Monthly Archives: May 2013

Pit Stop Aomori

The shinkansen never ceases to amaze me. Tokyo-Aomori in slightly over three hours, comfortable seats and some peace and quiet. I’ll elaborate on the peace and quiet later.

The first thing to notice when getting off the train in Aomori was that it was cold. I had had high hopes that going to Japan as late as May would be enough for even the northern parts to have some summer-simulating qualities, but my shorts and fivefingers –based outfit was greeted with a windy 5°C Celsius. And although the ryokan I was supposed to stay at being located only a couple hundred meters from the station entrance, I still managed to spend 15 minutes looking for it. This should not surprise anyone who knows me.

Once found, though, the ryokan was great. The owner lady knew of my arrival and didn’t even care to see my reservation or payment receipt. She showed me to my room and soon brought me a couple of black sesame sembei and hot water to make tea with.

Green tea and sesame sembei

Apparently the only photo I took in while in Aomori. I obviously need three tea cups.

The room was slightly cold but nothing the heater couldn’t have fixed. A wireless connection was available as well, so nothing to complain about. Through the all-seeing eye of the World Wide Web I was able to identify the #1 restaurant in Aomori, Ippachizushi, which was located just a few blocks away. I went on a stroll and ended up walking around Aomori for a bit before reaching the main street and realizing there was nothing to see. The entire city was closing down around 6 pm. Sushi was all I had left.

Ippachizushi was a very traditional looking sushi restaurant with chefs standing behind the counter conversing with customers and, in my case, staring. Which is also why I didn’t dare immortalize the scene with the means of photography. Patrons had no plates, all sushi was placed on the counter in front and could be picked from there piece by piece. There was no english help anywhere and no menu, as was to be expected.

I realized immediately that my rusty Japanese wouldn’t have allowed me to order more than a few varieties of nigiri, so I decided to go all in and get whatever they recommended off the menu. The osusume of the night ended up being the matsu set, valued at 2100 yen. After asking what the clam sushi was called (=hotate), I ordered an additional serving of what had turned out to be my favourite and downed it all with a draft beer. The bill rose to 3310 yen, which was really reasonable for a good selection of sushi (and beer, never forget the beer), especially with the current exchange rate.

Mental note: I would be very interested in knowing what the naming convention for sushi sets are. This is not the first time it goes Umi < Take < Matsu from cheapest to most delectable.

Despite the pristine decor (I have to hit myself for using that word) and friendly staff, I was ever-so-slightly disappointed in the actual sushi. It was no doubt fresh, but the taste itself being very subtle, the amount of wasabi that had been put on the nigiri by the chefs themselves was enough to hide the actual flavors of the fruits-de-mer. Nevertheless, I went back to the ryokan on a full stomach and with a warm feeling inside, and began thorough research on the next destination – Hakodate.


Japanese train manners are, as George W. Bush would say, exemplorary. Not only are there constant reminders over the speaker system to put phones on silent (or manner mode), travelers never even raise their voices for conversing. Naturally ignorant gaijin are the exception to the rule, but I don’t have that much to say to myself so this time I have had no problems following these unwritten rules.

On morning trains, everybody is deathly silent. The only time any noise is heard is in late evenings when the weary salarymen begin to relax a little and a growing percentage of the passengers have imbued themselves with the power of alcohol. What I hadn’t seen before, though, was a sign on the back of the folding table warning passengers who have computers not to disturb others, whilst specifically mentioning the sound from typing on the keyboard.

So there I was in a train going 300 km/h and yet everything was so quiet you could disturb the whole car by the admittedly raucous action of typing.

In contrast, the traditional Japanese way of handling long train rides is as follows:

  • Buy bento box and / or beer at station,
  • Eat and drink
  • Fall asleep for remainder of journey
  • ???
  • Profit

Should the sleeping part fail, at least train-folk keep quiet. Optional actions include but are not limited to: relaxing in awkward positions, removing one shoe or staring at the scenery without so much as budging. Forever.


Hotto Koohii and Tonkotsu Ramen

5th day in Japan. The past few days have been spent in Tokyo visiting old places, meeting new people and getting in touch with old friends.

My plan today is to leave for Aomori as soon as I get a taste of Muteppou, which I have literally been dreaming about during these last two years. We left Basti’s place early as he left for work, so I had to find something to kill time with until Muteppou opens for lunch at 11. Unfortunately, Numabukuro station and its surroundings don’t offer much entertainment around 9 am on a Tuesday, so my last resort to escape the wind and pointless roaming was to enter the only premises available for idling, a McDo.

I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in a year or so, but I now wish I would have. The coffee here tastes even worse than home, thus relieving me of any creeping homesickness. Actually, at a different cafe, the coffee labeled ”American coffee” in Japanese was translated as ”weak coffee” in English. Admirable honesty. They could further improve it in the future and go with ”bad coffee” instead. But then again, I drink cold coffee from aluminum cans when in Japan, so the nadir has to be here somewhere.

To avoid walking around with a full travel backpack, Japanese train stations luckily offer coin lockers that can be conveniently used at any time for a small fee. These things are absent from all European locations I’ve visited due to the terrorism scare.

Once done with the ramen I will continue the journey towards areas that no man has gone to before. Sabae was a refreshing sight, and I would have gladly spent more time in the eyeglasses capital of the world, but unfortunately Golden Week thwarted those plans.

