Disaster Strikes: The Trip from Hell

So I get up this morning at 5:45 to make sure I’m ready and out the door by 7:00 to walk to the station. I pick up my tasty but smallish (certainly not worth the ¥1,500 I prepaid for breakfast) box lunch and took off. Good sign—it wasn’t raining.

But that turned out to be a big deception…

When I got to the station, everything was in an uproar. Apparently, overnight there was extremely heavy rain and so my train was CANCELLED! And so were the next ones! So much for a smooth trip today. I first ate my meager box lunch so I wouldn’t have to keep carrying it around, then changed my tickets and all the connections to take the 9:19 AM train. When it too was CANCELLED, I changed to the 10:35 train (the next available), put my suitcases in a locker and went to the Internet Cafe to inform Makoto-san that I would be quite late arriving tonight. It was all kind of surreal—I didn’t think they cancelled trains in ultra-efficient Japan. What a hassle. There were even TV news crews there interviewing inconvenienced passengers.

If I were smart, I would have actually sat down and had a real meal at the station before leaving, but I foolishly declined. I did see some of the torrential rain come through in the interim before leaving town.

Of course, the 10:35 train that did leave was late and I barely made my first connection after they had us get off and transfer at an earlier station. The second leg was on the Super Hakucho express which goes through the world’s longest underwater train tunnel under the Tsugaru strait separating Hokkaido from Honshu. It was a fairly impressive (though in reality dark and sort of boring) 35 minute journey in the tunnel itself—100 meters under the seabed which is in turn 140 meters below the water’s surface.

And of course, the Super Hakucho was late arriving at Hachinohe as well, but my luck held and I was able to run down the platform, up the escalator and to my waiting third train (the Shinkansen Hayate 26) with my rail pass in my teeth to show the guard. I made it to my seat with a whole 90 seconds to spare—the Shinkansen waits for no-one!

Of course, I forgot to mention that during this whole ordeal, I’d had nothing to eat except a Melon bread and bottle of green tea I had in my bag from yesterday (and we’re talking 6 hours by this time), so I was starving. Luckily, the Shinkansen had one of the ever charming girls with the food cart so I bought and devoured a box lunch in record time—not even a moment to spare for a photo. It’s 7:15 PM, and I’m still on the Shinkansen for another hour before I get to Tokyo where I’ll call Makoto-san, make my way to Nakano and then undoubtedly CRASH!

I hope I can survive the rest of my trip! I think if I can get myself going in the morning, I may go to Nikko; after all, I only have three days of rail pass left after today…

Other Places in Hokkaido

When I got up this morning, it was raining. I came down and ate my pre-paid breakfast and WOW—what a spread! It was what they call a “Baikingu” here (the Japanese pronunciation of “Viking” which is what they call a Smørgasbord, or all-you-can-eat buffet). I ate until my eyes bubbled, including lots of bread, fresh Hokkaido butter, yummy miso soup, salmon, and probably a liter of Orange Juice. Yay!

I couldn’t really think of anything else I wanted to see in Sapporo (really lame thing to say, since I know I’m missing a LOT), so I thought I’d get on the train (since I now have an active JR Rail Pass) and see what else I could visit on the island.

Not too far away is the town of Otaru, about which the Rough Guide had some nice things to say. It was only about 30 minutes, but in that time the rain had become a torrential downpour. Sadly, I wasn’t feeling adventurous enough to go out in it, so only saw the main street from the station entrance! I wish I had more time…

Instead, I decided to try in the other direction, so headed back through Sapporo to catch a Hokuto Super Express to Hakodate. It’s well known for its historical western-influenced buildings. It was one of the first ports opened to the outside world in the Meiji era, and many countries opened consulates here. I only had about an hour-and-a-half, so took the little trolley car down to the end of the line and hopped off. Oops! Should have looked at the guidebook first, since I missed the big historical building area and ended up in the fishing district.

But you know, that kind of serendipity also has merit: I think I got some excellent photos there and saw things that the average American tourist would never see. I think the close-up I took of the squid boat lamps is one of the best ones from this entire trip (see it in the photo gallery). After wandering a bit and looking at the guidebook, I realized that I could save the ¥250 and walk back to the station on my own—and I’d pass by some of the historical quarter on my way. And since it’s COOLER here, walking isn’t as big a chore.

I got back to Sapporo fairly late, so dropped into the Internet cafe where it’s all-you-can-drink soft drinks, free soft ice cream and cheap eats from the grill while you web surf in your own private little cubicle. Incredibly, pretty much everything in the huge station mall was closed (this really IS like Salt Lake City…), so there wasn’t much else to do. I guess since I was wimping out, it also means I won’t be eating any of the signature Gengis Khan on this trip.

