minutes or so of which was spent in a tunnel going under the Tsugaru Strait. I excitedly told Fletch that when we emerged above ground again, we would be on a different island, then got up to find the car with the restroom. I didn’t expect to emerge from the tunnel quite so quickly, and so was startled to see daylight as I was sliding the bathroom door open. Abandoning that plan, I instead ran to the window to see what was outside. It looked like Jurassic Park. Rolling hills covered in thick green foliage made up the entire landscape, as the train whisked us up north to what is essentially Japan’s wild west.

Our train to Sapporo arriving at the platform.

I was surprised when Shin-Hokodate-Hokuto station had way more English than any other place we had encountered yet. We found the platform for our second train, and rather than having the car numbers listed to line up next to, Letters of the roman alphabet were spaced along the length of the platform. A gate attendant asked us in English where we were sitting. Unfortunately the train had been booked, so we were relying on there being two seats in the unreserved car. The attendant told us which letter we should stand by, somewhere down near the end of the alphabet. As we walked, we noticed that each letter had a corresponding english word that began with that letter. It was like being at an english-speaking kindergarten.

The train to Sapporo was another three and a half hours. The distance was shorter but the train was slower. We chugged along and enjoyed the scenery out the window. When we finally arrived, we managed to find the subway without too much hassle and figured out how to ride the three or four stops over to Nakajima Park. The park was one of the central locations of the festival, and so I had booked an Airbnb in the area. We emerged from the subway station into the center of the park. Not only were we surrounded by green and trees, but the festival booths were starting to set up for the next day, and so we got a preview of colorful stalls with games and fair food. There was excitement in the frigid, cold air. The fair vendors were all in hats and plushy down coats. Fletch and I were in the warmest clothes we had packed, which still weren’t nearly warm enough.

The Airbnb host had sent me a wonderful PDF with picture instructions with arrows on how to find his place from the subway. We followed the picture trail like kids following a treasure map, through the park and over to the main street. He had even pointed out where the crosswalk was, even though we later found out that people in Sapporo are perfectly fine with jaywalking, and there was no one on the street at that dusky hour.

Our scavenger hunt continued as we found the building, and then the mailbox with a combination lock to unlock the apartment key. Every step of the instructions were perfectly clear and easy to follow. We finally found our treasure, the room key, and headed up to the top floor. We opened the door and walked into a comfortable apartment with two beds, a futon, and a love seat, although I’m sure I’ve seen recliners in the US that were bigger than that love seat. Nevertheless, it was a cozy space with a welcome amount of room to stretch out after all the cramped, business hotels.

Jon couldn’t meet us that night as he had a Japanese tutor, but he recommended a ramen shop on the block, and the welcome packet that the Airbnb host had left, recommended the same ramen shop. It sounded perfect. The cuisine that Sapporo was known for was, after all, miso ramen. We walked around the block to discover that the little shop was closed. Disappointed, Fletch and I both pulled out our phones to see which direction we should begin walking to find more food options, as all we could see in either direction were more apartment buildings. We both found a Kirin Beer Garden at the same time. That had to be a sign.

We quickly power walked through the cold, the few blocks over to the restaurant, shivering all the way. When we looked in, the reception area was much too large, and we wondered if maybe we had found a museum; it had that same cold, open feeling. But then we discovered menus by the door and so walked in. A waiter led us around a corner into what felt like a spacious speakeasy with warm lighting. It was a very comfortable setting, and the grills built into each table added a welcome amount of warmth to the atmosphere after the cold walk.

We ordered ciders, which we were delighted to find they had on tap, and then looked at the dinner menu. We had found a shabu shabu restaurant, which is essentially Korean barbecue. You get a big pot of boiling water, and then a bunch of uncooked vegetables and very thinly sliced meats. The vegetables season the broth, and then the meat is so thinly sliced that it cooks within moments when placed in the simmering broth. There were different all-you-can-eat sets, and Fletch ordered one. I tried to order just some of the side vegetable dishes, but the server said we had to order per person since it was all-you-can-eat. I did my best to tell him that I didn’t eat meat, and he said I could just order the seafood.

And then the food started arriving.

Without meaning to, we had ordered an entire feast. The first few dishes were served, and then we knew we were really in trouble when the server rolled an entire cart of platters up to our table. What had we done? More arrived than could fit on our table.

