Chapter 3b: …and Those Which Followed

After waking up in the Tokyo hostel regrettably soon, I spent a little time figuring out logistics for the next step. The general plan was to head directly to Sapporo via the Shinkansen (bullet train). I walked back to the subway, rolling my obnoxious bags back through the streets of Akihabara and took it a few stops to the JR Station. After working through some ambiguous signage I found the correct Shinkansen line and went to the ticket counter. After navigating some language barrier difficulties and spending much more money than I had anticipated, I walked away from the counter with three different tickets and the route itinerary which would land me in Sapporo by early afternoon.

After a small battle with the ticket gate, I walked down to the platform and bought breakfast while waiting for the train to arrive, making sure to include some caffeine to sustain my jet lag-addled brain. At this point I think its worth mentioning that I had mostly passed the exhaustion threshold where every waking moment starts to feel stressful. The caffeine provided some relief but things were nearly as stressful as the previous day even they were going more smoothly. In this state, I boarded the Shinkansen, somewhat precariously stowed my oversized luggage, and settled in for the ride. This part was actually really exciting, as it comprised my first real look at Japan. I’m not sure I can write a proper description except that watching slice-of-life anime definitely prepared me for the Tohoku aesthetic.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see much of my prospective new home Hokkaido from the train since most of the track on either side of the Tsugaru Strait is actually underground, as is the track which crosses the straight itself. However, coming into the transfer to the local rail in Shin-Hakodate, I did catch some nice views.

After getting off for said transfer, I spent some time collecting myself and acquiring more food and caffeine. This meant missing my transfer but the ticket was good all day so I decided to catch the next train. After another battle with the ticket gate in which I (theoretically) finally came to understand how the ticketing system works in Japan, I went out on the open-air platform to wait. Now I had a very good chance to scope out my surroundings and mustered the effort to take some pictures with my DSLR (well, my brother’s DSLR that I have on indefinite loan).

After waiting about 45 minutes, I boarded the train and again somewhat precariously stowed my luggage. I settled in for the 4-hour ride to Sapporo. 20 minutes later, while staring out the window I was confronted by a train employee who informed me we were at Hakodate. I was like, yeah, passing through Hakodate. Only then did I realize that literally everyone else had gotten off already. I was like, oh this is the terminal. I caught a train going the wrong direction. I had blithely gotten on whatever train I saw without thinking to check it was even on the correct track or going the correct direction. Fantastic move. I stepped off and being careful not to expend my tickets by exiting the ticket gate, I figured out what the train schedule was after a protracted battle with the JR Rail Hokkaido website. It looked like there were no trains of the type I had the ticket for which went directly to Sapporo from here. So, I would have to hop on local train back to Shin-Hakodate and then grab the express train I was supposed to be on there. And just pray they didn’t check my ticket on the local train, considering I didn’t actually have one. Fortunately, this did go to plan and I made it back to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station to catch the correct train.

I got on the train and stowed my luggage, quite securely this time since they actually provide a nice space for this between each car. However, after a little while I heard an announcement over the intercom that those with non-reserved tickets (e.g., me) had to sit in car 6 or 7. Shit, what car am I in? Turns out it was 5. So, after about 20 minutes of steadily rising panic, I hastily grab my bags and start struggling toward the back of the train, assuming that the numbering system went from back to front. After making it through two cars, miraculously without injuring anybody, I realized my mistake and that I was now between cars 3 & 2. I stand there for a minute in sheer panic about how I’ll possibly make it back through with my bags and decided to just leave them in the nearest stowage. I walk up to the poor people cars where I belong and spend the next three hours incredibly anxious to be separated from my baggage, which contains literally all my worldly possessions outside those in my backpack. When we finally arrive in Sapporo, I wait for everyone else to leave and then hurry toward where I had the baggage, disturbing several cleaning ladies who had already started working the train. It isn’t there. Shit, maybe I miscounted. I walk one more car, startling another cleaning lady and stepping over the No Entry sign she had just hung. My bags! With immense relief but now brimming with stress, I grab the bags and make my way out and into the station.

You would think that I would’ve learned my lesson and would’ve scheduled housing at some point during all this. I had left it for the second leg (from Hakodate) but didn’t have service on the ride and couldn’t get the WiFi to work. Also because of my supreme foresight, my phone is at about 4 percent battery and there is nary an outlet anywhere I search in the station. So I go outside, find somewhere to sit for a while and charge my phone from laptop, which fortunately was at full battery. Although difficult to push aside my dire practical concerns, I enjoy the sights and sounds of Sapporo Station Square for an hour or so while the phone slowly charges.

