When someone tells you to have an “unforgettable vacation”, I’m sure they didn’t mean go and experience a historic earthquake. This was supposed to be one of the best vacations ever: Summertime in Hokkaido with my cousins. I hadn’t gone on a trip with my cousins for MANY years, so I was ready to make new awesome memories. Well it’s hard to argue that my wish was granted. Nothing like a massive earthquake to make a vacation unforgettable indeed!
But you know what? I still have nothing but good things to say about this trip. It has been exactly a year, and my golly, I miss Hokkaido. Earthquake or no, it’s still my favorite prefecture in Japan. My first time there with the Sapporo Tourism Office was snowy and magical, and this second time was UNIQUE to say the least. The purpose of this post is not to dissuade anyone from coming to Hokkaido, but merely to share what it was like to be here as a tourist during such a time. Let me try to recount the events from my own memory and point of view as best as I can.
DAY 0 Sept 5th — Arrivals and omens
Arriving in New Chitose Airport after a race to catch our connecting flight was a relief. We were tired but excited. The first place we hit up was Royce Chocolate World right inside the airport, where we proceeded to buy a ton of limited edition Royce Nama Chocolates. As a chocolate lover, I never leave Japan without it. Since it was fairly early, we decided to have some snacks from the Royce bakery, then dinner, before exiting the airport.
Immediately, we found out that something was amiss. The JR Train that was supposed to take us from New Chitose to Sapporo was down—a first for me. Public transport in Japan has never failed me before. In the following days, I would wonder if it had been a sign of things to come. As the technicians scrambled to fix the problem, it became clear that it wasn’t getting solved soon. We decided to join the hundreds of people lined up at the bus ticket counter.
Around evening, maybe before 7, I noticed from where I stood in line how some people were scurrying in the direction of the stairs to the subway. Instinctively, I told everyone we should run the same way lol. Apparently, they managed to fix the trains but were taking a limited amount of passengers for a test run. My cousins were able to get in, and when it was my turn, the guard stopped me. I told him in my broken Japanese that my family was inside, and he finally waved me in. Phew!
We found our Airbnb easily enough, stopping by nearby konbinis for minimal supplies. There was time enough to buy more tomorrow. We were exhausted at this point, but being pleased with the size of our Airbnb, we slept like babies in our own chosen spots.
DAY 1 Sept 6th — In which our world was shaken
I received one of those noisy emergency alerts on my iPhone before 3 in the morning. It was in Japanese and I was groggy, so I ignored it. A few minutes later, before I was able to go back into deep sleep, the earthquake struck. I sat up and watched the world sway around me, thinking about whether or not we should run down from our apartment room on the 6th floor. My cousins got up and we were literally frozen in our spots, staring at each other, waiting it out.
It was a strong earthquake. But from where we sat, it wasn’t that bad. It came and went as earthquakes do. I peeked out of the windows and saw that our neighbors hadn’t stirred. No one was running down their buildings. And so we did the same and went back to sleep.
And that’s when it happened: The aftershock that would beat all aftershocks I ever hope to experience. It was even more violent than the actual earthquake. The ground didn’t only sway left to right, but it felt as if the world had been stuck into a mason jar and shaken like salad dressing. It was surreal in a way. I swear I felt my butt lift off the couch several times from where I was sitting as the aftershock did its thing.
I sat there tense, but also strangely mesmerized by all the swaying lights and objects in the room. I remember looking up and wondering if the ceiling would fall on me or something, complete with falling dust particles and pieces of cement like in the movies. I don’t know if at that time you guys saw that video of the shaking airplane circulating the web, but just to illustrate how strong the quake was, it was able to shake an entire parked airplane.
The aftershock seemed to last for ages. It certainly felt much longer than the actual earthquake. Just then, the electricity went off with an audible thud. The darkness was punctuated by the whirring of the air-conditioning shutting down, and then there was only this thick silence. I think, maybe if I was the sort that panicked easily, I would be hearing my heart pounding in my ears instead of the silence. It was easily the scariest thing I ever experienced.
Thankfully, none of my cousins are panickers too. Whatever our state of mind was at the time, we took comfort in each other’s presence and drew from whatever calm each of us possessed. (A family friend was also with us, but for easier storytelling, let’s say she’s my cousin too lol.) I went to the windows and saw that some guys from the fire station across the street were standing outside, so we decided to go down.
