January 2, 2010

Hokkaido - A Trip of Many 'First' : Part 2 - Sapporo City, Asahiyama Zoo, Asahikawa

Woke up very early and noticed flurries against a dark morning sky through the hotel window, what a serene feeling - yes that's another first. Although I was in Korea last year (earlier post - "Boys Over Muju Resort") it was during the last days of winter and so did not get to experience any snowfall. What was on the ground was actually slush - basically snow that is starting to melt; large grains of ice.

Today, 14 December 2009, is effectively our third day in Hokkaido and we started the day's tour with a leisurely drive through the main streets of Sapporo - passing by scenic landmarks like the Old Hokkaido Government Building and Odori Park. However we were all oblivious to the fact that the coach was passing by the Tokeidai (Sapporo) Clock Tower. At that moment our tour guide was so engrossed in a discussion with us that she did not realised the landmark was right in front. The coach driver actually circled round to pass the Clock Tower again but we were then in another world of our own. Anyway our guide assured us that we'll get to see this landmark when we returned from the north towards the end of the week.
White Lovers Chocolate
We stopped at the magnificent Sapporo TV Tower for some photo taking and the perennial toilet break. This morning we also visited a stall selling fresh seafood and proceeded to "invade" a shop near the Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade where boxes and boxes of the famous Hokkaido "White Lovers (白い恋人) Chocolate" were purchased by members of the group.

Hokkaido Map
So far we have been moving within the central Hokkaido area around Sapporo but today we were heading north towards Asahikawa (旭川) (refer to map above). Halfway through the journey one can't help but noticed that the scenery outside has changed to that of a breathtaking winter wonderland. Fields, roads, trees and rooftops were now covered by canopies of pure white snow. It reminded me of the Korean drama, Winter Sonata - images of Bae Yong-joon (배용준) and Choi Ji-woo (최지우) frolicking in the snow appeared in front of my eyes. [Yes I know, some of you are thinking that I am very "auntie" to watch such Korean soap operas. I actually watched Winter Sonata after my visit to Nami Island (earlier post - "Winter Sonata Island - Nami Island"); I wanted to do some comparisons of what is "real to what is reel" - ok, ok, also a little bit aunty ...].

winter scene
As the coach came to a halt at our toilet stop, some of us were filled with excitement, no not because of the fact that we could finally relieve ourselves after a long journey but because we could now, for the first time, touch fine powdery snow and sink our ankles into the blanket of white. Some of the younger ones attempted to start a snowball fight but realised that making snowballs was not that easy. It's quite difficult to bind one together as the snow was very soft and powdery. Needless to say there was a lot of photo taking at this stopover.

Lunch was at a restaurant that offered a nice buffet spread covering Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Western food. Our tour guide also provided a round of free ice cream; throughout the trip she also offered titbits, buns and usage of her own supply of horse oil cream for our dry skins - definitely another first.

The Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園) was less than 25 minutes from our lunch stop and on arrival we were greeted by quite a heavy snow fall. This zoo is located on the outskirts of Asahikawa City; it is the northernmost zoo in Japan. Some will say that it is small in comparison to many other zoos in the world but I can assure you walking around it in winter with snow falling on you is an experience that is very different. I find the view of the zoo with snow all around rather breathtaking and majestic. The temperature display was registering temperatures of -3.9 to -4.3 degrees centigrade. The animals are similar to those you find in other zoos but against a white background they somehow looked more magnificent. We were unlucky to miss the twice a day parade of penguins but were happy to watch them and the other animals in their unique enclosures. We left the zoo as it was closing with strains of "auld lang syne" being played over its PA system.

Asahiyama ZooAsahiyama ZooAsahiyama ZooAsahiyama Zoo
The skies were already dark when we reached Asahikawa Ramen Village which has eight of the area's best ramen shops in a single outlet. While some in the group headed for their dinner we decided to visit some of the stores around the area. Among us about ten pairs of boots and shoes were purchased, quite a few from the UNIQLO outlet there. One member of the group had to buy her footwear out of sheer necessity as the sole of one of her boots had started to come off the day before. Well like they say, "Necessity is the Mother of Invention" so she and my wife have actually approached a shop the night before to ask for some rubber bands - which was no easy task as they do not speak Japanese and the shopkeeper doesn't understand much English. In the end they managed to get what they wanted and the result of this temporary measure is as shown in the photo. But the irony of it is that I have with me, all along, a bunch of rubber bands, some safety pins, threads, needles and band-aid bandages which I always packed for all my trips in case of minor "emergencies" like ... a sole dropping off! Anyway it's a good excuse to shop because in the end she bought at least two if not three pairs of new footwear.

The whole tour group congregated at the lobby after checking in to the Hotel Crescent Asahikawa. We then followed our guide as she brought us down a couple of streets to where some food and drinking outlets were located. Here the "herd" separated into smaller groups to look for their preferred joint. We decided to head for a "Mos Burger" outlet nearby and had our fast food dinner there. After which I headed back to the hotel for my "beauty" sleep while the others ventured around the area.

It was a good third day, members of the tour have started to warm up to each other. The initial stage of exploration as members get to know one another through safe "cocktail" conversations have given way to exchanges of jokes. I soon dozed off with images of polar bears hibernating away at Asahiyama Zoo.

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