Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

First Days

It is so beautiful that it is breathtaking.

I’ll start with the beginning. Work. Restlessness. Ideas of trekking the Annapurna Circuit. And then the yen falls. Should we go to Japan? Yes. No. Why not? That’s a tricky question…What would we see? Something that we didn’t. We buy tickets.

Mihai works. Too many hours. I’m supposed to read the books, find places, rent rooms. To do what he did for the around the world trip. I start full of enthusiasm, and then I deflate: every page is a must see, extraordinary, interesting place. I find myself procrastinating. It is easier to brush up my Japanese, but even there I loose myself in grammar trying to understand the different expressions from Essential Expressions for Surviving in Japan.

I tell him I’m not doing my job. Goody, more work for him! Suddenly 4 weeks are not enough to see Japan. We need 6 months, or even move there so we can see everything. How do you decide how long you are going to stay in one place? Maybe you want to see more, or decide that you’ve already had enough. Better live every day. The only planned elements are the flights in and out, a JR-pass that is valid for two weeks after the first use, our first night in New Chitose and a car, rented for a week.

Bags done. Food done (we fly from Toronto and we need sustenance). We pray for a safe trip and a guardian angel. Mihai films us as we leave. We drive for 7 minutes and as I remember all our actions, I ask: “Where is the food?” We return, pick up the food, Japan 2015- take two.

The thrill of take off. The touch down. Passport control. And then again: “Luggage? Where is your luggage? No luggage? Honto (hone-toe=really)?” Everybody has a hand bag, a cabin luggage and a big, wheeled luggage. We are not from this planet.

A kabuki show right there in the middle of the airport.
Brother and sister playing.

We have to take a domestic flight to get to New Chitose. We’re hungry and there is a restaurant right there: udon, soba, ramen, or rice that comes with fresh vegetables or half an egg. People come at the counter, order, sit and wait at the table to be called. When they’re done, their table is clean, like no one ate there. They take their tray to the counter, separate their trash, recycle, and give  back the ceramic dishes to one of the workers, who thanks them profusely and bows while the customer leaves. 

The first night passes uneventful. The taxi-driver dropped us at the hotel and waited to be sure we don’t need him anymore. We have our room, you can see it in its entirety.

After breakfast we take a bus back to the airport to pick up our car, a Toyota Yaris (Vitz as is called here). People wait in line, reading, drinking tea, eyes glued to a device or a book. The bus is punctual. We enter through the middle door and not knowing what to do I go to the driver asking for three tickets. He looks puzzled. Mihai calls me back. He took tickets from a dispenser and they have the number of the station on it, 5. When we get down, we just have to look on the screen to see how much we have to pay. No problem if we don’t have exact change, there is a slot exactly for that, to change our bills in coins.

At the Budget rent-a-car there is a note asking us to wait a little bit. In a sea of purposely walking people I notice a girl running approximately 200 yards in 5 inches high-heels as she entered the airport. She bowed and excused herself for making us wait, though she was doing her job, greeting and escorting customers to the shuttle. The shuttle driver said the instructions in Japanese though we were the only people in his van. At some point he added in accented English if we have questions to ask their people. The guy who helps us with the car rental papers has a feminine voice when he talks with us, and a normal one with his co-worker. His last words before closing my door were “The weather is cold now, so please take care of your health”.

With our new acquired freedom we drive on the highway, going through 3-4 miles long tunnels, one after another. The GPS can drive you anywhere if you input a phone number. The voice is ethereal, not knowing that we laugh heartily at her instructions “Turn diagonally to the left” “Traffic merging from the left, please drive carefully”.

We arrive at Bear Mountain Resort, a farm where twelve male bears are held in wild-like conditions. On this island bears still roam free and we hope that through this visit, we will not meet with one face to face. There is a paper telling us their name and age, ranging from 4 to almost 30. There are two ways to visit: either walking over a raised  short platform, or taking a grate reinforced bus. We go with the last one. There are benches along the sides of the bus.

