Hokkaido: An Exercise in Getting Lost Traveling


By Lucas Buechler

I am terrible at vacationing. When I go on a trip, I have neither an itinerary nor the desire to construct one. I am the type of person that would be perfectly happy to sit in a cafe or on a nearby beach, or even just in the hotel room where I’m staying. So how is it that I managed to go on a four day, timetable packed down to the minute, snowballs to the walls trip to Hokkaido for the Yuki-Matsuri? The same strategy I usually follow when traveling; I went with a friend who is semi obsessed with getting the most out of their vacation. The following is a story of pitfalls and highlights that I’ve assembled from some notes that I took during my time outside of Shikokuchuo. I hope you’re enticed by the highlights, and that you’ll learn from (or at least get a laugh out of) the mistakes we made during our time in the far north of Japan.

Day 1: The Train Incident

Generally I have a very good time with my vacations, boring though they would be if I were left to my own devices; however I’ve noticed a startling trend in which something absolutely terrible happens every time I venture away from home. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from traveling, and I’ve never had something occur that ruined a vacation, but seemingly without fail something completely unexpected has to happen that I’m thereafter forced to deal with. Highlights include being stuck on a frozen tarmac when going to my JET interview, getting the worst sunburn of my life after confusing sun tan lotion and sunscreen in Okinawa, and becoming hopelessly lost in Kyoto my first day outside my home country, wandering the streets with suitcase in hand as the summer rains started in earnest. I was actually relaying these very events to Nikki, my traveling companion, making a joke about how I was waiting for the shoe to drop when we veered terribly off course. Maybe I jinxed the situation, maybe we weren’t paying enough attention, but we instead found ourselves in Okayama station rather than Tokushima, as intended in order to be somewhat early for our flight to Haneda. Without a hope or a prayer for getting on our flight back in Shikoku.

We didn’t panic. Much.

After about 10 minutes of hyperventilating, and getting our fares adjusted, we decided that we would attempt to go to the Okayama airport and play our ace card; begging forgiveness for being terrible meiwakus (that is to say, troublesome noisy annoyances).

We found the JAL counter at Okayama Airport, explaining our problem first to the security guard who was checking luggage, then to one of the wonderful, hard working members of Japan’s finest airline company. After calmly explaining our situation (in absolutely flawless Japanese that wasn’t even a little bit tinged with our own fear and confusion), about how we had been on the wrong train and had wound up in Okayama rather than Takamatsu, where we were meant to fly out of, the kindly flight attendant behind the counter looked us in the eye and said “But, this is Okayama, not Takamatsu…”

To shorten the story, the kindly folks of JAL took pity on the bashful Gaijins and managed to get our flights transferred, so that we would fly out of Okayama and make our connecting flight in Haneda. They were so accommodating, in fact, that when it seemed we wouldn’t be able to make our connecting flight due to a slight delay in our arrival, we were privately shuttled across the airport to make our connection.

This all occurred before 12:00.

The Train Incident is a great teacher for some travel tips:

1) When traveling, pay close attention to your surroundings. I never thought I could get so lost on a train but apparently missing your stop isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Sometimes you miss your whole island completely.

2) Don’t panic. Remember that even though you’re in a foreign country, people are still people, and as long as you treat them that way they’ll likely be willing and able to help. It isn’t the end of the world, and you’ll figure out some way to get through things if you just keep your thoughts from spiraling out of control.

3) When its over, try to laugh it off. Even though this was the very beginning to the whole journey, we managed to have a great time in Hokkaido despite the rocky start. Later that same day Nikki saw snow on the ground for the first time, we ate some delicious food in the Sapporo underground, and generally laughed and joked, knowing that the worst had already happened so we had smooth sailing for the rest of our trip.

Day 2: Glassblowing, Ice Sculptures, and Haunted Whiskey.

One of my biggest fears before heading to Hokkaido was the cold. I hate cold with a passion, yet I found myself pretty comfortable in Sapporo. Part of the reason spawns from the fact that Hokkaido isn’t as humid as the southern prefectures, so especially if you’re used to the bone-chilling, wet winters around Ehime, you’ll likely find yourself pleasantly surprised by a cold that is easily fended off with a reasonable coat and pair of shoes. Though, honestly the biggest reason that I’ve come up with is that Hokkaido hasn’t launched the war on insulation that seems to plague the rest of Japan. Walk in a building, it is warm and dry. I wonder if their schools still open the windows during winter…

While it definitely is drier in Hokkaido, they don’t call it the Snow Country for nothing. You won’t have to tromp through it too much in Sapporo (heated sidewalks being yet another thing I’m jealous of), but once you head out to the smaller towns around it you’d best be prepared for it. Being from a routinely frozen part of the world, I was thoroughly prepared, and I only fell once. Twice? We’ll say twice.

