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).
In early March, Japan finally opened up its borders to a limited range of international visitors. I was fortunate that one of the categories was, ‘close family member’ which allowed me to at long last make my way back to Asahikawa.
I commenced my return journey on 17 March, which was a full two years since the trip I’d had to cancel in 2020. Prior to my flight I was required to be fully vaccinated, with two shots and a booster, and to take a Covid test within 72 hours of my departure.
You can imagine my trepidation as the day drew closer and I had very real fears that I might contract Omicron somehow in the last few days before my flight. Of course, this was somewhat unlikely as living in the country meant I wasn’t in contact with any potentially contagious people. But I did have to drive to Auckland to the Japanese Consulate to drop off my application papers and NZ passport, and later to collect my VISA, and I also had to undertake the pre-departure saliva test. For my trips I donned a P2 mask, to be on the safe side.
The Air New Zealand International Lounge at Auckland airport was busy, but not crowded. Everyone was wearing masks, except for in the dining area. I couple of guys sat really close to me, one older than me and one younger. It was annoying enough that the one who decided to sit beside me on the bench seat was close enough to almost touch shoulders, but he started coughing and snuffling a lot. And then his fellow-traveler began a long-winded story about a mutual friend (I could hear every word) and began to swear with just about every other word. I moved away and found that all the lying-down type seats were empty! So I was able to settle down in a quiet corner.
If I expected Auckland Airport to be quieter than usual, I wasn’t proven wrong, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the lack of passengers on the flight itself. While I sat and waited to board, I noticed that most of my fellow passengers were Japanese, and that I was most likely one of only three gaijin. I had chosen an aisle seat, but was the only person seated in the entire row.
I was tired. The previous two weeks between when I discovered I could apply for a visa and when I actually held the stamped passport in my hand, had worn me out. It wasn’t just the fear of being turned down, despite all the work that my daughter and her husband had done to get the paperwork sorted, it was the fear that my visa wouldn’t arrive in time, or that I’d get sick, or that something else would change, the rules would change, the troubles in the Ukraine would develop into full scale war, a new mutant of the virus would cause borders to close, that kind of thing. So when I was finally on the aeroplane and was in the air, it was hard to believe that I was actually on my way.
Waiting at the Airport
I was already aware that when I touched down in Japan that afternoon, I’d be required to undertake a Covid test, and that I would have to wait at Narita airport until my results came through. If I tested positive I’d be required to go into quarantine in Tokyo, but if I was negative, I’d be free to travel to Hokkaido, as long as I reached Asahikawa within 48 hours.
I was a little worried about the timing of everything. My flight would land at Narita around 5 pm, but the connecting flight to Sapporo departed from Tokyo’s second airport, Haneda, at 9.30 pm, and I was booked onto the Limousine bus (the shuttle to Haneda) for 6.35 pm. Surely it would all work out. But as soon as I walked off the plane and turned a couple of corners into the arrivals corridor, my heart sank. Ahead were two extremely long rows of single seats. Each seat had a large number attached to the back and the one I was to sit on was numbered ’75’.
For the first hour, not one person on any chair moved forward. It was hot and crowded, I had with me my 23 kg tightly packed suitcase and my 7 kg backpack. There were people around me with children and babies. There were elderly people. There were constant announcements being conveyed through speakers, but I could understand nothing. The time ticked by and when I finally managed to attract the attention of a young staff member, and to explain my predicament, i.e., how likely was it that I’d be able to catch the 6.35 pm shuttle, she apologetically gestured in such a way that I had no doubt that it would be impossible. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be finished with the whole process for another five hours. In that time, the limousine bus, my connecting flight and my hotel in Sapporo had to be cancelled.
Fortunately I was able to connect to the airport wifi and contact my family in Asahikawa, and thanks to them, my flight was changed to one the following day, and I was booked in to the First Cabin hotel at Haneda Airport for the night. For anyone who was reading my blog in 2018, you’ll possibly remember that I stayed there then. I was extremely relieved.
Three Trains Late at Night
At around 10.30 pm I was finally through Customs and baggage control and had ahead of me the task of purchasing tickets for, and negotiating three different trains, to get to Haneda airport before the last train, the Tokyo Monorail, ran its final trip for the night.
My Asahikawa family had sent through been instructions on the route I should take, so I made my way to the railway station, dragging my luggage up and down the escalators. I was particularly grateful to the young woman in the ticket booth for the Skyliner. Despite having very limited English, she gave me clear instructions and walked me to within sight of the exit to the first platform. I was also grateful that after the first leg of my train escapade (Haneda Airport to Nippori Station) that the platform there also had an escalator. I was so weary by this time that if I’d had to somehow lift my large suitcase up a huge flight of stairs, I don’t think I’d have managed it. Not that I can actually lift it far off the ground. Being short, I can only just raise my suitcase high enough to get on and off a train–thank goodness it has wheels!
The triple train trip is something of a blur. And to top it off, when I got to my final stop, Haneda Airport Terminal 1, I went to the wrong side of the carriage and stood there waiting for the door to open, which of course it didn’t. By the time I realised my mistake, and hurriedly turned to the other side, the door shut in my face and we were moving again. Exiting at Terminal 2, all the shops and counters were closed and the airport was completely empty, except for some security personnel wandering around. They kindly showed me the way to the Free Shuttle Bus stand and I was relieved to see that the last bus was scheduled for 12.27 am. I had only eight minutes to wait. And it did arrive. Thank goodness.
Sleep at Last
At Terminal 1, it was much the same. I was met at the bus by a couple of security personnel who escorted me to the hotel. There I was, trundling along, dragging my sodding heavy suitcase, shoulders drooping after five hours of wearing my backpack, hot and sticky. With a tiny pod type room awaiting me. Barely enough room to swing a cat. But when I slid the screen closed, I was just pleased to be somewhere with no-one else. Just me. A clean bed with a puffy duvet. And to be at Haneda, rather than still at Narita, with only the morning’s flight to Sapporo ahead of me in the morning, before I could connect with my midday bus to Asahikawa.
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.