Monday, February 27, 2006

One for our Families

On her visits to one of Muroran's high schools, Maureen often teaches with Usami-Sensei. Usami-Sensei is a tiny woman and a big pillar of internationalization in Muroran. She runs the International Center and eagerly opens her home to dinners with foreign residents and students. I've already visited her twice. When we told her we were getting married here, her eyes lit up with a forming plan.

"In Februry," she told us, "there is a kimono party in Muroran. You can come, try on kimonos and get your pictures taken.

And that's just what we did on Saturday. It was the first time for both of us to have three people helping us get dressed. It was necessary for Maureen's traditional women's kimono. In my case, wearing a men's samurai-style kimono, I could have probably gotten by with just the help of one person, but it took three to adequately express their collective amazement at just how much "too big" I was for anything they had. The largest toe socks were two sizes too small, but I squeezed into them, anyway. The skirts were supposed to extend to the floor, but hung several centimeters too short.

In the front, around my waist, one of the women tied a traditional, very symbolic knot in the shape of the number 10, a cross with arms of equal length. It took her three times to get it right, with many apologies for not having done it since last year. In between, she tried to explain its symbolism, but always stopped short of out-right saying it stands for male virality, which is certainly my guess given its placement, her vagueness, and 10's being a traditional representative for large numbers.

We took lots of photos, then de-robed and watched as international students from Muroran Institute of Technology followed suite (or is that suit?). Afterwards, we spread low tables on the tatami floor and stuffed ourselves on Japanese rice balls, Chinese dumplings, Sri Lanka curry and American pizza.

Swimming, Revisited

Maureen and I went back to the pool last night. We've been going once or twice a week since our first visit, and can now finally make it through the front doors and back out again without being corrected for any glaring social blunders. On every visit, we've noticed a skeleton of a woman working out in the pool and soaking in the hottub. Maureen is careful not to talk about her publicly, even in English.

"You never know who might understand what you're saying here," she cautions me.

Still, we're intrigued by this woman. What has made the flesh on her limbs shrivel back to the bone? What drives her to come to the pool? Is the exercise painful? Can she see any improvements? She has a story, and we'd love to know it.

Last night, I was standing beside her in one end of the pool while we both rested between laps. She turned and started talking to me in Japanese. I was in the process of trying to tell her that I didn't speak much Japanese when she switched to English.

I can't emphasize enough just how common that is here. We can struggling mightily to get directions in Japanese from someone, and just when all hope seems lost, they switch gears and try again in English. And it doesn't take very much English abilitiy at all to be orders of magnitude better than my Japanese. But most people here wouldn't try that first.

In fact, most people here wouldn't try anything first. This was our fourth or fifth visit to the pool, where we've seen many of the same faces each time, and this woman was only the second other swimmer who has spoken to us. The big guy in the walking lanes gives us a wide berth and the woman who cuts the water like a knife with her perfect strokes avoids our glance altogether. It's the bone-thin woman who must be used to people's stares who finally gets up the nerve to make the first move.

She studied at New York University and reads the NY TIMES in English every day, but her English speaking opportunities are very limited. She wants more, though. She'd like to go back to New York, and see lower Manhatten without the Twin Towers. As she struggles to find the right verb ending, I can see the frustration and embarrassment on her face. I smile and nod and encourage her to keep trying.

"You come here often, don't you?" I ask.

"Almost every day." After a pause, she adds, "Is it okay if I speak English to you when I see you here?"

"Of course! Of course it is."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Updates . . . and the rules of blogging

Faithful readers,

At long last, there are many new posts on this site and I can once again claim that it is up-to-date. Please accept my apologies for letting it go so long. There are five new posts below this one, some with photos, covering everything from a "simple" trip to the pool to getting married in a foreign country.

In letting things get so behind here, I forsook my own #1 Rule of Blogging. That is, don't get behind! And if you do get behind, it's much better to skip a few items (or days, or weeks) and keep writing about current topics, rather than forsaking the present in the hopes of catching up on the past. I did that by necessity in China. In Japan, with the promise of being able to write any time I want, it's so much easier to put things off "til later." Whenever "later" might be.



From our former home by the northern Ohio banks of Lake Erie, Maureen and I took broad aim across North America and the Pacific, and managed to slingshot ourselves from the heart of one rustbelt smack into another.

Okay, so maybe rustbelt isn’t quite the right term here. The rocky coastlines, rugged volcanic mountains and fields of wildflowers in Japan’s northernmost island hardly bring to mind the bombed out Midwestern steel towns of the 1970s. However, there are at least a few who call this little peninsula near the island’s far southwestern corner “the armpit of Hokkaido.” As one who sees both the necessity and beauty of industry (tragic as it sometimes is), I take issue with that moniker. Be that as it may, the smoke-belching steel mill stacks and nearly empty, pealing paint apartment buildings speak truth. Muroran is an industrial city whose glory days have passed.

From a peak of nearly 150,000 residents in the 1980s, the population has steadily fallen to just under six figures. Most new development in the region takes place several kilometers east of downtown, in Higashi (east) Muroran, where pass both the main railway and the new expressway. It was not without some amazement, then, that Maureen and I stepped into the sparkling, modern swimming complex located right beside gritty downtown and not 15 minutes walking from our apartment.

Nor was it without some anxiety.

Maureen has known of the pool for the duration of her stay, but had put off her first visit until the depths of blah gray winter left us longing for some other physical activity than simply trying to stay upright on a walk along the snowy, icy roads and sidewalks. Why such apprehension over visiting a pool, you might ask. Put that pool in a place where the staff speaks a different language and the patrons have very particular, specific and sometimes mysterious habits, then re-evaluate your thoughts on the matter.

“Wonder how many things we’ll do wrong tonight?” I asked Maureen as we left the apartment.

“This will be an adventure,” was her only reply.

Standing inside the swimming complex's foyer, we removed our shoes on the tile entryway before proceeding onto the carpet. So far, so good. Then came the matter of what to do with our shoes. There were only a couple of pairs waiting by the door, and no sign of storage racks. While standing there looking like the two lost foreigners we were, a smiling cleaning lady came up and handed us two large plastic bags, motioning for us to put our shoes inside them, then take the bags with us to the locker room. From the man at the front desk, we learned that the pool would be opened for another hour, until 7:00, and that admission was 300 yen each, which we paid there. The man gave each one of us a plastic card, directed us toward the locker rooms, then casually asked if it was our first visit. We nodded vigorously.

Another man emerged from the office carrying a plastic card like the ones we were holding, and some sort of locking mechanism. He demonstrated that we were to insert our cards into the locking mechanism, then lock it and remove the key. We would soon discover these self-same locking mechanisms on the lockers inside the locker rooms.

Wishing each other good luck, we disappeared into our separate quarters.

Inside, I stripped, donned my swimming trunks, stuffed my clothing into my locker, locked it per the instructions I had just received and strapped the key around my wrist. Taking only my towel, I showered and headed for the pool. Just before passing through the glass door separating the locker rooms from the pool area, I was met by several jets of water, which narrowly missed my towel but had no trouble re-soaking my entirity. Leave it to the Japanese to automate pre-swim showers.

