Japan Day 14: Yoichi/Otaru

I got up this morning a little stuffed up. My sister suggested I take it easy, but that’s tomorrow, the day before a stupid long day on the train. Not the longest, but 5 hours is enough. Hokkaido is a big place and getting around takes some time.

Today was the day I wanted to go to the Nikka Yoichi Distillery. The Miyagikyo Distillery was great, but Yoichi is the place the man, Taketsuru Masataka, started his own distillery. But first, I went around the corner to Cafe Ranban to get a morning set. My sister found it on the intarwebs and if she can find it, so can the Chinese tourists. I showed up just behind a group of eight. Fortunately, I got served first and had some toast and a hard-boiled egg.

This place is SERIOUS about coffee. They have a Panamanian and Sumatran that are ¥1800 per cup!

After this I walked to Sapporo station (only about a mile away) in the underground. There weren’t shops the whole way, but it is covered and necessary when it snows here. Also probably nicer to use when it rains. I’m not sure why I didn’t try this earlier.

In any case, I took the first train I could to Otaru, and then took a bus to Yoichi. I could’ve waited for the train, but the bus was pretty interesting and took me past a surfing spot. The bus stop takes you directly to the distillery.

So this place has a lot more history than the Miyagikyo Distillery. The grounds has the Taketsuru house, for example, and the buildings look older.

In fact, this is one of the few coal-fired distilling plants in the world.

That being said, the Miyagikyo tour was a lot better. It was more explanatory, and it took you through the steps. I kept asking questions that annoyed the tour guide (the one at Miyagikyo was much more pleasant). It’s like they’re a lot more full of themselves here.

I had the three complimentary tastes, but the only one I finished was the Yoichi single malt. Nikka Black isn’t my thing, and the Apple Wine is really sweet.

After that it was back to the “Whiskey Museum” where the bar had tastes of Nikka’s finest. Yoichi has a much sharper taste than the Miyagikyo, and I’m not that impressed with it. It wins prizes, though and the 10 year Yoichi Single Malt was pretty good.

After that it was back on the bus to Otaru, and walking around there. Most of what I saw was just touristy stuff, blown glass trinkets and music boxes. I wasn’t impressed. I did see Otaru Beer mentioned and then headed down some alleyways to the restaurant after I had a touristy donut.

They’re really serious about beer here. They do it by the German Reinheitsgebot Beer laws and it’s pretty tasty. They also do two tours every hour through the parts of the restaurant where they make the beer.

I had a mozzarella cheese bread (and a beer) and waited for the tour.

I saw the brewer working, and I tried to get his attention by yelling “Bitte!” Turns out he’s from Oklahoma, and the president of the company sent him to Germany to study how to make beer “correctly”. Turns out the parent company also owns Bikkuri Donkey and Otaru Beer provides all their beer. I guess I shouldn’t feel that guilty about wanting to go there for dinner. I had quite a long talk (and a second tour) from the brewer and that made the trip a success.

I got on the train on the way back and the only thing I remember is handing my ticket to the conductor to have it stamped and then closing my eyes. The next thing I remember we’re stopped at a station and the sign says Sapporo. Good thing I woke up! I guess those whiskeys and beers had an effect!

I walked back to the hotel, searched some restaurant ratings, and found a place with pork bowls right across the shopping arcade. It sounded good and it tasted even better. It was in an odd food mall and the stall itself only had seven seats. But you could take the food out to the central area if necessary.

Oh, I forgot about the pre-dinner ice cream, and the post dinner zangi (Sapporo fried chicken).

And in case my co-worker Phil sees this, I found a figurine in the pork bowl restaurant.

I can’t seem to get away from Dodger fans.

Japan Day 13: Wakkanai

Today was the craziest day of my trip. I planned to get on a plane to Wakkanai, rent a car, and see the northernmost point of Japan (which is just a monument, really). It’s just one of those silly things that I really wanted to do after hearing about it. I also heard you might be able to see Russia! You can even go, but I didn’t want to have to score a visa since Russia requires them of US visitors.

I also thought about taking the train, but that’s five hours up and five hours back making it a hell of a long day if I wanted to make it a day trip.

So off I went. I had an 8:20 train to the airport for a 10:20 flight. I didn’t want to cut it close. So I got up and was on my way early, looking for another morning set on the way. Unfortunately, most of the places didn’t open until 8AM! There was a place in Sapporo station, though, that opened at 7:30! Quite tasty, though I burned the hell out of my mouth with the pizza toast. The high-tech gadget to figure out when your order was ready was unnecessary in such a small cafe, but whatever.

The trip to the airport was uneventful and short. The only oddness in checking in was everything in Japanese and I couldn’t find the English option. I pretty much resorted to mashing buttons with unreadable kanji until it all went through. I got a slip of paper with my boarding info. After that it was a long wait. I decided to wander around Chitose Airport and it’s great! There’s restaurants, some shops, a movie theatre(!), a conference hall, and several museums that didn’t open until my flight left. Where else can you go outside and see the planes?