A good portion of the table was occupied by the grill of course, and then we got a pot of boiling water on its own little burner. Then there were bowls of veggies, a bowl of mushrooms, and an entire basket of three different kinds of thinly sliced meats, and when I say basket, I mean one big enough to serve to an entire party. A plate of massive king crabs appeared in front of Fletch, with all the tools to crack them open. There was a basket of squids, shrimps, and scallops. We each were given an entire plate of sushi. Pots of seasonings for the broth arrived, and almost as an afterthought, a bowl of edamame was set down in front of me. I nibbled on the edamame while trying to comprehend what had just happened. We both stared, lost for words at the impressive spread in front of us. Fletch ordered us more ciders; we were going to be here a while. 

Shabu shabu at Kirin Beer Garden, Sapporo

I must’ve slipped into a food coma because I really don’t remember getting home or falling asleep.


Japan Day 5 - Matsushima

The other most memorable thing that my host family did with me while I was in Sendai, was take me on a day trip to Matsushima. Matsushima is the Palau of Japan, just take away the warm, tropical setting, and crystal clear blue water. Lots of pine tree-covered islands dot the coastline, making it one of the three most scenic views in Japan according to the Japanese people. I had to show this beautiful scenery to Fletch.

We left the hotel with the intent of finding Manhattan Bakery again. We didn’t make it quite as far this time. A nicely laid out menu for a more traditional breakfast place at the train station drew us in. There was something very satisfying about its simplicity. Each photo showed the same tray, with the same teapot of broth, the same side bowl of tofu, and the same side dish of pickled something or other. The only difference was the choice of fish, delicately laid over the main bowl of rice. Fletch is on the same wavelength as me when it comes to fish for breakfast, but we were drawn in.

We had a slightly better idea how to use the vending machine to order by this point, but the lady who was working still felt the need to come over and help the two gaijin through the process, which was sweet of her. Basically just pick your topping and what size bowl of rice you want. The broth is poured over the rice and fish and the whole bowl is eaten like porridge. I was very happy with our breakfast selection. Yum!

A more traditional, Japanese breakfast

We had our first local train experience; so far we had only ridden the bullet train. It was a 40 minute ride to Matsushima from Sendai. The weather was still cold and overcast, but at least it wasn’t raining.

Cute, Date Masamune roadblocks

I thought I would recognize more, but when we walked out of the train station, nothing seemed familiar. I didn’t remember this place being so built up, like a small tourist town. Where were all the little tea shops and street food vendors? We walked north to Zuiganji Temple, and Google once again led us around the roundabout way, through a little residential road. It was a quiet and quaint neighborhood, more like the area where my host family had lived. We finally found the temple, and walked up right as a large group of jolly school children were leaving. They saw the two white people approaching and immediately all started chiming a chorus of “hellos” and “good mornings.” I knew school kids loved practicing their English, but it was still adorable to see again after all this time.

Side gate at Zuiganji Temple

We removed our shoes and walked through the temple in our socks. The rooms were roped off, and we were only allowed to peer inside, to marvel at the gold-painted walls from afar. Each room had different murals painted on the walls, and they were all symbolic of the residents for whom those rooms were meant. The samurai’s room was painted with hawks for bravery, and indeed, there was a sense of great confidence that arose from gazing at the magnificently painted birds.

The highlight of the temple was a zen garden, roped off in a courtyard. I never really understood why some raked sand with a rock was supposed to be so special to look at. Give me a beach and some sand in its natural state any day, but raking it just seems like a strange thing to do. I was wrong. This zen garden was the most satisfying thing I ever stopped to stare at. The sand was white as snow. Each grain of sand was placed so precisely. Each rock seemed like that was the only corner of the universe where it could possibly be meant to sit. It was a completed puzzle. I could have happily stared at that sandbox for the rest of the day. No pictures were allowed. There weren’t even any pictures of it online that I could find. You’ll never know how beautiful a zen garden can be unless you go see it for yourself.

We left down a side path and walked across the street where the sightseeing boats were leaving from, and purchased two round trip tickets. Usually when you remember things from when you were a kid, and then see them again years later, they seem a lot smaller. These boats had been upgraded though and were much larger. No longer did we have to remove our shoes and sit on tatami mats inside, under a low ceiling. Now we were on a large, two-story boat, with big viewing windows. There were also signs everywhere to please not feed the seagulls, which immediately brought back the memory of feeding french fries to the seagulls with my host mom.