Picture it: A group of 20-somethings in jackets and pajamas lined up at the side of the road in the dark. We lived in a more residential, quiet area, and I don’t know if it was stranger that literally no one was coming down from their homes (not even from our building), or that we were the only “residents” outside at the time. Save for some passersby and the firemen across the street, we were literally the only people standing out in the cold. We filed back in, uncertain but also aware that we probably had to wait until morning to see how things would unfold.
Despite the fact that electricity was out, cell service was as strong as ever. We had internet, which was a HUGE thing. News items about the quake had just started to trickle in, and since we didn’t know what else to do, we slept somehow.
I woke with the sunrise to check the news. At this point, our families at home had already heard about the earthquake. My brother Kevin began to send me information he gathered about the earthquake, and I also began to do my own research. From here, I found out that:
- Apparently, the blackout wasn’t concentrated in Sapporo, but the whole island of Hokkaido! Thanks to the blackout, the airport and all ports of entry and exit were closed. In fact, some sections of the airport suffered damage from the quake because it was close to the epicenter. Gas stations were closed. Government offices were closed. The entire island was in a shutdown state.
- Some parts of Hokkaido had begun to lose their electricity-powered water supply.
Even as I digested the information, in my mind, I was already convinced this entire situation was going to be just temporary. THIS IS JAPAN. They know how to handle this sort of thing with grace! I held on to that thought like a lifeline, and honestly, it helped calm my nerves a good deal. Some words of encouragement from my tour guide friend Aoki-san also helped.
My fear from that morning had already turned into this inevitable sense of uncertainty, but I also knew the situation wasn’t something I needed to be over-dramatic about. It happened, and frankly, it could’ve been worse. We needed to assess the situation further, but at the end of the day we had to deal with it. I decided to gather some water in the bathtub to address the water issue, enough to wash up and wash dishes in the meantime.
Afterwards, my cousin Win and I decided to go out to buy some breakfast in the nearby konbini. I suppose you could say that’s when the seriousness of the entire thing started to sink in. The shelves were empty. No breads, no water, no meals nor onigiri. We had no choice but to buy sweet cakes and biscuits instead. The other konbinis were already boarded up with CLOSED signs.
While we were gone, the rest of my cousins went foraging in the cabinets of our apartment unit and found a stash of big bottles of distilled water. In the kitchen cabinets, our Airbnb host had provided us with some cereal and coffee in case we wanted some for breakfast. In the fridge there was milk. It was enough to last maybe 2 breakfasts for the 5 of us. Win and I told them about the situation with the nearby konbinis, and it was decided we would venture downtown after fueling up as best we could.
The trek towards downtown Hokkaido almost felt like we were walking down an empty movie set. Nearly every konbini we passed was closed. Every establishment was closed. The streets were empty, save for the occasional people and a car or two zipping by. For the most part, it was so quiet. The few people we came across while walking smiled at us encouragingly knowing we were tourists. It was a small comfort I appreciated.
In the time between the earthquake and the sunrise, the local government had already checked the structures around the city, cordoning off cracked streets and buildings with broken glass. It didn’t occur to me to take photos at the time because I was concerned about our survival lol, but the level of response and the lack of panic was impressive. It was such a Japan thing.
After at least 20 minutes of walking, we made it to Odori Park. I have to admit I didn’t know how to react to the sight we met there. People were lazing around under the sun- some even picnicking- like it was completely normal to be there at that moment. I remember only thinking: So this is where everyone is.
Summer in Hokkaido is blessedly cool, so any other time this wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But when I thought about it again, what was so strange about this sight anyway? Had I somehow expected people to stay inside and dwell on the earthquake? Following everyone else’s example, we did the sensible thing: We sat by the fountain and snacked on some of the breads Win and I bought from the konbini earlier that day.
It was a beautiful day. It was the sort of day you could breathe in on its own, without thinking about the possible repercussions of this whole earthquake situation. I looked out at the skyline and thought about how weird it was not seeing the familiar orange numbers telling time on the screen of the Sapporo Tower.