A friendly Japanese guy who looked to be in his early college years stopped to chat for a bit while waiting for the cross-walk light to change. He explains how he moved to Sapporo three years ago and mentions that while I’m in the country I definitely need to check out Kyoto. He showed me some pictures of beautiful temples there on his phone and we further chatted a bit about he has difficulty pronouncing his Ls and Rs in English (you aren’t alone in that, friend). The light changed and we bid farewell with a wave. I’m really grateful he stopped for a brief chat.

When you move to another country with a very different culture, especially if you can’t speak or ready the native language well and few people speak your own, things definitely start to feel…hostile, in a way. Even though you know the people are just people after all, and Japanese people are very friendly and helpful on average. It’s just this deep sort of discomfort, and likely a large part of what is referred to as “culture shock”. I’m a fairly anxious and agoraphobic person inherently, and so presumably this makes it worse than it would be otherwise. The reason why I’m really grateful for the conversation described above is because it definitely did a lot to make me feel welcome.

My phone finished charging and I booked a berth at Capsule Inn Sapporo for the night. I punch in the location on Google Maps, and seeing it isn’t too far I decide to walk. I have some issues finding the place though. I arrive at the place Google points to and there is a commercial building with no sign of anything looking like a capsule hotel. I circle the block a couple times, thinking it might be a bit off but can’t find anything. Ok, the address must’ve been wrong I guess. Sometime around this, Google Maps starts going on the fritz a bit, I think because the roaming data connection kept browning out or outright dropping, or something along those lines. I check the AirBnb listing again and it has a different address. Oh, shit, that must be it but it’s like 1.5 km away. With a sigh, I set off with my bags in tow. At this point, my entire body is sore but especially my right shoulder, which has a history of injury and I re-injured relatively recently. I struggle along for a while, but it doesn’t seem right so I stop to double check the directions again. After a little poking around the listing, there seems to be three separate addresses listed in different places. Well, two of them are basically the same spot so that must be it. Said spot is back where we already checked. Shit, my shoulder is killing me. I try a few different methods to redistribute the baggage with very limited success. I walk back the about 1 km I had come and again can’t find it. I circle the block, once, twice more. There are tons of people around, enjoying the nightlife and god do I feel out of place. I put in the most likely address in Google Maps once more. This time I narrow down the approximate location to one small part of the block. I check it, but don’t see anything. I walk again and finally see a small entrance at ground level. “Capsule Inn Sapporo”. Holy shit, why is this so hidden.

This guy chose to break at a very opportune time

I go inside, and after inferring I need to change into the provided slippers and doing so, talk to the guy at the desk. His English is…not great. I wouldn’t hold that against him but it’s a frustrating obstacle at this point – I’m mentally shot and in some pain and a lot of discomfort. After taking my name, Desk Man says I don’t have a reservation. I’m too tired to even panic. I think to tell him it’s with AirBnb and this information allows him to locate it. He has me put my shoes in a locker and give him the key. I guess this is so people can’t leave with the keys that are provided for the luggage lockers, as you have to trade those back in to get your shoes. Ok, but how do I go out during the night? I haven’t eaten since Hakodate and I’m devastatingly hungry. I’ll need food. I listen to Desk Man give the whole rules/how the hostel works spiel, again in barely functional English. I then ask him where I can get food now, since I can’t really seem to go back out given that my footwear is being held hostage. He doesn’t seem to understand the question. I ask again, in Japanese. He points out some specific areas on an information sheet/floor map which seem to mention food. Great, cool, lemme put my bags away and check it out. Long story short, of those mentioned only one floor actually has food and it’s like cup ramen. And it looks like I’ll have to talk to Desk Man again to actually buy it. Ok, fuck that and fuck this. I’m so done at this point that I just walk outside in the stupid hotel flipflops and find the nearest convenience store. I buy the safest ready-to-eat protein option I can find (some extremely salty hardboiled eggs, I think it was) and some milk and return to the hotel. Desk Man either didn’t notice what I’ve done or doesn’t want to say anything. I eat, manage to clean up in the Japanese-style communal shower/bath area, and go to bed.

Having now at least partially learned my lesson, first thing in the morning I look to book housing. I checked about staying at the Capsule Inn again since my experience was fine and the learning curve surmounted, but it looks like they’re booked. I start poking around AirBnb but don’t find anything before it’s time to checkout. I grab my stuff, trade for my shoes, and depart.

