4:02 PM On the train to Hakodate.
I spent all morning getting things ready to go to Sapporo with Gene. Had a few things to do, but generally I thought I shouldn’t need to rush since the train wasn’t until 2:30PM. Gene discovered that one of the milk containers they bought just a day ago was already sour; it must have been poorly processed. All the milk at the Commisary is Ultra-Pasteurized; it’s American milk. Japanese milk tastes a little yogurt-like, since many Japanese have lactose intolerance and they put bacteria in it to help digest the lactose. On base, they try to make everyone feel like they’re not away from home, hence, American milk that has to travel quite a ways to be on store shelves. Gene had me smell the milk, but I didn’t smell anything bad, so I tried to make a latte anyway. I poured a little in the steam container. Blecch. Sour as all get out. Canned coffee it is.
I finished up the last log, and posted, trying out a framework for a little automation. Seemed to work okay! Nice. I then went upstairs and took a shower, saying Hi to Lou on the way in. In the shower, I realized I never warned her about the milk. I finished up quickly, threw on some clothes and raced downstairs. She was on the phone with Gene about it already, having munched on some nasty Cheerios for a while. Whups, my fault!
I sorted out only what I needed for the 5 day trip I was about to take, then packed my suitcase. The suitcase is a little big to be taking, but I don’t really have an option. I went back downstairs and started gathering information for the trip. Lou went out for a sale at the Exchange and returned a little while later with new milk. Since I’d already put espresso in the machine, I made my latte, this time with a little less espresso. Perfetto!
Gene arrived home soon after, and I realized I still hadn’t made a reservation anywhere. I quickly got information about the minshuku that Gretchen and Cloyce stayed at, but after noticing the curfew was 11pm, and we’d be getting in rather late to Sapporo, that didn’t seem feasible. Ah well, we’ll just get a hotel, I thought. I started a search for hotels in Sapporo. After getting no results online for available rooms, I just figured that it was too late to get information on it. Although… a few places showed available rooms for Sunday, just not Friday. I called a hotel. Then another. Everyone, for some reason or another, seemed to be completely sold out! About 1:30 I really started to panic. We had to find *somewhere* to stay, even if it wasn’t the best. If not, we’d be screwed. I started to save various phone numbers to my hard drive, just in case we ended up on the train, or worse yet, in Sapporo, without somewhere to stay. I sent off an email to a place, hoping they’d write back on my cell phone or call. No way of knowing how often they checked that though. Finally I found somewhere, and although the woman was talking VERY fast on the phone, I managed to get a reservation, but only for tonight. We’d have to find somewhere else to stay tomorrow. Ah well, at least it’s something!
I threw all my computer gear in my backpack, as it was already past 2. We raced out the door to the car and Lou drove us to the station, were we said thanks and goodbye. Upstairs in Misawa Station, we entered the ticket office with 10 minutes or so to spare. Right as we entered, my cell phone rang. Oh good timing. “Moshi moshi” I said, answering. It was the hotel I sent an email to, calling me back. I didn’t quite get everything she said, but they had gotten my email and she sounded apologetic. Since I really didn’t have time to discuss it, I figured they were full and I told her to just cancel. She did and I was off the phone.
I told the ticket guy we needed tickets to Sapporo, and that Gene would have to pay for his, as he doesn’t have a rail pass. We found out that there were no more reserved seats to Hakodate, we’d have to sit in the unreserved car. We did get tickets for the leg from Hakodate to Sapporo though. The guy seemed to take forever, punching button after button, printing out things and throwing them away, and stamping things everywhere. Finally we were done, and we sprinted down to the track with only a few minutes to spare. We located our car area, and awaited the arrival of the train, where I explained the car placement and how reserved/unreserved seats work for a rail pass. The ticket for gene didn’t seem any less expensive, even though he didn’t have a reserved seat for one leg.
The train arrived, and we quickly found two seats in unreserved in car three, as the ticket officer had said – car three was unreserved, non-smoking. After my previous experiences with smoking cars, no WAY am I going to try that unless I absolutely have no choice. The seats were catty corner, but not together. After a minute or two, Gene got up and checked to see if there were any seats together. No dice. Ah well, we were close anyway. However, a moment later, the schoolgirl next to Gene got up and offered me her seat! We thanked her profusely, and she switched with me. I dug into my bag and got out one of my Texas pins to give her as thanks. She seemed to like it and smiled.
I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so we stopped the woman with the food cart, and I got a bentoo, without any idea what was inside. As I opened it, I wasn’t all that upset though. It contained a cornucopia of pickles, a steamed scallop, some chicken, smoked fish, cured sweet fish, bamboo shoots, some sweet seaweed wrap, and of course, rice, topped with a pickled plum. It was all very Japanese and I really enjoyed it. Gene wasn’t too keen on the piece of fish I let him try though. The plum was very sour, and Gene didn’t like that either. I went up the train a little, looking for a vending machine, but no such luck. When the cart lady came back though, we both bought cans of Sapporo draft beer to drink.
