A Trip to Hokkaido: Cool Weather, Ramen, and Warnings of Bears

I’d never been to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, before. My husband Ken organised a two-night stay in Sapporo and a bunch of activities for us to do. Hokkaido is much cooler than the rest of Japan, and its largest city, Sapporo, is home to the annual Snow Festival in February and the nationally popular Sapporo beer.

We went in September, of course, so no snow for us, but at an average of around 21 degrees Celsius every day, it was a gorgeous break from Tokyo’s scorching summer.

We got a free KitKat on the plane!

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What struck me about Hokkaido the most was how friendly the people are! Everyone had a big smile on their faces and went out of their way to help us out. In contrast to Tokyo, where people sort of keep to themselves and blanch at the thought of talking to strangers, I felt welcome in Sapporo.

The First Day

We started with some miso ramen in Chitose Airport, since our flight was in the morning and we arrived at lunchtime. Lucky me, they thought the piece of pork I got was too small so I got one extra!

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We ventured into the city, Ken taking care of everything so I could just stroll and enjoy the sights. Of course, the train station didn’t look much different from Tokyo’s, but in a way that was nice. I felt safe while at the same time exploring a new place.

Our hotel was a business hotel, simple and cute, but in a fantastic location – within walking distance of Sapporo Station and all the fun nightlife things to do there.

In our first day alone, we managed to visit the famous Clock Tower…

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Take a peek at the park and its Autumn Festival… 

And, of course, explore the downtown area. We managed to do an hour and a half of karaoke for only 600 yen each! If you find yourself in Sapporo and want cheap karaoke, it’s called Karaoke Heart Beat.

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The Second Day

On the second day, we took a train up to Otaru and rented a car to Shimomui Kaigan, a pretty cape on Hokkaido’s west coast. Though we bumped into a tour group, it was still quite quiet compared to the madness of Tokyo’s crowds, and we could enjoy the rocky beach comfortably.

Ken’s sharp eyes even spotted a cute little lizard basking on the wooden fence!

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After getting back, we felt we needed to explore more, so we took a side path up a hill and came across a lighthouse. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of it.

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I liked the lighthouse so much that I decided to draw it!

We wanted to go farther, but the sign was somewhat off-putting…

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After, we went to the Nikka Whisky Factory.

The story of Nikka Whisky is really cute; Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland to learn about how whisky was made. While living there, he met a shy Scottish girl called Rita who he ultimately married. She joined him in Japan and supported his dream of becoming a whisky producer. She settled into her life in Japan and made friends with the people there. Eventually, they found success in Hokkaido. Their love story is inspiring.

The factory itself also had a lot of information on Scotland, which was wonderfully nostalgic. We got our share of souvenirs from the shop there, too.

The Third Day

Our flight wasn’t until 9:00pm on our last day, so we still had plenty of time to look around before we had to fly back to reality. We visited Hitsujigaoka, or “Sheep Hill,” to find a statue of William Smith Clark, an American professor and colonel in the American Civil War, who coined the phrase “Boys, be ambitious.”

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There was a small Snow Festival museum where we could see past designs for the festival. It’s really amazing that they could make such intricate shapes with just snow. 

After, we went up Mt. Moiwa on a ropeway. Since we didn’t want to pay extra for the nature car, we walked up to the top (only took about ten minutes – well worth going up for free). We even managed to spot a shy little squirrel on the way. There were some nice views on the top and the weather was perfect for light hiking. 

Lastly, we managed to fit in a visit to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory! Hokkaido is well known for its white chocolate biscuits and it’s a common souvenir to take home.

Though we only arrived an hour before closing time, there was still time to have a look around. The outside area was very pretty, inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We got souvenirs, of course, and even managed to see some of the workers producing the famous little biscuits.

We managed to get a LOT done in just three days, and it was a wonderful trip. Maybe one day we’ll be able to visit in the winter and witness the wonder that is the Snow Festival. For now, though, I’m glad we went in summer and enjoyed the comfortable weather.

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A Day in “Coedo” Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Just half an hour from Ikebukuro is Kawagoe, a town in Saitama that is affectionately nicknamed “Coedo” or “Little Edo” for its resemblance to the Edo era. Many old buildings and landmarks untouched by war and fire still stand, and it’s a lovely place to visit for a day trip.