I tentatively stepped into the pool area. There appeared to be a youth swimming class underway in the first several lanes of the big pool. To the rear, I spied what looked like two lanes of open swimming. There were a few folding chairs and shelves along the walls, so I made for one. I was promptly stopped by a lifeguard.

The woman, wearing blue shorts and a white t-shirt, pointed at my head and said something in Japanese. I returned a blank look. She then pointed at all the other swimmers, each wearing tight-fitting swimming caps. She said something else in Japanese and I made out the word “cap-poo.” I shook my head “no” and made a cross with my hands. Having made her point, the lifeguard now smiled and tried to assure me that everything was going to be okay. She motioned for her companion to go into the storage room. The other woman soon emerged carrying a neon green swimming cap. Nearly every other cap in the building was black. It was at this point that Maureen walked out. Immediately upon seeing her, the other lifeguard stopped in her tracks, about-faced, and disappeared back into the storage room. She returned with another swimming cap, this one black, which she handed to Maureen. I was given the fluorescent green one.

We apologized for our egregious oversights, thanked the lifeguards for their generous help, waited a moment to see if they had anything else to say to us, then slowly made our way toward the opposite side of the pool. The women smiled, bowed, smiled again and returned to their posts.

We put down our towels on a wooden shelf along the wall and surveyed the pool. The swimming class continued, while in front of us, two lanes, wider than the others, were occupied by a few swimmers making leisurely laps. We descended the ladder into the lane along the edge of the pool, let our bodies adjust to the water temperature and exchanged nervous glances.

“You go first.”

“Oh, no! Please, after you.”

I kicked off from the wall into a slow freestyle down the lane. Maureen followed. After a lap and a half without incident, we were standing in the opposite end of the pool for a short rest. Thinking I’d try a little backstroke, I pulled up to the wall, pushed off on my back, and began making big circles with my arms, looking at the ceiling to stay on course. Within a few strokes, the second lifeguard was standing beside me.

With a patient and understanding tone, she articulated a long sentence that meant absolutely nothing to me. I apologetically shrugged my shoulders and shook my head. Maureen had joined me now and the lifeguard made a second attempt. Something she said registered with Maureen, who turned to me and said, “on foot.”

I looked around. The other people in our lane, two middle-aged men, we were slowly walking the length of the pool. The closer one, just passing us, turned, smiled, and said “walking” in English. I nodded. Turning back to the lifeguard, I nodded again and said “wakarimasu” (understand). She smiled, nodded, bowed, smiled again, and returned to her place by the wall.

Maureen and I moved to the next lane and swam a few more laps. Growing tired, we decided to try water walking, and, falling in behind one of the men, found it more difficult than we had imagined. From there, we went on to succeed in using the hot tub and chatting with a young Japanese couple without doing anything to warrant correction from the lifeguards.

With 7:00 approaching, we swam and walked a few more laps and headed for the locker room. I returned our caps to the first lifeguard and turned to go through the glass door. She stopped me and showed me a metal door that I could use to bypass the automatic showers. Obliged, I returned to the locker room, took a proper shower, dressed, and entered the lobby to meet Maureen. Not seeing her, I removed my shoes from their plastic bag and placed them on the foyer floor, then looked around for someplace to put the bag. Seeing nothing obvious, I wadded it up and wandered over to the vending machines in the corner.

As I dropped my bag into the trashcan, I noticed the cleaning lady eyeing me from across the room. She made no move, so I returned to browsing the contents of the vending machines. As I was purchasing a bottle of iced tea, the cleaning lady crossed the room, reached into the trashcan, fished out my bag, and began carefully wiping it off with her rag.

“Gomenasai!” I exclaimed (Sorry!), approaching her. Once again I made the international symbol for clueless foreign idiot by shrugging my shoulders. Continuing to wipe off the bag, she led me past the bin of dry plastic bags to a bin of old newspapers. She indicated that this was the bin for used shoe bags, even though there were none currently residing in it.

“Wakarimasu!” I gleefully exclaimed in a voice just below a shout of rapture.

The cleaning lady eventually concluded her meticulous wipe down of my shoe bag and went about her business. When Maureen came out of the women’s locker room, I was ready.

“What do we do with our bags?” she asked. “It seems a shame just to throw them away.”

“Let me show you what I learned!”

I led her to the used bag bin and picked up one of the rags, whereupon I was promptly hailed by the man behind the front desk. With much animation, he indicated that we needed only to leave our used bags in the bin. Cleaning them was solely the responsibility of the staff.

We smiled, laughed, thanked him, and turned to put on our shoes.

“Where’s your card?” Maureen asked me. “Did you turn it in already?”

“My card? Oh! … my card … it’s still in my locker.”

Turning sheepishly, I walked back into the locker room to retrieve it.

Eastern Hokkaido Rail Trip

Before my visa status gets upgraded from "tourist" to "dependent alien" (at least I *think* that's an upgrade), I wanted to see as much of Hokkaido's railways as I could, via the Hokkaido Rail Pass, available only to foreigners on a temporary tourist visa. For Y18,000 (about $155), I got a 5-day pass good for travel on all JR trains in Hokkaido, which I used January 30 - February 3.

You can track my progress on this Hokkaido railway map:

Day 1: Minami-Chitose to Shintoku to Takikawa to Bibai (286.8 km)
Day 2: Bibai to Abashiri to Memanbetsu (359.8 km)
Day 3: Explorating along the coast east of Abashiri (155.9 km)
Day 4: Abashiri to Kushiro to Nemuro to Kushiro (363.6 km)
Day 5: Kushiro to Minami-Chitose to Tomakomai (385.1 km)

For the trip, I totaled 1551.2 kilometers. Purchased separately, those tickets would have cost Y40,750, so the rail pass was quite a good deal for me.

In terrain, I think Hokkaido most closely resembles some parts of New England. There are some broad, open valleys reminiscent of western New York, rugged mountains not unlike New Hampshire's Presidential Range, and rocky coastlines similar to Maine. The highest peaks top 2000m, with lots of 1000m+ peaks rising up quickly from sea level in the space of only a few kilometers. The highest mountains are located in the middle of the main part of Hokkaido, with ranges running north up the Wakkanai peninsula, south down the Samani peninsula, and northeast up the Shiretoko peninsula (northeast of Abashiri). The southeastern corner around Obihiro, Kushiro and Nemuro is primarily an open plain, with broad valleys, rolling hills and a few smaller mountains. The vegitation is mostly deciduous, with some conifers. Wildlife includes many, many birds, foxes, bear and lots of deer.