Still, I had started to feel strangely optimistic. I was also starting to learn to fully appreciate the Hokkaido climate, thankful we didn’t need to deal with stifling heat on top of everything else. I talked with another Filipino tourist sitting beside me at the park, and he told me about the horror of experiencing the quake from the 21st floor of a hotel. I shuddered inwardly. The 6th floor was already horrific enough. We were all equally grateful to come out of it physically unscathed at least.
We chit-chatted and snacked for a while longer, and I suppose this time outside gave us all some much needed time to clear our heads. Suddenly, all of us had our tourist mode on. We walked around and took photos in nearby spots, trying at the same time to look for any open konbinis that wasn’t yet emptied. It was more of the same: sweet cookies and cakes, plus junk food that wouldn’t really make a decent meal. We still bought some. Laced between taking tourist pics was a disheartening search for food that left us wondering where our next meal would come from.
The image of the five of us standing on the sidewalk that morning flashed in my mind, because now I wish we had known enough to run to the konbini for food right at that moment. There were three within the vicinity of our apartment, and another one a block away. All of them were empty by the time we thought to buy food. None of us expected the blackout to be this scale.
More information came to us via Twitter. Something had exploded in the hydro-electric power plants supplying electricity to the whole island of Hokkaido. Not even the local electric company HEPCO could say when they would be able to fix it. This country relies on electricity to run its subways, its gas stations, its water supply… Pretty much everything, like any first-world country. You can imagine how much of a big deal this was.
Making light of the situation somehow, we joked that we also needed the electricity to keep our buttload of Nama Chocolates frozen! Behind that though, I think this was the part where we began to somewhat panic internally. All of us did pretty well to hold it all in I think, but in all our faces was the echo of the same thought: Now what?
We focused on finding ourselves some food, first and foremost. Leaving wasn’t an option anyway. We kept wandering the streets until we were tired, and by some miracle we came across a chef setting up a makeshift grill outside his restaurant. We were ready to pay for whatever it was he was grilling, and when people started to line up, we did too.
As it turns out, the chef was giving away the food for free. One stick of barbecued meat per person in the line, no more no less. One of the foreigners in front of us tried to pay the chef but he absolutely would not accept the money. Frankly, I felt kind of bad taking the barbecue for free. I wasn’t used to this kind of kindness. The scent of the barbecue made me realize how hungry I was, and by the time I received my share my stomach was rumbling. I bowed and thanked the chef, feeling more grateful than the words could express.
It was a strangely emotional moment for me, eating that heavenly juicy piping hot stick of meat. I had known this kind of thing was normal for the Japanese in times of calamity. It’s always highlighted in the news. But to be in that situation yourself; to experience the pure generosity of strangers at a time when you’ve just gone through something scary, especially as a tourist in a foreign land… It’s really uplifting to the spirit.
I would like to think the chef’s act opened up our luck in the universe. As we were walking on our way home at around 3 in the afternoon, we passed by a Secoma (Sapporo’s local convenience chain) near our apartment. It wasn’t open when we first walked past it that morning, but right then, there were people stepping out of the Secoma with warm food in their hands. I spotted fried chicken and onigiri.
Fried chicken and onigiri!
We walked right into the Secoma and straight to the back of the store, where people were lining up and waiting for food. Some staff members were cooking rice using some sort of generator, and they were working hard to make enough onigiri for all of us. They had run out of chicken, but I didn’t mind. My cousins and I managed to grab two onigiri each. We didn’t dare to get more. After experiencing the kindness of the chef earlier, it felt wrong not to share when we were all probably on the same hungry boat.
Interestingly enough, I observed most people bought only enough food for one or two meals. Clearly, they were confident that this whole blackout thing wasn’t going to last long. Despite the fact that the Twitter account of HEPCO kept saying not to expect restoration of electricity until a week later, seeing the locals unfazed gave me a strange certainty that things would get sorted out soon.
The manager suddenly announced that each person in the store could pick one ice cream to take away for free. Apart from the hilariously excited teenagers, no one ran and pushed others away to get first dibs on the Haagen Dazs. We all calmly lined up for our hot food, went to the freezer for ice cream, then lined up at the cashier to pay for our stuff.
