Travelogue pieces aren’t really my thing. Though I’m often photographing and writing about places where I do not live, the focus of my articles and photo essays has generally been on urban design, civic engagement and community culture. To the extent possible, I try to draw out details that would be most relevant to people who live there, or who would like to live there, or business and urban planning professionals who would like to understand the dynamics of that particular place, rather than a casual visitor passing through. Having said all that, I do enjoy a good trek as much as anyone else, even more when it can lead me to discover places I might want to return to later for a deeper look, and particularly when I get to share the experience with one of my favorite people.
The plan for this twelve day trip began with the thought to ride the sleeper train Hokutosei from Tokyo to Sapporo in 2015 February, during its last month of regular service before being retired. We would take the overnight train up in time for the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, then return via Super Hokuto, Super Hakuchō and Tōhoku Shinkansen, making a stop or two on the way back to Tokyo. I had reserved all the hotel rooms and more or less set the itinerary, only to discover that everyone else had the same idea with regard to Hokutosei. Despite the best efforts of friends in Tokyo trying to wrangle up tickets, the overnight train turned out not to be in the cards for us. We were briefly bummed that we wouldn’t get the chance to experience one of the last ‘blue trains’, but then realized it meant an opportunity to make an extra stop on the way up instead. Thus began our little expedition to the north.
Shanghai and Tokyo are not that far from each other, but with transit time to get to Pudong, airport security and customs on both ends, and the trip from Narita into the center of Tokyo, it still ends up being a long travel day. We take a morning flight to get a jump on the day, which means a really early wake up. The pink and orange sunrise was our reward for dragging ourselves out of bed.
My travel companion is my (then three, about to turn four-year-old) daughter Mei. I had taken her around Tokyo for a few days while we accompanied my wife on a business trip the previous summer, but this is the first time just the two of us are taking a trip together. It will be a steep learning curve, probably more for me than her.
Mei’s fourth birthday will fall during our trip. We’ve explained to her that, while there will be a cake and a present or two waiting for her at home, this trip comprises the bulk of her gift. My wife and I hope to raise her to understand the difference between the strong but transient happiness of acquiring material possessions with the more subtle but lasting happiness that comes from having an experience. Going on an adventure is a gift we create for ourselves.
We get into Narita safe and sound but tired. I tell her about my very first time in Japan, taking the same Keisei Main Line train into the city to stay for a few months as a student, as we watch rural Chiba turn into gritty northeast Tokyo.
We have one day in Tokyo on the front end, which we use to run errands and catch up with friends. We head over via the Arakawa Line tram to meet Christian and Yu and their two girls for a romp around Arakawa Shizen Park.
I realize Mei has never been on a streetcar before. The ride there becomes part of the experience.
The park has lots of open space, greenery and equipment for children. As the kids play, I also get a mini lecture on the various oddly shaped benches in the park, all designed to prevent Tokyo’s homeless population from using them to sleep. Christian is a professor of urban studies at Waseda University. He sees design like this and is disappointed that planners choose to push a problem to some other place, rather than address its root causes.
There is a large water treatment plant on the same parcel of land, with this long pedestrian footbridge that flies over the settling tanks, taking us all the way back to the tram line. Taking a walk with Christian is always a treat, as he shares all of the odd discoveries he has made living and studying urban design in Tokyo for many years.
Christian and Yu take us to their favorite local sushi shop, Edoshō. While waiting for our food, Christian strikes up a conversation with other diners at the bar. We’re deep in Arakawa Ward, so while the food quality is high, the experience is casual, communal, unpretentious and easy on the wallet.
This is he kind of place that will serve a simple and satisfying omakase—
—but happily roll up some kanikama (fake crab meat) and cucumber for picky eaters.
It might have been faster just to walk back to Minowa Station, but Mei wants to take the tram two stops for fun. No objection from dad.
I’ve done weekday afternoon and evening photowalks at the Joyful Minowa Shōtengai, next to the Arakawa Line Minowabashi terminus. The Saturday early afternoon crowd is livelier than I expect, very different from the normally sedate shopping arcade.
We stop at Ueno Station to pickup our reserved train tickets for the next week. There is an umbrella art exhibition in the main concourse. Random.
Hey, it’s the Chūō Line!
Hey, it’s Brian! We meet our friend and ramen guru for a snack at mAAch ecute, the retail and restaurant development created out of the remnants of former Manseibashi Station in Kanda. Cafe N3331 is a glass box on the building roof, wedged between the train tracks.
I’ve forgotten to pack my computer mouse, so we walk across the river to Akihabara where I pickup a cheap Logitech knockoff that I hope will last the ten remaining days. Brian takes us to a craft beer/Indian food restaurant in Kanda for dinner. Mei doesn’t take too well to spicy foods, so he and I divide everything into the hot and tame components and put together a plate of things she will eat. Brian is a good guy.
