Walking along the bank above the grey green waters of the Ishikari, running full and fast due to snow melt, I disturbed a fox. It was up ahead, sniffing by a wooden post, tawny-coated below the silver-gold sky of a setting sun. It turned my way then ran down towards the water, a dark blur against the snow, brush tail flouncing.
There it rested beneath a bare branched willow and I saw that there were two. They were larger than I expected and I later read that they were most likely Kitakitsune. I tried to capture them with my iPhone but it was twilight, they were far away and on the move, and after three attempts my phone’s batteries expired and it shut down.
I walked on a little then turned and looked back. They’d stopped running and were standing immobile, heads raised, watching. I resumed my walk with a feeling of loss. It’s unlikely I’ll see those two again. Ahead, the sun dropped below the clouds and a sharp wind picked up dry leaves from the snow at my feet. A solitary Tobi circled high in the sky above.
The Kitakitsune, the Tobi, the fluttering leaves, the roiling river, and me. Nothing else moved in the silent landscape. To my left, the Ishikari flowed swiftly to the north, banks stacked with dirty piles of snow sculpted into strange shapes by wind and sun. To my right, rows of pastel houses, shabby-seeming in the twilight, displayed yellow-glowing windows.
You can walk in a foreign country and forget to see the differences while you tread the unfamiliar city footpaths and unexplored tracks by the river. You can investigate routes through powdery snow or earthy tree litter, while disregarding the strange smells and ignoring the different angle of the sun. You can choose to be in the moment or to let your mind drift away.
Our flight touched down at Heathrow too late in the day to fly on to Helsinki, so we’d booked one night at a hotel close to the airport. I felt comfortably smug that I had it all organised. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I’d booked for the 29th of the wrong month. And it was a ‘no refund’ booking.
My distress quickly turned to disbelief and then to dismay. I suppose we were lucky that there were still rooms available for the night we were actually there, so I had to swallow my pride and fork out another £65, adding the experience to my ever-growing list of ‘lessons learned’.
Blocked up and miserable
To make matters worse, on the drive to LA airport I realised I’d contracted a cold, and by the time we arrived in the UK I was feeling pretty grim. The next shock was the weather. After the 40+ temperatures in California, the 16 C with drizzling rain was hardly a warm welcome.
Back in New Zealand a few months earlier, I’d been browsing ‘What’s on in London’ for the night we were there, and had been surprised to read that The Modern Māori Quartet were performing a ‘one and only’ gig in London on the exact same day. The show was scheduled for 4 pm at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, so we’d booked tickets thinking it would be a fun thing to do. We’d also be able to say ‘Hi’ to our son’s friend, Maaka. But now that we were actually in London, I was questioning the wisdom of that ‘bright idea’. We were both still recovering from the non-booked room screwup, the weather was crummy, and we were a long way from Shepherd’s Bush. Nonetheless, we decided to stick with our plan, so caught the shuttle bus back to the airport, purchased a couple of Oyster Cards, loaded them with some cash, negotiated a couple of different routes on London’s Underground, then walked as rapidly as we could to Bush Hall. We arrived at our destination with just a few minutes to spare, despite having to switch trains due to delays on one of the lines.
According to Bush Hall’s website, the venue was originally built by a publisher in 1904, and is one of a trio of London dance halls he built for each of his daughters, Bush Hall being the only survivor of the three. The hall has enjoyed a varied existence since then. In WWII it served time as a soup kitchen, before being reinvented as a bingo hall, a rehearsal space, and a snooker & social club. It was restored to its former ‘musical glory’ in 2001 by its current owners.
At the hall we bought a couple of cheap red wines and settled in to enjoy the performance. The place was fully booked (well, as far as I could tell, as they had to bring in more chairs from the back) and the audience seemed to only comprise of Kiwis – a motley assortment, at that. The Modern Maori Quartet was as polished as ever, and everyone around us was having a good time, singing along and channeling their ‘kiwiness’. I can’t say my heartstrings were plucked, but then we’d only been away from home for less than a week. Unfortunately we didn’t get to catch up with Maaka as he wasn’t on that particular tour.
After the performance was over, we wearily trudged back along the road in the rain, ordering a £4.95 meal from an Indian restaurant on the way to the Underground. We thought this a good deal, until they stung us £2 each for two small bottles of water. When I’d asked earlier for a couple of glasses of water, I’d thought we’d be given tap water. Won’t do that again. Then back on one train, then another, then the airport shuttle, then the short walk (still in the rain) back to the hotel.