When we stepped out of the Secoma, I finally saw the power source for the deep fryers and rice cookers inside the store. It was the battery of the kobini manager’s car. In a profound way, it almost feels like the universe was trying to show me that I don’t have to “lose faith in humanity” because there are good people in this world. Nobody asked that chef or that Secoma manager and his staff to go the extra mile for strangers, but they did anyway. And they didn’t even take advantage of the situation by selling food in exorbitant prices, which by the way, people like us would’ve been willing to pay considering we hadn’t eaten a proper filling meal all day.
I don’t suppose other people would find the compassion we witnessed this day amazing, but it’s something I don’t see everyday where I come from. Imagine if the manager just decided to close the store and stay at home like those of the other stores. We would’ve gone to bed after what felt like one of the longest days of our lives hungry. Also, we wouldn’t have discovered that Secoma makes some amazing onigiri for the price. Forget Lawson and Family Mart!
DAY 2 Sept 7th — To go or not to go?
My breakfast for the day was my second onigiri, plus some Alfort biscuits “foraged” from the day before. My water bottle was pretty optimistic, and frankly, my feelings were a bit mixed. My cousins and I had laid out our options with our breakfast: The airport was reported to be reopening that day, but we didn’t have any way to get there since the subways were down. No buses or taxis were out and about taking passengers either.
My cousins and I had started to discuss whether we were going to leave for Tokyo the moment we could get to the airport. They were checking plane tickets but were having some trouble finding an affordable place to live.
For my part, I consulted Aoki-san, the guide friend I mentioned. I met him during the 2017 Snow Festival and Sapporo Winter Fam Tour I joined. We were supposed to meet in Otaru during this trip, but at that point, only the Lord knew if that was still possible. Aoki-san gave us some words of reassurance, and said that in his opinion, we should just stay put. In Otaru apparently, some parts were already getting their electricity back. He told me with full confidence that Sapporo would follow soon enough.
This was at odds with what HEPCO was saying in their communications, which I had been translating to English from their Japanese tweets. In hindsight, I now understand they were obligated to temper people’s expectations with their announcements. Better to over-perform than disappoint. The host of our Airbnb was pretty much telling us to stay too, and to comfort us, he paid us a visit with some dango and a battery-powered nightlight.
My brother then sent me a message. He had found a tweet saying electricity and water was going to be restored in Sapporo Station, and that everyone was welcome to come and wash up or charge their electronics. The fact that a part of the city had electricity was a positive sign, at least in my view. We made the 30-minute trek to Sapporo Station, and saw that the stoplights in the major intersections were now working.
We arrived to a lot of people already in the station, armed with extension cords, charging phones and powerbanks. We found ourselves a quiet and empty spot and did the same, then we reopened discussions about our options. Do we stay or do we go to Tokyo? The speakers in Sapporo Station kept announcing that the trains would be back in operation around noon. It was really hard trying to come to a decision, to be honest.
In my heart of hearts I wanted to stay, but without electricity and without anywhere to go, it would be kind of pointless. In my mind I kept thinking: If the power came back, we wouldn’t need to leave. As if that one bit would automatically restore normalcy. I don’t know anything about electrical jargon, but I knew that whatever electricity they could spare while fixing the power plant problem was going to the subway and the government offices first. They surely wouldn’t let the city stay in a standstill for three straight days. The residents could wait, but for how long? I desperately wanted to know if we could manage to wait it out. It became a slight obsession of mine to check HEPCO’s Twitter for new announcements.
After charging all our equipment and the portable Wi-Fi which was basically our lifeline now, we walked back to our apartment and weaved in through the smaller streets in hopes of finding food. I can’t even remember what we ate for lunch. Chips probably. I remember we managed to buy some snacks in the 7-Eleven across the closed Don Quijote in Tanukikoji.
We hung out in Nakajima Park near our apartment as my cousins searched for more flights and accommodations in Tokyo, and in the end we decided it was too expensive to fly out. Upon learning from Twitter that some of the high-end hotels were running on their generators and giving free meals during certain hours of the day, we had a new idea. Maybe we could just find a hotel or some sort of hostel where we could move into for even one night. Somewhere we could take a shower. We hadn’t showered in two days.
As expected, all the nearby hotels were fully booked. Only the super expensive and super faraway hotels had rooms available. Dejected, we went back to our apartment to rest our brains and our spirits. On our way back to our building, we were surprised to see a crowd in front of the next door neighbor’s gas tank store. Turns out, the owner had opened up one of his gas tanks to power up a generator that gave his shop some electricity. He then put up a sign that said each person could charge their device for free for 30 minutes, and then allow the next person to have a turn. He also managed to turn on his water pump, which explains the line of housewives carrying water containers and buckets.
