…and finally Winter

Hello Everybody,

I guess November has been my month for travel, first Hiroshima and Miyajima and then a 96, as the Marines say, to Hokkaido. This has been a rough month for me on a personal level and I’m doing my best to get back to me but there are moments. I had quite a few difficult times in Hokkaido, but I reminded myself  to be in the moment and not avoid, the sadness will pass.

So I landed in New Chitose Airport outside Sapporo and boarded a train to Otaru. Now, I had originally planned to go to Hakodate, but things change and I decided to try a place that was closer to Sapporo.

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A happy welcome at the train station in Otaru.

Otaru, I was told, is a touristy day trip destination from Sapporo. And it’s true, the fish is gorgeous, salmon roe to die for, but it is all overpriced to the point of ridiculousness. Well, I thought then, and still think now, I am a tourist. After all, as my dear friend Andy Dresser used to say, any time you leave your hometown, you’re a tourist.

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Glass wreath of Otaru

What Otaru has, as well as overpriced restaurants, are two things that are very dear to my heart: handcrafted blown glass and music boxes. I find glass incredibly beautiful and amazing. Anyone who knows me knows about my sea glass obsession as I wander the beaches in Okinawa, always with one or two pieces in my pocket. My mother woud laugh and say, “you and your father are like a couple of magpies, if it’s shiny and on the ground, you pick it up.”   She was right, and she is a woman who knew her husband and her child very well.

As I got to the train station in Otaru, I was greeted by these little friendly blown glass snowmen. They have a display of the local crafts, namely blown glass including that stunning glass wreath.

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Markets at night

Living in balmy Okinawa, I knew I was in for a little bit of a shock when I stepped outside the station and onto the street. Lilting down around me were these big gorgeous snowflakes. It was snowing! I have not seen snow in a year and I missed it. I missed the cold that tries to lay its fingers on the back of my neck when the wind blows my hair. I missed that shivery kiss on my cheek when a snowflake alights there for a moment. So already, Hokkaido had exceeded my expectations.

It was dark when I arrived on Thanksgiving night and I proceeded down past the markets, which were all closed or closing. I passed a KFC with a big Colonel Sanders statue. KFC at Christmas is a huge tradition in Japan…I don’t know why either.

I found my hotel which used to be a bank near the canals, got checked in and went to explore the night. Now I may live in Okinawa, but LL Bean made the trip with me in the form of my 850 down jacket, a rich warm wool turtleneck and Smartwool socks. I was ready to go.

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Romantic canals of Otaru
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Reflections along the Otaru Canal

There were a handful of us out enjoying the night. The canals were quiet and reflective and received the snow as tenderly as a gift from a lover. It was serene, even with other people there, a sense of calm.

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A tree in Otaru

I looked up ‘things to do in Hokkaido in November’ and I had read many comments about the abundance of people from Singapore this time of year. Of course, like many things, it promptly went out of my head. I am standing there photographing this tree with blown glass balls for fishing and see three gentlemen (wise men?) photographing themselves. I offered in my broken Japanese to take their picture. It turns out they were from Singapore and spoke better English than I do. They were very nice and I alway feel that these encounters are the souvenirs I bring home with me from my trips. These moments are what make my travels so special. People are curious about each other. It was a great conversation and I think this was one of the highlights for me. So, thank you, if you’re reading this!

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This area reminded me of Diagon  Alley…complete with a little boy statue!

As it was Thanksgiving I decided to go out and find a nice restaurant and be thankful. Well, it’s also a holiday in Japan so there were no restaurants open by the time I headed out. My all time favorite standby, Family Mart was open though and provided a  lovely little feast of steamed bun, popcorn, mixed nuts, a bottle of cold tea and a hot cup of coffee. I have so much to be thankful for and that food was a lovely reminder that I have food to eat, that I am able to travel, that I have friends and family who love me and accept me for the offbeat explorer that I am. I always enjoy Thanksgiving and feel that before my feet touch the floor every morning I need to find five things to be thankful for. Gratitude is the road to happiness.

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Shoppes and restaurants …none were open though…they faked me out with their lights.

In the morning I threw on my backpack with my big lens and decided to go do some hiking and city exploration. I walked down past the canals and up the hill you see in the picture below. I wanted  to go to Temiya Park.

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Oh snow, a cold wind and a lovely  view…

What I found made me laugh. Like many small towns in cold places, the sidewalks were covered in snow and ice, sometimes I had to walk in the street to get a grip walking up hills. As I was nearing the park, I had to take a hard right, onto all snow covered roads. It was great to climbing and feel that air and see the clarity of everything that only seems to come with cold temperatures. There was no human company, but a murder, a large murder of ravens alternately encouraged and chastised me as I made my way to the top of the hill. It was so lovely to be alone. Now I know I live alone, but nowhere in Okinawa can you truly be alone, no matter where you go, there are always some people. They are quiet, but they are there.  It was so nice to just lean against a tree, look out at the sea and not encounter another human soul.

I arrived to the park, only to find the gates closed…sigh. I wandered around another way and spotted a Shinto shrine.

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Otaru Inari Shrine
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Shisa in snow at Otaru Inari Shrine

I went and paid my respects and was on my way  back down through the city. I spotted one person walking along and noticed a couple of ravens hopping along side her like dogs. I thought, either she usually feeds them or she’s got something in her backpack. She kept walking however and the crestfallen ravens eventually gave up.

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Hotel Vibrant – a former bank, now a hotel by the canals.

I stopped off at my hotel, got a cup of tea and went back out, this time in the direction of the glass making district and shops as well as the music box museum.

The beginning of the glass craft in Otaru began in 1891 by Torazo Inoue. Glass balls were used as floats for the fishing in the northern sea, as the demand for fishing grew, so the need for glass floats. Oil lamps, which still grace the streets of the canals and throughout Otaru, utilize the glass made here.

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Glass making district

All along the streets, there are shops where glass is displayed and produced. I walked into one shop and watch an artist shaping the glass figurine she was creating. Wonderful experience. There are also many restaurants, selling squid snacks (they are very popular here) and seaweed, as well as a host of sweets and chocolates.

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A little Shiba Inu absorbing the sun.

For me, music boxes have always held a special magic. Perhaps they remind me of all the fairy tales, Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen I have read over the years, and still go back to. I have one that was a gift and probably my most valued possession. I wanted to see all these music boxes!

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Inside the Otaru Music Box Museum
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Music boxes that look like confections – incorporating  local handcrafted blown glass.

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Sakura with samurai, ninja and geishas…

It was beautiful and wonderful and magical. I did not want to leave…I lingered, and I wasn’t the only one. There was a childlike wonder from many people that day.

As I wandered back to my hotel, it was getting late and I had already walked almost 7 miles at that point, I just looked at the architecture and appreciated so much old and new, next to each other.

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Old and new buildings in Otaru.

The next morning I got up early and set my sights on going to Sapporo for the day. As I walked to the train station, I noticed this couple, it was slippery and these two were laughing and holding on to each other as they made their way down the hill. I photographed them on their way about their day, a little glimpse into their unity. It was beautiful.

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Romance

So that’s all for this week folks, I will save Sapporo for next week. I think I need to take a little break from traveling and focus on my Japanese class and my love, Okinawa.