Once again, it had been a long day, starting with our departure from Indian Wells at 6.30 am and moving on to the drive to LA airport, the disposal of the rental car, the horrors of US Customs, UK Customs, the non-booked hotel, negotiating public transport in London… perhaps we’d overestimated our energy levels, but at least we did manage to achieve all that we’d planned.
That night in the hotel we barely unpacked, just fell into bed and slept fitfully until our alarms woke us up around 4.00 am. The flights to Helsinki departed at 7.30 am so we had to get organised early. But as we departed from our hotel in the grey early light, I was filled with a sense of optimism. That feeling of being ‘on the road again’ with a whole new country ahead of us. Helsinki meant summer and seeing family. The air b n b we’d booked looked lovely (online, at least), and we wouldn’t have to travel anywhere far for the next five days. And surely my health would improve.
We stayed at Indian Wells for four days, which was the duration of the conference that had sent us there to begin with. During that time, an out-of-control fire raged on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains, sending dark plumes of smoke into the western skies. I first noticed the change in the light on the second afternoon, when I asked one of the bell boys whether the dark clouds above the ranges were thunder clouds. It was then that he told me it was from a purposely lit fire and I immediately noticed the smoky smell in the air, and the unusual golden tinge that was beginning to affect the quality of the sunlight.
As the day progressed, and indeed, over the following four days, the smoke became worse, and the conflagration became known as the ‘Cranston Fire’, spreading until it had engulfed over 13,000 acres of land, destroying at least five houses and leading to the evacuation of 7000 people. At one point, on a visit to Palm Springs, the sun could barely be seen through the haze.
Exploring the Coachella Valley
To make the most of our rental car (if not to enjoy the air conditioning inside) we made several short excursions into the Coachella Valley. I’d pored over the tourist brochures and circled the places that looked most interesting and were within local driving distance.
The first we investigated was the Oasis Date Gardens. There we could expect to see, ‘a video show on date history and cultivation, a picnic area surrounded by our beautiful palm garden, a date palm and ornamental palm arboretum, a cactus garden and an antique farm equipment exhibit’. This sounded all very interesting, so we turned on our GPS and made our way there.
I think the information in the tourist brochure was somewhat out of date (excuse the pun) as there weren’t any gardens you could walk in, just a neglected patch of grass to the left of the run-down looking shop-cum-café. The cactus garden was a bit sad-looking, too, in fact the whole ‘garden’ area was very neglected.
Despite the less-than-encouraging exterior, we swallowed down our trepidation and went inside to investigate – we were hanging out for a cup of coffee, if nothing else. There was one girl working behind a counter and no-one else in sight. The left half of the room had some tables and chairs, and the other side had a table with bins of dates, a set of scales, bags, tongs, etc., surrounded by some packaged date products, and other ‘for sale’ items. In a back section there were some tired-looking posters with historical information on them.
The café didn’t appear to still be running, but we ordered a coffee anyway, only to be told that the machine wasn’t working. There was a comprehensive array of date-related products on the café menu, but we didn’t really care to try any. They all sounded too sweet and milky. The date shop itself was well worth the drive. There were about twenty different varieties of dates for sale, and you could taste them all before purchasing (which I did). We ended up buying quite a decent-size bag of Barhi dates. The usual ‘fancy’ and expensive dates you can get in New Zealand are Medjool, and I do like those, but to my taste buds, the Barhi* were the best of all. Smaller, very sweet, soft, tasting like butterscotch or caramel, and with very soft skins. Our bag cost us about US $3.50, which we considered very good value.
I was also fascinated by the date palms with their enormous bunches of dates. There were acres and acres of these in the area. If you can picture barren, arid, jagged hills, dusty ground, huge blue skies with tinges of smoke around the edges, and row upon row of date palms, then this would possibly give you an idea of the look of the place.
On another day we drove to ‘old’ La Quinta. The old part of town had the classic southern US border town look – dazzling sunlight, white plastered buildings, palms, fleshy plants (such as yucca and aloe), dark shade, tinkling fountains, and a hot, dry smell. Streets empty in the middle of the day, shop doors closed to keep out the heat, and the necessity of scurrying from shady patch to shady patch.