Since it’s already time for me to leave (can you believe it?), I had to get stuff packed and ready—I have a 7:30 AM train to catch with 2 connections on my 10-hour journey to Tokyo tomorrow. Sadly, since I’m up so early, the pre-paid breakfast for tomorrow was lost—at least they agreed to pack me a box lunch of sandwiches for tomorrow. I’ll miss the gorgeous spread from this morning, though…

Arriving in Sapporo

The overnight trip was fine but long, and as soon as I arrived I felt something I haven’t felt in a month: COOL! The weather here is SO nice compared with the hot, muggy Japan I’ve come to know and love.

My first order of business after getting my bearings was to walk to my hotel and drop off my luggage. The Sapporo Garden Palace is where I booked from the internet and it’s pretty nice. It’s also conveniently located right across the street from the old Hokkaido capitol building. That was my first sightseeing destination, followed by the Botanical Gardens a block away. They were really beautiful and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to walk around without instantly sweating like a pig from the heat and the humidity. I guess the rest of Japan feels like this at times other than the middle of summer.

The next sight suggested to me was the old Sapporo Beer brewery museum, which was a short bus ride away. I wandered through the museum which was kind of interesting, even for a guy who doesn’t drink. I really liked the old-time advertising posters (I bought a set of postcards showing some of them). I also ate at a fantastic restaurant there, the Garden Grill. The grilled lamb in my lunch was one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten in my life! I wandered around the grounds a while and into the insanely huge adjoining shopping mall before ending up at the nearby Book Off store where I picked up a couple more volumes of used manga and a CD (just what I need, more stuff to have to pack…sigh).

I went and checked into my room, relaxed a bit then went back down to the main station where I found a pretty nice internet cafe. Sadly, I couldn’t connect my own computer there, so I won’t be uploading this until I get to Tokyo.

After such a full couple of days, I was pretty beat and turned in fairly early, watching some local TV and a couple shows on my computer.

Off to Hokkaido!

Well, David got back late (or should I say early) as usual, so there wasn’t much time for goodbyes. I think he and I got along just fine and I’m grateful. He was off at 5:00 AM for his trip home, and though I had a hard time getting back to sleep due to the excitement, I managed another couple hours until it was my time to leave.

For some inexplicable reason (probably because of my pigeon-Japanese), I was told I had to travel to Osaka to catch the night train, so off I went at 9:30 AM to get there in plenty of time for the 12:03 departure. I had an extremely early lunch at Osaka station then boarded the really luxurious Twilight Express, where I had a B-class upper berth in a compartment of four. Of course, the train made its way via Kyoto where it stopped and I could have gotten on with less hassle. But as they say in Japan, shoganai…

I was slightly concerned about the prospects of 21 hours on a train, but turns out it was a nice time. In the compartment with me right from the start was a very nice gentleman, Shimazaki-san, who chatted with me quite a bit for most of the trip. I was proud of myself for understanding pretty much everything we talked about and though it’s frustrating not to be able to keep up my end of the conversation at a very high level, I did contribute enough so that he knew I wasn’t some idiot and understood what was going on. Later in the evening, we got our third cabin-mate, a very charming and genki gentleman of 73, Matsui-sensei, a retired University professor who spoke English and had traveled the US. It was almost more fun for me to listen to the two of them carry on their conversation later into the evening. Matsui-sensei was incredibly interesting and spry for a 73-year old and in some ways reminded me of a Japanese doppelganger of my late grandpa Kendrick. I ended up getting really sleepy (talking for hours in Japanese can be quite mentally taxing at my level of understanding), so turned in around 9:30 or so. I’d planned on writing in my Blog and working on other things on the trip, but didn’t—I’m actually writing this after getting to Hokkaido.

I popped in my earplugs and essentially slept a pretty good sleep for almost 10 hours…

Fushimi-inari and Last-Minute Kyoto

Well, my last day in Kyoto is here.

After I finally figured out that the 20th was Sunday and not Saturday, I realized that I could still go out and see a few more things. I also had arranged to have lunch with my CP Yohei who works at the Hyatt Regency Miyako.

I spent the morning at Fushimi-inari shrine in the southeast part of town. It’s renowned for its Fox Guardians and the thousands of Torii gates that line its paths up into the woods. It’s set in absolutely beautiful forest and it was thankfully fairly cool there, at least in the morning. I spent time walking through the grounds feeling the same way I did at Kurama the first time—this sense of spiritual wonder. It’s hard to describe and photos just don’t do it justice.

