Family Pages


Introductory Remarks

When Zachary was in Sapporo, we visited him in March, 2000. I wrote a longish letter to my mother about the visit. I decided to format it in html so people who cared could read about the trip. I have also added a few updated editorial comments. These are set off in square brackets[]. The normal parenthetical expressions which abound are just a peculiarity of my writing style. I seem to have problems staying on the point. Fortunately, I'm not being graded on this.

to top

Trip Narrative

19 March 2000
Dear Mom,

Well, we made it back. We got back last night around 10 p.m. In all, the trip back was over 26 hours door to door. It wasn't too bad. I managed to doze some on the plane between Tokyo and Chicago, but even though my body was most likely thinking it was mid afternoon, I felt quite ready to hit the sack when we got in.

We had a nice time in Hokkaido. I gather it's not all that much like the rest of Japan, but it was still a lot different from what I'm used to and seemed to some extent, at least, similar to what I expected from what little reading I had managed to do. Not that I expected all that much. I mostly just took things as they came, and then occasionally would be able to say to myself, "oh yeah, that's sort of like in so and so's book" or "that's sort of like the experience the Barbarian in Shogun had at such and such a point".

We left here on Thursday morning a week ago, and go to the airport outside Sapporo (Chitose) on Friday evening (their time). Zach was there to meet us and get us on the train and to our hotel. A woman at our church who is a travel agent (her 30-something daughter is in the flute group) had set up our flights and booked our hotel in Sapporo. It was quite nice extremely reasonable, especially given what I had been led to expect was the case in Japanese hotels. I think we paid more for our room at the Chatenau Frontenac, and it wasn't nearly so nice. It was very western in style, but full of helpful people, most of whom seemed to have quite good English skills. Zachary hung around with us for a while, but eventually could tell we were falling asleep, so he headed off and we slept.

A while back, Zachary joined something called the Earth Club in hopes of meeting more Japanese people with whom to hang out and converse. I gather he spends too much time in company of other foreign students, most of whom speak English among themselves (particularly easy for the Brits and Australians, but also easier, I gather for the Turks and Peruvians than is Japanese). One of the friends he met there was a young woman named Midori (someone we met later in the week said it was Minori, but Zach said we should never trust people who chat us up in Japanese bars). She seems to like making friends of foreigners, so was more than willing to spend a fair bit of time helping Zach show us around. [She seemed nice enough to us, but later on earned the nick name of "back-stabbing bitch". I decided not to expunge her from the narrative since she did figure prominantly in our trip.]

On Saturday, Midori drove us over the mountains into central Hokkaido (the Tokachi region) to see some of the agricultural areas, specifically some dairy farms. They have some pretty big spreads over there. Or at least large compared to the kinds of dairy farms Hazel knew. The mountain were pretty interesting as well, quite rugged and full of tunnels. On the way back it snowed for a while and we had white out conditions. In fact, it seemed to snow a bit almost every day (so Zachary's complaints to that effect seem well grounded).

On Sunday, Hazel and I began by walking around our Hotel. We were on the Toyohira River, so to "walk around the block" involved walking across one bridge, then over to the next one up stream and back again. There was a nice park along the river, sort of like the Esplanade part along the Charles River, but since they don't do much in the way of snow removal, we couldn't walk along that. Only people with cross country skis and snow boots seemed to get down by the river. Actually, it helped having snow boots on the sidewalks as well since a lot of them weren't shoveled either (Zachary says it's a sign that they don't have nearly so many lawyers in Japan as we do in the U.S.).

In the afternoon, we met Zachary and his British buddy, Pete and toured some of the sites downtown, a TV tower from which one could get a good overview of the city, and the "clock tower" which was one of the first buildings in Sapporo when it was founded as the site of the Ag college, the design of which was developed by advice from a bunch of folks from UMass. They had a bit of a museum inside the building, and enough information was in English that we could actually understand what was going on. We also got a better appreciation for the ties between UMass and Hokkaido U.

In the early evening, we met Midori and she took us to a wind ensemble concert and then home to her place where she made us dinner. She served nabe, which is a sort of Japanese version of bung stew. She boiled up water in a pot and then put a bunch of stuff in it, seaweed, fish chunks, spring onions, etc.

On Monday, Hazel and I walked quite some distance into town and eventually met up with Zachary. He took us on the subway to a park in the southeastern part of town, Muruyama Park, to seem a Shinto shrine. We could also have gone to the zoo, but got worried about timing, so went back on the subway up to the university and walked around that quite a bit. We got to see the foreign student center where Zachary has his classes and gets his computer access. Then we did the long trek out to his living quarters. It snowed while we did all this, so that we were able to develop a better appreciation of the hardships Zachary has to face. In the evening he took us into town to find a place to eat. His favorite place was closed, so we wandered around a good bit looking for something else, and didn't find that (we did later, and I gather it was closed) so ended up at some "hamburger" restaurant which was peopled mostly by a younger crowd and decorated in mason jars and old hubcaps and 1930s Mobil signs and such like [we think a yakuza was sitting a couple seats down the counter from us. He sure looked like our preconceptions of one anyway].

On Tuesday, Zachary's friend Midori took us to the northern coast of Hokkaido to a place called Otaru, which is a port town full (at one time at least) of Russians (lots of signs in Cyrillic still), but which now seems to have quite a lot of more touristy things such as artistic glass shops and a music box shop and museum. Midori used to work at one of the glass shops, and kept running into old buddies. She took us to some place for lunch where we got to take off our shoes and sit on the floor and eat sushi and sashimi and such things (also kani, the very large, spiny crabs that come from around those parts). When we got back to Hokkaido we had dinner at an "Italian" restaurant.

