I Vote North!

“What do you think about taking the train up to Hakodate for the long weekend?”  I asked Dave early Thursday morning as I pulled down our Japan map from the bookshelf.

“You do know that the long weekend starts tomorrow, right?”  Dave asked as he sat down at the kitchen table to read the daily “Stars and Stripes” newspaper and enjoy his coffee.  “What’s in Hakodate?  Where is it?”

“It’s a city on the southern coast of Hokkaido, the next island north of us,” I said as I pointed it out on the map. “They said it’s considered the San Francisco of Japan- an easy to get to coastal destination by train, with a popular view from a mountain top overlooking the city lights, great hustle and bustle with lots of sights to see and people to watch, but most especially, a popular open air fish market on weekend mornings.”

“Who’s the ‘they’ who recommended it to you?”  He asked between sips.

“I went to ask the ladies at the Misawa Information, Tickets, and Tours office, or ITT, where we should go for the weekend.  They unanimously agreed Hakodate would be a great choice for a weekend trip. They even offered to organize the whole weekend for us for a small fee, but I opted to look into it myself after I asked you. So? Should I look into it?”  I asked.

“Sure, go for it.  Our yellow house won’t be ready for us to move in for another week.  I agree we should definitely get outta this hotel room for the weekend.  Let me know what you find out.”  Dave said as he got up, refilled his coffee cup, and to went to the bedroom to start getting ready for work.

That left me to get busy googling Hakodate hotels on our laptop.  I happened on a website called japanican.com.  I filled in my search criteria on the home page with “Hokkaido”, the specific arrival date for 2 nights, and I chose “western-style room”, as opposed to “Japanese-style.”  I wasn’t sure what the different styles would be, but I imagined tatami mat floors, tiny slippers to wear, and futon mattresses.  Let’s settle into this culture slowly and opt for a nice, full bed, I thought to myself.  The next blank asked me to choose a price range, but I left it blank since I had no idea the normal price to expect.

I clicked the “search” button and four hotels popped up.  The first two hotels were about $350 per night.  The third hotel only had Japanese style rooms available for the weekend, but the price seemed a little more reasonable at $120 per night.  I clicked on the hotel just in case it was the best I could find, and followed the booking instructions until I got to the final confirmation page.  The total for the room for two nights was close to $500.  I let the total sink in for a moment while I tried to figure what I did wrong.  I rechecked my booking details and tried again.  Still $500.  Dave came back into the kitchen.

“I think I did something wrong on this booking form Dave, can you take a quick look?”  I asked staring at the screen in confusion.

“Let’s see here,” he said as he slipped down next to me to view the screen.  “Whoa, that’s a little pricey.  I think it’s saying that it’s $120 per night, per person in the room.  That’s a sneaky trick.  Do we have any other choices?”

“One more hotel’s on the list.  I haven’t looked at it yet, let’s see.  Hmm, this one actually specifies per night/per room for two guests.  That might be a better choice for us.  It’s called Toyoko Inn.  $140 per night, non-smoking double, western style.  We should book it.”  I said hoping I didn’t have to search anymore.

“Good, check that off the list.”  Dave said decidedly.  “Now, how do we get there?”

“The ITT office gave me a train schedule and highlighted a good route to show the clerk at the train station.”  I explained as I showed him the train schedule.  “It has us leaving on the 9:23 A.M. train on Saturday arriving in Hakodate at 1:40 P.M.  We don’t switch trains, but we have one stop in Aomori City.”

“Did they say we should get our tickets today or just buy ‘em when we arrive at the train station?”  He asked.

“They suggested earlier is better, but since we’ll be leaving in two days, we’ll just buy ‘em then.”  I replied.

“Great work, little Padawan.  Sounds like a fun weekend.  If you have time today find out more about that fish market and some fun things to do there.  I’ll ask Tomoko-san and Okita-san at the office if they have any suggestions as well.  I gotta run.  Walk me out?”  I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee and met him at the door.   I waited patiently as he laced his boots and grabbed his room key and bag.  He wrapped his arms tightly around my waist and gave me a lingering goodbye kiss before he walked away.  I smiled to myself, feeling warm and loved, as the door closed and I returned to the computer to continue my research.

