The Pioneer Village and its overly helpful volunteers

I’ve been to Sapporo twice now, and while I’ve tried to see or experience new things both trips some things were bound to overlap. One of those things was a visit to the Pioneer Village.

Entrance to Kaitaku-no-mura, or Pioneer Village.

Exactly as it sounds, this is a little town recreated to give you an idea of what it must have been like for the Japanese when they first began to explore Hokkaido. There are little houses, school buildings, shrines, fishing huts, the whole shebang. Its an impressively big place, and I would recommend you plan to be there for at least half a day. (Admittedly not only for the sightseeing but also because of the buses being somewhat infrequent…)

Upon entry, you’re greeted by several buildings all with their doors wide open. I entered one at random to get my little personal tour started. While a lot of signs were in English, most were (nautrally in Japanese). I decided to puzzle some of them out for funsies when an older gentleman in a volunteers’ vest approached me. He was frail, dressed far too nicely for such warm weather, and had a slight hunch in his shoulders.

“What do you think about it?” he asked in Japanese, gesturing toward the sign I was reading.

“Pretty interesting stuff,” I responded in the same language.

He lit up, and proceeded to speak at full speed. While I couldn’t catch every word, I imagine he was saying something like this:

“Oh, good, you can understand! Well anyway, I’d like to share some information beyond what the sign says. On this date, this person arrived in Sapporo and he did this thing that resulted in…”

I nodded here and there, made interested noises, and said, “Well thank you for the explanation. I’m going to the next building now.” After all, while I appreciated his enthusiasm, speaking with someone and trying to keep up with their Japanese was not on my list that day.

The volunteer, however, had other ideas. “Oh, wonderful! I’ll accompany you!”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to leave your post…”

“Nonsense, I’m here to help anyone who comes in. Let’s go!’

Resigned to my fate, I followed him out the door to the next building, and for the next few hours got far more information on everything in that Village than I ever needed to know.

Pretty sure we saw every single place on this map together.

The gentleman was beside himself with excitement, nodding to other volunteers and saying, “SHE speaks Japanese,” as if he himself had taught me.

When the other helpers expressed their astonishment, I interjected with, “Only a little, I’m still studying.” However, this seemed to ensure that yet more of them wanted to help the foreigner with her adventure, and we soon were a party of four: the gentleman, a younger man in traditional clothing, and an older woman. We proceeded to tour every single building. Place to place we went, staring at signs I could barely read and discussing topics I almost couldn’t follow at all.

Several times, I wish I had played the role of the foreigner who didn’t understand, but as we got further and further into this adventure I realized it probably wouldn’t have mattered; these people were so excited to share their history with me that I probably could have walked in speaking something really obscure, and they would have still dropped everything to assist me. It was inspiring, and very sweet… but considering I’d been hoping for a quiet day wandering around and reading things on my own, I was not mentally prepared for such helpfulness.

I mean look, this is the sort of place you come to explore in quiet, not as a large party, right?

That said, the Village was far larger than I’d anticipated, and a lot of what we saw was fascinating; the signs I could read told me what I was looking at, whether it was a school (where volunteers were singing traditional songs) or a fishing hut. I will say one word of warning to visitors, aside from the super helpful people: there are mannequins and fake horses. Everywhere.

It doesn’t help that there are recordings that start up when the motion detectors pick up your entrance to a particular building. One minute you’ll be peering into a quiet little house and the next, you’ll be hearing an involved discussion in Japanese coming from nowhere!

This guy startled the bejeezus out of me.

At last, we wound up sitting in one of the traditional fishing village houses on the edge of the attraction, sipping hot green tea, when my phone went off. I checked it and saw that the next bus was due in about a half hour. Time to escape.

“Oh, my bus is coming soon,” I said, slowly starting to get up. “I’d better head for the entrance. Sorry to cut this short.”

“Your bus? Oh, you should have said you needed to get on a particular bus! We’ll lead you to the entrance!” my gentleman of a volunteer exclaimed, scrambling to his feet.

“No need, I can find it myself,” I said. “Besides, you’ve all been so helpful along the way that I couldn’t ask you to do any more.”

