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Sayonara, and Thanks for All the Fish



Day 27: June 2, 2015

Time to go home. I’m packed and pre-boarded for the 4:00 p.m. flight out of Osaka.

My first train is the subway to meet the 9:10 bullet train to Shin-Osaka. It arrives at 12:05 and I have a forty-five minutes to until I board the JR train for the one-hour trip to Kansai Airport in Osaka. This leaves me time to shop. I pick up some sweets and other things that fit in my daypack.

I feel sad about leaving, but I admit I’m tired. It’s time to go home. I’ve seen so much and yet there’s so much more to experience. Nevertheless, I think I have a better understanding of Japan.

One thing I will be glad for: the chance to be still, and not be in constant motion.

I arrive at the airport at 1:35. Checked my backpack, so I have now is my day pack and my camera bag. Perfect! Passport, boarding pass, empty pockets, et cetera and so on.

“Excuse me, miss, is this your bag?” a young security guard says in halting English.

“Yes, why.”

“Please come with me.” He motions me to a table away from the queue.

Oh, they must have found my walking stick or my tripod. No problem. I got this.

The young security guard gingerly pulls out my Leatherman tool. The one with the knife. That I had carefully stowed in my shoe in checked luggage on my way here, and utterly neglected to repack with the same damn care.

I attempt to explain. His limited English fails him and he pulls a more senior guard over, one who presumably speaks better English. This fellow also has more authority, as he sports a security hat, pressed shirt, and white gloves. I’m not making light of the situation, as I’m fully aware that this man has, in this white-gloved hand, not just my tool but the power to make my life hell—or at least make me miss my plane, which is the same thing right now.


“Why do you need this?”

“Just in case I needed to fix something.” I explain that I didn’t pack my bags properly coming home and that this is my mistake.

He looks baffled. “How long have you been in Japan?”

“A month.”

“What did you do?”

“Travelled around as a tourist.”

“Where do you live?”

“Toronto, Canada.”

“Who do you work for?”

Oh here we go. “Myself. I’m self-employed.” Yep, there’s the look. Gonna be here a while.

“What do you do?”

“I edit books.” That look again. “I fix them. Make them better. No errors.” Stop now, Carol.

“You don’t work for a company.”

My tablet! I have access to email! “Here! I can show you letters, invoices, jobs I have waiting for me.” Don’t fail me now, Wifi!

He looks at the screen, satisfied I am who I say I am; that I’m not a respectable office lady; that I’m some weird, camera-wearing, sloppily dressed Canadian woman who carries a Leatherman because she doesn’t have a husband, poor thing.

“Can I take that on carry on now?” I gesture to my tool.


“What can we do about this, then? Because I have to be on that flight. If my knife is stopping me from getting on a plane, you can have the knife.” I’d rather not because my parents gave it too me and it wasn’t cheap and it’s a great tool. Sigh. Poker face, Carol.

He considers. He looks at me. I don’t budge.

“Okay,” he says, “Go to check in and put in your checked luggage. Go through this door.” He hands me a pass. “This will get you back in.”

Domo arigato! Thank you so much” I bow a lot, all smiles.

I make my way to baggage check where I’m greeted by a poised, polished clerk.

Konichiwa! I wonder if you can help me. I need to check this in my backpack. Is that possible?”

“Have you checked you bag?”



“Oh, few minutes ago.”

“Do you see it?”


“I’m sorry, but I cannot retrieve it. For security reasons.”

I explain my problem, emphasizing that this is totally my mistake.

“You’ll need another bag.”

“I have to buy another bag? Here?!” My heart leaps at the price of bags at an airport.

She considers this. “One moment.”

I anticipate another international negotiation with well-pressed, white-gloved official.

She hold up a pink shopping bag. “Put it in here.”

YES! I could do a dance right now! “So you’ll tag it and tape it and it will get to Vancouver?”

“I hope so. Then you put it in your checked luggage in Canada.”

And so it is done.

I return to the boarding lounge satisfied that I negotiated my knife back from Japan airport security, but worried that I may never see it again.

Two hours and a bowl of rice later, I’m aboard the Air Canada flight to Vancouver. Middle row with one other person. This is bearable.

Roughly ten hours later, we arrive in Vancouver. Retrieving my pack is a breeze. And as I stand at the conveyor belt, I catch sight of a little grey plastic box with my humble, taped-up paper shopping bag. My Leatherman!

As I navigate my way around the airport, I’m struck by how rude the staff are compared to Japan. At one point I try to shove the tool in my pack when a male clerk barked at me to get in line. In fact, there is no line; I’m the only passenger there. Even the customs officer/pseudo cop is abrupt, snapping passports out of peoples’ hands. It isn’t busy at all. I shake my head and find a Tim Hortons to prepare for an eight-hour layover.

Books, coffee, and the inevitable nap make things . . . better. Landing in Toronto, I’m a little sad and grumpy. Typical after a trip. I have warned my friends that I’ll be all, “In Japan they do this” and “In Japan, I saw that.” It seems I’ve already started.

