So, in my last post it was Wednesday, June 10th, and I’d arrived at Sapporo Station in downtown Sapporo, by train from the airport about 1/2 an hour southeast. I suppose that this would be a good point to give a little bit of Sapporo overview, for context.
Sapporo Overview, For Context:
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago when I first mentioned my plans to come here, Sapporo’s the main city of Hokkaido, the large northern island of Japan.
Hokkaido has many interesting characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of Japan: the Wikipedia entry here is interesting reading, if you like geography and history, and want to learn about Caucasian aborigines being oppressed for a change; and the travel wiki here provides interesting warnings like “Don’t feed the foxes” (it avoids mentioning the reason that they’re spirit creatures and can be malevolent, but we know, we know). But the distinguishing characteristic that matters for the purposes of this blog is that Hokkaido is cool. Sapporo is at the lattitude of Minneapolis, and in its hottest month, August, the average high peaks at about 80°. In June, the average high is about 70°; this week, the highs are supposed to run from 69° to 75°, with a couple of days of rain. (The winters are cold and snowy, but I read that they’re not as bad as, say, Chicago. Praise indeed.)
This makes Hokkaido the summer vacation choice for much of Japan, desperate to escape the heat of their lower latitudes. As you can see from the map, Japan has a pretty long north-south run, and the climate change between the endpoints is considerable. Going from Okinawa (a smaller island further south than that map shows) to Wakkanai is like going from Miami to Ontario, and as anyone stuck in Miami would want to leave for Ontario immediately, you can understand the Japanese migratory patterns. (I exaggerate a bit — shocked? — because obviously it’s not like the whole population of the lower islands floods north. Most Japanese just stay where they are and put up with the heat. But, still, Hokkaido is a popular summer destination, for those willing and able to travel.
This explains, somewhat, the massive souvenir complex encrusting the Sapporo airport. They’re doing a high volume business.
The Sapporo airport is actually in Chitose, a town to the southeast about 3/4 of the way to Tomakomai, and its formal name is New Chitose Airport. (There’s an older airport closer, but it doesn’t have as many souvenirs and so it isn’t used much anymore.) The map also shows you where I’ll be staying in a little under 2 weeks, the town of Otaru, about 1/2 an hour west on the rail.
The Sapporo city tourist site has some great maps of the area, and I’ve included a screenshot of part of the Central Sapporo map, which I have a hardcopy of and rely on the most.
I recommend looking at the full PDF for larger, more readable details. But there area few key factors to point out. The city is laid out on a grid pattern, a product of having been established in more modern times, the late 1800s, with the help of western advisors. It has a healthy public transportation system, with light rail, subways, and buses, and it’s very walkable. From where I’m staying (lower right), it’s maybe 20 minutes walk to the lower downtown area and a bunch of interesting places. Walking about the place, it really reminded me of Portland — not quite as tree covered as downtown Portland, but something about the climate and the buildings and just the feel of it. I was later reminded of something I’d quite forgotten: Portland and Sapporo are “sister cities”, and have little monuments and gardens dedicated to that relationship. But I get ahead of myself.
The train ride in from the airport was quite pleasant. Japanese trains have a reputation for being clean and well maintained, and this one did not disappoint. It was, I have to say, one of the quietest trains that it has ever been my pleasure to ride, and the scenery as we rode in was gorgeous, with tons of greenery under cloudy, almost wintery skies.
The closer we got to the city, the more crowded it became, but it never got packed, and a lot of us disembarked at Sapporo Station, to switch to subway lines. (The Japan Rail system is not the same as the Sapporo subway system, which is a pretty normal arrangement in many cities.)
Getting to my subway was a little challenging. First, because Google Maps was being all weird. From my laptop back on The Island That Must Not Be Named, Google Maps had shown me a clear route and detailed instructions for taking the rail to the station, switching to the Toho Line subway, traveling to the Gakuenmae stop (just off the southeast corner of the city map segment above) and walking to my Airbnb place. Once here, relying on my terribly slow 3G cellular connection, Google Maps became weirdly autistic, refusing to communicate, or telling me things that were clearly not true like “No route to this location” or “We both know you’re going to have to walk the whole way, stop bothering me.” When I was in the Station and it was giving me this weird circular route that would get me there 20 minutes late, I gave up and just went by memory.
