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Tuesday, February 7
It was 5 o’clock at school and I was ready to teach six 10-year-olds. Class time. I walked down our long hallway singing Darth Vader’s theme music.
“Bum bum bum, ba de dum, ba de dum…”
I stepped into the room ready to give my best Darth Vader impression—
“DA DA DA, DA DI DA, DA DI DA!”
My eccentric student, Miki, had jumped out of her chair to finish the song.
Quiet possibly the funniest thing I had ever seen, I laughed and laughed.
“Miki, real nice! High five!” We slapped hands and smiled at each other, we were on the same wave length.
The other students twisted to look at each other. They had no clue what just happened.
I wheezed deeply, mimicking Vader’s asthma. “Children, I am your teacher,” and closed the door.
And that is why teaching children is awesome.
Thursday, February 9
Thursday was a run of the mill day. My birthday. Because I hadn’t made much of to do about it, the staff merely said “happy birthday.” That was sufficient. There were no regular classes all week, so I had no students who could wish a birthday greeting. It was a normal day, nothing too special.
I did however receive my a birthday present from Moto. I had treated him to a fast food dinner for his birthday the month before. In turn he was kind enough to give me a Starbucks gift card. And because I do frequent my local Starbucks often enough it was a great gift. Thanks, Moto.
My real birthday treat came after work. I left as quickly as possible and found Mari outside the station. She greeted me with a small bouquet of flowers and a big smile. My heart melted. She even had put her hair up just like I like. We locked arms and walked down to my favorite bar, Angie.
We entered and were shown to our seats. Mari had called before. I had never reserved seats at the joint before. I didn’t even know you could. We ordered hot tea and an assortment of vegetarian-friendly dishes. I loosed my tie and looked over at the beautiful woman next to me. What a great birthday.
After finishing dinner Mari presented me with three gifts, each better than the last. The first was a pair of spandex running pants. Specifically designed to help support your knees. She was worried about my knee getting injured int he upcoming race. The second was a fine leather wallet. My old wallet, purchased at walmart for five dollars and nine hours before my flight, was falling apart. She had noticed. The third, and my favorite, was a picture frame decorated entirely by Mari. She had cut out letters and flowers to adorn a picture of both of us. I grabbed her close and gave her a strong hug. It had been my best birthday in a long time.
Saturday, February 11
Saturday was Foundation Day and a national holiday. I had a Saturday off from work! What an unusual treat! Sure not to waste an opportunity I had requested off the following Tuesday making a four-day weekend. I made plans with Mari and bought plane tickets. We were going to 北海道 (Hokkaido).
Allow me to explain 北海道. It is the northernmost island of Japan and the second biggest. It is right across the sea from Russia. Until relatively recently the island had very few humans. Even though it’s been known to exist, it wasn’t explored until much later than the rest of Japan. The capital of 北海度 prefecture is 札幌 (Sapporo.) 札幌 is a major city and the primary destination for most tourists. 北海道 is to Japan as Alaska is to the United States. Remote. Untamed. Unknown. Wild. Perfect for a vacation.
The primary reason for going north was for the 札幌雪まつり (Sapporo Snow Festival). A world-famous attraction where professional artists make amazing snow sculptures. So we decided to check it out. And as long as we were in the neighborhood why not check out the rest? And so we decided. Let’s try 北海道!
Saturday. I met Mari in Yokohama, we took a train to the airport. And that’s where this story begins; the airport. For all of the mundaneness of going to the airport, in Japan it’s worth mentioning.
We purchased tickets online. The confirmation e-mail, accompanying our e-tickets, advised us to arrive at security 15 minutes before departure. 15 minutes! I told Mari surely there was a mistake. Even a domestic flight in the states requires more than an hour to check in!
