Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sapporo - Sa-bore-o

Mission accomplished!

I found the stupid bookstore.

Why was I being so ignorant? Clearly when the writers of Lonely Planet put a dot on a map of Sapporo and labeled it "Kinokuniya Books", they meant that Kinokuniya Books was over a mile away from that dot. It's so obvious!

After that little victory, I did absolutely nothing all day. Having exhausted most of Sapporo's tourist locations yesterday, and faced with the prospect of entertaining myself for twelve hours until my overnight train left at 10 PM, I just kind of strolled. And sat. And ate. And strolled some more. And looked at some crap.

Speaking of crap, I had the worst bathroom experience of my life today. The only good thing about it was that it was a Western style toilet and not a Japanese style squatter. If it had been, I would have just given up on this country altogether.

Anyway, I go into the stall, and the first thing I notice (after the extremely detailed drawings of very graphic homosexual acts on the wall) was the lack of toilet paper. Luckily, I had been forewarned of this, and even though I didn't bring a roll of toilet paper or tissues or anything from home, many businesses hand out on the streets packets of tissues with their advertisements printed on the package, so you think of them on just such an occasion. Which I think is brilliant. However, I don't remember the exact businesses I wiped myself with, but I'm grateful nonetheless.

So thankfully I had a packet of tissues I had received today in my pocket, and crisis number one was averted. But once I sat down, the entire stall went crazy, like dropping a deuce was the magic action of the day in Pee Wee's Playhouse. The wall started yelling something at me - because, really, why shouldn't it? - while some little speaker behind the toilet made gurgling noises. I jumped up, thinking I had offended the bathroom wall, and the toilet flushed. And flushed, and flushed, and flushed. It wouldn't stop flushing! So I just continued with my business while the toilet flushed with no end in sight, the speaker behind the toilet made gurgling noises, and the wall screamed at me. The whole experience scared the shit out of me (ha HA!)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sapporo - A Bad Day For Animals

Last night, right before I went to bed, Pearl called me. We only talked for a minute until the pay phone cut us off, but she seems as exhausted and overwhelmed as me. Then, one of my roommates came in. I can't remember his name, which I feel bad about because he's taken to calling me "Mister Danny". He lives on the southernmost island of Japan, and he rode his motorcycle all the way up here, on break from his job as a ship crew member. And that was about all the English he knew, so I went to bed.

I woke up to some dude saying, "Danny-san..." Seems I had almost missed breakfast. Too bad he woke me up, since it was awful. I ate only the rice and got out of there.

Attempt number two to find the bookstore proved a failure, and I quit after about an hour. My only explanation is that both bookstores and the Virgin Megastore supposedly near them have gone out of business. Or, who knows, they could look like the road and then occasionally turn into stores, Transformers-style. You never know in Japan.

So instead I did some sightseeing. I wandered through a crazy pedestrian street with all sorts of stores. I entered an arcade, expecting a scene similar to the hilarious one in Lost in Translation, and I wasn't disappointed. These kids take their games seriously.

I then went to some botanical garden in the middle of the city. I expected just a few flowers and plants and stuff, but that's not the kind of crap you get in Japan. This place was, of course, enormous. Several acres of closed-in jungle is not what I was expecting. The place was like I had wandered into Jurassic Park.
I strolled for a little while, and then I came across the worst building ever. Built in the 1880s, the place was filled with dead, stuffed wildlife, also from the 1880s. Dead foxes hunted dead mice, there were boxes filled with dead birds, a dead bear stood right in the middle, and there were all sorts of other various creepy and foreign animals. I snapped a few pictures and ran out.

Later, I returned to that insane food market in the station. When I described it yesterday, I said it went on for "miles". I didn't realize when I wrote that how huge the place really is. The food court was all I really saw yesterday. On the same floor of the food court are two full-sized malls. Each mall has hilarious names for their various areas. I started in the "Pleasure Land", which isn't as exciting as it sounds. It's just food. Then I went through "Beautiful Land", which was all the clothing shops. I then crossed to the other mall and strolled down the "Food Walk", "Fashion Walk," "Market Walk," and "Joyful Walk".

Then I noticed the escalators.

There were 10 more floors of shops, each floor themed, and each as big as the first floor. I didn't explore much of the floors, since I wanted to eventually get some sleep tonight, but I could get the gist of each floor from my view on the escalators. There were three electronics floors, two or three clothing floors, another food floor, a kids' floor (complete with huge, bouncing balloons all over the place and a robotic teddy bear), and a pet floor.

