Hakodate is a city on the southernmost tip of the island of Hokkaido. It’s a port city that figures large in modern Japanese history. It’s the first city in Japan that the American Navy under Commodore Perry opened up to the world at the end of a period of isolation. An important battle at the end of Tokugawa Period and the beginning of the Meiji Era took place here as well. Hakodate is also known for its physical beauty because the city is situated on a tiny isthmus surround by the ocean on both sides and a mountain conveniently located at the southern end of the city to take in this scrumptious city and ocean view.
For our travels to Hakodate from Sapporo, we considered two different modes of travel. The train would have been faster and more comfortable ride, but the price was roughly ¥8,300 one-way/¥16,600 round trip. Looking at a train ride that costs about CAD$170 per person was not what we wanted to spend. Especially when I think of the time to get there as almost the same as a Vancouver to Seattle road trip.
Thankfully, one of our shared-house mates had done the trip to Hakodate previously and took a Chuo Bus. The round-trip ticket worked out to just about ¥8,000 round-trip per person. That was half the price of what it would have cost us by train. Being a transit traveller and passenger train geek, I would have loved to take the Super Hokuto train to Hakodate. However, our budget for staying a month in Hokkaido did not allow for such a luxury. The bus was way more economical.
By toll highway without any stops, the drive from Sapporo to Hakodate is just under 4 hours. However, we had a pit stop at a toll highway rest stop for a half hour and we deviated from the expressway a few townships before Hakodate. So our bus ride was more like 6 hours from station to station.
JR Hakodate Station
I am so happy that I signed up for the Summer Program at Japanese Language School Hokkaido, or JaLS. All the cultural activities included in the fee are really worthwhile. One afternoon, we were taken out of Sapporo’s centre to an area called Shin Kotoni (新琴似), which is accessible on one of the JR lines out of Sapporo Station.
We ended up in a very residential area of town. There were not many stores around and the station was relatively quiet. It certainly wasn’t a busy transport hub. We walked for about 15-20 minutes from the JR station to a tiny little building on a tiny little residential street.
Just to the north and east of Sapporo Station is the large campus of Hokkaido University. The university is known locally by it’s abbreviated name of Hokudai. Hokudai was founded in 1876 as Sapporo Agricultural College by an American, Dr. William S. Clark. Agriculture is still a big part of Hokkaido University.
The university is full of trees, shrubs, and all sorts of greenery. There are a few ponds and a tiny creek that also flow through the campus. It reminds me a lot of how North American universities are set up with large open spaces. Many of the buildings dated back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. I keep finding North American influences in Sapporo and Hokudai has plenty of those influences. A couple of the campus buildings look like they came out of the Old West.
One of our shared house-mates had been talking about visiting the “pyramid” park. It sure sounded interesting to visit a park with pyramids. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a “pyramid” park. I envisioned some kitschy kids park with a large colourful pastel playground consisting of pyramids. Sure. Why not? So we had planned to go out there one afternoon after our language classes were done.
bicycles outside our share house
We had secured a couple bicycles from another shared house for our afternoon trip to the park. The park was apparently pretty far. With the bicycles ready to go, we set out for the “pyramid” park. However, we forgot to check what the name of the park was in Japanese. Oops.
So we rode out to the northeast of the city. Our house mate knew the general direction of the park, but he couldn’t quite remember exactly how far out the park was. We kept riding north past the freeway and we started to even pass farmland. We were out pretty far from the city limits.
Finally, though, we started to see a tall, pyramidal hill show up on the horizon. That was our destination. Now just where was the entrance exactly? I think we could have entered the park from the south side, but we ended up going to the north side. We locked up our bikes at the northwest entrance to the park.
Whenever I say that I went to Japan for a month, one of the first things people ask me is this:
“Isn’t it expensive in Japan?”
Well, yes and no. Some things in Japan are expensive. Transportation in Japan can cost a pretty penny depending where and how one travels. Food can also be expensive if we picked the really nice places to dine. Also, meals probably cost more in Japan in comparison to many other Asian countries. However, coming from Canada, the prices of meals are reasonable and slightly cheaper for some things.
Food was a big part of our trip to Hokkaido. Most of the time we were in Sapporo. So I will take you through some of the different meals that we partook over our month there. I hope to share the ordinary to the not-so-ordinary of dining in Hokkaido.
