A perfect day! We arose with the sun and sailed past picturesque coastline dotted with islands and signs of civilization. Shortly after we tied up, thirty eight motor coaches pulled up to the dock and tour guides poured out. The ship had us well organized. Different tours met in different lounges and we found ourselves on our coach before the stated departure time. Geisha and samurai provided photo opportunities dockside.
Our tour was dependent on great weather and that was what we had. Part of our drive was on toll way and we marveled as our driver zoomed up to the toll gate and the gates sprung open in the nick of time. This is a well organized country. A few of the road signs had familiar alphabet, but the majority were totally unintelligible. Even the icons didn't make sense to us. The roads are good, we've driven on the left before, but this is a country where we will never be able to drive ourselves around. We left the job to our white gloved coach driver.
Our guide explained that the island of Hokkaido is somewhat separate from the rest of Japan. It's far north location gives it an alpine climate, and it still has lots of green and empty space. It's too cold to grow rice here, but many of the other fresh vegetables that Japanese like to eat are raised here. Retirees come from the south and settle in the lower elevations of the island where the winter is less fierce and they can afford much larger homes than they owned in their younger days. There are many lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming. Younger folks also love to come here in the winter for the snow sports. The winter Olympics were held here in Sapporo in 1972. An ice festival where an entire town of buildings are made out of ice and snow and illuminated with colored lights is also a big draw annually.
The whole island is volcanic and dotted with thermal areas and hot springs; our tour took us to the Utuzon thermal region. The volcanos there had erupted in 1910, 1943, 1977 and 2000. Numerous fumeroles steamed as we drove toward the cable car. One of the volcanos was owned by a farmer. His corn field had erupted into a mountain and his occupation changed overnight from agriculture to tourism.
When one of the mountains blew its top, the caldera left behind became the lovely blue waters of Lake Toyako. The guide pointed to the hotel overlooking the waters where the G8 summit will be held next spring. There were many other lower priced hotels as well, some with an amusing blend of Bavarian alpine architecture and Japanese features. At the Utuzan Rope Way, we joined a long line of local tourists. Today is the autumnal equinox, a holiday around here. We could understand why they had picked this area to spend a lovely day.
After the tour we hopped on a free shuttle bus and went into town. Muroran had loosed a fleet of school kids to assist us with their newly learned English. They rode the bus with us, hovered on street corners, and giggled a lot. The town was not a touristy town, but the grocery store kept us well occupied. Such a bountiful supply and variety of food that was totally unidentifiable. A shop that sold the little ancestor worship temples that people keep in their homes was also fascinating. The craftsmanship was outstanding with inlaid woods and metals and artful containers for the incense and candles.
As the ship prepared to sail away, crowds gathered to watch and wave. Local school kids came with a retinue of floodlights and giant speakers and put on a dance/gymnastic show on the dock. As our horn sounded its sayonara, they waved glow sticks and shouted "by by." We couldn't have asked for a better send off. A perfect day.