We’d encountered this same situation on a February trip to Hawker, north of Adelaide, where the locals know not to venture outside in the middle of the day and the place ends up looking like a ghost town. In the Coachella Valley, mist machines are deployed to keep the store entrances and outside seating areas, cool. We were intrigued by these as we’d never seen them before, so walked into the cool clouds whenever we could. And they worked!
We drove the thirty or so minutes to Palm Springs a couple of times. The smoke from the Cranston Fires was more evident there, as the city is nestled against the foot of the La Jacinta mountain range, and the fires were directly on the other side. A nice touch was that Ben’s brother Dennis and his wife Lauren drove all the way down from northern LA (about a 3-hour drive) to meet us for lunch the first time we visited. They suggested meeting for lunch at El Mirasol Restaurant and it was an excellent choice. The restaurant served very inexpensive, enormous Margaritas, and after a few gulps, there was no way the meal could go badly. But even without the Margaritas, we’d have loved the meals. The service was great, too.
On that visit to Palm Springs we were inside most of the time and didn’t really notice the heat, but on the second visit, it was so hot, I felt I could barely walk up the street, and it felt like the smoky air was sucking every drop of moisture out of my body. Needless to say, our visit was brief.
We fled to a mall, which turned out to be another Westfield – I guess they are everywhere, but I was still surprised (and not in a good way) to see the identical logo to that of our local mall in West Auckland, on the wall as we drew near.
In summary, the California leg of our trip was interesting and opened my eyes to a completely different part of the world. It was hot there… and we had expected this, but according to the local TV channel, the weather we experienced while we were there was the hottest for several decades and quite a few records were broken in the area. Only the smoky skies kept the heat from soaring even higher. Our only disappointment was the final night ‘gala dinner, of the conference.
The dinner cost the equivalent of NZ $145 per person, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of the meal, was enormous. We were given only one measly glass of wine for the whole meal, and the entrée was a small bread-and-butter-plate sized, flat selection of salad greens, just like you might purchase bagged up in plastic at the supermarket all ready to serve, but it had no dressing and nothing other than leaves in it, (i.e., no tomato, or carrot, or red pepper or cucumber). It looked very tired and as if it could do with a good rinse in some fresh water. The Main was okay… it was a piece of filet steak, cooked medium rare and tender, but small. Alongside this was a smear of possibly Béarnaise Sauce, with two spindly strands of asparagus trapped in it, and a tiny piece of roasted potato with skin on – perhaps the size of my watch face, and hmm… I think there was something else – perhaps a small flat mushroom or two. Dessert was some kind of ready-made tart – the kind you could buy from a generic cake shop. You had to crack the pastry crust to break into it. It was okay but adding the three courses together, plus the one small glass of unmemorable wine… well, we were very disappointed.
On our final day, we arose at around 5.00 am, and were on the road by just after 6.00 am. Then we retraced steps and drove to LA, dropped off the rental car, and joined the very long line crawling its way through the US Customs. This line moved somewhat quicker than on our entry and even though we’d been told to arrive three hours prior to our flight, we actually had a good two hours to fill in before our 5.15 pm flight to London.
* Barhi Dates – “Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin). (Wikipedia)
We touched down at LAX around 1.00 pm on Tuesday, after a twelve-hour journey out of Auckland. The flight was uneventful, although I only managed to doze for a couple of sessions of about thirty or so minutes. Once we’d disembarked, the customs and security procedure was tiresome. Not the process itself (which was relatively straight-forward) but being sorted into a zig-zagging line of tired travelers, squashed together like an assortment of irregular human peas completely out of their pods… like zombies, even, shuffling forward a step at a time… tired, crumpled, barely able to communicate. The line took over two hours.
I felt sorry for a young couple behind us who had a connecting flight, and for the people who had babies and young children in tow. People were remarkably patient, however, and the little ones coped, somehow. In comparison, fetching our luggage and finding our way to collect the rental car was a walk in the park, and we negotiated our way out of the city without too much trouble.
The drive east to Indian Wells took about three hours and for most of the way there was a steady stream of traffic. Fortunately we could use a faster ‘ride share’ lane as there were two of us in the car.
When we finally arrived it was after 6.00 pm and the sun was setting, and the heat hit us like a physical blow when we exited the car. The only way I can describe the feeling is to say that it was as if someone was holding one of those electric bar heaters about six inches away from my body (every part) and that it was on full. Interestingly, I’ve since heard on the local news channel that this part of the US is experiencing record highs. So it’s not just me.
