Thursday, July 30, 2009

Northern Japan: Hakodate, Otaru and Aomori

Just three more stops in Japan and then we set out for the long crossing of the Pacific. First is Hakodate, a city of a quarter million on the southern edge of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's four main islands. The city is dominated by Mt. Hakodate, 334m (1100') high,

which of course we ascended to. We started with a free shuttle bus from the ship to downtown with friends Stuart and Carole, then hopped a trolley, then checked out the sights along the bottom of the hill. First was a statue of Commodore Matthew Perry commemorating the fact that
this was one of the first three cities in Japan opened to western commerce in 1859 by his famous unannounced visit. Behind him and another statue group is the impressive Old Public Hall, now a museum. This is an area with broad streets grandly sweeping down to the harbor,

home to some traditional homes such as this one with its Lilliputian doorway, and to several unusual churches, including Russian Orthodox and Anglican. Nearby was a Buddhist temple with a Shinto shrine where we took an ecumenical photo that included the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches through the Shinto torii.

We had climbed a few hundred feet up from the harbor but decided to take the cableway the rest of the way to the summit. The views were terrific, as you can see, and yes that's a dusting of snow on the mountains even though it's the 6th of May.

We hiked down on a decent trail past a covey of Japanese birdwatchers. The trail ended by sending us through this traditional cemetary, and nearby was a sobering but thoughtful monument to twenty-one American POWs who died exactly one month before the end of WWII when American bombers added Hakodate to the long list of cities they attacked.

Stuart and Carole wanted to do some shopping so we split up for the afternoon. We found a hole-in-the-wall cafe to satisfy, in quite authentic fashion, Louise's desire for ramen. Same name as that stuff you put boiling water on, but not the same stuff after you've tasted the real thing! Thanks to her proficiency in Japanese -- she lived here 25 years before moving to Seattle -- we were able to order at all, since there wasn't a word of English in the place!
Undaunted by his ignorance of Japanese, Jeff took off alone to satisfy his yen for a green tea ice cream cone, and thought he was doing great until he apparently got asked "sugar cone or wafer cone" and answered hai!, "yes!" A little show-and-tell of cone types by the clerk and he succeeded in his language-encumbered task.

We heard that we might still be able to catch the cherry blossoms at Goryokaku Park so hopped on the trolley once again. This was the site of a western-style fort built shortly before the Meiji Restoration, and 3000 soldiers loyal to the Shogun holed up here for 6 months before surrendering in 1869. The moat and earthen walls are still there, but little else but cherry trees, and we were indeed in time to see some,
both the white and the pink varieties. It's traditional for groups of friends to set out blue plastic sheets under the trees for a picnic, and that's exactly what we saw in the area closest to the trams even though the blossoms were pretty much gone in that area.

Our next port of call was Otaru, about a third of the way up the west side of Hokkaido from Hakodate. It's a city of 180,000, a tenth the size of nearby Sapporo, the city famous for beer and Winter Olympics, and there is snow on the mountain tops between Otaru and Sapporo on this 7th day of May.

We decided to explore town on our own today, as we're berthed right in the heart of town. What better street to start with than Harbor View Street, but in walking to it we found an interesting little byway, a side street decorated for a spring festival of some sort.

We had seen a sign in the lower part of city with a map showing a hiking trail leading out of town to a place marked as a viewpoint. Some time ago we learned the trick of taking a photo of maps on signs. Now we can "read" the map by looking at it on the viewer of our digital camera, enlarging it enough to read by "zooming in" in playback mode.
But first we have to climb the street, which is marked 15% grade in places. There are lime green sand dispensers on the sidewalk, for drivers and pedestrians to scoop from in winter for traction! Finally we're on a wide trail, then a narrower trail, and finally looking down from the viewpoint to the harbor and to the left, to a suburb that trails off to the sea.

Well, time for some food photos, but first for those of you who need a smoke, do the Otaruans have a place for you, right outside the supermarket entrance! No need to smoke a whole cigarette, just take two puffs, put out the cigarette, and suck in all that smoke that you have to enjoy, all by yourself. Talk about stewing in one's own juices...! But now for some real food specials, first in the supermarket, we have " cream collon" and "creap."

If you want something livelier, head into one of the indoor markets and check out the octopus or the -- what are those things???

If you still haven't gotten your Pavlovian bell ringing, there's always plastic to set the salivary glands going, for Japan is the capital of plastic food and Otaru is no slouch.

Still can't decide? This is Japan! Just mosey on over to your local squid, octopus and soft ice cream stand -- they know how hard it is to decide these "what shall I eat today" questions.

When one comes to Otaru, one must see the canals. Or, today, the canal, about a kilometer or so of it. They were built to bring trade goods to and from small warehouses, today converted into trendy restaurants, gift shops and art studios, although the southern end still had something of a commercial look.

A small museum had a photo of the canal from the early 20th century, and we were able to find the same spot and update it. Thank goodness for photos and how they preserve things that otherwise float away in the mists of time!

Off we sailed with one last look at the snowy hills, and on we went -- backwards. The ship was originally supposed to sail north to Petropavlovsk, breaking up the long trip to Alaska. For reasons never publicly stated, that got dropped. Holland America had to come up with someplace to take us, and they settled on Aomori. Good choice, even though it was 150 miles to the south.

Aomori is on Honshu, the principal island of Japan, facing Hokkaido across Tsugaru Strait. An assault on Aomori by B-29s nine days prior to the Hiroshima bombing leveled 90% of the city, so like so many medium- and large-size Japanese cities, it lost much of its physical history in the rubble of the war.
Nearby Hirosaki sounded much more interesting to us and to quite a few others of the more adventuresome types on ship, so we found ourselves in a group of 8 to 10 for most of the day. We took a local train an hour to get there, and watched
the conductor do his little routine -- every conductor in Japan does it -- pointing at the platform, then the tracks, then the instruments before starting out from each station.

Jeff got his hands on a detailed map of town and true to form set about finding the most unusual way to our goal, Hirosaki Castle. We followed a stream-side path even the locals seem not to use and were rewarded
by a view of this brightly-plumed duck. Next on the route were some samurai houses. The first one even had its pedigree on display, listing the 13 generations who lived there from the 1600s until 1981, when it became a free museum staffed by volunteers. A second samurai house nearby had a cathedral ceiling where we could see the underside of the thatch roof.

At last we reached the castle grounds, which still had a late-blossoming variety of cherry. The corner sentry post looked pretty impressive, but it wasn't the main show, the second and third photos are the actual castle keep. A model inside showed what the whole complex looked like (with the roofs removed to show the room layouts within) when it was the home of the Tsugaru clan, daimyu during the Shogunate, re-titled as "Count Tsugaru" under Meiji. The ancestors of the emperor's sister-in-law, Princess Hitachi, lived here.

We saw many kids in this town, from babies to nursery schoolers to middle school kids riding home on their bikes.

One group of three engaged us in English conversation and were delighted as only middle schoolers can be when we said we wanted their picture.

One final destination awaited us, a temple district with some 30 different temples on two adjacent streets. After high-fiving a guardian deity to gain entrance,
we checked out a few and were particularly impressed with the woodwork, both large-scale and small, but decided that the best scene in the district was not of gods but of god's creation, 1625m-high (5300') Mt. Iwaki.

And with a train ride to Aomori and a walk back to the Volendam, our foreign explorations came to an end. We have six days and seven nights of steady sailing to Alaska where we have four stops, and then a short hop to Vancouver, which hardly feels "foreign" to us Northwesterners. See you from the high seas!

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