Turning Japanese

So, after the collapse of the Nepal trip (following the collapse of many of the Nepal buildings), I was left at a bit of a loss for where to go instead.  Chiang Mai, which I still want to return to, had been continuing its unnaturally hot, dry, unbreathable weather, so that was out.  And after several weeks of hot and humid Samui (currently “93, feels like 113”), my goal was to go someplace cool.  Well, cool on top of my normal goal of cheap but with good internet.  Not surprisingly, there are very few places like this in Southeast Asia, and with Nepal out of the picture, my options were limited.  Leading the list were northern India (the cheapest), or northern Japan (less cheap), and Australia/New Zealand (also less cheap).

I looked at northern India options (Mark’s suggestion of Darjeeling was interesting), but nothing really rang my bell.  My acquaintance Damien Walter’s current experiences in India, in which dirt city streets and a certain amount of grinding poverty feature notably, were perhaps putting me off of that rather more than they should have, but there you are.  And I’m just now remembering fragments of the weirdest dream, in which an India visit turns into a surreal, Terry Gilliam-esque, action adventure that, like most Gilliam adventures, was not entirely pleasant.  Plus, northern India is right next door to Nepal, so perhaps not the best place to go when the neighborhood’s a bit tectonically unstable.  So, no India for now.

Australia/New Zealand is appealing, but we are going into the winter season down there, and I really didn’t pack for that sort of thing.  Maybe another year.

I had a quick look at Airbnb listings for Sapporo, in northern Japan, and there were some decent places for rather less than I feared.  Japan runs a long way north and south, and the climate difference between the two ends is considerable.  Sapporo (wikitravel listing here) is on the northernmost large island, Hokkaido, which is a notable place for several reasons: it’s big, only 4% smaller than Ireland; it’s much cooler than most of Japan, and quite temperate in the summer months; it’s a breadbasket for the the islands; its original native population, the Ainu people, are caucasians, though they’re a vanishingly tiny minority on the island now.  (After a few hundred years of Japanese invasion and control, they arguably managed better than Native American tribes under the European invasion. But that’s a really low bar.)

Japan is out of my insurance full-coverage area, which is basically southeast Asia (including Taiwan, for some reason); this means I get 7 weeks of emergency-care-only coverage in Japan before I have to go back to the Covered Lands or continue on uninsured.  I don’t fear being uninsured for a time, but it makes sense to avoid it if I reasonably can.  So, I figure I go to Japan for a bit over 6 weeks, and then travel to Taiwan for a few days to renew it, and then go back to Japan for another 6-7 weeks, and then return to Chiang Mai in the fall when that city is supposed to be very nice.  (It looks like the rains have finally started there, which should be clearing out the air nicely already.  But they didn’t start in earnest until after I’d bought the Japan tickets, so Chiang Mai will have to wait.)

What I’d *like* to do is take a proper tour of Japan.  The Lonely Planet website has some links to interesting tours of Japan (their Sapporo page is here), and there’s a 14-day tour around the main island that’s crazy tempting.  It’s also way outside what I’d normally allow myself to spend for 2 weeks of my newly retired life, considering that I haven’t been doing this for long enough to have a stable sense of my budget.  The tour itself costs about $4500, not including most meals, so that’s going to end up being 2 months of my max budget allowance (not that I can’t afford it, but it’s way off the plan).  That said, my time here on Koh Samui has been cheap, and is lasting a lot longer than I expected, so that’s a considerable savings.  I need to analyze this a bit further; what I’m thinking of, is doing that tour maybe in the second leg of my visit, after Taiwan.  So, I stay in Sapporo pretty exclusively this trip, then go down to Taiwan to essentially renew the insurance coverage, and then do the formal tour after I come back for a second leg, and spend the other 5 weeks of that leg (other than the formal tour period) living more cheaply again in Sapporo.

I’m also very aware of my badge requirements.  I decided when I started this adventure that I was going to award myself a Pokemon badge for 6 months in any foreign country, or 3 months in a single city. (The stay is in total, it doesn’t have to be unbroken.)  I had fully expected to be in Chiang Mai this whole year, and had kind of figured on being here the 1st 3 years of my new retired life, before I started traveling more broadly, but then the weirdness of trying to rent a place in Chiang Mai cropped up, and then the air became unbreathable, and I realized I was going to have to get out.  Looking at matters since then, I’ve realized that I can start to live a little more broadly, and travel more, if I’m careful — but this is still a work in progress.  I’ve only been out of the US for 3-1/2 months!  (It seems like way longer, which is probably a good sign.)

So: I’ve scheduled my Japan trip to leave Koh Samui on June 9th — there was, like, 1 day right there where the airfare to Sapporo was 1/3 less than any of the surrounding days for a couple of weeks.  So, that will give me 4-1/2 months in Thailand, and having 6-8 weeks when I get back to Thailand after Japan will give me my Thailand badge.  (I just now realized, if I’d scheduled to stay here on Koh Samui 2 more weeks, I’d have gotten the Thailand badge for having a single city stay. Damn!)  Also, if I really do the 2 6-7 week legs in Sapporo that I described above, I’ll get my Japan badge too!  Woo-hoo!

(Full disclosure: the Pokemon badges I’m starting with for my adventures are the ones from the first generation of the game — naturally enough, since that’s where the adventure starts.  However, the northern island of Hokkaido is analogous to the Sinnoh region in the Pokemon world, loosely portrayed in the 4th generation Diamond/Pearl/Platinum games.  I say this up front, so that nobody accuses me of concealing that my badges don’t match the regions I’m exploring.  Come on, I know you were thinking it.)

