Friday, September 26, 2008

Land of the Rising Sun, Part 1

Monday, September 29, 2008

At last, dry, unmoving land appears out of our window. Well, it would if we had a window. But it was bright and sunny off of the rear verandah which we are claiming as ours [although we may not use it until slightly warmer weather]. The harbor at Hakodate [HAH-ko-DAH-tay] is small and quiet. Only one pier is in use and that is for us. We can see a couple of overhead cranes on the far side of the harbor and several ferryboats. It is pretty deserted where we are.

This morning was the “meet and greet” with Japanese immigration officials. We were called to the show venue by deck number, starting with the high rollers on Deck 7. Our embarrassment of a cabin is on Deck 6, so we were among the earliest to go through the line. When we arrived at the theater, we were given our passports and then sat and waited. Once the officials were ready for us we handed over our passports while the officers pretended to be busy, then had our index fingers scanned so they can identify our bodies in case we fall in the harbor. One theory is that the Japanese [and others] are making this tedious in retaliation for increased screening in the US.

We were done with this dance before 10 and told Patti and Russ that we were going to try to catch the 10:30 shuttle to town since the ship was not docked close to anything other than a wasteland. When we went to the buses at 10:15, they were already in line, so we joined up with them and rode the shuttle to town.

We had originally planned to take a field trip through the ship but the tickets we were issued when we boarded indicated that there were lots of steps involved. Another part of the tour was the “rope bridge”; the ticket indicated we might have high winds which made us a little nervous. MA was fine on the cable car over the Australian rainforest canopy two years ago, but “rope bridge” and “high winds” did not sound like a good combination. We canceled the trip as soon as we could on Day One. Roxanne and Ed took the trip we canceled and reported at dinner tonight that the “rope bridge” was actually a cable car which could hold over 100 people; Ed said that people standing in the middle of the car couldn’t even see out [of course they were Japanese and Ed is over 6 feet tall]. And there was no wind. Oh, well, the ticket refund will allow us to purchase more internet time.

We rode on the shuttle for about 20 minutes on what we thought was a circuitous route and were deposited in downtown Hakodate. Immediately in front of us was a building which had been described as a recreation center, but we didn’t go in. Our target was the Hakodate Morning Market which reportedly closed at noon. We weren’t worried since we were downtown before 11 a.m. There were gaggles of school girls, all wearing navy blue middie blouses with matching skirts. They were volunteers who were handing out maps and directions. Their English language skills varied, but, after all, they were only around 14 or 15. Our Japanese skills were confined to “ohayo” [hello]; “domo” [thank you]; “sayonara” [goodbye]; and tempura and sushi terms. We were told that we could get to the market by taking the train which turned out to be a streetcar/trolley/light rail depending who was describing it. We had difficulty understanding where to catch the trolley but finally saw a group of people waiting at a little platform in the middle of the street.

The trolley system was unique. Upon boarding, passengers take a ticket which they turn in prior to leaving the train. It appeared that there was a “reader” which would flash the fare due and that passengers would then pay the amount indicated. Naturally, we screwed it up. Only D had seen the ticket machine, so he was the only one with a ticket [which he still has]. The trolley was not crowded, so the driver/conductor was able to help us when we were ready to exit. The one-way tariff for the 4 of us was 9800JPY, a little under $10. On the return trip, we did take tickets, but it was still 9800 yen.

We were only on the train for 3 stops. Once off, we wandered around, following others from the ship who we hoped knew where they were heading. In about 5 minutes, we were at the market area. Just as the “international” market in Busan, South Korea, had been several square blocks of stores selling cheap merchandise to the locals [think way worse than Wal-Mart with dogs], the Morning Market seemed to be nothing more than several blocks of tiny sushi restaurants and fish mongers. We saw crabs, crabs and more crabs. Some resembled Dungeness, some were reminiscent of spiny lobsters, some were live and many weren’t. There were large tanks of crabs like lobster tanks in the grocery stores in the states. There were live squid, sea cucumbers and prawns. There were even a couple of good-sized sharks. King crab legs were also available. Prices seemed high to us, even with the 100 yen to one dollar exchange, but business was brisk. Many of the vendors were selling identical seafood at identical prices, but the locals obviously had their favorites. At one stand, 2 girls were steaming open what appeared to be scallop shells by using a blow torch. At another, a woman was preparing sea urchin.

