Monthly Archives: August 2013

I Left My Heart In Shiretoko

A long time ago a friend gave me some valuable traveling advice “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and that way you’re always pleasantly surprised.” Day 4 dawned and the second I looked out the window I knew my plans were up in the air, the most ominous looking of thunderclouds clouded the sky blocking out every vestige of sunlight. Uh oh….so much for hiking. So I promptly rolled over, hey no judging it was 4 am in the morning, and I went back to sleep for another couple of hours.  Weather is a fickle mistress and it does no good whatsoever to shake angry fists at the sky and cry “why! WHY?” not always having perfect weather is a reality every traveller must face at one point. I wasn’t angry, if anything I was relieved to get a few more hours of rest to be honest.

When creating an itinerary I do my best to plan for everything within my control, and then after this careful planning always aim to give myself a little extra “breathing room” in my schedule just in case. Like I said, you hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I never like to jam pack an itinerary in case something unavoidable happens. I can’t count the number of times that this traveling philosophy has helped me out on recent trips.

Only last Christmas while traveling with friends in Cambodia did my plans to visit Angkor Wat at sunrise have a rude awakening in the form of food poisoning at 2am. “Uuuuuugh!” doesn’t even begin to cover it. The disappointment of missing out on seeing Ankor Wat with my friends was almost worse than the food poisoning itself, almost. Luckily for me I had planned an extra two “safety days” at the end of my time in Cambodia before flying to my next destination (Singapore). Had I not, I would have left Cambodia without seeing its most famous site, which would have been tragically disappointing. So, as sad as I was to have to explore Angkor Wat alone, as my friends had departed for Thailand, I was happy that I could visit this historical monument, better alone than not at all!

Thus, when my plans to hike around the famous Lake Mashu area went up in smoke I simply fast forwarded my itinerary and phoned my guesthouse in the Shiretoko area to see if it was possible to shift my entire reservation forward by one day.  Luck was on my side, it was ok to check in later that afternoon. Off I went chasing the promised beautiful weather on the eastern-most area of Hokkaido, the Shiretoko Peninsula.

I stopped briefly at the top of one of Lake Mashu’s observatories to see if I could at the very least glimpse the supposedly clearest lake in the world….but no dice…I could hardly see 4 feet in front of me let alone down the valley to where the lake would be.IMG_1104 IMG_1105Vowing to return on my way back I headed off down the windy highway….and a mere half an hour later…WOW! What a change, eh? I was able to relax my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and cruising down the highway became a real pleasure after this. IMG_0999My nostalgia concerning wide open spaces after Biei was still on my mind. As I drove past beautiful golden wheat fields with their hay bales clearly visible against a robin’s egg blue backdrop of sky I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood in Calgary, Alberta.  I would drive past the wheat fields every weekend in the summer while driving in my family’s car on my way to the mountains. Hard to believe I ever found landscapes like this boring, preferring instead to burry my nose in whatever book I was currently reading.IMG_1107IMG_1108After a quick check-in at the guest-house I was off to the peninsula. From the moment I first crossed this national park’s threshold I was in love. It stole my heart faster than a kiss and that was it, I was hopeless, utterly enamoured. Driving along that coastline is one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on in my life. I knew in that first moment it was going to be an amazing three days! Even if I did nothing else than drive along the coastline I was destined to be happy as could be. IMG_1112 IMG_1113 IMG_1116

As fate would have it I saw a large sign along the highway indicating that one of my highly anticipate sightseeing destinations was coming up. The Oshin-koshin Waterfall is a must see when in the Shiretoko National Park! IMG_1118

Finding it was easy, walking up even easier, no hiking necessary to see this spectacular beauty of a waterfall so you have no excuses to not see it.
IMG_1137 IMG_1136 IMG_1129As you may notice I’ve got my knee all prepped for a little hiking.  Unfortunate reality that is my life, go figure, I injured myself a mere week before traveling to Hokkaido. Going in to see a doctor before my flight (that was leaving the very next day!) I was terrified she was going to ban me from any hiking in Hokkaido, which was the whole reason I wanted to go in the first place. Luckily the doctor said the pain I was experiencing wasn’t anything too major. My left knee is just currently lacking enough synovial fluid (the fluid contained in joints to reduce friction when moved) to move smoothly resulting in the bones rubbing a bit together. OUCH! She said as long as I did easy hikes, and took it slow I should be ok. That being said…

  • Advil and other doctor prescribed medicines taken? Check!
  • Icy-herb packs applied? Check!
  • Wearing my…knee-brace-socky-thing (to be honest I have no idea what you call it) over top of everything? Check!

