Sapporo, Hokkaido Japan: Sakura Heaven
15 May 2010
Well it`s 16.5 hours each way and costing a fortune despite me having a rail pass. The forecast is for sunny weather and the Sakura web site is showing positive. Fingers crossed it will not be a wasted trip.
It`s actually a longer trip than that today as I have to get a bus from my accommodation to catch a train from Hakone-Yamato to Odawara and then another train from there to Tokyo. The central station in Tokyo is called `Tokyo` which can be very confusing. Like having a station called `London`.
One Small Triumph For Me
Having got to Tokyo I then had to catch a non-Metro underground train - the JR Yamamote Line - to Ueno from where I am to catch the Sapporo sleeper. I actually managed to navigate my way from Tokyo to Ueno and to the right platform at Ueno without once having to ask one of the smartly-dressed and generally very helpful rail staff.
Not Exactly A Linguist
I have so far been able to memorise about six words of Japanese, although I often cannot get the word out quick enough for the situation. Passers-by can probably hear the cogs whirring as I try to process the request.
One of my words is `gomen nasai` which means `I`m sorry`. Very useful when you are trying to navigate through rush hour Tokyo with what feels like a small garden shed on your back.
It'`s a bit of a disappointment to know the train is a `limited express` not a Shinkansen as there are no night Shinkansen services. Nevertheless it is a famous enough loco for people to be tripping over themselves to photograph it.
Accommodation is a four-berth sleeper, although from what I can tell it is the only such carriage on this train, all others I saw were twins or even very executive-looking singles with armchair and desk. And their carriages had western toilets.
The other occupants are Japanese, one of whom gets on past midnight. The others ignore me on the top bunk and chat away. Earplugs to the rescue.
Finish my book One Thousand Splendid Suns which was a real emotional ride and gripping for it: recommended if you can take the pain.
It`s glorious sunshine and as I look out of the window I can see snow-capped peaks from one side and the sea to the other.
I take the precaution of speaking to tourist information to seek the best places to go, which is just as well as I had intended starting with the Botanic Gardens of Hokkaido University and that would have been a big mistake.
Instead, having deposited small shed in a left luggage locker, I was directed to take the Metro to Maruyama Park. It was clearly signposted from the nearest station but frankly all I needed to do was follow the crowds. And boy were there crowds. It`s a Saturday, sunny and the sakura is in full bloom. Time for a Hanami (that`s a sakura party).
As you will see from the photos there were more picnics and barbecues than you could shake a stick at.
Everyone is having fun, eating playing games, taking photos of the blooms or just strolling in the sunshine.
And the scent of the flowers is delicate but present. I had not associated cherry blossom with having a scent but it did.
I went onto a second park for some more photos, then, via a couple of tourist sights to the Botanic Gardens before heading back to the station for the next 16.5 hours back and then to catch another train.
The Journey Home
The company was somewhat more convivial on the return leg: a middle-aged woman and a young couple. The young couple almost immediately offered me some sort of fruit with a very sour taste and I exchanged that for some chocolate. They got off at Utsunimiya, where I had been a few days earlier. She was able to speak a sprinkling of English but whispered the phrases to her husband for him to pass on, until she built her confidence.
I got a nasty surprise though from the ticket inspector who told me I had to cough up another twenty-odd quid in addition to the 150 on top of my rail pass. I didn`t pay it on the outbound leg but maybe I should have been asked (part of the line is not owned by Japan Rail). Managed to charge my camera battery using a point in the corridor by the sink. Expected the conductor to ask me to pay a surcharge for that too. As I was hovering protectively to make sure nothing untoward happened, a Japanese woman said something to me and pointed at the charger. I had no idea what she`d said but all became clearer in the morning. When I went to use the sink she saw me and laughed, pointing at her phone charger. `See, same. Thanks`. I presumed she did not know where to charge her phone but I had led the way.
It was a long day and a long way but I think you will agree from seeing the photos it was worth it.