Northern Japan

It’s been an awesome trip so far. Since I was able to meet with the landlord in Goshogawara on Monday instead of Tuesday, we were able to wrap up the necessities a day earlier than I expected and had an extra day to travel around before we needed to be in Tokyo for our upgrade. We left Goshogawara on Tuesday morning and headed by train to Aomori, one of the most northern cities on Honshu. My guide book doesn’t have much to say about the city, calling it a “nondescript” location, and the city lived up to its reputation. It was a nice town, with restaurants and stores, but there wasn’t anything to set it apart from any other city in Japan.

People in Japan do head up north, but generally it’s a winter vacation destination with fantastic skiing and amazing hot spring baths (Onsen). They had a map in the tourist center showing at least fifty different onsen within a thirty mile radius of Aomori.

The one local delicacy we were able to enjoy was the local apples. Aomori apples are known throughout Japan and the rest of Asia as some of the best apples, and they truly were amazing. The countryside was covered with orchards, and each tree was meticulously maintained and pruned, with the fruit individually protected on the trees with coverings.

After spending the morning in Aomori, we decided to head across the water to Hokkaido via a ferry that travels between the two towns. There were a couple different types of ferries, but since we were paying out of our pockets, we decided to go with the cheapest, no-frills option. The cheapest ferries are used to let people going to Hokkaido bring their cars along with them, and the ticket salesman was a bit surprised when we told him we didn’t have a car. He sold us the tickets anyway for about $13 and a few minutes later we were walking through the belly of a well-worn ferry past people in their cars. We carried our bags up on deck, and relaxed in a small room while the rest of the cars were being loaded onto the boat. When the ship was ready, it backed out of the port and we spent the next four hours on the deck of the ferry leaving the Aomori harbor and heading to Hakodate (pronounced “Hah-ko-dah-tay”.

We arrived in Hakodate and took a taxi into town. Anwar and I both have guidebooks, and by their powers combined, we’ve managed to make out pretty well. They recommended a rather inexpensive hotel in Hakodate called the Hotel Route Inn, which, according to the book, had small rooms but an included onsen. After spending the last few days on our feet, and covered in salt spray from the ocean, a free onsen sounded really good.

We checked into the hotel, dropped our bags off in our room, and headed into town. Hakodate is no Tokyo, and the major means of transportation is an old trolly that runs through the town. The town is famous for Mount Hakodate, jutting and rising high out of the water. It’s a bit of tourist mecca, and when you look at the top of the mountain at night, you can see the flashes from the cameras shining like fireflies. We took the trolley to the base of the mountain and rode a cable car up the side of the mountain to the peak. The view was amazing, and it was one of the few sites that pictures really can’t capture. The area is one of the more populated areas of the northern island, and it was amazing to see the lights of civilization leading away from the shore to the base of the mountains, and then just stop, leaving nothing but the dark mountains beyond.

On the way back to the hotel, we attempted to hunt down some food. As I said, Hakodate is no Tokyo, and English speakers are hard to find. We found a seafood restaurant on the way back, and we were invited by one of the waitresses to come in for a set meal (set-toe). Besides the mountain, Hakodate is also famous for their large crabs, and we were served a small, but tasty meal of crab tempura and conch sashimi. Delicious, but we were still hungry. 7-11 heroically came through, and a few minutes later, we were in our room munching down convenience store sushi and cold soba.

By this time, my back and feet were hurting, and the onsen was calling to me. We grabbed our towels and washcloths and headed up to the 13th floor. We were greeted by a small but very pleasant hot spring bath that soothed all the aches in my body. The hot bath is, without any doubt, a part of Japanese culture that is superior to America. Our fear of public nudity limits us to quick, purely utilitarian showers at the YMCA, and precludes us from taking the time to relax and enjoy becoming clean. I’ll probably expand on this in a future post, but for now, I can’t encourage you enough to enjoy an onsen if you visit Japan. (BTW, my friend Billy says the baths in Korea are great as well.)

The next morning, we walked around the local fish market, saw some of the biggest crabs I’ve ever seen, still alive and moving their half-meter bodies around their tanks. Some of the vendors had little grills with crab legs toasting on them. For breakfast, I enjoyed a “Hakodate donbori”. Donbori is simply rice with different kinds of sushi on top. A Hakodate donbori had local crab leg meat (about five inches long), ikura (salmon roe), and uni (sea urchin) on top of rice and seaweed. Delicious!

After that, we hopped on a train and we’re currently heading south towards Nikko, with a quick stop off at Matsushima and Sendai. We need to check into our hotel tomorrow evening, but we have just enough time to enjoy these few sites.

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