That evening Dave came home excited about seeing the fish market in Hakodate.  “I’m told it’s really popular.  Supposedly it’s one of the biggest fish markets in Japan.  The vendors get their stands set up and start selling to restaurant owners at 4 A.M.  Okita-san said we should definitely get there no later then 5:30 to see the bargaining and action taking place.”

Friday came and went.  I enjoyed a short run in the morning while I continued to familiarize myself with the base.  I stopped by the post office to get issued a combination for our mailbox and walked to the library to check out a book for our trip.  Shogun by James Clavell, should keep me busy.  I withdrew plenty of Yen from the ATM just in case we needed cash.  When Dave arrived back at the room that evening we ate a quick meal and started packing.  We thought we’d walk to the train station in the morning, so we packed our backpacks, some sandwiches and snacks, and laid out our travel clothes.

Saturday morning was an early start, but the weather was clear and sunny as we walked the two miles to the train station.  We entered the automatic sliding door into the sales office to buy our train tickets and were greeted with a hesitant and nervous smile from the station worker.  He turned around in his chair to signal another uniformed worker to trade places with him. This man was not thrilled to be dealing with foreigners either, but he took a deep breath and slowly asked, “may I help you?”  I pointed to my highlighted train schedule and held up two fingers as I slowly asked for two tickets to Hakodate.  He repeated my request and simply asked for our “return?”  I told him “Monday afternoon” and pointed to the 2:30 P.M. train departure also highlighted on my paper.  Both he and I were very grateful for the highlighted form.  I paid our fare and he printed our tickets.

He handed us each three tickets and tried to explain we were not to get off the train in Aomori City.  I am glad I already knew that because he had a lot of difficulty translating the explanation clearly into English.

“Wakarimashta,” I replied bowing my head, meaning I understood what he said.

He seemed pleased as he bowed his head and said, “Sank you very much.  Please go to numbah two platform now, 15 minutes to train.”

When the train arrived, Dave and I found our assigned seats and sat back for our first long journey through Japan.  The train ride was very smooth and our seats were comfortable and reclining.  The bathrooms were well maintained complete with a tiny sink that included automatic sensors to spray water, then soap, and start the hand dryer all in one small, efficient space.  We sped by small villages, miles of rice fields, and large bodies of water filled with old fishing boats as we traveled north to Aomori City.  We didn’t get off the train when we stopped, but waited until the train unloaded passengers and loaded people once again before we set off for the rest of our journey.  We both fell sound asleep and were only awoken by the sound of train brakes as we drew near to our final destination.

Our final destination

We stopped in the tourist information office at the Hakodate train station and found an english map, brochure of area highlights, and an english speaking woman to give us directions to our hotel.  Our hotel was luckily a five minute walk away and the marquee on the roof of the building very clearly spelled out Toyoko-Inn.com.  The sidewalk was decorated with colorful cement art depicting squid, fish, large crabs, and octopus.  Our hotel was conveniently located in the midst of the fish market square and the front desk staff confirmed that we should be there no later than 5 A.M. to catch a glimpse of the action.

Sidewalk art

Upon check-in we were invited to become a part of the Toyoko Inn Gold Membership program.  With our new membership we would save some money on our present booking, get early online reservation privileges, and a free gift upon check-in at any Toyoko Inn throughout the country.  We eagerly signed up and were given a free washcloth gift set, our room key, and were directed to the elevator to find our room.

I was surprised at the room, but pleasantly surprised.  It was very small, maybe the size of a large American walk-in closet, yet very clean and welcoming with folded bathrobes and slippers on the bed.  The bed was only slightly larger than a twin size and it didn’t look promising in length for Dave who is just over 6 feet tall.  His long legs would definitely hang off the end of the bed if he didn’t sleep at an angle.  The mattress was thin, but made of dense, hard material.  The pillows were fluffy, yet noisy as your head sank into the collected pile of buckwheat shells that filled up the pillowcase.  I recalled an old infomercial about the postural benefits of the “sobakawa” pillow and I was eager to test it out.  The bed was high enough off the floor to store our backpacks underneath since there was no closet.

