Travelogue RWC 2019: Sapporo

SAPPORO
22-24 September 2019

We had quite an early start (for a holiday) so had packed and laid our clothes out the night before to save us time in the morning.

But, having slept with the blinds open, we were awake earlier than we needed to be so were up and out well ahead of schedule.

We were delighted to find our Uber app worked in Japan so we hailed a car to take us to the airport and were soon in a lovely Toyota people-carrier (with a driver in a suit and tie nogal!) headed for Yokohama station.

The ticket buying process can be quite traumatic, with the foreignness of the rail system compounded by scant instruction in English but once we knew what train to catch, it was pretty simple. And the Japanese are very civilised, lining up in neat rows as marked on the platform and waiting for passengers to disembark before approaching the train, unlike most countries where boarding passengers act like they’re storming the Bastille.

Once at the airport it was quite easy to find our way as it was (unintentional) good fortune that we’d chosen to fly with the most popular carrier so their signage was *everywhere*.

The queue took forever – not what we’d have expected from our experience with Japanese efficiency – but of course the queue waited quietly and shuffled forward a little as each check in was completed, and the lady at the check in desk was super polite with lots of smiling and head-bowing. It really feeds your Zen when everyone around you is being so nice and understanding.

We whipped through security and grabbed a sarmie from Starbucks before jumping on our flight, lucky to get a spare seat next to me so I could stretch out for a nap.

Even though we’d left 10 minutes behind schedule, we landed on time and had the good sense to not even attempt the self-help train ticket machine, so were on the platform mere minutes later as the train pulled in to take us to Sapporo. Where, again, we’d had the good sense to choose our hotel exclusively based on its proximity to the main station.

It was a wise call and despite a short awkward minute where a Japanese policemen – who didn’t speak a word of English – did his very best to give us – who didn’t speak a word of Japanese – directions. Fortunately “out of East gate, turn right and go straight until you see it” is manageable under those circumstances and we were soon on our way into the direction the man had pointed us. It was the right direction, which was a bonus.

Another lovely hotel, with a snug but ample room and more complentary toiletries than most people have in the average bathroom cupboard, including a gift bag with treatment face mask and toner sachets.

That would be for later though, because Sapporo beckoned. And the hotel provided as standard a complimentary smart phone that was docked in the room and preloaded with all sorts of local content and had a free internet-connected SIM.

A quick search revealed that, coincidentally, the Rugby World Cup had overlapped with the Sapporo Autumn Fest so we were in for a treat. And we wouldn’t be doing the same magnitude of mileage on foot that we had the previous day because all the action was literally in our road.

We finally had use for our jumpers because it was noticeably nippier in the North Island than it had been on the Tokyo coast, so we suited up and headed out.

We wandered down a few blocks not really knowing what we were looking for … and couldn’t miss it.

One of the city’s major landmarks is the TV tower which, as you can imagine, stands tall and has flashing lights and whatnot making it a pretty perfect landmark! And a couple of blocks from home, so even more useful!

Besides being useful and big and tall, it was also hosting a German Beer Fest as part of the Food Fair and based on the aromas, it was doing quite a convincing job of all the sausages that were being served.

We weren’t to be deterred though – it seemed very wrong for our first experience of the Sapporo Food Festival to be German sausages and beer, when this was the home of the classic Sapporo beer and ramen noodles! – and resumed our walk to Odori Park.

At the start of the long central park strip was the World Cup Fan Park. The Namibia vs Italy game was on so there was already cheer and merriment and had we known this was the landmark for the quite unrelated Autumn Fest, we’d have had a much more confident start.

Beyond the Fan Park were blocks and blocks of festival, with food and drink stalls set around each side of each block of the park, making for a train of food festival magic, with all sorts of traditional fare, local delicacies and (apparently) a selection of the best of Japanese fare. All in one place.

You can imagine how busy it was.

But still, “busy” is a relative term in Japan. There were orderly queues in front of each stand, people splayed (neatly) on the lawns and not a piece of litter anywhere. Despite the fact that, confoundingly, there are no bins to be seen anywhere. I’m assuming that being the disciplined society that they are, they hold onto their garbage until they spot the blue-moon set of 4 recycling bins and then sort and deposit.