The Schedule:

So, the current plan is:

June 9th Leave Koh Samui. Fly through Bangkok, to Beijing, to Sapporo the next day. This is going to be a longish trip that may not involve sleeping, so let’s hear it for endurance!
June 10th – June 24th Stay in Sapporo proper, here, for the first two weeks. The owner is also a tour guide, and, in response to my question, said he’d be happy to (a) show me the sights, and (b) help me learn how to do things, like ride the public transit system and buy groceries.
June 24th – July 24th Stay just slightly west of Sapporo, here.  This is more of a home share, including the bathroom, but it’s next to the ocean and it’s crazy cheap.  I was staring at it, trying to decide if I was really willing to commit to a whole month in a home share, and then realized that a month here was cheaper than 2 weeks! So, if I didn’t like it, I could always bail after 2 weeks, go elsewhere, and still save money!  This may be my chance to save for the tour of the main island, especially if I come back to this place for the second stay in Sapporo.  But we’ll see if it works out.
July 24th-??? Travel by rail down to the southern tip of Japan, and across to Taiwan.  I’ll tweak this once I’ve planned a bit further, so that I leave just as the 7 weeks are elapsing.  Gotta get that Pokemon badge!
July 26th-ish – July 31th-ish? Taiwan.  I read that Northern Taiwan, in the higher elevations, isn’t hideously hot.  My Chinese ex-officemate Wingwah suggests that I not rely on that prediction. With that in mind, I’m unlikely to be here more than a week, probably closer to 4-5 days.
Aug 1st-ish to Sept 15th-ish My second Sapporo stay, possibly with a “vacation” in the middle to do the 2 week tour that I mentioned above.  Complete my Japan badge achievement.
Sept 15th-ish to Nov 17th Back to Chiang Mai, which I hear is quite lovely (and rainy) in the fall. Complete my Thailand badge achievement.
Nov 17th Return to LA

So, that’s what it looks like.  My first Japan trip, less than a month away.  I’ve pulled out my Pimsleur language course, gotten through lesson 1, and can now butcher “I do not speak Japanese” with great enthusiasm.  At one lesson per day, by the time I arrive I should be able to butcher a wide variety of common phrases that, with any luck, will give me the opportunity to closely observe the mortified expressions of an entirely foreign culture.  Yaay, me!  😀

Sitting and Reading:

And, lest you think that I’ve done nothing productive with my time here in Samui, here is my next installment of Nice Places to Sit And Read; the place is the same as the last installment, but the book is Creatures of Light And Darkness, by Roger Zelazny.


This is a reread — I read it first many, many, many years ago, possibly in my teens, certainly no later than college.  As you can guess from the cover, it relates to Egyptian mythology, and is one of Zelazny’s two mythology-based books (that I can recall), the other one being Lord of Light (from the Hindu mythos).  It’s basically a reimagining of Egyptian mythology in a science fictional setting, with the gods in possession of powerful technology and abilities, running (or misrunning) a galactic civilization, told in a fairly poetic style.  I have to think that it was influenced by the fad, at the time, for explaining many of the accomplishments of ancient civilizations (the pyramids, the Nasca Ruins, etc) as the legacy of visiting alien civilizations and our gods as the visiting aliens — a trend culminating in Battlestar Galactica.  Creatures of Light and Darkness and Zelazny’s slightly earlier Lord of Light cast the gods as advanced humans, possessors of higher technology than the people they rule over.  (The original Star Trek had a couple of episodes in a similar vein.)

It’s a very small book, but very dense in concept and very poetic in language, told from the differing viewpoints of several of its characters (gods, wizards, and mortals).  Anubis, the lord of the dead, sends forth his servant to destroy the Prince Who Was A Thousand, but none of these beings are who they appear to be, and the human worlds they must travel span a galaxy.  It had been years (decades?) since I last read it; in truth, I was slightly disappointed in the reread.  My memory of it was fairly clear, and I think it reads better when you’re surprised and mystified by what it’s doing.  But, if you haven’t read it, don’t let those faint damns dissuade you; Zelazny writing retold-mythology is a unique experience in literature, and a wonderful thing, and I highly recommend the read.


I ventured out on a rather long walk around the island’s Pacific Coast Highway yesterday, heading east to the town of Maenam roughly an hour’s walk away.  Ian, the guy who’d given a lift to and from the airport a couple of weeks ago, had given me the name of his barber there, and my hair was getting maddeningly long, so I set out to find him.  This gave me three things: (a) sore, tired legs from the 2 hours of walking; (b) a bit of a sunburn — I set out at 9:30 am, but 2 hours walking without sunblock was really more than I needed, even starting at that hour; and (c) a great, very short, haircut by a very competent barber.  So, all in all, a success, and I’ll try to see him again before I head to Japan.

I mention this mostly because of a sign that I encountered along the way:

Not gonna ask. Nope. Nope. Nope.

The mind averts its gaze — not gonna ask. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Until next time.

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2 Responses to Turning Japanese

  1. Wingwah says:

    I will ask all my friends those came from Taiwan, that will be 80% of my friends, for their opinion on where the higher elevations in northern Taiwan is cool in July, at the end of July. Unless they are talking about staying at the Yangmingshan national park neighborhood but that will be expensive. Stay tuned.
    Make sure you visit the night market, in everywhere. It is really fun but avoid the major tourist spots, it is full of tourist from mainland China.

    • Charles says:

      Thanks, Wingwah. I suspect what they say will determine whether I stay there for several days and try to see more of the sights, or just stay a couple and make a couple of quick tourist visits to whatever is close to where I’m staying.

      The night markets, in Chiang Mai or Taiwan or anywhere else, present me with an interesting problem. They’re worth visiting just to see, but it’s a very abstract visit because I’m not buying anything. Still, you’re right to mention them and I’ll try to see what’s available and plan accordingly.

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