Enjoying small town life in Nang Rong

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Eating our food stall finds at the hostel. We have a box of doughy little green onion cakes and some grilled sticky rice with banana triangles that came wrapped in banana leaves. The latter were amazing! We made a special trip to get more of these for our bus ride out.

Rob and I spent two nights in Nang Rong so we would have a full day to visit Phanom Rung and other Angkor sites nearby. These were neat, but what I remember about our visit was the food. Rob fondly recalls his 20 baht coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell with a bit of fresh coconut meat and sweetened condensed milk (it didn’t last long enough for a pic). We had our best Thai style papaya salad in the night market (2 chili’s was just a tad too much) along with a tasty oyster pancake/crepe thing. Then on a morning walk to find a water machine we discovered a lady selling grilled banana leaf wrapped sticky rice with banana. So good! We initially bought two, ate them then walked 2 blocks back to get another 6 at 5 baht ($0.15) each.

To visit the temples, we rented a manual motorbike. It was really hard to start. Sometimes it took Rob over ten tries kick starting for the engine to finally turn over.

Our first stop was Phanom Rung, a temple built on top of an extinct volcano.

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Naga bridge at Phanom Rung

Then, we visited Prasat Muang Tam, another Angkor style temple. It has a number of large brick towers. The outer wall encloses 4 ponds and the inner sanctuary.

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We finished our temple tour with the pretty much deserted Wat Khao Angkhan then ate a Korean BBQ restaurant on the Nang Rong reservoir. I wanted to get the BBQ but Rob wasn’t feeling it. When the food came, we definitely regretted it. Note for future selves: We should have ordered what everyone else there had gotten.

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Plant birds and reclining Buddha. Other than us we saw only 2 monks.

The next morning, we had some other local fish curry and more banana sticky rice before catching the bus to Cambodia.

Stopover in Korat

Since we had to change busses in Korat, we went ahead and decided to see the town highlights. Traveling with Matthias, one of the Germans from our Khao Yai tour, we got on the bus to Bangkok by accident, but we were able to fix that mistake when they checked tickets. Arriving in Korat, I think we got off one stop too early and instead ended up outside of town rather than at a bus station. A couple dollar cozy tuk tuk ride made this an easy mistake to fix.

The driver let us off in front of the town’s main attraction, a statue of Thao Suranari, a woman who saved Thailand from an invading Laotian army. Her statue is commonly worshipped and apparently if your wish comes true, you hire performers to do a special dance on a nearby stage. After seeing the statue, we walked to a “special effect” diorama show of the tale.  Sadly none of the sound and light effects seemed to be working. The diorama pretty entertaining in a kitschy way.

The readers digest version of the story: Lao army attacks town and takes captives. Thao Suranari, the heroine, has women captives seduce soldiers and make weapons. She lead the attack repelling the Lao army.

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Bloody scene from the diorama where she defeats the Lao army.

After all that excitement, we ate an entire rotisserie chicken for lunch with sticky rice. When we bought it, the lady kindly removed the head and feet before chipping it up with a big ‘ole cleaver. Note to future self, rotisserie chicken is a messy take away food, get napkins. Rob and I almost needed a shower after the meal. After a few more sights, we caught the bus to Nang Rong.

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The remaining original town gate.

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The downtown park where we had lunch.

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Church decorated with salvaged cave pieces

Animal spotting in Khao Yai

Departing the chaotic mess of Bangkok was a relief. After a few hours on an air-con bus with water and snack provided, we arrived in Pak Chong, the gateway to Khao Yai National Park. Our guesthouse picked us up and soon we were headed for the hills.

On the way to the guesthouse, we passed two different smoked meat restaurants. The first actually had a bunch of Texas roadhouse signs. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to stop and check it out.

We used the Greenleaf Guesthouse recommended in Lonely Planet. The reviews on trip advisor were on the good side of mixed so we went for it and actually stayed in the slightly more expensive bungalows at the next door hotel (there’s a gate in the back fence). It was 500 baht ($14) for our little fan cooled cabin with TV, fridge and large private bathroom. We did have an impressive train of ants parade across the floor for awhile and a half dollar size spider above the toilet but that’s life in a rural tropical climate. I would say it was worth a bit extra for the nicer room that’s farther away from the busy road.