On Wednesday, we boarded a bus for Noboribetsu, a hot springs spa [onsen] where we stayed through Thursday night. We had more traditional accommodations there, including tatami flooring (so we had to take our shoes off in our room). We went to the baths (they have something like 50 of them, varying in temperature and mineral content, also a sauna and steam room), and afterward, had our dinner served to us in our room. The young woman who brought our stuff didn't explain anything (and we didn't think to make Zachary ask), so we didn't really know what we were eating. I guess it was fairly "traditional" in some aspects. There seemed to be lots of raw seafood, and various kinds of cooked seafood. I tried almost everything. I couldn't make myself eat the raw snails that greeted me when I took the top off a 4-layer golden tower in the middle of my tray (I did sample the other layers, however, thus making me more adventuresome than Hazel or Zachary).

On Thursday we first walked around the jigokundanai or hell valley that was formed from the steam and hot air vents which belched out various toxic fumes such as sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide. Then we went up the mountain to the bear park. The bears were rather sad, but the bear museum was interesting even if mostly incomprehensible. All the descriptions had nice English titles, but all the rest of the information was in Japanese.

Then we spend the later parts of the afternoon at a historical village which was set up to look like Edo period (ca. 1600 to ca. 1850) surroundings. We didn't actually get to look around much. They had periodic stage productions, and we seemed to go from one to the next, not all that well understanding them, of course. The first one was something about a Buddhist monk who was being attacked by ninjas (and also being defended by one). There was lots of fighting and various special effects, so it was quite interesting.

The second production was a historical piece about the battle of Hakodate (a port city on the southern most part of Hokkaido), which apparently took place sometime shortly after the invention of the steam ship (the ships in the background panels still had masts for sails as well as smoke stacks), but Zachary claimed not to understand much of the language either, so we don't really know what happened except that guys seemed to have gotten shot amidst lots of dramatic declamations. Oh, there was also a woman in a kimono who minced out briefly wielding a spear of some kind.

The third show we saw was sort of like an old-time music hall variety production (well, perhaps not real old time, maybe 50s), and as far as we could tell, had a more or less bonafide former matinee idol starring in it. At least all of the older women in the crowd (which is about all there was except for us -- I think only one Japanese man actually went to this production) seemed to be swooning over this guy. He sure was playing to them too. His vocal techniques were pretty interesting. We also had various kinds of dancing and cross-dressing comedy skits and even some audience participation.

When that ended, we were told that the bus back to our hotel was about to leave. We didn't even know there was a bus back to our hotel, but we figured we'd take it because it was an impossibly long walk, and a pretty expensive (we already knew) taxi ride. So we took the bus back to our hotel, and Hazel and I went back to the baths (they were non-coed) for a while before we returned to our room for another weird, but very beautiful looking meal. This time, Zachary got some explanations from the woman who served us. Alas for him, it wasn't the beautiful young woman who had served us the day before, but a woman more the age of Hazel and me, and also like us, with more ordinary looks (the one the day before really was stunning). The snail in this meal was cooked, so I did try a bite or two. I gave up on it when it got rather sandy for my taste. I even tried a couple of the little dried out fish (complete with eyes intact) which were stuck together on a stick rather like a section of picket fence.

On Friday morning we headed back to Sapporo and checked back into our nice hotel by the Toyohira river. Zachary went off to sleep and make some plans for his trips to Nagoya and Kyoto and such places this coming week, and Hazel and I went off to the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art (negotiating the subway system on our own) and looked around some. We met Zachary for dinner in town and this time his favorite place was open and we were treated very well. We had a little grill at our table, and the host kept bringing out plates of meat strips and vegetables which we could then cook over it. He also brought out a boiling pot with a small chicken in it and rice and undoubtedly some vegetables. He seemed to know Zachary and was honored (I suppose) that Zachary had brought us to his place. It was sort of a hole in the wall kind of place, but the food was good (and not mostly raw). Zachary says the guy's daughter studied in the states and that people here were nice to her, so he likes returning the favor when Americans show up. He sure did present Zachary with a small bill. He also presented Hazel with a couple of lovely little tea or wine cups (he'd given her some special rice wine in a similar cup while Zachary and I were sampling sake, which came in a water glass -- I thought it was poured into small things like egg cups from a little ceramic bottle -- oh well, one myth exploded).

In the evening we went to an "Irish Pub" to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, and more importantly to say good bye to Midori who seemed to be working there. She was pretty busy, but did come over for a bit of a chat, and later on flagged down a taxi for us and pointed it in the right direction for us. Our time in that bar was about the only time we saw any significant non-Japanese population. I guess what few Irish there are in Sapporo (a few African American Irish as well) knew about this pub. Midori had even figured out how to make a green beer by mixing regular beer with some kind of green liqueur (we didn't try it, however).

So there you have it (or most of it anyway) in a nutshell. Zachary seems to be able to get around quite comfortably. Occasionally he would get stuck on something, but mostly could chat away pretty well, at least as far as we could tell. He seems to be liking it there. I think he had some problems at first, but he is now talking about going back to Japan for a year or so after he graduates, perhaps to teach English. I did note an awful lot of ads for English teachers in the daily newspaper that was slipped under our hotel door each night, so I gather the opportunities abound. Actually, we hope he doesn't go back too soon. It will take some time to pay this trip off. Then we'll have to start saving for the next one. Some of the guys at PSI tried telling me that Japan wasn't so expensive because a Big Mac cost pretty much the same in Japan as anywhere else. Perhaps so, but everything else, including the subway seemed to be more expensive, and I have no interest in eating Big Macs, although perhaps I'd eat one before I went heavily for the raw fish.

Well, it's past my bed time, so I'll quit here. Take care.


© 2003–2006 by Lawrence G. Piper
e-mail me:
Or use my contact form

Last update: Wednesday, July 11, 2007