Indian Wells – population c.5000
Describing Indian Wells,the local City Council website states somewhat wistfully that “a century before Zane Grey immortalised the Old West, an Indian village had formed around a hand-built well in the Southern California desert”. It goes on to state that “the characters in this tale were to be the same he (Zane Grey) celebrated: Indians, explorers, pioneers, and prospectors; their actions framed against a rugged backdrop of mountains rising from a raw sand floor”. Although there was a thriving Indian village situated here in 1853, the discovery a decade later of gold on the Colorado River, changed everything. Indian Wells became an important stop-over on the way through the desert from Los Angeles.
I’m sure there are sites where evidence of the old history can still be seen, but for those of us who are just passing through, staying perhaps a few days for golf, or in our case, to attend a conference, there’s not much to see of the historical side of things. The Indian Wells that Ben and I are experiencing comprises low-lying sandy-coloured buildings with terracotta tiled roofs, a variety of tall palm trees (including the statuesque Saidy Date Palm), manicured lawns with misty sprinklers, and a surprising number of tinkling fountains. Oh, and there are the fancy resorts that rise up above the low-lying buildings like giant anthills. The place is a verdant oasis sprouting in the arid grey Coachella Valley, which in turn is surrounded by the sharp craggy peaks of a number of mountain ranges. It is very hot, very tidy, very quiet, very clean and very different from South Head.
To counteract the heat, we took a dip in the pool last night. The water was tepid and we splashed around for about five minutes, before realising that we were exhausted. Surprisingly, despite it still being 42 C, we felt chilly when we slid out and scurried for our towels. It was a very beautiful scene, though. A clear blue sky packed with stars, an almost full moon, turquoise pool, palm trees, subtle lighting… the whole resort thing. And the air-conditioning indoors is a welcome contrast to the heat outside. If you wished to, you could come to a place like this, swim in the pool, drink cocktails at the bar, eat at one of the in-house restaurants, head back to your room to watch cable TV, and never go out of the hotel for anything.
You could be anywhere in the world… except for the heat.
When I initially checked-in to First Cabin, I was asked to confirm that I wouldn’t be playing loud music, or producing inharmonious sounds, or using a noisy alarm clock, all in the interests of my fellow guests. The counter displayed a box of earplugs, ‘free of charge’, and I was soon to discover why. The ‘capsules’ are never entirely closed off from everyone else. Basically, they’re little cubicles open at one end, across which runs a stiff vinyl curtain.
Despite my tiredness, I could tell straight away that it was going to be a difficult night, sleep-wise. The bed was very hard and flat. It reminded me of a well-stuffed vinyl bench, except wider, and of course, it wasn’t vinyl, or if it was, it was well disguised under the bedding. There was a light duvet, a pillow, and a large flattish bolster affair that served as a head-board. The opaque vinyl curtain had a gap of about 10 cm at top and bottom, and let through light from the hallway. And even with everyone trying to be quiet you could still hear people walking back and forth, curtains scraping on their tracks, the rustle of papers, the sound of coughing, or of people going through their bags and getting ready for bed, or getting out of bed, and this went on for the whole night, as people checked in or departed at all hours.
I decided to take a shower before bed, so donned the rather uncomfortable tunic and pants and made my way to the shared bathroom. The series of rooms were dazzlingly bright after the subdued lighting of the hallways and were well-stocked with mirrors, hair-dryers, low stools and toiletries. Removing my slippers, I followed the signs to the shower section where it was clear that I was expected to remove my clothing and place the items into a basket, then cross the Tatami matting to the shower on the opposite side of the room. I was hesitating – weighing up the possibility of taking my towel in with me, when a naked woman appeared from the shower opposite and walked past me to her basket of clothes. At this point I realised I’d just have to go with the flow. And I also felt annoyed that I come from a culture where I still feel self-conscious in my own skin. The shower was great! Hot, clean, and with good water pressure. A nice touch was the Shiseido shampoo and conditioner. I felt much better afterwards.
I settled down for the night at around 10 pm and eventually fell into a restless sleep. At around 3.30 am I was startled awake by the sound of music, a woman singing… in my half-asleep state I couldn’t tell if it was in Japanese or English or some other language, and for a moment I thought I’d somehow left a radio on. The music played on for a few minutes before it stopped and the relative silence resumed. At 4.30 am I got up to go to the bathroom and was surprised to see that there were many more capsules with closed curtains than there had been earlier. And in the bathroom itself, there was an astonishing number of women sitting at the counters, applying make-up, drying their hair, etc. I guess some people start their days early, and it seemed to me that they were dressed for work, rather than travel.
