Friday, July 2, 2010

Japan - Hokkaido

I was delighted when my company announced that 2009 Sales Conference will be held in Hokkaido. The trip, originally planned for March was postponed when we hit a rough patch in delivering Q1 2010 budget. We finally make it to Hokkaido in June 2010. Upon arrival at the newly opened Chitose International Terminal Building, we were greeted by local guides who are also Malaysian, living in Japan for many years.

Hokkaido (北海道) is the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. Home to Japan's aboriginal Ainu race, Hokkaido continues to represent the untamed wilderness with many great national parks but our itinerary covers only Sapporo (the capital and by far the largest city in Hokkaido), Otaru (harbour city with a canal) and Noboribetsu (Hokkaido's largest hot spring resort).

Sapporo or "important river flowing through a plain" in Ainu language, became famous after the 1972 Winter Olympic Games. Today, the city is well known for its ramen, beer and annual snow festival which is held in February. Places we visited in Sapporo:

Nijo market - a public market in central Sapporo where locals and tourists shop for fresh local produce and seafood such as crabs, salmon eggs, sea urchin and various fresh and prepared fish. Many from our group tried sea urchin and sushi while the most popular purchase is dried scallops. I find Nijo market a let-down compared to the fish market I've visited in Ibaraki as well as the seafood markets on the ground floor of the restaurant where we had our lunches during our stay in Hokkaido.

Sapporo Clock Tower (Tokeidai) is the symbol of Sapporo's past. Development in Hokkaido started much later than the rest of Japan and many ideas from around the world have come together to make the city a bit different from the rest of Japan. This outside influence can be seen in Sapporo’s famous Clock Tower which is now a National Important Cultural Property. It was originally constructed as a drill hall of the Sapporo Agricultural College. In 1881, the Boston's clock was added to the building. Today it houses a small museum and used for various cultural activities. It is one of the most photographed buildings in Sapporo but is it worth seeing?'s just an ordinary clock tower that you will not miss.

Odori Park - the broad median of Odori ("large street") separates Sapporo city into North and South. The park stretches over twelve blocks and offers pleasant green space during the warmer months. In February, it stages the annual Sapporo Snow Festival. In summer, it is just like any other park but in winter, it is transformed into a winter wonderland.

At the eastern end of Odori Park stands the TV Tower with an observation deck that offers nice views of Odori Park and the city of Sapporo. The TV Tower was built in 1957, modeled after France’s Eiffel Tower and it is the fourth tallest tower in Japan.
Susukino is well known as Japan's largest entertainment district north of Tokyo. It is packed with stores, bars, restaurants, karaoke shops, pachinko parlors and red light establishments but the area is as safe as anywhere else in Japan. Along the street, we saw many young men (or rather boys to me) promoting "drinking or chatting companionship" for outlets (mostly bars and karaokes) which are located in the high rise buildings. It is the place to meet all the quaint and sparkling denizens of Sapporo that come out to play at lights out.

Of special interest to noodle lovers is the Ramen Yokocho, a narrow lane lined with nothing but hole-in-the-wall ramen shops serving the famous Sapporo ramen, each with it's own secret soup. The oldest is Rai Rai Ken - one of the first encountered on the left hand side if you enter the alleyway from the north. The owners have been running the shop for more than 40 years. I was told that Hong Kong TVB's ramen epicure program was shot in Ramen Valley. If you follow the program, you would know which outlet has the best ramen but if you don't, the easiest way is to peep into the shop and see whether there are customers or simply join the long queue. I did not try out the ramen as I was just too full after the sumptuous crab (king crab, snow crab and hairy crab) buffet at Ori No Sapporo Restaurant.

Asahi Beer Brewery - we arrived Asahi Brewery on Sunday and instead of viewing the packaging line from behind windows, we were ushered into a theatre by the beautiful Japanese receptionist. We spent about 15 mins watching the video on Asahi beer production which left many of us envious as this is the only job where drinking is allowed during working hours. After the short video clip, we proceeded to the half an hour "all you can drink" Asahi beer/soft drink/tit-bits tasting session. While it says "all you can drink", if you are seen to be too drunk, you can be denied of more beer by the attendance. For Muslim, there's beer with "0" alcohol too. For those who do not like beer, Asahi also produces juices and isotonic drinks.

