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Strolls Around Asia, Europe & Beyond
This post has moved to my other blog, Northumberland Traveller.
Here is the link.
If you haven’t already done so, please subscribe to Northumberland Traveller if you want to continue to receive notifications of new posts by email.
While in Sapporo recently we took the opportunity to visit Shiroi Koibito Park which is a chocolate factory with an England-themed attraction attached.
The factory production line itself was under renovation but there was still a lot to see. Shiroi Koibito by the way means white sweetheart or white lover.
The mock tudor architecture was reminiscent of Chester Rows and Liberty of London. A colourful display of seasonal flowers filled the courtyard area.
Playful touches such as this leaning tower of biscuits (my name for it) added to the fun for kids.
Also outside was a miniature railway, treehouses, a London double decker bus, a mechanical clock tower with singing and dancing dolls and a soft ice cream house.
Inside, the decor was as lavish and ornate as the exterior.
Indoor exhibits included the Aurora Fountain produced by England’s Royal Doulton Company in 1870 and a chocolate cup collection.
Examples of chocolate packaging and advertising from years gone by were displayed along with information on how chocolate is produced.
A misspelling here perhaps? Fly’s Milk Chocolate might not have been so successful as Fry’s.
There was also a rare collection of vintage Japanese toys dating from 1868 onwards.
Needless to say there was a shop selling the full range of chocolate and confectionary products as well as an elegant cafe to enjoy those decadent chocolate drinks in bone china cups and their trademark Shiroi Koibito parfait.
The Japanese are masters at making authentic-looking copies of European architecture. If Britain ever wants to regenerate some of their drab town centres maybe they should ask the Japanese to build some replica tudor buildings for them!
Sapporo is the regional capital of Hokkaido with a population of 1.9 million and there is plenty to see and do in and around the city.
We took the ropeway (cable car) to the top of Mt. Moiwa, 531 meters above sea level to enjoy a panoramic view of the city and to give my daughter the chance to touch the rapidly melting snow, something she doesn’t get to experience in Malaysia.
This spot is also popular at night and is regarded as one of the Three Most Beautiful Nightscapes of Japan along with Kobe and Nagasaki.
Otaru is a 30 minute train ride from Sapporo. Otaru was a booming trading port from the late 1800s until its decline following WWII. The town has a nostalgic feel to it with canal-side warehouses, historic buildings and old gas lamps which have helped transform it into a popular tourist destination. Many of the old warehouses and buildings have been converted into bars, restaurants, shops and museums.
Here too is a sign for the Rita Nikka Bar named after ‘The Scottish girl who married the founder of Japanese whisky’. This must refer to Rita Taketsuru (née Cowan), wife of Taketsuru Masataka, the founder of Nikka whisky. You can read an article about her here.
This century old building contains Otaru Orgel Doh, a store with over 3,400 types of music box, the largest collection in Japan. OK if you need an overdose of cuteness.
Noboribetsu is a hot spring town about 80 minutes away from Sapporo by train. Apart from the onsens the main attraction here is the Bear Park.
About 80 Ezo brown bears live in two or three enclosures here. Visitors can buy bags of tidbits and toss them into the mouths of the bears provided the greedy crows don’t catch them in mid air.
The park is reached by a 7 minute cable car ride. Apart from the bear enclosures there is a brown bear museum, an Ainu exhibition (indigenous people of Japan), a duck race and a great view overlooking Lake Kuttara.
Back in Sapporo there are a number of places to see. These include:
Maruyama Zoo is well worth a visit. We particularly liked the meerkats, the reptile house, the wolves and polar bears.
The Clock Tower was built in 1878 as a military drill hall for the Sapporo Agricultural College which, at the time, was under the leadership of Dr William S. Clark from the Massachusetts Agriculture College. It is now a museum.
Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade is one of the city’s many shopping districts.
