Greetings from the land of the rising sun!
Sapporo Travel Blog› entry 1 of 4 › view all entries
Sent: Thursday, July 06, 2000 5:21 AM
Subject: Greetings from the land of the rising sun!
I'm sending this message out to share my tales of adventure while I am out here. The quest is to ride across Japan with my buddy Dave by bicycle from Hokkaido, the Northernmost island, all the way to Kyushu, the Southernmost. For any necessary travel between islands it's either ferries or tunnels.
First off, my plane left O’Hare at 12 noon on Saturday and I was in daylight for over 24 hours. I tried to set my internal clock by staying up all of Friday night, but had only marginal success. It's amazing how all the Japanese one studies over the past few months just flies out of our head the first time it's needed. The customs officer was very concerned with what the 4 by 7 foot box I was pushing contained. After about five to ten seconds of straining my brain I managed to blurt out "This is a bicycle" in Japanese. So, after landing and meeting Dave (he was already in the country for over two weeks) I was ready to collapse and he was rearing to go. The youth hostel where we were staying actually offered to pick us up from the airport without prompting. Are these nice people or what? The room was actually about the size of a small house bathroom. The bathroom of that room was actually about the size of an airplane bathroom with a very small, but very deep bathtub. I had to get used to everyone looking, looking away, and then quickly looking back again to make sure that they actually saw the strangers they had just looked upon. Soon after dropping off baggage we went straight to my first ever true Japanese restaurant. Tatami mats, cushions, and a menu I couldn't even begin to understand was the gist of it. For those that aren't familiar the Japanese writing system actually consists of three sets of "alphabets" that they mix constantly in the same sentence. There are 47 base Hiragana symbols (there are accents that can be put on them to slightly change the sound) and each represent a different syllable like 'KA' 'SO' and 'SHI' to name a few. Also, there is one 'N' sound to be used at the end of syllables only. There are 47 base Katakana characters as well, but it is used for all imported or borrowed words like supu, salada, and orenji (Hiragana is intended for original Japanese words only). You can technically create any of the Japanese words with these two syllables sets, but it's not that easy. Kanji is another "alphabet" and consists of an entire ideographic set of characters that can represent just about anything (like Egyptian hieroglyphics), and are often multiple syllables for just one character. There are about 5000 of these characters, and if a kanji character exists for something it is often used instead of spelling it out in hiragana. Anyway, the curious owner, as well as many of the people that we meet are very anxious to here what brought us there. Luckily Dave studied about 9 years of Japanese, and can tell the tale. Even so, memorizing all the Kanji is almost an insurmountable task, especially without daily and repeated exposure. Even town names are often written in it! After that good night's sleep it was time to be off. During breakfast the strangeness of where I was really started to sink in. The Japanese really seem to over-do it with cartoons on TV. They are in almost every commercial and even the news. The sun and the clouds all had faces on them for the weather report, the raining cloud was actually frowning and crying the rain. Our first 50km brought us to Kashima, where the Kashima Shinto Shrine landmark is. The primary deity seemed to be one of the warrior gods for the Shinto religion. The entire place had a powerful peaceful energy about it. The trees were two to three times taller than any I have ever seen. Also, the roots of the martial art Iaido (simplified as way or art of the sword) are to found here. Dave is an avid practitioner of the art and there was even a dojo there. He was most pleased. Soon after visiting the dojo we both purchased authentic Bokken, wooden katana swords, that may well have been blessed by the monks there. We'll attempt to clarify that soon. So, not only did we have a tent, two backpacks, 4 panniers, and two backrack packs to lug with us, now we had wooden swords sticking out the backs of our bikes. No one would resist looking after that. After the shrine and lunch it was a 40 km trek to Oarai on the Pacific coast. Any maps of these areas for those curious can be checked out at http://www.mapquest.com and http://www.mapblast.com. Anyway, one thing learned quickly is that no one here seems to have any competence in giving distances in kilometers. It's always minutes, and it's always about a mere 20% to 30% of the amount of time the helpful citizen specified. One person that we actually asked how many kilometers it was ended up being about 30% off. When we had ten kilometers to go, it was dark (all the time spent in the shrine area) and we were extremely tired. Food was the goal. Any food at all. Oh, did we need to find any place with food. Any place open past 8 was becoming harder to find. Eureka! We find what appears to be a Ramen restaurant. It was very difficult to fight off the urge to just lay down on those comfortable cushions. The smell of our food coming surely assisted. After that, it was time to lay in the dirt in front of the store for a little bit. Oh boy, it was heavenly. I couldn't believe how incredibly comfortable dirt was under the right circumstances. Dave and I concluded that we should just go to the nearest beach, public or not, set up the tent, and sleep. The restaurant lady informed us how to get there, three lights down and turn left. Unfortunately, the oh-so-helpful restaurant lady led us to a nuclear research facility. Just what we needed! We couldn't tell it was that at first though. There were little cartoon people on the signs and security guards riding up and telling me to stay back with the bikes. After some talking to Dave, he found out that it was indeed some high-security nuclear facility of some kind and that we shouldn't really camp on the beach. Then it occurred to me what the cartoons were. They were atoms and molecules with happy faces! We mustered what strength we had left and pressed on. Finally we saw an advertisement that said "Camp! Barbecue! Fun!" and we quickly got off the road. No camp, no barbecue, and no fun was anywhere nearby. There was a beach though. There were several people there (remember it was past ten on a weekday here) mostly setting off fireworks and drinking. We steered clear of everyone and dragged our bikes and gear on to the beach to set camp. We were a little tired for that so I laid out my bikebag, collapsed on that, and fell asleep to the sound of the crashing ocean waves.