Shiroi Koibito Park - a theme park by Ishiya, a local chocolate company. The company's flagship product are the Shiroi Koibito cookies, two thin butter cookies with white chocolate in-between. The name "Shiroi Koibito" which literally mean "beloved ones" in Japanese came from founder when he casually described the gently falling snowflakes as "white beloved ones" one December day on his way back from skiing. Today it is a mandatory item on the souvenir shopping list of most visitors to Hokkaido. Visitors can observe the production process behind Shiroi Koibito cookies from the tour corridor on the third floor. Visitors of all ages from adult to children can also try their hands at making confections including designing their own heart-shaped Shiroi Koibito cookies.

Otaru Canal (Otaru Unga) was built in the last days of the Taisho era and half of it remains today. It used to be a central part of the city's busy harbor in the first half of the 20th century however, changes that occurred in marine transportation diminished its role and it soon became less important. In the 1980s, its promenade was improved, born again as a sightseeing spot, thanks to the conservation activity of the canal. Along the canal stand stately warehouses made of bricks or Sapporo freestone which are now turned into restaurants, variety stores, and souvenir shops.

Otaru Music Box Museum, built with red bricks a century ago, is one of the most famous buildings in the town. Inside, it is more like a shop than a museum. The 3 floor building is full of small and big music boxes (Japanese call it "orugol"). For an additional fee, customers can build their own music boxes. The Steam Clock, located outside of the music box museum, was a gift from Vancouver to Otaru. A boiler sends steam into the clock, whose steam whistle blows hourly to tell the time. Every 15 minutes,the clock plays the same melody as the chimes of Westminster Abbey in London.

Otaru is also well known as a town of glass manufacturing. This began with the production of kerosene lamps and floating balls used in herring fishery (an industry that brought the city its prosperity during the Meiji and Taisho eras). Today, there are many stores selling glassware in Otaru. Among them, the one with the oldest history is Kitaichi Glass which was founded in 1901. I bought 4 non-drip soy sauce cruet from one of the Kitaichi Glass outlets as souvenir for my sisters :)

Noboribetsu ("a cloud river tinged with white" in Ainu launguage) Onsen is home to Jigokudani (Hell Valley) and features many other springs in addition to Jigokudani that provides 10,000 tons of water per day at temperatures from 45 to 90 degree C to hotels and inns around the hot springs.

Jigokudani or "Hell Valley" is in reality an explosion crater and the remnant of an active volcano known as Kasayama that erupted nearly 10,000 years ago. Inside this 1½-mile-wide volcanic crater are numerous little yellow and red domes. Gas, steam vents and pools of boiling water can be found in numerous places throughout the valley, giving this boiling bubbling landscape the nickname "the inferno where demons dwell".

Many statues related to hell and demons can be found located around the hot spring quarter of Noboribetsu Onsen including Karaburi Enma-do, a shrine dedicated to Enma Daio - the judge of the afterlife in Japanese mythology, Oni Bokora - shrine dedicated to "Nenbutsu Kizou" handed down from the Edo period and Oyako Oni (Demon Parent and Child Statue).

Noboribetsu Date Jidai Mura (Noboribetsu Date Historical Village) is an authentic reproduction of an Edo period (1603-1867) village based on historical research. There are 94 wooden-framed buildings and the Great Ninja Theater where visitors can enjoy the fierce battles of ninja in high definition. The park also features a "showcase of Monsters", a Japanese traditional cultural theater and other attractions like the O-Edo threatre, The Ninja Fort, Ninja Maze, O-Nyanko Cat Temple and many more.

We ended our trip with more SHOPPING. This time, at the recently opened Mitsui Outlet Park, one of the biggest outlet malls in Hokkaido. I was very impressed with the amount of Coach handbags bought by our group...a total of no less than 67 Coach bags! Not counting those of other brands. I bought a Cole Haan :)

Did I enjoyed Hokkaido? Actually, it was not up to my expectation apart from the seafood. My conclusion is that we have visited Hokkaido at the wrong time...maybe it's more impressive during autumn or winter.

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