Housing still on my mind, I grab breakfast from a nearby konbini and look for a park nearby on Google Maps to chill at while I work on booking. I see that Odori Park is quite close by and make for it. Still feeling silly with my massive amounts of luggage, I make my way to the park and find a bench near a fountain and some picturesque flower planters to wait at while I try to get my still-weird data reception to cooperate. I’ll spare you the details of that task but eventually I book a place about 1.2 km away via AirBnb and it takes me about 5 hours. Setting aside the frustration, this was probably the most I had enjoyed myself thus far – people watching at the park. It looks like Sapporo is a large domestic tourist destination (I can imagine especially during the summer for people looking to escape the heat) and I also see a lot of Chinese and American tourists. There are also various locals including an adorable Japanese daycare group and many older persons and housewives with their children. Around noontide, many high school students arrive as well and a couple set up near me and start playing a guitar and singing softly. A really nice atmosphere to be sure.

My check-in time for the new place approaches and I also realize that I am now incredibly sunburned. The sunlight wasn’t even particularly strong but I’ve barely seen the sun and am correspondingly pale this year so I’m not too surprised. I depart the park and take the subway as close as it will get me to my destination. The last half kilometer is really difficult, being uphill on very old, gritty pavement which drags at my rolling bags, but I make it ok. I check in there with the friendly host and spend the rest of the day sitting by the riverbank, still incredibly exhausted.

Morning arrives again, and by this time I’ve made arrangements for my midterm housing at a “share house” in the Maruyama area of the Chuo ward. However, the room wont be ready till Sunday (it is now Friday) and it looks like all cheap accommodations in the city are booked out for the weekend. I book a two-night stay in Noboribetsu (a small touristy town about an hour out of the city by train), travel there by local rail again having to manage luggage in places not meant to accommodate it, and again after some trouble with Google Maps I find the guest house and check in. I decide to explore since its still early in the day.

I make my way towards the seaside, assuming there must be something interesting there. It appears that Noboribetsu has a sizeable fishing port and fleet but for some reason most of them are in port on a Friday. Perhaps they go out for multiple days and they’re around now for the weekend. I walk past a sign which (probably) prohibits entry but I can’t read much Japanese so *shrug*. The path I’ve chosen provides access to the breakwater and I see an excellent opportunity for some photos. I take a number while remaining out of sight of a nearby construction site and then make my way back to the guest house for the night.

I wake up the next morning and see that I can actually watch the Overwatch League stage playoffs. My team (the Hangzhou Spark) loses in a disappointing match and I go back to sleep. I wake up a few hours later and for the first time in Japan feel relatively well-rested. I adventure out to a beach, chill for a bit and take some pictures, but quickly get bored and come back. I eat, hang out in bed for a while, and go to sleep.

The next day I make my way back into the city to move in to the sharehouse. I arrive quite early and spend a few hours in Maruyama park sort of napping and getting all kinds of weird looks. I then go to the share house and meet with the property manager, who goes through a brief interview and then gets me set up in the room. Some furniture is supplied (with a rental fee of course) but it doesn’t include blankets or a pillow. Nonetheless, I’m pretty much at my limit physically and don’t venture forth to try to secure these items. Using my sweatshirt as a pillow and a curtain as a blanket, I finally fall into an inevitably low quality night’s sleep.

View from my room in the share house

I’ll end this entry here. The play-by-play wasn’t strictly a necessity but I wanted to convey how long and stressful my first 6 days in Japan were. Dewa, mata.

Chapter 3a: The Longest Day…

I’d like to begin this entry with a strong admonition:

Do NOT assume you’ll be capable of accomplishing anything while jetlagged.

As you may remember from my last post, my flight itinerary took me to Kobe despite initially landing in the more convenient port of Tokyo. I was fairly confident that my bags would be unchecked here so I could just not take the final leg. This did work out (I skipped the last flight) – however, I had not wanted to assume it would and end up separated from my bags by several hours of rail travel so I did NOT book lodging ahead of time. A mistake. I’ll loop back to that in a minute, probably.

I arrived at my brother’s apartment on July 7th quite late at night. It took yet longer to fall asleep but we needed to wake up at 6:30 AM so he could take me to the airport. I slept about 3.5 hours. I then flew 2 hours to Chicago and another 13 to Tokyo, arriving just after 3 PM local time. Upon landing, I managed to walk off the jet bridge to the wrong area, ending up in the international connections area. It took me quite some time to figure this out, but there is NO WAY OUT OF THIS AREA. You literally have to go through the security screening checkpoint in reverse. Embarrassed of the mistake that landed me in the situation and my usual trepidation for approaching strangers exacerbated by the unfamiliar surrounds and exhaustion, I wandered around the terminal alone for about 1.5 hours trying to find the way out, an exit not being shown on any of the maps. I then summoned by courage and asked the polite Japanese girl at the information desk, who pointed me to an area I had already checked. Assuming I missed something, I spent another hour or so cross-referencing two different maps and several landmarks to make sure I was looking in the right spot, since the terminal maps are not geographically precise/to scale. I was. There was nothing there. I checked another spot which seemed likely. There was a bunch of big red “NO ENTRY” signs. Finally, I went back to the United Airlines desk near where I had come in and asked the lady there. Thankfully, she was the one holding the arcane secrets of escape from the airport. A short jaunt to a VERY hidden elevator later, I arrived at the security checkpoint, still on the wrong side. I explained the situation to one of the agents and he was kind enough to direct me through the checkpoint in reverse and walked me to the correct exit from the international flight lobby.

