Saturday, April 4, 2020

Snow, Seafood, and a Music Box - Otaru, Hokkaido

At this time last year, we were in Otaru, wrapping up our spring break trip to Hokkaido.  I've been meaning to blog about this beautiful Japanese canal city, but the months passed and before I knew it, a year has already flown by.  Between coming back from this trip and now, our lives have sharply swerved in unpredictable directions over and over.  First, we became homeowners, then we became parents twice (and lost both), and now we're stuck in a pandemic.  All of that came with many highs and lows.  We planned this trip originally on a whim--how I miss those days of going places without needing to worry about anything.  I'm glad that we did it while we could, and even though I yearn for those blissful days, I'm glad that we have come so far since then, too.

It brings me joy right now, as we shelter in place, to look back on these photos and write down what I can before the sensation of being back in Japan fades as more time goes by.  Wes recently told me that my blogging is just as important as all of the things that he does around the house--this virtual space is sacred, like our physical home.  I need to try to document as much as I can, and it's fun and rewarding for me just as it's fun and rewarding for him to complete house projects.  I have begun to affirm my role here as the keeper of memories.

We were only in Otaru for a full day plus one morning, but we packed in a ton (of seafood).  When we pulled up to the train station and stepped out of the train, the softly falling snow took our breath away.  The elegance of the stone sidewalks, the delicate taste of local seafood, the charm of the little artisanal shops, the chills that the Suitengu shrine gave us, the tranquility of endless rows of bare cherry blossom trees in Temiya Park, the enchanting sound of an antique music box... it was all very pleasant and it seemed like nothing could possibly go wrong in this town - until the day we were leaving...more on that later.  Going to this city was the perfect way to decompress from our four days of snowboarding in Niseko and take our time saying good-bye to beautiful Hokkaido!

The train ride was about two hours.  We enjoyed eating luscious cream-filled pastries that we picked up from a little shop in Kutchan on the train and embarrassed ourselves by dropping crumbs and taking photos of our half-eaten food with two or three different cameras while sitting across from a very proper woman and a younger guy who was actively pretending not to notice our horrible American tomfoolery.

The train stations and trains are all so clean throughout Japan.  And these snowflakes drifting down from the sky... just impossible not to feel a childish urge to spin around in it or stick your tongue out while tilting your head back.  We also wished that we had this in Niseko!

We stayed at the Hotel Nord, and here is their stamp.

Everything seemed cute and charming - every street, every corner, the canal.  All of the walking made us hungry... we didn't have anything specific in mind, but when we saw this revolving sushi restaurant on TripAdvisor, we knew that we had to go there!  Eating sushi in Japan can be super expensive, but we found that this casual and fun format gave us the opportunity to eat as much local fish as we wanted without footing a hefty bill or worrying about reservations of any kind.  

Checking in was a bit confusing because everything was in Japanese, but they showed us what to do!

Nifty water refillers at every seat, never need to bug a waiter/waitress!

Very fun! Can't read any of it!

Those were just some photos of a few things that we ate... Hokkaido is known for corn, so we had to get the corn sushi!

I don't even want to know how many plates that is!

The snow came and went during the day.  Here's the street with all of the little shops, Sakaimachi Street. We weren't sure if we'd buy anything, but we were wrong.

Wes has been literally obsessed with this Hokkaido-native bird (a long-tailed tit) before we even planned this trip.  He has this strange affinity to round animals (well, don't we all), and so he would constantly show me pictures of this bird, rabbits, and bulldogs out of nowhere.  When we saw this bird in one of the glass shops, he was totally freaking out.  Too bad he didn't get to take one home.

My turn to freak out!  Matcha sundae with homemade warabe mochi!  We also took home six little matcha cheesecakes to give to friends and family as gifts.

Took home some handcarved wooden cats for our cat-owning siblings.

We came across a fresh seafood market on our walk down the street and Wes insisted that we try some more seafood, even though we had just literally eaten an indeterminate number of plates at the revolving sushi place.  Well, you're only in Hokkaido once, so why not?

Wes selected a scallop, a sea urchin, and a king crab leg, all things that Hokkaido is known for.

The three things that we got were all so good!  Especially the scallop that was grilled in butter spritzed directly into its shell, almost the size of my face.

The Otaru Music Box Museum is one of those essential destinations when visiting Otaru.  This building was built over 100 years ago, in 1902.  We figured we would stop in to check it out and not stay too long.

The steam engine powered clock in front of the music box museum is one of only two in the world!  On the hour, it will blow off a ton of steam while playing a song.  People gather round to wait for it to happen.  We showed up just at the right time and it was pretty cool.

