Archive for November, 2008


November 30, 2008

Leaving Hokkaido was more difficult than I imagined it would be. I had booked a hostel in Sendai via the staff at Ino’s Place and was informed that their front desk closed at 9pm. My train was scheduled to arrive at 7:44pm, so I felt that there was ample margin. However, due to the fact that I forgot my glasses at Ino’s, and had to return for them, I missed that train, and the next train was not scheduled to arrive until 20:30. This was pushing it, but still managible.
However, Hokkaido really wanted me to stay and arranged for the train to be delayed for a reasons only understood in Japanese. The only thing I got from the explaination was “concreeto”, which I took to mean that something had fallen on the tracks and caused the train to be delayed more than an hour. At this point we had missed our connecting train (which only had a 6 minute window to begin with), so there was no way that I was going get to Sendai before my 9pm cut off. I decided to turn back and stay the night at Hokadate instead, but this required getting off at the next stop and waiting an hour for the next train. And then it started to rain.
By the time I found the inn I was looking for, I was completely drenched (having left my umbrella back in Ikebukuro, and not having bought a replacement). The inn keeper, a nice lady named Saito, informed me about the town using a mixture of broken English, Japanese, and printed cards with stock phrases. My Japanese is not really usable, per se, but I’m getting better.
I think I have the ordering food part down from stating what I want, to ordering more beer, to asking for the check. Of course reading the menu and asking for things I don’t already know the name of is still beyond me.
I used this to great effect ordering seafood ramen with squid (a Hokadate specialty), and got a complement from the owner of the establishement that my Japanese was really good.
The folloing morning, I saw that the top of the nearby mountain was frosted over, presumably during the storm the night before. I was happy to see that some new snow had fallen, but I was still in for a treat. As I was leaving town, huge flakes of snow begain to fall. Yuki! I thought, and followed it up with the most complex sentence I could muster: Yuki wa sumoi desu; snow is cold.


Glass blowing

November 28, 2008

Yesterday I made an excursion to Otaru, a small town on the west coast of Hokkaido. This was the first time that I have seen snow right up to the edge of of the sea. The weather here is cold, but above freezing, most of the snow is left over from a storm last weekend. There is a chance of more snow this weekend, but I don’t think that I will stay in Sapporo any longer, or I won’t have time to see the rest of the country. On today’s agenda is to figure out where I’m going next, go to the famous Raman Alley and order butter raman, and visit the Asahi brewery and the sake museum (I’ve already visited the Sapporo brewery).

Yesterday I gorged myself on sushi at a cute little place where the sushi travels around on a belt, and you just grab anything that appeals to you. It was 130 yen a plate, and I managed to get out of there for 1600 yen or so, which was pretty good considering that I was stuffed.

I was fine with skipping dinner, but the locals started buying us food and drinks at the izakya, so I’m starting to feel like this trip has become a giant eat-athon.


November 27, 2008

The fun thing about hostels is making new friends. Last night four of us got together and went to an Izakya, a traditional Japanese bar. It was a lot of fun, one of the members of our group is from a town outside Tokyo and he helped explain the various menu items and how to order things. I overcame my shyness and started shouting orders, as is the custom. “Masuta! Name biiru!”, I shouted and recieved a loud “hai!” in return. This translates into: “master! Draft beer!”, “Masuta” is the English loan-word, master, pronounced the same except with an “ah” sound replacing the ‘r’.

By the end of the night we were happily talking to the other local customers (two of our rank being fluent in Japanese), and were escorted out by the owner and his wife with thanks and well wishes, which is the custom.

It seems that in japan, the customer is treated like a king, and the staff really wants to make sure that your every need is met. This stands in stark contrast to the US, where customers are rushed through their meals to make room for the next customers, and the cook and staff are completely disconnected from the customer, the only person you interact with is your server. And there is no such a thing as tipping in japan, good service is expected as part of the job, and is a matter of pride for the shop keeper.

I Love Technology

November 26, 2008

When I started traveling, the only way to get Internet access was via an Internet cafe, the connections were slow, and costs high. Now I find myself in a situation where every place seems to have their own computers, wifi access has been present as well (though not advertised), and most travelers are lugging around a laptop.

My setup is an iPhone connected to folding keyboard (which I hacked together a month before leaving on this trip). This is really nice because it fits in my pocket, connects to wireless networks with ease, and gives me all the ability to take pictures and upload them without hassle. I can even compose offline!

Anyway, my contraption has gathered quite a bit of attention from other travelers. The portability aspect really appeals to them. Yesterday I got my first enquery about it, and today I got four people asking me questions about it.

