Hokkaido & The Sapporo Snow Festival

When I was a kid, I thought “white Christmas” had something to do with white people, like how picture-perfect it was. Snow on Christmas, or in general, was just something so vague and abstract to me, something you see only in movies and TV. I also thought the intricate snowflake shapes you’d cut out in class were a total invention, and actual snow just shapeless specks. I’ve learned my lesson since then, since I have seen snow and experienced actual cold temperatures, but not like this, not in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island!

The 71st Sapporo Snow Festival

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This last weekend, temperatures had ranged from 30° F (-1° C) at the highest to 1° F (-20° C) at the lowest. Wow! In Fahrenheit, for those who don’t think about it much, water freezes at a sensible 32°. So imagine seeing temperatures almost near 0° F! There were snow sculptures really ALL over the city, and even surrounding cities that I went to, but the main attraction was the ones featured at the Sapporo Snow Festival, spanning perhaps six city blocks along Odori Park in the center of the city.

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There were also gigantic snow mural walls, and at night they’d do a project mapping and light show. Neat!

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Ice sculptures abounded too, and by morning time the nighttime snowfall lent them incredibly A E S T H E T I C accents of frost.

While the snow festival was the main reason I took the two-hour flight north to Hokkaido, other highlights included:

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An intimate jazz concert in Susukino featuring Mori Yamato, voted the best young guitarist in the WORLD for the year 2019.

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The Sapporo Beer Museum, situated inside a beautiful 19th-century brick warehouse with vintage Sapporo ads dating all the way back to the company’s inception in the late 1800s, exhibits of the vats, equipment, and the story of how they brought Western brewing techniques to Japan, guided tours, and of course beer tasting. In Hokkaido you can buy “Sapporo Classic,” based on the original brew and sold only in Hokkaido, while of course you can buy the regular Sapporo Draft anywhere in Japan.

FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD

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I also spent some time in Otaru, famed for being the best place in Hokkaido for sushi, a prefecture that already in itself is famous for having some of the best seafood in Japan.

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Clockwise from top left: revolving sushi at Hanamaru, considered one of the best in Japan, soup curry, otoro (well-marbled tuna), miso butter ramen, kaisendon (sashimi bowl), stuffed crab shell, and some cute parfaits, as Hokkaido is also known for its dairy.

Sapporo also has quite a lively nightlife, especially in Susukino, just a stone’s throw away from the festival in Odori Park. I found a place, Gossip Lounge, where the cover charge also included FIVE drinks, and for just another $1 you could increase that amount to ten. Not only that, but for the first time ever, I actually found a few places that would amazingly let foreigners in for free (but not others), to varying results of atmospheres. Just as in Fukuoka or Osaka, Hokkaidans were incredibly friendly and welcoming. And you know, for a city where the temperatures got to -20, at the same time you could hardly have expected to feel so warm.

Legoland Japan & Japan’s Most Boring City

Two years ago, two major things happened: Nagoya, the capital city of Aichi Prefecture, was voted the least appealing city in Japan (or rather, it was ranked lowest among the major cities for its appeal). Then, in April, another stunning revelation to the world– the opening of freaking LEGOLAND Japan, and really the main reason I decided to head up to Nagoya for the weekend.

Legoland Japan

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Just like the city that houses it, Legoland has had a pretty beleaguered reputation, presumably mainly because tickets used to cost near 6900 yen ($69), despite the park being just 23 acres square. For comparison, Tokyo Disneyland is 115 acres, and a ticket there costs 7500 yen. It’s also freaking Disneyland and should not cost just under ten more dollars than Legoland. Also, Legoland opens at 10 AM and closes at 5 PM. That’s right, F I V E  P O S T  M E R I D I E M

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Anyways, highlights included a LEGO factory tour, which ended with you receiving your own special commemorative brick– did you know that Lego bricks made in 2020 will still fit ones made in 1958? Cool!

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The pagoda at Sensoji in Tokyo.

Naturally, the main highlight was definitely Miniland, where you can find scale models of many famous Japanese as well as Nagoyan landmarks. It’s all there– Tokyo Skytree, Osaka’s Dotonburi River, many of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines, and other Japanese crap. Akashi Kaikyo Bridge was sadly not represented, despite being the longest suspension bridge in the world.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, as Mount Fuji rises majestically in the background.
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Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Station
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A mysteriously empty Shibuya Crossing.
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The Shinkansen bullet train speeds past Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest structure.
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Dotonburi River, Osaka, complete with “Glen Co.” Man!
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Osaka Castle, unfortunately missing the freaking glass-and-steel elevator they recently installed on the side of one of the keeps.

Not sure how it is in other Legolands, but only Japanese landmarks and scenery were represented. But hey, I’m not going to Legoland Japan to see a miniature Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty or something.

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The central rectangle is the entirety of the park. Even in LEGO scale you can kind of tell how small it really is.

All in all, I’d say Legoland is certainly worth visiting once, if you are interested in Lego at all, and yeah, though the park is indeed tiny you could comfortably spend opening to closing hours in the park. The rides were pretty kiddy but still enjoyable; the main attractions were definitely the scenery. And let’s not forget the cute Lego food!

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Don’t look at my face, look at my adorable Lego sandwich!

