Chocolate wonderland

You will smell the sweet scent of chocolate long before you can even see Ishiya Chocolate Factory, which is some kind of wonderful! And if you were a Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人) fan like I am, you would hyperventilate and hop/run your way to the chocolate factory, disregarding the strange glances locals would cast in your direction.

Shiroi Koibito, if you don’t already know, is a well-loved brand of chocolate biscuits created by the Ishiya company. Shiroi Koibito is so popular that visitors to Hokkaido would stock up on them as gifts for friends and family. But these chocolate treats don’t come cheap, and when I first visited Japan and found them at the airport shops, I deliberated a long time before deciding how much I could afford to buy. :)

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Ishiya Chocolate Factory is a wonderland of sorts. It looks like a fairyland castle with vast flower gardens with European pavilions, and miniature houses along its perimeter, no doubt to please young children who visit its premises.

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As I’m not exactly grown up, except during office hours and interaction with solemn business acquaintances, I slipped into many of the miniature houses and sat on their miniature beds and chairs. Yes. Just like any child would. :)

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Visitors can pay 600 yen to go on a tour to learn about the history of Ishiya and how Shiroi Koibito cookies are made. We did just that.

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There are several exhibits to go through before reaching the best parts of the tour, which are the production line observation areas. To find your way around, just follow the pretty paw prints. :)

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The first few galleries display chocolate boxes and delicate hot chocolate cups that were used in earlier centuries. Then came long storyboards that told the history of Ishiya company and how the wonderful Shiroi Koibito cookies are made.

And then I discovered my dream job. I want to be the person in the production line who tastes the cookies and determine if they were delicious enough to be sold!

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Oh! I must tell you about this particular gallery: The Chocolate Time Tunnel.

This darkened tunnel holds a diorama display of the production of chocolate in ancient times. A short film and narration is activated by placing one’s hands on a large button. And when the scene describes the roasting of cacao beans and the melting of chocolate, a rush of fresh cacao and chocolate scent will fill the air. These geniuses!

We eventually found our way to an area that overlooked the factory’s production line. Although I was so excited about this part of the tour at the beginning, seeing the reality of the production line was somewhat like an anti-climax. I would have believed that Oompa Loompas or happy, dancing people were manning the production lines instead of serious beings in sterile white suits.

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But I guess Ishiya would need serious people in sterile white suits to take charge of the production of its celebrated and pricey cookies. Flawed cookies were picked out by this eagle-eyed person above, and chucked into the yellow tray on his/her left. I don’t know what were the fate of those rejected cookies, but I wish they were not thrown away. I would be more than happy to eat all those rejects. How bad can they taste, right?!

At the end of the tour, we came upon the Chocolate Lounge, where one could snack on pretty pastries and enjoy a cup of velvety hot chocolate.Image

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Of course, before leaving Ishiya Chocolate Factory, we bought many boxes of Shiroi Koibito cookies and other Ishiya creations for the family.

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But silly me, being so focused on making sure no family members were left out, forgot to buy a box for ourselves! And woe! I had only discovered the boo-boo only when we got back to Singapore and was packing the gifts for family.

Despite forgetting to get supplies for the both of us, we still had quite a haul on our hands. Along with the mountain of snacks we had purchased along the way, from Hakodate to Sapporo, we realised we had no more space in our suitcases!

Our solution: buy another suitcase.

And that we did. :)

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Fields of flowers!

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Furano’s main summer highlight has got to be her sprawling fields of the loveliest flowers.

And one of the best places in Furano to enjoy nature’s most beautiful blooms is Farm Tomita, and that was where we went. To get there, we could either take a bus or a special train that runs only thrice a day per way. We chose the train.

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The Norokko Train runs slowly between JR Furano station and the temporary Lavender station, which is put in use only in summer when the flowers are in bloom. It goes slow so that passengers can enjoy and take decent photos of the landscape. As such, the train has full windows on the sides.

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Lavender station sits in the middle of a field, and it a lovely sight from afar.