We have some time before our morning shinkansen, so we wander around Ueno Station. My Japanese friends like to joke that Platform 13 is a euphemism for using the restroom, thanks to the funny juxtaposition of signage.
We notice there are people lined up with cameras at the ready all along the platform, but it doesn’t initially occur to me the reason for it.
A moment later, I realize this is the time the Tokyo bound Hokutosei reaches the Ueno terminus each day. Not quite the same as getting to ride it, but still fun to watch the celebrity treatment it gets.
We wait in Ueno’s underground cave for our Hayabusa to sweep in and begin the first northbound leg.
This is Mei’s first ride on a shinkansen. Both of us have taken many trips on the gaotie in China, but Japan’s shinkansen are a somewhat different experience. The ride is smoother, carriage interiors are more plushly outfitted and kept immaculately clean, policies on no cell phone use in cars and no smoking on station platforms are strictly enforced and followed. China builds a lot of beautiful hardware, but the software is still catching up.
It is compulsory to stand and wait to wave goodbye to the train. I also notice that here, and each subsequent time we do this, older passengers continuing on the train wave to us as they depart.
Our extra stop is one night in Sendai. The city has some shōtengai and green spaces that I want to give a quick look. It’s also the explicit setting of anime series Wake Up, Girls!, which was very popular among the pop culture tourism community I study.
Though I probably explained five times about not being able to get Hokutosei tickets, Mei is still confused why this is not Sapporo. She stops at every pile of remaining snow and asks if I’m sure the snow festival isn’t really here.
Look, more snow.
We have a pancake lunch at 38mitsubachi, which featured in Wake Up, Girls! and was a popular destination for anime pilgrims.
With temperatures dropping and a light rain starting, we decide to forego the outdoor explorations. We pickup our luggage from the train station locker and head to the hotel to wait out the rain, then return later to stroll the covered shōtengai near Sendai Station and find some dinner. The station and several of these arcades also appear in Wake Up, Girls!
Hapina Nakakechō Shōtengai
Clis Road Shōtengai
Mei’s Hello Kitty radar is unaffected by the cold temperature.
Marble Road Ōmachi Shōtengai
Sunmall Ichibanchō Shōtengai
Live house MACANA, which featured in Wake Up, Girls!, is located in this arcade.
Sendai Bunka Yokochō
Ichibanchō Ichibangai Shōtengai Vlandome
We’re up early to catch another Hayabusa from Sendai Station to Shin-Aomori Station. Though we saw the snow coming into Shin-Aomori from the shinkansen, we aren’t really prepared for the arctic blast standing on the platform to change to the Super Hakuchō. (At the time of writing, Hakuchō and Super Hakuchō services have been retired, replaced by the first leg of the Hokkaidō Shinkansen between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations.)
When we emerge on the other side of the Seikan Tunnel, it’s still near whiteout conditions.
Eventually the snow lets up for a bit, and both of us get our first look of Hokkaidō.
It’s a quick transfer across the platform to the Super Hokuto at Hakodate Station, so fast we don’t even have time for a photo. Lucky that we didn’t lose anything or anyone! Super Hokuto takes us along the Pacific coast before turning inland toward Sapporo.
We check in and leave our bags at our hotel near Sapporo Station, then return to the west ticket gate area to meet Beetle (びーとる @SSEBTBM883) for a quick greeting as he’s commuting home from work. Beetle is part of the Hokkaidō branch of the butaitanbou community, the core group within the subculture of anime and manga tourism that I study. We had communicated before only via Twitter, so it was great to say hello in person and put a face to a name.
Leaving from Sendai instead of Tokyo only shortened the trip by a couple of hours, so it was still a full day of train travel, with an abrupt change in climate greeting us at the end. We treat ourselves to a big bowl of miso ramen, Sapporo’s contribution to the ramen world, at one of the shops in the Sapporo Ramen Republic, half a floor of Sapporo ESTA, one of the buildings in the Sapporo Station complex.
The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri is already up and running when we arrive in the city. On the walk to Ōdōri Park for our first sweep of the snow sculptures, we stop at the former Hokkaidō Government Office. The historic building is a tourism point-of-interest in its own right, but it’s also used as the model for the academy in anime series Sora no Method.
Getting ready for the Hokkaidō Shinkansen
The south facing side of the main Sapporo Station building strikes a bold pose. The recognizable plaza has appeared in at least a few anime series, most recent in my memory is Gin no Saji.
After an afternoon nap and laundry, we head back to Ōdōri Park to see the snow sculptures lit up after dark.