I tried to get into the “Super Lounge” but you need a Japanese premium credit card to get in. My AMEX Platinum and ¥1080 would’ve gotten me in too, but I decided to keep exploring and found a Pronto and had a second morning set. I was going to have toast, salad, and coffee, but they ran out of salad. It was either an egg salad sandwich or a hot dog, so I went with the egg salad. Besides the stale bread it was great.

Security was pretty easy too, similar to a pre-check experience. I guess you can even bring in liquids if the weird liquid testing machine can scan them correctly. They spit out another piece of paper at security I had to have to get on the plane.

The flight to Wakkanai was on a prop plane and 55 minutes.

The even had time to serve a small drink!

After that the fun began. I couldn’t find the email with my car rental information with my iPhone and the three counters didn’t have my info. At some point after the shuttles left, I thought it had to be Toyota Rent-a-car. Nissan was nice enough to give me a ride to the rental area, (which I later realized is really close and I could’ve walked back and forth). The guy at Toyota Rent-a-car finally looked me up in the computer under my name in English characters and said I’d rented the car in the Wakkanai City office! I got a ride back to the terminal (I still didn’t realize how close it was because I was flustered) and looked for a bus.

The taxi driver told me the bus had left and there wasn’t going to be another one for a while. I asked how much a taxi would be into town and it was ~¥4000. I considered my options and decided that would probably be the least expensive option to see what I wanted to see. It cost me ¥4050 but the driver was really nice and was pointing out all sorts of things I needed to know. Watch for speed traps here, most people in Hokkaido drive fast, get gas here because it’s the last one before you return the car, the place you want to go this this way and you should also see Noshappu which is down this road. It was worth it.

Driving the car was easier than you’d expect. The roads in Wakkanai are wide and there isn’t that much traffic. In town, the speed limits are so slow that it’s easy. Plus, not much traffic even in town.

The woman at Toyota showed me how to add destination into their GPS (which was tough to remember because lots more unreadable kanji) and set it for Cape Soya, where I wanted to go, but the taxi driver kept telling me about Noshappu and I forgot why that was interesting to me. Turns out it’s an aquarium I didn’t go into, but I was close enough (ha, nothing’s close out there) that I went first. When I saw the aquarium I realized that shouldn’t be my first stop. But I talked to some motorcyclists (lots of them up there) and OMG THERE’S A GIANT DOE IN THE PARKING LOT JUST WANDERING AROUND.

When I think of urban deer I think of tiny ones, but she was big.

Anyway, I drove back the way the GPS wanted me to (with some wrong turns on the way) and it took longer than I expected. 30-40 minutes? Whatever. It was worth it.

The woman at the Toyota dealer said there’s really good ramen up there to, so I walked up the hill (there was a giant parking lot and I could’ve driven) and had scallop shio ramen! It WAS good.

I looked at all the memorials up on the hill as well. Several for peace, several for WWII, one for the KAL Flight 007 that the Russians shot down north of Japan.

I tried to see Russia but I wasn’t sure that was it.

So off I went to the Wakkanai Centennial Tower and Museum. Lots of stuff there about the Japanese settlement on Sakhalin, the settlement of Wakkanai, and the Ainu culture of the area. Plus, the tower!

The view was great from up there and I was pretty sure I saw Russia in the distance, just like Sarah Palin!

And Wakkanai in all its glory (actually just a picture I took and I can’t remember why). I think I just took this picture to try to show the windy little road I had to take to get up here.

I met some nice Australians up there and gave them a ride back to the hotel. Had a nice chat about how they’re in Japan for a month more than me! They’re going from small town to small town. I think they’re from a part of Australia that my neighbor is from.

Anyway, it was about time to start heading back. I figured I’d better start back around 4PM in case the Toyota Rentacar people had issues with my return (they didn’t) and I had to get gas. On the way I went by the weird breakwater but nothing was going on underneath so I kept going.

I was told to refill and that Toyota was so efficient that the gas gauge didn’t budge. I think that’s why they insisted on seeing my receipt though I only spent ¥363 on 2.47L of gas (0.65 gallons).

I was planning on getting back and eating a quick dinner (maybe Mos Burger) and I found one in the airport where I had almost 30 minutes to kill while waiting for my train.

Good thing, too, since it was pouring when I got back to Sapporo. It was cool and breezy but never rainy when I was in Wakkanai. Well, I’m beat. That’s it for the day. I’m not even bothering to go down to the big bath, though I may take a quick shower in the room.

Japan Day 12: Sapporo

Yeah, I’m here for six days, so it’s going to say Sapporo a couple more times.

I was trying to figure out what to do today and I was IMing my sister. I also had ZERO beers yesterday and my head hurt a bit so maybe it’s my sinuses. Anyway, I was trying to figure out what to do.

My sister’s google found different things than I did, and she suggested a chocolate factory. That looked like a kid’s thing, but why not? And sort of on the way was a ski jump that a Scottish guy I met was talking about with a ski jump simulator. Sounded interesting.

Of course I putzed around for a while and had to get moving to catch one of the few buses I figured I’d see a coffee shop with a morning set on the way but I WAS WRONG. I used my usual trick of just grabbing some food (a can of coffee and a juice plus some bread products) at a combini.

