Your first Bullet Train is an experience like no other, smart, sleek and so fast it can get a little nauseating. Our first journey would take us north to Hokkaido. As Japan’s most northerly island this ancient land is truly wild, with its sycamore forests and snow-capped mountains home to all manner of unique species including brown bears, Hokkaido Deer, Pika and the majestic Snow Crane.
Arriving at Tokyo to catch our first bullet train is about as far away from the experience of catching a British Train as is humanly possible. The staff are friendly, helpful and always smiling while the trains are clean, fast and almost never delayed. The real joy of a journey on the Shinkansen (bullet train) however is the food. In every major station is a gastronomic extravaganza like no other…bento. A line of about 20 different stalls offering every type of Japanese food imaginable fill the station, at each one you can customise your own little box for little more than £5. By the time we finally went to the platform we had accumulated a pile of food that would feed a family, each. Fresh pork buns for breakfast, chicken Katsu with fresh rice, pickles and seaweed for our lunch and Onigiri (triangles of rice stuffed with all manner of taste morsels) for a snack…at least we wouldn’t starve.
Seeing the Shinkansen pull into the station 3 minutes before we were due to depart was slightly stressful but the efficiency of the boarding process is incredible. More than 500 people boarded the train and were seated within 2 minutes and sure enough we departed on time.
Despite the speed of the Shinkansen it took an hour to reach the outskirts of Tokyo, reminding us once again just how huge this city really is. Over the course of the next two hours we traversed the entirety of northern Honshu, whizzing past the lush green of the Japanese Alps and zooming through the tree-lined streets of Sendai. After a short trip through a tunnel we emerged onto the shores of Hokkaido. Immediately the rugged cliffs and wind battered coastline spoke of a land that seemed far more ancient than mainland Japan.
After another train and a short trip on the subway we emerged from Kikusui station into the cold night of Sapporo, famous for its beer, its lamb and its skiing. A short walk from the station along the dimly lit streets of this northern city we reached Waya Guest House. My experience of hostels is limited to put it lightly but I can already tell this place will be hard to beat.
Nestled on a quiet street just outside the centre of Sapporo this traditional wooden building was constructed two years ago by a dedicated team of volunteers. Since then they have decorated it in traditional Hokkaido style and stocked the downstairs bar with Sapporo’s world famous beer. Immediately you are greeted like family by the multinational staff at Waya, with its quaint wooden rooms and beautiful tatami mat covered dining area it immediately felt like home. As luck would have it we arrived on the night when they were having their weekly ‘family meal’ cooked but two of the staff from Waya. As we sat on the tatami mats the smell of fresh food filled the hostel with locals and guests alike sitting down ready to eat.
The food was a combination of traditional Taiwanese and Hokkaido foods, sweet potato soup for dessert, leek and scrambled egg with all manner of spices to begin and a gorgeous Taiwanese hot pot to warm us up in the cold Sapporo night. Sitting down with Rio, Eri, Pincham and Anil we got on immediately. Soon we were laughing and joking about our lack of Japanese skills and showing them our videos from the trip so far.
It was then that Rio invited us to go with him and some friends to the mountains the next day for a trek, despite our plan to explore Sapporo we happily agreed. The more he talked about the mountains the more excited we got. The community feel in Waya is incredible and soon more guests were keen on the trip too, a lovely couple from Antwerp Tomas and Hanna were also coming to the mountain.
Once again the Japanese had shown themselves to be a people who are not simply polite but are truly friendly, always eager to hear about others. The more time that I spend in this incredible country the more I am coming to realise it feels more like home than anywhere I have been before. The people here have a deep respect for each other and for the natural world, they don’t see the earth as something that belongs to them but rather as something entrusted to them. Though they rarely talk about their beliefs and religion there is deep sense of spirituality with everyone you meet.
Tokyo had been fantastic but Hokkaido and its people were quickly finding a place in my heart. So onto our next day in Hokkaido, a trip to the Daisetsuzan National Park to see the autumn leaves and maybe catch a glimpse of a bear or two!
See you soon,