Thursday, April 15, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part V

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Our last day in Hokkaido was a lot less interesting to us than it was to the people around us. Everywhere we went, Sergey and I were the main topic of conversation. I say this not out of paranoia or megalomania, but out of an ability to understand Japanese.

For example, our decision to eat a low-budget breakfast at the train station was a gossip-filled affair. We bought two bowls of instant ramen and sat on a bench in the waiting room. Three older Japanese women sitting on the bench directly behind us gave a running commentary on our every move.

"Look! Gaijin!"

"What are they doing?"

"They're eating ramen."

"It looks like they're enjoying it."

"It sure does."

"They're using chopsticks."

"They sure are."

Sergey and I pretended we couldn't understand them, bending our heads over our cups of ramen so they couldn't see us smiling. It was fun eavesdropping on the locals. They talked about us like we were monkeys in a zoo.

This was about as exciting as our last day in Hokkaido got. Not that I'm complaining. An uneventful day was exactly what we needed after the misadventure-plagued portion of the trip. We were determined not to repeat the same stupid mistakes that got us into trouble in the first place -- like not checking the ferry schedule and getting stuck in Hokkaido an extra day. We couldn't afford to miss the ferry again so instead of simply checking the schedule online, we walked three kilometres to the ferry terminal first thing in the morning to book our tickets for the sailing later that night.

It was our second trip to the ferry terminal but this time the lights were on and the doors were open. We had 12 hours to kill before the ferry left so we decided to head out for another hike in the hills. But we stopped so many times along the way that we didn't even make it to the base of the mountain.

Our first stop was to see if the snowman we built the day before was still standing. It wasn't. Someone had cruelly kicked the snowman in the stomach and its body laid in pieces on the ground. The one-yen coins that served as the snowman's eyes had been plucked out of his head and, presumably, tucked into the perpetrator's pocket. We were sad for a moment but realized there was no point mourning the loss of a few clumps of snow -- our cute little Mible was no more.

We continued on toward the mountain, and accidentally stumbled onto Otaru's main tourist strip. Despite covering most of the town on foot the day before, we had somehow missed Otaru's biggest attraction -- an intersection decorated with three different clock towers.

I don't know for a fact whether this is Otaru's biggest attraction or not, but there were at least 60 tourists taking pictures of the clock towers and we hadn't seen any tourists taking pictures of anything up until now so the odds were pretty good that this intersection was a big deal.

We joined the crowd and took our own pointless photos. We browsed through a massive store selling thousands of miniature clock towers and a few stuffed octopuses (whose relationship to the clock towers is still unclear).

We eventually left the clock towers behind and continued hiking toward the mountain but it wasn't long before we were sidetracked again. The glow of McDonald's golden arches caught Sergey's eye. But, sadly for Sergey, his beloved McPork wasn't on the menu.

It was starting to get dark and we were still nowhere near the mountain. We decided to give up on the hike and take the bus back into town. But we were too tired to figure out which bus to take or which bus stop to stand at so we simply walked back. Walking back required no brainpower. We didn't even need to look at the map. By this point, we had visited every tourist attraction and walked every square inch of every street -- twice. We could have written the Lonely Planet guide to Otaru.

Back in town, we had time for dinner and coffee before making our way to the ferry terminal for the long trip home. The ferry heading back to Honshu was much busier than the one that took us to Hokkaido. There were about 50 people on board. Although, technically speaking, 50 people on board a boat built for 1,000 doesn't make it "busy." It just felt busy compared to the grand total of eight passengers on the ferry on the way over.

Luckily, the ferry plowed through nothing but calm seas during the 20-hour sailing. I didn't have to deal with the roiling waves and low-grade seasickness that kept me flat on my back on the way to Hokkaido. This time around, I only felt like throwing up after eating "kimichi and cheese" instant ramen.

Aside from a poor choice in soup, the ferry ride was thoroughly enjoyable. The on-board entertainment was top notch. We were treated to a live concert by two restaurant workers who play in a jazz band in their spare time. They played such hits as "Sometimes When we Touch."