On our second Monday in Sapporo, we were back in classes. My language class had gone from 2 to 3 students. Yeah! And there was yet another cultural activity that afternoon. We were going to be making soba. Soba is a type of Japanese thin noodle made from buckwheat. Buckwheat is primarily harvested in Hokkaido. So there’s no fresher soba than in Hokkaido.
However, first things first. We were hungry. So after class and before the cultural activity, we had to grab lunch on our own. A few of us from the school were pretty hungry and had a hankering for ramen, the other very famous Japanese noodle (although if you ask the Japanese, ramen is a Chinese noodle).
rich miso ramen and cheese gyoza
We had finished our first week of Japanese language classes at JaLS and we were upon our first full weekend in Hokkaido. We originally tried to get bus tickets to Hakodate for the Saturday, but all the times we wanted to take were sold out. So we decided to visit Otaru this Saturday instead.
Rapid Airport at Otaru Station
Otaru is a about a 40-60 minute train ride on the JR train. If you grab the Local train, then it stops at every single station. However, if timing works for you, then you can grab one of the express trains and bypass all the smaller stations. Regardless of the speed of the train, the ticket still costs ¥640 for a one-way ticket. The ride from Sapporo to Teine is all above ground and offers a view of the city from high above the streets. However, soon after Teine station, we are travelling right along the coastline of Ishikari Bay until we reach Otaru.
In Japan, Japan Rail (JR) is a name that can be found across the country. It comes in many flavours. There’s the green JR East that most people will see in Tokyo, the blue JR West found in Kansai townships, the orange JR Central that serves everything between Kanto and Kansai regions, and more. In Hokkaido, there is the light green manifestation of JR known as JR Hokkaido.
In Sapporo, almost all the JR trains must go through Sapporo Station. This is probably the busiest train station in all of Hokkaido seeing about 90,000 passengers a day go through its doors. If you walk through the station around 6pm, you will feel the rush of 90,000 passengers a day.
If one must get to destinations beyond Sapporo or outside of the subway system, then JR is one way to do it. You can think of JR as a commuter rail system serving the “suburbs” of Sapporo. JR Hokkaido is more than just a suburban commuter rail, but for the purpose of getting around the outer areas of Sapporo, that’s the closest description that matches its services.
Sapporo, just like other Japanese cities, is well serviced by rail transportation. The subway system serves most of the inner city. The Japan Rail Hokkaido (hereby referred to as JR) trains connect Sapporo to the surrounding towns, the New Chitose Airport, and other major destinations throughout Hokkaido.
The Sapporo Subway system is made up of 3 lines and is very simple to use. Rides on the subway range from ¥200-360 depending on how far one travels through the system. The blue Toho Line runs north-south and serves the northeast and southeast of Sapporo. Major destinations accessible on the Toho Line include Toyohiro Park (Toyohiro Koen station), and the Sapporo Dome (Fukuzumi station). The green Namboku Line runs north-south as well, but serve the areas directly north and south of the city centre. Major destinations along the line include Nakajima Park (Nakajima Koen station) and Hokkaido University (Kita 12 Jo station). The orange Tozai Line runs mainly east-west and serves the city’s northwest and part of the southeast. Famous attractions on the Tozai Line include the Shiroi Koibito Park (Miyanosawa station) and Maruyama Park (Maruyama Koen station). All three lines feed into Odori Station. Like most Japanese subway systems, all stations in the system have a letter and number combo to identify the station. Because you know it’s a lot easier to say station H-05 than saying Higashi Kuyakusho Mae station for us foreigners.
After we had finished up at the Sapporo Beer Museum, 3 of the 4 of us who had been at the museum had decided to check out the mall right behind the beer museum. The shopping mall next door is Ario Sapporo. Now most people travelling avoid shopping malls, and rightly so. A shopping mall is a shopping mall is a shopping mall. That’s mostly true the world over. However, sometimes it can be neat to walk through a shopping mall to see another culture’s take on this 20th Century shopping phenomenon.
Photo from Welcome to Sapporo page
I must say that Ario holds pretty true to the North American feel of a shopping mall. One. It occupies a large swath of land surrounded by a parking lot. Two. The aforementioned parking is free. (There’s free parking in Japan??? What?!?) Three. There’s a large department store that anchors the mall. That department store, in this case, is Ito Yokado. Finally four. Most of the stores are run by large national and multinational chains who tend to be the only ones who can afford mall rental rates.
However, there were a few fun things that I discovered at Ario Sapporo.