Saturday, July 23, 2016
High On Hokkaido I: First Taste of Furano
Just three weeks after my European pilgrimage, I was on leave again. Another two weeks off, but instead of aunties I was with my hubby to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost prefecture. Definitely a very different type of itinerary. He had planned the trip about the same time as my pilgrimage and delayed it due to the clash. Luckily for me, my leave plans were approved. Maybe it was because I had a lot of vacation days to burn.
We flew on Air Asia X at 11:35 PM. Although it was a night flight, I took the day off anyway. On that day, mum was making dumplings for the second time. In addition to the usual bak zhang, she made the nyonya variety with bunga telang and candied wintermelon. Tried my hand at wrapping and tying the dumplings. Definitely learned a thing or two, but I couldn't quite visualise tying the tetrahedral package.
Left home at 8:30 PM with a taxi booking. The fella stepped on it and I arrived at KLIA2 at just a little over 9:00 PM. The flight was on time and it was pretty full with several tour groups. We were lucky enough to be in the vicinity of two wailing toddlers. During the eight hour flight, I awoke several times due to turbulence.
Arrived at Chitose Airport early in the morning. The airport seemed pretty deserted with only our flight at the arrival gate. KH and I ate breakfast right at baggage claim because there was a meat product import ban in force and I was in possession of several meat dumplings. LOL. The announcement was quite funny: "We know you are tired from your flight, but we have to check your bags... Sorry for the inconvenience.". Before opening our bags, the customs guys showed us some photos of illegal items. I think I saw weapons, marijuana and adult magazines (Japan? really!?) on the list. He also wondered what I had in my front pocket (no, I wasn't sporting a monster woody). Think they are not used to seeing guys putting small wallets in their front pockets.
The first thing we did was check out the portable WiFi router rental. Since the price was more expensive than mobile data roaming, we gave it a pass. Next, we went to collect our ride from the car rental. All the rental agencies were located away from the airport, accessible by a free ten minute bus ride. KH made a booking with Toyota POPLAR where we were given a Ractis, one of those cute compact cars that isn't available in Malaysia. In Japan, foreigners need an international driving license to drive. Although the car had a GPS with an English interface, it doesn't accept English input! To avoid tearing your hair out, please make sure you check the MapCode or telephone number of all the places that you plan to go to. One more reminder: be sure to get the Hokkaido Expressway Pass. Basically its a special pass for tourists that allows for unlimited use of Hokkaido's expressways! Huge savings!
Our trip to Hokkaido was very free and easy, and spontaneous.Nothing was set in stone. Spontaneity was the key word. We got the nice girl at the car rental to help us find the Arte Piazza Bibai at Bibai City, an old mining town. The driving was easy and pleasant, and the expressway was dotted with Nexco rest stops (called Parking Areas) that served hot food and ice-cream, and sold local snacks and souvenirs. Each stop yielded surprises as they were of beautifully decorated with different themes, e.g. horses, sheep, etc. Our first experience was at Wattsu PA on the Hokkido Expressway. Among the vending machines, I even found an ink stamp to commemorate my stop there.
The Arte Piazza Bibai is actually a garden exhibit for Kan Yasuda's sculptures. Judging from what we saw, the Japanese sculptor favours working with white marble and black bronze. His style stretches from geometric shapes to organic curves, all in simple and effortless style. His sculptures are well-placed among the rolling hills and natural greenery, giving more impact to his works. In one of his pieces, he makes a canal lined with white marble. The sound of running water and the ripple of the flow is quite hypnotic. On the 17-acre grounds are a restored pinewood school building and gymnasium housing his smaller works. It was a lovely place for us to spend the afternoon.
Continuing on our way, we skipped from rest stop to rest stop, stopping here and there for coffee and strawberry mille fuille ice cream, sampling Hokkaido's famous dairy products and strawberries. Lunch of ramen was exchanged from a vending machine coupon at Sunagawa PA for just ¥650. The diners in Japan have a common rule-- dispose your rubbish and return the tray to the counter. Just a quick wipe and you're ready for the next customer. You can even wipe the table yourself. And they usually have a drinking water station. Believe it or not, Hokkaido's mascot is Marimokkori, basically a green algae bulge. Marimo refers to the green algae clusters and mokkori is a slang word for bulge or erection, hence the shocking drink that I picked up at the cooler...
Near Ashibetsu, we spied a huge white statue of Kannon. Went closer to take a photo and even tried to find the entrance to the complex, but we failed. Turns out that the Dai-Kannon is a failed tourist attraction that was abandoned since 2003.
With all the stops and detours, we arrived at Natulux Furano Hotel, Furano at around 5:00 PM. The receptionist was very friendly and he checked us in to a room on the 7th floor which was the highest. Truthfully the room was kinda small, but I guess that's to be expected in Japan. Furano is a town that is smack dab in the middle of Hokkaido. In 1969, the wise people of this sleepy town decided that they needed a festival to invigorate the populace, so they came up with the Hokkai Heso Matsuri or Bellybutton Festival that featured a dance where dancers use props and paints to transform their navel into a face! Trust the Japanese to come up with these things. Hence one can see cute mascots featuring this dance all over town.
Based on the recommendations from the front desk, we headed out for dinner. Teppanyaki was the order of the evening. Armed with a hand-drawn map from the hotel, we walked out looking for Masaya, a place for teppanyaki and okonomiyaki. The first thing we noticed was the lack of activity in Furano after dark. Hardly any cars on the road and not many shops open at all. Found the place after doing some guesswork. The hand-drawn map that the hotel gave us was over-simplified. Upon entering, we were warned that they were understaffed that evening. Literally 'one leg kick'. We weren't hangry, so it was fine. From the menu, we chose sizzling pork ribs and the Furano Dama. The pork ribs were heavenly. The dash of brandy and soy sauce really gave it a kick. Each bite was heavenly because the meat was tender and succulent with just the right amount of fat. The Furano Dama is the local style of okonomiyaki with potatoes and cheese as it's anchor. Takes twenty minutes to cook but I wasn't really impressed. Kinda like a potato cake to me.
With not much to see, we made our way back to the hotel to shower. Picked out beer and potato chips from our konbini raids. We were always on the look out for "Hokkaido only" products at convenience stores like 7-11, Seico Mart, Lawson Station and Sunkus. Before bed, we remedied our months of pent-up sexual frustration. Glad that the rooms had good sound insulation. Iku iku!