Naturally, I had to stop at the pet floor. But it was almost worse than the dead animal museum. The store was filled with tiny, heartbreaking puppies, all stacked in glass cases you normally find mice or hamsters in. Half of the puppies were shivering, and the other half were barking frantically. It's a good thing I don't live here, because I would have bought the whole store on the spot. Having achieved my goal for the day of becoming completely depressed, I left.

I returned to "Food Walk", picked a restaurant based on which one had the best-looking plastic food in front, and entered. I ordered something, and when it came, I started to eat the noodles. I noticed the woman next to me staring, so I turned and smiled at her. She then called the waitress over, and said something while pointing to me, causing both of them to laugh. Exactly what you want people to do to you, right? Well, turns out I wasn't eating my noodles correctly, and the waitress was kind enough to show me how to avoid embarrassing myself again. When the old woman left, she stayed at the register and talked to the waitress for a while, I assume about how cute I am.

After eating, I wandered around this city-within-a-building a little more. Unintentionally, of course, since I took a wrong turn and it took almost an hour to get back the right way. It's hard to describe how incredibly large this place is - you simply have to see it. To try to put it in perspective, I wandered for almost eight hours, and the only times I saw something I had already seen before is when I intentionally backtracked.

A lot of people told me I would feel huge in Japan, due to everyone's size. But now that I'm here, I feel smaller than I ever have before. I fear if I stay in this city any longer, I may develop a severe Napoleon Complex.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sapporo - Lost in Translation (Not For The Last Time, I'm Sure)

Since I had thought I would be waking up on the streets of Aomori, it was pretty nice to wake up in my own bed to a warm Japanese breakfast and a hot shower. Breakfast confirmed my suspicions about the hotel's only clientèle - picture me in my gym shorts, a white undershirt, and barefoot, surrounded by ten Japanese business men in full suit and tie, wolfing down breakfast before work. Plus I dropped my chopsticks. Twice.

Shortly after, I checked out, my bag slightly heavier with the robe and tea I stole. I walked the short distance to the train station, got my seat reservations (it's time to take advantage of the free reservations I get with my rail pass, to ensure yesterday doesn't happen again), and boarded the first of two trains to Sapporo, on an island just across a short channel from Japan's main island.

When I boarded the train, however, I was met with mass chaos. The entire car was filled with old Japanese couples. I counted twenty-nine couples, with the thirtieth pair of seats left to me (why don't they ever give anyone the seat next to me? Somehow, I blame Bush.) The couples, all twenty-nine of them, were up in the aisles, attempting to spin their seats around, since the train would be going in the other direction. They were all laughing and having a great time - the woman in front of me was spinning her husband's chair in circles while he was still in it, yelling at her. Things settled down, the train got moving, and I sat, stifling laughs for a good ten minutes.

Since I wasn't riding a bullet train, it took seven hours to go from Aomori to Sapporo. So I finished my book, and had nothing more to do on the train. Finally, we arrived in Sapporo, which was much wilder than I'd imagined. To get to the hostel, I only had to get on the subway and ride for three stops. Easier said than done in Japan. To get to the subway, you have to wind through literally miles of the most confusing indoor mall ever. More on this later.

I followed the signs, found the subway and my hostel, and checked in. Turns out I'm the only non-Japanese person in the place. The room is really nice, but a huge step down, privacy-wise, from last night. I have to say, my least favorite thing about traveling so far is the hostels. I really don't like sharing a room with anyone unless I know them really well. The only person I've ever shared a room with is Bodnar for my freshman year, and we knew each other well enough so there were no real surprises with his sleeping habits (but don't remind him about my snoring). However, now I have shared rooms with seven people, and it's only night four. Yeah, I'm meeting people, but so far we've barely spoken a common language - one German, one Swiss, and five Japanese people. So far, I'm pretty lukewarm about this whole hostel experience. And sharing a dorm with three other people all semester in Egypt? Kill me.

Okay, enough whining. I hopped back on the subway to find an English bookstore and a place to eat before I went to sleep nice and early. But Lonely Planet isn't that good with maps. They just kind of throw a dot on a barely accurate map, marking the general area of a building. That crap may fly with Europe and North America and their gridded streets, but it doesn't work here. All I know is that the bookstore was somewhere between the TV Tower - a giant, neon Eiffel Tower ripoff, which wasn't too hard to find - and the Virgin Megastore, which should have been easy to find, but I never did. I wandered for nearly an hour, but I couldn't even find the damn megastore. The problem with Japan is that it's like the movie The Fifth Element - there's still a huge amount of activity going on 100 stories up. In fact,the store you're looking for could be on the 50th floor of some generic, unmarked building. So I never found the bookstore, but I'll skip all my sightseeing tomorrow to avoid accepting defeat. I will find the bookstore.