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From Lavender station, Farm Tomita is a lovely five- to seven-minute walk. You will know which direction to walk – just follow the crowd. And you’ll know when you are getting close to the farm. The air will start to smell sweeter, heavy with the unmistakable scent of fresh lavender. It is a wonderful feeling.

The first sight that greets you at the entrance of Farm Tomita is pretty, but it isn’t the best the farm has to offer. Visitors have to be eager enough to walk deeper into the farm grounds to be able to savour the most beautiful sights.

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One of my favourite parts of Farm Tomita is a gentle slope, in front of a row of souvenir shops, cafes and the farm’s perfume workshop. Because of the thick lavender blooms, the hills is a lively shade of purple. It is especially lovely against a backdrop of blue and white skies.

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From the top of the hill, Furano looks like something out of a picture book!

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Walking on, we discovered another field of blooms that was also spectacular. If you find this image familiar, well, this is one of the most photographed locales in Furano.

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It was here that most visitors fought to get the best photograph, and I saw some of the ugliest people. Ugly because they trampled onto the flowers to have a picture of themselves being among the flowers, or carelessly dropped their bags and/or umbrellas onto the flowerbed whenever they wanted to pose for a photo.

And none of these trolls were Japanese.

Apart from looking at flowers, visitors can also learn how perfumes and lavender soaps are made, and buy some farm-made scents and lavender products for family and friends back home.

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After three hours of being one with the flowers and climbing up and down slopes, we were tired and hungry. Nobody could ever starve in Farm Tomita. Nobody with some money, that is. Apart for several cafes within Farm Tomita, there is also a large area that sold food and desserts and where tired visitors could sit at tables under large umbrellas.

Thanks to the sky and clouds being at their best that day, this dining area looks like it is out of a picture book too! :)

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We had a lunch of beef patties with rice and creamy strawberry milk shakes before catching the last train back to JR Furano.

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It was almost 4pm when we got back to Furano city centre, which left us little time for more attractions. Most attractions in Furano, or Japan for that matter, close at 5pm or latest 6pm.

I wanted to visit a cheese factory but because of the bus schedule, we would only get there about 4.45pm. The factory closes at 5pm.

The Furano Wine Factory stays open till 6pm though, making it the only attraction we could visit. But again, the local bus schedule is such a pain in the arse. The next ride is quite a while away, so we decided to just walk there.

It would take us 30 minutes, the staff at the local tourist office warned. Never mind. We have each other to lean on if our legs broke! :)

It was a good decision to walk. We got to see even more of Furano. Anyway, the weather was pleasant this very day; the sun wasn’t too strong and the wind was chilly.

We spotted pretty little flower bushes, came across quaint little house, and smiled at children riding home on bicycles after school.

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I have to admit though that I was aching from all that walking. I’ve been walking way too much since we landed in Hakodate, and my feet and back aren’t in the best shape. A nerve in the small of my back would get pinched when I’m on my feet too long, and that pain can be atrocious.

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But stubborn me persisted. I loved too much the feeling of walking hand in hand with the husband, and seeing the sights. Talking a taxi to the wine factory would take away the fun. After god knows how long, we finally saw these barrels. OK, we must be reaching soon!

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After a long time (or at least it felt long!), we spotted a building on a hill, and I remember reading somewhere that the wine factory sits on a hill. Hurrah! But maybe a weak sort of hurrah because we had to climb up that hill!

 We made it in one piece anyway. :)

At the Furano Wine Factory, visitors could sample some of the wines produced there. They aren’t the best I’ve tasted, but hey, this is Japan-made wine!

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We rested our feet at the factory for a while, before making the long journey back to the hotel. The husband was so proud of my tolerance for pain and offered to massage my feet back in the room. TLC. That’s all I need. :)

After a hot lavender foot bath and a foot massage courtesy of the husband, we put on warm clothes and headed out into the cold night. Such weather calls for a hot pot!

So we consulted our map and bearings, and went in search of Kumagera, a popular hotpot restaurant. We took the wrong turn though, and ended up in a dim, Twilight Zone sort of place. It gave me goosebumps, and I was close to crying. I insisted that we were lost, although the husband was certain we were on the right track.

