Thursday, 6 August 2015

1 day, 2 cities, 3 cake shops and 4 trains

Date: Thursday 6th August 2015

Weather: Only around twenty-five degrees in Sapporo, with sporadic light showers and a good gust of wind.

MP3 track of the day: Built this city on rock and roll - Starship













Remarkably, without air-conditioning I had managed to sleep rather well and yet, though I had gotten almost eight hours sleep, I still felt sleepy. Still, after getting ready I was soon feeling full of energy. I left the hotel just gone 7am and before I reached the train station, I picked up a 'snack breakfast' at a local convenience store. I had made such good time that, once I was at the train station, I managed to purchase my tickets and board and earlier train. This was great as it got me into Sapporo just in time to change onto a train heading out to Otaru. When I boarded, the train was packed with people however I feared not; looking at most people, I thought that they were local and, given that Otaru was a small place in the middle of nowhere, I wrongly assumed that most people would alight early, within the satellite towns around Sapporo leaving me free to sit down for 75% of the journey. I was so confident that, when a seat became vacant after only the first stop, I offered it to someone else.

Of course no other seat became vacant until two stops before I was due to get off. I couldn't believe it; it was a work day and most people on the train were heading to a pokey little town on the northern-edge of Hokkaido. The important thing was that I reached Otaru at 9:30am, giving me two or three hours to quickly look around before heading to Sapporo but first, I deemed that 9:30am was close enough to 'elevenses' that I was allowed to enter a local Mr Donuts for a donut or two.

Once my donuts had been consumed, I headed out of the restaurant and towards Otaru's coastline. Today I had been put under pressure by mother nature and man. Man because some things I wanted to see closed at 4:30pm (Sapporo's botanical gardens) and mother nature because my day light would run out around 6:30pm and, more urgently than that, big black clouds seemed to have been strategically positioned over Otaru. Last nights weather forecast predicted that it should have been raining by now therefore, I felt as though I was on borrowed time. I rushed to the coast to take as many photos as mother nature allowed.

It's amazing just how much difference seasons can make. I have been to Otaru twice before however, both times were in the thick of winter. Without the snow Otaru was a lot greener and much easier to move around. The footpath running beside the canal (which is very close to the coastline) was a lot wider than I remembered and, a small alleyway used during the snow festival, turned out to be part of a disused railway! I continued onwards, taking photos of Otaru's canal and the old brick warehouses on the other side (which is what makes this area so picturesque). Once the canal had been successfully photographed, I headed inland to a street I love. It's on this street that, during the snow festival, all of the shops are open with there lights on and staff outside shouting about their products for sale … most of which were cakes (I soooo wanted to buy a local cheesecake however, the queue was to long). During winter, this road reminded me of a scene from some Charles Dickens' novel however, during summer, this road had lost a bit of it's charm and became rather, mundane. I went along and took quite a few photos pretty shocked to see just how low the pavement is - when there isn't inches of compact ice on it - before turning around and heading to the last attraction within Otaru; it's old bank.

Built in 1912, the bank has been turned into a museum which was free to enter. Not really in a 'museum mood', I entered anyway just to get a look at the d├ęcor. Once past an 80 year old security guard, I looked up at the magnificent roof; the main room of the building was so vast and yet, no central pillars were needed to support the roof. The roofs design was intriguing and, all-in-all, I spent longer gazing at the roof compared to looking at the exhibits about the history of Japan's money... much to the annoyance of the security guard.

Once outside I glanced at my watch and realised that I had been in Otaru way over two hours. I headed back to the train station leaving this 'European colonial looking outpost' behind me. I do hope to go to the Snow Festival again next year so, maybe, I'll be back here in six months. Once at the station a train was waiting for me and so I jumped on and headed all the way back to Sapporo. Being around midday, there was hardly anyone else on the thing.

Once back in Sapporo, my first port of call was to find something for lunch. I was in a 'foreign food' mood however … not another hamburger. I Headed out of Sapporo's train station and out into the city. This lasted all of ten minutes due to a sudden, but not unexpected, downpour. I found myself diving for Sapporo's underground walkway (which I used so much during the snow festival to avoid icy pavements). This became a blessing as, once in the underground walkway, I found a 'Subway sandwich' restaurant. Sadly, in Japan, you can't order a 12” sub therefore, I ate the 6” and had a packet of chips to go with it.

Once I'd consumed my sub I headed once more for open ground and was delighted to find that the rain had stopped. I therefore pushed onto Sapporo's central parks where I was amazed. Sapporo is a city designed on the American's useful – but bland – block system. In the centre of Sapporo lies ten 'blocks' (running east to west) all of which were parks and, it is these, that were used to hold the Snow festival. As I looked around I couldn't believe it; the amount of colour coming from the trees and flower beds were in stark contrast to the sheer white of the snow festival. I circled all ten parks trying to work out which snow sculpture went where. Businessmen and women were eating their lunch, on benches, whereas children were using the playground facilities which, I couldn't even remember being there back in February. Each 'block' had a unique feature and, usually, it was a fountain of some sort. These had probably been drained and removed for the snow festival so it was great to see them active. Once I had reached the final 'block' I stood there amazed. Way in the distance was a beautiful big 1900's European style building. In front of it was a rectangular shaped garden with an inner, and outer, oval. A small stream ran through the centre with a fountain in the middle. At both ends of the ovals lay a sculpture and, in between the ovals themselves, were hundreds of flowers. I spent my time walking around this park loving every second; my camera hasn't been so busy.

