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My first Niigata…

I read that Murakami was an old castle town famous for onsen and salmon, so i decided to make a stop there.  It sounds like there are some historical sites to see, so perhaps one could spend the day there.  But my train schedule gave me either 1 or 3 hours, and first priority was ONSEN.

I left the station, stood around a few minutes getting my bearings and looking at whatever map signs were available out front, and finally got in a taxi and told the driver I wanted to go to an onsen.

"Which onsen?"

"Any onsen is fine."

He asked me a few questions about my bathing and lodging plans, and added “an ocean view would be nice, too.”  When we arrived at one of the onsen hotels, he ran in and confirmed that the baths were open and gave me his company card before leaving.

I indeed had an ocean view, and the bath to myself:

It was too wonderful to rush through and try to get back to the station in an hour, although I probably could have done it.  So after taking a bath, i bought a jar of milk, drank it, and then took another bath.  

The hotel cafe was closed, so i took a walk to see if there was anything else available.  There was food being sold down on the beach, but I wasn’t in the mood for that type (yakisoba, hot dogs, etc.) so i just walked around a bit.  There were woods and hiking trails near the beach, so I walked a little in there before heading back to the onsen hotel and requesting a cab.  

In hindsight, beach, hiking, THEN bath would have been the ideal order!

My return taxi driver was unfortunately not the same helpful driver i’d had on the way, and for some reason the fare was a few dollars higher.  Back at the station, i set out to find lunch.  I’m attracted to places with “coffee” written in kanji (珈琲).  I ended up at a little cafe with the Olympics on TV and a lot of books about Judaism in Japan.  The proprietor spoke good English.  I ordered the salmon lunch set - probably not Murakami’s own famous salmon, but at least i ate salmon in a town famous for it.

After lunch and iced 珈琲, I boarded the train and continued down the coast.

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Itinerary: I visited Fukuoka-ken twice in August 2012.  I went to Mojiko (Moji Port) in Kita-Kyushu as an afternoon outing while staying in Yamaguchi, and later stayed two nights in Hakata (Fukuoka City).  

Weather: So very hot.  We got caught in a downpour in Hakata…. we used it as an excuse to stop for coffee and dessert.

The sights: Mojiko Retro is a little port town with interesting old buildings that reflect past foreign influence in the area.  Because i didn’t really know where we were going and we had limited time, I don’t think I enjoyed the visit as much as I might enjoy a second one.  In one building there’s a customs inspection display that’s free to see.  There’s a music box museum (we just looked in the gift shop, but that was fun too), some cute cafes and zakka shops, a picturesque bridge, and something about a boat and scenes from the past that we didn’t have time to see.  I gather it’s also famous for being the place where people tried to sell bananas by hitting a table?

Mojiko

There might be some things to see in Hakata, but the heat sapped us of the energy necessary to get to them and we spent most of our two days at the malls of Canal City, Solaria, and Tenjin Underground.  The wide variety of clothes in my size at stores like H&M was a nice treat!

The food: The souvenir shops of Mojiko features lots of seafood and banana-flavored treats, but we had dinner at a brewery.  The food was fine (we had pizza and salad and german potatoes).  The beer was really good!

Hakata is famous for yatai - street food stalls that pop up in the evening.  Somewhat to my disappointment, we didn’t make it to any yatai (my friend had just climbed Mt. Fuji and was a little less genki than she usually is).  But we did try Hakata Ramen (good?  I’m really not enough of a ramen eater to notice the local variations much) and had a nice izakaya night trying another local specialty, Motsunabe.  

For Hakata omiyage, I bought mentaiko shrimp senbei.  

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Although i still haven’t updated this blog with notes from all of the prefectures i visited before this year, I had a very productive summer vacation… And now i’m really behind!

In August i left Aomori for almost two weeks… but it was more like three trips in one. The first was a solo trip via local train along the coast of the Sea of Japan.  The next segment was a West Japan family road trip during the O-bon holiday.  The last stretch was a tour of Kyushu (Hakata and Nagasaki cities, at least) with a friend.