How could a popular restaurant be in such a dark area?!

So I cried. Tears, when used sparingly, will turn stubborn men into putty. So the husband relented, and agreed to turn around and ask a local for directions.

True enough, we were in the wrong side of town. So we retraced our steps according to the local’s advice and finally found Kumagera. Phew!

Kumagera has menus in English and Mandarin, great news for tourists. Although Kumagera is famous for its Bandits Hotpot which contains a variety of meats such as duck, chicken and beef, and vegetables, we figured that we could not possibly eat so much. So we shared a beef shabu shabu.

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Lovely sight isn’t it? The beef slices tasted as good as they looked.

The waitresses at Kumagera were a lively lot, and practiced their English with us. :)

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Well-fed and happy, we retired to our hotel and were knocked out from exhaustion soon after.

We were up early the next morning for breakfast, as we had to catch the 10.04am train to Takikawa and onwards to Sapporo, our final stop on this vacation.

Breakfast was the usual fare – egg omelette, ham, fruits and yoghurt. But the milk was kick-ass! It was freshly made in Furano, the waitress proudly declared.

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Oh! With milk so divine, I want to retire here and drink milk all day!

But I still have many more years till retirement, and had to move on for now. So we bade Furano goodbye sadly, and went on to Sapporo.

Furano, the bellybutton of Hokkaido

It was a crisp morning on July 18 when we departed Otaru for Furano, a lovely town in the centre of Hokkaido.

To get there, we had to take a train from JR Otaru to JR Sapporo, and changed to another train that took us to Takikawa.

That’s several hours on the train, and we kept boredom at bay by taking photos of ourselves and the views from the window, and enjoying cans of local beers purchased from the onboard snack cart.

While the train rides from Chitose airport to Hakodate, Shiraoi and Otaru gave us mostly views of commercial and industrial buildings, visions of sprawling fields dominated our journey towards Furano. How refreshing!

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After a little more than three hours of train rides, we arrived at the little JR Furano station.

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Our hotel, Natulux Hotel, sits opposite the train station. High-five for such great convenience!

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Natulux Hotel is positioned as a boutique hotel, and its guestrooms are quite minimalist. One of the design features in the guestroom is a panel of raw concrete wall. I also like how a piece of stone is used to show the room number. Rooms are small – I’m not surprised – but clean and very comfortable.

We chose to spend our first day in Furano by talking a stroll down its streets and see how the locals live. Furano is another quiet Japanese town with few cars. Most people cycled or walked.

And when I say Furano is quiet, it really IS quiet. The photo below of a main street was taken on Wednesday at 4.41pm.

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We walked around for half an hour, and had only six bicycles pass us by: three mothers, each with a child cycling behind them.

Along the way, we discovered a little temple with a statue of Guan Yin. Walking on, we passed schools with happy little children in uniforms and tiny hats playing on swings, and a field full of boys playing baseball.

We also spotted a lovely house with two dilapidated vintage cars outside. And while we stood by the pavement admiring this dreamy home, and saying how we would love to have a home like this in a quiet town, a young mother came along with two lovely little girls with ponytails bouncing against their heads. What a happy sight!

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Onwards we went, and this time, the husband checked the map for somewhere we could visit. We decided to check out Furano Shrine, which wasn’t too far from where we were.

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It was absolutely serene, and we hang around a while enjoying the calm. The husband struck a conversation with a schoolgirl there, and learned how to pray the Japanese way: you toss in your offering of money, clap your hands twice, hold your palms together and pray away. I hope he got that right through his limited understanding of the Japanese language.

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I realised that Furano Shrine has three smaller Shinto arches in addition to the main one at the entrance. I’ve never seen something like this, even at the shrines in Kyoto. How interesting, and I would love to know why. Too bad the schoolgirl was gone by then.