We grabbed a Wagyu beef and potato croquette at a sideline stall that miraculously had no queue and savoured the deliciousness while surveying the other stalls in the area. Reckoning that it was peak time, being Sunday, we adjusted our plans to skip the sampling at the festival in favour of moving the next night’s dinner plans up one.

Being in the hub of the city, it was an easy walk to Ramen Alley which, as the name suggests, is a narrow and dark walkway with nothing but ramen restaurants on either side. Maybe 30 or so of them.

We looked at the pictorial menus at the doors and peered in to see our options. All the restaurants are tiny, maybe 9 square metres and seating no more than a dozen people. The majority of the restaurant is the kitchen, where the chef has a raised section with his frying station and boiling pots facing the customers and his sink behind him. We sat at the corner of the stooled L-shape counter and he leaned over to pass the food down to us.

We shared prawn dumplings to start and then Christian had a spicy miso ramen with pork and I had soy sauce ramen with beef. Both were really tasty – and took forever to eat with chopsticks!

In keeping with traditional things, we used the Ireland vs Scotland game as an opportunity to visit an Irish pub and lucked upon the oldest Irish pub in Hokkaido, called Brian’s Brew, and forked out a princely sum for an on-tap Guinness that scored a #4 on our Guinness Index!

Fortunately the local Sapporo Classic was decent – and way more economical – as we ended up staying for the England vs Tonga game as well. The locals were passionately supporting Tonga and many, for who knows what reason, even had supporters shirts and accessories so it seemed as though it might be a regular thing.

We woke up to a cold and rainy Monday… So we rolled over and went back to sleep, welcoming the excuse to rest.

Surfacing later, we easily navigated the streets back to the (one of many) McDonald’s we’d earmarked for breakfast (which was now probably best classified as lunch) the share the Tsukimi beef burger combo (bacon, egg and melted cheese) and the teriyaki chicken combo. Even the McD’s was neat and orderly and everyone throws away their rubbish and leaves the tables clean. Amazing.

Disappointed to find that the Asahi and Sapporo breweries were both closed on Mondays and not prepared to do the food festival in Odori Park in the rain, we wandered along the blocks-long covered pedestrian shopping avenue, popping into shops of interest, poring over peculiar things of interest.

When we thought we’d run out of mall, we followed a sign that said “underground walkway”, thinking it was an alternate pedestrian crossing at the busy intersection. It was not. It was the gateway into an entire underground city!

We spent another couple of hours browsing and tasting samples and trying things on and – miraculously, after spending the most part of the day shopping – only walked away with an anorak for me.

It was still pouring with rain so we returned to the hotel to get off our feet for an hour’s downtime before dinner, which we’d already decided (after the kind of lengthy discussion you only have on a rainy day shopping excursion) was to be tonkatsu (crumbed and deep fried meat).

There were several tonkatsu restaurants in easy reach from the hotel so we relied on online resources to guide our choice and were very happy with our deep fried feast, served as a set meal with a soup and bowl of rice.

Tuesday morning greeted us with bright sunshine and blue skies which is bloody typical when there was no time to enjoy it, with our flight to Seoul requiring us to be at the airport by 9am!

Still, it was a blessing to be able to shimmy to the station at ground level which was much quicker than the alternate underground route we’d mapped the day before in case we had to avoid making the haul with baggage to the station in the rain.

We’d also had the good sense to buy return tickets to the airport when we arrived in Sapporo so we could dash straight to the platform and ended up catching one train earlier than the one we’d planned.

Of course this meant we got to the airport too early to check in… But that’s never a problem when there’s a food court!

We stuffed ourselves with udon noodles and potato croquettes and then ambled back towards the check in gate.

New Chitose is pretty entertaining for an Airport. There’s a working chocolate factory where you can watch through the window as the chocolate is mixed and swirled and paletted into moulds and then turned out, packaged and sold in the adjacent shop.

There’s a massive kids passage full of play areas and games and a fun restaurant – and lots and lots of Hello Kitty!

And there’s lots of sampling of delicious Hokkaido specialities, so we bounced from store to store, tasting different flavours of cheesecake, layered biscuits, custard tarts… And… And…

… And it was almost a relief when we had to get to our boarding gate for the flight to Seoul.