After my little tour of a four-square-block area of Sapporo, I headed back to the insanity of Sapporo Station to get some food. And if this is relatively small Sapporo, I can't imagine what Tokyo is going to be like. The place was one part meat market, one part Willy Wonka's factory, and 100% acid trip. Everyone's yelling at you from the literally hundreds of tiny food shops to buy their food, there's loud music, everything down to the walls are speaking to you, and you're hit by hundreds of smells all at once. It was exhilarating. I finally picked the largest restaurant I saw, and I was seated for some reason not at the counter for solo eaters or even a table for two, but a twenty-foot empty table in the middle of the restaurant. I sat in the king's seat at the end, to the amusement of two schoolgirls, and ordered what the waitress recommended, which was really good, whatever it was. I didn't eat the brownie-sized piece of ice-cold tofu, though, which elicited actual glares from most of the wait staff as they walked by and saw the uneaten sponge still on my plate. So I paid and left to get some sleep before heading out again tomorrow into this exhausting Japanese city. How do they not die of ulcers all the time?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nikko, Aomori, and Everything Between

Today I decided to challenge myself. If all went as planned, I would have taken eleven trains by the end of the day, and would have been going to sleep in Sapporo. Note the use of the conditional tense.

First, I got up, said goodbye to my Swiss roommate and the British woman from last night, checked out, and made my way to the train station easily enough. I bought my ticket to Otsuki, but there were two trains leaving at the exact same time, and the signs that kept changing didn't help get me around at all. So I just picked a train at random and sat down.

A Japanese couple boarded the train and got in my car, so I gathered up my nerves and approached them with the little Japanese I know.

"Excuse me, does this train go to Otsuki?"
"Yes! Yes!" they enthusiastically replied.
"Good. Thank you very much."

Looks like that one semester of Japanese paid off. That semester didn't help, though, when I later got stuck behind a stubborn automatic door that refused to open. Everyone around had a good laugh at the stupid American.

Four trains and five hours later, I arrived in Nikko. The city is only a couple blocks wide and about thirty blocks long, and it only has one major point of interest - but boy is it major AND interesting! (See what I did there?)

Instead of taking a bus from the station to the soon-to-be-described point(s) of interest, I opted to walk the half-hour trek up the hill, so I wouldn't miss the cool little town.

I wandered into the only restaurant with an English sign, and it turned out to be the greatest place ever. Owned and run by two parents and their daughter, the place consisted of only three tables, one of which is reserved for the family to sit and read at until someone comes in. When I walked in, I was greeted by everyone asking if I was hungry. The mom seated me, gave me a menu (in English!), and told me her favorite item, which I of course ordered. Then the mother and daughter ran back into the little kitchen to make my food, since the dad had fallen asleep in his seat. The food arrived quickly, since I was the only customer, and it was perfect. Absolutely delicious, and just enough to fill me up without leaving me uncomfortably stuffed in that typical American way. On my way out, they even gave me a map and labeled places "number one most beautiful", "number two most beautiful", etc. etc. This place was exactly what I expected Japanese restaurants to be like.

Five minutes later, I arrived at Nikko's famous historic park. The place is basically a huge forest filled with the biggest trees I've ever seen, and it is packed with shrines and temples. Everything was very old and beautiful, but I didn't go into the "highlight" of the park - some big gold castle - because it was outrageously expensive and I'll see plenty of that crap in Kyoto.

I did sneak into more off-limits areas, though. Here's the thing: they only close off areas with small little posts that look more like they're for stopping cars instead of people, or by hanging silver paper lightning bolts over a closed entrance. After testing the first lightning-bolted barrier for any sort of electric force field, I decided to simply go into any area closed off by those paper cut-outs and, if caught, feign ignorance and apologize profusely, playing up the stupid American stereotype.

Anyway, the place was cool, blah blah blah, but then the problems started. I had planned on taking a series of trains up north, finishing with an overnight train that would bring me to Sapporo, my northern-most city of the trip. However, I discovered far too late that the overnight I was planning on taking would cost me $80 - and that's already including the 50% discount from my JR Pass. And the unbelievably-useful JR Hotline that tells you how to get anywhere in Japan for either the lowest price or free had closed at 6 PM. You'd think the hotline would stay open until 11, when most trains stop running.

