Slipping round the back to Hakodate

JR Hakodate says it can’t afford to maintain much of its rail system anymore and that many sections will close. They include the most northerly and easterly of stations in Japan.

Naturally I want to ride on all of these lines before they close, but that will have to be a trip for another day as the other two don’t share my enthusiasm. After all, the reason that these lines are likely to close is a lack of demand.

It would be a waste just to travel on the same lines as I’ve done before on our previous trip to Hokkaido. But we needed to return south to Hakodate.

Normally services follow the southern route via the Chitose and Muroran Lines, with the alternative route along the Hakodate Main Line between Sapporo and Oshamambe usually requiring a number of changes and use of slow local services. However, I found one train, an early morning Niseko Express, which followed the Hakodate Main Line and only added an hour to the journey.

Niseko is synonymous with skiing and the resorts are, apparently, full of Australians. In keeping with the rest of our Hokkaido trip it was again mainly Taiwanese in our car, though with a number of photography mad Japanese to keep them company.

Snow was drifting beneath the canopy on to our platform at Sapporo Station. We parked our luggage and sat back to enjoy the ride.

The snow lay very thick across the outskirts of Sapporo, burying streets, houses and cars. As we pulled away from the city and away towards Otaru our choice of route was suddenly justified.

The train wound its way along the coast, grey waves dramatically crashing against the sea walls, whipped up by the wintry winds.

Otaru is a historic port town that we visited last time in Hokkaido, our main memory tasting squid ink and sea urchine flavoured ice creams.

A mixed French/Japanese family boarded, providing yet another different accent as they chattered away.

After Otaru there was one more beautiful view of the sea from the right before we wound our way up into the mountains. More rural and mountain snowy scenery, the skeletons of greenhouses, trellises with gnarly branches, leafless in the snow.

Platforms at major stations had arrays of welcome bells.

A couple of sellers came through the train with baskets of local produce, including the most delicious pink rice cakes, their flavour lingering long after the last bite, and tasty pumpkin biscuits. They disembarked at Niseko, where a couple of Australians waited.

We met the Muroran Line at Oshamambe. Waiting for us on the platform was a strange lobster handed mascot called Manbe-kun. He leered into the train windows and wrestled children into the snow after posing for photos with them. Quite scary actually. I wonder if there’s a Japanese manga series about deranged mascots. There should be.

The train now retraced our route up from Hakodate, running alongside the coast. The previously flat water was now grey and disturbed.

Alex chatted to a Taiwanese family he’d met on board. They were up during the Chinese New Year holidays, but will return before the actual date. Taiwan is so close!

Finally we pulled into Hakodate Station and emerged into the freezing cold. The local authorities deserve a word of criticism for there was lots of ice on the footpaths leading out from the station and along many of the paths were visitors were likely to tread. All of us had some hairy moments and B slipped and hurt her wrist on the way to our hotel.

It was too early to check in, so we left our luggage and caught a tram to the closest stop to the Kanamori Red Brick Warehouse area near the port. Though atmospheric, the warehouses were a total tourist trap, full of rubbish souvenir shops.

We tried the famous Snaffles cheesecakes. The strawberry one was the nicest, though not so good we wanted to take a pack back to the hotel with us – yet. We were all hungry after skipping lunch and Alex insisted on a croissant sandwich at the adjacent cafe. B and I, tired of hunting for food, crossed the slippery rode to Lucky Pierrot, a burger and other stuff “institution”. The burger was good, though incredibly messy.

Alex had discovered a “Brick Labo” where, for no cost, kids could build things out of a huge collection of Lego. They insisted an adult accompany their child, so I did sucked it up and joined him.

Scrummaging around in a big box of Lego is so therapeutic! It was hard leaving it.

I would like to have caught the ropeway up to the top of Mount Hakodate for the famous (Top 3 in Japan!) night view, but it was suspended due to wind. It should always be operating suspended, so maybe a better choice of words could have been chosen.

The tram that carried us back lacked the old fashioned wooden floor of the first tram (and the bus at Asahikawa yesterday, forgot about that). We ended up at the Daimon Yokocho, a lantern lit collection of stalls selling drinks and snacks. It’s probably another tourist trap, but we sat ourselves down inside Crab House and ordered some crab legs, seafood and vegetables to cook in stock or to be grilled by ourselves at the table. After we had to order drinks first.

It was not cheap, but we enjoyed the dishes, the hosts were cheerful and we emerged completely full. The two other groups that entered after us were both from Hong Kong.

Only a short walk (or slide) back to the Toyoko Inn. Tomorrow, more seafood and a Shinkansen down to Tokyo.

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