Dynasty Travel: 8D6N Colourful Hokkaido Tour, Day 1 and Part 1 of Day 2

Sunday, 2 August 2015

It's actually interesting that I'm starting this blog with my experiences from a group tour.
Truth be told, this Hokkaido trip was only the second time I joined a group tour.
My first was a distant and vague memory of Hong Kong when I was fresh out of the university,
and that was more than 10 years ago.

Since then, I've heard enough about group tours to be terrified of them;
horror stories about crazy and/or inconsiderate tour mates,
being rushed around, being pushed into tourist traps, and so on.

Plus, I don't really enjoy being around people.
Yeah. I know that sounds strange, especially given that I work in the social service sector.
(And yes. I do enjoy my work. I think I do fairly well and I haven't murdered anyone. Yet.)
But really, outside of work, I just don't want to bother with the idiosyncrasies of strangers.

So how did I end up going on a group tour to Hokkaido?
Well. It's all thanks to my parents.
They signed up for a group tour to Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara) in May,
fell in love with Japan (can't blame them)
and came back extremely pleased with their tour guide and tour leader.

They talked incessantly about going again,
and since I was drained at work, and long overdue for a break,
I fell under the spell and agreed to sign up with them to Hokkaido.
The lavenders was what sealed the deal.

Heh. You might then ask:
"So, would you go on a group tour again?"
(Almost all my friends sure did.)
Well. I survived. As did the people on the tour.
I sure as hell won't rule it out, but for the safety of other human beings,
it wouldn't be my preferred mode of travel.

Perhaps, one day in future,
with more group tours under my belt and if I'm still maintaining this blog,
I'll make a note to compare it to the free-and-easy.

But to get there, I've got to get the travel bits started on the blog first!
So here goes:
The Dynasty Travel 8D6N Colourful Hokkaido Tour.

Day 1: Singapore --> Tokyo (東京) --> Hakodate (函館)

The night we had to get to Changi Airport coincided with the (now infamous) night 2 major MRT lines broke down.
For those not familiar with the Singapore transport system,
the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is our main public train system,
very much like the Hong Kong's MTR system.
Even the abbreviations sound similar. Go figure.

Anyway, we saw pictures and read reports on social media about the traffic chaos
that reigned as a result,
and got worried about not being able to get a cab to the airport.

Thankfully, we were fortunate that it wasn't an issue for us,
and we managed to get to the airport early.
I'm still amused thinking about how I was being superstitious (which is a rare occasion),
and hoping that it wouldn't be an indication of how the trip would turn out to be.

Our tour group was booked on the JAL (Japan Airlines) red-eye flight to Hakodate,
with a transit at Tokyo Narita Airport.
And since our tour group was big enough (23 pax in total),
Dynasty Travel arranged for an additional local tour leader, Ms Tracy,
to tag along to take care of the group.

We were supposed to meet her at 11:30 pm and she arrived almost on the dot.
Initially my mom was still wondering about it,
as being seasoned group tour travellers,
my parents remarked that one indication of a good/responsible tour leader would be one who was already waiting at the airport at least half an hour ahead of the stipulated time to catch the early birds.
Mom later found out that Tracy was one of the unfortunate ones who had difficulties calling a cab.

My seasoned group-tour-travelling parents decided to skip the admin brief,
and we proceeded to check-in after collecting our SATS Premier Lounge vouchers from Tracy.
I just followed my parents' cue on this,
especially since they seemed to be able to tell me what the admin brief would be about:
where the lounge is, noting of luggage tags, luggage restrictions, etc.
Ok, yeah. Great if its your first trip,
but a waste of time if you already know what you're doing,
so good call to move on to the club lounge.