So now I'm on my way to Sendai, the last guaranteed free train. From there, I can either suck it up and pay the $80, or I can suck it up even more and try to find a way to get to Sapporo without spending a yen. I think I'll try the second option, and if I get a few cities ahead and find out it can't be done, I think I'll have enough time to get back to Sendai for the overnight, if I act fast. If not, I'll be spending the night in a train station. So I should probably catch an hour of sleep on this train. Good thing these bullet trains are so comfortable!

Okay, I'm out of Sendai, on my way to Hachinohe, which isn't even notable enough to get a mention in Lonely Planet. I've accepted the fact that I will be sleeping in a train station tonight. The train arrives in Hachinohe at 11 PM, and if by some small miracle a late-night train is running to Aomori, there's no chance I'll get a train from Aomori to Sapporo after midnight. Luckily, it's about a seven-hour ride from Aomori to Sapporo, so if I stay up all night, at least I'll have some sort of sleep when I actually get into Sapporo. I think I'll just sleep at the hostel all day when I finally get there.

I don't believe it. I'm on a train to Aomori, my final transfer location.

Well, things have certainly taken a turn. Of course, there was another train leaving from Aomori to Sapporo - the exact train I wanted to be on - but it naturally was leaving as we were pulling into the station. It looked really, really fancy, too. They had real lamps with lampshades!

So, faced with the prospect of spending a night on the street, I did what any sane person does in a foreign, large, industrial, dock-side city - I started to wander. I picked the brightest and biggest street. Some cute girls parked in a car waved at me, and some teenagers were rehearsing their dance moves outside a Mini Mart. About seven blocks away from the station, I found the Aomori Plaza Hotel. It's clearly only for businessmen, since the name is far fancier than the accommodations, and there is barely a word of English spoken. The concierge seemed absolutely shocked when an American kid with a backpack entered at 1 AM, asking for a room. "Here?" he actually asked.

I ended up paying $40 for the room, which is twice as much what I usually pay, but I have my own room, my own bathroom, a shower and bath to soak my blistered feet in, and a Japanese kimono. You can bet on me stealing that. Oh, and free breakfast, as well as all the hot tea I want. Not too shabby, eh? Plus I saved an extra $40 from not paying for that overnight train, and I'll certainly remember today for a long time.

Realizing my bed for the night would
probably be a bench.

I don't joke around in kimonos.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lake Kawaguchi - Fujis and Funyons

13 hours after falling asleep, I woke up to the sound of my German roommate's egg timer he uses instead of an alarm clock. Weird. I'm saving Tokyo for the end of my trip, when Pearl's there, so I got up, checked out, and jumped on the first of three trains to get me to Lake Kawaguchi, under Mount Fuji.

After getting lost so many times yesterday, I had gotten pretty good at figuring out the Tokyo subway, although I had a bit of a problem finding the train to actually get me out of the city. After several minutes of staring at a map while standing directly under a sign telling me exactly where to go, I got the hell out of Tokyo and easily found my connecting train to take me to Kawaguchi-ko (not included in my Japan Rail Pass? Bah!) The Fuji Express passed through picturesque towns and some really awesome mountains. So far, Japan definitely has anywhere else I've been beat for man-made beauty (I mean architecture, not breasts), and I suspect by the end of the trip, I'll rank it above Switzerland and New Zealand for the natural stuff, too (again, I mean mountains and rivers, not breasts).

The dancing, animated Mt. Fuji on TV announced that we had arrived, so I disembarked and made my way to the awesome K's House hostel. The map I used showed more or less a straight line from the station to the hostel, but luckily I figured out that there were actually some turns involved. I tossed my stuff on my bed and immediately left to explore Lake Kawaguchi. The lake is pretty beautiful, even though that bastard Fuji-san was almost totally covered by clouds.

I walked almost the entire circumference of the lake, which took all day. I stopped on a whim at a small little restaurant - my first real restaurant in Japan - and it was a good thing I chose this place. The entire staff consisted of one old woman. Somehow she manages to greet, seat, take orders, work the register, and cook everybody's food. And this place was extremely busy. Assuming it would be an hour wait for my meal (which would be a surprise, since the whole menu was in Japanese), I settled back and enjoyed the view of the lower half of Mt. Fuji. Three minutes later, I had a steaming bowl of food in front of me. At first I was amazed at her speed - she managed to get five groups of four in and out in fifteen minutes - but once I tasted the food, I was amazed at her culinary skills. I wolfed the food down, told her it was delicious, and then gave her 9,000 yen for the 840-yen meal. She had a good laugh at my expense, and I sheepishly ducked out.

