Shinkansen -it’s the only way to go

18 02 2010

We got up early and signed out of the hotel, caught the subway to Sapporo station and got on the limited express to Hakodate. Three hours later, we transferred to another limited express train to Hachiohe, through the tunnel under the ocean connecting Hokkaido and Honshu. Then we caught the Shinkansen down the eastern side of Japan, through Sendai, back to Tokyo. Three hours of Shinkansen and we’ve travelled about 600km. Express bus and we’re home safe and sound. Time for some densha otaku photos.

Inside the Shinkansen.

Our Shinkansen.

Day 3- Skiing at Teine

16 02 2010

Today was actually a national holiday, the 11th Feb is Japan National Day. So, the other restaurant that we wanted to visit was closed, as was the Ainu museum. Lara suggested visiting Otaru and the Sea of Japan but Benno wanted to go skiing instead. The closest site with lots of beginner runs was Teine. Benno must be getting better – he didn’t fall over once in 4 hours of skiing and tried out almost all of the green runs.

It was about -9 degrees with large visible snow flakes falling during the afternoon.

There were lots of families and children. Little kids are really cute when they ski. Not only are they really good and fearless, but when they are all rugged up in jackets so they can barely move they look like star fish going down the slope – arms out, legs out in plough, skiing down the hill.

Benno doing his skiing thing.

Day 2, -1.7 degrees in the daytime

15 02 2010

First thing we headed down to Odori Park for some ice skating. Ice skating is fun! Especially when it only costs 200 yen for skate hire. We got interviewed by two groups of school kids doing a kind of “city week” project. They had to talk to us in English and ask us questions like “where are you from” and “what are you doing today” and “do you like snow” and “can you speak japanese”, after which the questions were asked in Japanese, not English (lazy kids).

After skating we finished looking at the snow statues. The temperature outside the NHK building said -1.7 degrees. After that we headed off to lunch to Xi Fang. But before we got there two English vegetarian girls stopped us and said it wasn’t there. So we back-tracked and went to Lohas Raw Food cafe instead for a surprisingly tasty lunch. Afterwards we caught the subway to the Tsu-dome site that was meant to have lots of fun snow activities. However, when we got there, it turned out that most of the activities were only for children. We did get to go on the Tube Slide and see the Hydrogen-powered FCX car.

In the evening we walked from our hotel to the Susukino area where there were ice sculptures. We saw a man making ice scultpures using his chain saw, and went down an ice-slippery dip. Some of the statues were gross, like the frozen fish and crabs in ice blocks where their guts were leaking out into the ice. There was also lots of alcohol being advertised. It was about -4 degrees.

61st Sapporo Yuki Matsuri- Odori site

14 02 2010

Odori Park in the middle of Sapporo runs along about 12 blocks and was filled with snow statues.

We started at block 11 and looked at all the International Snow Sculptures. 15 teams from around the world competed in the 37th contest, including teams from very non-snow countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. NZ was represented, but no Australia.

Indonesia’s snow statue was a detailed Hanoman Duta.

Block 12 held small snow sculptures made by the citizens of Sapporo. Unfortunately they had lost some of their detail and melted in parts (they had been made a week earlier) but it was still fun to walk past all the cute statues, like mameshiba (edamame and other little beans) and rilakuma (relax bear). Also here was an International Food Stall area with America’s offering being spam burgers and a combined Greek-Mexican stall.

The first huge snow statue we saw was Chibimaruko-chan in block 11. Standing at about 15m high, the statue was of characters from the popular TV show about school children in class 4.

The next block contained a statue of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters Victory Parade. The Ham Fighters are Hokkaido’s baseball team that won the Pacific League last year. As the guide book said “It was very glad news for Hokkaido in which a too bright topic was not located. It is a top of Japan this year.”

Block 8 contained the Baekje Royal Palace of Korea large snow sculpture. The sculpture was of the centre palace (Junggungjeon) and measured 18m high, 25m wide and 330 m2 area inside. It took 4500 tons of snow from 750 6-ton dump trucks of snow, with  3,900 people working 29 days to make it.

Block 7 contained the Dresdner Frauenkirche from Dresden, Germany. It was built in 1722 and is considered a prime example of European baroque architecture. However, it was bombed during the war and only recently rebuilt in 2005. The snow statue was 26m high, 28m wide, involved 439 trucks of snow and 4730 sculptors.

Next up in block 5 was the Iolani Palace from Honolulu, Hawaii. It was an ice sculpture that was lit up at night time. When we went past there was a rock band playing in shorts and t-shirts even though the temperature was well below 0.

At the same time as the rock concert on the Iolani palace stage, there were young girls singing pop songs karaoke style on the “The Place Where Dreams Come True” stage – yes, a disney snow sculpture advertising disney sea and land.

There was an impressive large snow scuplture on block 4 of “The Zoo of the northland” with white bears, a snow leopard, penguins, orangutan, wolves and a Steller’s Sea Eagle.

Opposite the animals was a snowboard jump platform. Throughout the day they had competitions were boarders (and skiiers) jumped off the 24m jump and did tricks.

Down to block 2 where there was another large ice sculpture of winter sports – skiing, snowboarding, ski jumps and ice hockey. As the brochure says, “expressed movement that the throb feeling overflows in the background in which nature in Hokkaido was imaged with the relief of ice.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

During the day a girl played Michael Jackson songs on a synthesizer inside a polygonal glass bubble whilst wearing silver gogo boots in front of the statue.

Finally, in front of the Sapporo TV tower, was an ice skating rink. What fun!

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

14 02 2010

We hopped off the train on Tuesday morning and headed for the tourist office in the station. After collecting some maps we helped test some translation software for the tourist office. We were asked in Japanese “What will you eat today?”, and Benno replied in English “vegan food”, which it heard as “big and third”. I guess they have a lot of testing yet to do.

We hopped on the subway and went straight to lunch at Aoi Sora Nagareru Kumo (blue sky, rolling clouds) a vegan organic restaurant. We ate delicious food and had a chat to the chef about how Benno learnt about the yuki matsuri in high school and “long time wait” to actually come and see the festival. We had fried imitation fish and chickpea curry for lunch, followed by chocolate cake and baked pumpkin pie.

After filling our bellies we walked down Odori Park where the snow sculptures were. There were so many we didn’t get to see all of them before we headed to our hotel for the night, which was cheaper than the Sapporo International Youth Hostel. The hotel would have been ever better value for non-vegans as it had FREE breakfast and dinner, plus free internet in each room. Yay!

The overnight train to Sapporo

13 02 2010

On the road again! This time we were headed to Sapporo, Hokkaido for the annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival). Sapporo is 1054km away from Tokyo (about twice the distance of Kyoto to Tokyo), so the local train was out of the question given than we only had 5 days of holidays. So we booked the express overnight train from Tokyo to Sapporo that takes 16 hours. There are two overnight trains, the luxury Cassiopeia (named after the constellation), and the Hokutosei (also named after a constellation, the big dipper). We booked into a duet berth on the Hokutosei, leaving Ueno around 7pm and getting into Sapporo at 11.15am the next day.

We ate soup from a thermos for dinner on the train and drank chai. We had special JR yukatas to wear in the cabin and to bed. The beds were quite comfortable, although it got hot in the cabin (surprisingly, since outside it was snowing). Overall, it was a fairly pleasant way to travel the long distance- not that much cheaper than a flight, although more convenient to arrive in the morning and be able to walk straight into town from the train station.