Duck Rock, Matsushima

We walked upstairs to the first class cabin and paid the extra $6, because why not, and cruised around for an hour. Everything looked grey and cold outside. The scenery was all very familiar, so my doubts about being in the right place after seeing the town area earlier, lessened slightly.

Matsushima sightseeing cruise 

Japan's flag waving over Matsushima

After we debarked, we walked north along the coastline and visited a small shrine on one of the small islands, then continued onto the next island which had a long, red bridge connecting it to the mainland. The entrance to the bridge was at the back of a little coffee shop, where we had to pay $2 to access it. The island, Fukuura-Jima, turned out to be bigger than we had expected, with scenic walkways and paths meandering every which way around. We even found a small ice cream shop in the center of the otherwise deserted island, with one of the little box cars they drive here parked on the side. I guess the little car actually fit on the bridge to drive to work everyday.

Bride to Fukuura-Jima, Matsushima

We abandoned the main walkway at one point in favor of a small, dirt path that led downwards. There was a rope attached to the rock to hold onto so as to keep from slipping. At the bottom we found a sand beach, where the water wasn’t nearly as cold as it looked. It was nice to be on the beach again, even if just for a few moments before continuing on our way. We got good and lost wandering from path to path through the woods, but eventually found our way back to the ice cream shop, and then the red bridge. Back in town it was about lunch time. There were no little street food vendors selling grilled squid skewers as I had remembered, so we window shopped through the various menus in front of actual store fronts before deciding on pasta. After a few days walking around in the cold, I really just wanted some hot, comfort food.

Fletch on Fukuura-Jima

As we sat at lunch, I realized that we hadn’t yet found the caves that were meant to be around Zuiganji Temple, caves where the monks once lived and meditated. Since Google had lead us into the temple grounds via some back route, perhaps the caves had been along the main entrance. Tickets in hand, we returned to the temple through the main entrance. Massive, beautiful cedar trees lined the path, and sure enough, off to the side, there was another path along the side of a rock wall that had caves peppered throughout. The caves confirmed that this was where my host family had brought me on a day trip ten years previously. The town must have just been built up a lot since then. Nonetheless, finding the caves was reassuring, and gave the day a sense of completion.

Caves at Zuiganji Temple 

Staircase leading up to the penthouse suite cave at Zuiganji Temple

On our way out the exit, we noticed a little shop with a cat with clipped ears (don't know if that was an on-purpose thing, or a genetic thing) sitting in the doorway. We approached and asked the lady inside if we could look at her cat. I really just asked, Neko? And she replied in Japanese that we could come look. The cat took an instant liking to Fletch, as most do; he really has a way with cats. The earless fluff monster could not be bothered by me though. He begrudgingly sat for a photo, and then when I went to pet him, he tapped me quickly and repeatedly with his paw several times, as if to say, Enough, that’s all you get.
Cat of Zuiganji Temple

We rode the train back to Sendai. It became apparent that there was a Rakuten Eagles baseball game that night, as the train was quickly filling up at each stop with dozens of fans wearing their hats and jerseys. Thinking that would be fun, I searched online for tickets, but there was unfortunately only one ticket left in the entire stadium.

View of Matsushima shops from the train platform.

At the train station back in Sendai, we picked up some zunda mochi from one of the various food vendors to bring back to the room. Zunda mochi is the other food that Sendai is well known for. The mochi part is a sweet rice cake. You can find mochi, frozen and stuffed with ice cream, a lot in the US now, but it’s not really the same. Fresh mochi has the fluffiness and texture of a marshmallow. The zunda part is the topping, and is sweetened, mashed, edamame. I always enjoyed it because it was a nice, sweet treat, without being too sweet.

The last thing we had to do before calling it a day was find some ibuprofen. Four trips to Japan and surprisingly I’ve never had to buy a drug. We tried a couple conbinis first, but convenience stores in Japan don’t carry medicines. It occurred to me that we had learned a word just for "drug store" in Japanese class, and so I looked that up. I do remember very well how to ask for directions, and asked the conbini sale’s clerk where we might find one. Of course her response was too quick for me to keep up with, but we did follow her hand signals. If you are ever in Japan, remember that is the symbol for drug store. There are almost as many around as there are convenience stores. After a quick Google search, we also figured out that Ringl is the Japanese name brand for ibuprofen. Delighted by our success, we returned to the hotel to eat our sweets.