Japan Trip – Weeks One/Two – Hokkaido
August 2, 2016 Leave a comment
I had intended to write this over a week ago, but I have found little time to actually sit down and actually do it. My trip to Japan started as most trips do, walking through airports, and sitting in airplane seats that are just that little bit too small too be truly comfy. It was quite a long journey as I took three planes in the end, two to get to Japan, and then a third from Osaka to Shin-Chitose in Hokkaido. I had intended to read or watch films, but found myself spending much of the time listening to music and sleeping.
The first few days were a bit of a rush really – traveling to Japan, then getting a train into Sapporo, and finally walking from Sapporo main train station to the guest house that I had booked for the night. Japanese guest houses were a pleasant surprise for me on this trip; in Europe they can often be synonymous with backpacker’s hostels, and may not be the quietest, or most pleasant places to say, although they can also offer some interesting experiences. In comparison, my experiences with Japanese guest houses so far have been excellent, the one I stayed at was fairly small and welcoming, and although they were dormitories, the room I stayed in was full of futons and not bunk-beds. A pleasantly comfortable experience that was also fairly cheap at ¥3000 a night, and one that I will certain replicate during further travels around Japan.
The journey from Sapporo to the small town of Kuromatsunai may well be one of my favourite train journeys in the world. While Japan is famous for the Shinkansen, one of the best ways to see the country is via local trains – one or two cars with windows that can be fully opened, and fans in the ceiling. These trains stop everywhere, and consequently every journey can take a while, but it’s about what you see during that time more than how fast you get to your destination. It is particularly fascinating for me to see how far Japanese high school students must travel when they live in rural communities – With hour and a half commutes just to get from their home town to their school. It also demonstrates how populations have changed in total Japan, a fact that can be quite readily seen when you drive through these communities, and see old, abandoned school buildings and grounds, memories of a time when the countryside was full. Indeed, the nature school that I am currently working at is situated in an old middle school that closed down over seventeen years ago, showing how recently these changes have happened, comparatively speaking.
In fact, I ended up making this journey two times – I had arrived in Sapporo with the intention of exchanging my Japan rail pass, only to discover that you can only exchange it a month in advance, and I was spending too long at the nature school to do so. As such I had to return to Sapporo, taking a very early train to exchange it – each journey was different, and the time to and from Sapporo gave me plenty of time to think, write, and just stare out of the window as mountains and forests went past. I would certainly encourage more people to try this – rather than rush from place to place, try the local routes – they are cheaper, and you get to see a different side to Japan that would otherwise rush past on the Shinkansen.
Other than my traveling the first week in Hokkaido was a relatively calm affair – I mostly edited the nature schools English language handbooks and other paperwork, although I was also involved in a number of activities for children from the local community. This is an interesting place that can seem very quiet, even sedate on the surface, but it acts as a focal point for many different groups and people from around the local area. They organise regular open/community markets, specifically for the older people in the area – a chance for them to get together and talk, while also meeting new people at the nature school. I also discovered that the school regularly drives around the community in the winter and makes sure that the older people have clear drive ways, and that a number of the staff are part of a community school bus route. There is a small school, consisting of only nine children (there are similarities here to Non Non Biyori) and the staff pick up each children from their house at the beginning of the day, and drop them back once school has finished. If they didn’t do this, then many of the children may not be able to get to school on time, especially the younger ones.
Indeed, these sorts of initiatives, along with the fairly long four-hour journey between the town and Sapporo help to demonstrate how isolated a rural community can be, and how easily they can be cut off from the rest of the world without the help of people who take an active role in such projects. And actually this is one of the main differences between my work here this year, and the last time I was in Hokkaido. I now notice, and am involved in far more than I was during the last visit, and have the time to actually take notice of all the other things that the nature school does, rather than focus on the here and now.
Ultimately the first week and a half were fairly quiet, and I spent more time writing my journal, and talking to the school’s staff. A number of Taiwanese students arrived, but as it was two couples they largely kept to themselves and seemed uninterested in other things at the time. But then that’s also part of traveling and working in another country, and merely gave me chance to reflect on what I’ve done before, and can do now. I did however get the chance to visit Hokkaido Shrine in Sapporo, albeit very briefly as I had a train to catch and couldn’t hang around.
The shrine isn’t particularly old, and dates from the Meiji period after the remnants of the Shogunate that fled to Hokkaido and established the republic of Ezo had finally been defeated. But, it’s a grand building set on the side of a mountain, and part of a wild park. Given how hot the city can be, it’s nice to be able to walk in the woods, and feel a nice breeze when you are at the shrine, and therefore above the city. In fact, what I really missed was the chance to properly explore Sapporo and see its numerous wild parks, and other sites. Unfortunately, I simply didn’t have the time to really do that, as you would need a good few days to do so, partly because some of the more interesting parts are actually quite far apart. Still, a good first week and a half in Japan.