Next I wanted to go to Sanjusangen-do (the shrine with 33 doors) but since I forgot my city map I only had a general idea of where it was. Turns out I should have gotten off the train at Shichijo, but I got off at Shijo, wasted time walking all over town, back down to Kyoto Station then got lost trying to find the place (which is right next door to the Hyatt). I wasted nearly 2 hours that I could have used more productively (not to mention some extra train and subway fare) before I showed up right on time for lunch. Yohei took me to a little noodle place where we both had cold Soba—and he ended up paying for me even though I’d said it was my treat. You’ve got to be fast here and all I can say is he had better come to California so I can pay him back! We finally parted at the gate of Sanjuysangen-do—another “one life, one meeting” kind of sadness. I hope to see him again someday.

Sanjusangen-do was amazing! It houses a thousand golden buddhas and other priceless statuary from the Heian and Kamakura periods—extremely impressive. They also hold Kyudo (Japanese archery) events there like thousand-arrow shoots and even 24-hour tournaments. I was reading one story of a famous archer who did the 24 hour shoot, firing over 13,000 arrows! It works out to 9 arrows per minute. Astounding!

Back at the dorms, I had to get serious about packing plus do my share of the room cleaning. I’d actually volunteered to do the bathroom, which brings up one of my favorite things about the Japanese bathroom. In newer buildings like the dorms, they’re “unit bathrooms”, which are basically pre-fabbed, slide-in modules. They are completely watertight, including a drain in the floor since in Japan, you wash yourself outside the tub before you get in and soak. This makes it extremely easy to clean since you essentially get naked, close the door and scrub and rinse the whole place without worry. I sure wish I could have the same back home.

After shipping all my books and a bunch of other stuff home, my suitcases are actually lighter and have more room in them than on the way over. I’ll get a good night’s sleep and then it’s Vacation Time!

Oral Final Exams—It’s All Over, Isn’t It…

Today was essentially a lot of lazing around waiting for my turn in front of the “firing squad”. Since I wasn’t participating for credit this time, I didn’t worry much about it and think I performed just fine. The nice thing was that they held the tests in one of the meeting rooms at the I-house, so we didn’t have to walk all the way down to campus. My roommate David had also arranged to have the Post Office come to pick up his packages, so I sent two off myself—one “slow-boat” filled with books and a smaller, lighter one with my model railroad stuff and other goods that may make it home before I do. They both cost essentially the same and the total was about $130.00. It seems a bit steep, but there’s no way I could’ve packed and hauled everything for the rest of my trip. Besides, I’ve still got 10-days worth of travel, shopping and Akihabara visits to look forward to.

At 5:00, we had the farewell party. Once again, I got a bit emotional and choked-up when it came time for me to say goodbye—but it’s tough. “One life, one meeting”, as the Japanese proverb goes. I really hope that I can see some of these friends again, and I hope they all realize just how much this experience means to me.

I ended up staying in the rest of the night ‘cause I was beat from the last few days and had to start getting things ready for departure. The room already is starting to look empty with us both packing up to go home…

Gion Matsuri

One of our last official acts was to attend an interesting morning lecture and video presentation about what we were about to witness firsthand: the GIon Matsuri. This festival—originally started as an appeasement to the gods to end a plague—has been held every year since the 800’s! Well, except for a brief couple of years during World War 2 and a few years when one of the emperors prohibited it.

Essentially, these huge, wooden structures on wheels are built and covered with centuries-old tapestries from around the world and pulled through the streets by hundreds of men. At the top, bands play drums, chimes and flutes and in the front, two or more men with fans direct the movements. Since the axles are fixed, turning them at the intersections is an amazing spectacle—something you’ll have to wait and see in my video whenever I get it edited and posted. They essentially slide the front wheels sideways on wetted strips of bamboo—hard to explain and fascinating to watch. Oh and one more thing: these multi-story floats are made of wood, temporary and lashed together with ropes. It’s truly amazing…

Two years ago, the festival was held in pouring rain, so I went elsewhere instead. This year, it was an absolutely gorgeous, clear day (as you can see from my photos). Of course, that also means it was hotter than hades, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Kishi-sensei and Ikushima-sensei went with us, and we had cold Soba noodles for lunch. Next door was a little mom-and-pop used clothing store where I managed to get a used Obi sash for my Yukata for an incredible price—thank you, Oji-sama! I went off on my own and got some great photos, including of the dismantling process. I drifted back to Kyoto Station where—EUREKA!—a spot had opened up on the overnight train to Hokkaido! So I leave Sunday morning, go first to Osaka and then off to Sapporo (where it should hopefully be cooler).