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Kat Sep 5th, 2002 07:14 PM

Tokyo / Hokkaido trip report
 
We just came back from Japan, spending 4 nights in Tokyo, 3 in Sapporo and 2 in Sounkyo (& Biei, Furano). I'm cutting my trip report into chunks.<BR><BR>DAY 1 : Shinjuku<BR><BR>Flight arrived at Narita Airport. So we’re in Tokyo finally! The hotel limousine ticket counter is just right outside the baggage claim area. Got two tickets for the Keio Plaza Inter-continental Hotel for 3000 yen each. Our shuttle is to take off at 4:35pm. Being the cautious type, we went lining up at the bus-stop (right outside) at 4pm. The conductor was taking people’s bags, tagging them and lining them up. It’s our turn but the conductor wouldn’t take our bags. He said something we couldn’t make out and signaled us to wait in line. The shuttle came, and it’s heading towards Shinjuku alright. Oh now I see, our hotel wasn’t listed – they have at least 3 buses going to Shinjuku, each for a different set of hotels! There’s about a bus every 5 minutes, so this time we waited until the electric panel next to the bus-stop displayed the time of our ride.<BR><BR>We’ve been warned the trip to Shinjuku would take up to 2 hours in rush hours. And it’s rush hours alright. But it’s actually kinda fun to watch rush hour traffic when you’re not heading home! At 6:30pm we finally made it to our hotel. It’s a big hotel and quite well-maintained, but you could still feel a bit of its age. We were given a room on the executive floor – an upgrade I think. Our room was quite big (especially by Tokyo standard) and faces the direction of the Shinjuku station. Not bad of a view!<BR><BR>We wasted no time and spent the evening in and around Shinjuku station – there’s a lot of department stores inside the station, but they all close at 7:30pm or so. The station was very clean and we both felt very safe. Went into Lumine (a department store – but you could very well go into any other) and went to their 6th floor which is their restaurant floor. Casually picked a Japanese restaurant and went in for their set dinners. He had congee with eel and I had grilled red snapper set. The highlight was a little dish we ordered called grilled eel bones. Crispy and tasty! The bill was 3000 yen.<BR><BR>It was already 9pm and there were still a lot of people just getting off from work.<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 07:19 PM

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Kat Sep 5th, 2002 07:20 PM

DAY 2 : Tsukiji, Imperial Palace, Ginza<BR><BR>We got up "relatively" early this morning at 9am and headed towards the Tsukiji fish market. There were still some little trolleys running around but of course all the buying and selling were long gone. Nonetheless the little streets around the area were still a lot of fun to walk. They were mainly fresh seafood stores with owners shouting for your attention. Some shops carried cooking and serving utensils, from which we got some lovely cardboard coasters. The dried seaweed snacks are not to be missed either.<BR><BR>Had an early lunch at Sushi Say – one of the restaurants in the "nicer" area of Tsukiji. In Tsukiji there is the very local area, which is lined with small shops with counters selling sushi, and there is the nicer area, with ordinary little restaurants that have cleaner-looking sushi bars. I'm sure both areas carry fresh sushi though. We had salmon roe, sea urchin, surf clam and fatty tuna sushi, all very fresh. But as a sashimi die-hard fan, I would actually prefer to have the sashimi pieces by themselves, without the rice! :P Lunch bill : 2800 yen. Miso soup is free.<BR><BR>At this point we made a wrong choice – it was now 12 noon and the August sun was showing no mercy. We were actually very close to the Kabuki-za, where we could have spent an hour or two away from the sun, but we decided to head towards the Imperial Palace first in order to make it before the gardens closed. Now we weren’t really the tough walking type. By the time we got to the palace grounds by subway (we did take Fodor’s advice and went to the Tokyo Station first, which was quite nice, especially for their vending machines!), we were already quite tired, and – did we mention the brutal sun?? There were only a handful of other visitors in the gardens, I guess it was just too hot… We passed the wooded area and made it to the two-tiered bridge. Glad to be able to sit down under a tree, where a group of European students listened to their European guide’s narration close-by. The guide even asked the Japanese palace guard to take a group picture for them! There is a change of guards every hour, and we were lucky enough to witness one of these – no don’t expect the Buckingham type. We only saw two guards coming on bikes, chatted a bit with the present one, and he in turn biked away. :)

