Monday, March 3, 2014

A Whirlwind Trip to Japan!

Whew! Well, it's happened again - the semester is flying past me before I have a moment to breathe! I had the amazing opportunity to visit my friends in Japan a few weekends ago. They generously hosted me and took me to see the Winter Festival in Sapporo! After a few weeks in Singapore's equatorial heat, I was thrilled to get a little time to go walkin' in a winter wonderland! It was a whirlwind of a trip; I took a red-eye flight on Thursday night, arriving in Tokyo at 6am on Friday morning. From there, I met my "Japanese mom and dad" and we flew together up to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost (and coldest!) point.

Once we landed in Hokkaido, we hit the ground running! We left our bags at our hotel and set out to explore the snow festival. This was the 65th Snow Festival in Hokkaido. At a high of 8°F each day, I was glad I brought layers (and added a few more along the way!). This was one of those experiences where being a little cold to see something this utterly amazing was worth it. When I heard "snow sculptures," I wasn't really sure what to expect. Certainly nothing of this size! There was a replica of the Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula crafted meticulously out of snow, and standing at 12 meters high and 23 meters wide and was lit up at night with colored lights. There was a slide made of snow for children to climb on. There were larger-than-life characters from children's television programs, and a bas-relief mural of winter sports in honor of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2017 Sapporo Winter Games.

After a few hours of walking around and taking photos, it was time to get something hot to eat. And that's when I had my very first bowl of real honest-to-goodness Japanese ramen. This Hokkaido ramen paid tribute to the crops that this agricultural region of Japan is known for: potatoes and corn. The broth was rich and buttery. As I was eating it, chunks of snow kept falling off my hat into my bowl. I felt like the Campbell's soup kid in the commercial where the snowman gradually melts and there's the boy eating his soup. It was a fabulous experience.

We checked in to our room at the beautiful Tokyo Dome hotel and took a short rest, and then set off for the Shiroi Koibito cookie and chocolate factory. It, too, was a magical wintertime experience. We were able to sample these delicate butter cookies that sandwiched a slice of melt-in-your-mouth white chocolate. We shared some amazing desserts together. I feel like I successfully ate my way through a chocolate factory, I Love Lucy style.

We returned to the city of Sapporo and ventured out to the second major viewing area, the Susukino Ice Festival. These ice sculptures were placed up and down the busy city street, transforming an urban laneway into an icy wonderland. Many of the sculptures were sponsored by advertisers - there was the Coca Cola polar bear next to a seafood restaurant's display of fish frozen in time, next to a larger-than-life ice bottle of beer filled with amber liquid. It was remarkable. We ate a sumptuous multi-course dinner at the Tokyo Dome Hotel overlooking the fabulous Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daula as it was lit up by multicolored lights. Then I positively passed out for the night.

The next day we took a one-and-a-half hour train ride to the base of Mount Asahi where we went to the Asahiyama Zoo. The train ride was in itself a wonderful memory on this trip. It was fascinating to see the changing landscape as we traveled. Hokkaido is to Japan what the midwestern "American heartland" is the USA. Even the use of space reminded me strongly of the American midwest. There was a certain tranquility traveling on the quiet train over the snowy landscape that resonated with me.

We arrived at the zoo and walked to where many people were lining up, waiting for the "penguin walk." I really didn't know what to expect; I knew I'd be seeing penguins, and that was enough to fill me with the same level of excitement as a six-year-old at Disney World. We all lined up with our toes behind a red line. We were told that the penguins needed exercise during the winter, and so they would be let out to walk down this makeshift lane that we had created by
lining up at the ice. If they didn't want to go out, they didn't have to; this wasn't a performance, rather, it was an opportunity for penguins to take a leisurely stroll, as penguins like to do. And... out came the penguins! It doesn't get much more up-close and personal than this! It was a delight. 

After a delicious lunch and a visit to the polar bear, hippopotamus and giraffes, we took the train back to Sapporo. That evening, I had another cultural first - SUSHI at an authentic Japanese sushi restaurant. There was so. much. good. sushi!

We spent a fun evening shopping around the underground shopping center (this is a uniquely Japanese concept - entire malls can live under airports, train stations, city blocks - beautiful, bustling, brightly lit malls.). I had to use great restraint not to buy more than my limited luggage could handle going back to Singapore!

I was sad to see my time in Japan come to an end, as I had enjoyed seeing my "Japanese parents" and I've truly come to love Japan like a second home-away-from-home. I feel lucky that living in Singapore has afforded me the ability to jet out to another incredible part of the world for a matter of a weekend. And I feel especially lucky to have such special people in my life who would invite me to do so and make it all possible. As I journeyed back to the tropical Lion City, it seemed hard to believe that this snowy wonderland even existed. Was it all a dream? Until the next time - Sayonara... for now!


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