Monday, March 08, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part I

Most people go to Hokkaido for the majestic mountains, the outdoor onsens, and the fabulous food. Sergey and I went to Hokkaido to experience all of those things too. Except we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up on a tour of northern Japan that was more farce than fantasy.

Instead of staying at a mountain resort, we slept at a 24-hour McDonald's. Instead of soaking in an outdoor onsen, we showered at an internet cafe. Instead of feasting on fresh seafood, we ate instant ramen. Instead of gliding through soft powder on skis, we trudged through knee-deep snow in sneakers.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But that was part of the trip's charm. It may have gone sideways but it was never boring. Especially when we got kicked out of McDonald's at 4 a.m. with no other accommodation lined up for the night.

Moments like this are little gifts -- a chance to find out what you and your traveling companion are really made of. What do you do when you suddenly find yourselves out on the snowy, sub-zero streets of Sapporo at four in the morning with nowhere to go? Do you fight, blame, sulk or cry? Or do you do what we did and laugh so hard your stomach hurts? I think this is one of the things I like best about Sergey. Not the way he laughs at absurdity, but the way he revels in it. To steal a line from Hunter S. Thompson, it never got weird enough for us.

The decision to go to Hokkaido was made at the last minute. Sergey and I share the same birthday -- February 28 -- and we wanted to celebrate it in a part of Japan neither of us had been to before. Because we both love the snow and the cold, the decision to head north was an easy one. We had no plans, no reservations, and no idea what we'd do once we got there. We figured we'd just be open to any adventure that came our way.

The cheapest way to get to Hokkaido from Kyoto is by ferry. The plan was to hop on the ferry, tour around Hokkaido for a few days and then take the ferry home again. Sergey had never been on a boat before so the 20-hour ferry ride itself was as much a part of the trip as the destination.

Although, the term "ferry" is a bit of a misnomer. It was more cruise ship than ferry. There was a restaurant, a movie theatre, a hot tub, a game room, a pachinko parlor, a DVD rental shop, a ping-pong table, and a vending machine that sold both cold sushi and hot French fries on board.

The ship was a 17,000-tonne monster that stretched on for 225 metres -- longer than the length of two football fields. These numbers may be peanuts for a real cruise ship but they're pretty impressive for a ferry. The fact that there were only eight of us (yes, eight of us!) on board a boat built for 1,000 made it feel even bigger. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was like sailing on a ghost ship. A really fancy ghost ship.

"It looks like the Titanic," I told one of the employees working at the information desk. He laughed and thanked me but not before making a sinking motion with his hand to imply he hoped the similarities were in appearance only.

We made our way down the long hallway to our second-class berth, where 18 sets of blankets and pillows were neatly laid out on the floor. Sergey and I picked a spot closest to the door, while the three Japanese guys sharing our room picked a spot as far away from us as possible.

After dumping our bags and claiming our beds, we set off to explore the ferry before it set sail at 1:15 a.m. We ran up and down the grand staircase, poked around the souvenir shop, checked out the bathhouse, looked at the movie listings, snooped in the private rooms, lounged in the lounge, and snapped dozens of photos along the way. We were like a pair of giddy six year olds. The trip was already exceeding our expectations and we hadn't even left the harbour yet. We bought some booze from the souvenir shop to toast the start of our Excellent Hokkaido Adventure.

"So how is it, being on a boat for the first time?" I asked Sergey.

"Exciting!" he said.

About an hour after setting sail, the shine quickly wore off and was replaced by a low-grade nausea that wouldn't go away for the next 19 hours. Sergey was fine. Only I was sick. The swells were large enough that walking on the ferry felt like walking on a wonky treadmill. You'd be walking uphill and then suddenly the boat would crest a wave and your legs would be cut out from under you and you'd lurch downhill, zigging to the left and then zigging to the right, before suddenly climbing back uphill again. Up and down, side to side. I never got used to navigating the rolling hallways as the boat plowed through rough water. As a result, I spent most of the trip stretched out on the floor -- green, clammy and desperately trying not to vomit.

Sergey spent most of the trip with his nose stuck inside a book, miraculously immune to the effects of seasickness. I kept waiting to see if he would get sick, but no luck. As the boat pitched and rolled through the heaving seas, I would poke him in the ribs and ask how he was feeling.

"Don't you feel a little bit sick?"

"No. I don't feel anything."

Not fair.

Twenty hours after setting sail, we finally arrived in Hokkaido. It was dark outside so it was impossible to see anything other than the port's twinkling lights against the inky sky. The doors opened and a blast of cold air hit me in the face. Walking down the ramp, I was disappointed to see the only snow was lying in dirty piles on the side of the road. Instead of arriving in some magical winter wonderland, it was as if we were right back where we started. The port in Hokkaido was indistinguishable from the one we had left near Kyoto.

The "plan" (and I use that term lightly) was to take the train into Sapporo and find a 24-hour McDonald's to sleep in for the night (and by "sleep" I really mean "sit in an uncomfortably hard booth between the hours of 12 a.m. and 7 a.m."). We celebrated Christmas by waking up inside a McDonald's. Why not do it for our birthdays too? It may not be the most traditional way to mark a birthday but it's certainly one of the most memorable.

Being able to loiter in McDonald's all night for the price of a cup of coffee is an arrangement unique to Japan. When you buy a cup of coffee in Japan, you are not just buying a cup of coffee; you are buying a piece of real estate. That one coffee gives you the right to monopolize a table for as long as you like. You don't have to buy anything else and no one will ask you to leave. Accommodations don't come any cheaper than that.

So that was the plan. Celebrate our birthday by waking up inside a 24-hour McDonald's in Sapporo. Little did we know we'd get kicked out at 4 a.m. and end up stranded on the snowy, sub-zero streets of Sapporo with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay. Our tour of Hokkaido was about to begin its slide from fantasy into farce . . .

Continue reading: Part II

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