Hokkaido: The Wild Wild North

Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island is a mere 5 hour ferry ride from the Russian island of Sakhalin which -perhaps surprisingly- makes Russia Japan’s closest neighbour. This location means that Hokkaido is effectively an extension of Siberia, with temperatures in the winter reaching as low as -20°c and snow that falls too quickly for ski resorts to accurately measure.

However, summer in Hokkaido is a different story. It seems the whole of Tokyo moves to escape the stifling humidity of the south for the ‘cool’ highs of 28°c in the north. We don’t blame them one bit. Exchanging the southern cities where we couldn’t walk around for five minutes without our eyelids sweating for somewhere which occasionally required an extra layer was nothing short of magical.

This northern Siberian island is Japan’s wild child. Unlike the main island of Honshu where you are never far from a town or city, Hokkaido is made up of masses of untamed forests packed with brown bears and surrounded by sulphurous volcanic craters. We originally only gave ourselves a few days to explore Hokkaido but within an hour of stepping off the train station in Sapporo, we knew this wouldn’t cut it. We made the impromptu decision to cancel our Fuji climb, rent a camper van and travel Hokkaido for an entire week. Best decision ever.

Sapporo

Our first stop was Sapporo, which quickly became our favourite Japanese city…and that had nothing to do with the beer festival that happened to be going on at the time. It had such a youthful vibe and its busyness lacked the corporate rush that seems to fuel other Japanese cities. Highlights included the Willy Wonka-esque Sapporo brewery and witnessing a skateboard practice, A Capella group jam, breakdancing session and a rap battle by the fountains in Odori park.


Lake Toya

Next we visited Lake Toya, and, after 5 weeks of rushing about Japan trying to cram in as much as possible, we spent two relaxed days camping on the shore, swimming in the purest water and getting rather sunburnt.

Noboribetsu 

The onsen town of Noboribetsu had been on our hit list ever since it featured in a BBC series about Japan (this is the second time I’ve mentioned this series, but seriously, it was amazing). It is a small town built in the midst of some serious volcanic activity. Jigoku-Dani, or ‘Hell Valley’ is the most notable area: a vast expanse of steaming craters, bubbling water and sulphur stained rocks. We visited a local onsen (Japanese bathouse) which uses the same volcanic water for people to soak in. Imagine the Prefect’s bathroom in Hogwarts but with more naked Japanese people, more eggy fumes and fewer ghosts.


Furano

We then visited the small town of Furano which, in the summer months hosts fields and fields of flowers planted in colourful strips. It seems here even the most humble farmhouse has at least a small patch of lavender or sunflowers in their front garden. Whilst in Furano we also stumbled across a beautiful mountain onsen, and bathed in this mixed gender (!!) pool. Even though algae got into places algae should never get into, it was one of our favourite onsen we’ve been to; our embarrassed averted gazes were met by pine trees and waterfalls (well, mine were at least, Jasper can see bugger all without his glasses).

Bear Mountain

Next was a trip to ‘Bear Mountain’. As mentioned, Hokkaido is home to a large number of brown bears. They are far more aggressive than their reclusive black cousins residing in Honshū, and Japanese hikers are encouraged to wear bear bells to scare them away. Bears are extraordinary creatures and we really wanted to see one, but in the wild? Maybe not. Bear Mountain is like a cross between Jurassic Park and a safari. 15 hectares of woodland surrounded by the heaviest duty fences you’ve ever seen is the home of 12 brown bears. A large bridges runs through part of the park so you can watch the bears without fear of having your face ripped to shreds. There is also an area where you can watch behind glass as they play in the water. Seeing them so close confirmed our feelings of apprehension of stumbling across one in the wild. I don’t think we fully appreciated just how big they are, and that one bat of their gigantic paw would certainly knock you out cold. It really is a conundrum how something so terrifying can be so adorable!

See where Bear Mountain ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!


Lake Akan

One last trip we took before heading excitedly back to Sapporo, was to Lake Akan in the east. Unfortunately is was more of a whistle stop tour as it was pissing it down and really cold (it was probably only like 22°c, but that feels sub-Arctic to us now). We visited ‘Suna yu’ a lakeside area where you can dig your own onsen! If you dig into the sand, hot water rises up and you’ve got your own foot spa.