We arrived an hour & far too early at the airport. At my insistence. I was sure there had been a mistake. We both had two carry-on sized bags which weren’t much to handle. Mari preferred to check out luggage. Again I was dumbfounded. Our bags were too heavy to check and I didn’t trust the airline, even for a nonstop flight. Mari reassured it me it would be okay. We were in Japan. We checked our luggage, which exceeded the limit, at no cost.
We wandered around the outdoor deck watching planes come and go. Our tummies grumbled and we set out for food. Stop by the konbini and pick up bentos. The clock kept counting down and I requested we eat inside the security gates. We walked to the vacant security checkpoint. Emptied our pockets placed our backpacks on the conveyor belt and walked through. WITH SHOES ON! Security had taken approximately 30 seconds. We picked up our bags and walked a short ways down to our gate.
30 minutes before departure we sat down to eat. We at our fish and drank our green tea. We were both giddy with excitement. 10 minutes before take off the gate opened and all the passengers moved through in record time. We took our seats, listened to the bilingual announcements, and were thrust back into our seats for liftoff.
Our plane circled the sky above Tokyo gaining altitude. Leveling off we looked to the west and saw Mount Fuji poking it’s head above the clouds. Spectacular. Our flight continued without a hitch and less than two hours after take-off we arrived at Sapporo International Airport. The weather outside looked foreign. It looked like Nebraska. Gray skies. Snow banks. Ice that had melted back into the shadows. 8,000 kilometers from home and I felt at home.
What followed was the usual Japanese game. Hurry with the masses from one train to another. Ride a train, transfer, transfer, transfer. Without too much trouble we found our hotel. We dropped off our bags and set back out.
First stop, Sapporo Snow Festival! Train, transfer. It wasn’t hard to find the festival. Just follow the throngs of people. We emerged from the subway exit to see a heavy snow falling. We heard a serious speaker system blasting American techno music. Directly in front of us was a 13 story structure. I turned to Mari, “let’s check it out!”
We moved with the crowd and came around the structure. It was a 13 story, man-made snow slope, complete with a jump. A snowboarder pushed off the from the top, hit the jump, grabbed his board and landed with no problem.
“Psh, I could do that.”
Mari playfully slapped my arm. We then joined the crowd for a round of “ohh’s” and “aww’s,” before losing interest.
We found a map and made off for the far end of the stretch. The festival occupied 10 city blocks in the middle of the city. Each block had a different collection of stands and sights. At the end of each block was a primary snow sculpture. On average these puppies were at least five stories tall and were impressive. Photo shoots for each sculpture were required.
Having successfully seen everything we decided to visit the lesser known Sapporo Ice Festival. We elected to walk and enjoy the cold, crisp air. However the air proved very cold. We decided to break for a hot coffee. The two of us always prefer to pay just a little extra and support local business. We skipped the chain cafés and found a nice mom-and-pop joint. We settled in.
No sooner had we sat down then a squadron of smokers joined us. They lit up their cigarettes and polluted our air. My nose immediately flared up and I began to sneeze uncontrollably. My eyes became red and watery. Mari recognized these symptoms from Kyoto. We paid the check and left. But the damage had been done. I remember thinking to myself between sneezes as we left; “if their secondhand smoke is in my face, how would they feel if my secondhand snot was directed at their table?” We skipped the confrontation and returned to the street.
I did my best to mask my discomfort and have a good time. We wandered around the ice sculptures taking pictures. Me sneezing all the while. There was a consistent theme this year. Dragons, for the Chinese year. And reconstruction, for the March 11th disaster. We finished viewing the displays and set out for dinner. Hokkaido ramen is very famous in Japan, so we set out for some ramen. We found a restaurant and enjoyed our dinner. The ramen was… ramen. Alright. But nothing special.
Back at our hotel I turned the bath tap to volcano hot and enjoyed a steam bath. The hot water worked into my respiratory system and offered some comfort. I also popped two sudafed. Then I felt better. The rest of the trip I would continue to pump the medicine into my body and never again had trouble. Still though, I wanted to sneeze in those smokers faces.
