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.