As a train-lover, I'm only just realizing how lucky I am to live in Muroran, which is only 5 km from the busiest railway line on the island, the Muroran mainline, which connects Sapporo to the rest of Japan via the Hakodate and Kaikyo Lines, the latter including the 51 km Seikan Tunnel under the Tsuruga Strait. There are lots of containerized freight trains (though only 12-20 cars long and single-stacked, as opposed to the mile long, double-stacked land ships that streak across America’s mainlines), as well as a few oil trains of solid tank cars. Most of the traffic, however, is passenger. There are 11 daily limited express trains in each direction between Sapporo and Hakodate – sleek, modern 7- and 8-car trainsets, some with tilting technology, enabling them to “lean into” curves and travel at higher speeds. There are puttering 1- and 2-car, self-propelled locals, 6-12 pairs daily depending on exact location. And there are the night trains, expresses with 9-12 car consists of beautiful, matched blue, green or silver sleeping cars linking Sapporo with Aomori, Tokyo and Osaka. Depending on the season, there are 3-5 pairs each day, most passing through in the early morning or late evening.

I have already seen much of the Muroran mainline in my travels around southwest Hokkaido with Maureen. I’m planning lots of photography once the weather improves (we seemed locked into a pattern of grubby, gray, overcast days right now), but for this trip I wanted to see some of Hokkaido’s remoter regions, and hopefully find a few places to revisit at some later point of our stay in Japan.

I woke early on Monday morning and caught the first express for Sapporo, went to the New Chitose Airport south of the city, and bought my pass. I immediately reserved a seat on the next eastbound express, a “Super Oozora” train bound for Kushiro in southeastern Hokkaido. Expresses and freights traveling between Sapporo and the southeastern corner of the island operate via the Sekisho Line, which was only completed in 1981. The Sekisho line, with its many long tunnels typical of 1970s Japanese railway construction, was a major upgrade over the twisting route over Karikachi Pass. Much of the pass was eliminated with the 6 km summit tunnel (which features a junction inside its western portal), but the line still traverses some scenic river valleys on its western approach, much of which is roughly paralleled by a new highway, parts of which are still under construction.

Following the summit tunnel, the line makes a big horsehoe curve as it drops downgrade to Shintoku and the long plains of eastern Hokkaido. There is a long concrete viaduct on the apex of the curve, but photographing trains on it would be a problem since most of it has metal wind fencing on both sides. Apparently the gails can really blow down from the mountains onto the eastern plains. The line is single track, and snowsheds are used to protect the siding switches. Despite these viewblocks, there are still some good-looking spots for photography and camping on this stretch, hopefully to be revisited in warmer months.

I disembarked at Shintoku, at the base of the mountain, where I walked around town and stumbled upon a lovely little restaurant and sushi bar offering up lunch sets of hot udon noodles and cold sushi for Y1000. In the early afternoon, I boarded a 1-car local train for a trip back up the mountain and through the summit tunnel, but this time taking the northern leg of the junction inside the tunnel for a ride through Furano to Takikawa.

The line up through Furano is quite scenic with lots of tight, Appachian-esque river valleys, plus a nice stretch along a lake and a long, open valley with high mountains on both sides. Traffic here is sketchy: I only confirm the 8 or so scheduled pairs of 1- and 2-car self-propelled locals, most lightly patronized, save for hordes of high school students inn the early mornings and late afternoons. My train didn't meet any freights, but there is an active container yard in Furano where I saw a couple of red diesels. Most of this line is jointed rail, as are most lines in Hokkaido. Interestingly, the Japanese (as well as the Chinese) seem to prefer parallel rail joints, rather than the U.S. practice of offset joint bars. I have since been told that this is to help deter the “hunting” or “snaking” motions often catalyzed by offset rail joints on long straight stretches. We really slammed over some of the rougher joints when the railcar got wound up to 80 or 90 km/h, but, in general, the trackwork is quite good.

Around Furano and northward, the valley opened up into a broad flood plain with high mountains on either side. Furano is famous for its skiing in the winter, and for its colorful burst of lavender wildflowers in June and July. I hope to experience both, starting with some skiing in March during a regional JET meeting held in Furano that Maureen will attend.

From Takikawa, I doubled back toward Sapporo, stopped for the night at Bibai. One of the many perks of Maureen being in the JET program is that I was able to arrange free lodging with other JETs across the island on every night of my trip. I spent the first night with Steve, his Japanese wife Erike, and their adorable 8-year-old daughter, Felicia. Steve is not actually a JET, but he teaches English at several junior high schools around Bibai and is very supportive of the JET program. I met him and his family just a day earlier at Maureen’s musical rehearsal in Hobetsu, where he immediately offered to house me for the night. We had yakitori (grilled chicken on wooden skewers) for dinner, a local specialty of both Bibai and Muroran. Steve told me that the two cities are both so proud of their yakitori, that they have each hosted a “grill-off” and taste test. Not surprisingly, the host city has won each of the two competitions.

I returned to the train station early the next morning for a long trip across northern Hokkaido to Abashiri on the cold Sea of Okhotsk, famous for its winter ice floes from Siberia. The morning run on the busy, electrified line to Asahikawa was primarily a straight shot through a broad valley. Development along the way reminded me of the rural eastern U.S. It certainly isn't as crowded as most anywhere in Honshu, Japan's main island, but it's not exactly the empty plains of Wyoming, either.

East of Asahikawa the topography got more interesting, but again, most of the line was paralleled by a new, partially finished expressway. The summit area around Kamikawa reminded me a little of western Montana, albeit without the spectacular rock formations of Glacier National Park. The landscape opened up more as we got close to Engaru, where the mainline makes a switchback. Engaru is in a broad valley and why there isn't a wye makes no sense to me, but the 5-car Okhotsk DMU expresses have cab cars at both ends, and the tail of the switchback is located in the station. The broad valleys here reminded me a lot of the area south of Elkins, WV along US 219. The expressway hasn't made it this far (yet?), which helped preserve a more rural feel. There's a nice "mini-pass" south of Engaru with lots of tight curves winding through a wooded valley. I really liked this area, too, and hope to come back in the summer or fall and do some lineside photography and camping.

Just south of there, I took a walking and lunch break in the small town of Rubeshibe. I saw my first freight train of the day there -- 10 container flats with a red diesel (center cab DD51) on both ends. I'm not sure if the grades are steep enough to require a pusher, or if it's there to speed along the reverse move at Engaru. (I'd think simply swapping ends would be easy enough, though.) I continued to Abashiri via a 1-car local through more broad valleys and along the shores a large, frozen lake just outside of Abashiri.

I went for a walk around town in the late afternoon, passing several groups of high school students on their way home. I smiled and said “hello,” and most smiled and returned my English greeting. One lad of 14 was even bold enough to ask, “How are you?” which led to a short conversation. He ended it rather abruptly, and I have to imagine we had been approaching the limits of his English comfort level. I was often guilty of the same in China. The girls are my favorites though. They steal quick glances with bashful eyes while approaching on the sidewalk. I say a cheeful “hello” as they draw near, they reply with timid “hair-rohs” as they pass, I count two seconds off in my brain, whereupon they burst into uncontrolled giggling.

I retraced my steps slightly to Memanbetsu, where I spent a relaxing night at Katie’s apartment. She had dinner ready when I walked in, then left me to read and check email in her warm living room while she played volleyball with a local adult recreation group. Even though we talked late into the night, she was still up at 6:30 for her morning run. When I asked if she had had any serious wipeouts on the slick ice and packed snow, she showed me the metal-covered straps on the bottoms of her sneakers, like snow tires for shoes. I was preparing to leave when she returned from her run, so we said a quick goodbye and I hurried off to the station.