This sleep was very short lived, indeed. I faintly hear Dave's voice telling me that he thinks there is trouble. Let me tell you about trouble. What was once a relatively peaceful beach several minutes ago was now filled with flashlight wielding Police officers and paramedics. I sure did hope Dave had really good Japanese while groggy! I made sure I was primed to whip out the phrase "I don't speak much Japanese." I had a feeling I was going to need it very soon. They were upon us moments later, and Dave was saying blah blah blah CAMPU blah blah. They promptly replied "Blah blah CAMPU?!?! Ha ha ha ha ha." After a lot more blah blah blah, we showed them our Passports, explained our situation, and signed a release form that the ambulance had (that we were okay, I believe). After they left, Dave explained that one of the beach occupants was worried and called them to come check on us. Anyway, the massive temperature drop caused us to pitch the tent. It took hours to fall asleep after that. Many patrons kept walking by making comments and laughing while I tried to translate whatever words I recognized to make meaningless sentences. Just a note, the heavenly dirt from before was much better than the sand.
Alright, next day. We were in Oarai to catch a ferry to Hokkaido. It was the cheapest way to go. Lot's of rest would help as well (it's nearly a 30 hour trip, or so we thought). I wake up to meet three friends Dave already made that came from Tokyo that morning named Yoshi, Akira, and Kumobara. They showed Dave where the ferry terminal (it was about 7:30 and the ferry was for 10:30) and the bathhouse was (Boy did we need baths!!). Although I couldn't communicate like Dave, I surely was able to hum along when I mentioned Yoshi from Super Mario Brothers and he started to hum the music. It's amazing sometimes how we can get past communication barriers. Another discovery was that Japanese restaurants really aren't open in the morning. Japanese morning restaurants are convenience stores, just like the convenience stores in America with perhaps a little more ready made microwavable dishes. Well, we decided to get ferry tickets first, just in case, after eating. It was almost 9:00. We ride down to the terminal to be greeted just outside of it by a ferry employee yelling something having to do with our bikes. We go inside to by tickets, and discover that the ferry is leaving immediately! I look at the real schedule and indeed it is. There is no 10:30 ferry. The tourist information center's "information" was junk. Well, time to rush on the boat.
This was just what we needed to recuperate from the day before. It was kind of a primer for the much harder journeys we have ahead of us. We got the cheapest tickets, which put us in the tatami mat room with a couple dozen others sprawled out on the floor. After lunch and some map studying it was time to sleep again. I woke up around 2:30am the next day with Dave nowhere in sight. I didn't know if he was testing his resolve by practicing Iaido on the deck baring the cold winds or something. After strolling about the ship a bit there was nothing much going on and it turns out he was trying to get sleep in the TV area. Soon after I laid down again, all the lights in the ship go on. Yay! Just what I wanted at 4:30 in morning. Well, time to pack up and ship out. After our breakfast at dawn (at the convenience store of course) in the port town of Tomakomai, we set out for Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido. About half way through the ride a cyclist zooms by on a racing bike. No big deal you might think. This is the first bike that appeared to be worth over $50 since I got here. Every standard bicycle looks ancient from decades ago and in poor condition. There are far more people on bicycles here than I ever saw in America, too. Anyway, the beauty of Hokkaido captivated us for most of the remainder of our journey to Sapporo. Just when we get there we decided to get milkshakes at McDonalds (actually MAKU DONARUDO here). Just thought I'd mention that they replaced Cherry pies with Bacon Potato pies, there are seaweed covered French fries, and Ginger sauce burgers. No super size here. The largest shakes we could get were the same as kiddie size drinks in the US.
Soon after Dave has a nap in McDonalds while I read about the environs, we are on our way to central Sapporo, home of Sapporo beer. We come up to a beautiful central city park that is the closest thing Japan has to Bourbon street with musicians, flowers, and happy people everywhere. I finally see another Caucasian (the first since the airport) and find out that he is from Switzerland. He points us to a better hotel than the Youth Hostel we are headed for and then we unload there. Sapporo nightlife is huge. Wandering the streets there was amazing, indeed. I couldn't believe how relatively safe this big city is at night though. It's more tame than the suburbs as far as the sense of danger. After that night it was time for super sleep (another bad thing about the hostels is that you have to be in by 8 or 9). I wake up (this very morning as I write this) and it's time to see the International communication center to ask about buses, trains, the nearby hot springs, and Internet access. That's what brought me here to Bon de Bon Internet Cafe in Sapporo station. More adventures to come soon!!