Danni Doing Well

Just a quick update, my PC is being really stupid at the moment hence the lack of updates recently.

Rang up about Danni the Tawny Owl last week and was given good news. She is doing well and has been transferred to Greenmount Wild Bird Hospital where she should be able to live out her days in comfort in a large aviary.
Danni when we found her at the Strid
Apparently the wing wasn't half missing as we had thought. After some unknown accident the end of the wing healed over with some hard skin and that stopped any feathers from growing through. Hopefully they can sort that out as well and she should be able to fly once more.

Japan 7 : End of the Rush

I had a strange feeling of relief when I left Hakodate Station the following morning. Not because I was sick of Hokkaido; far from it in fact. From what I saw of the place on my ill-thought out northern leg it is a beautiful place filled with interesting sights, sounds, tastes and people. A place that far from being limited simply to an isolated wilderness in winter, was in fact full of things to do. This was a place, I had resolved, that I would return to, and study in far more detail.

Tomorrow would be the start of the 2-day stopovers which would form most of the rest of the trip. Today however, it was time to leave the frozen north and return to Honshu it was my final stint of long-distance travel between hotels.

Rounding the cape towards the Tsugaru Strait, the morning view was much nicer than the darkened reflection of myself I had ended up looking at for a few hours a few days earlier. Villages and farms peppered the coastline and the sun shimmered on the waves as we chased cars along the sea fronts and worked back inland to the snowy hills and forests. The occasional good view missed by my camera lens largely due to another passenger who had the tenacity to reserve the window seat next to me. The Seikan Tunnel came quickly and went, and then I was finally back in Honshu.

Good old Honshu. A quick tot up revealed that the last 3 days around Hokkaido had involved roughly 1800km of train travel, and perhaps 2-3km of actual sightseeing. I sighed, both pleased at the coverage and lamenting the missed opportunities and experiences.

No matter. Now I was back on the mainland it was easy street from here onward. So long as I followed the west coast on the train as far as Niigata, then tomorrow would be spent sightseeing and nothing else.

Aomori was the getoff point at about 9am. I looked at the seats as the remaining passengers started to flip them back round and got off. At the station I bought the next ticket available to Akita then headed outside to smell the fresh spring air. I set off for downtown Aomori to make use of the intervening hour, stopping only to get an apple from a local grower on his stall - it was the largest apple I had ever seen - it was juicy and delicious, not what you'd expect from an apple the size of a melon. Afterwards I became more aware as I passed the empty orchards just how many they were, particularly in the north here. Aomori is particularly well-known for them.

I found some additional Aomori Pictures here by the way.

To be frank, I had forgotten how to relax. Forever looking at my watch and wilting a little from the sun and the heavy bags, I walked pretty aimlessly down one of the now snow-less main streets, poking my nose into one or two of the shops along the way. After a bit of uninterested wandering, I headed back. I was almost resigned to return to the recognisable comfort of a train station when the towers of an enormous structure poked out over the top of some of the smaller buildings to my right; it was the Aomori Bay Bridge. I'm the sort of person who, if you show me a bridge (or a car, animal, plant, whatever) I'll shrug my shoulders, but if you show me a BIG bridge - well, that's another matter altogether. And this looked pretty damn big. Feeling a tingle of excitement at the prospect of actually doing some sightseeing, I crossed the road and went down a sidestreet, opening out into a bus terminal/car park and beyond that the south side of the Tsugaru Strait where Aomori Port lies. The port itself used to have a major throughput of people, cars and supplies until the Seikan Tunnel opened, turning the 4-hour ferry journey into a half-hour one by train. Heading straight over it was this massive bridge; it looked brand new, like someone had just removed it from its packaging. I wasn't sure what two areas it was connecting but it sure looked purty.

Walking underneath, its underside was completely clean and devoid of the 'street art' that such a structure would be subjected to in the UK, and on the other side, a couple of odd-shaped buildings hugged the coastline. One of them, in the shape of a giant chunk of toblerone, is the Aomori Aspam building. This was the main sightseeing centre for Aomori and its top floor contained a viewing platform looking out to the bay (I later learned.. grr). By now I was right on the coast, and across the port lay a ship in dock. At one point in busier times it was one of the ferry ships, but now, looking a little dilapidated, it had been modified into the Hakkoda-maru Ferry Museum. The front part had been gutted and turned into the museum and the back part (including the viewing deck) had become a beer gardens. During summer it still occasionally gets used for its original purpose of taking passengers onto the sea, but not all the way to Hokkaido - it just does a circle and comes back.

