I returned to Okinawa last night after some outstanding moments and exploration of new places. I think my Thanksgiving this year was the best I have ever spent. Hakodate embraced my skin with its cold winds, but warmed my spirit with the openness and friendliness of Hokkaido.
I am learning how to negotiate busses and trains every time I go somewhere new. This time it was the airport limousine bus which delivered me five blocks from my hotel for about $4. I got off the bus, looked around and saw a Shinto Shrine and beyond that, the Tsugaru Straits…the beach. The clouds were hiding the sun and gave the sea a silver sheen. Once I got to the beach, the snow came down in soft flakes, kissing my skin, welcoming me to the north.
I looked down, as I am wont to do, and saw these stunning little luminescent pearls of glass winking up at me…sea glass. And of course, I love going to the beaches of Okinawa and picking up sea glass, but this had a different quality it seemed darker, rounder and more intense.
I spent almost two hours with the sea gulls and the sea glass before I thought I should begin to make my way to my hotel as it gets dark quickly. I arrived at my hotel, a capsule hotel. I was so excited because I have been wanting to go for some time. The difficulty is that women don’t often travel alone here and there are only a few places that accommodate us. Capsule Hotels were built to fill the need of businessmen traveling or needing a place to sleep if they’ve missed a train.
This place, the Hakodate Capsule Hotel oddly enough, opened in July of this year and had a floor for women. I was thrilled and for a little of $25 a night, I was excited to try out this very Japanese phenomenon. As a child, I loved to crawl into little spaces and just be there, it was very comforting. I guess it’s like denning for an animal, it has appeal to me. So the idea of sleeping inside a small space thrilled my inner child.
I had booked the capsule you see above, but due to very few women staying in the hotel, only one that I saw, they upgraded me to a premium capsule. I had a little tiny room. I have never spent time on a train, but I imagine this is very much like a berth. Regardless, it was terrific! Soft little bed, curtains to close off the light and a pair of pajamas that felt like my dogi. I highly recommend the experience if you get a chance to stay in a capsule hotel. What a great experience for a kid from upstate New York.
I decided to head out into the night and explore. There were several things I wanted to see and do while spending time here. The first was to go to Mount Hakodate and take the ropeway (gondola) to the top and see the view.
My helpful hotel staff showed me where the tram stop was and I was on my way. The tram only took me so far though and it was on foot for about a quarter of a mile…uphill. It’s all good, I’m in pretty good shape these days. The scary part was going in a gondola. I am not a big fan of heights but I decided that life is to be lived and I have no time for fear, so I paid my 900 yen fare and into the gondola and up the ropeway I went.
As with most things we fear or worry about, the anticipation is usually much worse than the actual event. I had no fear whatsoever, and I was surprised at that, going up or coming down. It was just a great moment.
At the top of Mount Hakodate, Boreas made his appearance and began blowing in earnest, snow was swirling and wild, it was very primitive. Alas, photos of the lights were obscured, but I wouldn’t have changed anything. Maybe another time there will be a clear night, but the lack of a pristine view did not change the impressiveness of the moment.
I came back down the mountain, and was pelted with snow and wind…what a treat. I love Okinawa with all my heart, but part of me always yearns for the cold. My cheeks were red when I finally got back to the hotel. Staff came out and brushed me off, then gave me two pieces of chocolate to enjoy with my tea. It was like I was a dignitary or something…for $25 a night!
I decided to sleep in and was surprised to see it was almost 8 a.m. when I rolled out of my little bed. I was deliciously tired from the past few days and needed a little sleep. Off to the Japanese Macaques or snow monkeys as they are known at the Botanical Gardens in Yunokawa. It says in the literature that they are ‘free’ monkeys and they come down at the end of November and stay until Spring, but they seemed to living there full time.
I took a lot of photos…a lot…maybe I will make a page of macaques during the week, but really, how many pictures of monkeys do people want to see? I bought my ticket for 300 yen and the lady in the booth held up a sign that said in English, ‘where are you from?’ I almost gave my standard smart-ass reply, Ginowan! But I answered that I am Amerikajin. I told her that I live in Okinawa, in Japanese, and she was impressed. If you come to Japan, please learn one or two phrases, if for no other reason than it seems to make people very happy that you make an effort. There was a lovely botanical garden inside but I did not realize it was a tropical garden…hence, I walked inside and was greeted by the hibiscus…the ubiquitous flower of Okinawa. There were all sorts of plants and trees from Okinawa, so even in the north, I am reminded of my love.
