We’re just under a week into the second half of our trip, and we’re in Hokkaido, in the north of Japan. After a month at home, spent visiting family and attending various weddings, family parties and generally catching up with friends, getting back into the flow of travelling has been tough – physically, emotionally and mentally. Once again, the start of a new phase involves a pretty huge learning curve.
By the last week of being at home, despite it being absolutely lovely seeing everyone, I had itchy feet. Not because being at home is terrible (far from it), but it was a bit like being in limbo before we cracked on with travelling again.
We were (and continue to be) so excited about this next stage of our trip. It’s going to be very different from our experiences in New Zealand and Australia, which were outdoor focused – beautiful views, stunning beaches, nature and hiking was our main activity during those trips, and alongside that we had our own convenient little home as we went, whether it was the tent or the camper van.
This stage brings with it a slew of new adventures – different cultures, unknown languages, and a different home every couple of nights. Essentially, it’s throwing out all of our travelling routines we’d become accustomed to and starting again to find our new rhythm and way of doing things. The excitement comes from those differences (I’ve always thought of ‘proper’ travelling as being culturally based as well as outdoorsy, so this feels like the start of our adventure in many ways), but those differences also mean we have a whole new set of challenges to conquer and wrap our heads around.
The first few days of travelling with a baby are always bloody knackering and challenging until you’ve found your feet a bit. I’ve always been honest with our accounts on this blog so far, so I’ll put it out there – it takes you a little while to enjoy it. You’re tired from a long flight where inevitably the baby has slept (Otis is bloody brilliant on flights for the whole), but you probably haven’t (it’s hard to sleep when they’re asleep on you). You have admin stuff to conquer in the first few days – new mobile phones, working out where you buy food from, and even the basics of where you buy nappies (quite difficult here) all take time. And most likely you don’t catch up on sleep right away as you’re all adjusting.
Our arrival in the country was made a little more difficult when we realised at the point of picking up our car hire (Hokkaido was the one part of Japan we’d chosen to drive as it is much easier to do so here, and means you can see more of the national parks), that we needed International driving licenses rather than European ones. Somehow, we’d missed that basic fact in our research, so were a little scuppered from the off. No matter, the train system here is decent – on time, and far reaching, but in Hokkaido they’re not necessarily frequent, so we have to be super organised with our days to reach where we want to go and not miss connecting transport, so we can't be as flexible as we'd like.
From this travelling faux pas, we reached new heights as we found that accommodation (aside from that which was ridiculously expensive for a night) was all booked up, trains we assumed had connecting routes were cancelled, and accommodation we booked turned out to be further from our end destination than we had thought. It’s been a series of mis-haps, although some how we’ve found our way through, and realised we need to be more organised than in NZ and Australia in the process. This is a country where plans are made, and kept to.
But, you get over that first part of travel hassle, you start to relax a bit, and to appreciate the benefits of where you are and what travelling affords you. We’re in the start of that stage and excited about the different parts of Hokkaido we’re about to see, and as we start to catch up on sleep, feeling a little bit more alive and able to tackle it all.
The pro’s so far? The Japanese people we’ve met have all been lovely. Without fail. Even if they can’t understand us at all, they’ve tried to help wherever they can. Otis is a constant source of entertainment and amusement to everyone we meet. Even on our plane journey where he decided to crawl up and down the gangway with his car about 50 times in a row, waking people as he barged into their feet, he somehow managed to charm them by high fiving before he moved on. Constant greetings of ‘kawai’ (cute) and people waving to him and coming up and squeezing some part of him make up our days. People being accepting of kids making noise and smiling at them makes the travelling part much easier.
Sapporo seemed really well set up for kids and families in general, which is an ongoing theme in Japan (I’ve been astonished at how many places have baby change facilities). The city has a greenbelt that runs through the centre, with events happening all the time, and peppered through it are various water features and sculptures made for children to run through and enjoy themselves, and families playing on the grass. Despite the place looking pristine (everywhere here is so clean!), it seemed fine for Otis to wander wherever he wanted, which was lovely and very relaxing. The hostel we’re staying at (we're now in Otufuke, on route to Kushiro) as I write this is rustic and pretty luxurious as hostels go, but when Otis was making a fair bit of noise earlier (he was tired, dinner had been later than he’d normally have) the owner got out a box of wooden toys and cars, and there wasn’t a trace of concern from them about him disrupting things.
The food has been a major plus. Both for the fact that we were excited about being in the home of our favourite cuisine, and that even basic sushi and other dishes in supermarkets and seven eleven's are awesome. But also, that Otis has done brilliantly with the food so far. We were never worried to be honest - he likes rice, he likes fish and meat, we knew he'd be fine. But we didn't know that he'd take to sushi, that he'd like rice paper rolls. That he'd basically give most stuff a go. We had hoped, but we didn't know. Some of his staples are harder to get here (the breadstick staple has now disappeared), but other things are easy (scrambled eggs and avocado, total saviours), so that part has been a relative breeze.
In truth, we haven’t as yet stayed in many places that you’d see as traditionally Japanese in terms of architecture and design, but the glimpses we have got in cities and towns so far make us excited for when we reach areas like Kyoto where this will be more common place.
Our most traditional experience so far has been in an Onsen in the hillsides near Furano, a ski-town during the colder months of the year. We got a train and a bus into the countryside (which is beautiful and there’s a really cool Lavender Train that goes past the beautiful fields and has lavender strung across the ceiling), and after hiking for a while (although not into the wilderness as we had hoped, as we need a bear bell first. Yes, you read that correctly), we went to relax in the Onsen. Onsen are basically hot springs with multiple pools inside and out, some single sex, some mixed. We hadn’t been sure if you’d be able to go with a baby, or if I’d be able to go at all (it can be an issue if you have tattoos because the Yakuza have them), but we were able to find one set into the hillside, and it was great. Otis enjoyed a bit of a splash around, and we rested our weary bodies. It’s likely to be a regular thing where we can make it happen.
So, it’s early days. I won’t lie, some of those days have been tough. But even as I write this, I realise there have been many brilliant moments too, and as we sit with a map in front of us, talking about our travels to date with our Japanese hostel neighbours, and getting advice about the rest of our trip, we’re getting more excited by the second.