Rob and I arrived just in time to grab lunch before our half-day tour (only an extra 300 baht after the day tour). The food at the lodge is pretty decent with all plates under $2. Our tour group was almost entirely French as it is a holiday period there. The half day tour began with a circle of the guesthouse grounds to see some critters: geckos, spiders and a couple bigger lizards that live in the gutters, followed by swimming in a spring fed pool.

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Spring pool filled with tourists.

With all of us cooled off, we descended a couple flights of steep steps into a large cave with shrines inside. Some folks balked and refused to go down when they learned the cave is full of bats. And there were tons of bats. Our guide showed us all the best guano and explained some of the locals make good money collecting and selling it.

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Bat cave that we were allowed to visit.

Finally it was dusk and time for the real show to begin. We drove to a field near another cave where 2 million bats take 45-60 min to exit for their night’s meal. From our spot, we watched as winding ribbons of bats twisted across the sky blazing with the orange hues. A few birds of prey danced around the ribbon attempting for a bit of bat for dinner.

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Ribbon of bats.

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Winding motion of the bat ribbon.

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Rob photographing the bats.

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It's the bat stream.

As the stream died down, we walked to a nearby field to enjoy the sensation of bats rushing past us to feed. Our guide joked offered free beer to anyone who could catch a bat in the air. Needless to say, no one did as the bats are much too fast for us (although they certainly buzzed close enough to our heads to reach).

The next day we did the full tour into Khao Yai National Park to search for more animals. They loaded us onto large flatbed trucks with covered beds and benches along the sides, this was the preferred transport in rural Thailand instead of buses or vans.

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Our transport.

After a good drive into the national park we made our first stop at a scenic overview with lots of monkeys who hang out and try to steal food.

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According to our guide, each male has 8 females.

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The grooming buffet.

At this point we put on our leech socks which are heavy enough to prevent leeches that fall into your boots from being able to bite you. Since it was the dry season we didn’t see any leeches, but it was nice to have the socks just in case. Only the tourists bothered to wear them. Seeing the hordes clad in the white covering had me imagining a field guide entry for tourists.

Markings: Distinctive white droopy calf coverings. Variety of head coverings possible. These creatures had large back pouches where they store water.

Spotter’s guide: These creatures are found in large groups with one male leader carrying a monocular on a collapsible tripod. Most often found along roads and trails.

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Next, we found a couple Great hornbills breakfasting in a fruit tree. Our guide said the secret to finding animals is knowing which fruit is ripe and where the corresponding trees are located. You can tell the sex by the eye color. These photos were taken through the scope, so we didn’t get a great feel for their size, but we’re told they’re quite large.

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The guy.

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The girl.

Then, we found a squirrel (not like the squirrel we’re used to, these have different tails) and a family of gibbons. The other sure way to spot animals here is to pull over whenever you see tour groups or other people stopped to look at animals. We were amazed by the number of independent tourist groups that didn’t bother to stop. I guess that’s who the National Park reviews that complain of not seeing any animals come from. On our own, we wouldn’t have seen very much.

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Gibbons, described to us as monkeys without tails. They have a distinctive call and are not able ground walkers so they stay in the trees.

A quick stop at the visitor center was next. Rob saw the water monitor lizard on a display and wondered if we would see one. Five minutes later meeting at our truck, the whole group was watching a large water monitor lizard hang out on a log.

A jungle trek would occupy the next few hours. Thankfully, they had split the tourists into three smaller groups in the morning, so we had the young, angle bodied set. While a well-marked and traveled trail existed, our guide took every opportunity to cut off of it onto smaller parallel sections that followed the river more closely. We saw a pit viper and a crocodile in addition to many birds and butterflies.

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Crocodile!

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Pit viper. He was hard to spot even when you knew where to look.

At last we reach the end near one of the famous waterfalls and lunch! It was 1:30pm at this point and we had started at 8 am. Then, I couldn’t believe it when the slower groups piled into the lunch spot a half hour or more behind us. They must have been even more ravenous.