I’d asked for a wake-up call, just in case the vibrations of my watch alarm didn’t wake me, and right on 6.00 am, I heard a gentle tap on my curtain, which was then drawn aside, and a cheery face peeped in. “Arigato!” I called out softly and the figure retreated. Despite having spent a week or two studying Hiragana, and learning a few Japanese words prior to my trip, ‘Thank you’ was the only word I felt confident of testing on anyone.
The flight from Auckland to Narita takes about 10 hours. I’m not particularly fond of flying. But perhaps nobody is. It’s not so much the thought of being up in the air in a huge metal machine, it’s more about the claustrophobic aspect of being crammed into such a small space for several hours, sharing the stale air with a few hundred people you’ve never met.
The new aeroplanes, while comparatively roomy and equipped with all the mod cons, are not designed for short people, (just as they aren’t designed for tall people, or large people). The position of the head rest isn’t quite right, the flow of fresh air completely misses my face, that kind of thing. To distract us we’re provided with movies or TV programmes, music and refreshments, and these just about do the trick, especially if you’re traveling alone and don’t have to entertain a child or comfort a baby.
We were served ‘lunch’ a couple of hours after departure. I chose the salmon, which was accompanied by a small egg roll, some green beans and rice. The other option was scrambled eggs and chicken sausage – definitely unappealing, even mentioning it here makes me a little squeamish. Then a couple of hours out from Narita we were served dinner. The choices were either a chicken dish, or a beef casserole with peas and roasted potatoes. I chose the latter and polished it off at a speed that surprised me.
My seat was situated on the left-hand aisle, adjacent to a guy aged around late-40s and his son (about 10). They didn’t bother me on the trip, but nor did we communicate, except for when they needed to squeeze past me for some reason. At one point I became aware that several babies were crying inconsolably. It was a somewhat bizarre situation – playing out on the screen in front of me was a sex scene in the movie ‘The Shape of Water’. A very wet scene with water dripping and flowing everywhere, and then there was the sound of babies howling from several sides. I felt sorry for them, and for their caregivers. A long trip is difficult when you have little ones in tow. I was also glad they weren’t my babies.
Thanks to a tail wind, we landed a little early at Narita, just before 5 pm, with a reported outside temperature of 28 C. Looking out the plane windows it appeared overcast and smoggy. I’d packed some of our own honey as gifts and was half expecting the contents of my luggage to be queried, but I passed through Customs and the security check speedily. My first task was to purchase a ticket for the Limousine Bus that would take me from Narita to Haneda airport, a trip of about an hour, across the city.
The bus was only about half full, but every window seat was taken so I couldn’t see much of Tokyo or the surrounding area. I did, however, catch glimpses of rice fields and greenery, along with grey industrial buildings and motorways.
Nearer to Haneda we drew close to the ocean, which looked dark and choppy in the late afternoon light – visibility restricted by the smoggy atmosphere. By the time our bus reached its destination, the sun had dipped to a position only a little above the horizon. The sky was a dirty gold changing to smoky apricot with the buildings standing out starkly and I was feeling very tired.
I’d booked a first class capsule at First Cabin hotel, situated in Haneda Airport’s Terminal 1. I located the hotel without too much difficulty and checked in at around 6.40 pm. I had to wait twenty minutes for the room to become available and then curiously walked through the narrow corridors to find my ‘home away from home’ for the night.
The room was adequate and I wish that I’d taken a photo when I first slid the curtain open and hadn’t disturbed anything. For about NZ $60 I was provided with a clean room with a bed, a TV (which I didn’t use), a small side table, a lockable drawer, a towel, wash-cloth, pair of disposable slippers, and a set of cabin wear consisting of a simple top and trousers, made of a thick, brown fabric.
By this time I was so exhausted I was almost dead on my feet. But I was also terribly thirsty, so once I’d undertaken a very basic ‘unpack’, I left my gear in the capsule (trusting that it would be secure) and roamed the airport in search of something to drink and eat. I walked back and forth a few times unable to make a decision then settled on a bottle of Mirin brand Sparkling Lemon (which I guzzled as quickly as the coldness of the liquid would allow) and a Convenience Store-style Onigiri of some kind. It was time to retire for the night.
Next stage of the trip: My night as a guest of First Cabin.