Apparently, the people here were not done amazing me with their compassion.
That afternoon, I was sitting on the living room floor and chatting with my cousin Joyce. The rest of my cousins had fallen asleep from all the walking, the lack of food, and probably the stress too. I wasn’t used to sleeping when the sun was out, but I was also kind of anxiously checking Twitter for any positive news and I wanted a distraction. Joyce and I used to talk so much when we were teens, so it was nice to get to talk like that again. I lost track of time as we talked about anything and everything that crossed our minds, laughing off our worries with stories and random life musings.
Suddenly the light hanging between us flickered on.
Joyce and I stared at each other in disbelief for a long second, and I feel like my wide-eyed expression was mirrored in hers as the realization hit us. THE ELECTRICITY WAS BACK.
She and I SCREAMED. We screamed with so much joy the sleeping people in the room jolted awake. And then we heard our neighbors scream much in the same way we did hahaha! I stood up and checked the hallway lights and the bathroom lights just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The relief was a warm liquid thing that flowed through my veins. I wanted to sing praises to God and to all the HEPCO technicians that worked on the power plant. They had probably not slept a wink just to be able to fix it. I immediately messaged my brother to share the good news. It would takes weeks to restore the electricity to the entire island, they said, but trust the Japanese to exceed expectations!
HEPCO released a statement explaining that they’ve managed to restore power in limited capacities to most areas of Hokkaido already, but it would take a while before the supplies were at 100%. Conserving electricity was the number one priority, and we didn’t need to be told twice. The only thing we really needed at that moment was a hot meal, and a hot shower. Everything else was a bonus.
Hot showers down, there was only the question of the hot meal at this point. We were under no delusion that restaurants would just miraculously open up with the return of the electricity after a complete shutdown. What about ingredients? What about prep time? Even fastfood chains needed a bit of time to get back on their feet after that.
Luckily for us, the electricity came back around 3 in the afternoon. Apparently this was enough time for some restaurants in the Susukino area to prepare for dinner hour. Upon getting wind of this news, we set out in the direction of Sapporo’s “Red Light District”. The normally almost-excessive-to-the-eyes flashing lights at the main intersection of Susukino was the tamest I’ve ever seen it, which wasn’t surprising. Some may argue they should’ve kept the lighted signs off during this time, but to me this was a kind of message. Considering Susukino is an iconic part of Sapporo, switching the lights on was like saying, ‘Everything’s fine. It’s time to get back to normal now.’
Probably only 5% of the restaurants in Susukino managed to open that night. Still, that’s something. We tried to seek out the restaurants I marked on my Google Maps, but all of them were still closed. I felt unfazed by this. There was nothing that could ruin the feeling of lightness that came over me after the return of the electricity.
We went into the only ramen shop we saw open on the same block, called Ramen Toguchi. Funnily enough, almost everyone standing in that line were tourists like us. It was truly nice to get to sit down and enjoy a warm bowl of ramen. The broth of almost all the ramen we ordered from here was quite salty, but I daresay the experience was made sweeter by the staff in the ramen shop. They came in, made food, and posed gamely when I asked to take their pictures.
Saltiness aside, our corn and butter ramen also tasted of relief.
DAY 3 Sept 8th — Shooting for a normal vacation
I woke up the next morning feeling like a new person with a new start.
I have this attitude of pushing myself to move on when my plans get ruined by things that are out of my own control, and so I was strongly determined to salvage the remaining days of this vacation. I didn’t want to regret not trying my best to still make things work here in Sapporo. My cousins and I had booked a few out of town tours with the Chuo Bus company for this trip, but we were all pretty certain they wouldn’t be operating until they were sure all the tour destinations were safe. So we decided to keep it local for now.
Subways were now working in as regular a schedule as could be mustered. The same could be said with the inter-city trains. I messaged Aoki-san immediately, thanking him for his reassurances and also asking if it would be wise to travel to Otaru to meet him as soon as tomorrow. He answered with full confidence that we should do that. To him, there was no reason not to enjoy the rest of our vacation here when everyone else was already continuing on with their lives like normal.
