My son and I had a blast up in northern Japan. Our first stop was the city of Sapporo, the sprawling urban center of Hokkaido that’s interesting in part because it was designed by American city planners, featuring straight, wide roads with actual street names (a rarity in most Japanese cities) and a Central Park-style open space in the center. We visited the famous Sapporo Clock Tower (the oldest continually operating clock in Japan), took shots of Sapporo TV Tower while being pelted by snow flurries, and checked out the headquarters of Crypton Future Media, the company behind Hatsune Miku. We knew we had to visit the famous statue of Professor William S. Clark, known universally as “Clark-hakase,” one of the most famous foreigners in the history of Japan, though you may not have heard of him. He was a Civil War Colonel for the Union who was sent to Japan by President Ulysses S. Grant to be the first president of Sapporo Agricultural College, the predecessor to Hokkaido University, and he helped teach modern dairy farming techniques and English to his new students. When he left Japan, Professor Clark told his students, “Boys, Be Ambitious!” (in Japanese, shonen yo, taishi o idake), which became the slogan for Sapporo and quite a common phrase in popular culture today.
After Sapporo we took a ferry from the bottom of Hokkaido to Aomori and travelled south to Iwate Prefecture for some serious onsen hot springs action. Our final destination was Sendai, a beautiful city with roads that are wide and straight like Sapporo, though for a different reason — the city was bombed heavily during World War II and rebuilt with a modern plan. Sendai is interesting because of the famous samurai lord who founded it: Date (dah-tay) Masamune, one of the most enigmatic characters in Japanese history. A brilliant tactician, he was fascinated by Western technology and was an early patron of Christianity. Besides commissioning Japan’s first Western-style ship, which sailed to Rome via Mexico on a trade mission, the one-eyed daimyo was a great lover of exotic foods, said to be one reason that Sendai is a gourmet city to this day. Date Masamune is a common fixture in many video games, and also served as the inspiration for none other than Darth Vader.
From Sendai we took a train to Matsushima, a bay filled with oddly-shaped islands with gnarled Japanese pine trees (matsu) on them, said to be one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. (The other two are the floating Japanese arch of Miyajima, which I wrote about a week ago, and the view from Mt. Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture.) This was our first visit to an area that had been devastated by the tsunamis, and there were still signs of damage in the form of block walls torn down, heavily cracked pavement, and in one place, a train platform at a rural train station that had been ripped cleanly in half by the waters. With great solemnness we walked around enjoying the quiet beauty of the ancient pine trees, then we clasped hands and made an offering at the Zuiganji Temple and headed for home.
Sapporo, city of snow, ramen and Hatsune Miku; Date Masamune founded the Empire city of Sendai.