October 23, 2012

Where Am I Going? Sapporo

I started my travels from Yokohama where I found an empty window seat on the Shinkansen (bullet train) bound for Shin-Aomori, which is located at the Northern most point of the Honshu island. The 3.5 hour trip was marked by napping and a very sore neck. I expected the Japanese to solve the problem of sleeping in a reclined chair, but this riddle has apparently stumped the ingenious society that brought us robots, rice alcohol and hentai pornography.

After transferring to a rapid service train that would take me under the ocean and to the island of Hokkaido, I decided it would be wise to start looking for a place to stay on Couch Surfing. I looked into a few cities in the area of my destination but found the majority were in Sapporo, so that would indeed be where I spent my time. I was writing complete strangers and asking to sleep in their homes with no more than 4 hour notice, and while I've always been able to depend on the kindness of internet strangers, that even seemed like a stretch.
The gateway to the unknown.
My first transfer at the Northern coast of Honshu.
Passing Time Schedule for the underwater tunnel.

The train emerged from the underwater tunnel and ran along the coast. We passed through small
fishing villages and farm land; rarely did I see a building over 4 stories tall. Returning to above sea level also meant internet access, so I eagerly checked my inbox to see if I had found a place to stay, but the only Couch Surfing emails were denials. Note to self: single woman do not feel comfortable hosting men.

I wrote a few more people and returned to Norwegian Wood, hoping that I would get a ping in the next 4 hours that someone could host me. I also experimented with some time lapse app on my laptop. Thought of this shot of a guy sitting on a train with the passing scenery behind him: seemed original. Please note that it got a little funky when we went under water and into the tunnel.

About an hour from my destination, I finally got an acceptance email from Bob, a 60 year old school teacher who has been living in Japan for 20 years. Not that I would have been picky, but Bob was definitely my first choice as he is originally from Boston and had a guest bedroom in what looked like a very quaint Japanese apartment. He seemed more than happy to host me and gave me his number with the instructions to call once I found my way out of the station.

As soon as the express train reached Sapporo and the doors opened, it became apparent that I was in a very different part of Japan. The air was crisp and immediately snapped me out of my train daze. It had been 6 months since I had felt cold air. This summer, Los Angeles decided to stay in triple digits for my entire stay and Tokyo has been quite humid and warm, only cooling off slightly at night. But now that I was at the most Northern part of Japan, the air became chilly and the pace seemed to slow down.

I've been listening to a podcast about if we make cities or if cities make us. One of the pieces of research they discuss is a study conducted that measures how quickly people walk in a particular city as well as how quickly they talk. The study demonstrates how one can extrapolate a lot of information about a city based on only these two pieces of information, including social issues and cultural traits. I could feel that Sapporo was different than Tokyo and it was refreshing.

As soon as I left the station I called Bob. He answered and let me know that he was at the 7-11 right by the station exit. He was on his way home from work and stopped to get some bread. Again, my 10+ hour journey had plopped me within feet and minutes of my host (the first was my flight from LAX to Narita, which ended with me entering Kelly's apartment no more than 5 minutes before she did).

Some foreshadowing: as I write this, Bob is in his living room rocking out to Kate Bush. "I'm 60 years old, I don't rock out, I purposefully move."

We took a short walk from the station to his apartment building. He lives on the top floor and has the entire roof to himself and has turned it into a very adorable garden and sitting area. The place was absolutely gorgeous. Not in an impressive way, but in a "someone lives very comfortably here" way. The main room includes a kitchen area, a computer nook and a sitting/reading nook. From that room there are two bedrooms, identical in size and construction; the front wall slides open as an entrance while the two adjoining walls slide open to reveal closet space. Very efficient.

89in89 Blog Headquarters: Sapporo, Japan.
Bob and I agreed that we were hungry and he suggested his favorite izakaya a few blocks away. Halfway through the walk he told me that the thing about this restaurant is that he's never let anyone else pay for a meal. What a host.

The meal lasted for about 3 hours and was either one of the best meals ever, or  I had only eaten an Onigiri all day. Not even a full one, as halfway through I discovered fish eggs in the middle. I accidentally took a bite and it tasted exactly what I imagine licking a rainbow trout would taste like.

It was just Bob, myself, and the chef/owner in the restaurant. We sat at the bar as he created a meal just for us consisting of about 7 courses. My lack of fish appreciation meant a creative feast, something the chef said he enjoyed. We were treated to sautéd eggplant and garlic, a chicken hamburger on a stick, and pumpkin tempura. This country is all about pumpkin as food and I am all about this country.

Bob was sure to pick up the slack for my sobriety and capped off his Sapporo beers with his own personal bottle of sake. Apparently it is customary for regulars at certain restaurants to purchase a giant bottle of sake and then leave it there for their return. Why has this policy not been adapted by American root beer connoisseurs?

I learned that Bob was (and is) a pacifist during the Vietnam War, believes in cultural relativism, and shared many of the same views I did on life and philosophy. More so, he's a bit of a history buff so he was able to educate me about a lot of Japanese politics, cultural issues, and history. If nothing else, I will leave Sapporo with a greater knowledge of this country's history and a list of cultural sites I must visit. By far my favorite part of this experience so far has been meeting people from across the world and learning about the social issues in their motherlands, as well as their personal beliefs and philosophies. They start getting really interesting when they are comprised of multiple cultural influences.

This is my first experience as a Couch Surfer. Taylor and I hosted a number of people in our Boston apartment, but I have never been on the receiving end of internet hospitality. The bar has been set incredibly high. A private room with a comfy bed, a great dinner, wonderful conversation, and a fantastic soundtrack of 1960's and 70's American protest songs from the other room. Woah, wait, "Born This Way" by Gaga just came on. I suppose that's a protest song. That is, one I would like to protest hearing.

Was able to check off a whole slew of goals today:
43: Leave the main island. I feel more confident now checking this off the list as Odaiba is a manmade island.
57: Ride the rail to an unknown destination w/o plans or accommodations.
66: Spend the night in someone else's home (excluding Kurumi or Kelly)

Tomorrow I've got a lunch date with a 51 year old woman, her black lab and her 101 year old Steinway. Amazing what a few hours on the internet can produce.