Choco banana get
Ban’ei horse racing is unique to a nearby region of Hokkaidō, and was featured in Gin no Saji.
Sapporo is home turf for Hatsune Miku. The vocaloid character’s creator Crypton Future Media is headquartered here.
We take the subway out to Sakaemachi for the interactive activities at the Sapporo Community Dome, or Tsudome. On the way, we give our seat to an elderly woman who is so shocked and a little embarrassed that only the foreigner with a small child is willing to get up that she starts handing onigiri to us from her bag. I think it’s her lunch. We make up a story that we just ate a big breakfast and put them back as we tell her where we came from.
Neither Mei nor I have the guts to ride an inner tube down the big snow slide, which is much larger than it looks in this photo! Maybe next time. We try the bunny slope nearby instead, which uses mini saucers. Mei does a complete wipe out at the bottom—not hurt, but a little dazed. I get my sleeves full of snow when I try to stop at the end. We begin to question the wisdom of our choice.
Snowman building area
Someone finally gets her day in the snow.
Fuel injected snow blower test drive area—is one way you might know you’re in Hokkaidō.
We head inside the dome to thaw out and find some great miso and shoyu ramen from a local shop. Many of the food vendors are not generic event caterers but pop up shops of Sapporo businesses.
After an afternoon nap, we head back into the city center to walk Tanuki-kōji Shōtengai—to my knowledge, the only covered shopping street in Sapporo. The arcade intersects with the long underground pedestrian concourse that begins all the way up at Sapporo Station and ends in Susukino, the nightlife district. The concourse facilitates movement along this axis during winter months, but we still get good and numb from the cold soon after coming up to the surface, even in the arcade.
One of the streets through Susukino is closed to vehicle traffic and hosts the ice sculpture area of the festival.
We follow Brian’s recommendation for miso ramen at nearby Yukikaze. He wasn’t exaggerating, this is the best miso I’ve ever had. Rich with umami and fat, not just in-your-face saltiness like many.
We’re unexpectedly joined for dinner by the regional executive officers of Yamato Transport, known to most Japanese as Kuroneko (black cat, after its highly recognizable logo), the massive delivery and logistics company. They’re first surprised to hear me order in Japanese. Then they can’t believe I’m traveling alone with a three year old, and a game of 100 questions begins. The guy behind Mei is Osano Hidenori, the vice president for the Chūgoku region. He game me a business card and told me to get in touch if I was traveling near him. (To my surprise, he wasn’t kidding about about that. We met for coffee at Hiroshima Station one morning as we were crossing paths the following summer. Really nice guy.)
We love our time in Sapporo and would like to come again, but it’s back to the rails for our next leg. We use our spare time in the morning to meditate over coffee and doughnuts and pickup some ekiben at Sapporo Station for our ride.
It’s a nice sunny day and we’re looking forward to a relaxing trip down to Hakodate.
Unfortunately, the diesel engine Super Hokuto isn’t a very smooth ride, which doesn’t agree with Mei’s motion sickness. Stomach contents are revisited. Twice. It isn’t much fun for either of us, but I am impressed by how deftly the train attendant handles everything. She pulls replacement seat cushions from a hidden compartment at the end of the train carriage and has everything switched out and cleaned up within a matter of minutes, with a smile through all of it. It would have been nicer not to need such care, but this is the kind of service I appreciate the most.
The scenery is amazing, though.
After a rest and emergency laundry load at the hotel, we head out for some famous Hakodate shio ramen. I figure what could be better than a light chicken noodle soup after a gastrointestinal episode. Seiryuken is around the corner from us, but the tenchō apologetically tells us that he’s just run out of soup for the evening. We end up at Daimon Yokochō, a collection of yatai near Hakodate Station that looks suspiciously like it was just setup for tourists, but we find a little ramen shop and make the best of it. Mei decides her stomach is up for more miso ramen. I consider warning her that it’s probably not going to be anything as nice as the previous night’s dinner, but figure she’s had a rough day and ought to get whatever strikes her fancy. We play another game of 100 questions, this time with a middle aged woman who appears to be drinking off the stress of the day. We manage to get through a conversation about multilingual children, daycare in China, and urban design in Hakodate before she drifts into a meditative state. I think the day ended on a much better note than it started for all of us.
We’re feeling much better the next morning, when we’re up and out early for the Hakodate Asaichi, the city’s morning seafood market.
A vendor unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Mei to come play with a giant crab.
This is how I shoot in below freezing temperatures. With openings for thumps and forefingers, I can grab most of the dials and buttons.
The kitchen is hopping at Seiryuken, where this time there’s plenty of soup as the lunch crowd pours in.
Mei has had ramen many times before this trip, but with just the two of us together in these unrushed meals, we have time to talk about things like what makes a shio different from a shoyu or tonkotsu, and how to slurp your noodles.