We enter the compound through a double gate. There are tall trees and short alpine bamboo. The bears are “kept” artificially next to the bus route, being fed small amounts of pellets. They all have a  device on their neck. Their huge size is not apparent  until we reach the end, where we step out of the bus in an enclosure made of concrete and glass. In a man-made pool, two bears feed: one on fish and the other one on fresh meat balls. One has claws longer then my fingers.

I’m thinking that this is a different kind of zoo, in which humans have to work hard to entice the exhibits behaving in a manner that keeps the paying customer happy.

We return on the walking path, passing drawings on the side that show a comparative bear, human and other animals height, weight, growth, life-span, etc.

Back in the car we drive to our only low point of the trip: we’re tired and we’re hungry, but we don’t realize it. I want to eat in a restaurant. Mihai bought some sweet bread in a convenience shop to tie us to dinner. He wants to arrive at our choice of hotel while it is light. Sparks and ugly fireworks. They pass.

We arrive at Akan-ko, or lake Akan, renowned for the marimbo (muh-reem-boh) spheric algae. It used to be full of it, until the ’80 when it became a fad to own one. They grow so slow, it takes them ten years to get from a cherry size to a baseball one. Soon it became depleted. After that the Ainu, the people who lived here before the Japanese, started a festival of Return of the Marimbo.

The town that hems the lake lives from tourism. Shop after shop sells approximately the same hand-made wooden things, bowls, cups, knives, toys, etc. You can see them in the process of making, as the Ainu sit in the window surrounded by their tools. I realize that what looks like a vat in front of the shop is actually a hollowed wooden trunk.

The GPS says that we have arrived, but we don’t recognize any sign, everything is written in Japanese. Finally we ask, and we are shown immediately. The entrance was through the shop! We ask if they have a room for three people. The woman says yes and calls me to see it. She gesture me to take of my shoes and follow her. The room is big, has a low table in the middle with two sitting pillows and a closet full of futons and comforters. We take it. For each person she adds an onsen tax (hot bath), beside the room price.

Finally we can go and eat. I want Ainu food! One block away is the Ainu village, in reality a large street with houses decorated in Ainu style and some restaurants. In the middle there are some totem poles that look like the ones from Alaska. The note says they are Canadian trees sculpted by a local in the Ainu style. At the end there is a museum with local artifacts, but their importance is lost on us, because we don’t understand the language.

We choose a place and enter through the noren (noh-ran, a half length drape with a slit in the middle, that has the logo of the place and keeps the sun, wind or smoke in its place; they are taken down at the end of the day). The room has western-style seating, and Japanese-style, on the tatami. The cook, a man, commends a square in the middle. He was preparing their meal when we arrived. An older woman is helping him, bringing stuff from the refrigerator, or plates or serving us. Behind, there is wall size cupboard full with different dishes.

"Banya" was the restaurant and for some reason they had the Romanian flag. I asked, but didn't understand his explanation.  For sure we were his first Romanian customers. He didn't know about our country.

Those half chairs are very comfortable.

 We make our choices, don our bibs (ramen soup eaten with chopsticks is an invitation to soil our clothes)  and fill our stomachs.

Venison for Ioan

Banya style butadon for Mihai, meaning rice topped with pork in the style of Banya. We found out later that Banya is a sister city from Canada.

Wild edible plants with noodles in miso soup for Ileana Ruxandra

We return to the hotel for a spell before the Ainu show. The boys are tired, Mihai falls asleep while reading his email. I go by myself to enjoy the dances, the songs and some of the crafts.

The Crane dance

As I am leaving there are people coming from the big hotel carrying lit torches and bamboo sticks. They each deposit them in a special place in front of the totem poles, then an Ainu comes and lights a ceremonial fire, then they hurry to their show.

The whole village is lit and alive, but I am tired too  and return to the hotel. Ioan managed to keep his father awake long enough to take an onsen and they were already in their beds. I followed their example.

Oyasumi nasai! Good night!


  1. If you are not from this luggage planet, so how do you do it?

    1. We had the carry on, but they didn't consider it luggage, they wanted the wheeled trunks. We miss you!


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