We rode the train for about an hour or so, and when we reached Aomori, it became apparent why we couldn’t get reserved seats – the station was packed with people waiting to get on! Much of the train also departed, including our schoolgirl who walked up and said goodbye to us. We also said sayonara, and waved goodbye. Everyone started flipping the seats around (the seats rotate in twos to face either way), and then I remembered – when you ride the train from Misawa up, it makes a little W. Rather than turning the train around, they just go the other way! The train backed out of the station, and to go with the flow, we flipped our pair of seats around as well. I also realized I had to move my suitcase from the back of the train to the “new” back, although the man in the seat didn’t seem to mind, and almost stopped me from moving it. I wrote out a katakana chart for Gene, and he did really well at translating some of the words in the travel magazine in the seatback pocket.
We’re currently in the gigantic tunnel that runs from Honshuu to Hokkaido, and have been for over 20 minutes. Freaky to think that there’s that much water overhead, it’s a little unnerving. This is trip number three to Sapporo though, so it’s not bad. The GPS was having a hell of a time in northern Japan, as we kept going through tunnels. About the time we’d get a lock we’d go in another tunnel. Now of course it’s dead in the water, which I hope we won’t be either when this tunnel caves in! Just kidding.
I wonder what’s going on in Sapporo that every hotel is booked… OH! We just popped out of the tunnel. About 25 minutes underground, shorter than I remember. We’re in Hokkaido!
Another hour, and we’d reached Hakodate. I mistakenly told Gene to get ready to go about five minutes before, but it was okay anyway. Hakodate is the end of the line for this section of train, although I’m not exactly sure why that is. I realized earlier that the big mountain you can see from across the water is in fact Mount Hakodate, which I’ve been up to the top of twice. Pretty cool.
We arrived in the station, gathered our things and got off the train. As we walked toward the terminal, it didn’t feel all that familiar, although I wasn’t sure why. We realized that the track right next to us was our departure track, and we had a good twenty minutes to go before we left. Since this was another three and a half hour train ride, we thought we’d get some food inside the station. I wasn’t sure if Gene could get through the exit gate, so worst case scenario, I said, I could go out and get him food. As we walked down a long hallway with some neat decoration on the walls, I was a little confused. I didn’t recognize this place at all. As we arrived at the exit gate, I went, “WHOA!” They had apparently completely redone Hakodate Station! I remember it being rather dingy and old, as well as out of date. This place was NOT that place. It was all pretty marble and lights and things, which was really cool. We knew we had to get food so we ducked around the crowds of people looking for something to eat for dinner. There was one bentoo place, a souvenir shop, a coffee shop with rental laptops (!), and a panya. We meandered a little, but were quickly running out of time. I returned to the bentoo place while Gene ran off back to the panya. The bentoo store was overrun with people pushing and shoving their way to the front.
After a good five minute battle trying to get noticed by the single woman working there, I realized that they didn’t have what I wanted anyway. I briefly considered going in to the convenience store, but that was pretty packed too. I saw Gene come barreling towards me from the panya, so I just decided, what the hell, I’ll get another bentoo from where they were selling them on the tracks. I stared at the sign on the little cart for a bit, trying to decide what I wanted. The man pointed out that he only had this single one, so I took it. It was 1050 yen, and the only kanji I knew on it was the ‘hok’ from Hokkaido. I ran into the Kiosk nearby, nabbed a CC Lemon for a drink, and then chased “Speedy” Gene down to the 5th car and our seats. We ended up across the aisle from one another, but at least they were reserved seats.
The train left on time (as always) and was pretty bumpy and shaky, which was giving me a headache. Still, we were on our way. A few stops later, a man came to sit in the chair to the right of me, but offered to have me move in instead, as he noticed my GPS. I thanked him and shuffled over. I decided after a while to break out the bentoo I bought, since it was about dinner time.
As soon as I saw the bentoo, I just sat and stared at it. What the… I will have to say it was the most “difficult” bentoo I’ve ever encountered. I love seafood, but this was ridiculous! Overall I guess it wasn’t bad, but goodness gracious me, it was scary-lookin’. Something on my plate had a snout like a trunk. I have no idea what it was, but being the bold cultural adventurer that I am, I popped it in my mouth anyway. Outside of way too many types of fish eggs that I didn’t like, I finished it and cleaned up.
I worked on ID3 tags on my laptop (don’t worry if you don’t know what that is, it’s not important), but after a while, the battery died on my MP3 player. I guess having it hooked up to the computer sucked up the juice. I turned on and finished out the rest of Lost In Translation. I wonder if the guy next to me had seen it or not. Eventually even my laptop batteries started to fade, so for the last half hour I got up and wandered the train. I noticed a couple of foreigners behind us who were reading English guide books. Something about them didn’t seem American, but I didn’t know where else they could be from. In the end of a car, I pulled out my cell phone to play with it and noticed in the schedule that Monday was in red. Red as in Holiday. Hrm, this might explain why there were no rooms anywhere in Sapporo. Crud. I showed Gene and briefly considered asking the foreigners if they knew what it was. I’ve always noticed foreigners either tend to flock together or ignore eachother completely. I tend to ignore, which is probably snobby of me.