You can time the departure of Japanese trains down to the second, so I often cut it close. That morning, I cut it a little too close. My train was pulling out as I burst into the waiting room. Seeing my disappoint, a kind, elderly woman pointed out the schedule and showed me when the next train would be leaving. With over an hour to kill, I was a little disappointed at first, but then I decided to enjoy the morning sun and took a walk by the lake. When I got back to the station, the light was shining in through the stained glass windows. Those photos were my favorites of the day, and I never would have gotten them had I not missed my train.

From there I returned to Abashiri and caught a Senmo Line local train along the Sea of Okhotsk. Unfortunately, the ice floes are temperamental and I missed seeing them, although I did see some drift ice. The tracks hug the shoreline and run along some rolling dunes with marshes to the south. Towering over all in the distance are the 1000m+ peaks of the Shiretoko peninsula. In addition to local trains, there is also the Norroko site-seeing train, 5 coaches with a small diesel that runs from late January to mid March. The local trains weren't crowded at all, except for high school kids at the beginning and end of their days. The Norroko train, however, was packed with Japanese tourists. I stuck to the locals.

In the evening, I met James at the Mr. Donuts down the street from the Abashiri station. After three years in the JET program, he found a job as a private Assistant English Teacher in Abashiri, where he’s enjoying the many winter festivals and parties that Hokkaidoans hold to help get them through the colder months. Following a much-needed trip to an onsen, we explored Abashiri’s snow festival, held on the bank of the frozen lake. There were several snow sculptures, two ice slides for the young (and young at heart, like James and me), and a hot air balloon operated by a professor at the local agricultural university. James noticed what appeared to be ticket booth.

“1500 yen for a ride,” he told me. “Want to go? I’ve never been on a hot air balloon before.”

“Me neither,” I replied. “Let’s go!”

We crowded into the small basket with the professor and a Japanese passenger. The professor fired the burner, located so close to my head that I had to duck to keep from singing my hat. We floated 100 meters or so above the frozen field and lake, the lights of Abashiri glittering in the distance.

The next morning, James was kind enough to get up at 6:00 and give me a ride to the station for my 6:41 train, headed south towards Kushiro. The northern part of the line rolls through more broad valleys with high, distant mountains and lots of lineside sawmills (but no rail freight traffic that I could tell) before going over the drainage divide in the middle of the island, a stretch of tight curves in woodsy mountains with a summit tunnel in the middle. South of there, the line enters Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, rolling hills boarding a vast marshland famous for its wildlife, including stately black and white cranes, many other birds, and more deer than I could count.

From late January to mid March, JR Hokkaido operates a steam train with one of their two preserved C11 2-6-4T locomotives, which hauls six cars from Kushiro to Shibecha every day. The clouds that had dogged me most of the week finally departed, so I disembarked in Toro for some photography. With the help of a Japanese photographer in the Toro station, I hiked to some nice overlooks and photographed the steam train in the snow-covered landscape. The Japaense love their trains and seem to have this tourism business figured pretty well, even running a double-header with both locomotives on the opening weekend. I'd never spent much time around tank engines before, but I must say, I rather like them. It's too bad there weren't more of them built in the U.S. -- they really are the perfect tourist train locomotive. Nice, deep whistles, too.

Afterwards, I hiked back to the Toro station and caught another local the rest of the way to Higashi-Kushiro, where I quickly changed to a local on the Nemuro branch for a trip to the far eastern reach of steel rails in Japan. After passing through a tight creek valley with some nice curves and three tunnels, the land opened up and we briefly touched the Pacific, before again turning inland up a lake and marsh. The last several kilometers into Nemuro were a heartbreakingly-beautiful stretch of running along the top of a gentle ridge through open farmland, the glittering Pacific again coming into view here and there through little creek canyons tumbling down to the sea. I'm sure the golden light of late afternoon helped tug at the heartstrings. We pulled right up beside the ocean for a short stretch, on a cliff 20-30m above the water. I had only 25 minutes to take a quick peak at Nemuro before I had to return to Kushiro, where I was spending the night. During the return trip, the driver noticed me taking photos of the sunset and motioned me up into the cab area for a better view.

Back in Kushiro, I met Caz, a first-year JET from the UK, at the station. She took me to a restaurant where we grilled our own meat on a gas burner in the middle of the table, then across the street to a large bookstore with an English-language section. Her apartment is part of a hotel complex, and she invited me to use the free onsen while she made a phone call. She was still on the phone when I returned, and the call being of a rather personal nature and her apartment being of a rather small nature, asked that I go next door to her friend Brooke’s apartment and promised to join me there as soon as she finished her call. Brooke is a second-year JET, also from the UK, and had just returned from an evening language class, so we hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet. It was not without some trepidation that I knocked on her door.

“Hi. I’m Scott. I’m staying with Caz tonight and she asked me to come over while she finishes a phone call.”

Brooke looked understandably confused at first. “Oh.” Then she sorted out the details. “Oh, of course! She mentioned someone was staying with her tonight. Won’t you come in? I’ll put on some tea.”

Caz joined us presently and apologized profusely. We all had a good laugh about it and lots more tea.

On my last day, Caz walked me into downtown Kushiro, showed me where I could along the waterfront, then went to meet her teacher for school. I strolled along the rows of fishing boats moored in the river, made my way back to the train station and returned to Toro where I again photographed the steam train in the marsh.

From there I returned to Kushiro, then proceeded by local train through more broad valleys, marshes and coastline to Obihiro, where I caught an express back to Minami-Chitose. I could have taken the express the whole way, but over the course of the week I found that I enjoy riding the locals a great deal more.

Visually, I prefer the longer, more streamlined expresses. The boxy locals aren’t much to look at or photograph. Cleveland has similar trains on its rapid transit line, which a friend appropriately dubbed “toasters,” since both look and sound like toasters on wheels. Here in Japan, though, compared to the expresses that fly through so much of the countryside without stopping, the locals feel much more intimate with the land and people around them. They stop at every station through all the small towns and countryside between the larger cities, ferrying commuters, shoppers and students alike, with a feeling not unlike a pre-Depression U.S. interurban railway line.

Unfortunately, like so many of those U.S. interurban lines that were abandoned during the 1930s and 40s, many of the local trains are losing money. The seating on most is in groups of four with two benches facing each other by a window. It was rare that I didn’t have all four seats of a cluster to myself. JR Hokkaido has been working to develop a dual mode vehicle that can travel on both railways and roads, literally a bus with railway wheels, in hopes of providing more financially feasible public transportation to its rural areas. The first units are scheduled to be placed into service later this year.

