Saturday, 1 August 2015

Trains, Hakodate and fireworks

Date: Saturday 1st August 2015

Weather: Really hot in Sendai but, thankfully, getting cooler as I headed north. (I was actually cold in Hakodate!)

MP3 track of the day: Thomas the Tank Engine

Throughout the night I tossed and turned waking up periodically due to the heat, but also due to worry and excitement. The excitement is, of course, easy to explain; today I was starting my 'sixteen day tour' of Hokkaido. Due to moving cities in March, and going home over the 2014 Christmas break, it has been a year since I can honestly say that I have been travelling. This time last year I was off to Central Honshu and memories of that initial car journey came flooding back. Due to moving jobs in March, I had to surrender my car as my new schools are within walking distance and, it is this lack of private transport which was the cause of my worry. What if I over-slept? What is I missed a train? Really there was no need to worry; I was such a bag of mixed emotions that I finally decided to give up on trying to sleep way before my alarm went off. Due to being completely prepared for 'the off', my morning jobs were limited to eating what was left in my cupboard (a small cake) and drinking what was left in my fridge before unplugging it and every other electrical appliance.

Due to waking up early I found myself walking to my local train station earlier than expected. This was the first time I had put my back-pack on since my trip to Okinawa in the winter of 2013. It was heavy, but not too heavy. The rucksack – which I had put on my front through my 'year of travel' and beyond - has sadly ripped meaning that a new bag has taken it's place. It did the job well, but it wasn't the same.

Now, I could explain what happened next however, it would take pages and pages to explain and would be rather boring. All you need to know is that my ticket to Hokkaido started at 'Tagajo Station' however, my local train station was 'Geba'; a stop before Tagajo. This meant that my first train journey of the day was only one stop. I got off the train at Tagajo, went through the ticket gates – using my 'local commuter card' – did a U-turn and used my 'train ticket to Hokkaido' to get back through the ticket gates. Trains ran every 6 or 7 minutes so I didn't have to wait long before I was on my way again.

I arrived in Sendai with enough time to grab breakfast. Though not particularly healthy, the three doughnuts I'd purchased did do the job. Once eaten I still had plenty of time until my train was due to depart Sendai however, with nothing left for me to do, I decided to head to the platform and wait there. I managed to read the first chapter of my new book (Girl with the Dragon Tatoo) before my Shinkansen train arrived. All was going swimmingly; my train had arrived on time and life was good. For this journey I had a window seat therefore, before being able to sit down, I had to squeeze myself past a girl who seemed incapable of sitting still without either applying make-up or playing on her phone.

The train left the station and I relaxed. I kept the blind open and watched Japan go by. Though the Shinkansen is designed for speed (hence lots of tunnels to make the tracks as straight as possible) I did manage to see Japan's rice crop in full bloom. It was beautiful; the green was so bright and luckily there was a light breeze which made continual waves in the fields. It was certainly more beautiful than the stuff the girl next to me was plastering on her face.

As the train approached Aomori I got ready. You see, the under-water tunnel connecting the main island of Honshu to the island of Hokkaido was not wide enough for Shinkansen trains. This meant that I would have to change trains and, from previous experience, it also meant changing train stations. With twenty-two minutes until my train to Hakodate left I shot out of the Shinkansen, through the ticket-barrier and asked the first member of staff I could find, where I needed to go. As it turned out, the train I needed for Hakodate departed from the station I found myself at. I therefore slowed down, found the correct platform and waited for my train.

Due to booking early, I found myself at the front of the train in a tiny carriage with only 15 other seats however, that didn't stop me from travelling with a few idiots. The first were a pair of women talking loud enough so that everyone could, if they wanted to, join in. The second was an old man who, sadly, was sat next to me. Due to this part of my journey mainly being in an under-water tunnel, I knew that 'views out of the window' would be limited. I therefore got out my PC and worked on this blog. Even though I kept the noise of my typing to an impressively low level he was still annoyed though, it was perfectly okay for me to listen to him clearing his throat every ten minutes. Once I had written as much as I could I sat back and read my book … much to my companions relief.

It didn't take as long as I thought it would to travel through the 'under-water tunnel'. Soon day light filled the carriage and once my eyes had adjusted, I peered out of the window. The main reason I had travelled to Hokkaido was for the terrain and, although the majority of my journey went through dense forest pressed right up to the track, here and there the trees gave way to reveal tantalising glimpses of forested mountains with beautiful rivers flowing at their feet. This continued until the train made it to Hokkaido's south-western shoreline. We hugged the coastline all the way into Hakodate.

I was pleased to find that, though Hakodate was hot, it was not as hot – and no way near as humid – as further south. Luckily for me 'Soul Garden' – my traditional Japanese hotel with a Korean restaurant … go figure – was located within a five minute walk of the train station. Once a lovely lady had checked me in I went up to my room which consists of a normal bed placed on top of a tatami floor. The tatami had a very strong smell which, as long as you stayed in the room and didn't keep going out, began to fade into the distance after 10 minutes or so. I was starving and so after sorting my stuff out I left my hotel in search of my first attraction.

'Lucky Pierrot' is a hamburger restaurant which is only located within Hakodate. There are only three restaurants scattered within the city centre and luckily one was near my hotel. Two of my friends had told me to visit this eatery because, in their opinion, it was one of the best hamburger restaurants in Japan (which isn't saying a lot). Unfortunately, it would also appear that the same message had been passed onto the whole of Japan's population, given the size of the queue. I ordered the standard 'set menu' and took a seat within the small 'sit down area' gazing at all of the 1950's copied art randomly stuck to the walls and celling. I had ordered a hamburger, some chips and an olong iced-tea (came with the set menu). I was really hungry and, looking at the photo, I knew that the burger wouldn't fill me up but it mattered not; the time was 3:00pm and I just needed something to keep me going for four hours or so.