At 7.45 am on Tuesday 15 May I was sitting in the Koru Lounge of Auckland International Airport, struggling to keep my eyes open. It had been an early start, made a little more complicated by having to jettison a couple of items at the last minute (my Kindle, a bottle of shampoo and my pillow), in order to get the weight of my bag closer to the 23 kg limit.
The day had begun with my Apple Watch vibrating me into awakedness at 3.45 am. In theory, I should have been ready to go, having packed and separated out the items I might need with me on the journey, the previous day. The trip itself, would be a little different from that of the previous year; on this occasion it would be undertaken in two legs: Auckland to Tokyo (Narita airport) and Tokyo (Haneda airport) to Asahikawa. Last year I’d flown directly to Sapporo, before traveling by rail (the Kamui) to my final destination. Another difference was that it would involve an overnight stay in Tokyo, as my Asahikawa flight wouldn’t depart until mid-morning on the Wednesday.
The drive from home to the airport was uneventful. It was a clear, calm morning and South Head Road was dry, only broken by puddles of fog whenever the road dipped into a hollow. There was little traffic through Parakai, Waimauku and even at Kumeu, which an hour or so later would be bisected by a long snake of commuters. We tanked the car at the Gull station there, and leaving the last of the fog behind, hit the northern end of the South Western motorway. Even the road works leading down to the Lincoln Road off ramp didn’t hold us up and before long we were driving through the Waterview Tunnel, and out the other side where I was surprised to read on an electronic sign that it was 18 C.
Ben dropped me off at the international terminal at around 6.00 am and headed back to wrestle his way to the city centre through the early morning traffic. My bag weighed in at 23.4 kg but the attendants let it through; fortunately I didn’t have to implement my backup plan of transferring various items (such as computer cables) from bag to back pack. After clearing Customs and the security check I wandered a couple of times around the duty-free shops, then headed to the Koru Lounge. I had a long wait ahead of me.
The lounge was full with the best seats taken. There are always plenty of comfy chairs but they are the wrong dimensions for a person of my height. They force me to either sit forward awkwardly on the edge, or to sit back with my feet barely touching the floor, so the best chairs for me are the regular ones beside the dining tables. I plonked myself down into the best of the worst and opened my laptop. My intention was to get some writing done and to avoid alcohol – it was, after all, still very early, but after 30 minutes of listening to a nearby group of women talking firstly (and at length) about who they did and didn’t like in ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (a new series is apparently running on TV3), and secondly, about how irritating Winston Peters is and how lovely Jacinda Ardern is, and then having another woman beside me coughing and sniffling, I decided I needed something. And there’s nothing like a glass of bubbly at 7.32 am.
Looking around, I observed that the area was mostly populated with grey-haired, or no-haired individuals, most of them, paired off. Yes, there were a few younger couples and singles, and I did observe one child aged around eight, but I was definitely on the younger side of the majority. Most of us were tapping away at laptop keyboards, or peering closely at mobile phones. Reading glasses were ‘de rigueur’. I thought this somewhat odd. Perhaps it was to do with it being the international lounge – I knew from experience that at that time of the morning on a week day, the domestic lounge would be filled with business types, all suited up.
The noise level was high, too. Across from where I was sitting, the barista gal was regularly bashing the coffee grounds out of the portafilter, plates were being clattered by the breakfast bar, glasses were clinking on a trolley being wheeled past, the buzz of many conversations was reaching a crescendo – the cacophony peppered with abrupt peels of laughter and muffled coughs. I could catch the odd phrase of a conversation, but it was mostly just noise, the kind that makes your eyelids grow heavy until suddenly you realise that you almost fell asleep. Or perhaps it was the one small glass of wine that was beginning to affect me. It was time to zone out.
Next stage of the trip: The flight from Auckland to Narita airport, Tokyo, and the subsequent journey between Narita and Haneda airports, and my experience as a guest of First Cabin.
I realised when I posted the Panna Cotta recipe in September that I’d planned to write at least one more post while I was in Asahikawa back in April. However, life became very busy for the last few weeks I was there, and then once back home, other events took over (as they often do). But now, getting close to a full year later, here is that final chapter.
And The Sign Says…
I’m sure that everyone who’s known anyone who’s visited Japan will have a story about this or that amusing sign they saw. It’s not just the slightly incorrect translations into English, it’s often the combination of words and kawaii images that catch the eye. I must admit that by my fourth week in Asahikawa, I’d stopped noticing the signs… I meant to hunt them all out, but ended up by only collecting a few.