Looking back at the watch, my hour was almost up so I headed back to the station and got on my train. Aomori to Akita was quite nice, especially towards Odate, where the snowy countryside returned and was joined by forests and suspiciously pyramidal hills.

Alighting at Akita, I passed a miniature train that actually carried people along a track, and a drum you could beat if you were feeling annoying, flanked by a rather large mask. At the ticket office, I was told connecting trains to Niigata left in 3 minutes and 3 and a half hours. Not able to convey my need to get the second one to the patient ticket clerk, (I was hungry for a little more sightseeing) I left the counter with a ticket for the former. Leaving and looking a little bothered (I'd missed the former and would need to go back in and try to explain why I needed another one) a guy walked up to me and asked in plain English if there was anything wrong. A little confused at suddenly having to use my native tongue again I explained the situation and me and him waited once more in the queue patiently. Introducing himself as Taki, he explained how he had studied for 4 years in London and when it was our turn once more got them to swap tickets for me. Walking and talking, Taki asked what I needed and without thinking asked for an Internet Cafe, which he duly took me to. Waving goodbye, he said he would return in a while to see me off, then left me to catch up with uploading images and dealing with emails.

An hour went by and by now I had done all I needed, so I waited a half hour but he didn't show, so I paid and left, stopping off at an Italian restaurant to fill up, writing a couple of postcards I'd got from Sapporo a few days before. Now the next task - what did a post office look like again? I headed out of the station and into downtown Akita, which looked a little less modern than some places, filled with smaller, more traditional buildings on narrow back streets, with thousands of yards of electrical wiring connecting them all together. (In Japan no electrics are run underground due to the threat of earthquakes and they don't use gas.) Yet again, the Japanese were on hand to help the confused westerner out. No sooner had I left the station and made the internationally recognised pose of someone who didn't know where they are, too ladies, who were travelling in opposite directions at the time, teamed up and led me through the streets to the nearest post office, quite a detour for both of them. After waving goodbye and bowing (which was becoming second nature by now) I posted my cards by airmail (70 yen each - about 35p (70c) each) and then made it back to the station with about 10 minutes to spare.

It was then I realised I hadn't done my usual calling ahead to let the hotel know I would be late. Back in Tokyo I had been advised to call them whether pre-paying or reserving because if not they would give it to someone else if you hadn't arrived by a certain time. Rushing to a NTT payphone I fished out my phrasebook and the hotel details and made the call. (Japan has 3 phone companies of which NTT seems to be the main one and so the one I had learned to use, and which were fortunately country-wide in abundance). I blathered down what I believed was the right way to say what I wanted and then rushed for my train.

By now, the light was fading, and the views of the coast were getting dimmer. I reached Niigata again at about 8pm, seeing little of the western coast. However, the bustle and neon and tall buildings I had last seen in any number in Sendai had returned, and the relative warmth and contact with living souls sped my through the streets to the hotel which was not more than 5 minutes away. The hotel room was small, but comforting after the commute, and had the by now familiar features - heaters labelled incorrectly as air con, deep baths in a cramped bathroom (complete with electric loo) and wash robes with an elastic belt folded into the familiar pentagon. Shame about the view.

I set my alarm for 8am for a bit of a lie in for once, looking forward to tomorrow and my first proper sightseeing.

Slippery, like an Owl - Now with pics!

Not tame - just knackered.
Just thought I'd share this. The intention of today was to spend a peaceful morning with Ms. Plants in Bolton Abbey, walking the dog and savouring the delights of Caramel Apple Betty at the local tea rooms. That was all cut short when we found a Tawny Owl by the side of the road near the Strid. Clearly not good to be out during the day, we gathered it up in a blanket after some kerfuffle, and found it missing half a wing. However, the wound had healed pretty good and the owl itself seemed OK otherwise. We guessed it had survived until now on roadkill, but with a busy, twisty lane full of fast cars its choice of restaurant, its days were numbered.