Hokkaido was once a great coal-producing region, but Japan now imports less expensive coal from Australia and China, so the mines have closed, many branchlines have been removed and lots of the smaller cities and towns in Hokkaido are declining. In some ways it reminds me of Appalachia, although here at least there is the nearby big city of Sapporo to take refuge and start over. I've been told Sapporo is the fastest growing city in Japan (at 1.9 million, it is currently the fifth largest). Still, smaller cities like Muroran and Kushiro have streets of closed-up, run down buildings and empty apartments. Ridership is decreasing on most railway lines, and even as the population of Hokkaido continues declining, new expressways, like the ones I passed on my first two days of travel, continue their expansion across the island, and boatloads of new Toyotas pull into the Tomakomai port every few days.

There are multiple reasons for the declining population here. The birthrate is declining, so the population is not being replaced as quickly as it is naturally dying. With the closure of the coalmines, the island lacks a strong, primary industry. There still exist the modest industries of agriculture, forest products and fishing, and the southwest region includes a steel mill, oil refinery and cement plant in Muroran, plus active port facilities in several cities, but they are not sufficient for complete sustainability, not to speak of growth potential. For the high school students that Maureen and the other JETs visit, those who can will flee to Sapporo or Honshu, while the rest have little to look forward to in employment prospects beyond the view behind the counter at a convenie or grocery store.

A Quiet Walk?

Asia is a hard place for the introvert to lose himself in reflection. There are so many people. And those people are everywhere.

On the last weekend of January, I went with Maureen to her musical rehearsal in Hobetsu, a small mountain town of 3800 to the east of Tomakomai. The JETs in Hokkaido are a very active bunch, perhaps in part because of the isolation that comes with living on an island that is snowbound for half the year. The gaijin here tend to band together, and every year, a group of them produce a Broadway musical with a Japanese flare. This year’s selection is “Guys and Dolls,” and Maureen has a role as a dancer and chorus girl. The cast and crew assemble for one weekend each month throughout the school year to prepare the show, then give performances on the last three weekends in May. The plays are done in English, but include enough Japanese lines that someone who spoke only Japanese could still follow the basic plot.

I had plenty to keep me busy during the rehearsal, from photographing the cast, to reading, to taking meditative walks through the quiet village streets in the bright winter sun. Or at least trying.

I was walking up the snow covered sidewalk in that contrasting time of evening that only comes to the deep valleys and hollows. It was that time before twilight but after the low sun had dropped behind a nearby, towering, confining hillside. The sky was bright, the painfully clear blue of cold winter. The clouds were cotton white rimmed in gold, the blue-white snow shadows covering a land that was neither dark nor bright in the sky’s reflection. The packed snow of the un-shoveled, unsalted sidewalk packed tighter underfoot with each step, and I had drifted a thousand miles away to the windswept plains of Inner Mongolia where the last of the giants still steamed across the grasslands.

My thoughts were on the railroaders of that barren land, in particular the ones I had met and given my photos, given those little parts of myself. And I had just found out from another traveler that they have been selling those photos, my photos, to other steam seekers for a little bijou money. I’m surprised but not, perhaps most surprised at myself for being so naïve in thinking they wanted my photos for anything other than potential income.

With the haunting acoustic melody of the Goo Goo Doll’s “Name” drifting through my mind, I notice for the first time two teenage girls walking toward me. If this was America, I could keep looking down, keep looking at the sidewalk, looking through the sidewalk to that place deep inside myself where my current thoughts were fixed. If they were American high school girls, they would think nothing of me and I would think nothing of them, and we would both pass and walk onward, our thoughts and conversations untouched by our coincidence in that place and time. But this isn’t America. This is Japan, and they were already watching me for a long time before I ever saw them, even though in that moment, as I was looking up, they were looking down and pretending to study that same, snow-covered sidewalk I had been looking right through for so long. I’m 190 cm tall, fair white skin and just can’t hide. So I looked up, looked outside myself and right at them until they finally met my gaze and then quickly looked away again.

“Hello!” I said, loudly, clearly and cheerfully.

“Herro,” the first one answered, quickly and timidly.

“Hello!” I hailed the second. She was too embarrassed to speak.

They were not two steps past me when the high-pitched, squealing laughter broke out. And I had to smile. My reverie was broken, lost and not likely to be found again, but I had to smile. Simply by being here, I’m a participant in the internationalizing of rural Japan whether I want to be or not.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Japan Marriage

A Joint Post by Scott and Maureen

Sometimes the best things in life are worth waiting for…and sometimes they’re worth doing as quickly as possible.

After nearly four years together, we (Maureen and Scott) got engaged in July, just three weeks prior to her leaving for Japan. We said a tearful goodbye in Detroit the morning before her departure, then spent the next 4-1/2 months apart. That was more than enough time to realize that we didn’t want to be apart again when his temporary visitor’s visa expires on March 15th. So, since we were already going to Sapporo in the middle of January, we decided we might as well get married while we were there.

Finding the U.S. Consulate office proved something of a challenge to our navigational skills, and was not aided by the heavy construction fences obscuring the entrance. We later learned the construction is for keeping the Sapporo U.S. Consulate office up to current security standards (since Japan is such a hot bed of terrorist activity). Arriving there was only made possible with the assistance of a few (okay, several) keitai calls to the ever-helpful P.A. Shane.

Among the racks of papers in the U.S. Consulate office in Sapporo is the handy, three-step guide to marriage in Japan. Step One was to visit the U.S. Consulate General and obtain an “Affidavit of Competency to Marry.” Presumably this step is to dissuade all of those young, foolish (drunken) couples in the U.S. who would otherwise hop a flight to Japan to elope. Among the many questions to which we had to swear our answers (with right hands raised) was that this was the first marriage for both of us. Prior to our embarkation on Step Two, the smiling clerk kindly provided us with both verbal and written instructions for what to do once we start having babies in Japan, since that is clearly the first thing married couples do.

Following a romantic lunch at and a pink-n-cutesy gourmet deli and dessert café, we hopped the subway to meet Shane at the nearby Chuo Ward office, where the Consulate clerk had assured us we could complete Step Two: registering our marriage and obtaining official proof of our marriage’s officialness (also known as the “marriage certificate”).

The first part of Step Two, registering our marriage, required completing the “application for a report of marriage,” which, of course was in Japanese. That was one of the many places where Shane came in.

“Do you see anyone in here that you like?” Shane asked, sweeping his arm around the office.

“What do you mean?” We gave him blank stares in unison.

“Well, you need two witnesses to sign this form. We might need to grab someone.”

“Since we have you as the best man, Shane, we should grab a random lady who looks nice.”

While scanning the room for the would-be maid of honor, Shane delved back into the form, trying to remember all of those difficult, seldom-used kanji.

“This thing is pretty messed up!” he exclaimed.

“What now?”

“Well, if I’m reading it right, this part wants to know what kind of backgrounds each of you come from. Like, were your parents farmers, merchants or warriors?”

“Are there any other options?”

With the form as complete as it could be, the three of us approached the counter where a lengthy, animated discussion ensued between Shane, the man behind the counter, and his supervisor. As the discussion continued, a tinge of doubt crept into our minds as the man’s expression turned to one of apology, the traditional Japanese look for “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”

“He says you can’t get married here,” Shane told us.

“Why not!?!?”

“Because you don’t live here. You’ll have to register your marriage at the ward office of your residence, back in Muroran.”