Now, Yunokawa is not only known for its snow monkeys, it is widely associated with the lovely hot springs. Since 1653, when the head of the Matsumae clan went there for healing, these hot springs have been drawing people. See this page for more information: http://hakodate-yunokawa.jp/lan/en.html
That little bath was right inside the grounds of the botanical gardens. I shared it with a grandmother and grandson who were engrossed in a conversation about his school and friends. There is a free ashiyu near the tram stop also, so you can just take off your shoes and relax while waiting for the tram.
On recommendation from Mizue at my hotel, I went over to Takubokutei Hotel and had my inaugural onsen experience . Let me say this, Mizue did not steer me wrong. Holy cow, I now understand why all these Japanese people spend so much time at these hot springs and public baths. For 1000 yen, a little under $10, you can spend the afternoon in the hot spring, 800 yen if you bring your own towel. I brought my own! Onto the 11th floor, the picture above shows the room where you can relax or get a massage. I went into the ladies side.
Alright, Japanese people like rules…fortunately, I also like rules so I was already prepared for my onsen.
A few of the rules include:
- No tattoos – good to go, my canvas is unmarked
- Bring a towel, but never put it in the water – cool, I had my big green microfiber towel.
- Keep your hair up – I had a hair band, but they also provided you with one in case you forgot
- No splashing or fooling around in there – well, I wanted to do a little pool running, but I restrained myself.
- Wash thoroughly – Okay, imagine you are going to go meet the most important person of your life. Or that it’s right before you get married….this is how you wash…minimum of 10 minutes scrubbing with all the lovely accoutrements they provide. I’m not kidding…minimum!
- Go naked…as a child I truly hated to wear clothes and would run around being a nature child, with a towel wrapped around my neck like a cape…Hercules was my cartoon inspiration. Going naked, not a problem.
Oh my goodness, out I went into the bathing area, which was hot and wonderful and overlooked the city. Then I noticed outside there was another grotto with stones and a free flowing spring. Out I went, naked, in 20 degree F weather, the snow is flying all around me, and the sea is rolling in front of me. 10 feet later and I am immersed in hot mineral water and it is heaven on earth. I was out there for almost 2 hours…amazing!
I went back in, not because I wanted to, but because it would be dark soon and I had one more place to see before too late. Inside there are mirrors and hair dryers. Once you get dressed there is a lounging area where you can look out at the city. I sat there for about a half an hour…my body tingling. It was incredible. I have a sento (a public bath) near my house and I made a promise to myself that I will be going there in the near future.
So the last stop of the sightseeing day was going to be Goryokaku Tower and park. It was recommended to me and so I found a tram and headed there. Once I got off the station, I wanted to find a little restaurant to have dinner on the way out.
I walked slowly down the hill as the snow from the previous evening had turned to ice, the wind pressed urgently and the snow continued to dance around me. I looked up and saw the tower. It was beautiful and I imagined the view it afforded from the inside would be magnificent. It was. Goryokaku was the site of a famous battle and of course, there was American intervention at some point when Admiral Perry showed up. Here is a website where you can learn about the battle of Goryokaku: https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/fort-goryokaku
In the spring time the Sakura (cherry blossoms) are said to be beautiful here. Maybe there is another trip in my future.
I wandered back up the hill, stopped in a restaurant for dinner and plodded back through the snow to my warm welcoming capsule room.
The next morning I had to make a decision, the morning market with the ikura donburi (salmon roe on rice) or go back to the beach and collect sea glass. It was an incredibly difficult one to make. I chose to go to the morning market.
I wandered through the icy streets and vendors who were very surprised to see a Gaijin among them. I was greeted with tentative ‘good morning’ and shy smiles. I responded Ohayou Gozaimasu and was given very sweet smiles in return. There were stalls upon stalls of freshly caught fish, salmon roe and squid. Another wonderful experience. It was time to get over to the bus station to go to the airport.
I called my Mother and told her I was on a trip, and she said, where are you this time? And then laughed. Even all these miles away, I could see her there laughing at her little Indian (she used to call me this) on the other side of the world.
I fell in love with Hakodate and I hope I will get a chance to go back, what a thrill. How fortunate and thankful I am for this life. Until I see everyone again, I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving and shared it with people you care about.
See you all soon…I have no clue as to where I am going next!