It was an easy decision after that. My cousins and I made our plans with him, and we set out that day to go around Sapporo. We took the subway to Maruyama Park to visit the Hokkaido Shrine. I thought at first that the large gray clouds I spotted would bring in rains, but the birds were singing and the foliage seemed more vividly green than usual. There was this sense that the day was even more beautiful than normal.
[READ ALSO: Finding zen at the Hokkaido Shrine]
Walking through Maruyama Park, it was impossible not to feel a sense of calm. The park was quiet, but in a pleasant way. It was a bit of a trek towards the Hokkaido Shrine, and it gave me a bit of time to think about everything that had happened up to that point. If you look at it from a logical standpoint, we had spent only one and a half days in that post-earthquake limbo. But emotionally and psychologically speaking, it had been an utterly long one and a half days, plagued with stress, doubts, and fears that kept lurking at the back of our minds. And yet it was impossible to deny how lucky we were.
The past few days I had been following the news about the earthquake. I saw that there were some places in Hokkaido that were hit really hard compared to Sapporo and most of Hokkaido’s main cities. Most of the damage was dealt to the town of Atsuma in the Iburi Subprefecture, where 36 of the 41 total casualties came from. This region had just dealt with the super-typhoon Jebi days prior, so the soil was still soft and prone to landslides when the earthquake hit.
Optimistically speaking, out of the 5.3 million people living on the island, plus visitors like us, having 41 casualties and only 17 serious cases out of the reported 700 injured people speaks volumes about Japan’s earthquake preparedness and response. And I’m not just talking about the government response. I won’t forget anytime soon the way that normal individuals, in their limited capacity, helped each other out without reservations, without waiting for anything in return.
They say calamity brings out either the worst or the best in people, and I wish all people could make the choice to bring out their best during these kinds of moments. I still wonder how different this story would be if it happened in any place other than Japan. When we reached the shrine, we all gave our own silent thank you’s to the gods, not just for helping us remain calm and strong in the face of it all, but also for letting us witness how good hearts can be. Most importantly, I think we all learned a lesson or two about faith here.
We marched back out of the park with a renewed spring in our steps, and I could feel in the air that it would be the start of better days in Hokkaido from here on out. We mapped out our plans for the next few days as we walked, and more or less we managed to make a decent rush itinerary. For this day though, we couldn’t really go anywhere that wasn’t as public a place as the park. Most museums and tourist spots were still understandably closed.
What else do you do then but look for a place to eat?
We headed to a market I previously visited and liked, called the Jyogai Ichiba, or the Curb Market. I had no idea if the restaurants here would be open or not, or if the market would be too, but we took our chances. Luckily, the place we intended to have our lunch was actually open! We managed to have our first “extravagant” meal since landing in Hokkaido at the Kitano Gurume. We ordered hairy crabs and sashimi bowls that were so colorful just the sight made my mouth water. (I love sashimi!)
I am not going to write detailed accounts of the places we visited in this post since I will be publishing individual blog posts about them in the days to come. However, I will say this meal did so much more than fill up our bellies. We left the restaurant feeling so vivacious we could not resist taking wacky pics with their life-sized crab standee outside.
[READ ALSO: Food-hopping in Sapporo, Summer 2018 Edition]
We ended up wandering the market stalls afterwards, buying snacks and souvenirs. My cousins tried out some Yubari melon as well.
I honestly don’t remember what we did after that. What I do remember is having an awesome dinner of Soup Curry at Soup Curry King later that night. This wasn’t our first choice but all the other soup curry restaurants were still closed. We were walking down the street and spotted this bright beckoning sign.
I can’t say I regretted taking my chances here. The soup curry was extremely satisfying and I find myself craving for a bowl every so often since coming home. I loved the incredible scent of the curry and the equally attention-grabbing flavors, the kick of the soup. We may have fallen short on the sightseeing department this day, but certainly not with the food.
DAY 4 Sept 9th — A splendid day in Otaru
Otaru day arrived and we headed to the Hakodate Main Line platform to catch the 9AM train. Although Sapporo Station was already kind of busy, there weren’t a lot of people waiting to get on the train to Otaru. We were able to pick some good seats.