Plus, Google Maps is really screwing up the directions on the iOS app. Google thinks they drive on the right side of the road so I’m being consistently directed to the wrong bus stop. In any case, I got on the bus, which turned out to be a highway bus (!) on the way to Otaru! I could’ve just gone to Otaru today, but I figure Sunday is probably not the ideal day for hitting that tourist spot because it might be too crowded.

Anyway, after the first bus there’s a 20 minute walk to the second bus (Google’s “best” suggestion wasn’t the greatest). You can see the ski jump up the mountain if you look very closely.

Even after the first bus, there’s another 10 minute walk uphill to the ski jump. But it was all worth it just for the view.

The jump was the scariest looking thing ever and I couldn’t figure out why there were tracks at the top and astroturf on the way down until I saw two high school kids doing jumps! The top part had rollers, and the landing zone had astroturf that was watered down with sprinklers.

My next stop was going to be the Hokkaido Jingu shrine and then off to other spots. But I was sidetracked by hearing baseball. Maruyama Stadium had something going on, and I could hear the oendan (the cheering sections) and the hit of the ball on the bat. So I had to see how much it was to go in. It was a high school baseball tournament, and I paid the ¥500 to go in.

Even with so few people, there’s a big cheering section (sort of like the pre-MLS Timbers).

I watched the last few innings of that first game (it only went seven innings) and one side was clearly better than the other. High school baseball is really serious in Japan, and those kids hustle. There’s no walking to the batter’s box, it’s running. There’s only three players conferences allowed on the field during a game. And at the start of the fifth inning, both sides have their cheering squad (perhaps the JV players?) rake the field. And warm ups are insane. The second game seemed more serious (there were radar guns and videos taken of the pitchers) and it was pretty exciting. A nice way to spend the afternoon. I even indulged in some ballpark food, a Japanese curry!

Afterwards, I finally made it to the shrine and there was a wedding taking place (or at least the post-wedding pictures).

After that it was time to head back, and I ran into a LGBT Pride Parade!

After that it was time for dinner. I wasn’t that hungry and I was dithering on whether to have Genghis Khan (barbecued lamb) because when I IMed a friend who grew up here for what I should do, eating Genghis Khan is the only suggestion she had.

That’s lamb tongue on the wire grate, and marinated lamb (Genghis Khan) and regular lamb on the “Genghis Khan” grill.

Well, that’s enough for today. Tomorrow I have to fly to Wakkanai and rent a car to see the northernmost point of Japan!

(That’s just a soda, not a hard cider.)

Japan Day 11: Sapporo

As expected, I did not feel 100% this morning. After rooting around my suitcase I could only fine one clean shirt so decided it was time to do laundry.

Remember all the bad things I was saying about this faux fancy hotel? They have the all-in-one washer/dryers that never wash nor dry properly. Note how the laundry room also has a dehumidifier in it to boost the effectiveness of the dryer.

It was a bit of a walk to the first decent coin laundry according to teh googs but the front desk told me about a much closer capsule hotel that lets anyone use the washing machines. Not only do capsule hotels cater to the younger budget-minded travelers, but they also have the down-and-out who can’t afford real apartments. So I spent a couple of hours in the corner of the capsule hotel guarding my clothes while they washed and dried. Not that anyone would want them but better safe than sorry.

I figured this would be my “down day” and I needed to get my train tickets for this half of my trip. I found lunch at Mos Burger and got the tickets (plus the ticket to the airport for my side-trip to Wakkanai).

I figured this might be a good day to wander around the downtown area and maybe Hokkaido University. I made it to the Hokkaido University campus and had to use the bathroom. I wandered into the first inviting building and it turned out to be the school museum and that was pretty interesting. They do a lot here and even have a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (organoborate chemistry).

I even had a soft ice cream on the way out.

On the way back I checked out the three buildings I was told were “must see.” The former municipal building was having a pet/human fair and I didn’t really check that out.

The clock tower, while historic, wasn’t much to look at.

And of course I was at the tower yesterday for the beer garden (but not today).

I even found the Benson bubbler donated by Portand to Sapporo (out of service right now).

OK, now it’s time to find dinner. I think I’m going to look for this restaurant my sister sent me on Instagram that has omurice. Will update later. (Well, I figure both of you who might see this are probably asleep right now anyway.)

That was disappointing. I took a half-hour walk down dark streets to the Sapporo Factory, only to find it a mishmash of buildings that were hard to navigate.

When I did finally find the food area, there was no obvious store with omurice. I made a pest of myself asking restaurants if they made the omurice that was shown on instagram.

After striking out and being told that it was probably the previous restaurant at a particular spot (the tables looked the same) I decided to have some Indian food.

It was unremarkable at best. The naan was great, though. Probably better than my second choice.

Japan Day 10: Sapporo

OK, so today is the day that a bunch of my poor decisions would come to haunt me. First, I thought I should leave the onsen early because WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING? I missed the mochi-making at 9AM. Hell, I had to get in a taxi at 8AM to get to the train. So up at 6AM, start packing (the electronics take some time to deploy & pack), take another onsen bath, eat breakfast, and andiamo. Breakfast wasn’t small and I was a few minute late for the taxi. The driver was kinda surly so screw that guy.