Unlike other hotspots like Senso-ji Temple and Kyoto, Kawagoe didn’t have many foreign tourists at all. Saitama, the prefecture just north of Tokyo, is often overlooked by visitors, but I recommend Kawagoe for its peaceful atmosphere.

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Though a bit of a trek from the station, the attractive part of town is worth the walk. The cute buildings and the shouts of stall staff hard at work gave the streets a nostalgic atmosphere.

The Time Bell is a must-see; its chime is one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.

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On every street, there was something to do or see, whether it was coffee, ice cream, or traditional toys to take home.

Walking around was thirsty work, so we stopped for a Coedo beer. Right opposite is a unique-looking Starbucks if you prefer coffee.

After exploring, we stopped for some food. My husband managed to bypass all the expensive touristy places and found a charming hole-in-the-wall ramen shop run by a little old lady. She had money all over the wall from visitors from various countries, and she only served one dish: shoyu (soy sauce)-based ramen, a signature type of noodles for this region.

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This delicious and hearty bowl of ramen, plus a small bowl of rice with a little umeboshi plum, came to just 500 yen!

We also went to visit some temples, though I didn’t take any pictures aside from the enormous torii gate.

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If you ever get the chance to visit Kawagoe, please do! It involves some walking, but it’s a really beautiful and peaceful area without the crowds you get at some other places.

A Short Break in the Japanese Countryside

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a town in Nagano Prefecture called Okaya. I lived there from 2014 to 2016 and hadn’t been there since, so it was great to be able to go and hang out with my friend and get some fresh air.

I love Tokyo, but stepping off the bus into the quietness of Okaya “city” was peaceful. There were so few people! I went to a nearby shop to browse the clothes and ended up finding some amazing deals, such as a skirt for just 200 yen.

The old man at the cashier wasn’t the usual moving-at-the-speed-of-light-to-serve-you-as-fast-as-possible like you’d see in the capital, but he slowly and carefully cut off the tags and input the amounts in the till at his own pace. I, with nothing to do except kill time to wait for Alex, found myself smiling as I watched him take his time.

I had a cold while I was there so unfortunately, I couldn’t really smell the fresh air, but I saw the sky, heard and saw frogs, and enjoyed the peace of few people. And this was festival week; it was actually crowded for the area at the time!

Though we didn’t go to the festival in the evening when it kicked off properly, I watched Alex try his hand at a shooting game.

Alex’s house was a twenty-minute walk from his station, and trains from Okaya only went every hour or so. There were houses, rice fields, and amazing views of the hills. I found myself gushing like a city girl seeing grass for the first time.

I was only there for two nights, so I didn’t get to do or eat everything I wanted, but it was a wonderful time nonetheless. I got to catch up with old friends I hadn’t seen in years and have a short break from the business of Tokyo. Next time, I hope I can stay for a lot longer.

My First Japanese Manga Comic: Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet

Over my years of living in Japan, I’ve been asked many times if the reason I like this country is because of anime (cartoons) or manga (comics). This is a common reason for people to visit Japan. Even if you’re not into these things, it’s likely you’ve watched some anime in your lifetime, whether it be Dragonball, Pokémon, or Sailor Moon.

I always answered “no.” I watched Death Note when I was a teenager and was crazy about Pokémon as a kid, but they weren’t the reasons I decided to live in this country.

I studied Japanese at university and often pick up new words and phrases during my time living here, but I never really got to a higher level of Japanese. I can’t read newspapers or novels and I wouldn’t be able to pass any JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) level higher than intermediate. As an English teacher and writer, I don’t need any language test qualification so never really had the motivation to study.

Manga comics were always intimidating. How would I be able to read an entire book in Japanese? How would I navigate the seemingly complicated up-down left-right reading style? Despite seeing thousands of manga books in shops and whatnot, I never picked one up.

I get bursts of motivation to study, however, and bought Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet for 400 yen in a book shop.

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It sat on my shelf for ages, but I don’t like having books and never reading them. I forced myself to study the first two pages, taking notes of words I didn’t know. It took a while. Then my husband let me read it to him. There was furigana above the kanji (sort of pronunciation guides) so it didn’t take as long as it would have if it had been a manga aimed at adults.