Ainu Village

We then ‘hot-footed’ it to a nearby Ainu village. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido who have a rich culture and history, which is totally different from Japanese culture and is slowly being lost. The village showcased traditional arts, music and food of the Ainu people. In our opinion, a trip to Hokkaido isn’t complete without paying a visit to one of the (unfortunately) few Ainu villages still in operation. And try the frozen salmon sashimi- it’s delicious!

And that was our Hokkaido trip! It was one of our favourite weeks in Japan, and we are already dreaming of when we can make it back there. Everything about the island resonated with us: the people, the culture, the landscape, the food! Sayonara Hokkaido- but hopefully not for long!

Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park

Walking through Hiroshima is strange to say the least. In many ways, it is a city just like any other in Japan: its finger on the pulse of the modern and new, with trams ringing through the streets and children in their baseball kits heading to a local game. But unlike other Japanese cities, it is impossible to escape the cold shadow of its history. Every building is relatively modern and the roads are a thought-out grid system, a reminder of how little of Hiroshima was left standing after the A-Bomb was dropped on an August morning in 1945, and how much needed rebuilding.

The use of the atomic bomb is a controversial subject even today, with many considering it a war crime, and others arguing that by ending the war in the Pacific, it ultimately saved lives. The museum doesn’t go near this debate, and avoids getting into any of the politics of the war itself. It simply presents you with the facts.

The museum is split into sections: personal accounts, damage done to the buildings, the development of the bomb itself and the physical effects of radiation. There are some grizzly and truly sorrowful artefacts on display, including singed and shredded school uniforms, charred lunch boxes, watches stopped at the exact moment the bomb fell, and even the burnt skin of a child kept as a keepsake by a grieving mother.

After viewing the exhibition it is difficult to take much more in. Across the bridge from the museum stands the ‘Atomic Bomb Dome’, one of the only buildings that withstood the blast and remains untouched today. It was so close to the hypo-centre that everyone inside was incinerated, but because the blast came from almost directly above, the building’s walls were able to withstand the downward pressure and did not collapse. There are still signs of the immense heat given off by the bomb, as you can see metal girders that have been warped out of shape and glass that has melted.

We were really affected by this visit, and felt sadness right through to our bones. However, sat by the Atomic Dome looking over the river that runs past, you can’t help but feel faintly hopeful. Many thought that because of the radiation, nothing would ever grow in Hiroshima again. But the museum, the Dome, the city itself is overflowing with plants and flowers and trees. It has built itself up from rubble and despair to the vibrant city that stands today. As bittersweet as it may feel and especially in our current world where fear can often seem to trump hope, it is important to remember that cities can be rebuilt, people can thrive and flowers will grow again.

A Week in Kansai

After our work-away we were itching to explore more of Japan. We headed to an Airbnb in Osaka; our base for the week while we explored Japan’s beautiful Kansai region. We’ve had such a jam-packed week, we’ve not had time (or internet capabilities) to update the blog, so here’s a day-by-day run down of our Kansai exploration…

Sunday Night – Dotonbori


Dotonbori is a street in Osaka famous for delicious street food. And on an unrelated note, it is now one of our most favourite places in Japan. It’s like a Japanese Venice, built around a lantern-lit, jazz boat-infused canal, surrounded by buzzing neon lights. The streets are full of vendors selling Osaka’s regional dish, ‘takoyaki’ (fried octopus dumplings), which are to die for. It is worth going to Dotonbori just for them!

Monday – Kyoto

img_0019

One of the things on our Japan ‘to-do’ list was to take part in a Japanese cooking class, and Kyoto -home of the traditional- seemed like the perfect place. We were taught by a man called Taro in his home kitchen. He was hugely knowledgable and informative and as a result, we came away inspired….as well as finding out why our miso soup always tastes so bad. Perhaps the main event of the class however, was learning about and eating Kobe beef. There is a reason a steak will set you back £70, because it is the most delicious meat on the planet. Fact.