I was excited to be heading off after this to the famous Shiretoko Five Lakes for my first hike of the trip!

The Shiretoko Five Lakes (知床五湖, Shiretoko Goko) are a five small lakes along the western coast of the Shiretoko National Park. They were formed long ago by the eruption of nearby Mount Io and the water comes from underground springs. According to legend the 5 lakes are supposed to look from above like a god’s five fingerprints.  The Shiretoko Five Lakes offer beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and wilderness. For any foreigners seeking directions you’re best of referring to them as “goko” which translates as 5(go) Lakes(ko). They are the #1 must see in the area so I decided to go there first (despite my itinerary) while the weather was the most beautiful day you could possibly ask for! Screen shot 2013-08-18 at 9.27.46 AMBefore you can hike however, first you must pay a small fee (300yen) and get a permit to hike at the Shiretoko Five Lakes office. It’s a very easy process that can be done in less than 10 minutes (if there are no lines!) at the information desk. I chose the 3km course (the longer one in blue) which takes you around all the lakes. It says 3 hours are necessary, but unless it’s bumper-to-bumper people traffic you can easily walk this in about an hour and a half. It’s very easy, and my hiking shoes were definitely not necessary. I saw a woman doing this “hike” in heels to put things in perspective.

Next due to the large number of bears in the area you must watch a bear information video warning you of the park rules, dangers and how to respond in various situations. It was so over-dramatic I think I started giggling 5 seconds in. It’s definitely good information however, especially for people who’ve never been in bear country before, and the video has English subtitles too! This whole process only took me about half an hour, but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s because I was there at the end of the day and was one of the last groups to go in. From the way the process was laid out I have zero doubts, it probably can get very busy, this process may take longer so prepare accordingly.

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Permit in hand, I headed off quickly after the video as not to be stuck behind the huge crowd of people.IMG_1147 IMG_1152IMG_1157 IMG_1160 IMG_1162 IMG_1163 IMG_1172 IMG_1189 IMG_1204 IMG_1210

It’s at this point the shorter trail and the longer trail converge. Both led towards a large 800m long elevated wooden platform that once you enter you can’t go back. Spectacular views of the largest of the five lakes can be see from here, you could also catch glimpses of the sea!IMG_1225 IMG_1235 IMG_1222IMG_1219

I spent about half an hour relaxing on a bench in front of the lake, savouring the beautiful panorama while basking in the sunshine’s warm glow. I really enjoyed the time of day I went, I started walking around 4:00pm (a little over 2 hours before sunset) so the sun wasn’t scorching hot and was just beginning to start descending as I walked along the boardwalk back to the parking lot.IMG_1228 IMG_1221 IMG_1223After I left the Shiretoko Five Lakes, I quickly headed off to the little town of Utoro to watch the sunset. When coming south through Utoro watch for a 7/11 combini. When you see it make a left and then another left immediately to go up a large hill towards all the high-end hotels. Park your car wherever possible and walk to the campground. Take a right at the campground office building towards a large cliff, this is the best place to view the sunset. I got there about 20 minutes before the sunset and held my spot at the front while happily munching on fresh watermelon to take the edge off my hunger. IMG_1252Glorious end to a glorious day. Can you see why I instantaneously fell in love with Shiretoko? Isn’t it just the most enchanting wilderness you’ve ever seen!? Friends and family will be lucky to ever see me again. I’m thinking of find myself a cozy little cave to live in for the rest of my life!

 

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Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The World’s Most Adorable Algae : Marimo

I am a plant murderer. It’s not something I’m proud of. It is simply something I’ve been forced to accept about myself, that despite my best efforts not to be, I am a plant serial killer. No matter how many times I try, the poor little things wilt into oblivion under my care. The only plant that has survived my care, so far, is a cactus. Pathetic, I know!