After about a quarter of the way through, I got used to how to read it and started enjoying the story. Not worrying too much about understanding every single word, I read it on the train and finished it in just a few days.

The Story

Fumi Ono is determined to help her father get out of debt and applies to be a live-in housekeeper. When arriving at the house on Tsubaki Street, she’s amazed to find the writer who lives there isn’t a friendly old man as she’d expected, but a slightly strange, young, grumpy person who turns out to be Kibiki, the writer.

At first, they don’t get along. Kibiki-sensei is grouchy and doesn’t seem happy to have the young Fumi around. However, their relationship develops.

This reads like a typical romance in Japan but it was touching nevertheless. Lines like “you live here, so you’re my responsibility. I will protect you” tugged on the heartstrings. The story was really funny, as well; their bickering and the art style portraying shock or discomfort had me giggling.

Fumi is a cool character. She’s 16, polite, hardworking, and determined to be independent. When a local panty snatcher steals her underwear from where it’s hanging, she fiercely tries to confront him herself, before Kibiki-sensei shows up to help.

I think I consider myself a fan of manga now. I learned many new words and my reading speed has improved. I’ll definitely be buying the next installment of this light-hearted romance.

Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple, a Less Crowded Alternative to Daibutsu

Daibutsu, the giant Buddha statue in Kamakura, is a great tourist attraction. Last time I went there, though, the effect was ruined a bit because there were so many tourists. Since I was a tourist too, we couldn’t really complain, but the gift shop and wandering foreigners sort of cheapened the experience of seeing the lovely old statue and shrine garden.

Today, though, one of my students introduced me to a giant statue in Ōfuna, which is right near Kamakura, just four minutes on the Yokosuka line from Kita-Kamakura Station. Kannon-ji had no people at all except the staff, and one other person showed up as we were leaving. It’s a real hidden gem.

By Japan’s standards, this temple is fairly new. It was completed in 1960 after generous donations from local people. Entry is 300 yen and you have to walk a little slope and some steps to reach it.

You can actually see the statue’s head from Ōfuna Station, so it isn’t hard to find at all. There isn’t much else around to see or do in this area, however, which might be a reason why people don’t really visit.

As with many of Japan’s temples, shrines, and holy places, it was beautifully taken care of. There were many flowers and little statues on the way up.

There was a really local vibe to the place. There was a little community centre nearby and the quiet feel of the countryside all around. That being said, you know you were still close to the city because of the slightly muffled sounds of the train station.

You could see the statue, which represents the white-robed Guanyin Bodhisattva, peeking to say hello before the final stairs.

We’d made it!

There was a place to offer incense sticks and a handwashing area. Inside, there was art done by local children, a small shrine, and hundreds of little wooden statues made by visitors. You can also make your own for 1,200 yen. They were really good!

If you’d like to experience Ōfuna Kannon-ji Temple and avoid the crowds, head to Ōfuna Station and cross the bridge. You can see the statue’s head on your way and you’ll find a slope flanked by red flags leading up.

I don’t know if the temple is usually busier and we happened to arrive on a quiet day, but it’s definitely worth a visit either way!

Horse Riding in Tokyo

I never thought it was possible to ride a horse in Japan. Maybe in the countryside, for way more expensive than in the UK, like camping.

But it turns out there are a few horse riding schools in and around Tokyo, and not for such a bad price, either. We visited Tokyo Club Crane (乗馬クラブクレイン東京) which is located in Machida.

We got a special campaign price – 2,500 yen for half an hour, which is pretty reasonable considering some other schools cost tens of thousands. We arrived to get a free helmet and boot rental from some very kind staff.

After we were all set up, it was time to meet the horses!

Most of the horses there are veteran racers. My 27 year old boy was a dressage horse and loved being scratched. Ken’s was a younger 14 and used to be a racer. He loved being petted, too.

We didn’t do much more than walk and trot in a circle, but since it’s been over a decade since I last rode, it was more than enough. The staff commented that I rode well, so it’s good to know my childhood lessons paid off.

