Japan current location10:35AM Train to Hakodate.

This morning was rather hectic and disappointing. Gene realized he didn’t have another pair of jeans, and his current pair reeked of grilled meat. He ended up putting on some shorts, which was fine since it was about 75 degrees outside. We packed up all our stuff, and left the Hotel Sumire bound for the station, which was just a few blocks away. I really needed to check email, as I didn’t know if I was going to stop in Hakodate or not, based on Yuriko’s schedule. She had said, before we left Misawa, that she would email me and let me know.

We discussed taking like a 10am train for Misawa, and since I had a rail pass, I could pretty much just get off anywhere. We figured, go get tickets all the way to Misawa, and I’ll find out during our layover in Hakodate if she was available or not. It’s usually not a good idea to get tickets before you’re really ready to leave, as they often put you on a train leaving sometimes within 5 minutes. We really wanted/needed to go down to the Paseo shopping center below the station to shop a little, and an hour would have been plenty of time to check email and find the stuff we needed.

In the Midori no Madoguchi, we said we wanted to go to Misawa, and he started to put us on a train leaving in 15 minutes. I asked if there was another leaving a little later, and he said there was a 10:30, but there was no change of trains. Crap, that wouldn’t work, as I wouldn’t be able to get off in Hakodate! The next train wasn’t until noon, so we opted for the train change in Hakodate, hoping to get off and check around really quick before the second train left. As he handed us our tickets, I noticed that it was all pointless; we only have THREE MINUTES to change trains in Hakodate! Crap-o-matic. We raced out of the ticket office and up to our train, which at that point was leaving in about five minutes. As we got on, we were trying to think of options – I could call her with my cell, although I didn’t know if I could get through. Worst case scenario, I could just get off in Hakodate, let Gene go on, and I’d handle the rest on my own. Wasn’t as much fun to travel alone again, but it wasn’t *that* bad.

The other, very remote, possibility was to somehow find a wireless network within range of the train which I could link into, when the train wasn’t moving. I pulled out my laptop at the station and got nothing. We’ll keep trying, I figured. I realized at that point that I should have asked the guy about the train at 10:30 – most likely it *stopped* in Hakodate, but we wouldn’t have to change trains. Oh MAN why I didn’t we think of that earlier… Oh well, too late. Now it was going to be a sprint to change trains, but at least Gene would make it back early-ish for Lou’s birthday. I also thought about the weirdness that the guy had tried to schedule – when I asked for the 10:30, he mentioned there was no “norikae” (change of trains) for that train. This wasn’t all that odd, although now I was thinking it didn’t make any sense the way he was putting it. He made it sound like it was a *bad* thing, even though if we were just going through to Misawa, that would make it way easier, right? He didn’t know I was trying to stop in Hakodate, so it just didn’t make any sense that he was trying to get us on a trip with a super-fast change of trains.

We were both starving, and the food cart came through after a little while. I just asked for coffee, although I was really looking for a can. A tiny, 5 oz cup of hot coffee with one creamer and a little sugar was 270 yen. Ugh. It’s okay, I guess, after the meal last night, it’s probably not a bad thing to not eat for a while. I’m still tasting meat. That is a great meal, but not something I’d want to do every week, or every year for that matter! Gene bought what he thought were chestnut-flavored chocolates and a Pocari Sweat drink (which is like Gatorade), only to discover the chestnut things were actual chestnuts that had been soaking in some liquid, making them the consistency of undercooked potato. He couldn’t get past the smell, but I tried part of one. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.

Each time the train stopped I turned on the wireless, hoping to get a signal. Suddenly, when I wasn’t paying attention, it connected and got an address! Holy crap! I dove into my email program and started downloading as fast as possible. I managed to get 22 of my 47 waiting messages before the wireless cut out. Luckily, Yuriko’s response was one of the first in the list. She has to work Monday and Tuesday, but asked if Thursday was okay. I didn’t know if Wednesday was okay, but I figure what I can do is go with Gene back to Misawa, then take the train back up to Hakodate on Wednesday morning. That was I can hang out with Yuriko after she gets off work at 6, and all day on Thursday. I wrote a response, but it’s still sitting, waiting to be sent. If we get lucky again, we might get another connection and I can ship it out. I’ve come close once, but no banana. I ended up writing her a limited response on my cell phone, and let me say, entering Japanese text on a cell phone is a pain in the tuckus. I managed to do it, but wow what a pain! Gene walked off to see if there was food on the train, but to no avail. So hungry!