Despite this however, I love them! You may have noticed I took quite a few photos of flowers in Furano, and I always enjoy being surrounded by nature when I’m hiking, I just am a terrible owner.

Thanks to this love of plants Day 3 of my road trip brought me to the beautiful Lake Akan. IMG_1013

Lake Akan is a beautiful crater lake in the Akan National Park in the eastern area of Hokkaido.  What drew me here was something very unique, the marimo. Marimo colonies exist only in Iceland, Scotland, Estonia and Lake Akan in Japan. Naturally my curiosity was piqued.

What is a “marimo” you ask? Well, this little geek went on a miniature science field trip and is happy to share her newly acquired knowledge! My parents will be delighted, all that money spent on science summer camps clearly had a lasting impact.

Marimo (mah-ree-moh) are an exceptionally rare algae species that form into beautiful, velvety-looking green balls. They do this so as they roll around under the water all sides may do photosynthesis. Marimo have a growth rate of about 5mm per year. Left alone for a few centuries, Lake Akan’s marimo can reach the size of soccer balls! EPIC! The algae have been designated a National Special Natural Monument in Japan.

IMG_1059The plant was named “marimo” by a Tatsuhiko Kawakami, a Japanese botanist, in 1898! “Mari” means a bouncy play ball while “Mo” is a generic term for plants that grow in water. The Ainu people (native people who live in the region) have known about Marimo for much longer and refer to them as torasampe (lake goblin) and tokarip (lake roller).

When you go to Lake Akan, there is one thing you must do and that is go on the Lake Cruise. The price is pretty reasonable, 1,850 yen for a 85min cruise that includes a trip to the Marimo Conservation Centre. As far as I’m aware, this is the only way to get to the centre, which is on an island in the middle of Lake Akan, where you can view the real marimo.  Careful though, you only get 15 minutes at the centre so make the most of your time.

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Somehow these little rolly-poly-balls charmed me, and I began to think of them as endearing. Whoever would have thought that I would find myself thinking of a ball of algae as adorable? Bizarreness.

After the boat cruise finished, I found myself thinking quite seriously about purchasing a few of my own to bring back to Fukui. My plant serial killer tendencies however, made me pause. I’m terrible with plants, what if it’s the same for algae? Murdering marimo is terrible to even contemplate! Eventually though, eternal optimist that I am, I ended up buying a few to raise as pets.  Say hello everyone to my new little friends! Fingers crossed I don’t kill them! marimo 3 marimo 5

The ladies in the stores assured me that keeping marimo alive is super simple. For anyone who visits and wants to bring some home as pets like me (who needs cats or dogs when you have adorable algae right?) here’s how to take care of them:

  1. Change their water about once per week (purified water is best).
  2. Don’t place them in direct sunlight, even though your instinct may be to do so because they do photosynthesis, it will kill them. The lady I spoke with recommend placing my marimo somewhere that receives weak sunlight – such as near a covered (with curtains/blinds) window.
  3. If your marimo turns grey then simply flip it over and make sure the grey area gets light.
  4. If that doesn’t not work then you can get a bowl, add water, ice and salt, let them soak in that for about 3 hours .
  5. If the marimo aren’t perfectly round anymore, you can roll it back into shape in the palm of your hand.
  6. They won’t float unless the water is squeezed out of them.

Tomorrow the adventure continues with a trip to Lake Mashu. Stay tuned!

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Exploring The Beauty of Biei

Day 2 of my Hokkaido Adventure dawned bright and sunny. I rolled down the window of my car, put on some country tunes and cruised down some backroad-kind-of-wonderful places. It smelled like lavender and adventure.  I was off to see more flower fields with a distinct carpe diem mindset.

Lost in my happy thoughts the first melon farm went by me in a blur. WAIT! I cursed, craned my neck around and debated going back….but it would be far too tricky to turn around on a major highway. So I gritted my teeth and hoped another would come up soon. It did! But once again it happened so quickly I missed my chance to turn off the highway…..third time lucky? Luck was on my side I spied a third in the distance and prepared accordingly.