The sign ‘As Know as Pinky’ (advertising a fashion boutique) left me with more questions than answers. And ‘Hard Off’ definitely caught my attention… ‘Garage Off’, less so. It was explained to me that the store sold second-hand hardware and garage items at discounted prices, hence the ‘Off’.
Supermarkets were a good source of amusing product names. For some reason, calling babies’ nappies ‘Goon’ cracked me up, and it took me a long time to realise that the ‘Love Love Sand’ range of items, were actually regular sandwiches (their egg sandwiches were one of my regular snack foods).
Three Dimensional Art Objects
One tourist site describes the Asahikawa area as, “A thriving world of art, filled with sculptures, set against the magnificent background of Daisetsuzan mountain range”, and indeed, one of the things you notice straight away is that there are sculptures everywhere.
They’re situated on corners, amongst gardens, and/or in front of significant (and not so significant) buildings. They depict people (the famous as well as the ordinary), animals, and a wide range of inanimate objects.
When I first arrived I couldn’t help notice all the statues of naked girls and women, but later I discovered a few naked bodies of the male variety, too.
I took photos of most of the sculptures I encountered, but the promise of yet another discovery was always ‘just around the next corner’.
In fact, there were so many that I can hardly do justice to them here… they would take up several pages, so I’ve included just a few to illustrate my point.
Some featured large pieces of natural rock, or rock slabs.
Others depicted interesting creatures, or body parts. The huge metal disk (above centre), is topped with a line of individual metal people.
I particularly liked the clean lines of the metal sculptures against the blue skies. The spiral was a favourite in my early days when snow was still deep on the ground.
Evidence of the Individual
Another thing I liked about Asahikawa were the unexpected examples of individuality. While driving in the suburbs, amongst the dwellings toned in neutral shades of grey, brown, blue and green, you might suddenly see a canary yellow or an astonishingly vivid orange house. And scattered across the city, interesting shop frontages can be found tucked in amongst the common grey commercial buildings.
Often these frontages are populated by ‘things’, such as logs of wood, strange mechanical bits and pieces, or cute little chairs.
Asahikawa only achieved city status in 1922. Before that it was a town (from 1900) and prior to that, the area was largely rural. Because of this, the city doesn’t have lots of old buildings. So, if you’re looking for classical Japanese architecture you’d be better served to visit Sapporo or the islands further south.
Most of the buildings in the central city area are drab concrete blocks. Perhaps this is why some of Asahikawa’s residents decorate things in their own way – so as not to be defined by the dull grey city buildings with all their ugly wires and unoriginal rectangular shapes.
Snow fades to reveal
shadow tree in bright water.
It’s been a long winter for the people of Asahikawa, reaching back to the first snowfalls in October. And it certainly seemed chilly to me when I arrived, coming from the humid heat of a South Head autumn. But since then, the lowest temperature I’ve experienced has been around -5 C, and today it had reached 17 C by about 5 pm. (It’s not so long ago that it was regularly -15 C). The gratifying thing I’ve observed, however, is that as soon as the snow starts to melt and the bare earth is exposed, new growth begins.
It’s already more than a week into Cherry Blossom Festival down south in Tokyo, but this far north most of the trees are barely in bud; you can in a certain light, however, discern a golden-green tinge along the branches of some. The Pussy Willows are in flower already. The sight of their fuzzy protuberances reminds me of spring in Dunedin, and more specifically, of my much-loved garden at St Leonards, where the fattening buds were also one of the first signs that winter was finally over.
Along the walkways in Tokiwa Koen, the edges of stone walls are emerging from beneath the snow, and I was surprised see Moss Phlox growing there, as green as if it hadn’t been entombed for months. It’s the very phlox I rely on at home to brighten up the edges of my front borders… how versatile it is (!) and I wonder if it’ll flower before I head back to New Zealand.
I glimpsed some crocuses pushing up through a patch of dead grass in an otherwise barren strip of dirt at the base of a city apartment building. The familiarity of both this cheerful flower and the phlox help me feel ‘at home’ in this otherwise different environment. I’m discovering unfamiliar plants too, such as the golden, yellow flower Adonis amurensis (a member of the buttercup family) and the chartreuse new shoots of Petasites japonicus.