Hokkaido Jingu Shinto Shrine is the enshrined home of a number of deities including Sukuna-Hiko-Nano-Kami or the Divine Spirit of National Administration, Medicine and Sake Brewing. That seems an odd combination to me. The adjacent Maruyama Park is one of Sapporo’s best cherry blossom viewing spots.
There was one more attraction in Sapporo that we enjoyed which I’ll write about in my next post.
With hindsight, the last week of April was probably not the best time to visit Sapporo, the vibrant regional capital of Hokkaido, Japan.
The winter ski season was over though it was still cold with patches of snow about, especially in the hillier areas. Spring comes late in these northerly latitudes and the cherry blossom was appearing just as we were leaving.
Still, we had a good time and managed to find plenty to do. One of the highlights for me was a trip to the old Sapporo beer factory which is now a museum and beer garden.
I was interested to see how the brand’s label designs and advertising posters had changed over the decades since the brewery was established in 1876.
The first brew master was trained in Germany and the original brewing machinery came from there so it is not surprising that there was a good deal of German influence in some of the early beer labels.
The first advertising posters featured kimono-clad geishas to appeal both to domestic audiences and the export markets of Asia and further afield.
By the 1920s and early 1930s Japan was copying the fashions and styles of the West and this shows in this poster.
In the lead-up to World War Two Japan was turning nationalistic and this may be why this 1937 poster features traditional Japanese dress again.
After the War, kimonos were out and Western styles were back in favour. The model in this 1956 poster had something of the Audrey Hepburn about her, an actress who is still fondly remembered in Japan.
From the 1990s onwards, TV and sporting personalities tended to be used in posters. I prefer the old poster art but I suppose the modern adverts sell more beer.
A selection of beer brands on display at the museum. I haven’t come across Borneo Beer in my travels to Borneo so I guess this brand is defunct.
After the tour around the Sapporo Beer Museum we retired to the tasting room to sample a selection of beers.
I find that the taste of beers made by the major Japanese brands such as Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory are much of a muchness – all excellent quality and very refreshing but it would be nice to have a bit more variety of flavours and colours.
Travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination in Japan might consider a boat trip to Tomogashima, which is the collective name for a group of four small islands called Okinoshima (the biggest island) Jinoshima, Torajima and Kamijima located off the small town of Kada in Wakayama Prefecture.
Shugendō Buddhist monks once used the steep hilly terrain of these islands as part of their ascetic mountain training.
This coastline was for centuries a haven for pirates who preyed on ships passing through the narrow entrance to the Inland Sea between Awaji Island and Honshu. One famous pirate was named Tsumujikaze Goemon and he was rumoured to have buried a stash of his loot on one of the islands which has never been found.
During the Meiji period the Japanese military fortified the islands with a number of brick-built gun batteries, powder magazines, bunkers and support facilities to defend the strategically important approach to Osaka Bay against foreign naval attack. Up until the end of World War II, access to the islands was strictly prohibited and their existence was removed from maps, hence the use of the word ‘hidden’. The gun emplacements are now overgrown and damaged by coastal erosion but you can see that they would have had a great view of any approaching invasion force.
Some say that the ruined defences bear a resemblance to those in the Studio Ghibli film Laputa, Castle in the Sky and may have inspired the artist. One of the ferries to the island is even called Laputa, obviously aiming to attract Ghibli fans.
Nowadays the islands, which form part of Seto-naikai National Park, are a popular place to visit for both Japanese and foreign tourists (mostly Chinese and Koreans). There are a number of well marked hiking trails around the island and in addition to the military remains there is a lighthouse, some quiet stony beaches, bbq and camping spots and lovely coastal views.
A noticeboard on the island says this about the lighthouse:
Viewing the beautiful scenery of the Seto Island Sea from the white, western style lighthouse is sure to lighten the heart of even the most downtrodden spirit.
There is some accommodation on the main island – Uminoie guest house.
Camping is free but you need to register at the office first.
We noticed a few warning signs about snakes and it was not long before we spotted a small one on the path which slithered away after a tense standoff (possibly a non-venomous rat snake?).