Aoki-san was waiting for us at the Minami-Otaru Station, and he told us to sit on the right side of the train so we could enjoy the lovely ocean views after Zenibako Station. The train ride was about 45 minutes, and as the train got nearer to our destination, I could feel my excitement bubbling up. I had never been to Otaru, and it has been a while since I’ve seen Aoki-san as well, so I had plenty to look forward to.
Sure enough, when we arrived at the station, I immediately spotted Aoki-san’s familiar figure in the distance. Walking the distance between the bridge-way to the exit, memories of my trip last 2017 came back to me in bits and pieces. I was pretty confident we’d have a great time with our bubbly and super knowledgeable guide for the day. He told us he goes by ‘Roy’ these days, to make it easier for Western tourists to pronounce his name. Out of habit, I still call him Aoki-san though.
Again, I will be making a dedicated post about the places we went to here in Otaru, but to name a few, we visited the Otaru Music Box Museum, the famous Canal, and the place where we all let our inner child out– the Otaru City General Museum. I haven’t had this much fun in a museum in a LONG time!
One of our stops was the Sakaimichi Shopping Street, and Aoki-san noted how he has never seen the place THIS deserted. It honestly felt like we were the only ones there! At least we got to enjoy our rainbow soft serve in peace. This is a legitimately delicious ice cream, by the way.
As we walked along the weirdly quiet street, we somehow managed to score some promotional pastries when we passed by this newly opened shop along the street. It was adorable how excited they were when Aoki-san mentioned I was a blogger and that they might appear on my blog haha! The Otaru part of this trip was actually quite eventful, and you will see how it forms its own long blog soon.
[READ ALSO: 10 Fun Things To Do on a Day Trip to Otaru]
On our way back to Sapporo Station, we even came across an inspiring outdoor photo exhibit laid out at the Temiya Railway. Such a cool concept, and so many amazing photos.
We rode the train back to Sapporo before the dinner rush hour. Aoki-san had dinner plans with his family and we didn’t want to keep him any longer. We gave him a box of Marusei cookies as a token of appreciation, but honestly, it wasn’t enough to express how grateful we were. It wasn’t just for his time taking us on an unforgettable walking tour, but also for his constant words of positivity during those past one and a half days we were scared and clueless about what to do. I’ll make sure to do better the next time I see him, with treats from the Philippines of course.
When we came back to Sapporo Station, we saw that Kinotoya Bake had some freshly baked cheese tarts on sale. My cousins had never tried these mind-blowing tarts so I told them WE WON’T LEAVE UNTIL YOU BUY! At first they shared one tart as a sort of trial, but as expected, they ended up devouring a whole one each the next second. My recruitment mission was a success lol! These tarts were a great way to cap off a great day.
DAY 5 Sept 10th — Random wanderings around Sapporo
Our day started out with checking for possible tour openings on the Chuo Bus site. This vacation was about to come to a close, and we were desperate to go on an out of town bus trip before we left for home. We kept seeing cancellation advisories each day we checked, but that morning they didn’t post anything. Unsure, we decided we would head over to the Chuo Ticket Counter later that day to inquire about the tours face to face.
We didn’t really have any plans for that day, so we walked over to Nijo Market thinking about having breakfast there. A seafood bowl maybe. Although there were many things on display, the market was clearly still not in full blast because it was so quiet and most of the stalls were closed. We couldn’t find any stalls that piqued our interest.
I was happy to see that the Sapporo TV Tower was back on. Such a familiarly comforting sight.
Since we were already downtown, we walked over to Susukino to check if any of the fastfood places were now open for breakfast. Only the McDonald’s was operating at a limited capacity but it felt kind of symbolic. Even though majority of the konbinis were still pretty much empty, the reopening of at least one fastfood joint meant that maybe the food distribution chain was slowly going back to normal.
While I ate my burger and nuggets, I checked all the places I could think of to visit, like the Historical Village of Hokkaido, but most of them were still closed. I was feeling kind of desperate at that point, and I ended up checking the site of kid-friendly Shiroi Koibito Park. It didn’t say on their website that they were still closed that day, so we all agreed to venture out there since we didn’t have anything better to do.