The originally planned trip was to ride along with my friend’s family on their trip to a relative’s house for O-bon, but first i had to get to Mie.  I considered going by plane or shinkansen (expensive) or night bus (exhausting), before finally deciding to buy the Seishun 18 Kippu and go by local trains over a period of several days.  It’s not dramatically cheaper - factoring in the cost of food and hotels and other treats, i’m sure it ended up being rather more expensive.  But since I had the time, I decided I’d much rather spend the money seeing parts of Japan I haven’t yet seen than simply getting from point A to point B.  

I read some mixed/negative experiences of others who had traveled this way, so i was a little worried it’d be really tiring or horribly boring or i’d have to stand up on a lot of crowded local trains with my luggage and spend a lot of time waiting for connecting trains at “stations” in the middle of nowhere without even a convenience store for comfort.  However, I had an amazing time!  I think i owe my positive experience to the following factors:

  1. Lots of careful route planning with the help of hyperdia and research into where to stop and what to do there. This (mostly) prevented long waits, confusing connections, and unplanned overnight stays in rice fields. Although i like the idea of just riding the train until you find some place that appeals to you and exploring whatever is there, would that be fun in reality? Maybe for the kinds of travelers who carry a sleeping bag and are prepared to use it, it would be amazing.  But maybe not for me. 
  2. Hotel reservations!  I knew i had a bed (or a futon) waiting for me every night, and i gave myself enough room in my schedule to get there even if i missed a train.  Every day I had a shower and a good night’s sleep to refresh me before the next day of trains.
  3. Audiobooks.  With a good selection of books to listen to on my iPod, i never got bored.  It also helped that my travel was mostly broken into 2-3 hour segments (either by my planning or JR’s) before another tea/meal/sightseeing break.  
  4. Helpful JR attendants… Despite my planning, i did have a few moments of panic and uncertainty, and the conductors and station staff always pointed me in the right direction when I asked.  

Here is my general route: 

  • Day 1: Aomori-Kawabe-Fukaura (recommended!!)-Higashinoshiro (nothing there)-Akita.
  • Day 2: Akita-Murakami (onsen and ocean)-Niigata-Takada.
  • Day 3: Takada-Kanzawa.
  • Day 4: Kanazawa-Takefu (washi no sato)-Hikone-Otsu.
  • Day 5: Otsu-Kobe-Osaka (and then on to Mie via a private rail company)

I could have gotten some more miles out of this railpass, but some unconfirmed plans and the hotel situation during O-bon limited my options towards the end of the trip.  My biggest disappointment about traveling on the Seishun 18 ticket?  Five days on trains, and I did not eat a single eki-ben!

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Itinerary: Lake Towada Winter Stories Snow and Light Fantavista.  One night in Akita. 

Weather: Appropriately snowy.

The sights:  The festival (i think) is technically in Aomori, but we walked across the prefectural border to our inn in Akita.  (We actually didn’t know our inn was in Akita till we got there…)  So mostly we just saw snow, snow-covered evergreens, and the inside of our inn.  The festival, being a Snow and Light Fantavista, glowed with blue fairy lights, sparkling snow, hot spiced wine and fireworks.

The food:  

Beer from the vending machine after a hot bath

A nice warm winter barbeque…

Of course famous Akita komachi rice!

And cassis ice for dessert:

We also enjoyed the ice bar at the festival!!

The people: The ryokan staff were gracious and lovely.  The festival-goers (wherever they were from) were delightfully enthusiastic about the fireworks.  It was a wonderful winter weekend.  Next time, i hope to venture a little further than five minute’s walk into  Akita.  

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Itinerary: 5 days Hitori Tabi!!!  August 2011.