A ferry service operates from Kada Port.
There are four sailings per day in each direction as you can see on this photo. Two additional sailings at 10am and 3pm during the peak holiday season.
The boat trip takes about 20 minutes.
The cost is JPY2000 return for adults and JPY 1000 for kids.
To get to Kada you can take a train from Wakayama City, Wakayamashi station.
Kada is famous for sea bream and there is a special pink coloured, fish-themed sightseeing train called Medetai at certain times of the day but our train was just an ordinary one.
Dazaifu is a small town just 15km from Fukuoka and a popular half-day destination for visitors to this part of Kyushu.
The town’s main highlight is its Tenman-gu Shrine, dedicated to a ninth century scholar, poet and court official named Michizane who was exiled to Dazaifu from Kyoto after falling victim to court intrigues. He died here in 903, in misery, and the shrine was built on his grave, although the current building is a more recent construction dating from 1591.
Among other things Michizane, or Tenjin, to use his deified name, is said to be a Shinto deity of education and today high school students (and their ambitious mothers) come to pray for good examination results and leave their hopes and wishes attached to trees in the shrine garden.
The gardens are beautiful though rather crowded with coach loads of Chinese tourists on the day of our visit. To avoid the crowds we walked up a small hill where a procession of red torii gates leads up to a small shrine and cave-like altar.
Elsewhere in the shrine grounds is a lake with an island spanned by two gracefully curved bridges. There are 6,000 plum trees here which burst into colour in early Spring.
Other attractions in Dazaifu include the Komyozenji temple with a dry stone Zen garden and a tree-planted moss garden renowned for its autumn colours.
There are also a couple of museums here including the ultra modern Kyushu National Museum.
The street leading from the railway station is lined with interesting shops selling souvenirs, snack foods and, a family favourite, Totoro merchandise.
Dazaifu is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not sitting for your exams.
It is the summer holiday season and the family wanted to go somewhere with a European flavour so I opted for this place, Huis Ten Bosch.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is in the Netherlands but it is actually a Dutch-themed resort park near Sasebo City on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
Huis Ten Bosch was conceived during the bubble period when Japan’s economy seemed unstoppable. It was a hugely ambitious project built at vast expense, intended to be not just a theme park but the hub of a whole new city to be created on scenic Omura Bay. Timing was poor however and it opened in 1992, just as the Japanese economy was entering its post-bubble recession from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.
Huis Ten Bosch’s creators intended to attract 5 million visitors annually (13000 per day) but it never reached that level and on our trip the number of visitors probably numbered in the hundreds or low thousands.
The park was loss making from the start and by 2003 it filed for bankruptcy with debts exceeding US$2 billion. But somehow it has survived, perhaps too big and too expensive to fail, and new backers have been found to keep it going.
By 2010 the park was starting to look desolate but since then new investment from H.I.S., a travel agency company, has seen a revival of fortunes, and now it appears to be in good repair and most of the attractions are operating, albeit well below capacity.
The park’s remote location on the western extreme of Japan has been another handicap. It is two hours by train from Fukuoka and a whopping 960km from Tokyo (nearly 8 hours by train). Since the park is closer to Seoul or Shanghai than it is to Tokyo the park’s operators are hoping that Korean and Chinese tourists will help to fill the void. However the recent strong Yen might deter foreign visitors – I paid US$100 per person for two-day admission tickets which includes free access to most attractions.
Lack of visitors might be bad for the investors but it was good for us since it felt at times as though we had this huge theme park to ourselves.
The original concept was to create a theme park for adults, with beautiful gardens, museums, fine food and authentic Dutch architecture. While this is fine for older tourists like me, the lack of thrill rides and amusements did not really draw in the crowds so a lot more attractions have since been added such as a zip line, bungee jumping, a water park, haunted house type exhibits, virtual reality games, hologram theatre and much more.
