Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hokkaido Trip Day 1: Luminaries at Otaru

With Nanzan and Keio Universities going on break, several of us students from the University of Wisconsin made plans to meet up in Sapporo, the capitol of Hokkaido (Japan’s Northern island), for the beginning of the annual Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). We came across some great deals for transportation and lodging online. Prices jump for the week of the festival, so we made the decision to go two days early and only stay three nights, through the first festival day.

From Hokkaido
There are many options for domestic transportation, ranging from inexpensive but time-costly to pricey but fast. With pressing international transaction fees and the terrible exchange rate, we have all been looking for ways to stretch our funds. Luckily, Melinda and Alexa found highly limited discounted airfare from Skymark airlines. The trick is that the discounted tickets go on sale two months before the flight date, and they sell out on the first day. We snagged flights to and from Sapporo for between 5000 and 8500 yen (~$60-100). Hostels seemed to charge more than hotels during the festival, so we booked two rooms in a business hotel for 2500-3500 yen per night.

Our flight to Hokkaido had a short layover, where we were made to get off the plane with our carry-on bags and go through a security checkpoint again, only to get back on the same plane. Ibaraki Airport, outside of Tokyo was very small and crowded, so our flight left late because not everyone could get through security quick enough since it was already backed up when we got there. When we later arrived in Hokkaido we hopped on a crowded train to Sapporo station and transferred to a subway. Our first real step into the Hokkaido climate finally came as we exited the subway station near our hotel.

The moment we surfaced we simultaneously blurted, “Holy crap. It’s winter!” The ice encrusted sidewalks, towering snow banks and biting wind chill were much more what we had all been accustomed to growing up in the Midwest.

We checked in to our hotel, but being a bit tired from our travels we all seemed to be operating on separate wave lengths. This ended up causing some confusion at the check-in counter and we ended up paying the price of three rooms, not two. We realized this after we set out for the rest of the day, but the staff corrected the mistake when we explained the mess we had created.

From Otaru
After dropping our bags off in our rooms, we set out on our mission for the day to see the luminaries in Otaru, about 30 minutes from Sapporo by train. It’s shocking how quickly short distance travel costs rack up in Japan, with our first day easily being the most expensive taking into account trains to and from the airports followed by our excursion to Otaru.

From Otaru
Cities in Hokkaido were built up more recently than Nagoya, Kyoto or Tokyo, so Sapporo and Otaru were designed around a grid system, and the buildings are much more reflective of western style with red brick and multi-paned windows. Otaru is a quaintly unique little hotspot that warrants a visit. During the Yuki Matsuri, Otaru has its own little luminary event, lighting up candles in the canal and sculpting a nighttime wonderland walkway of luminary sculptures along the old railway. The locals were very enthusiastic about the event, and everything came together beautifully.

Don't forget, more photos over here: https://picasaweb.google.com/utter.chaos13

From Otaru

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