Tuesday – Universal Studios Japan

img_0627

So, we had no idea Japan even had a Univeral Studios Theme park, let alone that it was just 25mins from our base in Osaka. PLUS, in 2014 the park opened a Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is a big deal. It goes without saying that this was an awesome day, and it was worth queuing for an hour in 35 degree heat just to hear Hagrid dubbed in Japanese.

Wednesday – Nara and Kyoto (again)

img_0498

img_0580
Nara is mainly famous for two things: Its great bronze Diabutsu (Buddha statue), and the copious amounts of wild deer roaming the streets. For centuries, the deer have been considered sacred, which is why their numbers have blossomed, with a little help from friendly food-offering tourists. They are very tame…some would say too tame, as they will not hesitate to try and undo your backpack if they suspect it’s harbouring treats. In fact, they have become so accustomed to being fed by tourists that they have learnt to bow for their food!

(See where Nara’s deer ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!)

After this we headed back to Kyoto to see the famous Fushimi-Inari. As the beautiful red toriis (shrine gates) criss-cross up a 4km mountain hike, we chose to do this in the slightly cooler afternoon sun, and we were so glad we did! It was far less busy, and the sunset light scorched off the red gates.

Thursday – Kyoto (one last time)

img_0509

img_0499
There is too much to see in Kyoto! We certainly couldn’t leave without seeing the Arashiyama bamboo grove, which was every bit as stunning as the tour guide photos, although very very busy. After this, we headed to Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district, to take part in a traditional tea ceremony. It was a perfect way to experience the Japanese idea of ‘zen’, whilst enjoying a foamy cup of green tea!

Friday – Umeda

Friday was a bit of a chill day, spent trailing the many many shops in Umeda. We also visited the Umeda Sky Tower: 40 storeys high and considered one of the top 20 buildings in the world, the views were insane!

Saturday- Harie

img_0555

On Saturday we explored the small village of Harie which has gained recognition since appearing on a BBC documentary about Japan. Harie is special because of its amazing mountain spring water system. Homes throughout Harie have ‘kabatas’ which are private taps drilled straight into the spring underground. The above picture shows one villager’s kabata, complete with a tank for keeping vegetables cool, and a large pool filled with carp who help clean the dishes!

And that was a breif(ish) run down of our Kansai tour! Next stop: Hiroshima and Shikoku island.

Things we never knew about Tokyo

Words by Jasper

Despite geeking out and reading nearly every article on the internet about Tokyo, there were still a few things that took us by surprise upon our arrival. Here are a few of our favourites.

Incongruous Birdsong

Tokyo may be the biggest and most densely populated urban sprawl in the world, but it’s citizens still get the pleasure of hearing cuckoos and sparrows while sat waiting for their train. How you ask? PA systems! Rather than the cliched beep we associate with pedestrian crossings, this is replaced by a noticeably more avian tone. Similarly, birdsong is periodically blasted onto a train platform from a tinny speaker in an effort to make the morning commute slightly more quaint. And it works.

The Food Paradox

In Japan, walking while eating is a big faux pas. However Tokyo is a city filled with street food and vending machines at every corner. So, there must be plenty of areas designated for eating right? No, no there isn’t. So much food, so little opportunity to eat it. People were actually perching on the edges of flower beds or kerbs. Seriously, Joseph Heller couldn’t write this stuff.

Urine Luck

Most people who know Jo, know that she can’t go more than 20 mins without needing to pee. They say in London you’re never more than 20ft away from a rat. We reckon the same is true for toilets in Tokyo, so our fears of navigating our way to the nearest toilet in Japanese were unnecessary. Let’s hope this is the case throughout Japan!

Easy Rider

One look at a Tokyo map can give you double vision. At first glance it looks like somebody grabbed a load of London Tube maps and tried to make a public transport découpage. With this in mind we wrote off our entire first day to navigating across Tokyo to our first hostel. It took us 90 minutes. Turns out the Tokyo metro is pretty much the same as taking the tube (if the tube was air conditioned and had TV screens for adverts).