Here is a picture:

Thanks for the comments!

November 26, 2008

Hey everyone! Thank you so much for the comments! It really feels good to open up my Inbox and see new email and new comments on my blog.

I will try to take more pictures. Usually I don’t get a good feeling of what would make a good picture until it’s too late. I’ll try to take more.

Traveling the hard way

November 25, 2008

When leaving for this trip, there were a few details which I tried to keep on the down-low. For example, the fact that I had not booked a single place to stay in Japan until the night before, or the fact that I only have a very fuzzy idea of what I want to see. Of course these details would come out after a few minutes of conversation, and I always got these weird looks like “you’re going to be screwed when you get there”. So yesterday I attempted to travel the way I like to travel.
I went to the train station and reserved seats on a series of trains to Sapporo. This is where things started to get bumpy.
For some reason when I looked up the train schedule online it claimed that the trip would only take 4 hours. “Damn, those bullet trains are fast!” I thought. Nope, 10 hours. Oh well, that sounded a lot more reasonable than 4 hours. This, however put me in town after 5pm.
As a rule of thumb, when you are looking for a place to stay without reservations you want to to get there before 5 so that you can be sure to have plenty of time to try your backup options. If you are showing up late, there is a good possibility that reception will be closed, so in this case you have to call ahead.
Japan’s railway is, however, almost too convenient, they allow only a few minutes to transfer between trains, and once on board, there is no possibility of making a phone call. So this is how I found myself sitting on a train at 5pm hoping that there would be enough time at the next transfer, the last one before Sapporo, hoping that there would be enough time to call ahead to the best place and reserve a bed. Now, at this point, most people would start to worry, but the way I see, it there are always other options. In Japan, there are at least these options (in a decently large city): 24 hour cafe, hostel, love hotel, capsule hotel, and then a whole range of mid to high level hotels. So my backup plan was to get a capsule hotel if I could not get into any of the three hostels in town. On my todo list for this trip is staying in a capsule hotel, so I was kind of looking forward to this experence.
Luck was in my favor, however, and I was able to squeeze in a quick call to the hostel and they said they would wait up for me, so the capsule hotel will have to wait until later.

We won’t accept your money here!

November 25, 2008

Yesterday I attempted to buy some beer for 450 yen. I handed them a 1000 yen bill (about $10), and they began passing it through the staff in much the same way people back home do when you hand them a $2 bill.

Eventually, after examining the bill, it was returned to me. They explained that the bill was an antique, and that it was probably worth more than the face value. I gave them another, newer, bill which they accepted.

Here is a photo of the bill (top), and its modern version (bottom).


November 25, 2008

I’ve been slowly picking up some Japanese. Yesterday morning I learned the symbols for locked and unlocked. These were printed on the shower door. Later that day, when I was wandering through a government building I came to a large sliding glass door with a note entirely written in Japanese, but I saw that on of the symbols was “locked”. Ah ha! This note must mean that I can’t get out this door, I thought to myself. Now all I need is 2999 more charaters and I will be able to read!

After running around on the local metro, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the train system. Of course, I’ve been on several train systems, so in some ways it’s familar turf, but still, the Japanese throw an intersting twist on it by making a twisting labrynth out of the stations and then packing them with twice as many people as I’ve ever seen in a train station.

I’m also gotten used to buying things. I inflicted my first two experences, on the staff, but now I understand that tax is included in the price. Now if I could just understand the rapidly spoken price. I’m glad that cash registers display this stuff.

Today I leave Ikebukuro for Sapporo. By the time people back home are waking up, I will be freezing by butt off in the distant north.

Ads on the metro

November 24, 2008

There are ads everywhere including the subway handles!

How to fight jet lag

November 23, 2008

For those of you wondering about the staying awake before an international flight, this is my solution to both being stuck in a seat for over 10 hours and for dealing with jet lag once I arrive. It’s a pretty quick and effective way of solving both problems at once.

I arrived at 3:30pm yesterday, but that was 10:30pm back home. By the time I got to my hostel, it was 6:30pm, and after a quick exploritory walk, I finally passed out in my bed at 8:30pm, which would have been 3:30am at home.

This morning I slept in until 6:30am, which was all I could sleep, but it is pretty close to the time I normally wake up anyway, so I feel that I may be in sync with local time by tomorrow. The sooner the better.

I suppose if you are the sort of person who can nap whenever they feel like it, then this method of staying up all night might not be necessary, but for me it works pretty well.