Exploring the waterfall was nice (it appeared in some movie with Leonardo DiCaprio). Although in the dry season, it’s not as spectacular.

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Heo Suwat waterfall in the dry season

Then, snack time and on to elephant finding. We had to wait until late afternoon to do this. Well, it took us about 10 minutes to find an elephant. Unfortunately, we barely got to see it before it ambled away, but we were on the right side of the truck so Rob got the money shots (and emailed them to the rest of our tour group).

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They are able to move surprisingly well through the thick jungle.

Since we saw an elephant so quickly our guide had to figure out what to do with us for the rest of the day. Normally they spend hours looking for elephants. We walked to a wildlife observation post and stayed awhile without seeing any big animals.

Finally, we went back for dinner (Rob got an amazing Tom kha gai) and an evening hanging out the the Germans and an older Dutch guy from our tour. The next morning Rob and I would head to Nang Rong via Korat.

Bangkok

Rob and I arrived in Bangkok at 2 am. This time I convinced him that we should get a hotel and cab there. A cab was under $10 and was especially fast because traffic was sparse. We ended up at a nice clean budget hotel near the Phra Ram 9 metro station.

The first day we slept in and relaxed until 1 PM then ventured a couple stops down the metro to Suhamvit station. Terminal 21, one of the new fancy malls has an amazing food court on the Fifth floor called Pier 21. This was a cheap but clean and orderly introduction to Thailand dining. We had a spicy papaya Som salad with crab, steamed buns and chicken and rice followed by the best food ever, mango with sticky rice covered in sweetened condensed milk with a crunchy brown topping. Afterward, we walked to the Jim Thompson house, the home turned museum of a fárang silk trader who disappeared mysteriously, for one of the last tours of the day.

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Rob in the Jim Thompson House Garden.

The garden surrounding the house had large potters with fish and floating plants in them.

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Golden Teardrop exhibit at the Jim Thompson House


After, we strolled to the Chinatown area for dinner. It was a bit of a walk but the Bangkok MRT and BTS systems weren’t convenient and we weren’t in a hurry. Coming from Tokyo’s busy but well-ordered streets, walking in Bangkok felt a bit like Frogger. Despite the hassle, exploring at slower pace was nice to see ordinary life in the city. Bangkok is a city of such contrasts between the glitzy new malls with international stores to shacks made of wood and corrugated metal.

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Street fair at a temple. We saw the lights and went to check it out.

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Random kabuki style show we passed by.

The next day, we set out to the major historic sites along the river. Steffen and Audrey mentioned the ferries as a good way to go, so we took the MRT to the end of the line in Chinatown. After checking out an extremely valuable solid gold Buddha that had been hidden in a plaster shell for along time, we picked up a boat to the Grand Palace area.

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Our hotel's tuk tuk with free transfers to the metro.

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Solid gold Buddha

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Standing on the ferry.

By the time we arrived, the Grand Palace was mobbed, but since many were with tour groups, they didn’t clog ticket lines. The dress code is highly enforced, but you can rent clothes for a deposit or buy some cheap clothes at the vendors outside.

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Dress rules for the Grand Palace. Rob had to borrow pants, which was the longest line.

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Standard tourist garb.

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Costco – the Asia tour

For fun, Rob and I checked out Costco in a few other countries. It’s always entertaining to see the variety of products for sale and compare to back home. The Korea and Taiwan ones had a kimchi bar.

Stop #1 South Korea -Seoul

Rob and I walked a ways from the metro to get to one of the Seoul Costco stores. Once we were nearby, we could easily follow the line of people carrying wholesale size items to the store.

After wandering awhile inside, Rob started thinking they didn’t sell food. But alas, he just hadn’t found the cartscalator to the lower floor. The food court is located so you can dine between floors. The seafood selection at the Korean store was the best of the three we visited. It was also nice to see all the thinly sliced meats they sell for BBQ, bulgogi or hot pot.

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Costco Korea food court menu. 

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We tried the pizza, the bulgogi bake (like a philly cheesesteak in chicken bake form) and the mango smoothie (too sweet).

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Costco soju, a terrifying amout of alcohol for a very low price.

