The DOA (day of arrival) is always the worst.
It’s when orientating is a pain rather than a joy because you’re all shot through with exhaustion. So each holiday, I wait for the plane ride to end and for the inevitable dreary first day to pass before waking up to a new one tomorrow. Needless to say, I also look my worst each time the DOA rolls around. This time, it’s pretty much my fault for having taken a pair of scissors to my bangs in front of the mirror on impulse two days ago. It’s unflatteringly obvious after I stood next to rows upon rows of neatly-coiffed, image-conscious Japanese while waiting at a traffic light.
Although it’s not immediately evident from the rapid train service from New Chitose airport, Sapporo shows itself up to be rather different from the congested byways of Tokyo. Under the melancholy, grey sky that threatens rain, I can almost kid myself that I’m somewhere in part of Western Europe. The blocky, dull tones of the low-rise buildings with large posters on them and the rapid-fire chatter of a Japanese couple in front soon break the illusion.
The walkways around the city station are like wide (unbelievably clean) boulevards and an subterranean city teeming with life seems to run parallel to the roads above ground especially in the core of the city. In fact, it is entirely possible to wander through a network of long underground passageways from Sapporo station to Susukino without realising it.
Having had a peek of the snow-capped mountains that seem to encircle the southwestern part of Sapporo on the rapid train here, I hauled myself to Odori tower to get a better look. Then I ran a few errands, ending up with an all-Japanese driving guide (its only boast was that the maps were ‘big’) and some milk products from the maze of shops in the JR Sapporo main station. The Ishiya chocolate factory seemed to be a good idea at the time, until the surreal feeling of seeing a strange combination of ‘European architecture’ and Japanese kitsch began to get overwhelming. But then, Japan begins by being overwhelming: its people, the buildings, and now, the variety of food and choices, perhaps best encapsulated in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where urbanity forces humans to live in a paradox.
So I get around as usual in my Japan-survival mode: a combination of winning smiles, bowing, embarrassment, lots of apologising and thanking (perfected to an art here). It works, mostly.
Even if the lack of space is nowhere as bad as Tokyo, space-saving seems to be inculcated into the Japanese mentality; it’s evident in the seating spaces, hotel-room sizes, and even the toilets. In a bid to get a bit more ‘outdoors’, I decided to visit Moerenuma Park over Otaru, a sculpture-park that’s Northeast of Sapporo and accessible by a combination of subway and bus rides. A helpful, middle-aged lady waved me off the bus cheerily; she spoke in Japanese, and I, in hand gestures and monosyllabic words. Only as I climbed my first sculpture-hill did I realise that it was actually quite hard to get around with bite-sized instructions gleaned from Wikipedia and an outdated report from an anonymous review in Tripadvisor. But Moerenuma was fun despite my sweat-soaked back; I haven’t done this much uphill since climbing the Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh.
Above all, I loved the greenery.