We found a hair dryer and an electric hot water pot equipped with a variety of green and black tea bags.  There was a fairly significant step up to enter the bathroom.  The plastic composite room was tiny, barely giving enough room to step in and turn around, but everything needed was in there.  The shower was a deep tub about 3’ deep and about 3’ long by 2’ wide.  The shower head was on a long tube dually used as the sink faucet.  A simple flip of a valve changed it from a single stream of water to a shower spray.  A built-in shelf held large community bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, new razors, toothbrushes and little tubes of toothpaste.  The small toilet had a heated seat and two choices for spray cleaning, pink for female, blue for male, easy enough.

The front desk staff was very helpful and there seemed to always be one English speaker on each shift.  We asked about climbing Mount Hakodate and set off for our first afternoon’s excursion.

The beginning of our climb up Mt. Hakodate

I wanted to see the panoramic view of the area from the observation tower on top of the nearby mountain.  The climb was not terribly challenging.  We stopped in the clearings to lookout over the city as we climbed and stopped to listen to the new and unique sounds of the birds.  I have never been to the rain forest, but I imagine the sounds we heard were very similar.  The woods were thick and dense with large, heavy branches arching over and shading our path.  The climb took a couple of hours giving us just enough time and daylight to look around as the sun began to disappear over the city.

Almost at the top of Mt. Hakodate

Looking southward we could just make out the main island of Honshu and the Hakkoda Mountains.  To the east we were viewing the Tsugaru Strait extending into vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  I have never lived near an ocean, but here, looking out over the never-ending horizon of water, I was beginning to realize with amazement and a twinge of sadness how far removed we were from our home.  Shaking off the encroaching melancholy, Dave and I found a comfortable bench facing northward to watch the Hakodate city lights begin to twinkle and glow as darkness settled over the mountain.  Our conversations solidified our resolve to make the best and most out of our next few years in Japan, come what may.

Nighttime view over Hakodate

When we started to get chilled and a bit hungry we splurged on tickets and rode the tram to the bottom of the mountain.  While on our way down I read more of our brochure.  I began noticing a trend that the Japanese love their top 10 lists of every sight and natural feature in the country.  The view from the top of Mount Hakodate was no exception as our brochure claimed it as one of the top 3 views to see in all of Japan.  We agreed it had been definitely worth the climb.  We stopped and ate dinner at a busy Irish pub, listening to the music, and enjoying familiar food before we made our way back to the hotel for a quick night’s sleep.

The fish market filled the streets for blocks and blocks early Sunday morning.  Vendors were bustling about setting out their fresh catches in styrofoam and ice, preparing for the crowds.  We made our way outside at 5:00 A.M. determined not to miss a thing.  We bought a couple of hot canned coffees from a vending machine outside the hotel and started exploring.

Hot canned coffee, my favorite

We watched as vendors pulled a king crab out of a styrofoam crate, turned it upside down and explained to buyers the proper way to judge a good crab.  We were disappointed we didn’t know very many Japanese words yet, but the more patient vendors would try English and let us sample some of their specialities.  The smoked scallops were a bit chewy and the salmon eggs were too big for me to enjoy their gushy popping in my mouth.  Unfortunately no one let us try the king crab since we were obviously tourists and not serious buyers.

How to judge a good crab

The king crabs were as big as my head with legs that extended far beyond.  They could sell for about $100.

Whoa! The literal King Crab

There were water tanks full of squid ready for sushi and calamari eaters.  I watched a seller put a live octopus on the ground that made a valiant escape attempt while their backs were turned, but he was soon scooped up and bought by the next customer.  Dave and I walked up and down the aisles admiring the variety of sea creatures we had never seen before.

Squid tank

There were several stands that were also selling a type of melon.  They looked to us like normal cantaloupes, but the vendors took great pride in packaging these melons that were meant as very special gifts for maybe corporate functions or dinner parties.  A box of four melons was priced between $60-80 depending on their size.  We walked away with a lot of pictures, but only purchased a bottle of Hakodate red wine as a souvenir.