I don't like it.Taking it to the nearest vets their first reaction was 'put it to sleep' but we argued the point about an otherwise healthy bird (who was by now far calmer, almost welcoming the strokes we were giving it and nearly going to sleep in the blanket) should be given a chance at a decent life. After all, who were we to pick it off the road where it was at least surviving and condemn it to death? Eventually they agreed and after a lot of waiting and cooing by fellow pet owners, we managed to get someone to take a look, who agreed after examination that it shouldn't be put down, but needed food and water and a home where they would be taken care of by a specialist. However the places he rang all said no as it would never fly again, so we took it back home with little hope other than a couple of numbers of different sanctuaries to try.

I don't like it.
Things weren't looking so good. The owl just looked at the dog food and water we put out for it (I guess I'd do the same if I was suddenly plucked from the wild, poked and prodded then driven more miles and plonked on a kitchen floor) and the other numbers weren't coming up trumps either. The first didn't answer, the second said no. The third and final number couldn't take them as they had non-predatory birds in their aviaries, but pointed us at a place over near Keighley, a woman who kept wounded birds of prey in aviaries. She'd be back from shopping within the hour.

Once there we were greeted by a Terrier who seemed unable to stop snarling at us (though not because he wanted to, his lips seemed to be too small for him) and we made our way up the steps to find another dog, a cat, some fish, and a Snowy Owl perched quite happily on the fridge, who chirrupped intensely when we tickled his tum. The lady kindly helped us through and took the owl, and checking the wound said it was actually quite infected. She gave it antibiotics immediately as we were shown round the aviaries at the back of their cramped back garden, where we saw a tame Eagle Owl that hooted on command, a poor lame Barn Owl whose feet wouldn't do what it wanted, another healthy Tawny, as well as a Tawny Eagle which had full run of the garden as it couldn't fly, and gave the dogs as good as it got, despite its delicate age of over 40.

Satisfied we'd done our good deed for the day we said our good-byes and left Danni, who she shall now be called to be cared for. Hopefully I'll be able to go see her next week for an update on how she's doing.

Japan 6 : Break-Neck Hokkaido, Part 3 : Through a National Park

Waking early, I surveyed the buildings around my hotel from my little window. At 6.00, Abashiri was cold, very cold. Apparently a place well-known for its prisons, both an old one that's now a museum, and a shiny new one. Even if correctional facilities aren't your thing, there seems to be a surprising amount to do and see in Abashiri, but unfortunately I was on a mission - a mission to get back to Hakodate by nightfall. As I peered around, a little way away something caught my eye; a bridge over the Abashiri River with a pair of bird statues set into the central point at either side.

Leaving my hotel and setting off down the way I'd skated the previous night, I stopped by for a closer look. The statues were of the Red-Crowned Crane, a creature synonymous with the winter scenes all over Hokkaido (and the subject of many a postcard set). People from all over the world come to birdwatch as these cranes arrive from Siberia in January and do their mating dances, and my time in Hokkaido has been peppered with posters, statues and signs indicating their place in the hearts of the local population.

Not having long, I carried on my way, stopping only briefly to attempt a picture of my Speaks' carrier bag next to the helpful signs down the side of the road. I should explain: Speaks is a shop in Keighley that sells all sorts of hiking/outdoor wear, and a tradition amongst its customers is to take a picture of themselves in a far-off place clutching one of their carrier bags. Go inside and the place is full of such pictures, and upon buying my trekking boots for the trip, I decided that I would join them. Thus in Hokkaido, just about as far away from Keighley as you could get, I was looking out for suitable places, preferably with a sign of the place I was in, to take a picture.

On each of the pavements was a 3ft drift, which, if it would take my weight, would allow a good picture of both the bag and the signage. Unfortunately, a good 10 minutes were wasted aligning the camera and the bag whilst being blown by wind and sinking slowly into the drift. This is the best I could get. Looking at my watch, I decided that would have to be it for Abashiri, and perhaps this was the time to get to the station. I hurriedly made my way along the icy paths and got there with a few minutes to spare.

