I found my allocated seat and settled in for the two hour flight. Beside me was a young Japanese woman. We had plenty of space, both being of slight build; I often wonder how uncomfortable it must be for taller and larger travellers. As soon as we were airborne I could feel my attention wilting but managed to stay awake for the safety message, conveyed in both Japanese and English. After that, my eyelids were no match for the drone of the engines.
A Wintry Patchwork
I did wake up at one point over the stretch of ocean that separates Honshu from Hokkaido. I saw steel blue water water, flecked with white caps. Before dozing off again and now over land, I saw tiny snow-coated fields in subtle shades of soft greys and whites, interrupted by the dull bleakness of hills. A flash of sunlight reflected iridescent threads of water and accentuated the jagged charcoal lines of roads. I stretched my weary legs and wiggled my toes, enjoying the sensation of peacefulness, high above the clouds. My nose twitched at the enticing smell of hot coffee.
A smooth landing at Sapporo and there I was with luggage in tow. My only task that of locating the bus stop for my trip to Asahikawa.
With time in hand, I homed in on a pair of vending machines and picked up a hot coffee. Then visited another konbini to collect my next snack. Ah… onigiri and a chocopan! About NZ$5.00 in total.
(If you’re curious about Japanese breads, check this site out! For those of you who learnt French all those years ago at school, you’ll recognise the word ‘pan’ for bread. (French = pain, pronunciation is the same).
My flight to Japan was scheduled for the ungodly time of 1.15 on a Thursday morning. I arrived at the airport well in advance of this and after a less than enthusiastic circuit of the duty free stores, settled myself into the Koru Lounge for a long wait. I was barely hungry and not in the mood to drink more than a 1/2 glass of chardonnay at such an early hour, so I spent most of the time writing notes in a diary and contemplating the six weeks ahead of me.
Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido (the northern-most island of Japan) with a population of around 350,000. To get there from Auckland you have to first fly to Tokyo, and then on to Sapporo, leaving the island of Honshu behind. After that, you can either take a train or a bus for the remaining 138 km. Asahikawa‘s latitude is around 43.77N and if you were to head roughly due west for 850 km (over the Sea of Japan), you’d end up in Vladivostock, Russia – that’s how far north it is.
During my flights from Auckland to Sapporo, and on the train journey from Sapporo to Asahikawa, the reality that I was travelling to an entirely foreign country with a completely different season only became apparent in stages. The first indications emerged while I was waiting in the boarding lounge at Auckland airport, where I metamorphosised into a member of the minority culture. But it was just something I noticed – the situation didn’t feel that different. I could’ve just as easily been on the AUT campus during Orientation Week.
Then there were the suppers and breakfasts served on the Air NZ flight. On both occasions, the ‘Japanese’ option sounded more appetising, which is not to say it actually was appetising (although I have the feeling that it was better than the alternative. ‘Chicken Sausage’ never sounds appealing as a breakfast choice).
Then there was the fact that for every interruption to the films I was watching (and there were announcements at regular intervals) there was a follow-up broadcast in Japanese, timed for about a minute later, just when I’d manage to re-acquaint myself with the plot. (If anyone’s interested, I watched ‘Lion‘ and ‘Manchester by the Sea‘ and enjoyed both.) The Japanese explanations seemed to take a lot longer, and I couldn’t help wondering if I was missing something.
Auckland to Tokyo
The flight from Auckland to Tokyo takes about 10 hours. I expected to notice differences when disembarking and entering Narita airport, but there were English translations everywhere, and announcements in both Japanese and English, and it was a nice surprise to not feel vertically challenged for once. Customs control and baggage checking went smoothly and before I knew it I was free to do my own thing. I made my way from International to Domestic to board my flight to Sapporo. I had a couple of hours to wait but had already gone through the ‘point of no return’ before this dawned on me. So I was stranded in another waiting room, with not much to keep me occupied. I made a note to make sure I picked up some cash before catching the train from Sapporo.
Probably the worst aspect of the trip was the size of my suitcase. The large dimensions meant that I couldn’t use the escalators in the airports and railway stations and had to drag it behind me while I hunted around for elevators. I couldn’t even lift it higher than about 15 cm off the ground.
Tokyo to Sapporo
The flight from Narita to Sapporo took an addional 2.5 hours, but thank goodness it was an older style airbus. The cabin was much less stuffy than on the long-distance flight, and I had a window seat so could look out at the snowy terrain unfolding below. The land started out flat then became more hilly, then mountainous. When we flew over the Tsugaru Strait I saw many container vessels and it must’ve been windy as the charcoal-grey water was dotted with the white crests of waves. Then we were on the way down. And as we taxi’ed along the runway at Sapporo, it looked COLD, with grey skies, bleak buildings, and small piles of snow here and there.
Sapporo to Asahikawa
I’d been given detailed instructions on how to get from Sapporo to Asahikawa, including the purchasing of the train tickets, and finding the correct platforms and lines, so the actual ‘finding my way’ part was reasonably straight-forward. But it had been a long, tiring trip and by the time I was safely seated on the ‘Kamui‘, with my huge bag tucked tightly beside me, I was both tired and hungry.
The Kamui is a fast train and soon it was whoosing along, out of Sapporo and through the countryside. For most of the journey the terrain was flat, with almost everything covered with a blanket of snow. The houses in the small settlements we passed looked very different from those in New Zealand – they were boxy or angular, coloured with plain earthy tones, or shades of white, or in bright pastels.
And as we travelled further north, the views reminded me of Finland, with forests of bare tree trunks crowded closely together on low, mounded hills. Unlike Finland, there were occasional glimpses of snowy peaks in the distance, but this was my first impression.