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

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part II

Part I

It was Saturday night, and we were sitting on an almost empty train, killing the two hours between when we left the ferry that brought us to Hokkaido and when the train would arrive in Sapporo.

Sergey and I were both deep into our books and didn't notice the two teenage boys sitting across from us. It wasn't until they got up out of their seats, stood in front of us and said "America?" that we looked up.

"America?" they repeated.

I told them I was from Canada.

"Oooh! Canada! Vancouver! Olympics!" they cried, clapping their hands.

Sergey told them he was from Bulgaria. This was met with silence and blank stares. (Poor Sergey. Every time a Japanese person asks him where he's from, his answer gets one of two reactions. They either give him a look that says, "Bulgaria? Where the fuck is Bulgaria?" or they cry out "Yogurt!" Which might seem strange but actually isn't when you consider that one of Japan's most popular brands of yogurt is, bizarrely, named Bulgaria.)

We asked them where they were from and learned they were 17-year-old high school students from just outside Sapporo. With the introductions out of the way, the boys started firing all kinds of personal questions at us.

"Are you a couple?"

"How old are you?"

"Are you getting married?"

We didn't know how to answer these questions. Mostly because we had never really defined the answers ourselves. So we just looked at each other and laughed. Their brazen questions were both awkward and adorable. Teenagers in Kyoto would never ask us questions like that. In fact, teenagers in Kyoto would never talk to us at all. Foreigners are a dime a dozen in Kyoto and our presence on a train there wouldn't be all that surprising or unusual. In Hokkaido, we felt more conspicuous. Every time we entered a restaurant or cafe, we would be greeted with panic-stricken stares by the non-English speaking staff. Of course, the panic would turn to relief as soon as they found out we could speak Japanese. But it was like that everywhere we went.

The train pulled into Sapporo around 11 p.m. After 25 long hours of traveling we had finally reached our destination for the night. But that didn't mean we could relax. In less than an hour it would be midnight. And at midnight, February 27 would become February 28. And February 28 was our birthday -- the reason we had come to Hokkaido in the first place. There were two things we had to take care of before the clock struck 12:

1. Find a birthday cake and candles.

2. Find a 24-hour McDonald's to sleep in for the night.

We left the train station and walked south on the main street. It wasn't long before we found a convenience store where we bought some booze and a small cake. Sergey asked the guy working behind the counter if they sold candles. In response, the employee's face contorted into one big question mark.

Sergey tried to explain in Japanese. "The thing you put on the cake when you have a birthday," he said.

The employee still couldn't figure it out and called over a co-worker, who was equally confused. They discussed what it was they thought Sergey was looking for before giving up and asking him again.

"It's the thing you put on a birthday cake," Sergey said. "You put a light on it and you blow it."

"A lighter?" the employee asked.


The employees consulted each other again. After about five minutes of this, a light suddenly went on above their heads.

"Candles!" they said.


"Sorry. We don't sell candles."

We didn't have time to go hunting for candles in a city neither of us had been to before so we decided to just find a McDonald's to sleep in for the night. We asked the guys at the convenience store if they knew of one nearby. They said there was one down the street but they wouldn't reveal its exact location. They just kept saying it was "far, far, away." We must have asked at least seven times and the only answer we got was "far."

We left the store determined to find it ourselves. "Far" is a relative term in Japan. I live about four kilometres north of Kyoto University and everyone I meet tells me how "far" my commute is. To me, it's a short walk. To them, it's a marathon. So neither of us was surprised when we stumbled across the "far, far away" McDonald's 10 minutes later.

We had arrived in the heart of downtown Sapporo. The sidewalks were crowded. The bars were noisy. The buildings were fortified with neon. It was like Tokyo, but with snow. And there was a 24-hour McDonald's right on the corner.

But this McDonald's was nothing like the on we stayed at on Christmas Eve. This one was packed with trendy 20-somethings slinking out of the nightclubs for a late-night snack. It was noisy, busy and crowded. There were no soft booths; only hard seats with no room to stretch out and sleep. Even worse, the smoking section threatened to overtake the entire restaurant. Both of us nearly fainted when we saw it -- Sergey out of happiness and me out of horror. It must have been at least three times the size of the non-smoking section. And there were no doors to block the smoke. So the whole place was pretty much one big smoking section.