 

Tokyo is a place full of surprises- we will probably need to add to this list before we leave!

Harajuku 😸😸

Harajuku is a district of Tokyo famed for it’s other-planet fashion, teen culture and all things ‘Kawaii’! It was for this reason we wanted to visit, and we weren’t disappointed. The cult fame of Tokyo’s trendiest district has led to it becoming not only the Mecca of Japanese teen fashionistas, but a must-see spot for tourists (guilty!). Takeshita-dōri (the main shopping street in the district) is VERY busy. The high tourist volume can make it feel disappointingly like any other street in Tokyo, as you try to spot the crazy outfits the tourist guides promised, but persevere; the shops themselves are truly in their own ‘Harajuku’ world, and when you do see these fashionistas you will not be able to take your eyes off them.

Here’s a run down of our short but sweet visit to Harajuku’s Takeshita-dōri, and the experiences we would recommend…

1. Have a crêpe

Perhaps a lesser known fact about Harajuku is that there are A LOT of crêpe stands. This is becoming more recognised on travel blogs, some even referencing them as one of Tokyo’s must-try experiences. They are served rolled up like an ice cream cone with a multitude of fillings jam-packed inside. We recommend banana, chocolate and cream!

2. Get lost in the madness

At points you can’t help but feel like you’re on another planet. Half way down the street we went into what looked like a pretty conservative department store to use the loo. Inside there was a political party canvassing. Were they handing out leaflets? No. Were they making an impassioned speech? No of course not, this is Japan we’re talking about. They had hired a cheesy J-Pop boy band to sing to a group of maybe 20 teenage girls, of course. If only the UK’s ‘Stronger Together’ campaign had hired One Direction, Britain would be in a very different place right now. *Sigh*

3. Fashion spotting

Contrary to what Gwen Stafani has told us in the past, Harajuku is not home to just one ‘Harajuku girl’; There is a rich and vibrant range of styles on Takeshita-dōri. From ‘Lolita’ (a modern take on Victorian dress), to ‘Cosplay’ (dressing as cartoon characters), to ‘Decora’ (dressing head-to-toe in plastic toys and accessories). Wander around for long enough and you will be sure to spot them all!

img_0260-2

????

4. Read the slogans

It seems that the Japanese like to wear clothes with English slogans on purely for their aesthetic quality…they don’t have to make any sense. If you find terrible English as funny as we do, we highly recommend you read through some of the t-shirts being sold, it is eye-wateringly hilarious.

img_0258-1

5. Go Shopping

Of course! Every other shop here seems to emit a pink glow into the street. Inside the shops are rammed full of merchandise (including these massive key rings); if something isn’t pink, it’s fluffy, glittery or covered in anime characters. Even the air smells sweet from the candy and crêpes. It is girl heaven…and Jasper didn’t mind it too much either.

5 Weird Things You Can Buy in Tokyo

5-weird-things-you-can-buy-in-tokyo

We’ve been in Tokyo for about at week now, and our camera rolls are already jam-packed with photos, not only of our regular sightseeing trips, but also of some of the crazy things being sold in supermarkets, on stalls and even in sex shops. Here’s a run down our our favourite (so far)…

img_0265

1. Massive food key rings

We found these being sold on a stall in Harajuku, home of everything kitsch and cute. This picture doesn’t really do justice to the size of these, but, to give you an idea, the croissant is the size of an actual croissant. I genuinely can’t fathom why you would want a massive rubber baguette attached to your keys, but in Harajuku anything goes and, hey, it would be harder to lose them that’s for sure!

img_0246
2. Fake Eye Contacts

Also popular in Harajuku! Some young Japanese people like to wear these to make their irises appear larger, much like that of an anime character. It’s a pretty interesting and striking fashion choice; we certainly found ourselves doing double-takes when larger-than-life eyes glanced in our direction.

img_0156
3. This Giant Dried Squid

Kind of wished we bought this. Like, do you just eat it straight from the packet? No idea. More research is needed.

img_0122
4. A Prawn Travel Pillow

Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to get to sleep on a plane but your pillow doesn’t give you enough neck support? And, also, isn’t a prawn? We’ve all been there, but have no fear, Tokyo has the answers to all your seafood slumber sorrows!

img_0138
5. Cat Tail Butt Plug

Last but not least! We found this in a seven storey sex shop in Akihabara. The clientele were mostly giggly tourists and awkward looking locals. This was one of our favourite finds (there were many to choose from). I mean, we knew the Japanese like cats, but….this?!