Sunday, February 12
We were up and at ’em early in the morning! Mari and I are both too active to sleep away a vacation. Clean up, pack up, get out. We returned to the festival promenade and revisited all of the sculptures in the daylight. It was nice but I preferred the night-time and the “light up.”
Satisfied we had seen it all we caught an express train out-of-town and to the west. An hour later we arrived in おたる (Otaru.) Otaru is a sleepy village. It has turned from a port village to a bedroom community for Sapporo workers. The village council has wisely tried to cash in on the millions of tourists Sapporo draws for the snow festival. Otaru has its own romantic areas, especially along a canal down by the water front. Perfect for two young lovers.
We arrived to Otaru to find a heavy snow falling from above. We checked into our hotel and set out. We covered the area around the bay. We found a sushi restaurant and enjoyed massive portions of fresh and delicious seafood. The sun began to set so we ventured back out into the snow. We meandered the small streets and marveled at the out-of-place western architecture.
With darkness over the town we walked back down to the canal. Dozens of lanterns had been strewn in the canal. The path next to the water had sculptures cut out of the snow. We walked hand in hand and enjoyed the sights.
The rest of the evening was hardly worth a detailed recounting, but was nonetheless very enjoyable. We returned to our hotel at an early time. The next day would prove an early one.
Monday, February 13
Train back to Sapporo.
Snowboarding check in!
Two hours from Sapporo are the world-famous ニセコ (Niseko) ski slopes. Niseko catches polar snow that has torn across Siberia. The clouds literally dump the lightest and freshest powder anywhere in the world. How could we visit Hokkaido and not go snowboarding. We couldn’t! We had signed up to catch a bus out to the slopes in Niseko and ventured to the southwest.
We slept on the way out and woke up at the final stop. The bus let us off and we ran to a shop to checkout gear. A board for Mari and the whole kit and caboodle for me. We got our ski pass and ran to the lift. Then it was up and down the mountain for five hours. Mari taught me some tips for snowboarding and I continued to improve.
We broke for lunch and ate sushi near the lifts. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, not so much for the food, but for people watching. Three tables were occupied, four nationalities represented, and three stereotypes. The table in front of us was seated by Australians. The English-speaking Japanese server took their order. They made no attempt to speak Japanese. The slightly overweight woman did try to order a diet coke. I chuckled to myself. Ordering a “diet” soda to keep the weight off is a uniquely western misconception. The restaurant didn’t have her diet drink, so she settled for the regular cola. They picked up their chopsticks and fumbled with their fish.
Behind our table sat a group of Chinese women. They ordered in English and otherwise spoke loud and abrasive Chinese. I really try to resist the Japanese tendency to write off the Chinese and dislike them. But sometimes Chinese tourists are unpleasant, both in speech and demeanor. These women were fulfilling that stereotype.
Then in-between these two groups sat Mari and myself. A stereotype of the Japanese. We spoke quietly, tried not to bother the server and spoke to her only in Japanese.
I love how multicultural the world is becoming.
We returned to the slopes, tore it up, returned our gear and caught our bus. We chatted all the way back. Back in Sapporo we checked into our hotel. We requested a nonsmoking room. The staff happily obliged and upgraded our room from a smoking room on the fourth floor, to a nonsmoking, luxurious room on the top and 14th floor. Most excellent.
Back to the streets. Dinner. Sapporo famous soup curry. I love curry. But soup curry is just watered down curry paste. Which I don’t like. Not sure why it was so popular. We finished dinner and walked back in the snow. Our hotel had complimentary public baths. We donned ゆかた (yukata) and took hot baths. Sleep.
Tuesday, February 14
We spent the first part of the day looking for a cafe. The area around our hotel was almost entirely business and restaurants were hard to find. It seemed hopeless. I told Mari we should give up and go back to the station. We could eat breakfast there and then find the famous Sapporo Clock Tower. Hope was lost until we turned a corner. There in front of us was the clock tower, and just beside it was a mom & pop cafe. How serendipitous. We took pictures of the tower. It was as underwhelming as my guide-book had warned. We visited the cafe for breakfast and coffee and then we were off.