Stop #2 Taiwan – Taipei

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Pork green onion buns.

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Prepared hot pot packs. I thought this was pretty special, but then we saw these all over Japan in grocery stores (smaller sizes of course).

The interesting potato chip flavor round-up.

Out of all the Costcos we visited, this one had the most unique food court menu.

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Costco Taiwan food court

We had the seafood pizza (meh) and the peking duck pizza (very tasty)in addition to a massive round of samples, including some cake that unfortunately looked better than it tasted.

We ended up getting a bag of the oyster omelet chips to eat of our forthcoming bike trip.

Stop #3 Japan – Tokyo Suburb

We dropped in here a half hour before closing right after we picked up the campervan. After all, we needed some food for the road trip (and dinner).

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The tortellini was very expensive at over $20 a package.

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Redhook in Japan.

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Bacon only comes in chunks. Not good for car cooking.

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Rice burgers. Rice patties instead of buns.

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Only chicken bakes were left. Still good though.

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Best costco dessert ever!

You must fill out a Costco international form to shop here if your membership is from abroad.

Back to Tokyo with the Birthday boy

After much van cleaning and packing, we returned the van to Japan Campers and boxed up the ski gear. It felt good to have ditched a bunch of our extra stuff, but we were both sad to say goodbye to the Japan ski portion of the trip.

 

 

We didn’t have too much time to dwell on this because we were running late to meet up with Rob’s Microsoft friend, Scotty, who was in town for a ski trip. After dropping bags at the hostel, we headed to Roppongi for a night out. It turned out that Siamak, another Microsoft friend from the Tom’s office group, had come along too and a number of their other friends. Thus, we had a good group for dinner.

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After dinner and some Royce birthday chocolate, Rob, Siamak, Scotty and I went to check out happy hour at Jumanji 55. All you can drink between 7-11pm for 1000 yen/$8.60 USD for guys. Women drink all night for that price. The crowd was interesting. We stayed until 11pm then hung out at the airbnb that Scotty and Siamak were sharing.

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For our last day in Tokyo, we did some planning them finally got to use the Ghibli museum tickets that we’d been sitting on for a month.

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No pictures are allowed inside or else there would be tons here. The building was extremely neat with lots of touches from the films. Half the fun is wandering around.

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There’s a massive plush cat bus for kids to play on, but Rob didn’t think I could pass for that young.

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Next stop, the airport and on to Bangkok!

Ferry to Tokyo: 19 hours at sea

Amazingly, we made it to the ferry terminal just a few minutes behind schedule. Rob and I had time to get our tickets then do a bit of car organization while we waited to board. No one told us that we wouldn’t have car access during the voyage so we only grabbed some of the stuff we needed before heading up to the cabin deck. By the time we figured this out, we had to rush to get things while the ferry employee hurried us along. By this time the baths were closed and we had to wait until the next morning to get clean. 😦

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Since the ferry would take 19 hours, we had plenty of time there next day to sleep, relax and bathe.

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Getting into port, we drove an hour toward Narita and found a michi no ekki for the night.

Sapporo: Beer, Snow and the Super Bowl

Rob and I did Sapporo as a park and ride from the Chitose Salmon Aquarium michi no ekki (super nice bathrooms and a Lawson). It was a 12 minute walk from there to the Chitose JR station. Using public transit was key because today we were going beer tasting. Each place asks you if you drove when you arrive and will give you the big “don’t serve me beer, I’m the driver” stickers.

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At the Kirin welcome center. All props provided.

Our first stop was Kirin, one stop up the line. Since we had made reservations, they were expecting us. The Kirin tour was one of the best big beer company tours we’ve been on. All the videos had English subtitles and our guide made an effort to explain in what English she knew. The thing Kirin prides itself on is the fact that Kirin Ichiban (first) only uses the first press of the mash and not the “second press” where boiling water is used to retrieve more sugars from the mash. They have you taste samples from each press so you can witness the very clear differences between the two.

 

 

For the tasting, we each got to choose two beers to try in addition to Kirin’s special Hokkaido only beer. While drinking, or guide gave us the first of many beer pouring demos that we would see over the next two days.