Even as the staff helpfully called the Muroran office to confirm that we had all the essentially paperwork, our spirits sank at this delay in our “officialness” as a married couple. Even in the midst of having a celebration dinner to look forward to in the evening (thanks to the generosity of Maureen’s family), we were feeling a bit down. Then Shane mentioned a great place he knew to go for dessert, an even better one for beer, and that he would suggest our dinner guests should treat us. Our spirits lifted instantly! After all, we’re not gonna give up a chance to party, especially for this occasion.

In deciding to have a Sapporo celebration, we knew we could count on our trusted P.A. for culinary advice and assistance. Since we are in Japan, it would seem appropriate to go all out and arrange a fancy Japanese dinner. However, the words “fancy,” “Japanese,” and “dinner” are a combination that rarely occurs beyond the presence of fish, and Maureen’s pallet doesn’t entirely agree with the taste and texture of fresh foods from the sea.

“So let me get this straight,” Shane had asked in a previous discussion, “you want a nice Japanese dinner, but you don’t want fish?”


“I think that would confuse them.”

All was not lost. All along Maureen had a hankering for lasagna, and she was determined to find a place that served it. After all, if you are going to get hitched, you darn well should be able to choose the menu! That decided, we charged Shane with the task of finding an Italian restaurant that would serve it. A few days later, he e-mailed us back suggesting a place called Becco.

On what turned out to not be our official marriage night, but rather the night of our “U.S. Consulate Date,” we met Shane and six other JET friends for a cold, windy 15-minute walk from the Sapporo Station. The dim lights of Becco provided a rather elegant and relaxing atmosphere. At Shane’s request, they prepared everything we wanted and more: several appetizers including pizza, garlic bread, various meat dishes, and two deep pans of thick-noodle, cheese-dripping lasagna. The guests in attendance can all attest to this wonderfully prepared meal. If you are looking for a great Italian restaurant in Sapporo we highly recommend Becco.

Some of you may know a few of Shane’s favorite drinking establishments in Sapporo. One of these is a small place hidden away in a basement stacked high to the ceiling with empty beer cans from all over the world. The selection of full cans and bottles is just as outstanding. Maybe Maureen is biased, but this was by far one of her favorite ni-ji kai’s yet. The owner, Fred, is an American ex-patriot from California who just plain knows how to brew beer and sell the best. We even toasted to a bottle of his choice on the house. Please email Shane for directions on getting there. He’ll probably request that you invite him, too.

It was Shane who best summed up our feelings for the day. “To me, marriage is something that you feel inside yourselves. So as far as I’m concerned, you’re already married. Kanpai!”

Friday, back in Muroran, was our next chance at consummating our officialness. Whether to even try on that date was a matter of considerable discussion, being that it was Friday the 13th. Despite Shane’s enthusiastic encouragement, we had our doubts. In the end, the point was rendered moot, as Maureen’s supervisor, who had generously agreed to accompany us to the city office and translate, was not available.

On Saturday evening, we once again found ourselves having a party with nothing official to celebrate. We couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy another gathering in our “un-official honor,” especially with delicious Sri Lankan curry prepared by Sumudu, a Muroran friend. Fun times were had by all as we divulged ourselves in chicken, potatoes, veggies and rice. We capped off the evening with scrumptious chocolate cake chosen by Katie, John, and Judy, and a champagne toast with acting best man John Gainor doing the honors this time around.

“I think they just want an excuse to party,” said Judy. “I don’t think they’re ever going to get married.”

We were beginning to wonder, too.

Monday was our next chance, but it was shot down by one of Maureen’s co-workers, as it was butsumetsu, “the day Buddha died,” according to the lunar calendar used by Japan into the 19th century. Not a good day. Seeing as how we had already eschewed American superstition, we thought it fitting to follow suit with the Japanese. Besides, Maureen had a New Year’s office party that night, and a school visit the next day – hardly ideal conditions for celebrating a marriage.

Taking advantage of the marital leave in her JET contract, Maureen had seven days off beginning on Wednesday. That morning, we met her supervisor at the Muroran city office. This time there were no apologetic looks from the staff. With his help, we completed all of the paperwork in a matter of minutes and were instructed to return the next morning to pick up our marriage certificates. There were no ceremonies, no vows, not even any “I do’s.”

We said goodbye to Masuda-sensei and began the long trudge through the snow up the hill to our apartment.

“So what just happened there?”

“Are we actually married now?”

“I think so.”

“It all feels a little anti-climatic, doesn’t it?”

To best merge the location of our marriage with our own personal tastes, we had sushi for lunch (well, at least one of us did – no prizes for guessing which one) and made spaghetti for dinner. We returned to the city office the next morning and were presented with three pieces of paper: two simple marriage certificates and an ornate one with gold trim and a red, stamped seal. None contained so much as a single word of romaji, let alone English. Maureen can read enough kana to make out our names and the date, January 18th. Beyond that, we can only hope it actually says we are married, and is not instead the opening dialogue from last week’s Doraeman episode. Maureen’s mother already wants us to mail it to her so she can have it matted and framed.

That afternoon we boarded a train for Noboribetsu, where we were treated to a night at the Sekisuitei Onsen, courtesy of a very generous and very unexpected wedding gift from Maureen’s coworkers. At the front desk, we were asked whether we wanted a Japanese room or a room with a “bed-o.”

“Bed-o,” we replied.

Several “arigato gozaimashitas” later, we took the elevator to the fourth floor and stepped into a beautiful room with a raised tatami floor, low table and chairs, … and two twin beds. We exchanged curious looks. But that, like Scott's upcoming trip to the immigration office, is another story.

Kyoto, Part II + Tokyo

With 220 yen, plenty of time, and even more patience, you can ride nearly anywhere in Kyoto on a city bus. Our first attempt went over without problems, thanks largely to the tourism bureau’s English bus map and a straight, one-bus shot down Marutamachi-dori, the busy avenue that ran in front of Kyoto Cheapest Inn. We exited the bus in a western suburb, beside the parallel JR line’s Hanazono station, and began walking north.

Our morning destination was Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple (we decided to save Kiyomizu-dera for the afternoon), but we were taking the long way to get there: 4 km of winding back streets in Kyoto’s western hills. Just a block north of Marutamachi-dori, our route took us straight through a sprawling temple and monastery complex. There were no admission fees, no souvenir shops and no crowds. Besides us, the only people out on this drizzly, gray morning were a few Japanese tourists and the long-robed monks, going about their morning rites. We strolled slowly and quietly through the length of the grounds, leaving only for the promise of so much more to see in the day.

Our path took us through narrow streets and across a single-track railway with one-car trains edging through the backyards of houses, villas and apartment buildings. We turned right and made our way up a winding road at the base of a hill, passing several small temples and countless roadside mini-shrines with little stone gods adorned in bright red New Year’s jackets. The growing crowds along the sidewalk alerted us to our arrival at Kinkaku-ji’s entrance (Y400). While Mo visited the restroom, I discovered the ultimate combination of the Japanese fixations with photography and convenience: a vending machine selling disposable cameras.