I slept most of the way on the train because I WAS TIRED. My hotel isn’t close to the train station, it’s near the drinking area of Susukino. There’s a row of hotels down here. Somehow I got screwed by booking.com because I have never paid so much for a hotel in Japan (outside of onsens that include dinner and breakfast) and the hotel is faux fancy. $1000 for five nights! I was so pissed that I went and called my sister to complain.

I think my reasoning was that if I paid that much, I’d get a nice big relaxing room. Nope.

Here’s what they think a desk is:

Nice Ikea furniture. No sofa like some of the cheaper places I stayed in earlier.

And here’s my view from my non-opening window:

I was mad, but I figured there must be SOMETHING going on making the hotels scarce. There’s a month-long Oktoberfest, and the first thing I did was have a plate of meat and a Sapporo beer.

Can you see what time it is? It’s not even 11AM and I’m drinking. Well, I get chatty when I drink and I went into the information booth where the woman was a beer fan. She told me there was a beer garden at one end of the festival, and I could drink a special Sapporo beer IN A GLASS at the opposite end. Oh, and North Island Beer had a booth and she’d met Tagaya-san, the North Island brewer who came to Portland for OBF. I called the factory to see if he was going to be around but it turns out there’s a beer festival in Saitama and he was there!

Anyway, here’s the special festival Peach Weizen.

I can’t get away from Portland beer: Migration is pouring here!

I had the festival lager and now I’m three beers in.

I walked the length of the festival to have the Sapporo beer that’s made with hops that were developed here but grow better in the US, so they grow them in Washington and ship them back. (That’s four.)

Now it was time to get back to the North Island booth so I could talk to the president’s wife and ask her about Tagaya-san, etc. But on the way back, in the section that has booths from different Japanese cities, an older woman from Asahikawa said, “Drink our Asahikawa beer!” I also had a pork and cheese (I think) bun. (That’s five.)

So I made it to North Island’s booth and had their sampler: a Pilsner, a Weizen, a Brown ale, and a Stout. At this point I didn’t have the sense to take a picture before I drank them.

And also, at this point, about seven to nine beers in (the samplers were smaller), I had a brilliant idea! (OK, not so brilliant.) But I wasn’t so drunk that I don’t remember installing the Japan Taxi app to make this happen:

The next tour was at 4:30 (in 40 minutes) but since I was alone, they stuck me in the early tour at 4PM.

The original recipe beer, on the left, still had yeast left and tasted more like a craft beer. (I had another of those after this. Is that 11?)

I’m never feeling THAT drunk. I knew I’d pay for the all-day drinking but I didn’t know where to get dinner except for the North Island taproom two blocks away.

I had their IPA, and a beer from the guest tap from an old brewer from North Island. (I had the sense to have small pours of 12 & 13).

The salmon fish and chips were very tasty there.

After that, I made it back (it wasn’t that late) and took a shower in the room. There’s a big bath downstairs but I didn’t have the energy. I hit the hay at 9PM. I’ll probably feel it tomorrow.

Japan Day 9: Noboribetsu

It was time to pack my bags in Hakodate and go to my first onsen of the trip in Noboribetsu. But first it was breakfast in the hotel. Yesterday I had the ramen. Today I went to the omelet bar.

The trains in Hokkaido aren’t electric trains. They’re diesel. OK, technically they’re probably diesel/electric. In any case it does seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere.

The train was only a couple of hours and I arrived around noon. I had to take a bus from the train station up into the mountains to get to the onsen, and it’s a ways. I think Google told me it would take an hour and a half to walk up there? And there really wasn’t much to see on the way up.

As soon as I arrived, I noticed it was full of Chinese tourists and smelled like farts. OK, “FULL” isn’t quite right. There aren’t the gangs of tourists in northern Japan. I had misgivings about the ryokan, but it was great. I gave them my bags and then asked about the local beer. I guess the Seven Eleven is remodeling so it didn’t have the Onidensetsu Beer from Noboribetsu so the next thing I did was leave the onsen. The brewery is halfway down the hill towards the station. It was suggested to me by the woman at the tourism bureau that I take a taxi back. There’s no crosswalk and people in Hokkaido drive FAST. I figured I would be in a much better mood after a couple of beers anyway.

Onidensetsu Beer is made by a confectionary shop and they have a restaurant upstairs. Luckily, I made it in before the blackhole between lunch and dinner when restaurants here inevitably close. I had the tasters of their three beers and then a couple more of the Kin-Oni (Gold Devil) because when else am I going to find this? That’s kind of a lie because I’m sure I’ve seen Onidensetsu around.

After that it was back to the onsen, and check-in time. They told me that dinner would be busy and asked if I could have dinner at 5PM. I asked if I’d have time to see Jigokudani (Hell Valley) and they said it’s only a 10 minute walk. So once again, off I went.

The first thing I saw was a 15′ tall animatronic devil that was just about to do his thing. He said he was the king of the devils and was pretty placid until it hit 3PM and the music started.

His face changes and he waves his arms around a bit. I can’t remember what all he said, but there’s a speech in Japanese.

Then it was onto Hell Valley. There’s lots more than the couple of pictures here, and a nice (hilly) walk through the woods to get from the valley to the hot lake.

There’s even a continuously bubbling geyser next to a hotel in town.

