Spring has well and truly arrived here in Hiroshima, but Hokkaido, where I was a few days ago, is still firmly entrenched in winter.
I started off by flying to Hakodate, the southernmost city of note in Japan‘s most northern island. I say city, but ‘deserted village‘ might be a better appellation for this historic settlement.The alleged population of 250,000 were nowhere to be seen, and few dwellings were lit of an eve.
At once I was struck by how Hokkaido is indeed different from the rest of Japan: let’s face it, it’s just Russia with all the Slavs replaced by Japanese and the odd convenience store scattered here and there.
It was also bloody freezing with biting Siberian wind and snow flurries as I wandered among quaint-looking European-style buildings dotted around the thin strip of land sandwiched between two bays which constitutes Hakodate. There was even a Russian Orthodox church complete with real Russian priest…
The high point of my stay in this town, both literally and figuratively, was undoubtly waiting for sunset upon Mt.Hakodate with masses of noisy Chinese tourists. I ventured off away from the hordes for some solitude, but was rewarded only by a fall into a snowbank from which extrication was difficult. The view of the ‘city’ was indeed a splendid one:
Next stop: the prefectural capital of Hokkaido, Sapporo. Now that’s more like it, a place with enough souls to support numerous iterations of Starbucks and electric guitar emporiums, all your humble narrator needs on days when the weather is so inclement that venturing outside is hazardous in the extreme. On one occasion, I left the hotel, crossed the black ice encrusted road in the face of heavy snow, went into a nearby Lawsons convenience store and bought an umbrella. Not thirty seconds had passed after leaving the shop and the aforementioned parasol was sailing skyward, bent beyond all recognition, much to my great chagrin.
I was also shocked to see this fellow wandering down the streets:
When the sun did deign to shine again, I headed out on the train to nearby port town Otaru, a pleasant little haven full of warehouses, canals and old banks, which shouldn’t be interesting, but somehow is. It was bloody freezing again, too. I was forced into a clothes store to purchase a thick woolly hat to afford my noggin greater protection than the customary Nike baseball cap I tote. Alas, a sudden glance in the reflective window of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet revealed that I did in fact, look like a complete twat in my new headgear, and so it was unceremoniously binned. Like the young Japanese crumpet who risk their very health by going short-skirted and bare-legged in snowy Hokkaido climes, I too chose fashion over functionality and survived to tell the tale.
Heading further north still, I relocated to the city of Asahikawa, which holds the dubious distinction of being the coldest place in Japan. First up, I bought me a burgundy neck-warmer, such was the chill that was upon me, for it was around -5ºC during the daytime, and the nightime, well, these Japanese hotels are like ovens, so there was no problem there as I lay naked and uncovered in my cot, neighbours on either side apparently having cranked their heaters up to about 30ºC.
First stop, the magnificent Asahiyama Zoo, the best in these isles, where I spent a very pleasant day amid the arctic critters such as this geezer:
Finally I ventured out into the wilds. The nearby town of Biei is famous for its flower fields, but this is of course meaningless for idiots who go there out of season and without their own transport. I manfully set off on foot from the station and got a few clicks out before the weather became so intolerably cold that I was forced to return, but not before this amazing shot had been captured. Note the richly-featured landscape:
Well, there we have it. Was it a good idea to travel up north so early in the year? Yes! Was the Lonely Planet guidebook for Japan still utterly shite and useless? Yes!
The full photo set will be appearing on www.ardle.net soon…