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:04 PM

We spent the afternoon in Ginza, going from one department store to another. Tasting in the basements was quite fun, and we refilled our bags with some tasty treats. Of all the basement confectionary departments, we think Mitsukoshi has the best one. We only wish they had some sitting area where we could enjoy what we bought though. <BR><BR>By the way, if you are a paper art fan and if you happen to pass by Kyukyodo, do drop in for some beautiful but cheap souvenirs! We bought some really cute paper art postcards.<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:04 PM

Sony Tower was for him. The newest color mobile phones with PDA and the smallest digital camcorder. And the latest playstation games too!<BR><BR>We found our dinner place by sheer luck. It’s called Shiseido Parlour – yes you read it right. This place is really run by Shiseido, which used to sell desserts in the beginning. Their health-conscious menus are ideal for ladies. And some of the most healthy dishes even had calorie amounts listed. I had a seafood dish with excellent fish and tiger shrimps. The manager could speak English quite well. But the waitress brought two identical dessert sets to the table while we’ve only ordered one. Later she brought it back with the nicest smile on earth, apologized a million times and told us the second set was now free! Bill tonight is 8000 yen, the most expensive of this trip. We could see people with business-attire around, and no wonder the glance from the manager when we first stepped in, all weary and in jeans!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:06 PM

DAY 3 : Sumida river cruise, Senso-ji, Kabuki<BR><BR>We had an easy morning and took the 40-minute ferry ride from Hanode pier to Asakusa at around noon time. This cruise was quite alright but you wouldn’t miss too much either if you skip it. If you do take it, it might be worthwhile to take it in the opposite direction since it makes a stop at the Detached Garden which is supposed to be quite nice. (Caveat : we’ve never been there…)<BR><BR>Yes there’s TONS of people flooding the street in front of Senso-ji. But it only adds to the fun of people-watching. Try to notice the Japanese while they’re taking pictures, and you will see everybody holding up the V-sign with big smiles. Quite interesting. The iced sweet green tea from that shop with the pink rabbit logo is not to be missed. Having been to beautiful shrines in Osaka and Kyoto, we weren’t too impressed with Senso-ji itself though. But the pigeon feeding in front of it gave us a great time. There was, as usual, a water place for people to cleanse their hands and mouth. Pigeons were also happily drinking from it. And we saw a lady holding up a handful of water, feeding its puppy!?<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:06 PM

Tonight we again bumped into a fabulous place for dinner! It’s called Tofuro, filled with locals socializing after work. It’s a grill place where chunks of meat and veggies are skewered and grilled right in front of you at the bar. We ordered chicken soft bones, ox tongue, octopus, chicken hearts, mushrooms, etc. All very, very tasty. Dessert was greentea-flavored icee, which took over 15 minutes to arrive! Bill : 2900 yen.<BR><BR>After dinner we ran to the subway station and rode to the next stop Higashi-Ginza (exit 3). We were lucky enough to catch the last Kabuki single-scene show of the day at the Kabuki-za, 700 yen each for entrance to the 4th floor gallery. At the ticket office we were told there was only standing room left, but it was only for an hour, so in we went! The play tonight was about a ghost (what play is not?) and a milk-giving tree. The main character plays 3 roles in the same scene and changes from one to another within seconds. The audience would shout out the names of their favorite players from time to time. Real fun to watch! We were, however, too late to visit the gift shop. We both hope to be back and watch a complete kabuki next time, with bento in hand and shouting!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:18 PM

DAY 4 : Ueno Park<BR><BR>Maybe I should mention the subway stored-value card. We each bought one of these (minimum 1000 yen) and found it really handy. With these you’ll never again have to figure out how much your trip costs. They’re available from machines and there’s numerous designs to choose from at different stations. You’re shown how much your card has left at the end of each journey, and places you’ve visited are clearly printed at the back, so we were able to keep the card as a souvenir when there’s only a small amount left. Another thing about the subway and JR stations – mostly for the kids (and kids at heart, like us). There’s a stamp station placed at each and every station – you just don’t know at which exit it is placed. So kids, don’t miss out when you do see one of these!<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:18 PM

It was drizzling. Not the best for a park visit but it sure beats the sun! The Shitamachi museum was a blast. There’s re-creation of homes of the Edo period using real materials used by the people. The best thing about it is it’s a hands-on museum. You can take off your shoes and go into each of the houses! There are also illustrated leaflets in both Japanese and English placed at every "house" which you can take. The second floor holds many hands-on brainteasers which you can (and are encouraged to) try, complete with games played by kids from the Edo period. Both of us had a great time!<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:20 PM