He hesitated. “But…”

“Look, you haven’t even finished your tea. I really appreciate it, but I don’t want to put you out. Thank you all so much.” I bowed.

That got everyone scrambling up to bow back at me, thanking me for coming to Pioneer Village. We bowed back and forth a few times, and each time I backed a bit further out toward the door. Toward freedom. They inched closer each time, still offering to help me find the entrance.

I fled, but not before peeking at one or two attractions just one last time:


The Pioneer Village is a lovely place, and I highly recommend you go. Just beware the automated recordings and the hospitality! ๐Ÿ™‚

Moral of the story: I need to learn how to say “no thank you” to enthusiastic volunteers without feeling like a jerk.


Language issues while hiking in Japan

So you’re a nature person- someone who has done some form of camping and enjoyed it, for example- and want the chance to enjoy some natural scenery in Japan. That’s understandable; there are plenty of places to explore! There are lakes, rivers, mountains, bears, snakes… Wait.

Killer bees, too, according to the sign on this tree on Onuma Park.

There are a couple things a hiker needs to be aware of while in Japan. Not only the wildlife (there are actually bears) but how easily you can find the path and where to look out for things that can hurt you. Here’s what I’ve taken away from my time wandering around the most accessible hiking points- not only in the more accessible hiking areas in Hakodate and Sapporo, but also on the main island of Honshu.

1. There will be very little English, if any. Yes there are websites in English recommending various paths, but when it comes time to hop on a bus to get to the trailhead, or once you’re on the trail itself? Make sure you have a copy of the name of where you’re going, not only in English but with the Japanese characters (kanji) and, if it’s helpful for you, spelled out in hiragana too.

Why it’s helpful: you’ll come up across post signs that will be ALL in kanji. You can use your handy dandy copy to compare characters to ensure you’re on the right path or, if needed, stop another hiker to make sure you’re going the right way.

2. Watch what the other hikers are doing. Also, what they have on them. Do they have bells to scare away bears? Are they wearing jeans and heels? Compare it to what you’ve got.

Why it’s helpful: websites can’t tell you everything. Sometimes locals will be aware of something and your resources will not be up to date. Upon seeing what they’re up to, reevaluate your situation if needed.

3. Look out for trail maps. These are normally at the trailhead, but sometimes when there are multiple paths you’ll find them along the hiking trails too. They often will tell you the elevation you’re at and, if you’re following a scenic path, will point you in the right direction for where to go next.

Why it’s helpful: Especially for scenic trails, paths can go in a loop or connect with other trails multiple times. You don’t want to walk in circles for hours without getting anywhere, do you? Hopefully if you’re doing any substantial hiking you have a map with you, but if not… these can point you in the right direction in a pinch.

Speaking of knowing characters/kanji that are helpful to you, here’s a word that you should definitely look out for: ๆณจๆ„ใ€€๏ผˆใกใ‚…ใ†ใ„ใ€ or “caution”). If you see this, pay attention to whatever has it written. You could be dealing with wildlife, falling rocks, slippery roads, or any other number of things when you see those.

If you go exploring in a foreign country, what do you want to know about beforehand? What words or signs do you think someone should know?

Onuma Quasi National Park

So, you`ve done Hakodate. Seen the morning market, checked out the night view, etc etc. Now you`re ready for some time out in nature. Right?

Luckily, there`s a park not too far from Hakodate called Onuma Quasi National Park that can scratch that itch.

The train used to reach it is actually one and the same with the train bound for Sapporo, so if you want to make it a stopover on your way to or from Hakodate that is definitely an option. In my case, I took the train to and from JR Hakodate station. You can take the Super Hokuto Ltd. Express for 1,160 yen one way or you can go for the cheaper local train for 540. You can also go nuts and get a reserved seat on that Ltd. Express train for an additional few hundred yen, but really, why waste your money unless you are super worried about getting a seat? Besides, if you choose to ride the Express train you`ll be there in like thirty minutes anyway.
Once there, exit the station and turn immediately to your right. You will see some toilets and, beyond that, the Tourist Center. They have English speakers who can help you with whatever you may need, like… a map.

Very handy when you`re wandering around in nature.

