For our 2017 winter break, my daughter Mei and I decided it was time for a second attempt at our previous trek from Tokyo to Sapporo for the Yuki Matsuri we had made two years prior. We reviewed what went well and what didn’t from that trip, the first time the two of us had traveled as a pair, and made adjustments we thought would help things go more smoothy. We also decided mom had been well-behaved over the past year and we would let her join us to see if she could handle our kinetic travel style. Mei and I consider it a good day if our feet and legs are sore by the time we get back to the hotel in the evening. This trip leaned more toward conventional tourism locations, for which I won’t belabor the descriptions, but also included a little urban study and important meetings on anime pilgrimage and contents tourism.
This has become my “nice to be back” photo stop when entering Tokyo via Haneda Airport. Can you guess where it is?
Since three of us are together this time, we splurge on a nicer hotel in Nishi-Shinjuku. It hadn’t occurred to me when I booked it that we’d be right across the street from the Tochō. It’s the first time any of us has seen it from this angle.
Though we’ve just arrived, I drag everyone along for a little work I need to do in Shimokitazawa. I’ve been documenting the street culture and infrastructure changes happening in this neighborhood since my first urban study trip to Tokyo in 2012. I usually come through once a year in the fall, but as I had run out of time in my 2016 September trip, want to knock this out before any more time goes by. These and additional photos will eventually become an entry in volume four of The Tokyo Project.
The old walkway that used to span the massive construction site is now closed, so I can’t peer down into the pit where the Odakyū Odawara Line used to be.
Several new station entrances are now in operation.
The vacated right-of-way is still a huge construction site.
We meet Butaitanbou Community (BTC) general manager Habusan for tenpura back in Shinjuku. The BTC is the highly engaged core of manga and anime-induced tourism in Japan and a focus area of my studies on place-based engagement. Habusan had wanted to mail me a copy of the new edition of Tanbōro, the dōjinshi created by BTC members, so I had suggested we all go out for dinner to catch up, instead of wondering whether the magazine would survive the China postal service.
A preliminary scan of anime goods at Nakano Broadway takes longer than planned, so we scrap our original lunch plan and stay in the neighborhood. From our 2016 trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, Mei and I know Aoba is both crushable and conveniently just outside the shōtengai on the way back to Nakano Station.
We move on to Akihabara, where there is a large Gashapon popup inside the station. My wife Min is a good sport and patiently follows us around as we bob from store to store. Raising a next generation otaku is good exercise.
In the evening, we meet up with Christian Dimmer, his wife Yu and their family for dinner. With three children to keep eyes on, there’s little time for urbanism shop talk, which is probably for the best. These days, everyone is so busy and over-scheduled, sometimes giving the brain a rest is the best way to spend time together.
Mei and I had planned to get up and take an early train out to Koshigaya to look for locations used in Kyoto Animation’s currently airing Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon, but we’re so tired from the previous day we decide it’s a sleep in kind of morning. While Min goes off on her own for a day of shopping in Shinjuku, the two of us head to Itabashi Ward for downtime before a busy afternoon and evening.
I kick myself for not realizing Ibuki, a nationally top ranked ramen shop, has been around the corner from our favorite neighborhood onsen for years. I had only learned about it from Brian MacDuckston’s Ramen Adventures shortly before our trip.
Neither Mei nor I grew up with the kind of fish mixed with pine, citrus and slightly bitter flavor you get from a dense niboshi (dried baby sardine) soup. It’s something we’ve really come to enjoy and seek out, particularly since—though katsuobushi isn’t hard to find—niboshi isn’t easy to come by outside of Japan.
Lazy onsen afternoon
Respects to Osamu Tezuka
The secondhand Snow Miku we had scouted the previous day appears to have been sold before we returned. After a frantic circuit around each floor of Nakano Broadway to make sure we hadn’t just missed it, we settle on a still boxed and pricier Figma version. It blows our agreed upon budget, but I feel a bit bad about having gotten her hopes up. It turns out to be the 2015 Snow Bell version, which was the limited edition figure from the year of our first trip to the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri.
Mei and her friend Saeed compare slurping techniques when our families get together for dinner.
On this trip, we decided to stop in Hakodate on the way up to Sapporo, rather than on the return trip.
Two years ago, travel on the Shin-Aomori to Hakodate leg meant riding the Hakuchō or Super Hakuchō through the Seikan Tunnel. Now, the first segment of the Hokkaidō Shinkansen between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations is in operation and the previous limited express trains have been retired. For the time being, the services on this leg are extended runs of the Tōhoku Shinkansen originating or ending at Tokyo/Sendai or Morioka/Shin-Aomori.