Extra special melons

Our hotel was still offering their free Japanese breakfast when we returned.  We picked up trays from the stack and stood in line to be served a rice ball, which is sticky rice mixed with egg, spices, and vegetables formed into a tight ball wrapped in seaweed paper.  We had pickled cucumbers, turnips, and unknown fruits, miso soup, coffee, and juice.  When we reached the end of the line there were no empty tables left.  A Japanese couple was nice enough to motion over to us to sit with them.  We could not communicate with them past the pleasantries of “good morning” and “How do you do?” which was fine as they were busy reading the newspaper and enjoying their coffee.  Unfortunately, chopsticks were the only utensils available to use.  I gave our neighbors a nice laugh as I picked up a pickle only to flip it over and off the table.  The wife reached over to politely change my hand position on the sticks.  I grabbed another pickle mentally willing it to make it to my mouth.

Dave and I spent the rest of the day and the following morning touring the city.  Dave navigated their public transportation system and we hopped on and off the city trolley all day seeing different sites described in our brochure.  We sat down to read our books and enjoyed a picnic in a large open city park and watched other people enjoying their Sunday afternoon.  There were people taking naps on the lawn, others playing with frisbees or tossing baseballs, cyclists were zooming by talking on their cellphones, but most of the pedestrians, adults and children alike, were enjoying ice cream cones.  The weather remained sunny and warm all day as we toured four different historical church buildings and stopped for our own ice cream break.  We were sad to catch our train Monday afternoon, but we celebrated our fun mini-vacation on the ride home with our bottle of wine and some leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Riding home in style

We arrived in Misawa after dark and opted to hire a taxi cab to drop us off at the base.  We stumbled into our base hotel room full of new stories, photographs, and memories, not to mention, completely wiped out.

May I have a fork, please?

In June 2009 Dave and I were sent to live and work at Misawa Air Base, Japan.  We were given two months of lead time to get our household goods in order, sell cars, rent our house, dissolve my personal training business, and report to our new duty station.  The Air Force issued us military orders to live in the far northeast corner on the main island of Honshu for 3 years.  If you put your finger on the United States on a world globe and spin it nearly 180 degrees you would find our new home.  As a newlywed couple of one year, I couldn’t imagine a place farther away from our support network of close family and friends.  However, as adventure seeking, lovers of the unknown, Dave and I had stepped off the plane into our nirvana.  With luggage hanging off of every available limb, we were enthusiastically welcomed by his new co-workers as we disembarked the airplane in Misawa.  In our jet-lagged, semi-comatose state we were asked what we would like to see first.  As we generally align ourselves with the motto of “when in Rome, …”, we voted for eating sushi.

We weren’t sure what to expect at a real Japanese sushi restaurant.  I imagined several Japanese men would be standing behind a windowed counter cutting up fish with panache as you ordered.  They would be wearing robes of some kind and wraps around their foreheads like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid movie.  Perhaps I have watched too much television.

We walked in the door of the restaurant and were taken aback by a loud shout of “IRASSHAIMASE!” as the waitstaff all yelled at us in unison.  Our new friends explained that was their way of saying “WELCOME!”  We were soon ushered to a large booth, not a counter with a window, where we sat in front of two TV screens with pictures of food and strange writing.  To one side of the booth was a conveyor belt with different colored, little plates of sushi, sushi rolls, and tiny desserts slowly cruising by.  I saw no men with head wraps anywhere.  Our new friend, Jamie, ordered our meal by pressing a few of the pictures on the screen.  We thought it probably best to watch her first and then try it ourselves.  She took little tea cups that had been placed in front of us, scooped a little green powder into each cup, and filled them up from a tiny hot water faucet attached to our table. Voila, green tea.  Next thing you know a little train came zipping up to our table on a higher conveyor belt carrying the plates she had ordered.  She took the plates, pressed a button, and the train zipped back to the kitchen.  There was absolutely no human contact involved in the entire process.

Then out came the chopsticks.  As you can imagine eating at a restaurant in Japan you are required to possess a small amount of skill in the use of chopsticks as your primary eating utensils.  I had not mastered the use of chopsticks at this point and I did not intend to make a fool of myself on my first day in country.

I waved down a nice looking hostess and politely asked, “May I have a fork, please?”

To my shock she turned around and ran away from the table!

I leaned over to Dave and whispered with embarrassment, “Mark that down as international incident #1.”

However, she was quickly back at the table bowing in front of me.  She was holding a tray with a fork nicely displayed on top of a clean white towel.