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After leaving the shrine, we intended to make our way back to the hotel via a different route, but spotted Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) along the way. We were curious to know if KFC tasted the same in Japan (I love KFC in Shanghai, but not quite in Singapore), and popped in to share a two-piece meal.

ImageOh boy! Were we glad we made a stop at KFC! Colonel Sanders-san made such wonderful fried chicken that we wished we could bring him back to Singapore! Unlike the oily, unevenly seasoned pieces of chicken sold in Singapore, KFC in Furano was well seasoned, crispy but not dripping with oil, and fragrant, without the smell and taste of stale oil.

We cleaned our chicken to the bone swiftly, smacked our lips in joy, and continued our trek back to the hotel. But wait! Something caught our attention again. We spotted Furano Marche in the distance. We remembered that Furano Marche had recently opened in Furano, and was recommended in tourist guides. We had nothing but time on our hands, so we made our way there.

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Furano Marche is basically a marketplace where people can buy all of Furano’s famous produce such as carrot juice, melons, wine, dairy products and lavender products, as well as home decor and cooked food. An area with little food stalls sold local vegetarian spring rolls (very crispy and savoury!), soft serve ice-cream, Japanese burgers and little cakes shaped like bears and stuffed with an assortment of cream.

It was lovely to sit on one of the benches in the square, munching and chatting away as the sun set. If only life could be like this every day!

Without the warmth of the sun, Furano started to get a tad chilly. We did not have our coats with us, and decided that we must return to the hotel to at least dress warmer before we explored further.

We had a late dinner that evening at a barbeque place called Yamadori. There are apparently two barbeque restaurants in Furano city centre with the same name. The one we went to is in a stone house, adjoining one that is covered with vines. The other Yamadori is in small a pink house.

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The Yamadori we went to is run by a cheerful, rosy-cheeked man in his 50s (well, he looked like he’s in his 50s, but the Japanese people tend to look younger than their biological age!) and a team of middle-aged ladies in the kitchen and polite, energetic girls in the dining area. It feels very much like a family business.

We ordered two types of normal grade pork and the second best grade of beef available on the menu.

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While I’m a great fan of beef, I found the pork tasted a lot better than the beef! So we ordered another round of pork…and more beers. Amazingly, the meal cost a little more than S$50. That’s such a delight on the pocket!

We were so stuffed at the end of dinner that we had to cradle our tummies as we shuffled back to the hotel. Still, once back in the comfort of our room, we opened a bottle of lavender wine to share between us, as we reminisced our trip so far.

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And with the final sip of wine, we curled up in bed and dreamt of an even better day tomorrow.

Onwards to Otaru for more beer!

It was dark by the time we arrived at Otaru, and too late to visit any attractions.

So we strolled from our hotel, Dormy Inn Premium Otaru, which sits just across the train station, to the entertainment area near the Otaru Canal, just to see if any shops were open.

Actually, we had one thing on our mind – Otaru No. 1 Beer Hall.

Hokkaido produces several beer brands. Sapporo has got to be the most popular label, as its beers are exported to several countries. Otaru lays claim to its own brew too. No prizes for guessing its brand. :)

Anyway, we found Otaru No. 1 Beer Hall, and it was still open. Hurrah!

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The beer hall was very German, as was the Hakodate Beer Hall, with staff dressed in traditional Bavarian frocks. Otaru No. 1 Beer Hall exclusively serves Otaru beer, and a variety of the usual German fare such as sausages and schnitzel.

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I had an ale and found it rich and enjoyable. The more Japanese beers I taste, the more I despise Singapore-made Tiger beer. If I ever tasted pee, I think it might taste just like Tiger.

Later, we walked down the Otaru Canal and a stretch of shops that were already closed, and returned to the hotel for our complimentary bowl of soba.

Oh yes. You heard right. Dormy Inn Premium Otaru dishes out free bowls of delicious soupy soba every night to its guests. It also offers guests free access to a public steam bath, which we could not use because of our tattoos. Boo hoo.It was surprisingly substantial and well-made for something that comes free of charge!

