Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Hokkaido Trip 2009 (part one)

The idea of our trip to Hokkaido started when we met our second couchsurfing guest, Ryan. He had come to Tokyo to find work as a photographer and check out the Tokyo scene. He had been bouncing between Hokkaido and Thailand for a couple of years, hiking and photographing Daisetzuan national park and building an adobe house in the north of Thailand. His apartment had not been ready when he arrived in Tokyo and needed an emergency place to stay. As the apartment situation dragged on, he ended up staying with us for about 10 days. He finally decided that maybe the big city was not meant to be for him and decided to return to Hokkaido.

Luckily, while he stayed with us, his knowledge of the country and Japanese language skills helped open doors for us. He went with us to restaurants and stores and often explain what was going on behind the scenes. He also was pivotal in finding Joan a farm to work on, something she is very thankful for.

When he left, he suggested that we come up to Hokkaido and visit him. He offered to guide us around the park and a base of operation to explore the island. He also mentioned that the heat and humidity would be horrendous in August and that in Hokkaido it would be much cooler and drier. So all spring long, we had been talking and planning about a big trip up there. My job provides a ridiculous amount of summer vacation, so we had the time to do it right.

As we had not brought any hiking or camping gear, we started looking around at what was offered in Japan. They are crazy here about hiking and camping, but the prices are really expensive, especially for shoes and boots. So we ended up having a lot of our old gear sent from the States, as well as some hefty purchases from REI.

Joan had about three weeks of vacation from her part-time teaching job, so that was our window of opportunity. The problem was that is was the same window for everyone else in Japan. It was summer vacation in general and “obon” – the time when everyone goes home to visit family and to pray at the graves of ancestors. This meant that travel options were extremely expensive or completely booked. We did lots of research and hemming and hawing and eventually realized that there was no cheap and easy way to do it. So we decided to take the cheap option (I prefer to think of it as the “frugal” option, thank you very much, peanut gallery).

Three times a year, one can buy “Seishun juhachi kippu” (18 year old tickets). For about 11,500 yen (~$115), it gets you five individual days of unlimited travel on local trains, an extremely slow but extremely cheap way to travel. We had been discussing these tickets as a way to see Japan (bullets trains are so fast that you don’t get a chance to see Japan as it whips by at about 140 mph), so as we had lots of time, we decided to try it. We ended up buying a slightly different version, a rail pass, that offered similar travel but with slightly better options for our trip.

It was going be almost 1,400 kilometers on local trains, so we decided to break it up into three days and see some of Japan. We found a couchsurfing (CS) host in Tendo about halfway up the main island, Honshu, for the first night. The second night was going to find us in Aomori on the northern most point where we would get on the Hamanasu night express train at 11 pm. We would sleep as the train went through the undersea tunnel to Hokkaido island, arriving in Sapporo around 6 am. The third day would be a little sightseeing in Sapporo and then continuing north to Asahikawa where Ryan lives.

So after a great deal of shopping (who knew the 100 yen store would have so many things one needs for a backpacking trip?), organizing, planning, and packing, we left early Friday morning, train schedule in hand. Well, to use the juhachi kippu tickets, we had to make many train transfers to string together all the local trains. Some of this transfer times were measured in less than 10 minute intervals… Well, at our first transfer, we got confused about what platform we were supposed to be on and, yep, you guessed it: we missed our first connecting train. Unfortunately, it completely screwed up our carefully figured out itinerary and resulted in two and a half hours extra travel time. “Shoganai?” (“what can you do?” in Japanese).

Our CS host, Yohei, had suggested we stop by Yamadera, an ancient and beautiful Buddhist temple complex built into a mountain side. Even though we were running way behind, we decided to still visit. The weather was horrible, but it was still beautiful and even more impressive in the rain and mist. We will definitely put it on the list of places to return to.

We arrived in Tendo around 7 pm and were met at the station by Yohei. He had studied in America for six years and was excited to use his English again. He and his parents lived in a nice apartment in a building that reminded us of the big box apartment buildings of Kazakhstan. They had prepared a fantastic meal for us, and we all had a wonderful time telling stories and learning about each other. Joan, of course, will be blogging about the food and recipes she got from Yohei’s mother.

We slept soundly on futons on the floor in the same room with Yohei and woke to another wonderful Japanese meal: a breakfast of rice, pickled vegetables and leftover tofu. With many thanks, we walked to the station and got on another local train and headed east to Sendai where we would turn north again.

It was another loooooong day on the train, but the views were always interesting. In the three days of traveling, we never cracked a book or took a nap; there was too much to see out the windows. Finally arriving in Aomori, we met up with a fellow Asia University teacher, Derek, and his friend for dinner before catching the night express train. They were also traveling around Japan and just happened to be in the same town.
One of the risks with traveling juhachi kippu is that you can’t make any reservations. The Hamanasu night express train only goes once a day, and it is the major (and only) way people traveling on a budget get to Hokkaido. Only two cars on the train on non-reservation, and the guidebook implied it might be a good idea to get in line early. How early? Well, we asked the train station staff how early they thought we should go stand in line. They said, “One hour? That should be fine… but you never know…” So we decided to be extra safe and show up two hours early; again, we had lots of time on our hands.

It’s a good thing we did. As we walked down the stairs to the train platform, we could not see the end of the platform where the line would form. We came around the food kiosk that was blocking our view, and… oh my… There were already many, many people waiting, sitting on the ground with their backpacks and bags. We picked up the pace and even passed some people walking down the long platform. Some quick questions in our poor Japanese determined we were in the right place, so we quickly took our place in line. We struck up a conversation with our line neighbor (we always seem to luck into strangers who speak English) and learned it was his third trip to hike in Daisetzuan park. We also learned that the night we were there, Sunday, August 9th, was the busiest travel day of the year, and the train would be packed! We nervously asked him if we were close enough in line to get a seat because we didn’t want to have to stand for seven hours – nightmare memories of Kazakhstan came flooding in! He thought that we had a good chance, but just to be sure, that when people started boarding, to move quickly and not hesitate about getting any seats.

During the two hours we sat there, a steady stream of people came walking down the platform. It was funny and horrible to watch their expressions as they realized the situation and hurried to get in the lines which grew longer and longer. When the train finally pulled up to the platform, everyone jumped to their feet, shouldered their packs, and pressed forward. The doors opened, and people surged into the train, closely watching the people filling the seats coming from the other direction, hoping to get to open seats. We made it to a pair of seats with not much time to spare and gratefully sank into the…extremely hard and uncomfortable seats!! Argh!! It turned out that the poor SOBs that had to sleep on the floor of the aisle probably had a more comfortable ride and more sleep than we did…

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