I had always wanted to go to Japan. Somehow, a childhood filled with Japanese video games, anime and Doraemon comics had given me an unexplainable connection with this strange land.
My body is ready, I tell myself as the plane lands in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. I am ready to reconnect with my childhood memories, to become one with the culture I felt I had already assimilated.
I arrive in Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo at the start of autumn. The city, with its tree-lined streets, glows red and gold in the evening. The sky is a cloudless clear blue, and the air is sweet and light.
Unlike the neon jungles down south, Sapporo seems to be a metropolis that has the homeliness of a neighbourhood. And in many ways, the people of Sapporo are a curious lot. I am thoroughly impressed with their politeness – they actually wait for the green pedestrian sign to cross; they line up to go to their freakishly clean public toilets; and they are always ready to laugh and chat with foreigners. But they are also strange. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but those odd Internet Japanese commercials are not far off from the real thing.
I am taken aback by some of the culture that my video games did not teach me. For instance, being late to the bus from the hotel seems like a stinging insult to them. Never ever share food lest you want to be barked at; rubbing your chopsticks together is a no-no; and I still can’t get accustomed to how frequently they bow. I am a fish out of water here, and the experience is only going to get stranger.
In my birthday suit
I open the paper sliding door to find my hotel room in the Jozankei hot spring resort is in ryokan style. The floor is made of Japanese rice straw which you sleep on with a cosy tatami mattress. In the closet is an indigo robe which looks like the ones that anime heroes wear.
I put it on, tie the sash and slip on the sandals that come with it. I feel so Japanese right now! Everyone wears these robes in Jozankei. I strut into the lobby in all my pseudo-Japanese glory, to hear my tour guide exclaim: “Ah! You will be joining us for the bath?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
This place is an onsen, a public bath house. The robes are bath robes, she replies. Hotel guests wear it into the hot springs where they bathe together. Au naturel. Chills run up my body. What have I gotten myself into? This isn’t in any of the Japanese shows that I’ve watched!
After dinner, my tour group heads to the hot springs. Dragging my feet, I plead with my guide: Can I wear swimming trunks? Underwear, at least?
It’s a no. It is the culture here and I need not feel shy, she says. “No one will look,” she giggles as she leads the ladies into the women’s section.
So I bite my tongue, strip in the locker room and run into the hot springs as fast as I can. I dive into the steaming pool with the least number of people and retreat into a corner. Almost immediately, though, I am pulled out butt-naked by another naked man.
He points to a sign that instructs guests to scrub down at a seated shower station before soaking in the springs. I smile awkwardly and walk over there with my hands cupping myself. As I hose myself, I finally become aware of the room I am in.
The onsen seems more like a spa than a hot spring. Grecian statues and a large tsunami painting overlook four large pools with sulphur-tinged water gushing from the outlets. The bamboo roof is damp and I notice how hard it is to breathe in the heavy air.
In the pool, my skin tingles from the 39°C spring water. My body unspools into a vegetative state and I feel as if my muscles are melting away. The ground water of the onsen has healing properties, say the Japanese. Above the water, however, my mind is tense. There are five others bathing in the same crock as me. And it bothers me how OK they are about it!
The springs are wonderful, but this is just not my thing. I stay as long as my nerves allow me, and when I leave, my skin is as smooth as silk but my soul disturbed. But if sharing bath water is not a problem, travellers can take a dip here for ¥1,500 (RM53).
Eating until it hurts
I am in Odori Park for the annual Autumn Festival to try some mouth-watering seafood. Everything looks like the plastic preview food-court dishes, with their curiously appetising colour. Hokkaido restaurants are so confident with their fresh seafood: They serve them grilled, with no seasoning or sauce.
What I get is the unfettered taste of the Japanese sea. I try butter baked scallops the size of my palm (¥300/RM10.50) and giant grilled oysters that cost ¥2,800 (RM98) for a batch of eight. My favourite is the refreshing Kaisen-don (¥1,400/RM49), a bowl of rice topped with icy sashimi, prawns, crabs and salty sea urchin.
I head to Sapporo’s famous ramen street. It is a tiny alley in the red light district, with a dozen restaurants that can barely fit 10 people each but it is a must-try for ramen lovers, because this is where miso ramen was invented. The springy noodles are served with pork, egg and vegetables in bowls the size of a dipper, for ¥800 (RM28). I drink up the savoury miso broth and am told by the chef to slurp it as a compliment to him. “Even Anthony Bourdain did it,” he says, pointing to a signed picture of the celebrity chef on the wall.
Next, I visit a beer garden to eat Jingisukan, lovingly called the “soul food” of Hokkaido. Waiters bring in tender, thinly sliced lamb by the plate that is barbecued with vegetables on a hot plate. The plates are styled after the army helmets of Genghis Khan, hence the name. I get 100 minutes to eat as much lamb as I want for ¥3,900 (RM136) and I stuff myself with juicy mutton until I feel ashamed of myself.
My search for dessert brings me to Shiroi Koibito Park, a chocolate factory that looks like a kid’s candy dream world. Here, I gorge on Hokkaido’s exclusive white lovers chocolate that can be bought for ¥1,500 (RM53) per box. There are also divine melon cheesecakes (¥1,000/RM35) and fresh ice cream (¥300/RM10.50) that I enjoy while taking in the factory’s autumn garden.
Everything is close by in Sapporo but for the rest of Hokkaido, the journey from one place to another takes hours.
“We’d get there sooner if we drove faster,” I remark. But the bus cannot go over the speed limit, the guide replies. I ask how would anyone know we are going over the limit – and she stares at me in disbelief. Manners are everything in Japan, even on the road.
I ride east to the Akan National Park in Teshikaga, to get up-close with an active volcano in Mount Iozan. I’m kilometres away yet I can already smell pungent sulphur and see steam rising hundreds of feet high. The mountain side looks like the stuff of an alien planet. Yellow sulphurous rocks dot Iozan’s craggy grey wasteland, spewing steam and boiling water from its vents.
The strong wind offers a drifting smell of the volcano that isn’t too overwhelming and the mountain trail offers a different scenery from Hokkaido’s carotene autumn.
Here I find locals selling overpriced eggs, which were cooked by the natural heat of the mountain. It doesn’t taste any different but it’s a novelty.
Further up north from Teshikaga is the windswept coastal city of Monbetsu, home to a seal sanctuary. The Okhotsk Tokkari Center is a small, mostly outdoor shelter that is punishing to stand around in during the cold. But the seals here, named after the fishermen who rescued them, make the trip worth it.
The best time to see the seals is during the five daily feeding times where you can get close to the seals and even pet them. The seals are quite cute. I had to stop myself from uttering Aww as the little ones rolled around and slapped their fins on their bellies for attention. Tickets to the centre are about ¥200 (RM7) per entry.
Japan’s last frontier has so much more to offer than I can experience in a week. But I have seen enough to confirm that Japan really is a place that can restore childlike wonder in a traveller.
For a video of the trip, click here.
This trip was made possible by AirAsia X; Hokkaido District Transport Bureau; the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry; and the city of Sapporo. AirAsia X flight flies from Kuala Lumpur to Sapporo every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.