All the exhaustion from walking too much in Hakodate must have caught up with us, and we overslept the next morning and missed breakfast. Oh well. It was almost 11am when we left our hotel and made our way to the retired Temiya Line, which once brought the people of Otaru straight into the city’s commercial and banking hub.

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The train line has since been replaced by other forms of transport, but its tracks serve as interesting spots for tourists to take some photos.As the Temiya Line wounded down important areas in the past, the husband decided to follow the tracks and see where it would bring us, instead of heading straight to the touristy Otaru Canal. So we did that, and found ourselves in quiet environs with old and modern houses that rose only two or three storeys high.

We took a turn at one junction, and came upon this deserted area with buildings that look like they were workshops or offices from another time.

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Walking on, we arrived at the Canal Park, a wide-open space that seemed quite popular with mothers and young children. Mothers would sit together and chat, while the children would splash around in the large fountain. There were a few two-seat swings along one side of the park, and the tiles at our feet had tiny bits of coloured glass. Very lovely!

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From there, we walked quite a distance to the Otaru City Museum (formerly the Otaru Transportation Museum), and had a large, inquisitive crow follow us. The awful bird swooped down at us a few times, frightening the living daylights out of me. We were so happy when the museum came into sight. We could not wait to get away from the bird. Alas, the museum was closed on Tuesday, a fact that the husband had overlooked in his eagerness to see a collection of old trains at the museum.

Urgh.

So, we made our way back to Otaru Canal, back into the line of the crow’s fire.

Anyway, we survived it, and went down the cobbled streets that line the river. Frankly, it was a horrible day to explore Otaru on foot, as the sun beat down mercilessly and the air was still. The blasted weatherman had forecasted temperatures of 16-23°C, but it was hot like Singapore!

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In that sort of weather, Press Cafe was a welcome sight. We zipped into the quaint, air-conditioned cafe which occupies an ancient warehouse.

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Press Cafe’s decor is inspired by vintage cars. One vintage car is displayed at the entrance of the cafe, and another inside. There are also shelves of Japanese magazines and comic books in the cafe for patrons to browse as they enjoyed their coffee and cakes.

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We cooled off in Press Cafe for almost an hour, then went back into the sun to continue our trek down the Otaru Canal. Now, the canal is very popular and one particular view of it has appeared in many postcards and destination marketing materials.

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Many other tourists found it too, and the area was packed and noisy, with people jostling for the best spot to take a photo. We were a tad disappointed that the view in summer was not quite breath-taking.

After taking a few photos, we crossed the street to visit the other Otaru City Musuem, which focuses on the city’s history. We were done in a jiffy, and proceeded to lunch at a Japanese restaurant that occupies the former Otaru branch of the Yasuda Bank.

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The restaurant is called Wa Bi Sai, which in a Chinese dialect means to dig one’s nose for dirt. It had us doubled up in laughter.

Its funny name aside, Wa Bi Sai has a beautiful interior, complete with a fake cherry blossom tree in the centre of the dining hall.

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The former bank’s massive safe was turned into restrooms.

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Diners could sit at western tables in the centre of the dining hall, or in one of the Japanese pavilions along the side. We took one a pavilion.

Set lunches at Wa Bi Sai are priced quite affordably at no more than 2,000 yen each. Mine, pictured below, is the cheapest of the lot, and costs 1,225 yen. The restaurant also serves Hokkaido crab hotpots, but crabs were all sold out that afternoon. :(

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Energised by our sushi lunch and excellent beers, we walked on to Sakaimachi Street, a preserved merchant area that is now home to countless touristy shops and sushi bars. Otaru is known for its sushi, by the way.

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According to tourist guide books, popular attractions on Sakaimachi Street include the Music Box Museum, Museum of Venetian Art and a number of glassware workshops. While the Music Box Museum – identifiable by an antique steam clock at its entrance – comes highly recommended, we found it too tacky. It was very much a shop that sold a lot of music boxes that could also be found in other shops, and it was full of tourists.

Instead, we preferred the Antique Museum, pictured below. It is far quieter and houses a collection of hand-crafted wind-up dolls and rare music boxes.

