Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I`m in Hokkaido on holiday. I`ve got ten days off work and a cheap train ticket that allows unlimited travel on trains anywhere in Japan for any five days in summer. The only catch is that you can only get local trains so it takes hours and hours to get anywhere.

I left Tokyo on Sunday morning heading north. I had to change trains a bunch of times which idly wandered through carpets of green rice fields, villages and towns. On one train there was a small old man with a rucksack full of tennis rackets, a greying ponytail and leathery sunbrowned skin. He was doing lunges and stretches and squats in the aisle and chatted with me in English which amused everybody on the train including me. In between hamstring stretches and pull-ups he told me that he was 72 and that he had just become an English teacher after spending the previous few decades gliding, paragliding, windsurfing, speed skating and motor crossing and he was on his way to his first ever tennis competition which was why he was continually moving his body and stretching. I felt like telling him he was a little bit crazy. "Everybody on this train thinks i`m crazy!" he said. Yeah, well, fair enough.

I changed trains at Fukushima station in the middle of a city that shares a name with a now famous nuclear power plant a hundred or so kilometres to the south east. I had a few minutes to waste, wandered to a shop to buy an ice cream and saw a women wearing a t-shirt that said, "Leave Me Alone" which seemed to sum up everybody`s general feelings about Fukushima quite well.

The next train didn`t feature any leathery old exercised obsessed men but a chubby kid with too much energy who jiggled opposite me for an hour wearing a t-shirt that said "I`m Gonna Be King Of The Pirates". This didn`t seem to sum anything up (apart from perhaps an east Asian obsession with wearing t-shirts with random English on them) and while i appreciated his ambition, both i and his already long suffering father appeared to doubt his chances of success.

I arrived in Morioka ten hours and about eight trains after i left Tokyo. Morioka is a compact, cute city with old banks and fire stations that have survived through the years and look like they`ve been stolen from 1900 and placed neatly into a small city. There`s also a large castle fort thing that sits proudly in the centre of town allowing old men to sit in the shade and read newspapers. Then there`s the Morioka Museum of Letters which is a small one room museum housing a collection of old letters written by some famous people to the important folk of Morioka. As my Japanese reading ability stretches to being able to recognise a few stations on the Tokyo metro map this was an utterly useless experience. Still, one for the collection.

Yesterday i got on a couple more one-man-and-his-dog style local trains that zagged through forests and dragged themselves over hills and through green valleys until i got to Aomori at the north of Honshu island. Thanks to the longest undersea tunnel in the world and an express train i was in Hakodate in Hokkaido island about an hour later.

If Morioka looks like it`s stolen a few buildings from 1900 then Hakodate looks like a European city from the same time that has stolen some modern hotels, apartments and transport infrastructure. It was one of the few places in Japan that was a trading port in the 19th century (the others being Yokohama and Nagasaki) and the old warehouses, churches, banks and consulates still remain along with clanking trams and a few houses as well.

I strolled around last night and found myself in a little outdoor food quarter called Daimon Yokocho with stalls selling fish and beer and sake. I ate a load of raw fish in one of the tiny restaurants and got chatting to a middle aged couple on holidday with too much money and not enough time. They kept feeding me raw squid and other assorted food. The friendly husband shoved one of the plates towards me and said "Bacon! Bacon! Here!" So i had some bacon even though it didn`t look lke bacon. And it didn`t taste like bacon. It tasted like fishy-bacon. Or bacony-fish. It tasted good. I asked him what it was. "Bacon!" he confirmed again. "Er...whale...whale bacon." I looked guiltily at my chopsticks. I felt like i`d just eaten a rainforest. A really delicious rainforest.

I`ve got a few more days of train hopping around northern Japan and it`s been a nice break so far. One thing that keeps happening is that people compliment me on my Japanese ability. I know my Japanese is crap and it`s just people being kind so i always tell them that i can only speak a little. Then occasionally i`ll add that if i keep studying it i might be quite good at Japanese next year. This is always followed by a pause and a few nods of heads and semi-positive noises. It`s almost as if they`re saying, "Yeah, well, we appreciate your ambition but, to be honest we doubt your chances of success. Here, have some bacon and shut the fuck up." I miss travelling.

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