After we get our fill of the crisp and clean but very cold air on the way into the city, we thaw out with pancakes and hot chocolate near our hotel.
Because I write so much about urban issues and what I consider “real” neighborhoods, I think I sometimes give the impression that I’m averse to touristy things. On the contrary, I think you can’t look holistically at the culture of locations and shared experiences if you exclude these things. I can almost always learn something a little deeper than the face value entertainment offered, especially if its a unique local institution like a burger joint. But if we’re going to do touristy stuff, we do it right. Our first visit to Lucky Pierrot has to be to the Bay Area head shop, even if we have to march right past the much closer Jujigai Ginza branch to get to it.
As of the time of writing, there are 17 Lucky Pierrot shops dotting Hakodate. Each one has its own theme and are loved equally by locals and visitors. The original shop is known as the “Merry-go-round in the Forest” and features swing seats, a wooden horse and—as the head shop—many photographs and other mementos from its three decades of operation.
Food is cooked to order, so unlike a fast food chain it doesn’t come out immediately. The swing seats are initially all occupied, but Mei uses the time waiting for the food to stake out and claim the first one that becomes available.
The Hadokate Asaichi looks pretty much the same as the first time we visited. Without a blowing snow storm, we last a bit longer outside and get to see more of it this time.
Sea urchins, eaten from their shells
Across the street from the morning market, Seiryuken serves up a classic shio ramen so good it calls for a repeat visit.
Starting from the dock area and working our way back into town, we catch all of the Motomachi slope streets, which hadn’t been part of our itinerary on the previous visit. The vistas, a few seemingly familiar buildings, and the crows pecking about for food give me a sense of deja vu. Then I remember that I’m walking through the setting of the anime series Noein: Mō Hitori no Kimi e.
During the previous visit, high winds forced the Mount Hakodate observatory and ropeway to close early, so we weren’t able to see the famous night view of the city. This time, during our ascent and for the first hour or so atop the mountain the skies are near whiteout conditions with snow.
Fortunately the weather lets up after a while. The cloud cover never breaks, but the snow slows enough to get some clear photos as night approaches.
On to the snow festival! For the last leg to Sapporo we’re back on the Super Hokuto, which will continue to link Hakodate and Sapporo until the Hokkaidō Shinkansen is complete. The diesel engine still wreaks havoc on Mei’s motion sickness, but at least we’re ready for it this time.
We wander around the commercial complex integrated with Sapporo Station and find a treat while we wait for the hotel room to be available.
We arrive in Sapporo two days before the opening ceremony of the exhibition portions of the Yuki Matsuri, so we get to watch the blank slabs of snow and ice take shape as the event approaches.
On the way to dinner, we find sculptors putting finishing touches on and testing the lighting for Snow Miku.
As we near the closest tram stop, I spot the Snow Miku tram approaching and instinctively tell everyone we have to hurry to the platform and get on this car. I figured we’d see it during our few days in Sapporo, but hadn’t expected it to be the first tram we meet. It turns out to be a prescient decision, as it’s the only time we catch sight of the special car on this trip.
In addition to the current year’s marketing collateral, there is a miniature history of the past wrapping designs inside the car.
Sumire is the descendant of Junren, which though it didn’t originate it, created a richer bowl that established the shop as the standard bearer for Sapporo style miso ramen. Had I been traveling alone I might have ventured out to the head shop in Nakanoshima just for the experience, but I’m sure the bowls up here at the Susukino shop are just as good.
We all agree that, while clearly well-made, the heat from the ginger and heaviness from the oil layer on top of an already dense soup make it so intense that it’s a difficult bowl to enjoy all the way to the end if you aren’t a big fan of this style. I appreciate the craft the goes into a good bowl of ramen, even if it’s not one I’d choose for frequent slurps.
The snow and ice sculptures are still a day away from the official open, but the activity area at Tsudome has been up and running for several days already. We take the subway out to Sakaemachi, though we have trouble squeezing into the cars, which seem to be smaller than before.
Mei’s snowman building technique has definitely leveled up.
Aqours looks a bit chilly in this setting. Numazu gets cold in the winter, but not quite Hokkaidō cold.
While Min and Mei spend the morning at the Maruyama Zoo, I walk over to Hokkaidō University for a lunch meeting. I spend a couple of hours with Philip Seaton and Yamamura Takayoshi, two preeminent researchers of contents tourism, of which the anime-induced travel I study is a subset.
