Sunday, July 31, 2016

2016 Japan Vacation, Day 9: Toya Lake and Onuma National Parks

Day 9 would be a day to explore a couple of Hokkaido's finest national parks.

We had slept in a Japanese-style tatami room. You cannot tell from the photo, but our room had a great view of Lake Toya.

After breakfast we walked outside to see the lake. It looked mysterious and beautiful as the island at the centre of the lake was shrouded with clouds.

We then took the Usuzan ropeway to the top of Mount Usu.

From the top, we had a nice view of Lake Toya, as well as the tall neighbouring mountain, Showa Shinzan.

From that point, we went on a hike to see Mount Usu's largest volcanic crater.

Here you can see steam emerging from the crater:

There were many steps to navigate, both up and down. Kai grumbled at times, especially as there were very few Pokémon up there. We didn't walk all the way to the end of the path as I figured we would have a very unhappy boy to deal with climbing the stairs on the way back.

My wife and I tried to enjoy the sights, here with beautiful hydrangea alongside the trail.

After we came down from the mountain, it was time to take a train to our next destination, Onuma National Park.

Onuma is the name of both the park as well as the largest lake there. After a quick lunch, we took a half hour boat ride to see Onuma Lake.

One of the interesting features of the lake are the hundreds of tiny islands that were formed from volcanic activity.

After the boat ride, my wife and I wanted to hike around to explore the park more. Somewhat surprisingly, Kai readily agreed. Apparently there was better cellular reception and more Pokémon at this park, plus Kai would be able to hatch a Pokémon egg by walking more so he was very motivated.

The trail we walked connected several of the small islands with bridges.

While we were walking, the sun came out for the first one since we were on Hokkaido.

When we completed the 2 mile hike, we treated ourselves to soft serve ice cream.

Hokkaido has interesting flavors of ice cream. As milk on the island is thought to be especially good, the vanilla ice cream is called Hokkaido Milk. Of course they have to have a flavor made with the renowned local melons. And another local favorite is found in Squid Ink ice cream.

Kai boldly went for Squid Ink while my wife and I each had melon. We were all happy with our choices.

After that we went to the hotel, relaxed for a little bit, and used the onsen bath before having dinner. We had a little issue with Kai being angry over limits with the iPad, but all in all we had a good day and we got to enjoy some of the natural beauty that Hokkaido is famous for.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

2016 Japan Vacation, Day 8 - Stuck in Sapporo, on to Toya

We had our first real hiccups with Kai on Day 8. Like many kids with autism, Kai loves to know what the plan is. That is why before each vacation, I meticulously make a PowerPoint deck that describes our daily schedule. But, in life, things happen, and when the schedule changes... well, let's say that Kai is not good at being flexible.

It had been cloudy and occasionally rainy ever since we got to Hokkaido. But on this day the rain became a steady downpour. Through the rain, my father-in-law drove two hours from Furano back to Sapporo where we returned our rental car. We would then take a train to Lake Toya.

But when we arrived at the train station, we found out that due to the heavy rain, our train had been cancelled. It would be hours before we would depart.

Kai was furious. The change in plans was difficult, but what made it even more so was because this was the day we would stay at a hotel that had a small waterpark. With the delay, we wouldn't reach the hotel until evening.

I explained to Kai that we could still have fun - there are places to see and Sapporo would have many Pokémon. But all he could think about was how his plans were ruined. His mom tried to assure him that we could still go to the waterpark as it is open late. He finally started to calm after we assured him that we would go to the waterpark first when we arrived at the hotel, and have dinner later.

And so we tried to make the most of our extra time in Sapporo. We walked around the downtown area and saw some of Odori Park.

And then we went to the Shiroi Koibito chocolate factory.

Kai was much happier now, especially as he was able to catch more Pokémon.

Before we went on the factory tour, we had lunch at the restaurant next door. The setting was nice but you'll notice no food on the table. We had to wait nearly an hour for our meal to be served.

We were happier when we finally were able to go on the tour and see the assembly line for their famous white chocolate cookies.

Of course we had to have some chocolates, though I was so excited about eating them that I forgot to take pictures.

After that, we went back to the train station and finally made our way to Lake Toya. We arrived at our hotel near 7PM and quickly went to the water park. Kai only wanted to do the few slides a few times, and spent more time in the wave pool. But he was very happy that we made it.

He was more grumpy later when we left the hotel to find a spot for dinner. He complained about the poor wifi at the hotel, and the poor cellular reception in this small town.

We found a yakitori restaurant for a late dinner.

Kai and I were dressed in our yakuta after using the ofuro (public bath) before dinner.

It was a long day, but ultimately we made the most of it. Still, I was hoping that the clouds would soon lift, both figuratively and literally.

2016 Japan Vacation, Day 7: Blue Pond, Lavender Flowers, and the Bellybutton Festival

When we decided to visit Hokkaido, I most looked forward to seeing the places we had on our schedule for this day.