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I was pretty excited and couldn’t wait to take a picture with my yummy melons…..only belatedly did I realize how much sh*t my friends were going to give me and all the terrible jokes that will most likely be made about my melons. UH OH! I don’t care though, this was an amazing idea, and I’m still delighted I thought to buy them. They will make me happy every morning when I get to eat fresh fruit for breakfast.  I’m actually currently eating some juicy-juicy watermelon now as I type this post!  See how lovingly I look at them? Unfortunately for me, when the lady helped me to cut my watermelon up to eat, there was a minor fashion disaster where somehow half the watermelon landed on my lap….uh oh, thank heavens I had a spare dress in my car! No lasting harm done, and nothing was about to spoil my excellent mood. Biei was waiting, I could hear its siren call and so I hopped in the car and off drove me and my melon-children.
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I made a local’s day when I pulled up at the flower park and he saw my watermelon seatbelted-in, resting in the passenger side seat and he just about died laughing. He even brought his elderly mother over to take a look at what the beautiful foreigner was doing with her watermelon. He then gave me a cheeky grin and a double-thumbs-up however, so I gave him my best smile in return and said in my best Japanese “takai desu yo ne!” which means “It’s because it’s expensive you see!” which made him laugh even harder and nod enthusiastically in agreement.  We then chatted for a bit and I explained what felt like my whole life story as we approached the hills of the Saika-no-Sato flower fields. I’m pretty sure he’ll be telling this story for years.

But on to talking about Saika-no-Sato, it’s another lovely flower field that a lady at the tourist information desk recommended. It’s easy to see why, its colours were simply lovely. While it definitely not the largest flower garden, what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality. It had a large variety of blossoms, all of which were in peak bloom. Also, I can say this now after having visited nearly every flower park in Furano and Biei, it had the nicest sunflower field, which you could actually enter into to take some pictures with the flowers (a rarity at other flower parks).IMG_0589IMG_0599 IMG_0601 IMG_0595

After Saika-no-Sato I headed just up the road and over a hill to Flowerland Kamifurano. It too was a nice place to wander around lost in thought, but I found myself preferring the slightly wilder Saika-no-Sato and Tomita Farm flowers. Flowerland’s gardens were almost a little too perfectly arranged for this gypsy girl. IMG_0604 IMG_0605Seeing as both these flower parks took much less time than I expected (no more than 20 minutes each) I decided to hit up one more before lunch.  Next up on my map was the Shinkisai-no-Oka Flower Garden so I drove down the road, up some twisty-turny roads and there I was.  What I liked the most about this garden, was the way you could see clearly out over the beautiful hills of the Biei area because it was situated at the top of a tall hill.

IMG_0613 IMG_0626 IMG_0630After that I was definitely peckish, the sun was uncomfortably warm and I knew I could do with a rest inside for a bit where I could cool down. I spied this little gem of a cafe across the street from the entrance of the Shikisai-no-Oka Flower Garden.

Seeing as I’m a bit of a grandma at heart, I adore little granny run cafes like this one. From my experiences in the past, the food at this sort of establishment is always made fresh, they make a mean dessert and the atmosphere has a nice sense of tranquility, perfect for the weary wander in need of a quite place to recharge. IMG_0632

I got the vegetable curry (made with veggies all produced from farms in the nearby area!), iced coffee and a piece of cake. I spent a good hour there enjoying the view of Biei’s rolling emerald green hills and reading my book. IMG_0633 IMG_0637

Feeling sufficiently reenergized after this I was ready to head out to the Shirogane area where the highlight of the day awaited: the Blue Pond.

The Blue Pond (Aoi-ike 青い池) has only become a popular tourist sightseeing destination in recent years and this is very obvious in that the site is not adequately equipped to handle the influx of tourists. I recommend to anyone hoping to visit get there early, I was in the nick of time, 40 minutes later when I was leaving I spied what looked like a half-an-hour line up of cars down the actual highway itself waiting to get into the tiny parking lot!