The Ainu

Outside Abashiri station is a statue of one of the indigenous Ainu people, a race all but suppressed from Japanese history who still live in small groups in the northern areas of Japan. Far from being perfect, as I may have given the impression until now, the Japanese still have unresolved issues in many areas of society, and their treatment of the Ainu race is one of them. Even the name itself has become derogatory in the Japanese language. However there is some recognition in some regions of Japan and this is one such example.

Anyways, my travel from Abashiri to the next destination, Kushiro, was going to be an interesting one. The connecting Senmō main line is one of the least ridden around Japan. Consisting of a single track, narrow gauge, the line is ridden back and forth between the two towns by a single train carriage, and the one I was taking was leaving at 6.40. The next was hours away.

And so we set off. The only passengers to get on at this point were a couple of older residents of either Abashiri or Kushiro, (it was hard to tell), but as the train passed local stop after local stop, it slowly filled up with schoolchildren who chattered and gossiped amongst themselves by the doors, no doubt including the strange-looking foreigner in their conversations more than once.

The views were cold and harsh-looking, but had raw beauty. Once out of Abashiri, the track roughly followed the east coast, moving inland and then back out again, passing through some of the most rural and traditional sights perhaps remaining in the country, and where it brushed the coastline, it would have been pefect for travelling on one of the icebreaker ships that take tourists round the cape. Inland, eagles, foxes, bears, cranes and kites were all spotted darting away as the train clattered by (largely too quick for my camera unfortunately).

As we hit Midori, the children got off to go to school and the rest of the way the train filled more with elderly residents heading to the south coast. A little further, the train entered a tunnel, and when it emerged out the other side, we were in the Akan National Park. This train line is unusual in that its the only one in Japan that is allowed to go through a national park, and some of the views were fantastic.

Finally, we started to enter some civilisation once more. The snow receded a little and buildings began to spring up. As we got off at Kushiro, it felt like I was finally on the return leg. With a half hour or so to spare, there was just enough time to poke my nose out of the station, and look briefly in at their steam railway display, though unfortunately not enough to take the train further still to the east to Nemuro, which is just about as eastern as you can get (that will have to wait until I return). Just outside - a perfect photo opportunity for my Speaks bag - so I rope in a semi-willing bystander to take my picture, and this is the result, now proudly hanging somewhere in Speaks.

Just before leaving, I happened upon a stall in the middle of the station foyer selling what appeared to be sweets, but on closer inspection, werent. They were bits of dried and cured fish and seafood delicacies, put in shiny foil wrappers like sweets would be. Spying a potential customer, or perhaps finniky foreign victim, the lady behind the counter gave me a free sample to try, which as I'd made eye contact by now, I felt I couldn't refuse. Opening the wrapper, a small, compacted 'thing' appeared. Something that looked as if it was once gills, or some sort of pipe from one organ to another. I took a breath and popped it into my mouth, trying not to think too much. Initially hard, it became chewy and after the first minute of shock my taste buds actually quite liked it, though I couldn't see myself popping a dozen or so slobbed out in front of the telly. Even so, a little bit of culinary Hokkaido could be sort added to the list.

As the train departed from Kushiro, and the last of the taste had been washed away with some Pocari Sweat, my camera batteries packed in just as a fog descended over the area. Top tip: Always bring spare batteries. The train line slowly made its way north-east towards Shintoku, where I departed for a more direct route to Sapporo. It's a shame the batteries had died, because the trip between Shintoku and Sapporo was one of the most picturesque views I had seen of Hokkaido, though that may just have been because I wasn't looking through a viewfinder all the time.

Back in Sapporo, I had a little time again, so I bought some nosh, and a few spare batteries, and then headed for the only sightseeing location to hand: the JR Sapporo Tower. Even though it was part of the station, the entrance to the damn thing was difficult to find. However as had happened many times before, I was able to find someone to help me get there. In this case, a businesslike-looking gent, instead of pointing me in the right direction as I had expected, actually led me halfway across the station and acted as my interpreter as we solved the Sapporo Tower riddle of where the hell the lift was. At the top, I was greeted with great views of the surrounding city, but I had stayed a little too long and my intended other destination, the internet cafe I had visitied on my way through Sapporo the first time, was going to be a rush. I quickly bought some postcards as souvineers from the shop (which I had done elsewhere since postcards were some of the few things to fit my already overfilled backpacks) and sped out and down the street.