Looking forward the situation is clearly better. After three nights of modest ryokan living booked in Aomori and Hakodate (one and two nights respectively), I will move on to Sapporo (probably three nights), dissect the place and return south promptly in order to get a glimpse at Kyushu before facing the inevitability of an expiring rail pass. Obviously Kyushu would have been a better choice this time of year in any case, but I refuse to give up on Hokkaido. So why not both?


Ura-Nihon Detour

Four hours of Sabae

After landing at Kansai Gaidai International Airport, I knew that the day would be fraught with peril. Due to issues mentioned in the previous post, I had a limited window of opportunity to visit Sabae before returning to the shinkansen tracks and continuing towards Tokyo.

I handed in my voucher at the airport Japan Railways office to get the actual rail pass, which is unconveniently large for any normal pocket. It was significantly smaller two years ago when Joona had one so why they changed it I have no idea. The cardboard parts protruding from between my passport just get destroyed in my pocket.

Using the rail pass makes you feel very special when traveling, because it robs you of the ability to ever use normal train gates again like ordinary folk. Instead, I now have to take the small alley reserved mainly for people who have inquiries about the most mundane issues, get the attention of a clerk who then proceeds to quickly glance at the thing I’m waving (not a euphemism) and lets me pass without actually checking anything. I’m confident I could show him a Mother’s Day card and I would have no problem traveling the country. But I digress.

Sabae station view

The view from Sabae station

I arrived in Sabae after a couple of hours on different trains (KIX Express to Shin-Osaka – Kodama Shinkansen to Maibara – JR Hokuriku Line to Sabae) and Shingo came to meet me at the station with his little brother. We went for lunch at a nearby place he recommended and I chose to try a typical Sabae dish, Echizen soba. In all its simpleness the dish consisted of cold soba noodles with bonito flakes on top, a daikon-based dipping sauce and a small variety of tempura sides (crayfish, onion, zucchini). My first taste of Japan in a long time. First taste besides the beer I just had to buy earlier at the station anyway. It’s part of the shinkansen experience, and I refuse to be culturally blind.

Despite my previous 18 months of experience in mainland Japan, prior to going to Sabae I had never been in a private car before (Okinawa stories had one, though). With this kind of luxury at hand, we drove to allegedly ”the only thing to see in Sabae”, the Megane Museum i.e. the museum of eyeglasses. Sabae has a long history of eyeglasses manufacturing, and Shingo’s grandfather was one of the pioneers in the trade. Besides an interesting look into the history of Japanese eyeglasses, the museum also offered a refreshing introduction to the latest Engrish.

Eyeglasses Engrish

Well, I never!

The museum was of modest size, so we still had time to spend before my self-imposed time limit of catching the 16:45 train back to Maibara. By sheer luck there was a matsuri ongoing in the city where normally ”nothing happens”, so it was time for some festivities. We downed cans of Asahi Dry and nibbled on some fried squid tentacles (gesoage) and yakitori before visiting the Sabae Zoo to see the famous red pandas of Sabae. The red panda is a ubiquitous city mascot despite the animal having nothing to do with the region. But then again, Finland has the lion, so I probably shouldn’t say anything.

Gesoage and beer

Festival food

We returned to the station for a parting photo and quick coffee, and back I was on the train. Staying awake until Tokyo proved to be very difficult at this point. I drifted in and out of sleep until I finally reached Shinagawa station and contacted Basti, who had kindly offered to let me stay at his place in Tokyo. We went for a quick beer (or 4 as it turned out) at a nearby Izakaya before going home. I spent the next 12 hours in a deep coma.


Plane Drivel

Everything in here (on the plane, not Japan) is boring, so I guess it’s time to finally get back to this. We are now five hours in on the flight to Osaka; I’ve finished watching a couple of episodes of The Big Bang Theory as well as the 90s movie classic The Mask. With the entertainment system running seriously low on comedy shows, I set my eyes on a Chinese movie called Lost in Thailand, which is currently on pause.

The leg space is horrendous, as is to be expected, and despite a couple attempts at airplane quasi-sleep, the land of dreams keeps eluding me. I could have made good use of an ostrich pillow. Due to these unfortunate circumstances, an all-nighter is in order. It will get me back in the habit of writing down notes about my oh-so-exciting life and prepare for the morrow.

In other news, the needless stress I’ve caused myself by taking a 24-day vacation in Japan outside of the regular, or generally accepted Finnish holiday season of July will not end once I land. Due to another holiday season.

Only a an overly optimistic moron would land in Japan during Golden week without preparing a place to stay well in advance. I started browsing hotels around 24 hours ago just to add that label to my résumé. Ban-fucking-zai!

No shirt, no brain, no hotel. The two options left to me were either booking a king deluxe suite from the Hilton Osaka – half my entire budget for the trip – or jumping straight on the shinkansen and riding to Tokyo for the night.

Unlike my previous visits to the land of the rising sun, this time I’m a full-fledged tourist, which means I have access to the much coveted 21-day JR Rail Pass. It will allow me to abuse any and all JR trains for 3 weeks while also helping me travel light: with an empty wallet.

The plan for the first insomniac day is to get to Sabae in Fukui prefecture, go for lunch with Shingo, an old friend I haven’t seen in four years, and continue straight to Tokyo before the sun sets. The exact itinerary for spending my rail pass is yet to be decided, but rest assured it will be in shreds by the end. And so will I.

North Japan has been intriguing me since I began planning a vacation to Japan back in 2003, so Aomori-Hakodate-Sapporo and back is something I’m currently envisioning. Then I could finally lay that matter to rest.