After Sapporo, Hakdoate was my final stop in Hokkaido – home of Mount Hakodate and one of the top night views in Japan (the Japanese tourist board, perhaps influenced by High Fidelity, is obsessed with making top three lists – top three night views, top three cherry blossom avenues next to rivers, top three wooden gateways originally red but now painted green and so on). I attempted both day and night viewings, but halfway into my day ascent a huge snowstorm blew in and wiped out everything further away than a few feet. The blizzard was still in full force at night, so I’ll have to be content with the brochure pictures. Another interesting stop was the gaijin bochi (foreign cemetery), where long-term foreign residents or exploring sailors are interred. Foreigners are buried facing out to sea, a gesture designed to help them find their way home again.
Leaving the frozen expanses of the north I took the train along the west coast, which turned out to be buried under a foot of snow too (it all blows in from the Sea of Japan but doesn’t reach the east coast due to the mountains in the middle). Well off the tourist trail (at least in winter), I stopped by Honjo and the village of Kakunodate (site of many samurai houses and cherry trees, all covered in snow of course) and felt my first noticeable earthquake (the building shook a bit, like a heavy lorry was passing – I later found out that there was a tsunami warning in Hokkaido, so it may have been the same tremor). Another Japanese must-do was crossed off the list as I hit a karaoke club with some English teachers – the song selection was as good as anything in the UK, and the machine (somehow) monitors how many calories you expend while singing. Double figures are hard to attain, but I hit 11 with The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the night record was around 13 (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).
Getting back to Tokyo in one day on the local trains (I’m still using the brilliant seishun 18) took nine trains and fourteen hours, including one two-minute change (perfectly feasible in Japan, because typically one train pulls in, you wait thirty seconds and then the other one arrives), but I rocked back into the hostel like I’d never left (the staff remembered me as the only non-Japanese person who tried to speak Japanese). The following day I paid homage to Japanese science fiction at the Godzilla statue in Hibiya and then made a pilgrimage out to the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka – home of some of the best films on the planet. Sadly, photography is strictly forbidden inside the museum building and so if you need to see the Ghibli film stained glass, concept art, hundreds of animation sketches and other paraphernalia you’ll have to visit yourself. I thoroughly recommend it.
The final must-do on my Tokyo list (aside from picking up a Lush shampoo bar) was Hombu – the headquarters of the Aikikai and an essential stop for any aikidoka. After much wandering around Shinjuku I eventually found the place (it’s a very unassuming building and I would have walked right past it of there hadn’t been a guy in a hakama standing outside waiting for someone) and paid my respects. The Doshu’s class is at half past six in the morning and I unfortunately rolled up in the afternoon.