It was a rainy morning as we rented a car and left Sapporo. We were headed to the town of Furano, but would make a couple of stops along the way. After a three hour drive, we arrived at our first destination, Aoi Ike, or Blue Pond. The rain paused as we walked over to see this sight.

We found a beautiful place where the water was indeed blue, due to the minerals from nearby hot springs.

From there, we headed by to Farm Tomita, home of one of Hokkaido's famed lavender farms.

We had lunch while looking at the lavender fields, then walked around to get a closer look.

The farm sells various lavendar souvenirs, but what Kai liked best was the lavendar soft serve ice cream.

We were lucky as the rain mostly abated while we were there.

It started to rain again just as we were finishing up at the lavender farm. As we drove away, I took the following photo that shows the surrounding mountains.

Our next destination was Ninguru Terasu, a unique shopping mall in Furano. The mall is in a beautiful outdoor wooded setting, and each shop is a small log cabin.

The other interesting thing about this place is that each shop sells handcrafted arts and crafts. This wooden figure of a man playing the piano is but one example.

From there, we went to our hotel in Furano and settled in before heading out to experience Heso Matsuri.

Heso means bellybutton, and matsuri means summer festival, so the Heso Matsuri translates to summer bellybutton festival. When my wife told me about this festival, we knew that we would have to schedule our vacation around this festival to make sure that we would be here at this time.

In some ways, this festival is like any other with food tents and carnival games. Here we are finding shelter from the rain and eating dinner - yakitori (grilled chicken), yakisoba (fried noodles), and edamame.

But the highlight of the festival is the parade where everyone dresses up as the following character:

The twist is, the face of the character is drawn on each marcher's belly, while their actual face is hidden by a large hat. The result is very amusing:

It was very fun to see each unique "face".

And in the parade, the participants don't just walk, they dance to music with specific steps so that that everyone dances in unison.

We saw kids and adults, men and women. (Most of the women drew their faces on t-shirts rather than their belly.)

Here are just a few sample photos from the parade.

There were hundreds of marchers, and the rain paused long enough for us to see most of them go by before it really started to rain hard. Even then, most of the spectators stayed to watch.

Here's a photo of my wife and Kai with a statue of the festival symbol.

Photos cannot do this justice. You'll have to take my word that this festival was charming, fun, and definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and I was very glad we planned our trip around it.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

2016 Japan Vacation, Day 6 - Sapporo

A big highlight of our Wednesday happened right at the start of the day. We went down to have breakfast at our hotel and saw that it was an all-you-can-eat buffet with the most amazing Japanese and Western food.

Here you can see Kai checking out the table that had all the fixins to make your own chirashi sushi and including salmon, shrimp, and ikura (salmon eggs), among other things.

There were many other Japanese dishes as well.

Here a chef is grilling and slicing up steak.

I had a variety of Japanese food, as did my wife.

My mother-in-law had two full trays of food, one with Japanese dishes and one Western.

After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and went to the train station. We were on our way from Hakodate to Sapporo. Here is a view from the train.

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and its largest city, and is the fifth largest in Japan. It is famous for ramen and so we went straight from the train station to the Ramen Republic. Located on the top floor of a department store, it has about ten different small ramen shops. We selected the one with the shortest line.

Though that might not be the best way to select a restaurant, we were happy with our choice. My ramen is the one upfront in the following photo. It had lots of char siu (pork) and was very tasty!

After lunch we went to Sapporo's Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium. Sapporo was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, and the Japanese ski jump team brought the host country its greatest glory, sweeping gold, silver, and bronze medals in the 70 meter jump.

No, the following photo is not of the Olympic champions.

We took the chair lift to the top of the jump area. This is the view the ski jumpers see as they begin their descent.

One of the observation areas was indoors, but Kai and I climbed up to the top area to see the view from outside. With the steady rain, we took a quick photo and went back down to the indoor area.

From the top and the lift, we had a great view of the city.

Afterward we visited the sports museum. They had exhibits on the Olympics, and had some sports simulation activities like this one for ski jumping.

Mom actually did the best in the ski jumping.

We also tried one for bobsledding.

After the sports museum, we went back to the hotel. Most hotels in Japan do not have swimming pools, but this one did, and so on a rainy afternoon, we made good use of the indoor pool.

For dinner, we wanted to try another Sapporo specialty, jin gi su kan, grilled mutton (lamb). We found out that most of these restaurants do not have tables. They are very small and you sit at a counter. Our party of five took up more than a third of the 14 stools.

Charcoal grills are situated right behind the counter and you cook your own food.

Japan seems to have a lot of cook-your-own food restaurants.

We enjoyed the dinner quite a bit, and I liked the authentic atmosphere.

After dinner, we discovered that it had stopped raining so we walked around a little bit. We were in the part of town that had a lot of nightlife.

Rain aside, it was another fun day in Japan.

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