City sightseeing tours range from the Tanuki-Koji Shopping Arcade to the Museum of Modern Art, the Science Center, the Memorial Museum of the late sculptor Shin Hongo, the Hokkaido Shrine, Winter Sports Museum and Susukino, the after-dark entertainment center with 3,700 restaurants, bars and cabarets.
The Jozankei Spas, 20 miles outside the city, have become one of the best-known spas on Hokkaido and in Japan; the area won first prize in a national popularity vote and was named after its founder, a Zen monk. Visitors are told that bathing in the hot mineral waters "with nature looking in at you makes tensions flee and the spirit free."
Throughout a leisure day our tour bus ranged in a circuit across Hokkaido to the Pacific port of Kushiro. We rolled through the cool mists of the seashore and up into the sunlight of mountain passes. In quiet forests we saw the first touches of autumn colors that will soon flame so brilliantly.
Lake Toya and Lake Akan are known as two of the most beautiful on the island, but it's hard to choose a favorite when you're looking into the reflecting waters.
From Nissho Pass we looked down into the Tokachi Plain of dense green forests, jade-colored rivers, farms and vineyards. The people of Hokkaido proudly present their potato as a rival of the Idaho potato, and they consider Pocatello, Ida., as another sister city, although Portland is the official sister city.
The town of Ikeda began grape growing experiments 25 years ago and invites visitors to sip wines that are entered in international competitions. The Wine Festival in mid-September is centered around a wine castle.
Hosts Radio, TV Shows
Our tour guide volunteer introduced herself as Akiko Fujita. As a high school exchange student she spent a year at John Muir High School in Pasadena. Now Fujita and her newspaperman husband have two daughters, and she hosts a half-hour weekly radio and TV program for young mothers.
Fujita has a fine singing voice and a natural sense of humor, as does her young assistant, Akemi Usui. Her stories and their songs took us into the spirit of Hokkaido. We may be not able to repeat the words, but we won't forget the hauntingly beautiful Marimo Song from the "Romance of the Marimo Festival." And we shall want to return some July for the Belly Button Festival in the town of Furano in the geographical heart of Hokkaido.
The University of Tokyo once set up a base at Furano for studying the stars because the atmosphere was clear at this center point of the island.
More recently, when the people of Furano wondered what kind of a festival they could offer to tourists, the thought came while sipping wine that the belly button was in the middle of the stomach even as Furano was in the center of Hokkaido. Didn't life flower from the human navel?
And so the Belly Button Festival was born. Faces painted on tummies change expressions intriguingly during dances. A TV series picked up the idea, and the festival is now an annual event in late July.
"I know you'll want to come back to Hokkaido," Fujita told us.