It was on pinterest that I saw my first picture of the Blue Pond, and I was certain it had been photoshopped to become that blue. Nope, it is actually that robin’s egg blue azure hue everyone. It took my breath away. Never in all my years of hiking in Banff have I seen anything quite so vibrant, and I’ve been to Lake Louise and Lake Moraine! I must have taken over 100 photos but I’ve narrowed it down to my top 5.IMG_0710IMG_0733IMG_0716IMG_0715 IMG_0671When the sun hit the water, it glittered just like a jewel. Absolutely Magical.  I would hazard a guess that pretty soon some fantasy movie is going to insist on filming here because it has a distinctly otherworldly atmosphere. I have to say it was really hard to say goodbye to this place, but there are only so many pictures you can take!IMG_0753As I was driving away back towards Biei to see one last flower field and do a sunset drive amongst the hills I noticed this sign, and recognizing nothing other than the kanji for waterfall, pulled in to see what was up. My curiosity was rewarded with another magical place.IMG_0861 IMG_0785It only took 1 minute to walk from the side of the road in so I definitely recommend it if you’re already in the area for the Blue Pond.

Back to Biei I went to see the final flower field: the Hills of Zerubu. I liked the sound of this garden because I thought its name was sweet. “Zerubu” comes from a mash-together of 3 words: “Kaze” (wind), “Kaoru” (sweet scent) and “Asobu” (play). So the name suggests the notion of  playing on hills while the wind surrounds us with beautiful scents. Isn’t that poetic? IMG_0887

As the sun slowly started to descend in the sky, I started my scenic drive of the rolling Biei hills. My soundtrack for the drive “Wide Open Spaces” and “Cowboy Take Me Away” by the Dixie Chicks, totally a perfect match for the mood.  It was very idyllic, wide open fields stretching towards the horizon and everything illuminated by the soft golden glow of the setting sun. Wide open areas are something I often find myself missing, not in a bad way, Japan is much more crowded than “cowtown” Calgary and I grew up surrounded by hay fields as far as the eye could see. I felt like I was back in my element.

I visited some famous trees that travel guides recommended, although I have since then come to understand they mean a lot more to Japanese people who’ve grown up seeing them in famous advertisements. My favourite of these trees was a group called the “Parents & Child” trees.

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IMG_0940I sat in my car long after the sun set staring off into the distance, incredibly content to be exactly where I was in that moment in time. Life was perfect and I felt so lucky to be me.

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Furano’s Famous Lavender Fields

I couldn’t help but feel a little like Dorothy from the movie “The Wizard of Oz” these past 2 days.  You know that memorable moment when the movie switches from boring black-and-white to a spectacular rainbow of colour? That’s how I felt coming from gloomy Fukui to the vibrance of Furano. Reminiscing about the amethyst-coloured Furano lavender fields, emerald green hills of Biei, aquamarine waters of the famous Blue Pond and golden sunflower fields I definitely felt like I had put on a pair of ruby red slippers and stumbled on the very colourful land of Oz….IMG_0494Two days ago, I escaped the very dreary of Fukui after a “tornado” of summer camp activities for students and the incoming of all the new Fukui ALTs, hopped on a plane to Hokkaido and when I awoke yesterday it was in the beautiful town of Furano. Furano’s a small town located in supposedly, the exact geographic centre of Hokkaido, earning it the famous nickname “Heso no Machi” which translates in English as “Bellybutton Town.”  What drew me to this town was that it is very famous for its lavender farms, with very good reason. It seems once the summer months of July and August roll around, everywhere you look this fragrant flower is blooming. The best season for lavender viewing is mid-July to early August. IMG_0445

I wasted no time getting down to business. According to my hostel’s manager, Tomita Farm is undoubtably the most famous of the lavender farms and he encouraged me to go early, and when I say “early” I mean eeeeeearly: 6am!!! Good heavens, and here I thought this was supposed to be my holiday! Once he explained that the second the tour buses arrive you can find it very difficult to get quality photos and would have to fight through tides of people however, I said a hasty good-bye to any notion of sleeping in. UGH!  If there is one thing I loathe it’s fighting through swarms of tourists when all I want is to stroll through a picturesque place peacefully. So come the crack of dawn I was up and ready to go!IMG_0352IMG_0470IMG_0442I really enjoyed watching the Tomita staff work hard gathering the lavender that would then be sold in various forms. IMG_0447The lilac-colored tractors and mopeds that the staff were riding around the farms totally made my morning! I couldn’t help grinning when I saw this; only real men can ride lilac mopeds with pride.