The train arrived at Sapporo Station perfectly on time: 9:28PM. We both got off and headed down into the station proper, aiming for the subway. As we reached the bottom, we found the sign for the line we needed (east-west). I noticed the foreigners again, and decided not to be snobby. I walked over and asked the man and woman if they knew what holiday it was on Monday. He didn’t know (and was German, we think) but offered to let me check the guide book. You know, this is the first time ever I’ve come without any guide books whatsoever. I realized that the other day. I said no, but thanked him and we left out the South exit gate. I looked back at them and they were looking around, confused. Perhaps they were lost. Gene and I thought we should offer help. They came out the same gate, and I asked if they needed some help, but they said they had another train in 30 minutes, and were just killing time. We said goodbye and headed for the South Exit. Where were they going at 10PM that they were going to take *another* train from Sapporo? I guess we’ll never know.
Gene and I walked out the South Exit of the station, just to see Sapporo in all its splendor. All the construction that was going on two years ago is done, and it’s absolutely beautiful. I had to break out the tripod to get some nice shots of the buildings and such. There’s a Starbucks Coffee just inside the station, to which Gene said, “All the way from Washington, right to you.” I briefly mused the idea of trying to visit one Starbucks in every city in the world that has one, then thought it was a really stupid idea.
We went back inside and took the escalator down to where it said the subway was. The signs were pretty sparse, so it’s kind of like looking for breadcrumbs. We ended up underneath the big glass thing outside the South Entrance, where we realized that the subway line we needed was the OTHER way. Shucks. We turned around and walked back. Along the way, Gene stopped into McDonalds and got a “bacon lettuce burger” and L-size coke to eat, since he’d only had a croissant on the train. They have the happiest, friendliest, most helpful McDonald’s employees you’ll ever meet.
About 70 miles of tunnels and three escalators later, we ended up at the ticket gate for the subway. We found the stop we needed (Kotoni) and bought 240 yen tickets for the train. However, we needed the orange line, and well, there was no orange line, only blue and green. We wandered a bit, and even found a map, but no orange line could be found. We returned to the fare gate, and looked again. Oooh, the orange line goes through Oodori, which is one stop from Sapporo. No problem. We went into the blue line gate and waited for the subway. Gene scarfed his burger, and we rode the train one stop to Oodori,, where we transferred, with a hefty walk, to the orange line. Gene thought the blue seats on the subway reserved for pregnant women and the elderly was really nice, so he took a picture.
We exited six stops later at Kotoni, and took the number three exit from the station. I was doing this all from memory; I had the web page up on my laptop when we left so if we needed it I could just look again. However, IE crashed when I was on the train, so the page went away, wouldn’t have been in my history, and I didn’t have any record of what it was. Plus, my battery was near death. We walked across the street and down the road, where I thought the hotel was in my head. Two long blocks later we decided my memory was not to be trusted, so we walked back to a Sunkus convenience store to plug in the laptop and try and get the map from my IE cache or something. Fortunately I wrote the name of the hotel down, Hotel Yamachi, so I asked the clerk inside for directions. Instead of just telling me, he took me outside, walked to the sidewalk and gave me very accurate directions down the road. Man, Japanese classes really do help! We thanked him and headed back to the station exit. Apparently it was to the right out of the exit, not straight. As we walked I asked Gene how many 7-11 clerks he knew of that would take off out the door of their shop to assist random person who was lost?
A few minutes later, we arrived at the hotel. It was within spitting distance of the exit to the subway, to the right. We walked inside, and as we approached the counter, then desk clerk went, “Ah, Marc-san!” I guess being a foreigner has its advantages. I filled out the paperwork, and he asked if we needed breakfast, which we refused. I also asked if there were any rooms available for tomorrow, and he explained that they were booked up, but if we were to check tomorrow, there might be a cancellation. However, they wouldn’t know until the evening, which isn’t going to help.
We went up to room 901, which is right next to the Sky Lounge Bar. No drinking tonight, we’re tired! I turned on the TV, which didn’t seem to respond to either buttons on the front (outside of power) or the remote. I replaced the batteries in the remote with some of mine, and it worked. You’ll never guess what was on. Godzilla. The American one. Dubbed in Japanese. How ironic. Gene hadn’t seen it, but immediately recognized it as a very dumb movie. Funnier still is the Pepsi Twist commercial that’s set in a Roman Coliseum starring… Britney Spears, Beyonce, and we think Christina Aguilara. Each one is spotlighted in a separate ad, and we’ve seen the Beyonce and Britney ones. We have the window open because it’s warm in here, and it seems to be helping. It’s a really nice temperature outside! Time to hit the hay, it’s about midnight.