 

 

Later, we learned from an American couple living in Japan who we meet at the Sapporo tour that the Japanese are obsessed with head in their beer. This explained the rather weak, foamy pour we received at Otaru brewing that had us both staring at the mug in such disbelief that the waitress took it back immediately and added a bit more.

The Kirin tour was a fun 1.5 hours. Near the Osatsu stop (about a 10 min walk from the station), it’s not too hard to get to by JR or there’s plenty of parking.  Reserve your free tour three days in advance on their website. No tours on Mondays.

The next stop on JR is Sapporo Teinen, home of Sapporo’s Hokkaido Brewery. We headed there next. The walking time was about the same as the train so we decided to save the fare and burn a few calories.

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The Nissin Cup Noodle Factory in Chitose area.

The Sapporo Hokkaido Brewery tour requires a phone reservation by 5pm the day before (info). We tried to call but we somehow got redirected to the museum (in Sapporo proper) and were unable to make the reservation. When we told them we tried to call, they let us on the next tour. The only accommodation for English speakers is a set of laminated PowerPoint slides to follow along the tour.

We really enjoyed talking with the other American couple, but the tour was meh and you only got two beers (and some tasty crackers). A bunch of the other folks on the tour were trying the alcohol free beer. If you don’t want to make the trek out to the brewery, Sapporo turned the historic in town brewery into a museum with lots of English, samples for 200 yen (or the flight for 500) and a couple restaurants.

After our two rounds of brewery tours, we took the train to Sapporo, transferring to the metro at Shin Sapporo. The day pass is only 520 yen on weekends (830 yen on weekdays) which was a great value since our necessary rides were going to be around 300 each way. The metro took us right to Odori Park, the heart of the Sapporo snow festival.

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Ice sculptures at Odori Park. I really like the squid. Check out the guy clearing off snow from the sculptures.

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Rob and I took advantage of a buy food and get a Suntory all malt for 100 yen. We later learned that all malt beers (like Sapporo gold)  are so cheap because they’re taxed at a different rate than normal beer.

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The Park Air area of Odori Park featured snowboard and ski demos. The ski demos required completing a set of moguls before you hit the jump. The Japanese skiers seem to love moguls.

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Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (not in English) on a snow stage.

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The American Navy’s snow sculpture

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The Aussie entry into the international snow sculpture contest. I appreciate the humor, although Rob and I agree that Macao blew the other entrants out of the water with its dragon.

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After finishing with the Odori Park area, we continued to the Susukino section, which has a number of ice bars in addition to many ice sculptures. Most of the sculptures are sponsored by companies.

 

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We had a drink at the Jim Bean ice bar with a group of Singaporeans teaching English in Tokyo. It was fun hearing their Japan experiences. One of them had been to an owl cafe and told us about the owls she got to hold.

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To warm up for a bit, we wandered into this 6 floor entertainment complex. The first two floors are an array of claw games. Unlike in the US, where a number of prizes are jumbled in the machine, in most only one prize is available. It looks tantalizingly close to falling in the slot, but really the two arms hold it in place so it takes many tries to slowly pretty it loose. We watched one women feed a machine dozens of 100 yen coins to get this stuffed animal. I’m not sure if she ever succeeded as we gave up watching after some time.

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The next day, Rob got up early and took the train into Sapporo to watch the Super Bowl. He had a great time hanging out with a bunch of Americans, mainly Navy types stationed in Japan.

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I slept in for a bit, blogged then headed to town for the Asahi beer tour that I had arranged for us (and had already rescheduled once).

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First selfie of the day waiting for my tour to begin at Asahi Brewing

The Asahi tour makes accommodation for English speakers by using an audioguide that you play sections of throughout the tour. It was on par with Kirin, so if you don’t feel like the trek out of town, this is a good one to do and it’s easy to make online reservations for the Japanese tour (here, use google translate and an online english to japanese/katakana/hiragan converter to fill in the blanks). They do request you call for an English guide.

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Asahi does amazing sorting of all their waste. In the factory, they have over 50 waste streams, which allows them to reuse and recycle as mush as possible. These bins show the waste streams generated from the tasting. Everything has a place.