Once inside, we were immediately greeted by one of the most famous sights in Japan: the three-story temple with its top two floors in shimmering gold. A special area, apart from the main path, was roped off for the express purpose of viewing and photographing the temple. A man approached with his camera and asked me to take his picture. I complied, then suggested he check the shot on his review screen to make sure it was okay.

“I’m sure it will be okay,” he smiled, pointing to my 20D. “When I want my picture taken, I always look for someone with an extravagant camera.”

With my “extravagant camera,” I took the standard, touristy photos of the temple reflected in the pond beside it, but found greater pleasure in taking pictures of Japanese tourists taking pictures of the temple with their cell phones.

The original Kinkaku-ji dates from 1397, built as a retirement home for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and converted into a temple by his son. Of course, we weren’t looking at the original Kinkaku-ji. Lonely Planet reports that “in 1950, a young monk consummated his obsession with the temple by burning it to the ground.” The current edition is a 1955 reconstruction, an exact replica save for the gold-foil covering being extended down to the second floor (only the top story was gold on the original).

“If that guy loved it so much,” Mo asked, “why on earth would he burn it down?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, “but that seems to be the way with obsessions. Why do serial killers murder the people who most fascinate them?”

Beyond the temple itself, there proved little else to see at Kinkaku-ji. While there was one primary path at Nijo-jo, there we were still free to wander about at our leisure. Here, we were guided like so many cattle in stock pens around the grounds. Beyond the temple, we passed a small waterfall, then climbed some stairs to the lake that fed it. In short order, the pathway dumped us out through the exit gate into a hive of gift shops, and that was that. We were welcome to enter again on our same tickets, but I could see little reason to do so. It was only 10:30, none of the ramen shops we had passed on the street outside opened before 11:00, so we boarded a bus to take us back into the city.

Following lunch, we hopped a subway bound for downtown. Two days of hard walking were taking their toll, and rather than exiting for the 1.5 km walk to Kiyomizu-dera, we continued by subway to the main railway station, where we could catch a bus that would take us nearly to the temple’s entrance. That decision proved monumental.

In front of the JR station is the busiest bus stop I have ever seen. On six lanes between covered platforms, each one with multiple boarding points, a ceaseless parade of city buses marched out of and back into the rush of city traffic. A towering sign in front of the platforms listed the color-coded, numbered boarding point for each numbered bus. We found ours and waited, with three dozen other passengers, on the appropriate, narrow swath of platform by an electronic sign that displayed how many stops away the next bus was.

The bus that comes closest to Kiyomizu-dera is no. 206, a circulator bus that runs a loop around downtown. We stood in the crowded aisle as the bus lumbered into the nearly grid-locked midday traffic. Fifteen minutes and only a couple stops later, we were beginning to think we should have just walked from the nearest subway station. Then I noticed the shadows seemed to be on the wrong side of the bus.

“Don’t look now, Sweetie, but I think we’re going the wrong way.”

The next street sign, thankfully including romaji (the Romanized version of written Japanese), confirmed it. City bus numbers in Japan correspond only to the route, not direction. We needed the counterclockwise 206, but had boarded the clockwise one, which was taking the very long way around to Kiyomizu-dera.

“How long will it take if we just stay on this one?” Mo asked.

I consulted my bus map. “At this rate, the temple just might still be opened by the time we get there.” It didn’t close for another five hours.

“I don’t want to be on this bus any more!”

“Me neither. Up for some walking?”

“I think so.”

We exited directly across downtown from the temple and started walking, along the way passing the subway stop that we could have used some 40 minutes earlier. Another kilometer brought us to the bus stop that we had wanted, and from there we began climbing the narrow streets up the hill towards the temple.

The road split, giving us a choice of two routes. Both were crowded with tourists and New Year’s pilgrims, but we selected the somewhat quieter path. Halfway up, we stopped for a break by the entrance to one of the countless souvenir shops along the way.

“Do you mind if I take a few photos while you browse here?” I asked Mo.

I went a short ways back down the hill while she entered the shop. Inside, she looked with half-interest at a rack of Hello Kitty key chains with the expressionless feline adorned in geisha-style kimonos. Across the store, a Japanese voice muttered, “Only an American would buy those!” Mo turned from the display rack to look outside. And there they were.

I was looking downhill, contemplating the low-angled sunlight and long shadows of the narrow street, when Mo’s voice brought me back to reality.

“Scott! SCOTT! Turn around!”

I looked up the hill and saw Mo. Then I looked beside her. A small crowd was timidly following every clip-clopping step of three white-faced women in bright, capacious kimonos. I lowered my camera. This was something to see with my own eyes, not looking through a viewfinder. Beneath the piles of jet-black hair wound tightly on their heads, the make-up was thick and cracking, not as perfect as I had imagined. Reality never is. They took short, quick steps down the hill in high, wooden sandals, heels hanging over the backs, passing not three meters in front of me. The red ribbons in their hair indicated they were maiko-san, geisha-in-training. I turned to watch them go and snapped a single photograph.

Mo was beside me. “My visit to Kyoto is complete!” She beamed.

“Just think,” I pondered as we continued up the hill, “if we hadn’t gotten on the wrong bus, we never would have seen them.”


From here, for the interest of keeping this blog semi-up-to-date, I’ve resigned to continuing with a more basic, condensed narrative of the rest of this trip.

We spent the afternoon at Kiyomizu-dera, a spectacular wooden temple built on stilts clinging to the hillside of its beautiful surroundings. We returned to the station in the evening and dined on okinomiyaki, a delicious grilled pancake of cabbage, eggs, potatoes, and about anything else you might like. The Wall Street Journal reports that okinomiyaki is coming to the U.S. Maureen and I will be glad to still be able to have it when we return, but are already imagining how it could fall short of the Japanese version.

We spent the next day in Arashiyama, a picturesque western suburb of Kyoto where Hozu-gawa (the Hozu River) tumbles out of a narrow fold between two mountains. We wandered the streets and paths along the river, dined at a noodle shop beside the falls where we watched a high school karate class practice in the river on that chilly, 5C day, ate green tea flavored ice cream (not bad, an interesting bittersweet taste) at another riverside shop, then set off up the winding streets through bamboo groves, shops and temples at the foot of the western hills. At the top, where some buildings still sported thatched roofs, we caught a bus back into town, retrieved our bags from Kyoto Cheapest Inn, and caught a train on the Hankyu Railway back to Osaka.

There, we stepped off the platform and into the rush of Osaka nightlife, where the neon glow, punk rock music and masses of people moving in every direction offered a stark contrast to refined, traditional, cultural Kyoto. Outside the station, a maze of overhead walkways carried pedestrians above the rush of traffic in the streets below. On these, photographers sold prints and postcards, musicians played guitars and sang, and bands – full bands – set up with speakers, amps and drum sets to jam with the rhythm of the surging traffic and the rush of commuter trains.

We could have spent the whole night taking it all in, but we had to find dinner and our overnight bus to Tokyo. There was no proper bus station, but rather a simple bus stop from which all the buses left, from inner-city circulators to the long distances night runs. Beside it, we found a newly opened Italian restaurant that filled us up for Y2000.