Once I'd photographed this park to death, it was time to move onto Hokkaido's old government building which too, was a 1900's European building. Just like the parks, I'd visited this building in February however, with all of the flowers and trees in full bloom, the government building looked more beautiful than I'd ever seen it. I stopped at a point where the building's garden was between me and the building itself. I then let my camera go allowing it to take in all of the colour.

The time was 2:30pm and I still had 'Sapporo's most famous tourist destination' to visit; or so my guidebook stated. Lucky, Sapporo's botanical gardens were only a five minute walk from where I currently was. I had been really looking forward to the botanical gardens because, out of very thing I've seen today, this was my first brand new destination due to the fact that, in winter, it's closed. The botanical gardens belong to the University and it did have a very 'educational' feel to it. First off all every plant, within it's vast grounds, was labelled in Japanese and in English. Secondly walking routes had been designed to allow visitors to see either everything, or a 'taster' in the form of a 'short path'. I was shocked to see that the short route took an estimated hour to complete whereas, the longer route pushed onto ninety minutes. Looking at my watch I was getting short on time. Being me I decided that I wanted to get my 'monies worth' therefore, I went for the longer route and picked up the pace.

At first I thought the timings were spot on. It had taken me ten minutes to get from point '1' to point '3' on the map however, this was due to a few greenhouses being placed in between (with quite a few rare plants inside). The cacti were interesting however, I really loved the carnivorous plants; inside that particular greenhouse the Venus fly-traps were strewn all over the place and, with no one there checking up on me, I could get really close and take so great photos. After this the gardens went down hill rapidly; so much so that I completed both the mini-walk, and the longer walk, in less than thirty minutes. I suppose the best way to sum up the gardens is that, if you know your stuff, it could be one of the most fascinating places to walk around. Like I said before, all of the plants were labelled and a lot of them were well organised in rows … but I wasn't a 'plant nut'. As long as the garden is beautiful, I don't really care what plants are in it! There was an interesting part where there were loads of plants in a 'grid format'; a board close-by told you which plant was used by the 'ancient people of this island' and for what reason however, most of the information wasn't in English. As I walked into the gardens final attraction - a museum about the ancient people of this island – I was wondering why my guidebook had given this place such a good write up. Sadly the museum followed suit and didn't hold my attention for long. The model house was pretty good but all of the clothes I'd seen already in Hakodate and, if I hear one more person describe ancient tribes as 'really advanced' one more time I am going to scream. Did they invent air-conditioning? Did they invent the coffee machine? No. Then how 'advanced' can they seriously have been.

With a bit of a 'cheesed off' look on my face, I left the botanical gardens thirty-five minutes after I'd entered (according to the leaflet, I should have been there for a minimum of 3 hours) and headed back to Sapporo's train station due to light rain falling once more.

I made it back to Sapporo's train station at 3:45pm … and hour earlier than I thought I would. I paused for a while wondering if I should go back into the city as this would be my only proper visit. In the end I decided against it; the clouds were darkening and I had seen what I wanted to see. To perk myself up, I found the same cake shop that was in Otaru and ordered a slice of cheesecake to take with me on the train. I went through the ticket gate and waited for my train to arrive, which didn't take long. Once sat down I ate my cheesecake and drank a bottle of water, which I'd also purchased. The cake was divine; it was so smooth and silky and yet, not too over powering … I loved it so much that I could have eaten another slice however, the train started to pull out of the station and into a total downpour of rain.

The train going back was packed; so much so that its usually very rare to see anyone standing up on this type of train and yet, one teenager was stood near to where her mother was sitting. She didn't need to stand as the last remaining unoccupied seat was next to me however, she declined. Other Japanese people had declined it to and this wasn't the first time (I smelt quite good today too). The typical Japanese person's fear of foreigners is not only stupid, but in my eyes can be seen as being quite rude. Still I had plenty of room and enjoyed the fact all the way back to Tomakomai.

I am now back in my hotel however, they have moved me to another room. Today, at 10:30am, I received a strange call from the hotel to which I just said 'yes' too. As it turned out that 'yes' meant that I had agreed to move rooms to one which has an internet connection. Bless the people in the hotel but yesterday, they must have seen me go down to reception, computer in hand, to use the internet as the signal wouldn't reach to my old room. While I was away they had moved everything of mine into this new room and had placed it carefully. They had also placed the wifi box within my room so that I could get an ace signal however …. it is different to the wifi system used downstairs therefore, it requires a different user name and password ... both of which I do not know. This puts me in the awkward position of being back downstairs using their internet when they think that I have a connection in my room. Still … bless them for trying.

Tomorrow, I am off to another national park and this time … I am going by car!

Toodle Pip!

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