When we initially walked into the music box museum, it felt like a tourist trap.  The first floor was a dizzying collection of music boxes emitting a cacophony of tinkly sounds.  But the second floor was a different story.

The second floor was smaller, quieter, and devoted to only handmade, wooden music boxes that played classic melodies, from whimsical Ghibli film songs, to heartwarming Disney tunes, to famous Baroque music.  Customers are not even allowed to touch the music boxes on this floor, and recording the music is a huge no-no.  Gloved store workers (or I suppose they were music box dealers) were the only ones who could turn on the music boxes that are not already playing.  Interested buyers can listen to music boxes one at a time inside of a separate studio with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and a small ledge to set the music box on.  One store worker encouraged that we try out the experience, so I chose a music box that played Canon in D, the song that I walked down the aisle to on our wedding day.  In the privacy of that small room, I teared up when I heard even just the first few chords of our our wedding song, played in the sweetest way by the intricate metal parts, spinning in harmony within its polished wooden case.  

I can't remember the last time I heard a music box play, and this was the first time I'd heard or touched a legit antique one.  The quality of the sound is unlike anything I've ever heard before - chords like a piano, but with the timbre of chimes, reverberating like a harp in an empty room, yet playful and sweet.  While I was entranced by the sounds that they produced, Wes was captivated by the precision and craftsmanship.  I had no idea that he was going to buy one for me.  When I realized this, I kept trying to dissuade him from it, but he insisted.  I finally convinced him to get a smaller one than the one that he had in mind.  When we left the museum, I thanked him with tears in my eyes.  I don't know why, but music boxes conjure up feelings of safety, comfort, and nostalgia.  I think it's because my mother appreciated them, so my siblings and I had a few basic ones growing up.  I distinctly remember what they sounded like, how they looked, how it felt to wind them up - we even took one apart for one of my elementary school projects.  Every time I hear this music box play or even think about it, I get emotional.  It's currently on our mantel in our new house.  It'll be something that I will cherish forever, and I hope to be able to pass it down.

As a side note, back then, I tried not to cry in front of Wes.  When I felt the tears welling up when the music box played our wedding song, I hid my face or tried to laugh it off.  Wes would look at me like I was crazy.  Now, things are changed.  I've cried harder and more in the last year in front of my husband than ever.  We have learned that it's okay to cry and it's okay to show that vulnerable side of ourselves.  And it's really okay to just let the emotions overcome us and seep in when they come up.  It's really a beautiful thing.

After this, we walked up to Suitengu, a Shinto shrine at the top of a few flights of stone stairs.  We had to confirm with a local where to find it, as things were dark and not clearly marked.  We were the only ones there at this hour and it was spooky, with the stone statues of animals and the fresh layer of snow.  I legitimately jumped when an automatic light popped on as I walked closer to the back of the shrine.

There was something very sacred about being up here, though, and seeing the view.  Our day in Otaru was ending, and it was the most lovely day in a new place, full of new memories and keepsakes.

Then, we went back to our hotel to drop off our many new souvenirs and gifts before heading back out into the cold for dinner.  I remember having to call restaurants ahead of time because in this small town, places may have arbitrary hours or limited servings.  It turned out that the first soup curry place we called was already sold out, and so we went to Crazy Spice, another place that the hotel concierge recommended.  Hokkaido is known for soup curry, which is one thing that we had yet to try.  

This place had the oddest vibe, somewhat of a cross between Indian and Caribbean themed... and Japanese... but it did appear to be authentic in terms of the soup curry.  I think I chose a 5 on the scale below:

The soup curry was comforting and warm.  Too bad the walk back was freezing, hence negating the magic of the curry!  It was only a ten-minute walk but it felt like an eternity in the cold!  That's me, wearing Wes's wind shell, struggling.

Our flight wasn't until the afternoon the next day, so we decided to wake up early and spend a bit of quality time saying goodbye to Japan by taking a walk in one of Otaru's local parks.  

We took a cab there, and the driver looked at us like we were out of our minds when we told him that we wanted to go to Temiya Park.  It was snowing, but we honestly didn't mind.

When we got there, it was beautiful and isolated, but that snow was coming down!  There was no one else here...probably because we're the only crazy tourists who would do this.

Then, the snow stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun came out.  We were so enthralled - it was magical how it just stopped snowing and all became calm and bright. We were surrounded by bare cherry blossom trees, with every branch outlined by snow against a blue sky.