Apparently when you sign up on a tour with Dynasty Travel,
you were allowed access to the club lounge.
Not too bad a perk.
It was my first time in the SATS Premier Lounge.
Obviously, I had to take at least a picture and blog about it.
Nothing more memorable than your first time isn't it. Heh.
A buffet line was provided at the lounge.
While the selection wasn't wide, there was a combination of Asian and Western cuisine,
and a decent enough variety of carbs, sandwiches, soups, meats, greens and beverages.
Though it probably wouldn't satisfy the most exquisite of taste-buds either,
the spread was definitely adequate to sate most appetites.
Facility-wise, there were ample tables and seats.
Clean and comfortable too,
which would be important since I assume they would be entertaining people who might be in-transit and tired from the travelling.
I was however, more impressed with the clean shower facilities.
(Unfortunately, no pictures).
Very thoughtful and useful for those in-transit and/or on long-haul flights.
It was a long 12-hour journey before we finally touched down at Hakodate.
Those souls who can sleep anywhere, despite anything?
You irritate the hell out of me,
especially when I desperately need that sleep.
In fact, unless I'm facing exhaustion,
I can only fall asleep on beds or sofas.
Needless to say, no matter what I do,
I don't do well on red-eye flights.
What made it worse for me this round was that we were parked at the end of the airplane,
near the toilets and where the engines were the loudest.
So with all the people moving in and out of the toilets,
the carts moving up and down the aisle, and the roaring of the engines,
my attempt to disturb everyone else with my snores never stood a chance.
In fact, I gave up mid-flight and proceeded to watch Kingsman: The Secret Service on the in-flight entertainment.
(Perhaps in future, there should be a post on surviving red-eye flights)
Something new I later learnt from Tracy and Reiko (the Japanese tour guide assigned to the group):
airlines tended to allocate tour groups seats at the back of the planes.
At least, if I ever get on a group tour and a red-eye flight again,
I'll be more prepared the next time.
But that lack of sleep accounted for the dazed state I was in.
And that dazed stated accounted for the lack of photos and recall of what transpired in Narita Airport during our transit.
I only remember our yummy lunch at one of the restaurants
(but forgot to get pictures),
and my mom enjoying a round on the massage chair while waiting for our flight to Hakodate.
Day 2, Hakodate (函館):
Fort Goryokaku ( 五稜郭) --> Motomachi District (元町地区) --> Mt. Hakodate (函館山)
Upon landing in Hakodate,
we were immediately whisked off in the tour coach to the very first destination on the itinerary:
Fort Goryokaku.
Fort Goryokaku is a picturesque park shaped like a pentagram or a 5-point star.
The Western style fort was built in the last years of the Japanese Edo Period for defence against possible Russian invasion.
Apparently, the star shape allowed for more canon emplacements than the traditional Japanese forts, and also reduced the number of blind spots where a canon could fire. 
The fort also became the site of the last battle of the Japanese Civil War (the Boshin War),
which marked the end of the Japan's long-standing feudal system and the beginning of the new Meiji era.
After the fort had lost its military importance,
it was eventually turned into a public park and subsequently designated as a National Special Historic Site in March 1962.
Fort Goryokaku now houses the Former Magistrate Office (pic above),
which is right smack in the centre of the star-shaped fort.
I understand that the original building was in ruins and demolished after the war,
but later meticulously reconstructed by the city and re-opened to the public.
We were also told that the building is now a museum,
and visitors could also go inside and explore the rooms.
In the interest of time though, we didn't get to go in,
and only admired the building from outside.
Unfortunately, although picturesque, I think this was the wrong time to visit Fort Goryokaku.
While the lush greenery of Fort Goryokaku was peaceful and made for great photos,
having visited several other outstanding parks (and in their prime season),
I felt that Fort Goryokaku at that point, paled in comparison.
However, when researching online prior to the trip,
I read that more than a thousand cherry trees were planted along the perimeter of the star-shaped moat.
Imagine how much more splendid it would be to visit the star-shaped Fort Goryokaku when the cherry blossoms are blooming.
Now THAT would have been a sight to behold.
Or perhaps even if it had been wisteria season,
for I walked under a (very) short wisteria tunnel.
That in itself, would have been lovely and could have been the highlight of the visit that this one lacked.
It would have been a great Kodak moment too.
Ok, my bad. It would be harder for you to imagine if you have never been there before.
But don't just take my word for it, go google for images of Fort Goryokaku in cherry blossom season,
and you will see what I mean.
Adjacent to Fort Goryokaku is the 107 metre tall Goryokaku Observatory Tower (pic above).
It's supposed to provide you with a bird's eye view of Fort Goryokaku and its lush greenery,
which probably would have been breath-taking,
and again might have been that punch-in-the-gut beauty that this portion of the trip lacked.
And as you can tell from my choice of words,
I unfortunately did not have the luxury of going to the top of the observatory tower.
Time was again the factor that decided against us being able to get up there.
That's the one thing that you would probably read about repeatedly here;
the tight schedule the group had to follow on this tour,
and the lack of time to properly explore the places.
While walking to the Observatory Atrium (ground level of the Goryokaku Observatory Tower),
I chanced upon Lucky Pierrot, that's just across the traffic junction.
Lucky Pierrot is a popular hamburger chain unique to Hakodate.
Not only is it renowned for its burgers,
each Lucky Pierrot outlet also has its own unique themed décor,
including angels, Santa Claus, Audrey Hepburn, swings and so on.
If you ever visit Hakodate, I hope you can make the time to visit at least one of its outlets.
Just look out for that clown! It shouldn't be hard to miss.
I was told that the Chinese Chicken Burger, Lucky Egg Burger and Pork Cutlet Burger were really good.
Plus, rumour has it that the chain served Whale Burger too.
Unfortunately, even when I sprinted there (and probably did my former track teacher proud),
there was an extremely long queue when I got there.
I could only give it a quick glance and bade it a tearful farewell,
before forlornly returning to where the tour bus (and group) were already waiting for me.
As a consolation though,
I had one of the best milkshake I've ever tasted (pic above).
The Observatory Atrium has a mini shopping zone where you can purchase Japanese snacks and other gifts and souvenirs.
If you happen to visit during melon season,
there's also a stand next to the shopping zone selling melon, melon juice and that awesome milkshake.
That melon and the cup of juice was so fresh and incredibly sweet,
it provided immediate respite from the hot summer sun.
And if you ever had fresh Hokkaido milk,
you'll understand why that milkshake was so damn good.
 Grab all that you can eat because the melons sells out fast!
Those who were slower in our tour group missed out on the melons!
For me, the food ended up being the most memorable on this portion of the trip.
Heh. Though the good friends who know me might probably not be surprised by that.
Right. I've written quite a bit.
Not quite used to writing this long for a blog post really,
and I'm actually quite tired.
So I'm just going to keep the remaining portions of Day 2's itinerary to the next post.
Tourist Information:
Fort Goyrokaku
Former Magistrate Office
Opening Hours: 9 am to 6 pm
From November to March, 9 am to 5 pm.
Admission ends 15 minutes prior closing.
Closed from 31 December to 3 January
Entrance Fees: 500 yen
Goryokaku Observatory Tower
Opening Hours: Late April to late October, 8 am to 7 pm
Late October to late April, 9 am to 6 pm
 Entrance Fees: 840 yen

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