What they have created is a Japanese idealised version of Europe, specifically Holland. It is like old Amsterdam minus all the grubby bits. So there are clogs, canals, windmills, cheeses and Dutch gable houses but no traffic, litter or impolite foreigners who can’t speak Japanese.
The management wanted some European faces at Huis Ten Bosch to add authenticity to the visitor experience. When the park first opened it employed 100 Dutch staff to entertain and dress up in Dutch costumes. Due to cost constraints they have since been let go but there are still a few western singers and dancers who appear to be from Romania and presumably cost less. They were good musicians.
There are four hotels within the park, including Palace Huis Ten Bosch which is a copy of a Dutch royal palace. Just outside the park perimeter are another three official hotels, the most recent of which is the Henn-na Hotel, the world’s first robotised hotel where most of the staff are robots. I considered staying there but with my fear of technology I envisaged being locked in my room forever and unable to communicate with Japanese robots. I needn’t have worried, the dinosaur robot speaks English.
You can even live at HuisTen Bosch. The residential community of Wassenaar (red roof tops in the middle distance of this photo) comprises 130 traditional Dutch style houses and 10 apartment blocks lining the banks of a network of canals. They look very nice and are not too expensive by Japanese standards. They are mostly second homes for weekend use and are popular with boat owners who can moor their yachts in front of their houses. The only problem that I can see is that residents would have to put up with the constant replaying of Huis Ten Bosch’s Disney-like theme tune which would be clearly audible from the houses and would be likely to cause insanity after a few days of residence.
I’ve been to a lot of theme parks over the past few decades. I find them rather tiring with far too much queuing. Huis Ten Bosch is different. There was no queuing at all. It may lack roller coasters and other thrill rides but there is plenty to do for the whole family. I would recommend it.
For over 50 years, Akihabara has been known as Electric Town. A black market in electrical goods sprang up here after World War II, starting out with radios, later moving on to TVs, fridges and washing machines and now it is mostly computer and mobile accessories, software, video games and anime stuff.
We went into this Sega building which is packed with arcade games, including three whole floors of UFO Catchers. (UFO Catchers are those silly machines where you try in vain to pick up a toy or prize with a mechanical two pronged robot arm with pathetic gripping power and drop it into the chute).
After losing a few hundred Yen here, we wandered off in the direction of the Kanda River where some brave guys were jet-skiing in the rather smelly water.
The river might have been grubby but the street was spotless, as if the tarmac had just been vacuumed.
Close to Ochanomizu station is St. Nikolai Cathedral. It is rather strange to see a Russian style church in the middle of Tokyo. The original church was built by the Russians in the 1890s at a time when Russia was hoping to extend its influence into Japan. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 put paid to that but the Japanese Orthodox church lives on, an organization with about 30,000 members. The current building dates from the 1920s as the original was destroyed in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923.
Crossing back over the Kanda River we popped into a Confucian shrine called Yushima Seido and, not far away, another shrine called Yushima Tenjin. The latter, pictured on the right was founded in 1355. This shrine is famous for its plum trees and in Spring each year, the Plum Festival draws big crowds.
Tokyo is a relatively low-rise city compared to many Asian capitals and two-storey homes can still be found even in the central parts of the city.
Ueno Park is worth visiting. There is a large lotus pond, a boating lake, some museums and a zoo.
A couple of people were feeding the local birdlife by hand.
It was a pleasant walk. We finished off the day by visiting a funfair at Tokyo Dome City with a spectacularly scary roller coaster which is wrapped around a shopping mall. Luckily it had started to rain so the roller coaster was closed. Phew!
During one of our Tokyo strolls we came across Zoji-ji, a Buddhist temple complex belonging to the Jodo Shu denomination, one of the most widely practiced branches of Buddhism in Japan.