One of these falls was in the town of Otaru, a medium sized town famous for its glass products. Nikki had found that there was a small studio in Otaru where you could book a session wherein you would be able to blow your own glass cup or vase. I always wanted to try glassblowing, and I’ll tell you that its is deceptively difficult. Watching the professional work, or even just another amateur, if you do it in a group like we did, it seems simple. Hot glass, blow in the tube, touch it with metal. Bingo bongo, you made a cup. The glass is extremely responsive, and what seems in the moment to be a perfectly round glass is, on reflection, pretty heavily weighted to one side. All of that said, glassblowing was one of the single most fun things I’ve done since coming to Japan. I don’t think there was a moment during the entire session where I wasn’t smiling. And so what if my cup is a little lopsided, it’s still MY cup and I’m proud of it. We gave them our addresses, so that they could specially ship our newly broiled cups to us (rather than us carry them to an inevitable slippery icy death) and we went to look at the various snow-sculptures around the town. Pretty much everywhere we went there was some sort of neat snow sculptures. There was a village of snow dogs, pandas, seals, even a snowy Colonel Sanders. The sculptures are what initially made me want to go to Yuki Matsuri, the idea of people making these giant things out of nothing but snow was just too cool. Honestly, the stars are in Sapporo, but walking along outside looking at the snowy figures that lined the streets of Otaru had me feeling pretty good about the whole day. Then we went to Yoichi.

The Yoichi distillery was one of the things I was pretty excited to go and see. I had watched a fair bit of Massan (the charming story of the man who would make the first Japanese whiskey, and his Scottish wife who put up with him through it all) and enjoy the occasional coke-highball, so I figured it would be a fun way to finish up the day. It was not all we had hoped. To begin with, its fairly out of the way, with only a single train carrying people to and fro every hour. This train also doesn’t accept IC cards, but neglects to inform you of this fact until you are already on the train, and thus you have to adjust your fare once you arrive. When we got to the distillery, we weren’t actually sure if we were in the right place. The gate was open, there were signs pointing out the tour locations, but the place was deserted. We felt less like we were on tour and more like we had broken into someone’s factory and were waiting to be caught and thrown out. It was quiet, everything was covered in snow and ice, and both heebies and jeebies were out in full effect, and we were only half joking when we said it felt like a snow oni (snowni) (snow ogres (snowgres)) would jump out and bop us if we weren’t careful. To be fair, we were walking around at what likely were not peak hours, without the tour guides to help and explain, and without even a larger group to help alleviate some of the tension and at the end of the route, they do give you three big glasses of various whiskey to try, so there’s that. All in all, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Yoichi, knowing what I do now, unless I was in a tour, or with someone who was really, really interested in whiskey.

Day 3: The AJET Enkai

Genghis Khan was a Mongolian warlord who had so many children that its estimated 0.5% of the entire world population is descended from him. In Japan, Genghis Khan is also a form of yakiniku that they give you a plastic poncho for so that you won’t smell of delicious lamb smoke afterward. I’m a sucker for anything where I get to cook my own food in front of me, and demanding meat and drink like Genghis Khan himself from the various waiters running around makes this a pretty enjoyable dinner. This is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the AJET Enkai, a yearly event where ALT’s from all around Japan get together to eat more than they should, drink more than they should, and blow off steam while networking. I got to see several of the JETs who came over at the same time I did, and met a few people that I might not have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. This year’s AJET Enkai had somewhere close to 150 people in attendance. The Enkai was exactly what you would expect; It was loud, everyone was laughing, there were a couple of people who probably should have gone home before they did, but all in all it was a good time with good people. As far as I’m concerned, if you enjoy food and drink, and don’t absolutely hate your fellow JETs, the AJET Enkai is a can’t miss event.

Day 4: Snow Lover’s Chocolate, and Yuki Matsuri

Nikki had spoken multiple times by now about Shiroikoibito Koen, which I had translated in my head as “White Lover’s Park”. What I had assumed to be some sort of unfortunately translated park with Yuki Matsuri-type things turned out to be an Olde Englishe style chocolate factory. It isn’t a whole day event, and due to it being Yuki Matsuri the whole place was absolutely packed; but that said, it was just a nice experience. There were old coffee and tea cups, dioramas of chocolate production, wide windows where you could look down on workers making cookies on convener belts. Honestly, if it weren’t for the creepy statues peppered throughout the building, this would be a perfect place. Additionally, picking up some Shiroikoibito  (Which I have since heard is much more nicely translated as “Snow Lover’s”), little chocolate covered cookies, as an omiyage (souvenirs) for your co-workers will put you in most folks good books for a while, and the whole building smells like cookies; so big bonus there.

Finally we come to the Yuki Matsuri itself. What started with some high-school students making snowmen in the park has evolved to 50 foot towering snow-buildings, projection mapped dragon and warrior sculptures, and minions. So many, many, minions. It was cool, really really cool. And that isn’t just a pun that I became sick of after several days with someone who hadn’t seen snow before. If you want to take your time and really inspect each sculpture, you’ll likely be there all day and maybe into the next. Make sure your clothes are warm and you have some heat packs with you. Hokkaido isn’t as cold as people make it out to be, but after two hours out in the sub 10C you will be cold no matter what. Wear good shoes, preferably something that grips really well (I saw at least 10 people eat it in two hours). Finally, make sure you’ve got your camera at the ready. Not every sculpture is a winner (again, there were so many minions I can’t even believe it) but there are definitely going to be some you’ll want to get a selfie with, or just show off to someone who thought they were too cool for Hokkaido.

Lucas Buechler is a first year JET from Montana, USA. He is stationed in Shikokuchuo-shi, Ehime. He is the new editor-in-chief of the Mikan for 2018-2019.

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