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One thing I love a lot about this street is the presence of many beer stops like this one pictured below. If the summer sun has worn you out, make a quick retreat to one of these beer stops, grab a mug of the delightful liquid and take a seat. :)

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If you fancy sweets, do look out for Le TAO pâtisserie in Otaru. It is quite a popular chain, and its fluffy cheesecakes and milk puddings are signature items. So when I spotted an outlet along the way on Sakaimachi Street, I pulled the husband in for some coffee and cakes although he was still full from lunch. This outlet has a cafe and takeaway counter on the first floor, and a restaurant on the second floor. We picked a trio of Le Tao’s most popular cheese cakes. They were all lovely and light, unlike most cheese cakes I’ve tried. :)

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We hung around Sakaimachi Street till almost 6pm, when shops started to draw their shutters. Realising there wasn’t any buses that ran from Sakaimachi Street to our hotel, we decided to…yes!… walk all the way back. Never mind the aching feet and back. We walked slowly in each other’s arms, and stopped whenever the pain was too much for me or when we saw something or some place we liked.It is lovely not to be hurried!

After a nap in the hotel, we had a late dinner at Wara Wara, a Japanese restaurant within the complex of our hotel. It opens till 4am every day, and diners get their own TV!

The next morning, we left sunny Otaru for Furano, and along the way prayed for much cooler weather there.

Serene Shiraoi

It was raining when we left Hakodate for the quiet town of Shiraoi, via Noboribetsu. It left me quite worried, as we planned on visiting the Shiraoi Ainu Museum which we had to walk quite a distance to get to from the train station. Moreover, half of the museum’s exhibits were outdoors.

Fortunately, the train ride to Shiraoi took a couple of hours, and by the time we arrived at 1.51pm, the skies had ceased pouring.

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From JR Shiraoi station, we walked 15 minutes along a clean and quiet road to the museum. Cars seemed to be a rare sight in Shiraoi!

After a while with no cars, few people and even fewer public buildings in sight, I started to panic. Have we gone the wrong way?! It didn’t help that street signs were in Japanese, and all I recognised were the characters of Shiraoi. Thank goodness the husband had more faith than I did, and we pressed on.

Eventually we spotted this wood carving in the distance, signalling the museum was nearby. Phew!

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Shiraoi Ainu Museum is said to be one of Hokkaido’s best Ainu museums, which was why I chose to make a day trip here. The husband and I enjoy cultural attractions that teach us something about the destination, and the museum is supposed to take us into the world of the indigenous people of Hokkaido.

Admission costs 750 yen per adult, and after a few minutes inside, I was disappointed.

My first source of disappointment was the museum’s outdoor replica of a traditional Ainu village, which comprised a cage with two (or maybe it was three) snow-white dogs and four cages with a bear within each. The dogs were a close companion of the Ainu people, while the bears were sacred animals that acted as the earthly bodies of gods who came to help the people.

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I don’t see why real dogs and bears had to be kept in order to make this point. :(

Furthermore, the cages for the bears were quite small. I noticed that one that tried to stand could not even stretch up fully.

The second source of disappointment was the way the settlement was presented. There were just this bunch of houses and small enclosures on stilts where the people would have kept their grains and food.

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A few daily performances of Ainu songs and dances were held, and we managed to catch one. The narrator spoke in Japanese, and the English brochure gave little explanation of what we were watching. This, by the way, is the third source of my disappointment.

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Fortunately, an indoor exhibition hall offered a better introduction to the Ainu people, and there was English explanation on the storyboards.

Now I would like to bring your attention to this photo of a ravishing Ainu lady. Can you spot the baby?

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Oh, and note the stylish monobrow.

While I had reminded the husband countless times earlier on the train that we must depart the museum no later than 4.30pm, in order to catch the train to Otaru, we realised eventually that our attention was spent by 3.30pm. So we made our way back to the train station.

We took a different route back this time, and discovered this little footpath. Guess what lies beneath our feet?

