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, January 12, 2016

Good bye Car, Hello Train

Time to pack and go! The best method to be sure I’m not forgetting anything is to clean. And being an ambassador of Romania and USA, I leave everything almost as I found them. The result is I have all my possessions and Mihai gets a good review on airbnb.

Still raining! We’re driving to Biei, on the other side of Daisetsuzan Park hopping that they have better weather and we can enjoy the landscape. Tough! They too have rain. Mihai wants to see the train station (it was voted one of the 100 train station in Japan; that should tell me something in a country were there are just 210 train stations that start with the letter や (ya), one of the 52 letters of the hiragana alphabet). I think we pass next to it and continue to drive to the Tourist Center where we could find information about all the trails and things that we are not going to do. But we do find that there is a Japanese style to the toilet.

I should be the last one to laugh, I’m the one who thinks and dreams in Romanian and searches frantically during a conversation for the right words. They do come, in an unorthodox order, one that is not American. But people are nice, they are not laughing at me. It is the conflict between the Japanese politeness and the American directness that makes me laugh. 

Rain follows us everywhere, but in Furano, top destination for skiing, we escape just enough to see some cliffs and the train station (Mihai always liked trains and train engines, probably because Santa brought him one and his father took very good care of it, Mihai was not allowed to play with it without supervision; Mihai learned this lesson very well, he did the same thing to his children). But then the rain found us and did not let us out of its sight.

Sapporo, or Sari-poro-betsu in Ainu or “a river running along a plain filled with reeds” in plain English, is the capital of Hokkaido and produces beer (we know, we drank some). The city has large streets, lots of trees, bridges that cross over the river or man-made channels. We park our car in the 25th slot on a parking wheel and enter a pedestrian street. It is more like a very long mall in which the food-court is mixed with the stores. It runs parallel with the boulevards and it is crossed by inter-connecting streets.

Plastic sampler menu

We have business to do: we’re here to eat! We’ve read in the guide book there is ”a dish of mutton and cabbage, which the Japanese find so outlandish that they have dubbed it jingisukan Genghis Khan “ (Alan Booth, “The Roads to Sata”). It also said that it was so big that it took him an hour to eat it in 1985. My boys are ready for the challenge! Imagine our dissapointment when they are served this sampler.

Still it was just enough to trick their stomachs that they ate. We prawl up and down, look at the people and stores, enjoy the fleeting image of a tea delivery, filled cups on a tray, perched on a tilting hand, from a bike.

We try to find the Ainu museum, that is across the street from the Botanical Garden, but we have no luck.

Some prepare for Halloween...

...Some for Christmas!

So we drive toward Chitose. We’re looking for the highway entrance, we know we’re in the right place. What I see is something like a gate, that seems to lead to a stop, and a narrow street, away from the street that we were on. Do I have to tell you that I picked the wrong one? It take us an hour and something to drive under the highway, with so many traffic lights and speed limit, until we get to the next entrance, that gate that seems to lead to a stop.

We arrive in New Chitose during the night, but thanks to the GPS and the fact that we walked a week before on those streets, we easily find the hotel. The same woman greets us. We have the same room. We end the night glued to our own screens. The boys play chess, and none of us cares that Ioan did not finish his homework for Calculus.

The morning arrives with blue skies and sunshine. We have some hours until we have to return the car and decide on the spot to see Taomori or Mt. Tao. We’re happy and giddy, we have the freedom to be spontaneous, everything sparkles, no worries. Now imagine that screechy sound, stop the movie and notice that the road is blocked by an official car and barriers. The parking lot is full with cars in which people wait. Flashback: several uprooted trees. Mihai gets out from the car and starts talking with a couple. It was a storm last night. There are concerns for landslides. The woman tells him that her husband called the government to ask them when is the road going to open, but they did not answer. I’m sure that something was lost in translation, but I would never have thought to call,  nor the government, nor any official, either in Romania or in the States, to held them responsible for a road to be open. Can you do this in Japan?

We wait for a while in a different parking lot, next to a lake. We walk on the black sand beach (volcanic ash),

 collect pumice,

Ioan surfs beached logs.

We are invaded by a working crew, who starts setting perimeters for cleaning the fallen branches and stuff from last night’s storm. We presume that the road is open and return to the entrance toward Taomori. Still no luck: it is open only for the workers. The tourists are still waiting. Well, we’ve tried…

We return the car. We’re going to miss her way off turning on and off. Hop in the shuttle, go to the train station. We find the JR boot (Japanese Railways) actually a room with three workers, present the tickets that we received in the mail, stating our names and of what type we bought (there are several types from one to four weeks, on one or two different railways). Then we fill some more paperwork. The woman takes our passports with both hands, while slightly bowing her head, verifies each line, opens a little box and extracts two wooden blocks that prove to be stamps.

These stamps, similar with the ones that she was using, are thumb size.

Gently she opens another box, the ink pad, and with elegant movements, applies one by one the stamps in our passes. She explains that we have to present the JR pass to a worker anytime we enter or exit the trainstation, we can go in any train without reservation, with the exception of the shinkansen. In a normal train there are wagons with seat reservation, and wagons without (these are stated clearly) and if we don’t have a reservation, we should board the train only in these wagons. She also gives us two paperback timetables written in an imposible small print. I am ready to refuse them, as they don’t recycle paper, but what if the wonderful app called Hyperdia, that tells us what trains are going where we want in the next few hours, fails for some reason?