Oh cool, Yuriko got my cell message! She wrote back and said that Thursday is cool. Nifty, that cell phone kicks butt, and it’s probably the least technologically advanced cell phone in Japan! The scenery, by the way, is gorgeous. I wish I could get better pictures. Gene’s bought a thing of chocolate covered almonds to tide him over, and I snagged a few.

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We started to get close to Hakodate (GPS, although it was flaky most of the time due to the buildings and hills) and I looked at my watch. Oh crap… time was really really short. We only had five minutes until our next train left, and we weren’t even in the station yet. I knew it was going to be tight. Usually trains are to the minute on time, but somehow in my case, when there’s no time between train changes, they’re always late that ONE time. Kelly and I had five minutes once to sprint across a station to get to a train in 1998, that sucked. Gene and I gathered our things and stood near the exit, which others started to do as well. The train was due to leave at 12:51, and it was 12:48, the time we were supposed to arrive. All we had to do was get on the train, it didn’t matter which car. Time kept ticking down… 12:49… 12:50….12:51 uh oh. *Surely* we weren’t the only other ones who were screwed. The train finally stopped, and it was big jolt; I guess the conductor was hurrying and stopped on a dime. An older woman standing in the exit lost her footing, and some time was lost briefly getting her back up. That wasn’t as bad as an earlier stop in which a Japanese woman standing in the aisle totally flipped off her feet when the train jerked suddenly. Still, everyone was in a hurry and even the older woman jumped off the train quickly. The connecting train was right beside us, and the sign for the departure time was flashing. Cool, they knew a lot of people were connecting and they held the train! Gene and I sprinted over, but we were on Car 1, and this was Car 5. I saw a lot of people getting on, so I went a few cars on before hopping into Car 3, but Gene got on right away and had to walk through all the cars.

Car 1 was the extreme back of the train in this case, so I had to walk to the opposite end and put my big bag behind the last row of seats, laying it sideways so it wouldn’t obstruct anyone trying to put their seat back. I noticed a big backpack across the aisle, and immediately surmised there was another foreigner on the train; sure enough he was one row up from us. I’ve noticed that a lot of backpackers tend to wear sandals in Japan, and that’s really not very kosher; you have to take off your shoes a lot in Japan, and putting your grimy feet that have been exposed to dirt and stuff all over the place onto the super clean floors isn’t very nice. I wouldn’t think of wearing sandals here. Even women with open shoes tend to wear pantyhose at the very least, which is one layer between foot and ground, if that makes any sense.

That train was much nicer than the one from Sapporo. We realized this one was electric, while the last one was diesel powered. We decided they hadn’t put electric lines all the way to Sapporo, so they needed diesel trains to go that far. However, this train was also strangely very warm, uncomfortably so. We kept the curtains drawn most of the time to keep the sun off, which made it bearable. I was still starving, and waited patiently for the cart to come through. Finally it arrived, and we bought two Kirin Amino Supli health drinks (again, like Gatorade) and I asked for a bentoo. She asked if I wanted to see it first, which I guess was because I was a foreigner. Couldn’t hurt, so she showed it to me. It was *all* salmon roe and sea urchin. If there was anything that I didn’t despise in there, I probably would have eaten it, but nope. I thanked her and said I didn’t need it after all. She showed me some other snacks that were more “foreigner friendly” and I said I didn’t need any. I was embarrassed somehow; I always try to be the “Japan Culture Master Gaikokujin” but in this case while it had nothing to do with me not liking weird Japanese food, I just don’t like either of those specific things at all. Oh well, can’t win em all.

