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.

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