We decide we want to make a reservation for the next day shinkansen, the one that is going to take us from Hakodate to the Honshu island. Soon enough we have three blue-green squarish-rectangles, stating our seats. Hurry up, we have a train to catch!

History on the wall, for everyone to absorb it.

We arrive in Hakodate around lunch time. The market is next to the station. Everywhere crowds, choosing live creatures to be transformed into their food. There are huge crabs, their body wider then my palm, with feet two times longer, trying to escalate the glass prison. Squids darting from one side of the aquarium to another. A livid octopus, some fish, waiting for their death sentence. There are others, gutted, cleaned, lying on beds of ice, next to jars of soft roe or caviar.

Though we are hungry we push on, carrying our backpacks to the hotel.

Up on the hill is the tramway station, on the left are the dock houses, and on the right the port.

Google takes us past Shirokuma (White Bear), a modern statue on the place where the “first man” (that’s how it is written on the plaque; grrrrr, why these words bother me? the people who already lived there were not people?)

 and another one, about a teacher Joseph Hardy Neesima, who violated the oversea travel ban, during the same restoration, just to acquire information (he returned and started an English school, now Dashisha University).

We arrive at the hotel, more like a bed and breakfast. There is a sign stating that the reception opens at 3:00 pm. It’s 3:00 pm sharp. We wait for a few minutes, talking and making noises. We can hear there is someone behind some doors, still no one comes. From the recesses of my mind comes what I was taught by Hondru-san (my Romanian teacher): “When you enter, you call out loud ‘Shitsurei shimasu’”. Immediately an old couple emerges from a room, find the paper with our name, we pay, receive the exact change and a key and we are shown the grounds: here a shower, here the bathroom, laundry, onsen, breakfast area, room. It is the most shabby that we’ve seen so far. I think it used to be double in size, the wall that divides it comes to the middle of the window, and we have an alcove, framed with beautiful laquered wood. The tatami is pinned to the old one with thumb-tacks and the closet contains just one mattress for each of us. If we want towels or yukata (the bathrobe) we have to pay.

After Ioan finishes his homework, we walk arround through the Motomachi district, home of the 19th century international community. It has a touristic feeling, just because the only people who have business here are snapping pictures and take in the grounds and the view.

Between the two couples there are two statues, you can see them better in the following pictures.

The Russian Church

On our way to the ropeway we pass a huge temple that has in front of it a Statue of Liberty with an icecream cone instead of the flame. Why are we going to the ropeway?  To get atop on Hakodate-yama to take in the third in the world night view, after Naples and Hong Kong.

The place is supercrowded and people are waiting in position even if there is nothing out of ordinary yet. It is true for every space that has a commanding view.

Did you see the ravens?

We settle somewhere next to the ropeway line and wait. We’re seventh in line. Ioan jostles the balustrade in the fifth (we will find him in the same position).

Partial view with rusted bar.

The light starts to dim, people take pictures of the phones of the people who are in front of them. Nothing moves for half an hour. Behind us, the sun burns the horizon a fiery red and dissapears.

Eventually the first in line peel off, squeeze between bodies, and we are pushed from behind by the twelves and others in a random convection current. Again we wait, and move, wait and move, until we are there, with nothing to mar the view. Our eyes can still differentiate the outlines of the mountain and the buildings, but the cameras see grains of light in an hourglass of dark.

Again we stand in a five to seven hundred people line, waiting to go down on the ropeway. One cabin holds 100 people. It moves quickly and before we know it, we’re out in the street.

The line starts turning on itself around the orange glowing lightpost.

We’re close to the hotel, but we go down to the market to eat, because I want sushi. We pass the warehouses; they used to depozit transiting cargo, now they are transformed in restaurants and omiyagi shops (for gifts). We could go here, though is more expensive…

... no, I want one with a local feeling. The market has only three restaurants open, which one should we choose?

While parents are working in the restaurant, the boy sits between beer barrels, eats junk-food and watches anime.

A Nihon-jin (Japanese person) gestures with his hand if we would like to eat. Yes. We follow him to his restaurant close by, the picture menu on the outside wall. We pick what we want and enter. There are two tables and a bar. Sitting in the corner, I can see the whole restaurant and part of the kitchen. The FDAA would close it in a split second: there are four people cooking in a two by three yards space and the pots from which they take portions of food, or meat, sit on the floor.

The owner of the restaurant walks behind Ioan

The reason I am having sushi is because there is no place where it could be fresher than here. (In 2007 I ate hours old ceviche in Peru and suffered the consequences.) The presentation is a little bit different and smaller than in the picture, still there is a lot of raw food in there.

Sushi-don, miso soup, soy sauce and wasabi, mmm!

I like the octopus (though I feel like I’m a canibal, they are such inteligent creatures), the sweet roe (never ate it before, it has a creamy sweetness), Ioan enjoys the salmon roe, orange pods that burst sweet salty butter,

Salmon roe and sweet-roe

 the white and red sashimi (slices of uncooked fish) and the shrimp are ok and I don’t like the squid. Leaving the restaurant I feel drunk, with no alcohol in my system. I have command of my legs, not of the dizziness. By the time we arrive at the hotel, I walked it off.

Tomorrow we have an early morning, so we pack most of the things and get to bed. The boys sleep like logs, I am awaken by a horde of Chinese who take turns stomping to and from the onsen and bathroom, talking like they are the only ones alive. I don’t get upset, or unnerved, no, I can’t control them and it would be a waste of energy. Instead, I do a mental search for my ear plugs, find them, put them on and sleep blissfuly until morning.

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