We first visited Hokkaido University. We took a train and bus out-of-town and were dropped off right in the parking lot. The school had been founded with the help of some Americans. The few buildings around us looked very western. We visited the famous statue of the university’s founder, William S. Clark, who in his farewell speech famously said, “Boys, be ambitious!” Pictures. Snap.
Cross country skiing was also offered. For free! Mari and I rented our skis and set out on a one kilometer jaunt. It was our first time so we weren’t sure. But luckily I remembered trying a cardio machine at the gym that simulated such skiing. I moved my legs in the same motion and was off. We finished the circuit hot and sweaty. We spent the next hour touring the grounds. Looking at sheep, sledding and waiting for our bus. It was nice to get of the city again and breathe some fresh air.
Back in Sapporo it was lunch time. We visited a vegan restaurant that specialized in raw food. Nothing had been cooked over 45 degrees C (113 F.) The food was tasty and surprisingly filling. We thanked the woman for the meal and left.
The rest of the afternoon we walked through town looking at the local あかれんが (red brick warehouse) and finally the station shopping center. Before long it was late and time for dinner. There was one final famous dish of Hokkaido to try, Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan is grilled mutton mixed with vegetables and a sauce. The Japanese people back home raved about it. I had to try it. Mari is a vegetarian, and bless her soul agreed to dine with me while I devoured meat in front of her. We were seated and brought raw ingredients. We were shown how to cook the dish at our table. Easy enough, toss everything onto the scalding hot convex plate and let it cook. Cook it. Eat it. The final verdict: meh. It was barbecued meat. Nothing special. I ate the meat, Mari ate the veggies. We paid the tab and left.
Train, plane, train, train, train, train, home. I arrived home just after midnight. I cleaned up and went to bed. Tomorrow it would be back to work. Time to get serious.
In review, Hokkaido was great. The weather was starkly different from Tokyo. There were literally tens of millions of people less than in Tokyo. I saw new things & had new experiences. And most importantly, I had an amazing travel partner. However I do feel that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the island. I wasn’t able to hike or swim or do anything without three layers on. So perhaps I’ll have to make one more visit north.
I am all about teamwork. “Many hands make light work,” as the saying goes. In Japan this has become a science. The Japanese work very well together. Teamwork is one of the national characteristics that has made the country so strong. However I am a westerner, I’ve grown up within an individualistic culture. To see such unity is inspiring, baffling and sometimes hilarious.
Public service projects are a prime example of this. For instance there was a crew working outside my apartment just last week. An electrical box on a telephone poll needed servicing. In my mind, this is a one man job. Send out a person to shimmy up the poll, fix the problem, and call it a day. In Japan, this took no less than six people.
One, the man standing in a crane doing the work. Two, the crane operator. Three, the driver turned observer. Four & five, two men directing traffic. Six, a crew supervisor. I stood on my balcony with a hot coffee watching the progress. Two different ideas ran through my head all the while.
1.) This is a picture perfect model of inefficiency. I’ve suddenly realized why my utility bills are so high. I’m paying six people to do one person’s job.
2.) There are 125 million people in this country. It’s a good thing all these men have jobs. It’s rare to hear about accidents or mistakes when so many people are working on a job. So they must be efficient.
A situation like the one mentioned above can be puzzling, silly and often funny. But it’s important to remember that it’s Japanese style. They do teamwork well. So let them do it.
北海道 (Hokkaido)- The Japanese equivalent of Alaska.
札幌 (Sapporo)- The capital of Hokkaido.
おたる (Otaru)- An old port town.
にせこ (Niseko)- A world famous skiing region.
ゆかた (Yukata)- A light cotton version of the classic kimono.