Well, turns out it was closed. I don’t remember if I had misunderstood the advisory on the site, or if I missed it entirely, but I felt bad for dragging my cousins all the way there. It’s pretty far from the downtown area. Hilariously, as we were turning to head back to the station, I was approached by a newspaper reporter for an interview. It was probably because I was tall and she spotted me like a beacon or something lol.
She asked me my name and where I was from, and I watched her furiously scribble my English name into the equivalent of how it would be pronounced in Japanese. She wasn’t super fluent in English so we talked a little slowly and I tried my best to answer in a simple manner. The interview went something like this:
Her: What is your reaction to the shake and the blackout? (They call earthquakes ‘shake’.)
Me: I was a little scared at first, but many people we met outside helped us feel calmer. Some even gave us food, and they encouraged us not to be afraid.
Her: Oh really! But how long are you staying here?
Me: Our last day is tomorrow.
Her: Oh no, you didn’t visit many places because of the earthquake!
Me: We are trying to enjoy these last few days. Yesterday we went to Otaru and had fun.
Her: Was there many tourists in Otaru?
Me: No! It was only us and very few tourists! Many shops were still closed.
Her: I see! After this experience, would you still come to Sapporo next time?
Me: Oh of course! This is my favorite prefecture. I will still come here in the future and explore the other places in Hokkaido.
Her: *Smiles knowingly* Yes, it’s nice here in Hokkaido!
I can’t remember all the other things she asked me, but she seemed satisfied with the stuff I told her when we wrapped up the interview. She told us to make sure we would enjoy our last day tomorrow, and that she was sorry we had to come all the way to this area only to see the closed gates of Shiroi Koibito Park. We all felt sorry too, but that feeling was quickly erased by all the shopping we ended up doing at the supermarket connected to the subway station. I bought so much drip coffee and Calbee cereals. (I almost went overweight with my luggage!)
The rest of the day pretty much consisted of shopping, but before that, we went over to the ESTA Mall at Sapporo Station to check on the Chuo Bus counter, as we agreed upon earlier that day. We managed to book a tour for the next day, thankfully, but with the disclaimer that the tour could be cancelled at any time should the company deem it necessary. For safety reasons, the girl at the counter said. I begged the universe to give us at least a last hurrah.
Since we were in ESTA Mall already, I brought my cousins up to the Ramen Kyowakoku at the top floor of the mall. It was incredibly jarring to see the place empty. Normally, you’d see long lines snaking out of each ramen shop here. I still stand by my favorite Miso Ramen at Shirakaba Sansou, but my cousins wanted to try Baikouken so I went along. Nothing like a bowl of comforting ramen after a long day of shopping!
Before we headed home, we actually passed by the reopened Don Quijote at Tanukikoji. We burned off all that ramen real good with the shopping, and on our way home, we noticed how the streets that just the other day had these huge cracks on them had already been re-cemented and smoothed out. It looked like nothing happened there at all.
DAY 6 Sept 11th — Ending things on a high note
We arrived at the Chuo Bus counter early the next morning. The tours were a go and I almost jumped for joy at that point. You’ll have to read my future blog post about this day to see my review of the tour, but I’ll give you a clue: I loved the places we went to! We saw the mystical Blue Pond and the gorgeous Shikisai no Oka. Before that, we stopped by the inspiring Goto Sumio Art Museum as well.
For dinner, we went all out. Although we spent a great deal of time traveling back to Sapporo, everyone was energetically walking all the way from the subway station to the Sapporo Beer Garden. Oh the power of unlimited jingisukan. We had some time to kill before a table was made available for us so we visited the museum, and ended up buying these beer-jelly filled chocolates from the gift shop. (They were just okay.)
Arriving at the main dining hall, I was surprised to see how full it was. It was maybe the first crowded place we’d been to since the earthquake, and the crowd was a mix of locals and foreigners enjoying mountains of grilled meat. The place looked exactly as I remembered, and we came out of there smelling exactly as I remembered we would.
In many ways, this was an appropriate ending to the entire trip. We clinked our beer glasses and devoured the meat with gusto. As the thought of going home the next day sunk in, I couldn’t help but feel saddened by the thought of leaving. I couldn’t help thinking about all the places we planned to visit but missed thanks to the earthquake. But instead of feeling any sort of resentment towards what had happened, I felt only the determination to come back. There’s still so much to be seen!
But this trip? It was certainly one for the books.