Posts in the Skip Town in Hokkaido category
It seems appropriate to finish up this series with our arrival at “The End of the World”!
Catchy tourism slogans aside, Shiretoko National Park in north-eastern Hokkaido is quite unique for Japan, in that it feels completely and utterly isolated. It is known for its wildlife (bears! whales!) and is so far north that on a clear day you can actually see Russia.
After an early start from Sapporo, we drove all day, passing dairy farms and fishing villages.
We shared the road with beasts great and small.
Eventually winding our way downwards into the foggy darkness, only to be revived by an inn-style meal of epic proportions.
And a slightly less overwhelming breakfast!
We went on a bear-watching cruise.
It was very very foggy.
But luckily it lifted just enough to see some of the beautiful green coastline.
And a mama-bear with her offspring (really should have bought the zoom lens!)
The next day, between showers, we wandered in the forests.
And when the showers turned into rain, we retreated to the Ainu museum to see what life was like hundreds of years ago for the indigenous people of this region. Judging from this diorama (always a reliable source of history, right?) it was quite idyllic!
Fantastic colours and patterns!
The reverse trip home was a sleepy one, with multiple stops at convenience stores for sustenance. I’d like to leave you with one such example, whose consumption I do not necessarily recommend – unless you’re a huge fan of hot-cakes and prefer your food through a straw. Thanks for the memories Hokkaido!
I’m quite excited about today’s post. It’s about a place I doubt you’ll have seen or heard of before, a place that turned out to be an unexpected highlight of our trip. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the plan was to join the newly married couple for a road trip to “The End of the World”, otherwise known as Shiretoko National Park. It’s a long drive, so after several hours of super green, beautiful scenery (‘real’ Japanese countryside at last!) we eventually, at Emily’s suggestion, turned off the main highway, made a few turns down increasingly small roads, and paid a visit to Shigechan Land, a gallery she’d heard about and thought we might like.
You’ve never been anywhere like this, I assure you! The artist, Shigenari Ohnishi, was formerly a successful art director and commercial artist, before succumbing to the charms of country life and setting up Shigechan Land in 1996. Here, he has the freedom to create whatever he likes – namely, an army of odd creatures constructed from anything and everything.
Shigechan Land is made up of a collection of rustic buildings painted the same shade of rusty red as the old arched barns we passed along the way. Each building is named after a body part (‘Eye House’, ‘Bone House’, etc.) and inside you’ll find a collection of the most bizarre characters you can imagine. In one room, gnarled pieces of wood are revealed as woodland monsters, while in another, hundreds of peanut men look out over Coke can skiers and a coat-hanger bird. I swear he can find a face in just about anything!
Make no mistake, this ‘cute’ style is actually the culmination of a long exploration of different styles since his days as a student at the NY School of Visual Arts in the 1970′s. What I think is interesting is that for a long time he was right into super-realism, but is now devoted to such a lo-fi craft.
I just find his characters completely wonderful. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you’ve got to go along.
*Photography by Sean Fennessy
The day after the big wedding, a few of us went along to the Rising Sun Music Festival, held near the sea just out of Sapporo. I’ve always wanted to go to a Japanese music festival, having heard tales of pleasant, well-behaved crowds – appealing after some of the Australian festivals I’ve been to…
Rising Sun is big (30 min walk from end to end) but it’s a friendly giant. Sun-safety-conscious crowds, not a bikini in sight, gather on the grass to slurp bowls of take-away noodles and plan the day’s itinerary. One curious trend is that everyone (everyone!) brings along a small onsen towel, which is worn either bandana style or as a neck scarf (or as Sean unfortunately pioneered, ‘legionaire’ style). At first I thought this was the best-idea-ever for hot summer days, as I for some reason assumed they were soaked in cool water. But nobody seemed to be doing this except us (and it felt amazing) so I’m not sure what purpose they serve…
As for the music, there was a tad too much Ska for my taste, but I did enjoy watching the enthusiastic dancing (see conga-line above). I’m sure I missed a lot of good bands that I wasn’t familiar with, but I kinda liked Humbert Humbert. We watched them on the small stage while eating raw corn and eggplant with miso paste (who knew you could do that!) from the organic vegetable stall, which was SO delicious.
Festival fashion Yama-girl style!
A big highlight of the festival was the Tara-crew village, a little oasis among the trees where you could go to swing in a hammock, hide in a teepee or sprawl in a bed of hay. I’ve been to festivals that have tried similar things, but this was so much better than anything I’ve seen before – it was just beautiful! I wish I could show you how it looked at night, when the tents were illuminated with dozens of coloured candles, but my camera went flat right after I took the very last shot below of the suspended mirror-ball. So just take my work for it okay?