The train ride seemed short this time, as it was only about two and a half hours. Misawa approached and Gene and I got to the end of the train, ready to depart. The trains usually only stop in places for a minute or two, so it really is a good idea to get all your stuff together and wait near the exit. We got off in Misawa and climbed the staircase from the platform, expecting to see Lou. She wasn’t there. Hrm. Gene had left a message earlier in the day telling her when we were going to be there, and she’s usually good about it. As we walked down the exit stairs, we immediately realized what it could be; there was a little street festival going on and people were everywhere. Eek, where was Lou gonna go? Gene made a bee line out of the parking lot, but I was torn between trying to follow him and trying to check out all the food stands. I have a real weakness for Japanese festival food, and I could spend all day walking from stand to stand and stuffing myself silly. Plus, I hadn’t eaten much of anything all day, so that wasn’t making it any easier. Gene parked himself a building over at the taxi station, and I left my suitcase and told him I’d be right back. I trucked it back to the festival and ordered an ika-taki (grilled squid) which is a huge cuttlefish chargrilled over an open flame with a semi-sweet sauce. They cut it up, put it in a plastic container, and handed it to me with chopsticks. I walked back to Gene, opening my box and wolfing down the squid. Mmmm. So tender and tasty, although not warm anymore (it hadn’t had a chance to rewarm on the grill before she cut it up). I didn’t care though. About halfway through, we saw Lou in the big line of cars approaching. Traffic was insane. The light turned red, so Gene and I just ran over to her and to the back of the SUV to put our bags in. She put the window down, and Jasper’s big slobbery Great Dane head popped out. Oh! I guess we’re not putting anything back there! The light was about to change, so Gene tossed his bag, then mine into the back seat, and I dove back there too, my hands full of squid. I probably looked pretty silly; I had my backpack still on, I was practically laying sideways, and I was eating squid with both hands.

Lou asked what the smelly thing was, and I showed her the squid. :) I don’t think it smelled at all, but her nose is sensitive, what with the pregnancy and all. I finished my squid as quickly as possible. Lou was pretty stressed as she’d been sitting in the nasty traffic for almost an hour, and that was the third time she’d driven through. We made it back to the base, but I didn’t have a pass anymore, so they wouldn’t let me through until we stopped and got a new one. Lou drove us around through the exit and parked while we got a new temporary pass. We’ll need to get a longer, more permanent one tomorrow.

We arrived home, and Gene immediately took Jasper to “the hill” to go wear him out. I broke out the laptop, finished my unsent emails, and showed Lou the pictures from Sapporo. We discussed where to go eat since it was Lou’s birthday, and she decided on Ohashi, which is the “nicest restaurant in Misawa”. They hadn’t eaten there before, but since Misawa is such a small town, Gene thought it might be like Golden Corral in a little Texas town or something.

We drove to Ohashi, which is just down the road on the way to Sanwado. We parked in the lot and went inside. It *is* very nice, and appears to be a trendy Japanese food restaurant. The very nice, helpful, and articulate Maitre’d who spoke decent English told us there was at least a 30 minute wait since we had no reservation, but that was fine. We took off our shoes, put them in little lockers on the wall, and took the little wooden keys. By the way, when you take off your shoes in Japan, you don’t step on the floor – you step *out* of your shoes on to the upper floor, and back down directly into them when you put them back on. Stepping on the normal ground with your socks defeats the purpose!

We waited for a little while, and several parties with reservations came in and were seated immediately, which is in contrast to many popular restaurants in America in which a reservation just shortens the wait, if at all! He had a little pegboard with various tables and reservations he kept checking, and was remarkably efficient at it. We must have gotten there right on time; he turned away another small group who showed up later with no reservation. There’s a big grill in the middle of the main room, and lots of people sitting around it, smoking and eating. In the entrance there’s also a Kid’s Room with a little playset, toys, and Aladdin playing on the TV.