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Spongy wood chips that made our way back to the train station a very comfortable walk! :)

Since we had loads of time on our hands before our ride at 5.06pm, we ventured into a little eatery, located just a stone’s throw from the station, and enjoyed a late lunch of beef stew (for me), curry beef rice (for him) and way too much beer.

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And that was that for Shiraoi. From there, we took the train back to Sapporo station and hopped on the airport express, bound for Otaru.

The port city of Hakodate

Having seen Japan transit gently from glorious autumn to winter last year, the husband and I now desire to have a look at the destination’s summer outfit.

So this summer we packed our bags for Hokkaido, with our first stop being Hakodate.

We took a red-eye flight from Singapore on July 13, arriving in Haneda airport early next morning. From there we went on to Chitose airport on a 95-minute domestic flight. But we were not done with the commuting part yet. From Chitose we moved from plane to train, and embarked on a ride that took us to our intended destination, with a connection in Sapporo.

It was 3.40pm when we finally exited the train station and breathe in the crisp air of the port city. Hurrah!

It is easy to get around Hakodate. Just hop on a tram which covers most of the key areas a leisure tourist would yearn to visit. A ride costs 220-280 yen per passenger, depending on the number of stops.

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Our hotel in this city was Hotel Nets Hakodate, some 20 minutes by tram from JR Hakodate station.

It was lovely too that our room was a little bigger than what we had come to expect of Japan’s mid-range hotels, and it sits in a convenient part of town. A well-stocked convenience store is located next to the lobby, and several western and Japanese restaurants and bars are within walking distance.

The sun had just set by the time we were rested and refreshed, so we headed out for dinner, with the intention of settling down in a busy izakaya and stuff our faces with kushiyaki, beers and sake all night long.

After a five minute walk, we came upon a two-storey building with two restaurants side-by-side. Streams of people were entering each. If the locals like these restaurants, they can’t be that bad, right? So we picked one and popped in.

Called Watami 和民居食屋, the restaurant was a nice set-up with an enclosed grilled area. Good; we would not be smelling like kushiyakis at the end of dinner. Unfortunately, Watami’s grills were manned by Slowpoke Rodriguez, and our first skewered meat came almost an hour after we placed our order. The second skewered meat came 15 minutes later, and the third, 10 minutes. We had cleared four mugs of Asahi beers between us by the time all our food orders were delivered. Although we wanted to eat some more, we were certain the poor service would continue through the night.

So we left Watami and look elsewhere for more food. But instead of more kushiyaki and beer, we slipped into a cafe for a cup of hot chocolate and chocolate cream donuts.

The next day, we started off early for Goryokaku Tower and fortress. Since we could see the tower from our window, we figured we could walk there. Cutting through a quiet neighbourhood, we arrived at the attraction in probably 20 minutes. It was a lovely walk, as we discovered cute little houses, pretty flower bushes and a kids playground with swings.

The wonderful thing about free and easy holidays is that one could do whatever one liked, without a time-table to adhere to. So we spent a few minutes on the swing, laughing loudly like we were kids again.

Before heading up to Goryokaku Tower, we decided to have breakfast at Lucky Peirrot, a huge hamburger chain in Japan. Each outlet has a unique decor and this one has an angels theme.

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I had a Hakodate Snow Burger, which I guess was named so because of the layer of cream cheese that covered the beef patty. Quite tasty, but too heavy for breakfast and it could feed two of me!

We ascended Goryokaku Tower with happy and heavy tummies. It costs 840 yen per person to enter the tower and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the fortress and the surrounding Hakodate city. Visitors could also learn about the history of the fortress, but the storyboards were all in Japanese. What a shame.

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So we took as many photos as possible and hung around for as long as we could bear to make the money worth, the descended to visit the fortress that is now a park. In spring, the park is popular for cherry blossom viewing. In summer now, the park is just like any other parks.

In the centre of the park stands a remnant of the Ezo-era fortress. We did not want to explore the interior of this ancient government hall, and chose instead to sit on a bench outside and enjoy the breeze and rustling leaves. Later, we strolled through the park.