In addition to the outdoor stalls, each in front of a tiny store, there was a “store” with a large open indoor market. Here we found produce and flours primarily as well as the only stall selling meat. It was obvious to us that seafood, especially shell fish, were dominant in the local diet. There is also a fish market which we did not go to. We did, however, find a Japanese department store. Similar to the one Russ and I saw in Osaka in 2006, each floor was devoted to a specific type of merchandise with the “departments” operated independently. The assumption is that these are “lease” departments where a percentage is paid to the building owner based on square footage and dollar volume. We decided that we were not interested in the clothing floors and settled into the basement which sold mostly sweets – cookies and other pastries [fresh or commercially boxed]; candy; wine and tchotchkes. There was also fresh ground coffee available, teas and gift sets. And we even saw Halloween candy.

When we were done, we found our way to the light rail stop, hopped on [remembering to take tickets this time] and returned to the shuttle stop. We were back on board around 12:50, just in time for lunch, trivia [we lost but didn’t want more mouse pads anyway] and a nice long nap.

After dinner [vegetarian croquets v. broiled salmon], the six of us went to play quickie trivia. We tied for first but lost the tie-breaker. Again, what would we have done with more coffee mugs?

Tomorrow we explore Aomori which was added at the last minute when Petropavlovsk was canceled. We have no specifics in mind, so it could be quite the adventure.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The morning started with a mixture of clouds, rain and then sun. By the time we were ready to go ashore, it was sunny and becoming warmer, but we were dressed for cooler temperatures and were really schvitzy by the time we returned to the ship.

While at breakfast, we could see a school of jelly fish in the water by the ship. Even at a distance [maybe especially at a distance], they were beautiful. We watched birds wheeling overhead with Aomori’s modern silhouette in the background. The highlights are a modern suspension bridge which straddles the harbor and a 14-story building whose front is in the shape of an equilateral triangle. It is quite striking. [Someday photos will appear here, but the cost of internet time is too much to try to play with it now. There have been enough problems and time spent just trying to post the text].

Once we were off the ship, we stopped at the little information kiosk set up by the gangway. A volunteer gave us a map and off we went. The main shopping district was highlighted, but we didn’t really want to shop. We started by walking over to the triangular building which was fronted by a small gravity fountain. [See the picture here in November] It coursed down a concrete sluice which had statues of seals running all the way to the bottom. The Japanese, like the Chinese, have a love affair with water as one of the balancing aspects of nature.

We went into the building itself because it and we were there. The first floor was a collection of mostly little food stalls selling products representative of Aomori. The building also had an observation deck and more stores but its main mission seemed to be in promoting Aomori.

From there, we just wandered to “Main Street.” We passed a number of hair salons and barber shops, restaurants, bakeries, even a McD’s. Still no KFC or Starbucks stores but that will change once we get to Kyoto and Osaka. We stopped in a bakery to gawk and sniff but left before we could do any damage. As we walked down this main shopping street, we found a drugstore and decided to try to find nose spray to relieve D’s congestion. Through a series of pantomimes, the druggist/clerk understood what we wanted and we left $9 poorer but hopefully healthier. It reminded us of D wandering through several small German towns trying to find something similar for MA in May.

We started back to the ship having seen nothing of real note other than a street-front Buddhist temple, but made the find of the day purely by accident. The Utou Shrine was lovely, a haven of peace and quiet in the middle of the city. We wandered through enjoying its beauty – especially another fountain and a koi pond. There were only a few others there which made it even better.

Back on shipboard, we sat on “our” verandah and read before going to lunch and then trivia [We lost]. After trivia, D discovered that we had a call from Guest Services about our request for a room change When he went to investigate, he discovered that the available cabin was on Deck 2, not nearly as convenient as the current one on Deck 6 or the originally requested one on Deck 3. We decided that it was not worth moving [and packing and unpacking] since we had already passed the one-third mark of the cruise. The Guest Services officer promised to send the e-mail address for the Seattle office and encouraged us to write about our concerns as well as to ask for some consideration on our up-coming March voyage.

We skipped the comedian’s show and MA went to bed while D updated the journal, the trivia list for Ted and the letter to HAL about our room dilemma. And so to bed.

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