I didn’t make it back in time to take a bath before dinner. The food was pretty good, but I picked the fish. I think the fish is the way it was supposed to be: tough and difficult to eat. Maybe I should’ve had the pork. I was the first one down there.

After that it was a trip to the onsen bath (no shower in the room) and I spent the rest of the evening using up the data on my SIM card watching the rest of Rick and Morty.

Oh, and my Bose Sleepbuds are broken.

Japan Day 8: Hakodate

I think I may have mentioned that I gave myself a day to just do nothing and this is the place where you can do nothing. Also, it was raining. Yesterday it was fairly warm at 80°+, (but not that humid) and today it was cold and rainy. I asked someone about this and they said its usually pretty cool here and the weather yesterday was a fluke. Here’s an example from the afternoon.

I had breakfast in the hotel because I figured this is a relaxation stop, right?

Also, I think the food here is mainly fish and I overdid the fish in Sendai and I wanted to cut back a bit.

I went north today, toward the five-sided fort Goryokaku. Well, I thought iI was going north-ish towards the park but I was actually pretty darn lost. Remember what I said about liking to wander around Japan? I think I should say I like walking around Tokyo because it’s so dense that there’s all sorts of things to see no matter where you go. Here in Hakata I saw house after house interspersed with some schools and warehouses. Once in a while there’d be a drug store or a grocery store, but mostly it was houses. I dunno but that was pretty darn dull. The weather was mostly on-and-off drizzle and when I was moving around it was just a bit too warm for my long sleeved shirt. But it was just on the edge.

In any case, I finally got to the area I was looking for about the time I really just wanted to sit down. Fortunately there was a Mister Donut there and I spent some time just sitting and drinking coffee. The sweet potato donut was a little too sweet, I think.

I never did make it into the fort, but I did go to the observation tower nearby. A couple of Aussies going by told me to definitely go up, and luckily it was fairly clear when I did.

When I bought the ticket to go up they gave me a piece of paper that needed three stamps to get a prize. The first stamp was paying to go up the tower. The second was to buy something to eat like, say, a delicious gelato.

The third and final stamp was to buy something from the gift shop. I wandered around the shop for quite some time for two reasons. First, I was looking for something cheap. Second, IT STARTED POURING DOWN RAIN.

I bought a little trinket and got a plastic paper protector with a picture from the War of Hakodate of 150 years ago.

Did I go straight back? Did I just jump in a taxi? No, that wouldn’t be foolish enough. I went walking out in the pouring rain to find a Daiso (the ¥100 store) to buy some more cable ties.

It was kind of fun because the Daiso was in an old-school department store with old lady clothes and even a Bunkyodo bookstore. On the way back I waited half an hour for the bus and finally just took a taxi rather than walk any more in the rain. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening watching Rick and Morty, though I did make a return trip to Lucky Pierrot. This time I got the #2 most popular item, an egg burger (a burger with a fried egg on it) and it was excellent. And what’s with all the guarana drinks in Hokkaido anyway?

THat’s it for today, and pretty much it for Hakodate. Tomorrow I’m off to Noboribetsu.

Oh, and the Onuma Alt was much better (to me) than the IPA.

Japan Day 7: Hakodate

I told my sister I think I’m eating my weight in mayonnaise. Most of the things I get at the combini seems to have mayo in it. I hid inside today until it was time to leave because it’s supposed to be 90°F today and the humidity is on top of that. Holy cow. Anyway, I got breakfast at the combini and took it onto the shinkansen.

I guess Ichinoseki is similar to the shinkansen stop near my grandmother’s because there was no one getting on the train. And the green car was mostly empty. (There was one lady hiding in there.)

I switched trains at Morioka and that train was much more full. Everyone was headed to Hokkaido. I didn’t take any pictures of the ride or of the trains. Lots of people were taking pictures of the Hokkaido trains and the signs that said, “Welcome to Hokkaido.” I even slept through the announcements about passing through the $7B Seikan Tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait. I got to Hakodate and realized I’d booked at a Sheraton. I think I figured I needed a break after all the random hotels beforehand. Well, the random hotels weren’t so bad.

I’m wasn’t that impressed by Hakodate. There’s really not all that much here. There’s the history of foreigners initially coming here, but it’s like going to Kobe and taking out 75% of the stuff. I mean, here’s a bunch of people standing at the top of a hill taking pictures down hill of almost nothing.

I went to the red brick buildings, and as the tourist information person said, it’s like Yokohama but MUCH SMALLER. I tried to go to Lucky Pierrot which was suggested by a friend, but it was packed. Funny thing is, two blocks away I found another Lucky Pierrot and there was no one in line. I was completely underwhelmed by my chicken sandwich

and my hamburger. (I also miscalculated and they were huge.) I didn’t finish them.

You know who else didn’t finish his sandwich? This Filipino kid who got the Surprise sandwich.

I went exploring the Motomachi area and it was also underwhelming and I finally made it to the ropeway to the top of Mt. Hakodate. I had to ask: can you walk up instead? They told me it would take an hour and it did not.

It was hot, the trail got small at times, and it was quite a ways up. 1096 feet to the top, and I started at sea level.