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When we were done, we walked back to our hotel for a short rest and took the tram to Jujigai where the famous red brick waterfront warehouses are a few minutes’ walk away. Built in the late 1850s-early 1860s, these warehouses were important port facilities. Now, they are home to retail shops and dining outlets. Most shops inside sold tourist stuff, fashion accessories and knick-knacks. We got bored quickly, and went in search of the Hakodate Beer Hall.

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We found it quite easily, and slipped in for a midday beer and a wonderful hot-plate ika (squid), while we worked out our plans for the rest of the day.

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Next, we walked down the rest of the waterfront stretch, bound for the laid-back Bay area and Hakodate’s famous district of 19 slopes and multiple churches and temples that date back to the 19th century.

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Walking up those slopes worked my gluteal muscles to death! I had to console myself with the thought that my butt would be firmer at the end of this trip.

We were supposed to end up at Mt Hakodate Ropeway Station at about 6pm, so that we could head up to the peak to catch the sunset. But we got there much too early, and discovered that the ride up would take only three minutes. So we made our way back to Jujigai, where we saw a busy little ramen shop earlier on.

There was more than enough time for a quick ramen indulgence. :)

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Aburi whips up ramen with miso and shio soup base, as well as a fragrant fried noodle dish with ika. But we had to share an item so as not to ruin dinner later on. Our choice was a bowl of spicy shio ramen, and it was a great choice! It turned out to be the best meal we had in Hakodate.

After that, we strolled up the slopes again to get to the ropeway station. It was 6pm by then, and a fog had started to thicken at the peak of Mt Hakodate. Dang! The lady at the ticket counter waved a warning in English about the obstructed view. So, we decided to wait around and see if the fog would clear up.

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The fog did sort of clear after a couple of minutes, so we bought tickets (1,160 yen per adult; two-way) for the ride up.

Once we got up there, we realised that it did not matter if the view of Hakodate and the bay was blocked out by the fog. The peak was nice and cold, and there were sparsely placed benches for visitors to sit on. It was perfect for the two of us to enjoy each other’s company while waiting for the sun to set. If only we had a bottle of sake to share!

Just as the sun started to slip over the horizon at around 7.20pm, the blasted fog rolled in again. It became so foggy that it was as if we were floating on clouds! :D

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Then at 7.45pm, the night sky suddenly burst into a flurry of fireworks. That took us by surprise. We later found out that we were so lucky, as the fireworks were part of a summer celebration that very day. The fireworks lasted for an hour. The city government must be so rich! :D

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It was quite a bonus, really. We had initially planned to start our holiday in Lake Toya, where fireworks would take place every evening in summer. I chose to skip that eventually, as hotel rates were ridiculously high in Lake Toya. Little did we know that we would be so lucky to catch a fireworks display in Hakodate!

Sometime after 8pm, we made our way down Mt Hakodate by ropeway. Instead of taking the tram back to our hotel, the husband and I decided to walk along the tram lines to see more of the city. We figured that we could just hop on the tram when we were physically exhausted. We walked and walked, and could finally walk no more when we reached Ekimae station, which is close to the JR Hakodate station. Unfortunately, that was a busy area, and we were not able to board any trams because of the huge post-party crowd.

So we gritted our teeth and walked on. The trams were full at the following stop too, and it didn’t help that the trams came at 15-minute intervals in the night, and there were only two more tram services before the last ride. Alas, the last ride was too packed to admit new passengers.

Frustrated, we walked all the way back to our hotel. I am amazed by my legs’ capacity for pain. Looking back now, the husband and I had actually walked A LOT that day! Imagine, we had walked all day around Jujigai, the warehouses, the bay area, up and down the slopes, and then from Jujigai to our hotel in the Goryokaku area.

And my feet are still intact!

But of course, my back punished me all night for the long trek, and I wished I could magic myself back home to Auriga Spa for a massage.

Our adventures in Hakodate ended the next morning, and we made our way to Shiraoi and Otaru.