After Asahi, I went to check out the Shiroi Kobito factory, which made the 20 factories to visit in Japan list. Unfortunately the bus loads of tourist pulling in and being short on time made me leery of paying 600 yen for a tour when I really just wanted to try their product. So, I bought a box of their famous connection, white chocolate sandwiched between two thin buttery cookies and continued to my next stop, the historic government building near Sapporo station.

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On my walk to the government building, I stumbled into an art exhibits displayed in a series of snow caves/igloos and tourist office folks handing out free hot milk and kelp tea.

Finally, I arrived at the historic government building designed in the American style. It houses a museum of Hokkaido history, an exhibit of local products and a room dedicated to explaining the North territories dispute with Russia, which I briefly saw mention of elsewhere and was interested to know more. Russia apparently took over some of Japan’s historical holdings at the end of WWII (beyond what was in the treaty that Japan signed but Russia did not) and will not return them. They just keep making agreements to work toward a resolution.

 

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The historic government building near Sapporo Station

By the time I finished there, Rob was ready to meet up and we convened at the Sapporo Beer Museum.

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The historic Sapporo Brewery, now a museum, biergarten, restaurant complex and more.

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Rob, Will (from Vermont) who he’d been hanging out with since the Super bowl, and 2 Aussies (Amy and Amanda) who they met at the pouring demo upstairs in the museum.

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After leaving everyone to their night of drinking, we headed to the ramen alley near Susukino for a quick dinner before the ferry. Finally, some of the famous Sapporo miso ramen.
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We wandered in one with seats available. I enjoyed the spicy miso ramen and Rob ordered the delicious miso ramen (a touch of soy sauce flavor). Both were so good! Restaurant ramen bears so little resemblance to the package stuff. Running late, we grabbed the train south to pick up the car and catch our ferry back to Oarai in Tokyo.
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Asahikawa: Sake Museum and the Snow Festival

Rob and I rushed to get to Asahikawa in time to visit the old, famous sake museum and brewery. We got there is with about 3 minutes to spare, which meant all the bus tours were leaving.

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In addition to the factory and brewing equipment, the museum had a collection of ukiyo, woodblock prints, featuring the brewery. I liked the one above, if for nothing but the title.

I really liked their dry sake but it was 5400 yen for the bottle. Yikes!

Next, we headed for one of the two in town michi no ekki. The one was stayed at was about 1.1 km from the train station where the ice sculpture walk begins. After exploring the michi no ekki (there was a car show going on) and cooking dinner, we headed that direction. The train station, a shiny new edifice, is connected to a mall with fancy food court. We browsed our way through to warm up before braving the cold once again (~ -6 deg C) to view the sculptures.

Clearly, the contest had just begun because of everyone was in the process of stacking their ice blocks into a general form. It was neat to see all the different tools of the trade: metal plates in hot water baths, water squirt bottles, hand planes, scoring devices and flat stick saws. The sculptures nearest the station were team projects where as we walked northward, the individual competition took over.

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Skiing the Japow: Day 14 Epic Furano Part 2

The storm we hoped to catch at Furano was slightly delayed but there was still plenty of new snow for a fun day or 3 hrs. Since Rob and I planned some sightseeing stops ending in Asahikawa for their ice festival and sake museum, we had about 4 hours to ski. Heading to the premium zone for one lap of amazing knee deep to thigh deep powder was great, then we did a 20 min hike into the sidecountry to ski the next bowl over. The snow was even better. After the bowl, there are some fun trees before skirting a creek and joining back up with a groomed run.

While waiting for me, Rob thought he might have heard calls for help. Then when I joined him, we went to investigate. Rob ended up helping a snowboarder out of a creek hole. Luckily, the dude had gone in feet first and was able yell for help. His friend had gone on ahead and didn’t realize his buddy’s predicament. Rob read him the riot act/this is how people die skiing off-piste.

For our last run, we went farther on the hike and dropped into the trees for some more fluffy stuff. Rob hucked a rock while I attempted to take pics. I think I missed all the neat bits and only caught the beginning and end.

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The take off.

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The landing

After packing up the skis one last time, we grabbed some Hokkaido caramels and headed north to Asahikawa.