Rereading my notes now, over a year later, reliving this remarkable trip, I remember how my mind was ablaze with planning another. Of course, reality settled in: bills had to be paid, work had to be drummed up, money had to be saved. But I had a blog to update and (more than 2,000) photos to edit. So plans? Yeah, I still had them, but they’d be closer to home. And they continue to change my life.


Harajuku: Art, Rockabilly, and Splashing Out

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Day 25: May 31, 2015

Even when I’m settled in, I’m on the move—or at least my bag is. Apparently, the hotel needs to move me to another room Did I mention that I think this is a love hotel? I guess, this single lady gets a smaller room with less “love.”

Breakfast today, a bun and an apple, is procured at a grocery store, with coffee from McDonald’s. The apple is rotten; the coffee is passable. I hope this doesn’t portend the rest of the day.

I walked through part of the Imperial Palace to reach the National Museum of Modern Art. Wonderful! So good to see something relatively contemporary. The exhibit that strikes me the most is the war painting. Like most nations, Japan commissioned artists to document the Second World War. The paintings that emerged demonstrates how the Meiji era, or one of open borders, affected art. It’s interesting to see how official depictions of war contrast so dramatically with works completed after the conflict: heroic soldiers versus broken men. Not unlike the West.

Lunch then Harjuko. Maybe I’ll splash out for dinner.


Harajuko is a fashion centre, but it’s best known for youth culture: cosplay, kawaii, Goth—whatever you want to call it, teens wear it. This is what I’m prepared for. What greets me is utterly different. For the past thirty years, men (and now one woman) have gathered to have a rockabilly group “dance off.” It is amazing and compelling and everything I’d hoped it’d be. You see, I first learned about these guys when I was eighteen and watching New Music when it was hosted by Daniel Richler. Now I get to see them in all their Doc Elliot–pomaded glory, sweating it out in tight jeans, leather vests, taped-up boots, dancing to obscure Japanese fifties rockabilly pumping out of their boombox. It’s glorious!


After watching them for a while, I walk through the park. Families, picnickers, lovers, students enjoy the warm spring afternoon reading, lounging, playing, sleeping, eating. People congregate around buskers and artists. In such a big, dense, crowded city, sprawling treed parks like this are such a relief.





I wander back to the greasers. I could watch ’em all day. They pose for the abundant cameras, but you have to respect their space. One guy doesn’t and it gets a little tense, a little Jets and Sharks. But the cats cool out and get back to rockin’ out.


They wrap for the day and it’s time for me to navigate toward dinner. Rough Guide recommends a restaurant in Aoyama district, which is similar to Yorkville in Toronto. Naturally, I’m not dressed for it, but that’s never stopped me. Besides, the one thing I’ve learned is to plan to get lost, so I don’t have time to wash up. Off I go—and, yes, I get lost.

Eventually I find the restaurant, A to Z, which Rough Guides describes this way: “Enter the offbeat world of artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose pieces decorate this impressive café—part art installation, part kindergarten for the art-school set.” I have the avocado and tuna with spiced cod roe rice bowl. It’s light and a nice change from what I’ve been eating so far. I wash it down with Aomori cider, which is very dry, tasting more like champagne than apple cider.


It’s a fashionable restaurant and I feel a little out of place (then again, I always feel a little out of place). The lovely view begs to be photographed but I’m not seated close enough to the window to be discrete, so I simply enjoy and relax in the experience.

Sapporo Beer and Shopping

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Sapporo Beer Museum

Sapporo Beer Museum

Day 22: May 28, 2015

Today I’m visiting the Sapporo Beer Museum then walking to the fish market.

Further evidence that Sapporo doesn’t get many English-speaking tourists: I can’t make myself understood at the bus terminal despite my phrasebook Japanese. Nevertheless, the clerk tries, consulting with a co-worker who spoke limited English. Then, once she figures out more or less where I want to go, she walks me to the bus stop across the street from her post.
On the bus to the museum, I meet a lovely elderly couple who speak not a word of English, yet take me under their wing and guide me to the museum. They remind me of my parents. I’m certain that I’m on the right bus. (The driver waved me on, nodding as if to say, “Yes, tourist, the beer museum, I get it.”) Nevertheless, the couple act as my interpreters despite not knowing what I am saying. Amazing! I nearly weep. I’ve encountered this a lot, especially in Hokkaido. Perhaps its the lack of foreign visitors that they want to show hospitality and encourage tourism.


Kettle o’ beer

The Sapporo Beer Museum  is pretty standard. I chat with the English-speaking tour guide, who had lived in Halifax for a year. Our conversation starts with beer, meanders to history and my trip to Hokkaido, wanders to Ainu, then ends with genocide of First Nations (cheery, I know). She excused herself to go back to work. I think I horrified her. Sigh. I should know when to stop talking. One of the perils of solo travel, or is it just me? Just me, I suspect.
Aside from my ghastly breach of protocol, I learned a bit more about Japan There have been two major openings to outsiders: the Edo period, during which Japan traded mainly with the Netherlands, the China, and the Portugal; and the Meiji period when trade opened up to include the United States and other countries. Both periods brought scholarly, cultural, and technical expansion. The guide suggested Japan’s aversion to such openness was/is because of its fear being taken over (her word). Sounds familiar.