I took the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate and spent the day sightseeing there.  Then i rode a night bus to Sapporo and spent the early morning at “SAFRO” spa (recommended) before taking a train to Furano.  I stayed two nights at an inn in Furano (nice bath), then another night at a hotel (nice onsen) back in Sapporo.  After spending my last day in Sapporo shopping and eating, i took the Hamanasu sleeper train back to Aomori.  I splurged on the expensive ticket.  I LOVED it even though i didn’t sleep well at all!  It was a bumpy ride, but i was comfortable and happy.  I love sleeper trains.

Weather: It rained in Hakodate which dampened my enjoyment a bit, and my first day in Furano.  After that it was beautiful.

The sights:

Hakodate - my favorite was the Russian church and the inside of the Catholic church (although it smelled weird).  The old warehouse area was so crowded… I’m glad i took the thingy up to Mt. Hakodate, but it is just a view.  The ride up and down was the most exciting part.  I sadly forgot to go to the morning market.  I happened across the oldest concrete telephone pole in Japan.  Loved the churches though and some nice people i met at an “asian” bar in the festive little alley of tiny bars near the station.  

Furano - Farm Tomita was my favorite, although crowded.  Ningle Terrace was cute but it was rainy and i was not in a shopping mood.  It was fun to try and buy cheese and wine at the cheese factory and wine factory, respectively, but there’s nothing much interesting to see there.  I went to the onsen at Highland Furano and it was all right but that place in general seems a bit run down.  The best memory was hanging out with the railroad workers on their lunch break at the little country train station one stop over from Furano.

Sapporo - I really didn’t sightsee; i just ate and shopped.  I loved it.

The food: It’s Hokkaido - of course everything was delicious.  I ate ikura and uni donburi in Hakodate, and like three different desserts - one at Snaffles pastry shop, one at a cute shaved ice cafe, and i couldn’t resist Starbucks (there’s only one in Aomori).  In Furano i drank a lot of delicious milk from glass bottles, and wonderful cheese, and lavender wine and lavender pudding and lavender ice cream, and great curry at Tomita with vegetables that seemed fresh and like whole vegetables.  You could buy grilled corn and fresh melon and so many delicious things.  I got Tomita melon melonpan and lavender coffee, too!  I was going to buy some lavender coffee to take home but i was too tired to go back to the store.  I did order several bottles of Furano wine though.  On my last day in town i had a big breakfast at the inn (just a normal Japanese breakfast; good but i don’t remember what it was) and then mostly lived on glass bottles of milk from the vending machine at the onsen.  I was starving when i got to Sapporo so immediately went to a rotating sushi bar near the station and ate like a pig, and it was sooo delicious.  I bought a wonderful chocolate cake (from a branch of Snaffles, if i remember correctly) and a chu-hi and relaxed at the hotel.  The next day i ate soup curry for lunch, Milkissimo gelato while shopping, and Sapporo ramen for dinner before my sleeper train.  I wasn’t interested in “genghis khan,” but i did get lamb with my soup curry.  Unfortunately, i don’t think i drank any beer in Sapporo.  Beer seems social.  But next time i definitely will.

Please go to Hokkaido and eat!!  (Please come to Aomori and eat too!!  It is just as delicious but a little less cosmopolitan.)

The people: In every city i visited i made friends, which is not at all a thing i do.  One of them may have been a little crazy, but the rest were delightful.  

So in conclusion, the highlights of my 5 days hitori tabi to Hokkaido: ferry ride (not really fun, but i still like the idea), Russian church, alllll of the delicious foods, onsens, the inaka train station adventure, shopping in Sapporo, and the Hamanasu train home.  

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Itinerary: One night at an onsen hotel - bath, drink, eat, bath, drink, sleep, bath eat.  

Weather: It was late March, a few weeks after the big earthquake.  There was still snow on the ground.  I kept wondering if the bath was radioactive but still had a nice time.

The sights: Pine trees and mountains.

The food:  Dinner at the hotel was sukiyaki.  I enjoyed it very much.  

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Kuroishi, Aomori.  I ate in this very ramen shop.