Maid in Tokyo

‘Only in Japan!’ — We find ourselves saying this more and more as we explore Tokyo, but never has it been more relevant than when we were ushered into one of Akihabara’s Maid Cafes.
What is a maid cafe? I guess the closest western equivalent would be somewhere like Hooters; a place men (and in this case also tourists) go to ogle at women dressed in skimpy outfits…but that is where the comparison ends. As the name suggests, it’s a cafe where the waitresses are dressed as maids. But not the sexy fishnet-tights-wearing, bad-French-accent-adopting maids of western fantasies, no, these maids have an innocence about them which is quite difficult to describe. Basically, imagine a grown woman dressed in a child’s Hello Kitty costume, and speaking like they’ve inhaled a canister of helium, and you’ll sort of get the idea.

Cuteness is compulsory

 

After being ushered up a flight of stairs, we took our seats in a room decorated with clouds and next to a bunch of Japanese businessmen awkwardly drinking beer whilst wearing cat ears.

Bunny ears were placed on our heads and we were continuously invited to giggle and clap at everything our maid would say to us. Imagine if you were playing a game with a toddler. Kind of like that.

Jo is putting on a brave face because she wanted cat ears

Because of the popularity of maid cafes, both with tourists and local businessmen, you have to pay a ¥500 (£3.50) table charge for an hour. Although I would like to see how they get rid of you after your time is up. My guess is that they just tickle you until you leave.

We got an ice cream sundae, decorated to look like a cat, (of course) and were encouraged to put ‘magic’ on it, which consisted of making a heart shape with your hands and singing a little Japanese song. The cutesy-ness of it was never-ending.

Kawaii!!

If you can get over the weirdness of it all, a visit to a maid cafe is well worth it. It’s truly an experience you are unlikely to forget. But if you like your waitresses more on the sleezey side, maybe stick to hooters- these maids have class!

Cats Rule The Town: Reykjavik is the City of Cats.

Did you know that Reykjavik is the city of cats? Because we did not. Imagine then our delight when, within hours of arriving in the city, we saw cats everywhere. We saw cats on walls, rolling on the pavements, crossing the streets, hanging outside Hallgrímskirkja. Like, imagine a bunch of cats just lounging outside of St Paul’s cathedral or something, it just doesn’t really happen anywhere else. We were already falling in love with this otherworld city, and as self-acclaimed ‘cat people’, the constant feline presence tipped the scales from love, to full on infatuation and obsession.

Why are there so many cats though? After chatting to some locals, we discovered that the dog laws in Reykjavik are crazy strict. Until the 80s, it was illegal to own a dog in Reykjavik. Nowadays, you can get a dog, but owners must pay for a licence, get residential approval and adhere to rules about leashing, chipping and vaccinations. Cats, however, can be owned free of charge. With this in mind, it’s far easier for people to get their four-legged fix in feline form (try saying that when you’ve had too much Brennivín!).

But let me explain what’s SO charming about the cats in Reykjavik. These cats aren’t the dirty skinny strays of Rome or Istanbul, they are chubby, friendly, collared pets. And, let me tell you, there is something really surprising and whimsical about seeing peoples’ pets wandering around the streets like pedestrians. It is something that seemingly would only happen in Iceland, and really sums up the country well. For, only in a country so safe and welcoming would creatures known for their skittish, fickle and untrustworthy ways, happily wander the streets and let total strangers pet them.

So, if you are a cat lover, Reykjavik is the place for you! Be sure to wander the residential areas for maximum cat coverage and, if you are serious about seeing the cat population, we would recommend avoiding the depths of winter, as they tend to stay indoors more. And we don’t blame them!

.:. Jo & Jasper .:.