Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Sapporo and Okinawa

In May of 2017, 3 months after returning from Southeast Asia, Sasha and I were back up in the air again, this time for 3 weeks to Japan. We got an affordable return ticket direct to Tokyo from Vancouver and then realized that although domestic travel in Japan can be expensive, there are some very reasonably priced domestic flights also. Most people seem to buy a rail pass, especially for travel on the main island of Honshu, but for our route and timing, it was a better deal to get point to point tickets on buses and slower trains, forgoing the experience of riding the bullet trains.
We flew into Tokyo, got stamped in and walked over to the domestic terminal for an immediate flight north to Sapporo.
Our primary excuse for visiting Sapporo was to try to catch the tail end of the cherry blossom season, which slowly makes its way north and is a massive cultural phenomenon in Japan. Unfortunately the season was a little early so we didn't get the fullest of displays but still enjoyed the walks through the parks with what remained.
I might as well say it right at the beginning so there isn't any mistake about my bias. I loved Japan. I wish I could afford to go there all the time. I doubt there is a cleaner or safer country in the world. Yes it is culturally very quirky but by the end of the first day in Sapporo Sasha and I were so impressed we were ready to give them the keys to the world and say "just take over". Maybe this is a reflection of how nice Sapporo is but our opinions didn't really change as we continued along.  Sapporo is one of Japan's largest cities and the capital of Hokkaido, the large northern island that is most famous for its cold and wilderness in an otherwise densely populated country. Of course we had a pair of beautiful, warm spring days and spent the day wandering around town, through central Odori park and up to the Hokkaido shrine in Maruyama park.
Maruyama park

Hokkaido shrine
Odori park

We were pleased to see that we were just about the only western tourists walking around, but then we stopped and looked around some more. There were definitely not enough people of any sort walking around for a city of this size. Televised national event we were missing?  Alien abduction en masse? We eventually solved this mystery when we ventured down some stairs and discovered a whole underground city mirroring the one above. Except this one had all the people. A brilliant convenience for their cold winters, there were malls, cafes, restaurants, performers and street art all along an underground pedestrian street that must've gone on for kms. Very cool, but makes me worry about the type of winter that would inspire such efforts to hide from it. 
If you had asked me before this trip what my favourite cuisine was I would probably say Japanese so I was excited to get into that also. I love ramen and we probably ate more of it than anything else in Japan overall and Sapporo is known to have the best miso ramen, my favourite kind. It was glorious. Had I known how much better it would be than everywhere else I would've stopped walking and done more eating...

Definitely in Japan now

A tiny ramen place
 From Sapporo we flew all the way across Japan to the southernmost island, Okinawa. This was a mandatory stop because we were going to visit former student and family friend, Kaz, who now lives there with his two sons. We were to quickly figure out that Okinawa is tropical and not Japan. It felt like a different southeast Asian country. The roads, the architecture, the food, the people. All different. Part of this stems from the climate, part from the original, indigenous inhabitants, the Ryukyu, and part from the American military presence. Nearly a quarter of the island is taken up by the dozens of military bases with thousands of military personnel and their families living on the island. We stayed in a hotel right on the water in Chatan, a town built up outside the largest of the US military bases.  The military influence is such that it has it's own "American village", something of a themed nightlife area with restaurants and even a Ferris wheel.  For the first time in my life I had chicken and waffles and they were really good, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't the cultural experience I came here to find.

In front of our hotel in Chatan

We hung out with Kaz and his sons and friends.  He has an after school program for kids that started as a chess club and has moved into other activities too.  We visited the huge Okinawa Churaumi aquarium, one of the largest in the world when it was built.  It has one of the largest single tanks, with whale sharks and manta rays inside.  We also stopped at a nearby butterfly farm too.  We were lucky that the weather held up that day because our few days in Okinawa were plagued by wind and random thunderstorms.

Kaz killing me in chess


Aquarium time

That is a huge fish tank...

At least we were able to eat some great food too. Nothing like having a local to get you the good stuff. We were also able to see the traditional Okinawan Shurijo Castle in Naha city.  It tried to teach me something but I have to admit that I really don't know much about the original Okinawans.  Japan comes across as a very homogenous culture and indigenous groups are not as displayed or celebrated as in other countries.  All I know is that they are some of the longest lived people on the planet.

Best tuna sashimi ever

yum yum
Shurijo castle

Shurijo castle
If WW2 history is your thing there are also a few sites around the island to visit.  We refrained from getting into that.  Seeing all the modern military goings-on was enough for us.  In the end it was a quick 4 day visit, the time flew and before we knew it we were back on a flight to the "mainland".


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