I even took a bad selfie looking directly into the sun.

I didn’t feel like walking back down so I took the ropeway.

After my hike up the hill I felt better about everything and I still had to see the “oldest concrete telephone pole in Japan.” That really tells you how much nothing there is here when they advertise stuff like that on every tourist map in town.

Hakodate beer was on the way back, but I was thwarted for a little bit.

The brewery is inside the restaurant and the bar faces the tanks.

The beer was unremarkable.

I decided just to go to the bar and have an Onuma beer for dinner, but the bar is only open Thu-Sat (and it’s Tuesday). So off to the combini again. The onigiri are Sea Chicken and Mayo (my favorite) and Bacon and Egg. I can’t even remember what I thought of the Bacon and Egg now. I also got the Seven-Eleven karaage chicken to compare with the Lawson fiasco and it was much better. Probably more than I needed. Oh, and since Onuma beer is being advertised everywhere and is also in the Seven-Eleven, I got an IPA. It’s not that great.

Honestly, I think I’d rather be in Ichinoseki, but the weird thing is, it’s not as humid here. In fact, Wikipedia makes mention of the high humidity in the areas I was just in. Ah well, I’m just being picky. I’m having fun and I don’t need to rate the cities I’m in.

Japan Day 6: Ichinoseki

If there’s a theme to today, it’s I have no sense. And that’s really regarding the weather because man was it hot. I wish I had the screen shots (the phone made the noise but I must have to save them) because the one I remember said, “It’s 85°F and it feels like 96°F.” Seriously. I was soaked and I bought a new quick-drying towel to take with me that I forgot (so my slow drying towel is slowly drying right now) and I wore long pants all day.

I started out in Sendai where the edge of the typhoon was hitting. It was raining pretty hard so I decided to put on my long pants.

I took my sweet time since my train wasn’t until 9:40 and I got panicky when I saw how late it was getting. It wasn’t getting late, it just SEEMED late. I went back to the same tapas restaurant for breakfast and the weekday routine was a little different. Coffee was all-you-can drink and was as unspectacular as you’d expect. Also, I tried something new.

The rain here is actually warm, and it was even hotter when I got to Ichinoseki. There isn’t a whole lot going on in Ichinoseki, but there were a couple of things I wanted to see as well as a brewery that I definitely wanted to visit. You know about goals and stretch goals – I went directly to the brewery.

That’s Iwatekura beer at Sekinoichi Sake. There was a time that it was almost impossible for Japanese breweries to start up without some sort of “in” like being part of a Sake brewery and that’s the case with Iwatekura beer. I met the president when he came to the Oregon Beer Festival. When I showed up they told me no tours without prior notice, but I’d been messaging the president (with no replies) a few times. Sure enough, he popped up and took me through the facilities.

Satou-san was telling me that he’s running out of room and wants to convert his banquet facility into more holding tanks, but I’m not sure he’s able to. There was a time when sake was going out of favor and he had to add the museum and restaurants to keep the business afloat. I guess the banquet facility is used for weddings as well as other events.

He took me to his restaurant and bought me lunch. There are hundreds of different kinds of mochi in Ichinoseki (everything I tried was excellent) and here’s the selection I had for lunch.

One of the games is there’s a stick in one of the mochi. If you find it in your first bowl, you’re going to be lucky today. If it’s in later bowls, that’s the day you’ll have good luck. I got it in my first bowl!

One of the two other things I wanted to see is the temples at Hiraizumi, and Satou-san drove me up there to his secondary restaurant/taproom which is a small shop among the souvenir stalls at Hiraizumi.

And I finally got to try the Sansho Ale that I missed out on during the Oregon Brewers Festival. (I also had a second mixed with matcha.)

It was great seeing Satou-san and the rest was gravy. Well, some sort of hot primordial soup since it was so damn humid.

I’d suggest googling pictures of the golden Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi because I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. It was pretty spectacular (and a slog up a long hill in the heat).

I got back to the station around 3PM and decided (against any better judgement) to ask if there was anything else I could see today. They sent me to Genbikei gorge where I was once again wondering why the hell I was wandering around in the heat, but it was worth seeing.

Since my Eagle Scout experience couldn’t help me read a map, I thought I was taking the 30-minute route but I took the 70-minute route around the area. Half of that was in the middle of nowhere, trying to get back to the river.

While on the whole there really isn’t much more than the small river gorge, this is also the place where they have the flying dango (a rope across the river delivers green tea and dango), a shaky rope bridge, and a weird glass store/amusement park that looks shut down or haunted.

I got back and there’s really not much going on in this town of 30,000 people. Even though there’s a shinkansen station, the restaurants are few. So I decided just to hit up the Lawson and eat in my room.

Yes those are the sandwiches that Anthony Bourdain raved about, and I’ve always liked them.

So that’s it for the day. I’m going to watch some more Rick and Morty and hit the hay.

Japan Day 5: Sendai

I did my laundry yesterday, so I had had a free day in front of me. It was also going to be hot as hell so I didn’t want to do too much. Nevertheless, I knew I had to get out and about at least until my room was cleaned.

I had the exact same breakfast as yesterday, but I figure even if I have it a third time there’s still very little chance I’m coming back to Sendai to eat at this place again. Weirder things have happened.