But the second reason the route to the subway was challenging was that I couldn’t find a way out of the train section and into the subway section. The train turnstile had taken my ticket at the airport, and I’d boarded, and now there were turnstiles leading out of the train area and you clearly needed some kind of ticket to pass through them and I could find no place to purchase one. The odds are excellent that when I gave that airport turnstile my ticket and walked through, it spit the ticket back up behind me, carefully coded with my origin point and expecting me to take it out again and use it to exit my terminal station later. But every rail/subway system works differently, and I didn’t think to look for it.
So, after wandering back and forth for 10 minutes, I went to a guy behind a glass window and asked how to get to the subway. He said that I had to leave the building and come in from the street, which was not terribly helpful since I couldn’t figure out how to get out. But next to the exit turnstiles was an open lane past another window with a couple of guys behind that, so I started towards the window and then thought, “Why not just walk past and out?” Well, they called out to me as I started to walk past, so I explained my problem — or tried to: their English was not great. On the plus side, after fumbling about trying to communicate for a couple of minutes, we concluded that I should keep going the way I was going, and I did. Yaay for Japanese people willing to throw in the towel and let the bumbling foreigner go! I bet I’m going to get a lot of mileage from that reaction. 🙂
On my way to the Toho line entrance, I did find this Point of Interest:
I ended up walking a block or two underground, through a whole underground mall area, to get to the Toho line entrance, where I picked up a day ticket, found the train I wanted, and rode the 3 stops south to the Gakuenmae station. I was worried about being on one of the legendarily packed subway cars with my massive pack, and trying to get out again at my stop, so I made a point to stay near the door. But it didn’t get that crowded, and a bunch of junior high kids got off at that stop too, so exiting was easy.
(Japanese schools are pretty uniformly in pretty uniforms; in Sapporo, at least, they still seem to stick pretty closely to the traditional sailor outfits.)
It was a short walk to Kenta’s place, maybe 5 blocks, through streets like this:
I’d sent Kenta a Line message when I got off the subway, so he came down and met me. (BTW, I found the ONE place in Airbnb where it shows his last name; it’s not in his profile. It’s in my list of upcoming reservations and only there, for some reason. Anyway, it’s Togashi. I was close. Ish.)
Kenta must be in his late 20s, works as a tour guide. He’s a sharp guy, friendly, cheerful, helpful, runs marathons, and is a baseball fan, and speaks very good English. We’d occasionally trip over things that didn’t communicate, but we both had translation apps so we worked it out. His Airbnb profile text, cut and pasted here, says:
I’m a tour guide in Hokkaido(Sapporo).
My condominium apartment has three rooms.
So I started Airbnb. I could realy enjoy it. It gives me a lot of good meetings,and friends!
I’m living alone,so it’s my pleasure to accept foreign guests and make them feel at home like as my friend.
I like traveling abroad,and communicate with travelers.
My hobby is walking in naiture,Hiking in the mountains,Drinking,Karaoke,Hot spring(Spa),Driving,Watching movie,gourmet!
If you want join me,let’s enjoy together!!
He started renting out his place (and a room somewhere else) in January; and he says he’s getting a lot of business and it’s increasing, especially the international visitors. When I arrived, he had 4 kendo students from France staying in the other two rooms (kendo is, essentially, Japanese fencing); they left on Saturday morning, and he had two more pairs of guests coming in over the next couple of days. When it’s full like this, he’s renting out his own bedroom, so he sleeps at his younger brother’s place nearby. You’ve got to figure he’s raking it in: at $42/night for me, $35 and $45 for the other two rooms, that’s $112/night. If he were booked solid (and I’m sure he’s not, most of the time), he’d be pulling in over $3,300/month, a great deal for a young guy who can crash at his brother’s place. I hope the brother’s getting a cut. I learned later that he has owned the condo for 5 years; I’m going to have to look at real estate prices in Sapporo. If an early-20s guy can afford to buy a decent 3 bedroom place in a convenient neighborhood, it must be cheap. Though, maybe he inherited money. One hates to ask. (“How could you afford it?” “Oh, my parents were killed in a horrific amusement park accident, and my brother and I got a settlement from the company. Cha-ching!”)