On board the bus, by far the cheapest way to travel between the Kansai region and Tokyo, we had the two seats located directly behind the driver, offering both a little extra legroom and a fabulous view of the night-lit city through the big front windows.

The next morning, we once again found ourselves at nothing you would really call a bus station. We were dumped on the sidewalk in the middle of downtown Tokyo at 6am, and expected to fend for ourselves from there. Luckily, we were only two blocks from the train station, where we stashed our bags in lockers, found breakfast, and caught a subway for Tsukiji (Skee-jee), home of the largest fish market in the world.

Nothing can really prepare the first-time visitor for Tsukiji, not even T.R. Reid’s wonderfully written short story “The Great Tokyo Fish Market” in the book TRAVELERS’ TALES GUIDES: JAPAN. You might expect to be led to the place from several blocks away (or turned away from it, as the case may be) by the pungent smell of rotting fish, but that isn’t the case at all. Fish doesn’t come to Tsukiji to rot. It comes to be sold, and delivered to the highest bidder on the double. It’s in and out so fast that it doesn’t have time to stink. And just how much of it passes through on a given day? Reid reported 5 million pounds, and from my observations, I have no reason to disagree with him. For you other rail enthusiasts out there, that’s 2500 tons, or 25 U.S.-sized refrigerated boxcars per day. Except it doesn’t move in boxcars. It moves on thousands of miniature forklifts through the packed, narrow aisles to be sold as individual fillets to the thousands of fish buyers wandering those narrow aisles and inspecting each catch. Behind them, in one of the hundreds of sellers’ booths, two men use a chainsaw to slice up the frozen carcass of a two-hundred pound tuna, while other fish, bigger than me, lay intact on the floors. Eels thrash about in small tanks beside others filled with snapping crabs and floating salmon eggs. Later that same night, it will all be served up, cooked or not, to so many thousand salarymen, tourists, families and students at Tokyo’s countless restaurants and sushi bars. The majority of the market of is open to the public, and it’s up to each individual visitor to stay out of the way. Maureen and I succeeded, sometimes barely, in doing so for thirty all-sensory stimulating minutes, then found our way back to the rest of the world, which, in truth, seemed very much removed from Tsukiji.

From there, we ventured to the western suburbs of Tokyo, where we visited the Ghibli (Gee-blee) Museum, dedicated to Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and the history of animation. From there we returned to downtown Tokyo and took a ride on the newly built Yurikamome tramline across the Rainbow Bridge spanning Tokyo Harbor. The trams are fully automated and run without a driver, allowing passengers in the first car a front-row view of the harbor and city. We walked along the waterfront, enjoying the mild weather and the Statue of Liberty look-alike, then headed back through downtown to find our hotel.

We had the train station and phone number for the hotel, but had failed to bring directions. We flagged a taxi and asked for the Toyoko Inn, but the driver seemed to have no idea what were talking about. We tried the next cab and were met with a similar result. At this point, we called the hotel. They did not speak enough English and we did not speak enough Japanese to get directions ourselves, but Maureen did succeed in getting the receptionist to direct the taxi driver. When the taxi dropped us off a few hundred meters down the street, we exited feeling very sheepish.

We hadn’t seen a bed in four nights, and pull of the big one in our room was nearly enough to keep us in for the evening. Eventually though, freshly showered, we struck out to find dinner with a view in the Tokyo night. We returned to the train station, by foot this time, and took a local train to Shinjuku, the next station and pulsating heart of Tokyo’s nightlife. Or, at least, supposedly the pulsating heart of Tokyo’s nightlife. The neon glittered from the train windows, but exiting to street level, we found streets that had largely packed up and gone home for the evening, even though it was only 8:30. Maybe we were in the wrong part of town. We found dinner, though, with a fine view from one of the many restaurants on the 29th and 30th floors of the NS Building, where we spied some salarymen in adjacent high-rises still going strong as 10:00 approached. Our restaurant served dinner up shabu-shabu style, which is a big pot of boiling broth placed on a gas burner in the middle of the table. We then got plates of raw meat and vegetables, which we added to the broth, cooked, and ate at our leisure. This, plus appetizers, dessert and drinks brought the bill to Y8675, or about $75US. Three days’ of all-inclusive travel in China.

We took a wrong turn going back to the train station and fearless navigator Scott failed to listen to the voice of reason walking beside him, beseeching him to retrace his steps to familiar territory. We finally arrived at the station of a private railway which we used to get back to the Japan Rail station, which we used to get us back to our hotel, though an hour or so later than we would have gotten back otherwise.

The next morning, we slept as late as our 10:00 checkout time would allow, then packed out bags and headed into a gray, overcast day.

“What do you want to do today?” I asked Mo.

“I dunno. What do you want to do?”

“I dunno.”

The previous morning, Tokyo held more wonders than we could ever hope to see in a month of two-day visits. One packed day later, our enthusiasm was in the gutter. We browsed a few department stores, laughing at the $100 shirts and $200 skirts. The highlight of the day was the attractive basement bar/café we stumbled into for lunch, where we received a filling bowl of curry rice, salad, dessert and tea for just Y750 each, or about $6.50US.

Downtown, the allure of the streets was no longer there. We looked at shrines and musems in the guidebook and had no interest in finding our way out to them. In the end, we decided to split up for an hour of solitude. I wandered the grounds of the Imperial Palace (built in 1888, rebuilt in 1968 after allied bombers blew up the first one), but was disappointed at the vast expanses of unused gravel parking lots in the middle of such an otherwise developed area. The palace is only open to the public on two days out of the year, January 2 and December 23. No doubt the parking lots are packed on those two days, but in the growing gray dusk of January 6, I would have much preferred a some green garden space.

I found Mo back at the train station and she led me to a mall for dinner. Faced with another all night bus ride, this one to Hachinohe, a nine hour ride to the north, we both lamented not instead making the trip by train, today, in daylight, where we could have enjoyed seeing more of the country. But that decision was already made, and so we wandered through an art exhibit in the mall, sat talking on a quiet bench, and finally made our way to the bus station for another night of inadequate leg room and too little sleep. We once again had seats right behind the driver, but even the night view through the front windows departing Tokyo paled in comparison to Osaka, two nights before.

What we needed was rest, and we found it at Maria’s apartment in Hachinohe. Hachinohe is a Pacific Ocean port city of 100,000 in northern Honshu, and Maria was Maureen’s roommate during the JET orientation in Tokyo back in August. She was more than happy to house us for a relaxing weekend of resting, eating lots of good food, and watching anime, which included the excellent full-length movie Spirited Away, by Hayao Miyazaki.

On Monday morning, Maria gave us a very early ride to the Hachinohe ferry terminal, where we boarded a Rainbow Line ferry for the nine-hour voyage back to Muroran. We spent most of it sleeping on the carpeted floor of our second-class dorm room. We were glad to be back to Muroran, but our time at home was short. We were up early the next morning, Tuesday, for a trip to Sapporo where Maureen was attending a JET conference and other adventures awaited.