A Welcome Respite in Hokkaido
My trip to the Northern most region of Japan was one that I had been looking forward to for months. Traveling to Hokkaido would be a welcome respite from the regimented rigors of teaching and the sauna-like heat of central Japan. Like a wilted flower I drooped my way to Narita airport and slumped into the plane seat. While the flight only took about an hour and a half, the airplane brought me to a different world: I left behind the busy, packed and frantic concrete Tokyo-scape and arrived to the peaceful, cool, and natural environment of the island of Hokkaido.
I couldn't wait to see my university friend, Noyuri, once again. She had often told me that Vancouver reminded her of her home in Northern Japan and I was eager to see Hokkaido's beauty for myself. Noyuri had invited me to stay at her family home and I felt so welcomed by her parents and sister that I knew I would have a fun and memorable holiday. Her mother really out did herself with every meal she created. Actually, "meal" does not quite describe the near feasts of smoked cheeses, hearty breads, meats, fish and fresh fruit that adorned the table. I'm sure I gained at least five pounds that week, but the food was so scrumptious that I regret not a bite.
Telling me of the local specialty of "Ghengis Khan", the family took me out to try it. And off we went to a local restaurant that served it. We gathered around one of the outside tables, as a refreshing breeze swirled around the rustic scene complete with ponds, vibrant greenery and flickering fires. I soon found out that Ghengis Khan is a Mongolian-inspired meal of mutton or lamb barbecued right at the table by the guests. Actually, cooking the dinner was just as fun as eating it. Noyuri's lively grandmother had joined us and was fascinated to have a real live Gaijin (foreigner) at her side. With typical Hokkaido hospitality, the Japanese grandmother offered me some beer and we all shared a festive night out.
I learned that the city's name, Sapporo, comes from the Ainu language and means "big, dry, river". The Ainu are the original inhabitants of the island of Hokkaido and have a unique culture and language. I heard the magical tale of how these natives had long ago celebrated an important festival to show their reverence for the bear. They believed that by capturing a young cub, raising it to two years of age, then sacrificing and beheading it would send the bear's spirit back to its ancestors. They then feasted on the bear's body and offered its head gifts and drinks of sake to thank it for its sacrifice. The bear's spirit would be reborn as an Ainu who would hopefully retain the bear's qualities of courage and strength.
The following days when my friend went off to work, I ventured out into the city by myself. For a foreigner, the city of Sapporo is pretty easy to navigate. It is set up on a grid system and has well spaced out streets. The public transit system is quick and efficient and includes a subway and streetcars. I made my way to the city center and enjoyed strolling along the tree-lined avenues and popping into many intriguing stores for a bit of souvenir shopping. I especially liked visiting Odori Park which is a block wide strip of colorful gardens stretching from East to West.
Odori Park is also the location of the Summer Beer Festival (mid July to mid August) where Noyuri and I had a great time relaxing in the sunshine at one of the numerous beer gardens, eating corn-on-the-cob and listening to the live bands. But, after the sun goes down, the area to flock to is Susukino, the nightlife district. Susukino has fantastic restaurants, cozy bars and dazzling entertainment.
When Noyuri had a couple days off from work, we decided to explore outside the city. Driving into the middle of Hokkaido, I was impressed by the peaceful, healthy and picturesque environment around me. This was just what I needed to unwind from my hectic life of teaching in Utsunomiya City. The soft greens soothed me while the colorful flowers brightened my mood.
We leisurely acquainted ourselves with a bit of that vast countryside and spied farm fields spread out along rolling hills. It was indeed a breathtaking sight that we had discovered. Yet, there was an almost strange silence and an "unshared" feeling enveloping me. After all, there were only Noyuri and me, the endless fields and a distant lone tractor moving methodically row by row down and back up its hill. As we continued our trip, I soon became aware of why Hokkaido is so well known for its flowers, especially lavender. Our excursion out near the towns of Furano and Biei brought us up close and interactive with the purple, fragrant lavender fields as well numerous other types of flowers. My eyes noted how their petals really lit up the surroundings in blocks of bright colors. Busloads of Japanese tourists were also arriving to experience the beauty and majesty of the locale for themselves.
I also learned first hand that this northern most Japanese island produces fresh and high quality foods such as cheese, butter, grains, beef, tomato juice, strawberries and wine. In addition to its renowned agriculture industry, Hokkaido makes good use of its encircling seas for salmon fishing while its land is blessed with abundant mineral resources.
All this plus the island's unspoiled national parks, mountain ranges, wildlife, volcanoes, and onsen (hot springs) will continue to inspire its visitors long after they have returned to their busy and routine lives. Hokkaido, Japan is a jewel in the rough that, once discovered, is an invaluable treasure. Its simple, wild beauty and honest hospitality will draw me back in the near future.
Published on 7/18/01