This is the signal to stop taking photos of the soup and just eat.
We work on drinking soup from the bowl and ending with an audible exhale to show the chef how much you like the food.
A snow storm has us hiding inside for the afternoon, so we cancel our daytime plans to walk around the waterfront and up some of the Motomachi slopes, but the weather clears up by early evening. We head out on the street car toward the ropeway for Mount Hakodate.
Seems we’ll have to go back sometime to see our ten million dollar night view. The ropeway and observatory were closed in the afternoon due to the weather. It’s a pity to miss the view with the crystal clear air after the storm.
We make do with the view from the tour bus parking area. Not quite the same, but we have a good time talking with some Chinese tourists from Fujian, who think it funny that they came all the way here only to get to see two Mandarin speaking laowai.
This sort of situation is helpful for me to teach Mei that we can’t always predict or control our circumstances, and it’s important to think about how to adapt when things don’t go our way.
In this instance it turns out just fine, as we have time to take a look at the brick warehouses we’d skipped earlier. The historic buildings have been relegated to a tourist trap, but it does make it easy for us to find dinner.
If Hello Kitty were a drink, she might be a cream soda with pink ice.
Who needs a mountain anyway, when the best place to play is the snow drift right down the street from the hotel.
We’re ready to take the Super Hakuchō again, this time on the return trip toward Tokyo. I’m hoping the smoother ride of the electric engine will be kind to us.
With very different weather than we had on the trip up, we can now see the city and mountain from clear across Hakodate Bay.
Much to our relief, lunch has a successful one way journey this time.
As we get off at Shin-Aomori Station for the transfer to the Tōhoku Shinkansen, we strike up a conversation with another passenger who turns out to be on the board of the chamber of commerce for Fukushima, the town where the Seikan Tunnel exits in Hokkaidō, who is on business in Aomori. It’s too bad we didn’t meet him at the beginning of the ride, as regional activation is something I follow with a good deal of interest, but at least we have a chance to exchange contact information before Mei and I dash over to the shinkansen platform.
Dad, the shinakansen are kissing.
Today is Mei’s fourth birthday, so we have a big night planned now that we’re back in Tokyo.
After our week in Hokkaidō, it feels like springtime in the metropolis. It’s a nice evening for a walk along the Sumida River.
The Himiko doesn’t just look like it came straight out of a cartoon for no reason, it’s designed by manga and anime creator Matsumoto Reiji.
Cat cafe birthday dinner
I have trouble finding a bakery around our hotel, but the food hall at Matsuya Asakusa comes to the rescue.
Since we’re already here, I take her for a walk around Sensō-ji before we head back with our cake.
I’ve been waiting eight years to retake this photo with a nicer camera than the ancient 2MP PowerShot I had when I first came to Japan. I tell Mei about landing at Narita on New Year’s Eve, jetlagged, coming straight to Sensō-ji for the crazy crowds of hatsumōde after I had dropped off my luggage at a budget ryokan in Asakusa. I was so tired then, I can no longer tell what parts of the memory were real and what may have been hallucinations, but it’s fun to retrace those steps and think about all of the things in my life that have changed since then.
I’m afraid to use candles and possibly set off the smoke detector in the hotel room, but our birthday cake is yummy just the same.
We’re zero for two with tall places and wind this trip.
We do a little shopping for anime goods at Nakano Broadway before meeting friends Saeko and Muni and their two boys for dinner in Shinjuku. Saeko was one of the people that tried to get our Hokutosei tickets. The three of us adults first met as graduate students at Hitotsubashi University years ago. I’ve been watching these boys sprout up for as long as I’ve been making urban commons field study trips to Japan and we all keep in touch via Facebook, but this is Mei’s first time to meet them in person.
No lines at the Shinjuku Krispy Kreme these days.
We have better luck with Tokyo Skytree on the second attempt. I tend to avoid these kinds of things, but it’s a bit more fun with a kid. After hauling my 14mm wide angle all the way to Hokkaidō only to miss Mount Hakodate due to weather, at least I get to take a photo of something big.
Lazy onsen afternoon
We put our luggage in a coin locker so that we can do some last minute shopping in Akihabara before we head to the airport to return home.
So many choices
Not enough 100 yen coins
A final tonkotsu ramen meal on the food level of Yodobashi Camera
My work here is done.
Setbacks and surprises notwithstanding, it’s still been a great trip. I learned a lot about moving at Mei’s pace. This often means slowing down to pay attention to the small details I’ve passed so many times I take them for granted. The past twelve days gave us many shared experiences we’ll be able to recall and tell others about for years. But for now, two tired travelers are ready to go home and get a good sleep.