Behind the phlox-frilled edges of the gardens in Tokiwa Park, rows and rows of bulbs are sending up their first green or ruddy shoots… I wasn’t sure what these could be when they first appeared, but with a few day’s growth under their belts, I suspect they may be tulips.
One of the odd things about the snow melting, is that it exposes great drifts of dried leaves, most of which have no doubt been buried since October or November. It is an incongruous sight… you could almost think you were looking at a scene from autumn, rather than from spring, what with the bare branches on the trees, the patches of snow and the masses of leaves .
The Places You Sit
Toilets in Japan deserve a special mention. The first surprise was that most of the toilets in public places, i.e., stores, cafes, railway stations and airports, have heated seats. The first time I experienced this I was perplexed as I was certain that the cubicle had been unoccupied prior to my arrival. As well as the cosy seats, toilets have a mind-dazzling array of ‘personal’ options. You can wash and dry your nether regions, or you can play ‘privacy’ sounds (music or the sound of running water) to disguise any accidental or unseemly noises.
Each time I’ve visited one of these small rooms, I’ve been so tangled up in layers of winter clothing that I haven’t had the inclination to ‘relax’ into the experience, but who knows, as the days grow warmer, and I’m wearing less clothing…
Dark lines across clear blue skies
Sparks flare in my heart
Asahikawa is a sprawling city, first settled by mainland Japanese in 1889. The name ‘Asahikawa’ can be directly translated to mean ‘Sun (or ‘Morning Sun) River’. It lies along the Ishikari River (Ishigari-gawa) in the agriculturally important Kamikawa Basin. The river’s name is derived from an Ainu term, ishikaribetsu, meaning ‘greatly meandering river’, which describes the flow of its lower course. To the east of Asahikawa is the Daisetsuzan National Park and very close by are ski fields (comprising the ‘Hokkaido Powder Belt‘). It also has a well-known zoo. I’m staying at a central location, close to Tokiwa Koen.
I’ve walked through Takiwa Koen a couple of times already. The park is still mostly blanketed with snow, and while many of the paths are exposed, you still have to negotiate around slick, icy patches and there are whole areas that are completely obscured. With daily temperatures ranging from 3 to 7 C this week, it won’t be long until all the snow has melted.
The park is home to many crows. There are two species here – the Carrion, Corvus Corone, and the Large Billed, Corvus macrorhynchos. The Large Billed look especially comical and somehow ‘human’, with their fat beaks and high ‘foreheads’ – the beaks remind me of lips that have been treated with botox. There’s also a pair of mallards that I’ve seen paddling on areas of the lake with moving water, and there are other birds that I can hear chirping up high in the bare branches, but have so far have been unable to capture with my camera.
One thing I noticed yesterday was the emergence of the park benches. A couple of days ago they were nowhere to be seen, well-camoflagued under drifts of snow. Now they’re appearing here and there, decked with large and irregularly shaped white lumps.
On Wednesday I walked through the park late in the afternoon, then headed across the Asahibashi; the large green bridge that spans the Ishikari river. I was curious about a structure on the northern bank, which reminded me of something more typical of Eastern Europe, than Northern Japan. It’s called ‘Bell Classic‘ and is a venue for weddings and so forth.
Strange New Things
When I arrived a week ago, there were many things that were strange or unexpected, standing out ahead of the more subtle differences. In any new environment, ‘first impressions’ quickly become commonplace and I can feel this happening already, so I’ve decided to focus on one of these ‘differences’ each time I write, (or at least until I run out of ideas!).
Cables, Pipes and Wires
Powerlines! They’re everywhere, and not just the overhead wires, all the trappings associated with electricity are above ground, silhouetted against every skyline. They’re thick and black and many extend down into the pavement, often wrapped in bright yellow and black stripped casings.
Until seeing the lines here, I hadn’t realised how much of New Zealand’s electrical cabling is below ground or tucked away discreetly. As far as I’ve been able to work out, part of the reason is convenience. If everything is out in the open and easily accessible it saves time (and money) when repairs need to be made.
This also applies to household meters, such as those for gas. In the apartment I’m staying in, for example, the pipes just come up through the floor in the living area; the meter can be easily read. But I’ve also read that there are issues with their being so many wires above ground, both when it comes to safety (earthquakes are a risk further south, and heavy snow frequently brings lines down), and on the other side of the equation is the huge cost of converting them all to underground.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that I barely notice these wires any more. They are merely part and parcel of the scenery.