I walked down several flights of stairs and referenced my map to try to find the immigration and customs checkpoints. They weren’t on the map. After wandering for another 30 minutes, I was able to interpret from some contextual clues (e.g. immigration forms) the correct place to go. There was a HUGE line and only a few stations serving it. I fill out my forms and take my spot in the queue. Now, let’s consider for a moment my physical state. I had been up since 6:30 AM EST and it was now about 6:45 PM JST. There is a 13 hour time difference, which when accounted for reveal I had been up for just over 25 hours (on 3.5 hours of sleep). This ordinarily would be a problem, but also consider that I was lacking for food because the mid-flight meals had been paltry. So a larger problem, but also consider that the flight was cramped and unergonomic (never fly United overseas unless it’s business class, friends) and I am a fairly large person, physically. So add on a lot of soreness, but also consider I had just walked around the airport for at least 3.25 hours on aggregate. So I was uh…a very hungry and sore and extremely fatigued-camper while waiting in this line. I felt quite lightheaded and was concerned I might pass out. There’s no punch line here, it was just awful.

I made it through finally and claimed my baggage, then proceeded through customs. No issues there, thankfully. I caught my breath and once again referenced my terminal map. What a useless piece of shit. I needed to know how to get to the right place to get a pocket WiFi unit and also an IC card (for public transit), but it had no answers for me. Using the very slow airport WiFi, I was sorta able to extract the info from Google and caught the correct shuttle (after some puzzling) over to terminal 2. There, I couldn’t find an IC Card booth of the type that I was made to believe was ubiquitous at the airport. After some more useless wandering, I asked at the info desk. The attendant pointed me downstairs. There were no IC Card booths downstairs. I did find a place to ask about the Pocket WiFi. They’re incredibly expensive, so thanks everyone on the internet who said they are cheap. I ended up instead deciding to use the international/roaming option for my US cell carrier. After some more wandering, I did notice that there was a Japan Rail East desk and remembered something about JR selling IC Cards even though I don’t believe (?) they actually are responsible for any of the card brands. They were able to sell me one, cash only. Good thing I stopped at the ATM first.

Around this point I realized that I had nowhere to stay the night. I checked AirBnB and fortunately there was a decent looking hostel in Akihabara with an open bed, near the center of the Tokyo metropolitan area. I requested a booking and crossed my fingers they would accept. It’s now about 10 PM local time. I opened up Google Maps to figure out how to get there and saw several options to take like a million sequential buses to get there. I did not think I was equal to the task but did see one subway option. Great, I know how subways work. After a little more puzzling, I figured out you can get to the subway from near the JR East desk and swiped my IC Card to enter. Luckily that was an intuitive one, though then I realized I didn’t know where in the subway station to go. Using my 5 remaining brain cells, I figured out the correct platform eventually and after a brief chat with a friendly Scottish guy who was also feeling a bit lost, I boarded the train. I received a notification that I was set to spend this night at the hostel and was much relieved. At this point, riding the subway, I was absolutely unable to keep my eyes open. I resorted to holding my phone loosely in my hands so that if I fell asleep before my stop, it would drop and make a loud noise, hopefully waking me. I did drop it. Twice. It did wake me. Twice. Finally, I reached the stop, made a quick transfer through an unbelievably clean and nice concourse (the Tokyo subway is amazing) rode a couple more stops and arrived in Akihabara about 1 km away from the hostel. I walked to the hostel with Google Maps giving me just a bit of difficulty and checked in.

Oh, but I still hadn’t eaten since the flight. I walked to a convenience story, groggily picked out whatever ready-to-eat food seemed least likely to offend my Western tastes, and paid with pretty much the last of my cash (oops). I walked back to the hostel, ate, showered, and went to sleep.

Home, for a night. Sorry for the lack of pics in this post but you can guess why.

And then I woke up a mere 3.5 hours later, thanks to jet lag. But that’s a story of and for another day…