IMG_0443All the lavender produced on the Tomita Farm is harvested and sold in various forms.  The most exciting for tourists like me is the food! They had me hook-line-and-sinker when I saw this sign.  They had lavender ice cream, lavender soda, lavender pudding, cheesecake, jelly, cream puffs,… I was in such a good mood and it was my first morning in Hokkaido after months of excitement so I decided to celebrate with the breakfast of champions: lavender ice cream! IMG_0426 IMG_0436

IMG_0476What a FABULOUS way to kickstart my holiday! Before I left I popped into the stores to do a little bit of omiyage shopping (souvenir shopping for friends and family in Japan).  I walked through the door of the dried flower store and did a complete double-take. It was like walking into a different world! IMG_0423I left some time later with my wallet feeling distinctly lighter and my bag bulging with omiyage, potpourri, tea, bath bombs and postcards.  All that shopping, and the heat left me feeling a little withered so I decided before leaving to buy a lavender ramune (lavender lemonade soda) and walked across the street to the melon store.

I promptly just about had a heart attack!  For those of you who can’t read that sign, those 4 little cantaloups are selling for 8,000yean (approximately $90!!!!!). Jiminy cricket! I love fruit as much as the next girl (perhaps even a bit more so, I didn’t get the nickname “fruit bat” without reason) but I would never, in a hundred years, spend $20 on a bloody melon, regardless of how delicious you say it is!   IMG_0430

Lucky they had something a little more up this scrooge’s alley, slices of cantaloup dripping with juice for a mere 250yen. I could live with that. So I bought one and settled into a swing chair outside to enjoy my prize and read a bit of my book.  After all, I had time to enjoy myself, it wasn’t even 10am yet!IMG_0431 IMG_0433Cantaloup craving satisfied I headed off to do some more sightseeing.  First stop was the Ningle Terrace, an area of cute, tiny local artist shops. Each wooden cabin is nestled away in a small forest and connected to a series of other cabins by an elevated wooden platform, each cabin housing a different local artist. I ended up purchasing some pretty cards from an artist whose work I quite enjoyed, along with a special “painting” made entirely out of paper.  It was enjoyable but a little out of the way. I was beginning to understand why having a rental car was going to be very useful. Hokkaido is very large, and the distance between touristy places quite vast compared to other locations in Japan that I’ve gone sightseeing. IMG_0505

After that I headed out to the Cheese Factory and the Furano Winery. I wish I could say I recommend them…but looking back there is a distinct “meh” feeling about my time spent at both. The wine and cheese products produced at both places can easily be purchased around Furano so there’s no need to make a special trip all the way out there, because it wasn’t easily accessible. The only redeeming part of this trip was the lunch. I went for lunch at the Furano Winery restaurant and ordered the Furano cheese fondue for one and sat eating with a lovely view of Furano. IMG_0501 IMG_0503While at lunch I poured over magazines of the best places in Furano to visit that I had picked up from the tourist information center. I settled on a new mission: Lake Kanayama.  It promised a beautiful scenic drive (it was about 1 hour from where I was) and I would be rewarded with more beautiful lavender. En-route I stumbled upon a very lovely field of sunflowers which brightened my day. Sunflowers are my favourite flower and I hadn’t seen a field so large since I last visited Tuscany. IMG_0531Thanks perhaps to my amazing new country music playlist the drive flew by and next thing I knew I had arrived. The lake was beautiful, even if it was too cold to swim in (even for this Canadian), and I couldn’t help but be impressed with the deep indigo colour of this particular type of lavender.
IMG_0572 IMG_0580IMG_0563 IMG_0570After my unsuccessful attempt to go swimming, I managed to only get in as far as maaaybe my ankles, much to the entertainment of the locals fishing, I decided to call it a day and headed back to my hostel. All in all a fantastic first day in Hokkaido!

Tomorrow: More flower fields, rolling hills of Biei and the Blue Pond!

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

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