A little while later, they seated us in a side room with another couple and a pack of Japanese women who were giggling incessantly. The tables have a big hole underneath for your feet, so nobody has to sit on their knees or crosslegged. This was a big help for Lou, although harder to get up out of. The menu is all a la carte, and is moderately expensive. It’s a lot of Japanese food, like yakitori (grilled meat on sticks), dons (bowls of rice with meat, egg, and a sweet broth), grilled meat, deep fried items, and drinks, although all of them are very upscale and modified into haute cuisine. Gene ordered an expensive glass of cold sake, and I got peach liquor with grapefruit juice. My drink was absolutely fantastic, and I could have sat there all night drinking those. The sake wasn’t bad either, but I’ve never been really big on sake. Lou of course got her required pitcher of water in a wine glass “so I feel like I’m drinking *something*” she gleefully told us.

We ordered lots of food; the menus are in Japanese and English, but as we discovered the English words don’t always describe exactly what you’re going to get. I’m not sure I can remember everything I got, but here’s what I do remember:

An entire head of cabbage, cucumbers, daikon and carrots with five different types of miso dipping sauces
Spicy miso covered yakitori
Grilled rice balls with miso glaze and pickled daikon in the middle
Hot lava rock grilled Hanai chicken served on the rock with mushrooms
Flavorful grilled salmon

Hah, I found my receipt, so that’s everything. :) I think Gene and Lou got:

Fried chicken
Sashimi
Grilled udon with bacon and bonito shavings
Bacon wrapped asparagus with shiitake mushrooms
Chicken don (chicken and egg in sweet broth over rice)
Hanai chicken fried rice (which came looking like a rice omelet, which it doesn’t say on the menu)

Lou and Gene didn’t like the udon really, and the rice omelet looking thing really threw them off, but they liked it. Lou was mad about the asparagus a little, as the description didn’t make it sound like three little pieces of asparagus for 600 yen. The food was generally tasty, but I think given the option, I’d go somewhere else. Lou had gone to the restroom at one point, and inside there were little toilet slippers to wear. She tried to get them on, but her feet are so swollen from pregnancy that she couldn’t fit. She decided to quickly just go, but a Japanese woman saw her and pointed frantically to the slippers. She pushed what she could of her feet into the slippers and minced into the toilet, embarrassed.

As the night progressed, the group of Japanese women next to us got louder and louder as they drank even more, and at one point Lou really started to giggle when they were laughing so hard. They turned to her laughing and apologized, and Lou apologized back for laughing at them. This one woman was showing Lou what she was doing to make them all laugh so hard – she sang the Marilyn Monroe version of “Happy Birthday, Mister President” in a thick Japanese accent, and giggled like crazy. We all laughed together about it. What’s very coincidental about that is that earlier, when we got out of the car, completely unrelated, Gene was doing his own rendition of that as a joke to Lou. Very random. We continued to wait for Gene and Lou’s don, which was taking a very very long time. After a while, we asked the maitre’d about it, and he said they got the order, but had to cook the chicken, and that it would be right out. When it arrived, we quickly ate it (it was good, but not any better than any other don) and went to the front to pay. It was only 5000 yen for me, which was less than I thought, considering I had two drinks as well.

We returned home, trying to find a pastry shop for a cake. Nothing was open this late. Back at the house, as Gene walked up to the door, he started talking to Jasper who was waiting inside. You could hear Jasper’s big tail whacking against the walls through the door! As he opened the door, he came outside to greet us, and his tail, swishing frantically, scythe-like beheaded two of Lou’s big puffs of flowers outside of the front door on one swing. Gene and I thought it was hysterical, but Lou wasn’t pleased. Gene and Lou pretty much went straight to bed after that, and I finished and posted the log files from Sapporo. Nice to have an internet connection again!

This morning, Gene woke me up early, as they were shutting off the hot water at 8am until 4. I dove in the shower to make sure I got my hot water time! Gene has to work all day, so it’s just Lou, Jasper and me. At 8:30, Lou took Chloe, Gene’s cat to the vet, as she has this big gaping wound on her backside. Lou found some blood on my sheets, and thought it was me, but realized later Chloe had been sleeping on my bed. As it turns out, she has an anal gland abscess, which exploded, and now requires surgery. Poor Chloe. :(

-- Hikaru