As for the rest of Nagoya, I agree with Stanzi in that it certainly gets an unfair shake among the rest of its metropolitan brethren– it is certainly a living, breathing city with lots of exciting things to do. Another VERY cool thing we checked out was the…

SCMAGLEV and Railway Park

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Trains are, of course, a huge part of your life in Japan. Their reputation for punctuality is no exaggeration: there was one week where the trains in my area were weirdly, consistently 2-3 minutes late every day. Then, when I was synchronizing my watch, I realized that… my watch had been running 3 minutes fast all week. The SCMAGLEV Museum, dedicated to those holy electric snakes, is one of the biggest I’ve been to in Japan, roughly the size of a warehouse, big enough to have 39 full-size train cars on its floor!!

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Trains from throughout history are featured, all the way from the late 19th century smokestacks to the latest and greatest bullet trains.

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The distance from Tokyo to Osaka is 246 miles (395km), and the Shinkansen takes about 2.5 hours. This bad boy could make it in less than an hour.

They were all fully preserved and completely enter-able, and it was really interesting to see the little things that changed throughout history, such as the post-WW2 trains having ashtrays in every row and mounted bottle openers since everything was still in glass bottles, and heck, even the toilets changed. Seems like soap and non-squat toilets never made it into Japanese train bathrooms until about the 1970s. Yikes.

Exhibits abound, from replica food in dining cars to fake ticket gates where you can print out your own ticket and go through, complete with fake timeboards, and even SIMULATORS where you can play the role of a Shinkansen operator or a local conductor in control of opening and closing the doors. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived they were all out for the day, so we didn’t get to check them out. I absolutely want to go back. We were there for only one and a half hours, but I could’ve easily spent a few more hours there. By the way, I am by no means a fanatic about trains or anything, but if you have even the vaguest interest in or appreciation for them then this was, by far, my favorite non-art museum I’ve been to in Japan.

As for the rest of Nagoya, well… it is a Japanese city. It comes with all the neat things that nearly all Japanese cities have, that is good nightlife, temples and shrines certainly worth checking out, massive multi-story shopping malls, arcades abound, and their own specialty food. For Nagoya, it’s sweet sesame sauce-slathered fried chicken, called tebasaki karaage, and miso sauce poured over tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet). Delicious!

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See you again some day, Nagoya!

Travels in Shiga, Part 2

So, besides our ryokan stay in part 1, there was a lot of other things to do in Shiga Prefecture. Other things we did in and around Lake Biwa were…

The Katsube Fire Festival

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When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell sick sometime in the 13th century, a fortuneteller traced the cause of his sickness to a dragon living in a nearby marsh. The dragon was killed and burned, so every second Saturday of January, the Katsube Himatsuri (Fire Festival) is celebrated to commemorate that event.  Oh right, and yeah, the emperor recovered after that happened.

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Before…

So, to presumably represent said dragon, massive torches made of hay are constructed, hauled into the shrine grounds by men in traditional loincloths, and set aflame. As the torches burn, the men dance in circles and chant.

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During…

Small fireworks inside the torches go off just as the torches are spent, signifying their end. Then, their remains are hauled out through the shrine gates. Man, Japanese festivals are so cool.

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After.

Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway

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Biwako Valley Ropeway is Japan’s fastest, and it takes you to the top of the local Mount Hiei in five minutes. Activities included my first encounter with snow this unconscionably warm winter, and my first time sledding in over 15 years.

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We also spent what must have been an hour trying to get the perfect picture on the edge of the infinity pool at Biwako Valley Terrace. Perfect for Instagram! Too bad I don’t have one.

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Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.

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The Michigan Cruise

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Nothing is more Japanese than an American paddle steamboat straight out of 1880s Mississippi River. You can take a 60, 80, or 120-minute cruise on the fantastic Michigan, four stories and also featuring a bar and live performances.

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Keeping with the American theme, the performers even sang in ENGLISH, which is always a surprise. It was mostly Disney music, including Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” Mary Poppins’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You.”

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Much like the Naruto cruise in Awaji, you can also feed the birds here, since they follow the boat the whole time and are pretty unafraid of humans. I had a perfect moment of symbiosis with one particular gull, who snatched my stick of Pretz right out of my hand. They flew a little too close for comfort a lot, even when we were just leaning on the railing looking out at the scenery.

Daiichi Nagisa Flower Park

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Conveniently located a several-mile walk next to turbid rivers, Communist-block architectural monstrosities, rice paddies, and homes for getting to a train station in less than half an hour is only a dream, is Daiichi Nagisa Park, where you can catch over 12,000 early-blooming rapeseed flowers.

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An actual candid of me mid-taking off my scarf. Thanks to Stanzi for the picture!

So now, thanks in large part to Stanzi and others encouraging me to travel more, I’ve made a not-insignificant dent into the prefectures of Japan!

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LIVED: Hyogo, Osaka. VISITED: Kyoto, Nara, Tokushima. STAYED: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Shiga, Mie, Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba

To end on a more interesting note, Ogoto, the immediate area of Shiga that we stayed in, has a little bit of a seedy undertone and history to it. Our lovely 4-star hotel was right behind a huge pachinko parlor, and closer to it still was this:

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Thanks to Stanzi for this one too.

A “soapland” in the process of being demolished. Soaplands are essentially brothels that just barely, barely skirt by in the eyes of Japanese law. We saw them dotted all over our travels across Shiga and around the lake. Oh well, perhaps on my next solo travel trip ;^)))