Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Homeless in Hokkaido: Part II

Part I

It was Saturday night, and we were sitting on an almost empty train, killing the two hours between when we left the ferry that brought us to Hokkaido and when the train would arrive in Sapporo.

Sergey and I were both deep into our books and didn't notice the two teenage boys sitting across from us. It wasn't until they got up out of their seats, stood in front of us and said "America?" that we looked up.

"America?" they repeated.

I told them I was from Canada.

"Oooh! Canada! Vancouver! Olympics!" they cried, clapping their hands.

Sergey told them he was from Bulgaria. This was met with silence and blank stares. (Poor Sergey. Every time a Japanese person asks him where he's from, his answer gets one of two reactions. They either give him a look that says, "Bulgaria? Where the fuck is Bulgaria?" or they cry out "Yogurt!" Which might seem strange but actually isn't when you consider that one of Japan's most popular brands of yogurt is, bizarrely, named Bulgaria.)

We asked them where they were from and learned they were 17-year-old high school students from just outside Sapporo. With the introductions out of the way, the boys started firing all kinds of personal questions at us.

"Are you a couple?"

"How old are you?"

"Are you getting married?"

We didn't know how to answer these questions. Mostly because we had never really defined the answers ourselves. So we just looked at each other and laughed. Their brazen questions were both awkward and adorable. Teenagers in Kyoto would never ask us questions like that. In fact, teenagers in Kyoto would never talk to us at all. Foreigners are a dime a dozen in Kyoto and our presence on a train there wouldn't be all that surprising or unusual. In Hokkaido, we felt more conspicuous. Every time we entered a restaurant or cafe, we would be greeted with panic-stricken stares by the non-English speaking staff. Of course, the panic would turn to relief as soon as they found out we could speak Japanese. But it was like that everywhere we went.

The train pulled into Sapporo around 11 p.m. After 25 long hours of traveling we had finally reached our destination for the night. But that didn't mean we could relax. In less than an hour it would be midnight. And at midnight, February 27 would become February 28. And February 28 was our birthday -- the reason we had come to Hokkaido in the first place. There were two things we had to take care of before the clock struck 12:

1. Find a birthday cake and candles.

2. Find a 24-hour McDonald's to sleep in for the night.

We left the train station and walked south on the main street. It wasn't long before we found a convenience store where we bought some booze and a small cake. Sergey asked the guy working behind the counter if they sold candles. In response, the employee's face contorted into one big question mark.

Sergey tried to explain in Japanese. "The thing you put on the cake when you have a birthday," he said.

The employee still couldn't figure it out and called over a co-worker, who was equally confused. They discussed what it was they thought Sergey was looking for before giving up and asking him again.

"It's the thing you put on a birthday cake," Sergey said. "You put a light on it and you blow it."

"A lighter?" the employee asked.


The employees consulted each other again. After about five minutes of this, a light suddenly went on above their heads.

"Candles!" they said.


"Sorry. We don't sell candles."

We didn't have time to go hunting for candles in a city neither of us had been to before so we decided to just find a McDonald's to sleep in for the night. We asked the guys at the convenience store if they knew of one nearby. They said there was one down the street but they wouldn't reveal its exact location. They just kept saying it was "far, far, away." We must have asked at least seven times and the only answer we got was "far."

We left the store determined to find it ourselves. "Far" is a relative term in Japan. I live about four kilometres north of Kyoto University and everyone I meet tells me how "far" my commute is. To me, it's a short walk. To them, it's a marathon. So neither of us was surprised when we stumbled across the "far, far away" McDonald's 10 minutes later.

We had arrived in the heart of downtown Sapporo. The sidewalks were crowded. The bars were noisy. The buildings were fortified with neon. It was like Tokyo, but with snow. And there was a 24-hour McDonald's right on the corner.

But this McDonald's was nothing like the on we stayed at on Christmas Eve. This one was packed with trendy 20-somethings slinking out of the nightclubs for a late-night snack. It was noisy, busy and crowded. There were no soft booths; only hard seats with no room to stretch out and sleep. Even worse, the smoking section threatened to overtake the entire restaurant. Both of us nearly fainted when we saw it -- Sergey out of happiness and me out of horror. It must have been at least three times the size of the non-smoking section. And there were no doors to block the smoke. So the whole place was pretty much one big smoking section.

We realized we were in for a long, sleepless night. But we were determined to make the best of it. We broke out the cake at midnight, and took turns blowing out the "candle." We shared my headphones and listened to music while playing cards. We poured our contraband booze into McDonald's cups and made a birthday toast. (Sneaking alcohol into dry establishments has become something of a tradition between the two of us. It's pure economics. Why spend $30 at a bar when you can buy the equivalent amount of alcohol at one-third the price from a convenience store, pour it into plastic bottles, and sit and drink at McDonald's or Mr. Donut for hours on end? A flip of the coin determines who ends up trudging back to the convenience store to fill the empty bottles for the next round.)

We knew we weren't going to be able to sleep but at least we were having fun. At one point, I left the table to go to the bathroom. I was standing in line when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a guy holding his finger up to his lips and his cell phone up to my face. The only thing on the screen was his email address. I had no idea what this was supposed to mean. Was he asking for my phone number? And why wasn't he saying anything?

I asked him if that was his email address. He said it was. And what did he want me to do with this information? He asked me what I was doing later tonight. I told him I was just hanging out with my friend.

"What are you doing now?" he asked.

"I'm waiting to go to the bathroom," I said.

He held his cell phone up to my face again. I suddenly got it. He wanted me to memorize his address and then text him if I wanted to hook up. I laughed and said no.

"No?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

He shook my hand and then closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and went in for a kiss. I leaned backwards, extracted my hand from his, and said "no" more firmly this time. I didn't feel threatened -- he was at least 10 years younger and two inches shorter than me. I was actually kind of flattered. I may be another year older but I've still got it!

After I came out of the bathroom, he was no longer in line. I wasn't sure if he disappeared out of embarrassment or because he found another girl he wanted to take home for the night. Sergey took it as proof that I have more secret admirers than he does -- the debate over which one of us has more secret admirers is our longest running, and stupidest, argument.

At 3:45 a.m., McDonald's started pumping Auld Lang Syne through its speaker system. In Japan, most stores and restaurants play this song at the end of the business day to let customers know the place is closing. We were confused. The sign clearly said this McDonald's was open 24 hours. So why were they playing the song that meant they were closing down? We decided that maybe they were just trying to annoy people into leaving. Maybe it was a way to deter cheapskates like us from camping out for the night. So we sat there and watched as everyone dutifully filed out of the restaurant. We were the only people -- along with two other freeloading foreigners -- still sitting there at 4 a.m. when an employee came over, told us the store was closing and asked us to leave.

"What do you mean you're closing?" Sergey asked her. "The sign says 24 hours."

She mumbled something about how they still keep serving food but the seating area closes down for "cleaning" for a few hours. And that's how we found ourselves out on the cold, snowy streets of Sapporo at four in the morning with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay.

We turned to each other at the same time with a look that said, "Now what do we do?"

Continue reading: Part III

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