The Airbnb listing is here. The place is a compact, 3 bedroom apt laid out in a rectangle, with bedrooms along the left as you come in, and a toilet room, bathroom, kitchen, and living room laid out along the right. Here are some pictures:
You’ll notice that the hall starts off with this, well, I guess foyer is the closest term we have for it. This is where you take off your shoes and leave them. Every Japanese home has this area. Kenta has cleverly placed a label on the curb divider that reads, “Take off your shoes here.” Many things in the apartment are helpfully labeled in English. “Start” on the microwave, “Kitchen” on the kitchen light switch, “Good to drink” over the tap water spigot (as Holly very helpfully informed me, Japan has some of the best tap water in the world and, I have to admit, it tastes pretty good). Kenta is very impressively organized and on top of things.
My room: sparsely decorated, but the whole place is kind of like that, with that “recent college guy” decor. The thin futon is unfolded in this picture, but normally it’s folded up against the wall to the left. The desk, with the sitting cushion chair, is a little challenging when I’m writing blog posts for hours on end, but whatever. It’s what I expected.
I’m skipping pictures of the other two bedrooms: they had French people in them when I was taking the pictures. They weren’t actually at home, but still it seems rude to be in there photographing their stuff. The floor did have tatami mats, though, instead of carpet, and I was pretty envious — though, upon subsequent examination, they were very thin, more like rollable tatami rug sections than actual mats. But, still.
This is the first sink/vanity area, of any place I’ve stayed in months, that has had proper lighting and an electrical socket for razors and hair dryers. It’s a joy to behold.
Note the genius of the spigot above the toilet tank. When you flush, the fresh water to fill the tank comes in through that spigot, giving you a chance to wash your hands as the tank fills. This is particularly useful, since the bathroom sink is in another room.
You will doubtless notice the complex control panel on the side of the toilet, a famous feature of toilets in Japan. Here is a closeup:
This was my first bidet experience, I’m tempted to call it eye opening. There are a *lot* of mysterious buttons here which I am absolutely not going to press under any circumstance. I still remember a joke my father told in my childhood that involved a guy trying out an electronic toilet like this and an “automatic tampon remover”. So, no, not pressing random buttons.
I got to Kenta’s place on time, at about 4:30. Kenta said that we’d leave at 6:15 to go to that free English practice class (followed by drinking) that he’d mentioned, and I knew I’d have to eat something. I was still functional, despite the 1 hour’s sleep, but I needed more food. And a shower. So I handled the first by going across the street to the 7-11 and bought a meal:
Then I showered, and a few minutes later it was time to go and we did. Back to the subway, off at the Sapporo Station stop, and then walked above ground for a couple of blocks to the Station itself, which is part of a bigger office building with shops and stuff at the lower levels, including the meeting place for this class. I think. I never got there. About the time we were walking into the building I began to feel the call of nature and it became sufficiently urgent sufficiently quickly that when I saw signs for a restroom I had to tell Kenta to go on without me. I apologized profusely, but, well, not to be indelicate, but there was no way of knowing whether this was just a meal and a brisk walk having its effect or a sign of something more severe. Traveling in foreign countries, it’s a bit harder to predict what your gut is being roiled by, and with it coming on this fast, I couldn’t tell how long I’d be and whether it might happen again shortly thereafter.
Kenta said he’d wait for me, but we had about 5 minutes before class started and there was really no way we wouldn’t be late if we stopped — and possibly very late if it didn’t go well (if Nature was calling because She was unhappy with me). As I’ve mentioned before, I loathe being late, and I will readily skip attending a thing because I find I’m not arriving on time — and have, on many occasions. Being late is not a big deal with friends, it’s understood that there’s leeway (if not abused). But I would no more interrupt a class by walking in (much less one that I was going to for the first time) than I would honk my car horn outside a building to let a friend know I was outside. It’s just rude. Well, not *just* rude, it’s also inconsiderate. And probably a few other adjectives. Not to mention that it was Kenta’s class, and I was not making him late, that would be even worse.
So I persuaded him that he’d better go on, apologized again, and then we parted ways and I made haste to the restroom, where I was pleased to discover that even the public toilets have the rocket ship controls. Thankfully, Nature was just calling to stay in touch, and there were no follow-up conversations needed. I wandered out 10 minutes later, walked over to the Tourist Information Center that Kenta had pointed out on our way in, collected a bunch of great info on Sapporo and the surrounds, and made my way back home. I got to bed at around 8:30, slept until 4:30 (when my room was becoming quite well lit, despite the closed curtains), and felt considerably more rested the next day, and all was right with the world.
Here endeth the first day.