I’ve decided that Sapporo is a big city that feels small. There are heaps of interesting little shops near the city centre, so you can walk most places (we walked a LOT). Also, perhaps due to its relative isolation, there seems to be a really close-knit arts community. On our only free full day in Sapporo, we visited a couple of local artisans, and they were so eager to recommend their friends’ shops, cafes and galleries… but unfortunately we only had time for a few. If only we’d had a couple more days!
Anyway, let’s meet them.
Furniture Design Agra 2-1F, South 6 East 1, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
Despite the sensible, grid-like streets, we managed to get lost on the way to Furniture Design Agra, proprietors of “cute life for cool people since 1995″. Our tardiness didn’t seem to matter, as we were enthusiastically greeted by owner and designer Nanae Hara, who makes up for her lack of English with animated facial expressions and gestures.
Furniture Design Agra is located by the river, in a warehouse that serves as both store and workshop. It’s quite an odd store, but in a good way. High-end furniture mixes with inexpensive paper cut-outs and even some local foods, like dried sea-weed and canned deer! When asked about her style, Nanae insists that she doesn’t really have one; that she gets bored easily and needs to try new things. Personally, I think that if Nanae’s designs are not united by style then they definitely are by attitude. There is humour in all her pieces, from the pacman-esque cushions to her signature fluffy ‘sheep’ chair, and the small rectangular cushions that come with hand-holes so that you can (she demonstrates) take a nap anywhere!
Stepping into the den-like storefront of Kasaka Koushi leather is almost like being transported back to 1930′s England. The room is lined with shelves displaying tools of the trade, vintage magazines and wooden toys, while old Hermes advertisements are framed on the walls. This husband and wife team have made an art out of hand-crafting leather satchels and bags that, while inspired by old European models, are distinctly Japanese.
On his vintage industrial sewing machine, Koji kindly demonstrates the construction of one, tiny piece of a bag in progress. You can really see how much time and effort goes into producing these products – they are just so sturdy and well-made. A bag like this is a long-term investment - they’re not cheap, but I’m sure they’d last a lifetime. I may need to start saving…
When we’d finished at Kusaka, Koji pointed us across the street (literally) to a Japanese antique store, which he says is one of his favourite places in Sapporo. Up a rickety set of stairs we went, and emerged into a room crowded with all manner of interesting objects. I didn’t know what a lot of the pieces actually were, but I don’t think that mattered too much. Everything was so beautifully arranged in a way that made you appreciate the simplest of items – glass bottles, old bolts, unidentified ceramic doodads. I wish now that I had picked up a few things, but I think at the time I was unsure how I could make these odd little objects work in my house.
I had a little trouble translating, but the name of the store is either Juuichigatsu (Japanese for November) or 11gatsu. Their equally simple/beautiful website is here. The store is located in East Odori, above Fab Cafe, which is also worth a visit thanks to an excellent magazine selection and some truly fancy coffee.
*Photography by Sean Fennessy
Today, more than two months on (oops!) I’m finally ready to share with you our most excellent adventure in Hokkaido. Sean and I are no strangers to Japan – our good friend Emily has been living there for the past five years and this was to be our third visit – and for her wedding, no less! The difference this time was that we would be flying directly to Sapporo, Emily’s new home on the northern island of Hokkaido.
Fun fact: Hokkaido, despite making up 21% of Japan’s land-mass, is home to only 4.5% of the population. Knowing this, I was intrigued to see what Japan was like at a more relaxed pace. The plan was to spend a few days in Sapporo for the wedding festivities, before joining the married couple (or “foo-foo” in Japanese… at least it’s something like that, don’t quote me, but it IS an amusing word, yes?) for a road-trip to Shiretoko national park, where we were promised bears, foxes, deer and whales!
Along the way we met up with local artisans, experienced a Japanese music festival, visited a bizarrely excellent gallery in the middle of nowhere, and ate enough ramen noodles to satisfy us until the next visit. Stay tuned, it’s all coming up.
First of all though, a little bit about Sapporo. Orderly, relaxed, livable Sapporo. Admittedly, these are not words that excite, but its strength lies in the fact that despite being a big city of almost two million people, there is a sense of space here, with the distant mountains fringing the city a constant reminder of the real reason you visit Hokkaido.
In summer, the long, narrow mid-city parks are lined with beer gardens (so much beer!) and the locals are out in force, making the most of their short but perfect summer weather. We joined them, and when the sun went down we sought out the tiny restaurants that, I think, are so much a part of the Japanese experience. There’s a particularly great collection of mini ramen restaurants near Susukeno station, down a laneway called “Ramen Yokocho” (literally ‘ramen side-street’) which are well worth a visit.
I have embarrassingly few photos of Sapporo to share (unless you count karaoke booths) but I do have photos of another essential Japanese experience – Okonomiyaki. Emily guided us to the best place in town, Pick Up, where we enjoyed the cooking action from front-row seats.
*Photography by Sean Fennessy