Wednesday, July 27, 2016
KH had planned a day of physical exertion on Mount Asahi-dake. Before leaving Furano, we topped up our fuel. Our first experience was at a full-service Japanese petrol station by Idemitsu. Upon driving in, grim-looking staff gave a deep bow and directed us to an available island. While one guy was filling our tank, another jumped to the front and started to rub our windscreen rigorously. Bug splatter is really difficult to clean. When we were ready to go, they gave us another deep bow. Didn't even need to get out of the car. Fantastic.
The drive up to Asahi-dake Ropeway was quite leisurely with many slopes and tunnels. The slopes have timber fencing at regular intervals to avoid snowfall from inundating roads during winter. Along the way are also parking areas where drivers can stop to put on snow chains on their wheels.
The gondolas at the Asahi-dake Ropeway were large and empty. Perhaps not the season to be at Asahi-dake. But even in spring, the snow on Mount Asahi-dake seems untouched. The mountain was white all the way with just a few patches of evergreen. We were not expecting snow hiking. Seriously, we did not have the right gear. Walked out of the station in our sneakers and it was super hard to progress. Kept sinking into the 2 metres of snowfall and our feet were getting wet. Thankfully, a Japanese tourist pointed us to the back of the station to collect gum boots which made it easier to walk in the snow. However, for proper adventuring, snowshoes and poles were needed.
With the gum boots, we were able to make it to the first view point with ease. However, KH wasn't as sure-footed, waddling like a penguin. Although there was snow all around us, we didn't feel cold. Actually sweated. Amazing. Halfway to the second viewpoint was a steaming pond. Snow there is the powdery type, owing to the Arctic winds. KH says it's the best for skiing.
For our return trip, KH seemed to have misplaced our Ropeway tickets, but the conductor recognized us so he let us board anyway. Back at the Sugatami Ropeway station, we did some souvenir shopping. The short hike in the snow had left us hungry, so we drove to Asahikawa Ramen Village for lunch. The collection of ramen shops was established in some years back and is made up of around 8 renowned restaurants. With limited tummy space, we only managed to try two shops, one being Saijio and the other Ittetsu-an. The former specializes in broth made from ukkekei (silky fowl) while the latter uses pork bones. Truth be told, we were not very impressed with both choices. The Asahikawa Ramen Village also has a souvenir shop and a shrine to the ramen gods. If the brochure is to be believed, lovers pray there so that "their relationships will be as hot as ramen broth and last as long as noodles".
In the vicinity of Asahikawa Ramen Village is several shopping joints, e.g. Uniqlo, Aoki, Ashbee, a supermarket, and a drug store. Bought some beauty products at the drug store and experienced first hand the new Japanese tax free procedures. Rebate of the 8% consumption tax can be processed at any of the 29,000 odd tax free shops in Japan. One just needs to spend ¥5,000 on either consumables/food or general items. Both categories cannot be combined. The staff will require your passport and issue a special invoice that will be attached in your passport. The consumable products will be sealed and the package should not be tampered before leaving Japan. At the airport, one should submit the invoice to customs but product inspection is not required. The trust system! Haha.
On the way back to Furano, we stopped at countless convenience stores and supermarkets along the way just for fun. Dinner was bought at Bestom, some 10 KM out of town. Really makes me wonder how much the Japanese drink with booze the size of cooking oil containers. Interestingly, they use a hybrid check out counter approach. Staff scan and pack the goods but when it comes to payment, customers are directed to a separate self-service payment station. Cuddled on the bed and had a spread of pork katsu, grilled chicken skewers, seasoned seaweed, Hokkaido beer, Hokkaido apples, and mochi. A simple day out.
Monday, July 25, 2016
The Natulux Furano Hotel provided pajamas which were like button up night gowns. Such a design made it easy for early morning skank sessions. Once that was ticked off the list, we freshened up and went looking for breakfast. In Japan, one can't see stalls of pork noodles or wantan noodles so we had our first meal of the day at McDonald's! Ordered the most babi-fied item on the menu which was a Double Sausage McMuffin with bacon, cheese and egg. With a McMuffin in had, we sat at the counter staring out at the vast parking lot that it shared with Homec. Interesting to note that the NanoBlock thingy was still going on in Japan and they use manga style illustrations for recruitment posters.