Seaton specializes in NHK taiga dramas. Yamamura focuses on anime tourism and can tell you anything you want to know about fan engagement in Washinomiya for Lucky Star. Before this meeting, I had thought I’d be doing a lot of listening, but end up doing a large share of the talking. As academic researchers, both professors make use of systematic methods drawing on broad data sets to make observations about the behavior of groups they study, with anecdotal evidence and interviews conducted to add context and explore specific issues. My study is casual and experiential, less consistent. But as someone embedded in the interest community, I work more like an ethnographer and the information I collect feels, to me, more connected to the daily routines and thought processes of individual members of the group. I think you ultimately need both approaches to see the whole picture, and it’s interesting to see where my micro observations match up with their macro conclusions.
On this day the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri officially opens. The three of us meet back in the city center in the afternoon to check out the ice sculpture area in Susukino.
This year there is an ice block slide at one end of the exhibition area. It’s a much steeper incline than the ones at Tsudome, so staff have to catch riders at the end, lest they go flying out into the street. Mei thinks it’s pretty great.
Bobsled or shinkansen?
After sunset, the temperature drops and we’re getting hungry, but it would be a pity to pass by the ice slide when there’s no line.
We return to Yukikaze, which in both my memory of our first visit and in this second helping, is a more subtle, creamier version of Sapporo style ramen that lets the miso shine on its own, perhaps with the help of just a bit of butter, rather than one like Sumire, laced with bolder flavors. Shop staff is amused when I show them the photos of the last time we came, when we ended up sitting elbow to elbow with the Kuroneko Yamato executive officer team.
Post-dinner slide—because there’s no such thing as too much sliding
Noria Ferris Wheel
We had been watching them take shape over several days, but on our last day in Sapporo we make a complete loop of all the snow sculptures in Ōdori Park.
A Hatsune Miku fan photographs a Miku doll in front of the Snow Miku stage while dressed in matching cosplay. I ask her if she made the doll herself, to which she proudly beams, “Yes! All parts are from Volks!”
The largest sculpture is again Star Wars themed this year.
But Nissin’s Cup Noodle sculpture and its snow slide might be our favorite.
You know times are strange when you think Pikotarō would not only out-Pen Pineapple Apple Pen Donald Trump, but could probably do a better job as president too.
We decide the weather is too nice not to take advantage of the view from Sapporo TV Tower this time.
But in the ten minutes between buying the tickets and taking the elevator up, snow clouds move in and visibility drops to just a few city blocks.
Ten minutes after that, the sun breaks through and dances through the park. We stay up on the observation level for several cycles of reappearing and disappearing snow.
The view from the restaurant level isn’t bad either.
We catch one of the Star Wars light shows on the way back from dinner.
We’ve passed through this area every evening as it’s very close to our hotel, but we take one last look at the now completed Snow Miku zone before we head back to get our suitcases ready for the following morning departure.
This child was definitely smaller than Miku the last time she was here.
After a full day of trains from Sapporo back to Tokyo, we have a happy reunion planned for our last evening in Japan. A year prior, we were greeted by closed shutters when we followed Brian out to Kintoki in Nerima Ward on one of his ramen adventures. We were too late to catch it before soup ran out for the day. Though we placated Mei with a replacement shop nearby, I promised we’d return for a second try when we had the opportunity. Unfortunately the Seibu Ikebukuro Line is frozen by signal problems and we end up making poor Brian wait for us for half an hour at Ekoda Station, but I’m relieved when we finally reach the shop with plenty of time and soup to spare.
Kintoki is interesting in that it serves two solid but very different bowls. Mei goes with the clean but flavorful shio.
I go with the soupless tantanmen, a style Brian turned me on to when he came to visit us while we were still living in Beijing and he went hunting for dan dan mian. At Kintoki, both routes are excellent.
Mei had been hearing about Brian’s python Jake for years, and before this trip told me she was ready for a first meeting. They’re a little leery of each other at first, but warm quickly.
Airport ramen used to mean something to be avoided like the plague, but airports in Japan seem to have responded by really upping their offerings in the recent few years. The branch of Rokurinsha in the international terminal at Haneda Airport is a great final meal before heading off to whatever ramen desert you may be traveling to.
With that, we’re ready to call this trip completed, and we’re happy that we were able to take care of all the unfinished business, catch up with old friends, and make a few new ones. Even before the road salt residue has been rubbed off the wheels of our suitcases, we’re already thinking about what might make for a good next adventure.