On our way to the Tokyo National Museum (also inside the Ueno Park), we saw a whole bunch of people lining up, all of them male and quite old. A closer look showed that they were actually homeless people lining up for food. A Christian group was singing “Amazing Grace” (in Japanese of course) and passing out bread and cheese, right in front of the museum. This was the second time we came across the homeless in Tokyo, the first time being a long line of their plastic tents (curiously all in light blue) secured ratger neatly along the Sumida River bank.<BR><BR>There was a special exhibition going on in the museum, but we opted out of it and it proved to be right – there’s so much in the permanent collection that we did not have time even for half of that! I’m not a big museum fan but he is, so including one nice museum in the trip worked out just fine. The museum shop has a lot of neat stuff to bring home too!<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:20 PM

Dinner tonight was back in Shinjuku. It’s a tempura place but unfortunately I don’t have its English name... We were led to the second floor and seated in front of the cook. Again we rubbed elbows with a lot of locals just off from work. They have a tempura set for 1800 yen which includes shrimp, fish and veggies. Glad we only ordered only one set and tried other more adventurous pieces. The baby scallop with mushrooms were heavenly! And so were the giant clams stuffed in their own shells! 5300 yen altogether.<BR><BR>This was our last night in Tokyo, and we spent some last moments in Shinjuku after our early dinner. It was Friday night so the streets were flooded with young folks. The best thing is – we still felt very safe!<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:22 PM

DAY 5 : Tokyo -&gt; Sapporo<BR><BR>Arrived at New Chitose Airport at about 3pm. Picked up this leaflet on our way to the JR station about a 4-day pass around the central Hokkaido area. The staff at the New Chitose JR station weren’t the most helpful and to our surprise they didn’t seem to know what this leaflet was about! So it wasn’t until we arrived at Shinsapporo were we finally able to get hold of one of these. It was 5200 yen good for 4 days for JR stops at Sapporo, Asahikawa, Biei and Furano. Just what we needed. It was 7200 if you want the Chitose Airport station as well. Throw in an extra 1500 yen if you want reserved seats. The basic pass (i.e. the 5200 yen) is also good for the Limited Express trains, which is a real bargain, since a one-way trip from Sapporo to Asahikawa is already 4800 yen!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:23 PM

There’s a good reason why the Japanese travel light and send their big luggages ahead through courier companies – elevators and escalators are lacking in many, many train stations! We have a large suitcase and a small one, and had to go down and up several flights of stairs in Shinsapporo JR station before we finally got to the Sheraton Sapporo – happily claimed to be "2 minutes from the station" (if you have no luggage with you, that is...) For instance, thankfully the station does have escalators that go upwards, saving our backs for our return trip...

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:23 PM

Sheraton Sapporo is in Shinsapporo (8 min from Sapporo by JR, 30 min by subway) and seems to have quite a young staff, and many of them seem inexperienced. I’m sorry to say that help with bags in the lobby is non-existent. However they do have an excellent concierge team, one of them I have befriended after providing excellent and professional help with my ATM machine adventure which you shall see. We were given a corner room with a great view though, which is the highlight of the day. The room is definitely smaller than what we had in Shinjuku, with a very small couch – and actually one with fleas! I was wearing shorts on the very last day of our trip and am still having rash more than a week after!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:25 PM

What better way to end a day in Sapporo with hot Sapporo ramen, right? It was already getting a bit cool in the evenings in Sapporo and we both had to put on light jackets. Sapporo has a much, much simpler subway system than Tokyo, with only 3 lines. You won’t get lost here – at least not inside the gate. It was about 7pm when we got to Susukino, the most bustling area in Sapporo, especially at night. We looked for the little ramen street for about 30 minutes, found it, lined up outside the most popular one, only to be turned off by the fact that it’s right outside a public bathroom. Sticking around an area with adult business signs everywhere was no fun either. So he suggested we tried looking for the more pleasant-looking Aji No Tokeidai instead. Aji No Tokeidai is a chain-store, which had been visited by the former prime minister. They have a branch quite close to Tokeidai, the famous Clock Tower.<BR><BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:25 PM