You know normally when you see a photo of a food product – either on a restaurant menu or on a packet – the item usually looks a lot larger than it is in real life. This was the opposite. My huge burger arrived with fresh vegetables within a decent sized bun. My chips were served in a mug, with melted cheese and meat sauce poured all over them. At first I ate my meal quickly due to how hungry I felt however, it wasn't long before the pace was slowing.

Eventually I finished my meal. Sitting back I would have to agree that this hamburger was the best I'd eaten in Japan. I would go on to say that it is actually the second best hamburger I've eaten in the world (doesn't beat the 'Furgburger' from New Zealand, Queenstown). It was delicious and so filling. As I waddled out of the store I decided that I would head back tomorrow to try the lamb burger.

The time was 3:30pm and it was starting to get really cool. Though my body still felt as though it was on a train (and therefore I wasn't feeling 100%) I was in a 'sightseeing' mood so I therefore headed into town and, due to being sick of trains, I forgo the tram and opted to walk.

Like Kanazawa, Hakodate seems to have a bit of life around it's train station; and then there is a desolate wasteland until you get to another area of life (in Hakodate's case; the harbour). My first impression of Hakodate had been fantastic but now, it was starting to waver. I pushed onwards hoping to find some salvation.

As I approached the harbour the buildings started to become very European indeed. Hakodate was the first port open to foreign traders after Commodore Perry had blasted his way into Tokyo. As a result there are a mixture of different buildings from many different cultures and countries. American, British and Russian buildings were easily identified. Amongst the Catholic and Shinto places of worship there was a Greek Orthodox church which looked very fine indeed. These buildings were located in a commanding position over-looking the harbour-front perched on the slops of mount Hakodate. This area has been dubbed the 'San Francisco' of Japan, due to the steep cobbled roads leading from the harbour up this mountainside to these European buildings. I decided to proceed, as far as possible, along a road which circled part of the mountain until it hit the water. I then headed down the mountain and back-tracked along the harbour front. Again it would appear that, if you slip just a little bit out of the main tourist areas, the town of Hakodate got very shabby indeed.

I made my way along the waters edge back towards my hotel. As I got further and further into the main tourist area the number of people – a large majority were Chinese – started to increase. Most people had paced ground sheets on the footpath along the main road. Having lived in Japan for well over 3 years, this could only mean one thing; festival time. I asked a policeman when the festival started and it turned out that it wasn't for another couple of hours. This gave me enough time to walk back to my hotel, via the harbour front, take in some more old 19th Century stone buildings and have a drink. I also followed the crowds to where it looked as though some events were taking place however, once I discovered that these 'events' were a long row of over-priced festival food I left and went back to my hotel.

Once back at my hotel I was met by the lovely receptionist who I'd met earlier today. She explained to me that a fireworks festival was happening tonight and that you could get a great view from just behind the hotel. Now, Hakodate has a mountain which over-looks the city; it has a cable-car too and it is open until 10pm. I told her my plan of heading up the mountain to get a commanding view of the fireworks however, she advised against it. She said that, from where the fireworks were being lit, it was just too far away. I thanked her for her advice and decided that I would hit the mountain tomorrow. I went up to my room to relax for an hour or so.

At 7pm it was time to leave my hotel and hit the streets once more. Due to all of today's travelling, I was starting to get tired. Tired or not, after stopping for a quick 'pick-me-up' drink, I headed down to the harbour-front to await the night and the firework festival. I arrived at least 45 minutes before the festival was due to start and yet, most of the decent places had been taken by people who looked as though they had brought enough equipment for a team of 10 to attempt a climb to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately for them, the weather turned nasty just before the festival was due to start; the wind picked up and a slight bit of rain started to fall. This created a moment of 'rapid redeployment' where hundreds of people – including I – sort any cover we could find which, in my case, was to stand under a fly-over which was only a few 100 yards away from my original position. Most people did the same as I with only the hard core 'battling against the elements'.

The rain stopped, which allowed everyone to take their original positions ... before it started up again with more ferocity. The strange thing is that, when the firework festival finally started, it would appear that the weather was also keen to watch it due to the fact that the wind died away and so too did the rain. I can't tell you exactly when the festival started as, unbeknown to me, the site where I thought the fireworks were going to go off from was incorrect. The actual site was 500 yards to my left which, inconveniently, was right behind a ferry. This was fine for the rockets as they exploded high in the sky however, anything closer to the ground was obscured from view. After the first salvo had finished I redeployed myself to get an unhindered view.

The fireworks were fantastic. Usually firework displays end with a huge barrage of light leaving the crowds staggered. The problem was that, this display had so many huge barrages that there were many occasions when I thought that the festival was over … only for it to start again. At some points, images were created using the fireworks. The crowds 'arrrred' in wonder as cats, hearts and flowers filled the nights sky. I was amazed too, and I often found myself clapping with the other people (still not sure why we were clapping at a firework). When the end finally came it was an incredible barrage of light. Fireworks do highlight just how much faster light travels compared to sound; upon seeing the firework, I was able to assess how loud the bang would be before hearing it.

With the firework display over it was time to head back to the hotel. I stopped for some snacks and made my way into my hotel's entrance to sit and write this blog.

So today has been a crazy start; pretty action-packed. I am hoping that tomorrow is a little quieter.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. I know that my 'one otter around the world blog' has been read by people from all over the world (therefore world famous) however, the council of Hakodate didn't have to put on a firework display for my arrival … touching though.

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