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.
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.
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.