First stop was the Furano Winery which is Japan's Northern-most winery. Before heading to up to the hill, we stopped by the river for a short morning walk where we could hold hands and enjoy the cool air. As expected, there wasn't much of anything to see at the winery. One could only view the packing process of the bottled wine. There wasn't even a vineyard nearby, and the lavender garden wasn't in bloom (at least there was some pink moss out front and we were amused by a couple of serious selfie takers Hell-bent on getting the perfect shot). However, visitors could help themselves to the bottles of wines that they leave lying around. As with all of these local product factories, the main point is the shop. Bought a bottle of wine, wine jam, and wine chocolates. Later in our journey we would come to realize that those products would be easily available at other spots for the same price.
Although we knew it was off-season, we made a gamble and headed to Saika-no-Sato Flower Garden. We were rewarded with a bleak hill. Haha. Should be beautiful in a month or so. But there was some rapeseed flowers growing on a field at the side, so we took a few pictures there.
Nearby was another attraction called Farm Tomita, which specializes in planting lavender. For the benefit of visitors they had one blooming patch at the entrance and in the greenhouse. All their other fields were awaiting the next season. The farm sold all sorts of lavender products and also boasts of the largest dried flower house. A great place to chill and enjoy a cone of lavender ice cream while watching the tulips swaying in the breeze. Right beside Farm Tomita is Tomita Melon House which specializes in melons. Although they share the same name, seems like they are rivals judging from the signs out front. Unfortunately, it was off season for Tomita Melon.
One of the lunch recommendations from Nic and POD was Woody Life, a cottage-style inn. As you can guess from the name, wood is the main theme. All the structures are log cabins and decorated with wooden furniture and trinkets. When we walked in, the place was empty except for the owner's youngest son. He greeted us and asked us a very important question: "Do you eat curry?". Reminds me of the famous quote from Punjabi bouncers in 80s Hong Kong movies: "朋友, 你吃咖喱?". The menu had only two items, which was black vegetable curry and black pork curry. We chose the latter as it was his signature item. The black curry was prepared with thirty herbs and spices, and was paired with grilled local vegetables (onion, asparagus, aubergine, mushrooms, wild yam, potato and carrot). On a scale of one to ten, the spiciness was only a two, but the taste was a solid eight.
Since business was slow, the owner's son told us some background about the place. And since we were East Asian, he told us that Woody Life was the location of Miriam Yueng's special music video some fourteen years ago when she was a newcomer in the music scene. Together with Louis Khoo, they filmed for a whole day there. He even played the DVD for us and pointed out all the relevant scenes. "Miriam was sitting here and Louis was in that chair....". Well, you get the idea.
Got some pointers about where to go from there and headed to Blue Pond. In my opinion, it wasn't exactly blue, more blue green like those glacier-fed lakes in the Canadian Rockies. Not a very touristy place. Actually a lake formed from an erosion control system that was put in place to protect Biei in case Mt. Tokachi-dake erupted. Left shortly after and drove up to the Mount Tokachi-dake.
Just as we were approaching Park Hills Hotel, we saw a whole bunch of people to the side walking to a pedestrian bridge hidden from view (Pokemon Go had not been released then). Being the busybodies we were, we parked our car and followed them. It was good call because the bridge presented a view of Shirahige waterfall. Right across the bridge was a long flight of steps to the Mount Tokachi-dake Volcano Center. Not worth the 0.7 KM hike up especially with my sore thighs from the earlier 'nocturnal squatting session'. We watched a short video about the volcanic activity of Mount Tokachi-dake and basically another eruption is expected in the near future.