The rest of the day was spent wandering and at the hostel. I got caught up in conversation with a British woman on vacation from teaching English in Thailand, and since I was still jetlagged, my eyelids started drooping by 8:00. I told her I hated to be such a loser, but I had to go to sleep. She smiled, and when I tried to return it, I could feel my tired eyes cross for some reason. I have to avoid her tomorrow out of embarrassment.

I'm extremely impressed with K's House. The staff is excellent, the lounge is very comfortable, the internet is free and has English keyboards, the kitchen is better than ours at home, their toilets shoot water in my crack, the location is perfect, and everything is so clean. I'll try to stay at the K's House in Tokyo. Although there isn't much to do in this town, K's House makes me want to stay another night.

Oh my God, I almost forgot the best part of the day. Around 5 PM, I stumbled upon "the oldest shrine in the Mt Fuji area". Unfortunately, it was closed. Fortunately, it was only closed with tiny wooden posts, so I simply side-stepped them and went in. You may be able to keep the polite Japanese out with the logs, but it'll take giant gates with elaborate locks to stop an American.

The place was really eerie, and being alone there didn't help at all. I stepped around a few more "barriers" to actually go into some of the buildings, but the utter stillness of the place was too creepy. It didn't help when I decided to explore an ancient cemetery on the grounds.

My view of Mt. Fuji. Beautiful, no?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tokyo, Japan - Tokyo To Go

I've been sitting here for about five minutes, trying to think of a good way to explain how exhausted I am, but I'm at a loss. Today technically started when I woke up on June 23rd, without a single thing packed. Of course, I waited until the last minute to do it, so let's hope I didn't forget anything important.

We left for the airport at 4:30 AM, and I pretty much slept until we got to LA. From LA to Tokyo it is typically an eleven-hour flight, but since we had brake problems (which is always what you want to hear on a plane), we had to sit on the plane an extra two hours before taking off. I barely slept during the flight, opting to watch The Painted Veil (boring), Bridge To Terabithia (lame), Wild Hogs (kill me), and Shooter (Mark Wahlberg is awesome).

I have to admit, I was really dreading the moment the plane would land. Not because I was worried it would crash, but because I wanted to be home. I felt so stupid for leaving. What did I know about living on my own, let alone getting around in an extremely foreign country? And 42 days was seeming like a really, really long time. The entire game of Survivor takes place in less time than that. And those people go crazy!

Well, once I landed I wasn't filled with nearly as much homesickness or regret. Although, Pearl isn't free after July 21st, so instead of hanging around by myself in Tokyo, I might look into going home early so I can spend more time with my friends and family before I leave for Egypt. We'll see.

Anyway, all doubts evaporated once I actually saw Japan. This country is insane. There are so many chimes and songs and flashing lights. It's pretty hard to describe, and is something everyone definitely has to experience.

I got lost a couple of times trying to make my multiple train connections on the way to the hostel, but I eventually found the place with not too much trouble, got into bed, and passed out after admiring the awesome view from the room.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Think I'm Turning Japanese

Nine days until I leave for Japan. I've bought my backpack, my rail passes, booked my hostels in Tokyo in advance. I also got my visa for Egypt, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Just a few minor things to do in the next week, and then I'm off.

Many of you probably don't know Pearl, but you will. I've mentioned her in an earlier post - my single greatest life achievement (other than standing up for more than 24 hours) took place at her house, remember? Anyway, you'll get to know her soon enough. She's teaching English in Tokyo and is the main reason for this Japanese trip, since it was originally going to be a trip to Europe. Up until today, Pearl and I were only going to be together for the final Tokyo leg of the trip, but she just called me to let me know that she has a week off to go backpacking. So she'll be meeting me in Kyoto in time for some sort of crazy festival, and she'll join me in traveling for a few days outside of Kyoto. It should be awesome.

I've been temporarily kicked out of my two-man band T-Bag and the Fingercat, since we have two shows during my trip that I won't be able to make. Clay will be playing the part of T-Bag, and I'm sure he'll do well. But clearly not as well as me.

And now here are some puppies.


Two Puppies