I went to the train ticket counter (a very tiny train ticket counter with only two windows) and got my tickets for the next week or so. After that I went to the tourist counter and what they would suggest and besides all the places I’d already been they said Shiroishi Castle. Unfortunately google didn’t show that much more around the castle other than a fox “museum” which I’m guessing is a zoo, and zoos make me sad. Plus, castles don’t have air conditioning. So I decided to just walk down the main shopping street of Sendai. I didn’t really go into any shops besides a Starbucks, but that was because I realized I hadn’t taken my medicine and I needed a glass of water and it would be much easier just to order a coffee and a tiny, tiny water than to try to do it standing on a street corner.

The jazz festival was starting up about halfway through my walk, and the first group I saw had more performers than audience members. They weren’t hitting the high notes, and when I confirmed they were singing gospel I kept moving.

I headed back soon after that and after a stop at the bookstore I went back to the hotel. I bought a book on Japanese phrases for the N1 JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) because I figured more phrases would improve my conversation skills. Plus it would give me something to do if I just wanted to sit in the room or in a coffee shop.

About 1300 I started getting hungry and decided to try Hosoya’s Sandwich which I heard might be the oldest hamburger restaurant in Japan. It was a new adventure, in any case and I decided to brave the heat because I had a goal.

It didn’t take too long, and I got on a bus hoping it would take me to the right spot (google is awful with Japanese buses and thinks they run on the right-hand side of the road) and made it about 2PM. It looked suspiciously closed.

Sure enough, there was a sign on the door giving me the bad news.

Turns out they ran out around 1PM because of an unexpected order. At that point I was hangry and needed something. Since I had hamburger on the brain I went to the closest Mos Burger.

I guess the better jazz bands had much larger audiences. I saw tiny crowds for Dixieland, a band doing a cover of Earth, Wind, and Fire, a woman singing the king of inoffensive songs they play in boutiques, and an odd band with a shamisen player. This band was doing a cover of “Birdland” which annoyed me because:

    1) I was hangry, and
    2) I’d rather listen to a proper recording of it on my iPhone.

I had to walk between the crowd and the band to get to Mos Burger, and I didn’t care. The only other thing I really wanted was a log more air conditioning in Mos Burger.

What I decided I needed next was to go to Montbell to get a sun hat, a quick-drying hand towel for sweat mopping purposes (which hasn’t dried yet, btw), and a non-leather belt because the sweat is making my leather belt stain my lighter colored shorts. I later also got a new non-leather wristband for my watch because the cheap leather one I had was staining my wrist and also smelled funny. Stupid heat.

Back to the hotel with some snacks. I’m not sure what I did besides sit around for a while. By the way, those sweet corn sticks tasted just like sweet corn. I have to get that again.

I gave the front desk another chance to make a dinner suggestion. They gave me a coupon for a nearby fish place which was great, but it turned out to be a Japanese drinking restaurant where I expected all the plates to be small and expensive and I’d have to pay at least $50-80 to get out of there. I turned around a couple of times before I finally just went in. The plates were not small, but I spent about $50. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to power through, but I did:

Oysters steaming in the can. She said they were too small to fry, so I expected them to be tiny. Ha. Too small my ass. At least she came back to open the oysters for me.

With the phone camera it’s hard to see, but I think there was enough salad for three or more people.

And that’s not all of it.

And this is the damage at the end, plus two beers.

Well, that’s it for another day. I’m supposed to be going to Ishinomaki tomorrow and I’m going to try to score a tour of a sake and beer factory. I met the president at the Oregon Beer Festival. I also found Rick and Morty is on Japanese Netflix so I should probably shut the hell up and start finally watching that. No more beer for the night.

Japan Day 4: Matsushima/Sendai

I didn’t sleep great last night but it also wasn’t awful. I keep waking up before I want to but that’s OK too. I had to meet the group of company presidents at 9AM and I was up by 6. Even then I thought I was going to be late, like I was for dinner last night. But 30 minutes to go and I was even able to squeeze in a morning set at a tapas place on the way to their hotel.

What was I doing with all that time (besides taking a shower?) Mostly remotely screwing around with my computers at home.

I made it early and went to Matsushima with the presidents. I think this was the committee, and the actual group of suppliers goes on trips every other year with 30 people. I found this out when the senior member of the suppliers said it was time to choose and whoever spoke up would be more likely to get their choice. A two day trip/meeting and the business seemed to be concluded in 5 minutes. Of course there was the business of having a good time.

It looks like I only took one picture of Matsushima’s islands.

There were a couple of reasons for that. One was it was kind of foggy out and there are lots of better pictures taken by professionals out there. The second is that I agree with my grandmother (my mom’s mom) who said, “Meh, the islands near Murozumi are prettier.” I’ve translated that from the original Japanese.

We even took a boat ride out in the islands where there was a recording constantly describing the islands. One of the presidents (the youngest one, who spoke very good English) asked me, “What makes an island? These look like rocks,” and I tended to agree. How Japanese to name all these damn rocks with reasons for the naming?