The drive up to Mount Tokachi-dake was a very pleasant one because it offered fantastic views of the snowy peaks. Even along the roads, the snow had not thawed giving the surroundings a semi-winter feel. At the end of the road was Tokachi-dake Hot Springs where we spotted our first Ezo fox lounging on the rocks. We went in to inquire about the public baths and we were disappointed that the open air hot spring was not available for men that day (they alternate it between the men and the women). The friendly keeper directed us to try Kamihoroso Hot Spring which we had passed by on the way up.
I was a bit hesitant about hot springs in Japan and had earlier did some research on YouTube. It's quite easy really. Take off your shoes, stow them away on the shelves, and wear the provided sandals. At Kamihoroso, they use the vending machine ticketing system. Access to the baths was ¥600 while it cost an extra ¥100 if you did not bring your own towel. If you need to use the toilet before going in to the baths, change into the toilet sandals (usually a different color to avoid mix ups) before proceeding. At the locker room, change out of your clothes and lock up your valuables. Once naked, go to the shower area where you will see stools and a bucket facing a mirror with a shower head. Sit down and thoroughly clean yourself with the shower gel and shampoo provided. Do not do it standing up. Rinse off all the suds and once you're clean, you can move into the hot tub where the water is a lovely 42 C.
The rules for the bath tub are simple-- do not submerge your hair or towel into the water. You can keep your towel folded on your head or some people put in in their bucket and leave it at the side. And don't rub your skin while your're in there. Relax in the pool and be prepared for chatty naked Japanese uncles. LOL. KH and I started with the indoor tub (with a glass wall) before moving out to the outdoor tub. The exposure to the cold lowered the temperature a bit, and the tub is noticeably slimier and has floating insects. Prior to moving back to the indoor pool, we rinsed ourselves first. The view at Kamihoromo wasn't impressive, but better than no view at all. Don't think we lasted more than half an hour in there. For half the time, we had the place all to ourselves. That gave KH some ideas from the Coat West hot spring series. Still newbies at attaining the 'cooked octopus' state that all Japanese aim for.
Took a short shower and dried off with our towels before going back in the locker room. Dressed, took our belongings and deposited the used towel in a laundry basket. Tradition dictates that one should re-hydrate after an onsen experience and the best way to do so is to drink a bottle of cold milk from the vending machine. Once done, put the empty bottle into a shelf at the bottom of the machine. Before we lost the light, we descended the mountain. On the way, we were blessed with two more fox sightings.
Passed by several small towns on the way back to Furano, but from sheer randomness, we stopped to eat dinner at Kamifurano. On the noren were the words "Genzen Sozai" and "Sushi". When we walked in, we were given looks of surprise from the waitress, sushi chef and lone customer at the counter. Tourists must be a rare sight. The waitress said, "nigiri sushi" and made gestures with her hands mimicking the action of making sushi. We nodded our heads and went to sit at the counter. No English menu was available, so the waitress sat beside us and wrote down a list of prices for us to choose. KH pointed at ¥2800 and the waitress hollered to the sushi chef, "Master, toku-jyo sushi!". When it came to drinks, she offered biru, and she actually asked who was driving. While waiting, we could see the classic interaction between customer and sushi chef. The lone customer quickly trained his attention on us, asking where we were from. According to him, we looked like brothers and I was the younger brother. Hehe.
Eight pieces of nigiri sushi came on a board which the sushi chef declared, "omakase", meaning chef's selection. He chose for us dai ebi, toro, uni, ikura, and tai. One bite of the toro and KH was hooked. On the other hand, I liked the dai ebi. We ordered two more of each. Could understand why KH liked the fatty tuna as it had a very melt in your mouth quality. And the sushi chef was kind enough to treat us to two large pieces of tamago (they say "service" instead of "free"). I'm usually not impressed with tamago but what he made was delicious! Full of the aroma of egg and moist. It was a most memorable dinner experience in Japan. Every single sushi restaurant along the way was compared to Genzen Sozai and none came close.
Before retiring for the night, we raided a kombini again. Weeeeeeeeee!