As I took the fork she said, “sorry took long time” as she bowed and walked away.

“Excuse me, Jamie.”  I said in confusion.  “What just happened?  Did she actually mean to apologize that it took her a long time to go get me a fork?  If I had clocked her it would have been 8 seconds, but instead she was apologetic for not breaking her personal record of service?!”

“Welcome to Japanese customer service, Carrie.”  She said as she shrugged her shoulders.  “It’s pretty impressive.”

We woke up in our hotel room the next morning to bright sunshine and enormous black birds loudly cawing outside our opened window.  I watched them gathering in the lawn outside.  They were at least two and a half times the size of any crow I have ever seen, with a beak so big and powerful, I was sure they could break through metal.  I glanced at the clock and was very confused that it only read 3:45 in the morning.   At the relatively northern latitude and no daylight savings time, by 3:45 A.M. the day had begun whether we were ready or not.

We got up and went for a jog to explore the area and discovered that Misawa is a very isolated and small farming community.  Misawa Air Base sits about 6 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and about 30 miles east of the beautiful Hakkoda mountain range.  Prior to World War II, Misawa was a Japanese Air Base where their long range bombers would engage in target practice using the shallow waters of the adjacent Ogawara Lake.  It was the practice ground for the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.  Later it was the base of training for the kamikaze fighter pilots.  During the war, Misawa Air Base was mostly destroyed by US forces and later rebuilt to house American and Japanese troops as a joint base of operations. I was glad to get the lay of the land and an idea of what was around us.  I felt honored and humbled to be living in a place with so much history.  I also felt obligated or maybe it was a sense of responsibility to be very respectful and conscientious of the Japanese people that we were now living amongst.

We chose to rent a house about 3 miles off base within the community of Misawa.  We were told before we arrived to pack with the expectation that our living space would be about 1,000 square feet or less.  We did as we were told and packed the bare minimum.  Our house, on the other hand, was bright mustard yellow on the outside, two stories tall, 4 bedrooms, and over 2,500 square feet!  I called it our “Chateau Dijon.”  It was situated among a few other western style homes and Japanese residents.  We were surrounded by open fields of rice, carrots, cabbage, rape seed, and a large, white root vegetable called a daikon.

Our “American” pace of life and sense of urgency at all times came to a screeching halt in our new environment.  The calendar year in Japan revolved around the rice harvest and moved only as fast as the rice can be planted and harvested.  There was no sense of “keeping up with the Jones’.”  I couldn’t keep up even if we wanted to, there were no western style shopping malls for miles around.  Everyone drove an older “piece of junk” car because there simply were no other choices.  Cars were passed along from one military family to the next.  We weren’t allowed to bring our cars to Japan since they drive on the left side of the road.  It was also tough to find American stores online that were willing to ship goods to middle-of-nowhere, Japan.

Dave and I agreed the lack of American luxuries would do us some good, slow us down, and help us gain a new perspective on consumerism and what is really important in life.  For the first time we were living without a dishwasher or a microwave.  I cooked on a gas stove for my first time and we didn’t have central air conditioning.  We had all hard-wood flooring throughout the house with a few space heaters and heat that came from underneath the floor, which turned out to be quite fabulous.

My favorite features of the house were our own Japanese toilets.  I was told that the Japanese have the best toilets.  I had no idea how to take that tidbit of information before arriving, but I now agree 100 percent. The advice was, “When you arrive at the Tokyo airport go to the bathroom, you will enjoy it”.  No doubt I would have to go anyway after the 13 + hour flight, but what treat was I in for?  First you opened the door to the pleasant sound of birds chirping!  Then you sat down on a delightfully heated toilet seat.  There was a control panel of buttons to choose from during your stay with little pictures to clarify.  You could change the bird sounds to that of a toilet repeatedly flushing.  There was a bidet feature that sent a shocking spray of warm water back up at you for a squeaky cleanse. Finally, you could choose an air dry and a “puff of scent” with one press of a button.  I was thrilled to walk through our house in Misawa and notice each of our bathrooms possessed these very same toilets!

Note:  We are currently in possession of a Japanese toilet seat.  We purchased one as a personal parting gift as we left the country!