They chatted up the audience in between songs. They told us they perform on the ferry every day but they were especially happy today because normally only three people turn up to hear them play. Today they were playing for a record-breaking crowd of 16 (almost half of all the passengers on board).

The rest of the ferry ride was uneventful. The trip was ending on a calm note -- completely opposite to its chaotic start. We went to Hokkaido for the majestic mountains, the outdoor onsens, and the fabulous food. 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.

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. To steal a line from Hunter S. Thompson, it never got weird enough for us.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part IV

Part I | Part II | Part III

After a solid sleep in a proper bed in Sapporo, I thought the misadventure-plagued portion of the trip was finally behind us. I thought wrong.

It turned out the ferry we were planning to catch wasn't running on the day we were planning to catch it, leaving us stranded in northern Japan an extra day. Once again, Sergey and I would find ourselves wandering the streets of Hokkaido in the middle of the night with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay.

Life lesson #476: Things don't always go the way you plan them to go. Life lesson #477: Things definitely won't go the way you plan them to go if your plans are based on idiotic assumptions. For example, you can "plan" to catch the ferry to Kyoto from Hokkaido but if you neglect to check that there is in fact a ferry heading to Kyoto on the day you are "planning" to leave, then things definitely won't go the way you plan them to go.

Oh, sure. Calling the ferry terminal a day or two in advance could have saved us a lot of time and money. But we wanted to be spontaneous. (Life lesson #478: There's a difference between spontaneity and stupidity.) But I'll get to all of that later. Because, for the most part, the day went exactly as planned.

We caught the train from Sapporo to Otaru early in the morning. We figured we'd spend the day sightseeing in Otaru before taking the ferry home later that night. There are only two places to catch a ferry back to Kyoto in Hokkaido and Otaru happens to be one of them.

Getting to Otaru from Sapporo was easy. It was just a short train ride along the Sea of Japan. I spent the trip staring out the window, enjoying the view of the cold, grey sea crashing into the snow-covered shore while Sergey buried his nose in a book. (He was reading Into Thin Air -- Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 Mt. Everest tragedy. This may seem like an extraneous detail but it's not. Later that day, we'd find ourselves up on top of a mountain in sub-zero temperatures, with dwindling daylight, arguing about the safest and fastest way down. We threw examples from the Mt. Everest book at each other to bolster our arguments. It seemed we had two very different interpretations of the book's main message. For Sergey, it was about adventure. For me, it was about minimizing risk. Although, technically, we weren't 30,000 feet above sea level and we weren't running out of oxygen and our lives weren't in any imminent danger so maybe the book's lessons weren't exactly relevant here. But I digress.)

After arriving in Otaru, we threw our bags in a locker at the train station and set out to explore the surprisingly picturesque town. We had finally found the winter wonderland we were looking for. We walked along a canal adorned with Victorian-style streetlamps. We headed to the port and built a mini-snowman -- we named him Mible. And then we set out to hike the steep slopes of Mt. Tengu.

The snow was deep. The air was crisp and clean. There wasn't a single person in sight. A walk in the woods on a winter day is a magical experience. It's even more magical when someone pees your name in the snow.

I had been hiking ahead of Sergey when he called me back to admire his shaky masterpiece.

"I'll bet that's the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you," he said.

I don't know what's worse: the fact that he peed my name in the snow, or the fact that I was touched by it. I mean it's not every day a guys pees your name in the snow. I think I was in elementary school the last time it happened. Unfortunately, Sergey ran out of urine before he could add the "h" to the end of my name. I told him to drink more water next time.

Two hours later, we finally reached the top. We stood on the summit and admired the view. We were about to turn around and head down the same way we came up when Sergey noticed a single set of footprints heading steeply down the mountain's north face. Let's go back that way instead, he said. I wasn't sure it was a good idea. It was getting late and it would be dark soon. It was cold and starting to snow. We had run out of water and eaten all of our snacks.

Heading down a steep, unmarked trail that may or may not take us into town before it got dark didn't seem like the smartest option. Sergey disagreed. He said heading straight down the mountain would save time and, as long as we kept going north, we'd end up right in the middle of town.

I wanted to head back the same way we came. It might take longer but at least we wouldn't get lost.