Jodo Shu was founded in 1175 by Honen Shonin, inspired by the teachings of a Chinese master, Shan-tao, who perfected Pure Land Buddhism. I’m no expert on Buddhism but as I understand it, Jodo-Shu followers believe that by reciting the Nembutsu Prayer devotees can receive Buddha’s salvation and be reborn into the Pure Land of Bliss after death. This somewhat optimistic philosophy contrasts with some other Buddhist schools of thought wherein salvation is nigh on impossible for ordinary mortals, even after countless births and rebirths, due to the fact that we are flawed, sinful and pathetic – we’re only human after all!
We entered the temple complex through the 391 year old Sangedatsumon which I have since learnt can be translated as ‘The Gate For Getting Delivered From The 3 Earthly Vices’ (greed, anger and stupidity). If I had known that at the time, I would passed under the gate half a dozen times as I could use a bit of stupidity removal.
The main temple building is the Daiden which was rebuilt in 1974. (Although Zoji-ji has been on this site since 1598, most of the buildings are recent since the area was flattened during the War). Inside this temple is a statue of Amida (Pure Land) Buddha, flanked by statues of Shan-tao and Honen Shonin.
Adjacent to the main hall is the Ankokuden containing the Black Image of Amida Buddha which was worshipped by Ieyasu Tokugawa, 1st Tokugawa Shogun. This image is said to bring victory and ward off evil. It is only shown to the public three times a year.
As you can see, Tokyo Tower overshadows the Zoji-ji temple.
Services for aborted and miscarried foetuses and still-born babies (collectively known as mizuko or ‘water babies’) are performed in the Ankokuden hall, for a fee. In Japan, abortion is not the taboo or controversial topic it is in many countries. It is entirely legal to abort within the first 5 months of pregnancy and abortion is reasonably common but its ready availability does not make the decision any easier for the would-be mothers. One of the five precepts of Buddhism is to abstain from taking life and some pregnant Buddhists (and their partners) might feel that having an abortion will lead to bad karma in the future.
To offset this risk, mothers of the mizuko select an available stone doll statue (jizo statue) at the temple to represent their lost child and decorate it with artificial flowers, plastic windmill toys and red woollen bonnets. They perform prayers here to shorten the suffering of the child in the afterlife and, in the case of abortions, to atone for any guilty feelings of the parents.
It’s all rather sad but perhaps this practice is more compassionate than in many other countries where such unborn children have no memorial at all.
On a stone plinth facing Tokyo’s Shibuya station sits a bronze statue of a dog. It commemorates a loyal dog called Hachiko who was born in 1923. Hachiko was an Akita, a large breed of dog originating from the mountainous areas of northern Japan.
Hachiko was acquired as a puppy by Dr. Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at the Japanese Imperial University. A close bond between master and dog developed and over the next year Hachiko used to accompany Dr Ueno to Shibuya station every morning and when he returned each evening, Hachiko would be waiting for him at the station entrance.
On 21st May 1925, when the dog was 18 months old, he waited for his master’s arrival on the six o’clock train as usual but Professor Ueno never returned as he had suffered a fatal stroke at work.
For the next nine years Hachiko returned to the station every day to meet the 6 o’clock train and await his master’s return. He allowed passers-by to pet and feed him scraps but he never gave up the vigil at the station for his master, until his death in 1935.
The story of Hachiko has become well known and at least two films have been based on his life; a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari (1987) and a Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere, Hachiko A Dog’s Story (2009).
Akita puppies like this one are very cute but they grow into large, strong dogs which can be aggressive and require careful training and handling.
We saw a cuddly Akita puppy in a Shibuya pet shop. ‘Let’s buy it’ said my daughter. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t bring it to Malaysia where Akitas are a banned breed.
Dr Ueno would scarcely recognise Shibuya station today but no doubt would be delighted that his faithful pet not only has a statue but also a mural on the station wall.
The station entrance used by Dr Ueno is now called the Hachiko Entrance.
An old railway carriage has been positioned in front of the entrance and serves as a tourist information office and is a popular meeting point for the young crowd which frequents this part of Tokyo.