We realized we were in for a long, sleepless night. But we were determined to make the best of it. We broke out the cake at midnight, and took turns blowing out the "candle." We shared my headphones and listened to music while playing cards. We poured our contraband booze into McDonald's cups and made a birthday toast. (Sneaking alcohol into dry establishments has become something of a tradition between the two of us. It's pure economics. Why spend $30 at a bar when you can buy the equivalent amount of alcohol at one-third the price from a convenience store, pour it into plastic bottles, and sit and drink at McDonald's or Mr. Donut for hours on end? A flip of the coin determines who ends up trudging back to the convenience store to fill the empty bottles for the next round.)

We knew we weren't going to be able to sleep but at least we were having fun. At one point, I left the table to go to the bathroom. I was standing in line when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a guy holding his finger up to his lips and his cell phone up to my face. The only thing on the screen was his email address. I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. Was he asking for my phone number? And why wasn't he saying anything?

I asked him if that was his email address. He said it was. And what did he want me to do with this information? He asked me what I was doing later tonight. I told him I was just hanging out with my friend.

"What are you doing now?" he asked.

"I'm waiting to go to the bathroom," I said.

He held his cell phone up to my face again. I suddenly got it. He wanted me to memorize his address and then text him if I wanted to hook up. I laughed and said no.

"No?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

He shook my hand and then closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and went in for a kiss. I leaned backwards, extracted my hand from his, and said "no" more firmly this time. I didn't feel threatened -- he was at least 10 years younger and two inches shorter than me. I was actually kind of flattered. I may be another year older but I've still got it!

After I came out of the bathroom, he was no longer in line. I wasn't sure if he disappeared out of embarrassment or because he found another girl he wanted to take home for the night. Sergey took it as proof that I have more secret admirers than he does -- the debate over which one of us has more secret admirers is our longest running, and stupidest, argument.

At 3:45 a.m., McDonald's started pumping Auld Lang Syne through its speaker system. In Japan, most stores and restaurants play this song at the end of the business day to let customers know the place is closing. We were confused. The sign clearly said this McDonald's was open 24 hours. So why were they playing the song that meant they were closing down? We decided that maybe they were just trying to annoy people into leaving. Maybe it was a way to deter cheapskates like us from camping out for the night. So we sat there and watched as everyone dutifully filed out of the restaurant. We were the only people -- along with two other freeloading foreigners -- still sitting there at 4 a.m. when an employee came over, told us the store was closing and asked us to leave.

"What do you mean you're closing?" Sergey asked her. "The sign says 24 hours."

She mumbled something about how they still keep serving food but the seating area closes down for "cleaning" for a few hours. And that's how we found ourselves out on the cold, snowy streets of Sapporo at four in the morning with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay.

We turned to each other at the same time with a look that said, "Now what do we do?"

Continue reading: Part III

Monday, March 08, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part I

Most people go to Hokkaido for the majestic mountains, the outdoor onsens, and the fabulous food. Sergey and I went to Hokkaido to experience all of those things too. Except we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up on a tour of northern Japan that was more farce than fantasy.

Instead of staying at a mountain resort, we slept at a 24-hour McDonald's. Instead of soaking in an outdoor onsen, we showered at an internet cafe. Instead of feasting on fresh seafood, we ate instant ramen. Instead of gliding through soft powder on skis, we trudged through knee-deep snow in sneakers.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But that was part of the trip's charm. It may have gone sideways but it was never boring. Especially when we got kicked out of McDonald's at 4 a.m. with no other accommodation lined up for the night.

Moments like this are little gifts -- a chance to find out what you and your traveling companion are really made of. What do you do when you suddenly find yourselves out on the snowy, sub-zero streets of Sapporo at four in the morning with nowhere to go? Do you fight, blame, sulk or cry? Or do you do what we did and laugh so hard your stomach hurts? I think this is one of the things I like best about Sergey. Not the way he laughs at absurdity, but the way he revels in it. To steal a line from Hunter S. Thompson, it never got weird enough for us.

The decision to go to Hokkaido was made at the last minute. Sergey and I share the same birthday -- February 28 -- and we wanted to celebrate it in a part of Japan neither of us had been to before. Because we both love the snow and the cold, the decision to head north was an easy one. We had no plans, no reservations, and no idea what we'd do once we got there. We figured we'd just be open to any adventure that came our way.