"Where's your sense of adventure?" Sergey asked.

"There's a difference between adventure and stupidity," I said. "And to me, this is stupidity."

It wasn't exactly a fight but it was tense. The thing is, Sergey and I are very similar. And while this means we get along like gangbusters most of the time, being alike is also a double-edged sword -- especially when you are both stubborn, headstrong and set in your ways. We could have dug in our heels and refused to budge. But I figured it was better to relent. It wasn't like we were in any real danger. This wasn't some remote wilderness area. We were just a few kilometers outside of town. The city was clearly visible from where we were standing. If we headed directly down the north face and found ourselves stuck or off course, we could easily retrace our footprints to the summit and backtrack to the original trail. The risk of getting lost seemed ridiculously small. So I backed down. And, just as Sergey predicted, we shaved an hour off the hike and ended up exiting the trail almost directly behind the train station. He was right (although, being right doesn't make him a hero. It just makes him lucky).

After lingering over a hot curry dinner and loitering in a coffee shop for a few hours, it was time to head to the ferry terminal to catch the 11:30 p.m. sailing back to Kyoto. We had toyed with the idea of making a reservation earlier in the day but decided against it because there had only been eight people on the ferry to Hokkaido. We thought making a reservation would be a waste of time. We thought wrong.

We headed to the train station and hopped on the last bus to the ferry terminal. It was late at night and most of the streets were quiet, dark and empty. But the ferry terminal was even quieter, darker and emptier than the streets. There wasn't a single car in the parking lot and all of the lights were turned off. Something wasn't right.

The bus came to a stop in front of the main entrance. Before getting off the bus, I asked the driver if he thought the ferry terminal was open. He jumped out of his seat, ran to the terminal and pulled on each of the doors. They were all locked.

The driver returned to the bus, told us the terminal was closed and asked us what we wanted to do. We didn't know what to do. The confused expression on Sergey's face mirrored my own. The handful of passengers on the bus stayed silent and simply waited to see what we would do next. The driver needed an answer so I told him we would just stay on the bus and go back to the station. We were the last people to get off the bus and the driver stopped us on our way out the door. He took off his hat and his microphone, and looked at us with genuine concern.

"What will you do?" he asked.

We told him we weren't sure. He told us where we could find a cheap hotel and offered to drive us there. We told him not to go out of his way. But he kept insisting. He had finished his shift and had time to drive us over. We kept refusing. We wanted to find out what was going on and figure out what our options were before checking into a hotel.

The bus driver was looking at us the same way you might look at a lost child in a supermarket. His forehead was creased with worry and he wouldn't let us get off the bus until we had convinced him that we would be all right. I don't know if his concern was born of genuine kindness or extreme customer service. I suppose it doesn't matter. Whether he was simply being kind or whether he felt like taking care of two clueless foreigners was part of his job, his excessive helpfulness didn't come as a surprise. This behaviour is the norm, not the exception, in Japan. If a bus driver went out of his way to help me back home, I wouldn't be surprised but I certainly wouldn't expect it. In Japan, I expect to be helped. And I expect to be helped with a smile and a deep bow. I've become so used to being coddled and doted on that even the slightest display of rudeness comes as a shock.

The extreme customer service continued at the train station when we asked the guy behind the ticket window for help. He told us the ferry was running and we could catch it tonight at 11:30, no problem. We told him we already went to the ferry terminal but the lights were off and the doors were locked. We asked if he would mind phoning the terminal just to double check.

Despite contradicting everything he had just told us, he picked up the phone and called the terminal without argument or complaint. After he hung up the phone, he said there was a recorded message explaining that the ferry wasn't running because of scheduled maintenance. There was no choice but to wait 24 hours for the next sailing.

We were spending the night in Otaru whether we wanted to or not. The town was too small to have a 24-hour McDonald's where we could sleep for free so we took the bus driver's recommendation and checked into a cheap hotel for the night. There was nothing to do but buy some booze and some snacks and turn it into a party.

This time, the misadventure-plagued portion of the trip was truly and finally behind us. There was nothing left to go wrong that hadn't already gone wrong.

Continue reading: Part V