Entering the cafe at some speed, I had about 20 minutes to get my card into a slot and upload my photos. Typically, the place was packed, and 5 minutes were taken up waiting for a terminal to become free. Things got worse still when my PC of choice was knacked, and a dodgy connection somewhere meant that the power failed twice before even getting onto my email account. Sweating and annoyed, I went back to the counter and tried to explain in my slightly-less-than-shouting-at-foreigners voice that I couldn't and wouldn't pay, because my machine was crap and I had to get a train. Eventually between us I got through to them and made my train to Hakodate, during which I cursed more than once as I watched the sun set.

Back in Hakodate, the daylight had disappeared and I was tired. I got my bag back from the place it had been for the past 24 hours or so (fortunately no-one had thought to nick it) and tried once more to get on the hotels free internet, succeeding this time, and probably staying longer than I had a right to uploading photos and sending mail.

Yet again, I had spent time in Japan and yet somehow had not. Hokkaido was just one big blur, and by this point I had decided I was coming again and doing it slower, savouring the sights and not having to worry one moment to the next about when the next train leaves. Three and a bit weeks is just not enough by a long stretch. However, this was trip #1, one more day of mad rushing around on trains, I thought, and then things begin to slow down a little once I'm back in Honshu.

Japan 5 : Break-neck Hokkaido, Part 2: I don't like Mondays

It was 6:20 am, and though my eyes were blurry and my legs not pointing in exactly the intended direction, I headed towards the lift to the ground floor of my hotel. I asked the receptionist to call the hotel I was heading towards to tell them I would probably be late; the journey today was not a lot different to yesterdays, when I had been in the busy but mild climate of downtown Tokyo. The milage was going to be a little less, but the trains were slower up here and my intended journey twisted its way through a dozen cities on trains that weren't in peak fitness. My Japanese was not brilliant so after asking them in my best phrasebook-parrotted Japanese, the hotel staff on duty helpfully rang the number for me (the bit I could do) and then promptly handed over the receiver for me to tell them (the bit I was hoping they would do). I garbled what I could down the phone (a slightly re-translated version of the one I had done for this hotel the previous day) and hoped for the best.

I'd had an idea about the packs on my back which by now had lost their naive backpacker charm and were cutting into my shoulders. Since I knew that I would be returning to this hotel in a couple of days time, I asked the people there to stow away the larger of my rucksacks, and after some quick re-packing, he placed it in full view of everyone on a shelf next to the lifts and gave me a little token. Thanking him with a hint of unease, I left my things and headed to the station.

At 7am, Hakodate was almost completely deserted, quite a shock after the bustle I had seen so far, and the chill wind and threat of rain or snow at any moment resurfaced that soviet feel I had gotten the night before. Bathed in cold morning light, a couple of cars and a single tram rattled by before I made it back to the station, a thunderbirds-inspired beacon of civilisation in an otherwise ghost town.

Passing through the station, they had laid on a display telling people of the imminent Sakura blossoms (though I think they were a bit premature in the same way shops in the UK treat Christmas) and passed a massive mural that I swear wasn't there the day before. At 7.30 on the dot, the train left the station and I was on my way to Sapporo.

Clattering along, I checked my little travel book. Tomakomai was a few stops away and it had a science museum. Located a good 10 minute walk away from the station, the Space Station Mir exhibition hall had just that; a complete replica of the Mir spacecraft that you could climb into and look around, complete with what the book referred to as a scary contraption for going to the toilet. I was allowed one stop on my way today so with a description like that I decided it would be this one.

With no map in the book to guide me, just some directions which by now I had learned to take with a pinch of salt, this place seemed an awful way away. The streets weren't particularly busy, and it seemed I was the only westerner for a long way, and a long time, given the strange looks I was receiving from passers by. One man even aborted crossing the road to my side the moment he saw me, which I made him aware that I'd seen by giving him a good glaring at.

Eventually a promising building hoved into view on some back streets that were about as far away from the station as I was prepared to go. Rounding the building, a promising but unkept car park appeared, and a perfectly preserved Japanese steam engine was sat outside, just as the book said. Then the solitude hit me.

The place was closed, and it seemed, completely deserted. I checked my book - open 9-5 Tue-Sun. I checked my watch - Monday. Bugger.