The cheapest way to get to Hokkaido from Kyoto is by ferry. The plan was to hop on the ferry, tour around Hokkaido for a few days and then take the ferry home again. Sergey had never been on a boat before so the 20-hour ferry ride itself was as much a part of the trip as the destination.

Although, the term "ferry" is a bit of a misnomer. It was more cruise ship than ferry. There was a restaurant, a movie theatre, a hot tub, a game room, a pachinko parlor, a DVD rental shop, a ping-pong table, and a vending machine that sold both cold sushi and hot French fries on board.

The ship was a 17,000-tonne monster that stretched on for 225 metres -- longer than the length of two football fields. These numbers may be peanuts for a real cruise ship but they're pretty impressive for a ferry. The fact that there were only eight of us (yes, eight of us!) on board a boat built for 1,000 made it feel even bigger. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was like sailing on a ghost ship. A really fancy ghost ship.

"It looks like the Titanic," I told one of the employees working at the information desk. He laughed and thanked me but not before making a sinking motion with his hand to imply he hoped the similarities were in appearance only.

We made our way down the long hallway to our second-class berth, where 18 sets of blankets and pillows were neatly laid out on the floor. Sergey and I picked a spot closest to the door, while the three Japanese guys sharing our room picked a spot as far away from us as possible.

After dumping our bags and claiming our beds, we set off to explore the ferry before it set sail at 1:15 a.m. We ran up and down the grand staircase, poked around the souvenir shop, checked out the bathhouse, looked at the movie listings, snooped in the private rooms, lounged in the lounge, and snapped dozens of photos along the way. We were like a pair of giddy six year olds. The trip was already exceeding our expectations and we hadn't even left the harbour yet. We bought some booze from the souvenir shop to toast the start of our Excellent Hokkaido Adventure.

"So how is it, being on a boat for the first time?" I asked Sergey.

"Exciting!" he said.

About an hour after setting sail, the shine quickly wore off and was replaced by a low-grade nausea that wouldn't go away for the next 19 hours. Sergey was fine. Only I was sick. The swells were large enough that walking on the ferry felt like walking on a wonky treadmill. You'd be walking uphill and then suddenly the boat would crest a wave and your legs would be cut out from under you and you'd lurch downhill, zigging to the left and then zigging to the right, before suddenly climbing back uphill again. Up and down, side to side. I never got used to navigating the rolling hallways as the boat plowed through rough water. As a result, I spent most of the trip stretched out on the floor -- green, clammy and desperately trying not to vomit.

Sergey spent most of the trip with his nose stuck inside a book, miraculously immune to the effects of seasickness. I kept waiting to see if he would get sick, but no luck. As the boat pitched and rolled through the heaving seas, I would poke him in the ribs and ask how he was feeling.

"Don't you feel a little bit sick?"

"No. I don't feel anything."

Not fair.

Twenty hours after setting sail, we finally arrived in Hokkaido. It was dark outside so it was impossible to see anything other than the port's twinkling lights against the inky sky. The doors opened and a blast of cold air hit me in the face. Walking down the ramp, I was disappointed to see the only snow was lying in dirty piles on the side of the road. Instead of arriving in some magical winter wonderland, it was as if we were right back where we started. The port in Hokkaido was indistinguishable from the one we had left near Kyoto.

The "plan" (and I use that term lightly) was to take the train into Sapporo and find a 24-hour McDonald's to sleep in for the night (and by "sleep" I really mean "sit in an uncomfortably hard booth between the hours of 12 a.m. and 7 a.m."). We celebrated Christmas by waking up inside a McDonald's. Why not do it for our birthdays too? It may not be the most traditional way to mark a birthday but it's certainly one of the most memorable.

Being able to loiter in McDonald's all night for the price of a cup of coffee is an arrangement unique to Japan. When you buy a cup of coffee in Japan, you are not just buying a cup of coffee; you are buying a piece of real estate. That one coffee gives you the right to monopolize a table for as long as you like. You don't have to buy anything else and no one will ask you to leave. Accommodations don't come any cheaper than that.

So that was the plan. Celebrate our birthday by waking up inside a 24-hour McDonald's in Sapporo. Little did we know we'd get kicked out at 4 a.m. and end up stranded on the snowy, sub-zero streets of Sapporo with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay. Our tour of Hokkaido was about to begin its slide from fantasy into farce . . .

Continue reading: Part II