The main attraction is in the very center of the map: two walking paths (15 and 50 minute leisurely walks respectively) that show off the main highlights of the park. These are pretty easy but if you have.difficulty with climbing anything steep, you may have trouble with the bridges.

Bridge in Onuma Park

In addition to the walking paths, there are also bike rentals available. While you can`t ride them on the same path the walkers use, you can use them to loop around lake Onuma. It`s mostly by the road rather than on a separate path, but it still makes for a pleasant ride. If biking is not your thing, there are boats you can rent instead, or a tour boat you can ride.
There are other local things you can do- camping, horseback riding lessons, and what have you- but many of these things require reservations (or a car). Take a look a few days ahead of your trip, if you can, to see what appeals to you.

For me, just having a quiet park to walk in was plenty. The views were lovely and going on a weekday ensures there won`t be too many people.

One thing to look out for is the Suzumebachi- the wasps, or “killer bees” that everyone likes to bring up when discussing scary bugs in Japan. There are signs (in Japanese only for some reason) in a couple places in the park. I don’t think it’s a major concern as I didn’t run into any- if you stay on the main paths, you should be fine. Just be cautious if you opt to wander off said paths!

It reads, “Be careful of Suzumebachi!”

I spent about half a day in Onuma Park, so if you want to take it easy I would recommend you budget about the same amount of time.
Have you been to any parks in Japan that you enjoyed?

Hakodate in one day?

Can you see the third largest city in Hokkaido and all it has to offer in just one day?

Short answer: yeah, probably.

Long answer: yeah, probably, but you’ll be tired and grumpy by the end of it.

During my stay in Hakodate, I had two main in-city goals: hit up Goryokaku Park, and check out the night view on Mount Hakodate. Everything after would be icing on the proverbial cake.

I got up bright and early…. at eight. Hey don’t judge me, it’s my vacation and eight is early for me! Anyway, after having breakfast at my hotel, I headed down to JR Hakodate Station in order to find the Morning Market ( ๆœๅธ‚). It was reasonably close to the station, and I soon found myself surrounded by local seafood and produce.

The most notable of which was the crabs. They were everywhere, in all sizes, starting from about 4,000 yen per entire critter. The corn was more reasonable at about 100 yen per ear, with claims of having been brought in from the fields just that morning.
After that, I hopped on one of the trams. Streetcars basically run two routes throughout Hakodate and while I potentially could have walked, I opted to take it easy and use public transportation to get to Goryokaku Koen (roughly a ten minute ride from Hakodate Station).

Goryokaku is free to enter and a very pleasant, albeit sunny, walk. If you want to get a proper view of the former citadel, however, the nearby tower is there to help! It does cost to go up, but the view is lovely. Also, more importantly, there are restaurants and sweet shops inside- a great option for those hoping to get lunch in (like me).

When that was done, it was back off to Hakodate Station – because haha planning? What’s that?

I decided to check out the Bay Area for goodies, snacks, and overall ambience, and was not disappointed. The brick buildings, the calm water, the bustling souvenir shops, it’s all there.

If you head uphill from there (literally) you’ll find the foreign district, where you can see some really beautiful churches and take in the quiet neighborhood.

That was what I was expecting, anyway, until I heard cheering and music. Curious, I investigated and…

Surprise! It turned out I chose the right week to come to town. There was a week long festival happening with music and performers from around the world. As while a week pass was 3,000 yen, it was only 1,000 yen for one day!

The derailment from plans was very enjoyable, albeit mildly irksome in the sense that I’d been thinking of having local food for dinner and the main food stands at said festival had Indian and Korean dishes. Delicious at least!

But finally, finally, in the evening I got my chance and went up to see the night view from Mount Hakodate. And it was…!

…well, it was great once the fog cleared, but as you can see in the photo I was already in line to head back down the mountain.

By the time I was done with my day it was ten PM and my feet were ready for a break!
Are there other things to do in Hakodate? Of course! There are restaurants, shops, museums.. and that’s not even getting into what’s just outside of Hakodate. Onuma Koen comes to mind… but that’s a post for another day.

So yes, if you want to see Hakodate but can only spare a day, you can likely see everything then. Just be prepared for lines and getting distracted by sudden music festivals.

Keep an eye out- I’ll be posting more on Hokkaido soon!