We were given a glimpse of the harbor for just a few minutes - it was like a postcard image!

As we continued through the park, Wes noticed something red in the distance.  It was a torii, which indicates the entrance to a Shinto shrine.  

Still, this was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen!

We walked the mile-and-a-half back to the hotel from the park.  It was a peaceful and invigorating walk.  I remember towards the end, we stopped at one of those awesome Japanese vending machines to buy a hot milk tea.  It warmed my hands and my insides.

The trip should have ended here with a nice, relaxing train ride back to Sapporo and a final trip to the bakery at the train station.  But nope, we were in for a real scare.

After we picked up our luggage and snowboards and checked out of the hotel, we took a cab to the train station to avoid rolling our bulky snowboard bags through the snow.  When we arrived at the train station, we noticed that something was off.  There was a whiteboard sign in front of the turnstiles with a lot of Japanese scrawled onto it, some of it in red.  I tried to find someone who could find English to tell us what it said, and finally a kind man told us that this train was not running today because it just broke.  We wrung our hands, so what now??  They directed us to a long line to take the city bus, which would bring us to a certain point, at which we would then take a train to Sapporo.  We considered getting a cab all the way to the airport but that would have been very since we had some time to spare, we got in line for the bus.  There were many buses waiting to pick people up due to the problem, and we appreciated the Japanese transportation authority for being so on top of it with a backup plan.  We boarded the bus after a bearable wait, but during the whole ride we couldn't stop worrying about whether we would make it or not.  The bus made frequent stops and people kept getting on and off.  This would only be Stage 1 of our two-step process to get to the airport.  Finally, the bus stopped picking people up and drove for a while nonstop.  We relaxed a little bit, but not much.  I was trying to ignore the hunger pangs and the urge to urinate.  When we arrived at the train station, we got off and thanked the bus driver.  I tried to pay for the ride, but it was free.  Thank goodness.  We walked into the train station for a good few minutes before Wes realized that our snowboards were not with us.  They were still on that bus!!!  I did not even stop to think.  I whirled around and sprinted back to where the dropoff area was.  There were many buses that looked exactly the same as the one that we took...which one??  I ran like a beast from bus to bus looking at every driver, trying desperately to see if anybody looked familiar.  The light turned green and they all started to move--I barreled on anyway, and got to the first bus in the line just before it made a right turn out of the station and onto the street.  This one was ours!!  I waved at the driver like a madwoman and he noticed me and stopped.  Again, thank goodness for the politeness, good manners, and customer service practices in this country... the driver actually opened his doors and I breathlessly pantomimed snowboard-shaped luggages while pointing to the luggage compartment emphatically.  He knew immediately and opened it up and lo-and-behold, our snowboards were there.  I almost cried of joy.  I really have no idea how we would have tracked these down if he had made that right turn and disappeared into the city.

When we got our luggage, it wasn't over.  We now were cutting it very close to making our boarding time for our flight, but we were still at a freaking random train station far away from Sapporo.  Everything was in Japanese and we had no idea what line to take and we had zero time to make mistakes.  When we figured it out, we saw on the announcement marquee that our train was to come in less than five minutes, so we did our very best to stay hopeful and rushed to the escalators to find our platform.  Thankfully, I think half the people there were trying to get to the airport (their baggage was a dead giveaway), so we knew that we were on the right platform when we found our way there.  And just in the knick of time, we got onto the train when it pulled up.  This photo was taken after we had collected ourselves and breathed huge sighs of relief.  We wanted to relax, but we never let our guard down--we stood right by the doors so that when they opened, we could run (with ALL of our baggage).  I did finally empty my bladder on this train, though!

At the airport, we hurried through security and got through with a few extra minutes to spare.  Perfect, we could breathe for a little and try to spend the last of our yen on some snacks or last-minute gifts for people. We were just getting our cantaloupe soft serve at a little shop when we heard our names being called out on the loudspeaker in the terminal--oops!  Apparently, they must have allowed everyone to board a little early because when we rushed over to our gate (with the ice cream in our hands), it was completely empty even though it was just about the boarding time printed on our tickets.  They must have rolled their eyes so hard when they saw our ice cream cone.  Was it worth it?  Yes!  I still think of soft serve ice cream in Hokkaido to this day.

It was funny how that last day started so peacefully and quickly became a trainwreck (literally...).  We nearly lost our snowboards!  In the end, it all worked out.  I love our adventures and though we may not get to travel for a while because of all of these lifestyle changes on both a micro- and macro- level, we have so many trips to look back on and relive.

No comments:

Post a Comment