Saturday, March 13, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part III

Part I | Part II

So there we were, stranded on the snowy, sub-zero streets of Sapporo at four in the morning with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay. Sergey and I had just gotten kicked out of our accommodation for the night -- a "24-hour" McDonald's that turned out to be open a few less hours than advertised.

Checking into a love hotel was tempting, but too expensive. Bunking down on a park bench was out of the question. Sitting in hard seats at another all-night restaurant was unappealing. There was only one place where we could catch a few hours sleep without blowing our budget or freezing our asses. So we checked into the first internet cafe we found.

Sleeping in an internet cafe was, surprisingly, a lot more comfortable than it sounds. For $10, we each got a private cubicle with four walls and a door that closed. The cubicles came complete with a desk, a computer, and a soft, padded floor with lots of room to stretch out on. (Although, Sergey claims the floor in his cubicle was neither soft nor padded.)

The price, which was cheaper than the cheapest hostel in Japan, also included unlimited coffee, clean showers, and all of the comic books you could read. It was private, quiet and comfortable. I had a complimentary cup of tea and a hot shower before changing into my pajamas and falling asleep on the padded floor that served as my bed for the night. I didn't turn on the computer the whole time I was there. Sergey, on the other hand, spent the night fooling around on Facebook and feeding his internet addiction.

Internet cafes are just one more reason to love the internet. I mean, the internet basically saved us from freezing on the streets of Sapporo. Without the internet, there would be no internet cafes. Without internet cafes, there would be no cheap places to sleep. So, thank you, internet. Thank you for giving us Wikipedia to find facts, Facebook to connect with friends, Google to research our essays, blogs to tell our stories, YouTube to waste time, and cafes to sleep in.

After a three-hour nap at the internet cafe, we woke up at 7:00 a.m. and headed out to see the sights. The night before, we had made a list of all the things we wanted to see in Sapporo. We settled on three "must-see" attractions -- the fish market, the TV tower, and the clock tower -- all clustered within a few hundred metres of each other. By 8:00 a.m. we had crossed everything off the list. Sapporo may be a great place to live, but a tourist draw it's not.

There's not much to distinguish Sapporo from any other Japanese city its size. It has the same buildings, the same subway system, the same identically named streets, the same shopping arcades, the same hidden alleys, and the same neon signs. It did, however, have a series of unique subway ads featuring a misbehaving cat. (The tag line? "Cats don't understand public manners, but people do.")

There was nothing left to do but eat a long, leisurely breakfast and figure out how to kill the seven remaining hours before we could check into the Sapporo youth hostel. (We may have been cheap but we weren't stupid. We knew we wouldn't be able to function much longer without a proper sleep in a proper bed. We called the hostel early in the morning and made a reservation for that night.)

We decided to spend the rest of the morning (and a good part of the afternoon) at the Sapporo Beer Museum. Although, technically, we spent most of that time trying to find the museum. The Lonely Planet guidebook told us to look for a large brick chimney with the Sapporo trademark star painted on it. We were in the right area but we couldn't see the chimney anywhere. So we backtracked and went west instead of east. We asked two different people for directions and they both pointed us back to where we came from, but we still couldn't find it. We wandered aimlessly for at least an hour. It wasn't until we spotted a group of Korean tourists with expensive cameras slung around their necks that we knew we were heading in the right direction. They led us straight to the museum's front door.

Interesting fact: Sapporo's famous gold star logo was originally a red star. The red star represented the North Star, which was the symbol of the early pioneers of the 19th century. The red star logo was later changed to a gold star, to avoid any confusion that Sapporo beer might be a communist beer.

Twenty years after the fall of communism, seeing the familiar red star brought a tear to Sergey's eye. Born in Russia and raised in Bulgaria, the red star brought back a flood of memories from Sergey's childhood -- like wearing a blue kerchief around his neck, calling his teachers "comrade," and marching through the streets in pro-communist demonstrations. ("Everyone seemed really cheerful during those parades," he said. "I don't know what everyone was so happy about but I was just happy to miss a day of school.")

We dragged ourselves around the museum. I was crashing hard and constantly checking my watch to see how much time we had left before check-in. I was too tired to even sample the beer. But the Japanese people featured in the museum's collection of old-timey posters were radiating happiness and joy while drinking Sapporo beer so I'm sure it was good.

The hostel's check-in time was 3 p.m. and we arrived at exactly 2:58 p.m. We didn't shower. We didn't change our clothes. We didn't unpack. We just collapsed into bed and immediately fell asleep. Three hours later, we woke up and headed out for dinner and a taste of Sapporo's nightlife.

On our way out of the hostel, we passed a small display of flags at the check-in desk. Sergey asked me if I knew what the flag was beside the Canadian flag.

"Italy?" I said.

Sergey rolled his eyes.

"Bulgaria!" he said.

He paused and then furrowed his brows in confusion, "Why do they have a Bulgarian flag here?"

I rolled my eyes.

"Read the sign!"

Our night on the town consisted of a delicious ramen dinner, a ride on a Ferris wheel, and coffee in a maid cafe. The ramen and the Ferris wheel were planned in advance (the two teenage boys we met on the train highly recommended the Ferris wheel -- it did not disappoint) but the trip to the maid cafe was spontaneous. We were on our way back to the hostel when we passed a sandwich board advertising a maid cafe. It was one of those "only in Japan" experiences we just couldn't pass up. The price of admission was only 300 yen so we decided to give it a try.

The cafe was on the third floor of a non-descript office building. We opened the door and were welcomed by four 20-something girls wearing black and white French maid uniforms. Although, it wasn't exactly a warm welcome. Our entrance was greeted with shock and dread ("Oh no! Gaijin!"). It wasn't until they realized we could speak Japanese that their frozen faces thawed into smiles.

With one rectangular table that wrapped around the room, the cafe looked more like a small bar than a coffee shop. The girls stood behind the table, taking orders and making small talk with the customers as we drank over-priced coffee. (Sergey would later complain that the girls weren't very good at conversation. They mostly laughed and giggled and talked to us about snow and ice. I don't know why Sergey was expecting stimulating conversation. It was a maid cafe, not a philosophy cafe.)

Unfortunately, we had to cut the night short. The hostel had a strict 12 a.m. curfew, and if we weren't back before midnight, we would be locked out until 6 a.m. The thought of spending another night suffering on the streets of Sapporo made both of us shudder. We were out of there faster than a greased seal on a waterslide.

Back at the hostel, I fell asleep right away. But I was woken up by a loud crinkling sound a few hours later. I opened my eyes to see Sergey squatting on the floor, scavenging through my snack bag like a wild animal.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

He mumbled something and several chocolate mushrooms fell out of his mouth. Busted! The mystery of the disappearing snacks was finally solved. I had been wondering why my snack bag had been getting so light so quickly. It turned out Sergey would wait for me to fall asleep and then he would devour the snacks. The night I caught him in the act, he had eaten the last of the snacks -- snacks that were supposed to last the entire trip.

The next morning, we left Sapporo and took a snack-free and guilt-ridden (for Sergey anyway) train ride to Otaru. The plan was to spend the day in Otaru and then catch the ferry back to Kyoto later that night. We decided against making a ferry reservation -- a decision that would come back to haunt us. Once again we'd find ourselves wandering the streets of Hokkaido in the middle of the night with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay.

Continue reading: Part IV

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