Liou's quiet little life...or is it?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sushi, snow & sunburn

First of all, my title is inspired from Maarten's weblog, a friend (and before the brother of a friend) who I visited two weeks ago in Hokkaido. This was during Golden Week, a week of holidays in Japan at the beginning of May. With the New Year holidays, these are the two longest vacations in Japan. In the latter case, people will visit their family, but in the Golden Week they will often travel overseas or inland. That's also the reason why prices will literally be doubled, as time is much more precious than money in this country.

I took the opportunity to see a part of Japan, which I wanted to visit for some time now, namely Hokkaido. Interesting note: it is twice the size of the Netherlands! I went and visited Maarten, the younger brother of a friend of mine of Amsterdam. He is currently doing a internship for half a year at the engineering faculty of Hokkaido university in Sapporo. He's working on a autonomous robot which can find its way around a room by learning from its experience.

Sapporo, and all Hokkaido, has only been used more intensively by the Japanese since less than 150 years ago. Before, it were mainly Ainu living there, a kind of Japanese Inuit. They were more or less forced to blend in with the colonizing Japanese and the little that remains of their cuture is now shown in museums - which unfortunately I didn't have enough time for to visit. The relative recent settlement of Hokkaido is directly noticeable from the city. It has large avenues which go from north to south and east to west, dividing the town into a Manhattan-like grid. Therefore, it felt much more spacious than any Japanese city I have been, although it is supposed to still have more than 1,5 million people I believe. Some buildings have a definite European influence, such as the city hall and some Sapporo beer factories converted to for example a museum and a shopping hall. It was then that I noticed I really miss European architecture.

Maarten lives in a ryo, a student home. This is a total different living place from the others I have seen so far in Japan. And I liked it! There was definitely something authentic about it, in an otherwise well kept clean Japan. But I guess this holds true for most of the ryo here. This was a famous ryo as well (keiteki?) which has existed for longer time and has a special introduction for newcomers, as well all kind of university songs and other events. When you come back, people say "okaerinasai", which is normally said by your family or partner, so this gave it all a very homely atmosphere.

I visited part of Sapporo during the first couple of days, a nice and pleasant town, much more manageable in size then Tokyo. It also has an extensive night district Susukino, which can easily rival with the capital. One of the best memories I have of Hokkaido is the food, as it serves excellent, fresh fish. By far, the best sushi and sashimi I ever had was during this holiday!

After this we went to an island up north of Hokkaido, Rishiri. Our group consisted of four guys: Maarten, Tim (a fellow student of Maarten from the TU Delft), Joseph (German mechanical engineer from Berlin) and me. After six hours to the north of Hokkaido, Wakkanai, we slept one night in a biker's house, with a very hospitable owner and atmosphere.

Next day up to the island by ferry, and when we arrived the weather was not too nice. The site of the island was very impressive though. It is essentially a mountain rising from the sea, and very similar in shape to Mt. Fuji, the nickname for this one as well. Walked a bit around the closest town (village) and were greeted quite regularly by people. Apparently, on a such small island, strangers are very much welcome, also for the need of tourism. We found a small bungalow on a camping site, just next to a onsen (public bath with water from a spring). The following day we miserably failed at an attempt to climb the mountain, nothing short of a small polar expidition except for the lack of adequate equipment; due to the huge amount of snow still around and the bleak wind and cold rain we had to give up after about 2 hours of climbing.

After this we were quite exhausted and rested and walked a bit around the town. This included a dinner in a restaurant, which was basically someone's house with some extra tables on the floor. Very friendly and excellent seafood again, such as a salad made out of onion, octopus and scallop. The latter is ridicously cheap here in Japan compared to its exorbitant price in Europe.

The next day the weather got better and we were able to rent a bycicle, go up half the way of a valley, walk the rest, and finally go along the coast of the island (60km in total). We were exhausted and sunburnt as well, but this day made up for the first ones on the island.

After this, back to Sapporo, some karaoke, and my last day in Hokkaido, I spend half a day in Otaru, a nearby harbour. I was quite surprised by the amount of tourism in that city! A street filled with sushi restaurants, at least 40 I guess, and hordes of mainly asian tourists, such as chineses and malaysians for example. After trying out some average sushi at quite a touristy spot, I asked a local for a better one, and had my best piece of raw fish on rice ever. Tuna, salmon and roe, herring and especially the scallop were both generous, succulent and, I can only repeat myself, incredibly fresh. As the taste of raw fish is quite subtle, I guess texture is more important to tasting it.

Before going back on the plane to Tokyo, I had a short goodbye dinner at Sapporo's train station with my fellow travelers. All by all, a nice holiday, with loads of good food and splendid nature.


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