It seems that, much like Sundays were in the UK about 15 years ago, Mondays in Japan are days of rest where people don't do much at all. Checking other attractions in the book it became clear. 4 out of 5 places were closed Mondays.

Slightly peturbed, and resigned to the fact that anything else beyond the local Lawsons or the hospital would be shut tight, I strolled aimlessly around the train and the building, looking in at the Mir model just temptingly out of reach, whilst trying not to look too much like a burglar for any security cameras that might have been spying me. Once I got bored of that, I decided it was time to head back to the station, stopping only briefly for a semi-tame crow and a Nissan Micra that someone had decided it would be a good idea to weld the front grille from Morses' Jaguar onto.

Back at the station, I jumped aboard another green Super Hakuto LEX train which sped me to Hokkaido's 'capital', Sapporo through another section of freezing countryside. Famous mostly for its beer, I spent a short time in Sapporo as the connecting train didn't take long to arrive. (literally, take a couple of pictures outside, head to an internet cafe and upload pics/email, then speed back to the station - I'd be back in Sapporo to see the sights tomorrow anyway so I wasn't too bothered)

Asahikawa was the next spot on the map, and since I was running low on Yen, it sounded like a good time to cash some of my travellers cheques. Unfortunately as I disembarked for the final leg it had just turned 5, and after some time talking with some very patient tourist information ladies at the very end of their shift, they pointed me down a very long and straight street, 10 or so minutes away was the Asahikawa Grand Hotel who apparently were able to cash the cheques for me. One of the ladies even rang ahead for me and put a cross on a map thrust into my hands. I had about a half hour.

Slipping and sliding away down the slightly icy streets as the last hour of daylight got underway, my stomach gave a gurgle. Not the type of gurgle that says 'i'm hungry', the other type. I got a move on and reached the hotel, which was very warm, very mahogany, and very velvet. Slightly sweaty and wearing clothing one day more than was really recommended, I felt more than a little out of place. However the receptionist was very accommodating and the footmen didn't seem too hasty to drag my scruffy carcass away. I bowed and left with a fistful of crisp notes.

On the way back down the very long street to the station, my stomach gave a louder, more panicked gurgle, making my walk back a little more hurried and a little more akin to a panicked penguin. What happened next I will spare you from the details, but anyone going to Japan needs to quickly learn where the western-style toilets are, and where the squat ones are. I did, very quickly. While most hotels, restaurants and trains have western ones or a mix, most railway stations only have Squat toilets. They take a certain level of ..balance.. that you don't usually acquire unless you come from a place where you're on your knees on a tatami mat for most of the day. And there's often no paper.


We must never speak of the Asahikawa incident again, other than for me to say if you were the attendant who had to unblock a screwed-up map of Hakodate from the the Asahikawa station lavs that evening, I'm sorry.

After spending some time in the most welcome western toilet I've ever been on, I found my seat on the train, which by now had moved several miles towards my final destination for the day. After another session of seat-turning at the lonely Engaru station, Abashiri station rose out of the darkness. It was 8pm again, and the snow and ice that had until now stayed mostly in the wilderness, had ventured fully into this city, which was full of 4ft snow-drifts and a pavement like an ice rink. Stopping off at a Lawsons on the way, I grabbed a microwave cheesy thing and some drinks, then I made my way down one of the main streets, recognisable because of the buildings rising out of the ice rather than being able to see the road or pavement, the map and real life came together in brief dimly-lit harmony and I managed to find my room for the evening.

I had travelled a thousand miles or so through Hokkaido and had very little daylight time to show for it that wasn't on a train. This was not going as well as my naive plans had suggested.

Japan 4 : Through the tunnel

As I headed towards Hachinohe on my 'Hayate 21' Shinkansen, the bright spring day had dulled slightly as the hours began to pass. Once the train had entered Hachinohe station, it was nearly 5PM and I was still some way off my goal. The train I got on was very much not of the same standard as the sparkly Shinkansens or the perfectly clean Rapid or Local trains in the capital. Yes, I had entered the 'real' rail system of Japan. The train was a little squeakier, the tracks clattered a little more, and the whole ride was a little bumpier. Still, it was some way better than some of the trains I'd been on at home.