The trip proved to be worthy. Our long-awaited ramen (1500 yen each!) arrived with 3 HUGE scallops, sweet corn, bamboo shoots, and, rich pork-bone based miso soup! Yum!!! And there’s a huge piece of… butter!? floating atop the luscious ramen. You’re supposed to blend it in, but we found the soup already very rich! The dumplings are not to be missed either. (380 yen for 5) Best dumplings of the kind we’ve tried! There were large booths and also shared-tables in the restaurant. The chubby guy across the table from us (separated by a translucent plastic screen) actually ordered a ramen AND a big bowl of rice!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:26 PM

DAY 6 : Biei and Furano Tomita Farm<BR><BR>We checked out of the hotel at 7:55am with our small backpack, leaving our 2 bags behind with the hotel. We were to take the 8:03am train to Asahikawa, catching the 10:04 connection onto Biei, just in time to join the bus tour (fare included in our 4-day pass) from Biei. Talk about rush! We had asked the front desk the night before (since the concierge was already off duty) and a young man kindly looked up all the connections for us from the Hokkaido JR Time-table. Moral of the story : always get a copy of the JR time-table yourself (if you can read some Japanese or Chinese characters, that is) and double check your connections!! Better yet, pre-plan all your connections using the website http://www.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/ Our train got into Asahikawa at 9:55 and we rushed to the platform for Biei, only to find that there’s no 10:04 train at all – the next train would be at 10:40! We would miss our bus tour at Biei!<BR><BR>It might be worthy to note that had we known Asahikawa had good-sized coin lockers just outside the gates, we would have brought our 16"x30" bag with us!

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:27 PM

Anyway, here we were in Biei, having missed the bus tours, but also with 2 hours on our hands to kill. So we had no choice but to see Biei the hard way – we rented two mountain bikes and headed towards the hilly fields of Biei! The bike shop is just outside the little JR station, right next to the info center. Hourly rental is a mere 300 yen/hr. But we definitely would go for the “electrical bike” (whatever it is – but it’s not a motorcycle) or the rental car next time – the Biei roads are no joke! There are car rental companies close to the station. It was all worthwhile, however, when we reached the lookout point about 20 minutes from the station. It’s a big lookout point with a parking lot and restrooms, you can’t miss it. The flowers and greens (where you could see no ends) were just lovely! We would have stopped for a bowl of ramen on our way back, but we had to catch the Norokko train which would pass through Biei at 1pm.<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:27 PM

The Norokko train runs only in the summer (about 600 yen one-way from Asahikawa to Furano; fare also included in our 4-day pass). It’s a small train with only 2 cars (but actually already 1 car longer than the regular train from Asahikawa to Biei!), with sideway seats looking out to the fields passing by. Way cool! There’s narration all along the trip, but of course, it’s all in Japanese. We got off at the famous Tomita Farm station, which is a temporary one built in the summer, just for the Norokko train. The lavender season was already over, but the “5-color field” was still splendid with all kinds of flowers. The purple lavender-flavored ice-cream was a real treat, and their cantaloupes were really sweet! Hokkaido fresh milk that comes in bottles with purple-rims is of course not to be missed.<BR>We took the Norokko train back to Asahikawa – but speaking of which, we actually could have walked 20 minutes to the closeby JR station from Tomita Farm, and from there we would have more choices of trains for Asahikawa!<BR>

Kat Sep 5th, 2002 08:28 PM

So we were back in Asahikawa, waiting for our bus-ride to Sounkyo which would take 90 minutes. A better option would be to stay the night at Asahikawa though – it’s a big (but rather depressing) city with lots of hotel choices. It might be worthy to mention that although it’s a long bus ride to the rural area, it’s still a bus ride, and you pay your fare on the bus just like any other bus rides! I notice that in Hokkaido (or maybe Japan?) you don’t pay until the moment you get off the bus. On this bus to Sounkyo, you enter from the hind entrance, take a ticket (indicating where you board) and give the ticket to the bus-driver when you get to your destination. There’s a coin-changer inside every bus so you don’t have to worry.<BR>It’s a long hour with frequent local stops until we reached Kamikawa (also a JR station) where we stopped for 5 minutes. It might be a more pleasant journey to first take the JR to Kamikawa, and then catch the bus to Sounkyo which will only take 30 minutes. Single women might not want to take the last bus though when it’s dark.<BR>


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