Well we saw the fish marketplace (kind of a tourist trap) and had sushi for lunch. It certainly was tasty though and it was probably more fun chatting with the presidents club than if I’d gone there by myself listening to economics podcasts.

We had a stop on the way back at a chikuwa factory. Or was it kamaboko? Yeah, kamaboko. It was pretty good, and is made from whitefish. The factory was a little odd as it also housed a couple of art museums, and a tanabata museum next door. Why? I don’t know.

We also stopped at the castle, which I went to a couple of days ago, for ten whole minutes. Then they dropped me and one of the presidents off at the train station and the rest went off to the airport.

I got back around 4PM and I decided it was time for laundry! And then I went out looking for dinner, which was kind of crowded, because of the jazz festival and from all the people who went to the baseball game. I found a place that wasn’t as crowded, probably because the beef needed more seasoning. But it wasn’t bad, and there were multiple people in mobility devices inside!

I also finally made it to the big bath downstairs, and figured a way to spend all the money on my extra Suica cards!

And a happy pumpkin pudding to you too!

Japan Day 3: Yamadera/Nikka Miyagikyo Distillery/Sendai

OK, another tough day. I felt a lot better aft 9 hours of sleep and went to Yamadera. Got up only a little early, took a shower, bought almost the same breakfast at Seven Eleven as I did at Mini Stop yesterday, and went to the train station. At that time, google decided it didn’t know how to get me to Yamadera and my small short-term memory remembered it was an 8:18 train. I asked the station attendant who looked at me like I was a moron and told me to go to track 5. It’s only ~55 minutes from Sendai to Yamadera, which is about the distance from Osaka to Kyoto. Nothing.

However, here’s proof I’m a moron:

No thunderstorms (I felt ONE drop in the evening) but it was HOT. Plus it’s HUMID. Who the hell goes up 1000 steps to a mountain temple when it’s over 90 degrees? (You probably know that idiot personally.)

I don’t know if you can see it, but about in the very middle of this picture, in the hill, is the temple I wanted to go see. Why, you might ask. I’m not really sure. At least I got a start in the morning.

So off I went. Here’s the start of the 1000 steps.

And here’s the first temple at the bottom:

I think the first ? were in the shade fortunately. And even more fortunately, I didn’t take pictures of every shrine and temple on the way up. There were a couple of Chinese tourists doing that for me and I’m sure you can find those on the line SOMEWHERE.

I was pretty overheated and sweaty by the time I got to the top and here’s a picture of the highest temple (a pair) you can get to. One is older, and one is newer and there’s lots of differences in the statues of deities between the two. I can go on and on, but you should either find me (both of you who read this blog will have the chance) or just google it.

What I really wanted to do is to hit this other temple, but I heard I’m 50 years too late for that. So I just took a selfie at the highest point I could get to (an observation deck of sort).

Keep in mind I wasn’t in my right mind and didn’t take all the pictures on the first time up and had to go up to the “observation deck” twice.

I made it down, went into a temple I skipped on the way up (¥200 to see the back of the temple) and finally made it back to the station after wandering aimlessly and having to ask the locals for directions. I did have a small snack before the train came. A pear soft ice cream is all I could handle at the time.

If you look carefully you’ll note that the t-shirt I’m wearing is SOAKED in sweat. I bet I lost 10 lbs in water weight. Maybe more.

Two stops back towards Sendai was…

I left out a bit. There was also a “30-minute walk” (I bet it was closer to 45+ minutes) from the station. I took the tour and the distillery was HUGE. Even though they’re taking a break from selling some of the whiskey, it’s probably 5-10 times the size of the Yamazaki distillery.

Look at the stills! That doesn’t include the two Coffey stills!

After the tour they only give you a few tastes, but you can buy a bunch more! Where in the world can you get a short pour of the 21-year-old Taketsuru for ¥500? Or the award winning 17-year-old Taketsuru for ¥400? I had them sell me double pours (closer to a shot).

I even had a ¥7000 taste of the limited edition Taketsuru that only had 300 bottles in the production run!

The bartender shift changed and Ross from Adelaide via Scotland was suggesting all sorts of interesting things.

You can see rehydrating with whiskey wasn’t helping me take pictures BEFORE I had the taste.

This is one of the three “flavors” of whiskeys they use to make the Taketsuru and was my last taste. Both of you who read this blog know I’m a talker, and when I drink I get even more chatty. A couple of older Japanese gentlemen came to my table and I started talking to them instead of the bartender. They told me they were on a tour and had an extra seat to get back to Sendai. One of the gentlemen offered me a ride back, which meant I didn’t have to walk back to the train station.

What I didn’t know is that the gentleman making the offer was the president of a company and the rest of the group were other company presidents who were his suppliers. Once a year they all met for an excursion. One last stop before heading to Sendai, they had fried tofu.

On the ride back they also asked if I wanted to join them for dinner, though it would be dutch. I had no idea it would be so fancy. Actually I had a slight idea so I went to Uniqlo and bought myself a shirt with a collar (¥500 on the sale rack!) because all I brought were the light t-shirts I use for working out.

Dinner was ¥10,000, but it was worth it.

And that doesn’t include the beer, wine, and dessert.

I’m meeting them tomorrow for a tour of Matsushima!

Some people don't believe my luck.

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