During the course of this stop the train had picked up several more passengers, but one in particular caught my eye. The only other westerner that I could see, a gargantuan skinhead goth, with a neck wider than his considerable head, he sat a few seats down from me. We were the face of the west, I thought as I surveyed my rumpled clothes and stubbly face in the reflection of the window (the Japanese see face hair as not very couth I think..). Me and this .. well, German? American? fellow.. who had flagged down the hostess and was proceeding to stuff his gullet with all sorts of ekiben..

I sank a little further in my chair.

Once we got to Aomori, I was thankful that gothbloke heaved his carcass off the carriage and made his way past me, not forgetting to slide his wheezing self past me one last time and hit me with his suitcase. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder.

'Sumimasen..' they said, pointing to their seat which they proceeded to swivel around on its axis. 'You do, you do..'. And so I did. A quick pull on a lever at the side and the seat lifted ready for swivelling around, just missing the seats either side. This was because the train was now heading backwards, towards the Seikan tunnel, the one route from Honshu to Hokkaido by train.

The Seikan tunnel is quite a feat of engineering. Rather than cutting straight under the ground as with the channel tunnel, this one angles downwards underneath the Tsugaru Strait (the stretch of water between either side) and consists of a main tunnel with exits to a secondary one. Two underground stations have been made so that in an emergency the train can stop and people escape if the ends are blocked.

As I entered the tunnel, dusk had arrived, signs of civilisation had long been left behind, and to the right I could see the Pacific ocean. It looked cold outside and it was raining hard. As we passed through the darkened tunnel the readout of our position barely seemed to move. By the time I got out the other side about half an hour later, it was much the same, only darker. Rain, mountains, coast, snow. After the mountains had thinned and we moved back towards the coastline, it had now been joined by a thin row of farms and residential houses, separated from the train line by a persistent road that was intent on following us all the way to the station.

We pulled into Hakodate station and I felt relieved, although that was tempered by the bitter chill that greeted me as the doors opened and my watch saying 8:10pm. While central Honshu basked in the feint glow of spring sunshine, Hokkaido was still decidedly wintry. In fact, the first thing that grabbed me about the place when I exited the station into the cold, wet and dark was how 'Russian' it felt. Remnants of snowdrifts everywhere, big cylindrical woolly hats on what few people were there, an old tram system rattling around, and a sense of everyone being inside in the warm. Perhaps it could have been something to do with the fact that the tip of Russia tickles the eastern edge of Hokkaido, so closely that the little intervening islands are still disputed as to whose nation they belong.

Anyways, even here, in a climate where the first instinct is to ignore everything around you and just get inside, I was still able to quickly get directions from a kindly couple who even lent me their map to use. After a little guessing, I was able to find the right road and sped down as fast as my now weary legs could carry me.

I was a little worried that the hotel may have cancelled my reservation having arrived so late. Back in Sendai I had tried to ring ahead and, after a little bit of guessing had gathered together some Japanese words about having a reservation and being late, but how much they had caught of it in my thick Yorkshire accent I did not know. Thankfully, all was fine and the guy behind the counter took my details (tip: they always ask for your passport when going to a hotel so keep it on you at all times) and pointed me in the direction of the local eating places.

At this point, I should note that my eating habits with regards to Japanese food were not so good. In fact I was steering well clear. I figured I should get used to Japan in general for a while before risking an upset tum with foreign food. So I went for an Italian.

Spaghetti Cabonara to be exact. I arrived at an open area filled with one-floor buildings, each serving different types of food. After looking over the various plastic models of meals that most places in Japan have to help clueless tourists such as myself, and plumped for an empty building at the end, serving up a number of 'foreign' delicacies, including some Italian meals. Behind the counter was a middle-aged woman and her (presumably) husband, who spoke no English, but were happy to take me and my accent on. Phrase book in hand, we had a broken conversation about my trip that day and where it was headed, and as I was scoffing down my first meal of the day I'm sure they chatted amusedly amongst themselves about how mad I was. After all, there was another 3 days of mental travel left to do before I could think of relaxing.

I headed back slowly to the hotel room, and after unsuccessfully trying to upload my photos on the hotels' free internet, (the servers must have been down as I couldn't even reach Google on it) I went to bed and promptly fell asleep. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.