After our lesson, the staff showed us around the stables, where each horse had its age, name, blood type, parents, and country of origin. Mine was from Australia, so the staff joked that he could speak English. He was a cheeky one; he kept wanting to stop and sleep in the warm weather.

If you’re interested in trying horse riding, Crane is a great place to get started. It’s not ideal for experts because you can’t really go anywhere outside the school without a license, and the fastest we could go was a short trot. However, it’s a fun day out.

Access

To reach the school, get the Odakyu Line to Tsurukawa Station. Then get the number 21 bus to Wakogakuen Bus Stop. It’s a five-minute walk from there.

Amuse Bar in Musashi Kosugi: Beer, Karaoke, and Retro Games

Japan is a country that loves to drink and isn’t short of bars and izakayas. Though there are many interesting themed bars in the big cities as well as the traditional hole-in-the-wall establishments offering beer and sake, there are also some rather unique places only known to locals.

Amuse Bar in Musashi Kosugi is run by a man named Takeshi Hasegawa, who loves beer almost as much as his customers. His bar is underground and lit with fairy lights and half a dozen televisions! It’s no surprise that he’s a huge fan of TV shows and anime.

Where most izakayas and bars have these paper menus displaying dishes and prices, Takeshi has written the names of faithful patrons. The number written below their name is the number of times they visited in one year!

He had the bar filled with cool vintage stuff like this fruit machine and a Super Famicon (SNES).

I played Kirby for the first time!

After some beer and some ginger highballs (where he let us draw the whisky ourselves!) it was time for karaoke.

Some ladies joined us and sang their fair share as well.

This bar was a lot of fun and I plan on visiting again very soon! Maybe I’ll have my name on the wall one day.

Another thing that makes Amuse Bar so unique is that Takeshi is OK with you taking food and drink along with you, as long as you don’t mind paying. A customer will usually pay around 3,000 yen, which is pretty reasonable considering the free snacks and flow of drinks on offer, as well as karaoke and games.

How to Get There/Opening Hours

Amuse Bar is just a few minutes’ walk from Musashi-Kosugi Station, which is on the Nambu line, Toyoko line, Meguro line, and Shonan Shinjuku line and just 15 minutes from Shibuya and 20 minutes from Shinjuku.

It’s open from 18:00-5:00 Monday to Saturday. It’s closed on Sundays, though this may differ when it comes to national holidays (as a rule, if a Monday is a national holiday, establishments in Japan instead take their days off on the Monday instead). If you’re not sure, you can call Amuse Bar at 044-422-7627.

Come sing, drink, and play games at Amuse Bar!

@HomeCafe Maid Café in Akihabara, Tokyo

Akihabara is the place to go for “nerd stuff”: anime, comics, figurines, electronics, and video games. I took my brothers there today and we decided to get lunch in a maid café.

There are several maid cafés in Akihabara. We chose @homecafe as it’s highly rated and close to Super Potato, a retro gaming store.

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Rules of Visiting @HomeCafe

  1. No pictures (except of food and drinks).
  2. Credit cards accepted.
  3. Don’t touch the maids or ask them for any personal information.
  4. All guests have to order at least one item from the menu.
  5. There is an additional fee as well as food and drink of 700 yen per adult, and discounts for seniors and students.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with a happy “welcome home, masters and princess!” Maids are there to make you happy and give you what you need. All the maids, dressed up in cute outfits, had smiles on their faces and were very kind.

Our server, Aqua, said some cute, quirky stuff like she was from Aqualand in the deep ocean and that she had eaten magic food that made her 17 years old forever.

We ordered the Food Combo, which included one food item from the menu, one soft drink, and a picture with the maids. We all ordered the omelette rice, where the maids draw a picture of your choice on top in ketchup. I got Princess Peach and she did a pretty good job!

The boys got milkshakes and I got a mocha latte where I could also choose the picture on top in caramel sauce. I requested Wario.

We even managed to catch a cute show where the maids sung and danced on stage. Because why not, right?

Here’s me with Aqua. She was awfully sweet and she definitely had the biggest smile out of all the maids in @homecafe.

Kawaii as heck.

A maid cafe is always a fun experience; just expect to plonk down around 3,000 yen for your meal and experience. It’s an experience you should try while in a Japanese city.