With the tour over (most of which was self-guided), it is time to taste the wares. Beer samples are 200 yen each, which includes a bag of crackers. I enjoy the Sapporo Black Label, but I miss Canadian craft beer. Yes, I’m a snob.

Sampling the Wares

Sampling the wares

Apparently, Sapporo is known for lamb, of all things. So at the Sapporo Beer Garden restaurant I order  a beer with the fresh lamb jingisukan and veg, which I cook my table.

Ordering Lunch

Ordering Lunch


A lump of beef fat melts in on the hot iron cooker

Ingredients for Lunch

Lamp and veg


Lunch will be ready soon

Full of food, I waddle out of the restaurant to be greeted by American folk music pumping out of the gift shop: “I don’t want your greenback dollar/ I don’t want your silver change/ All I want is your love, darlin’/ Won’t you take me back again?” Ironic for a gift shop, I’d say. Still, I could sit in the sun and listen all day. . . and fall asleep.

In keeping with the boozy theme, I make my way to the sake museum, which isn’t much of a museum at all. I walk a few blocks to the fish market, which is renowned for the king crab.

Sapporo is known for its king crab

Sapporo is known for its king crab

I'm about to find out just how "king" this bad boy is

I’m about to find out just how “king” this bad boy is

Almost there

Almost there

Sweet god, it's huge!

Sweet god, it’s huge!

...and none too pleased

…and none too pleased

In fact, I'd say he's pretty crabby

In fact, I’d say he’s pretty crabby

The fish market blends into the shopping district, where I find a vintage shop selling kimonos. For 3240 yen, I pick up a bright pink, orange, and purple yukata (a cotton summer robe) festooned with fish and flowers. The clerk wraps me in the robe then ties various lengths of cloth around my waist, trying to convince me that I look kawaii in this impromptu kimono. I thank her, but I’m as far away from looking kawaii as I’m going to get: I’m sweaty in my grey T-shirt and green travel pants, with my frizzy hair pulled up into a pony tail, and any makeup I applied this morning has long since melted away. Nevertheless, I am happy with my yukata and leave to check out the rest of the shops.

The clerk is far more kawaii than I

The clerk is far more kawaii than I

I happen upon a record shop. As you may recall, the Beatles were crazy popular here, as elsewhere. Perhaps they were the first Western pop band to coin the phrase “big in Japan.” At any rate, I covet a lot of records here. Too many. Photos must suffice.

Record shop, "vintage" style

Record Shop



Beatles, big in Japan


I wonder how many of these are boots




Note that Michael McKean is the musical coordinator

Having walked off my big lunch, I trek to a recommended ramen joint. Everything about this meal is wonderful, especially the slightly spicy broth.

So good!

So good!

Back at my digs, I meet a new roommate. Tam is a designer from Switzerland who thinks everything and everyone is owned by the Americans. He wants to travel to North Korea because he doesn’t believe the media reports. I protest. He tells me I’m brainwashed. I look for his supply of tinfoil. You meet all kinds.

Sniffles in Sapporo

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Day 21: May 21, 2015

I woke up with a cold. Dammit.

My JR Pass expires today and I have to exchange my second voucher. So I went to the visitors’ centre at Sapporo station where I chatted with the lovely clerk who helped me plan the rest of my stay. Apparently she lived in Toronto for a year and loves Canada. She suggested that I skip the national park that I was so keen to see as it was too far and best seen with a tour group. Instead, I should visit the Historical Village of Hokkaido, the Ainu heritage park, and the city of Otaru, if I have time.

Welcome to the Historical Village of Hokkaido

Welcome to the Historical Village of Hokkaido

Brochures in hand (or shoved in pocket, more like), I found my way to the Historical Village. It’s a charming open-air museum, much like many living museums I’ve visited before, except that it has few people bringing it to life. Featuring reproductions of mid-nineteenth- and early-twentieth century buildings, the village depicts how Western culture influenced Hokkaido traditions.

"Get out of the way of my speeding horse!"

“Get out of the way of my speeding horse!”

I’ll attribute the quietness to it being a weekday, but everyone here is Japanese; few foreign tourists, which is a shame. As the only foreigner here, I’ve caught the attention of some seniors in a tour group. They’re eager to chat, but lack the English. One fellow tells me his nephew lives in Edmonton. This is a common story, I know, but endearing as it demonstrates that people want to connect, to talk. I smile, bow, speak some Japanese from my phrase book, then smile and bow some more, hoping I don’t seem rude. Ugh for my lack of Japanese.

Oh how I covet this naturally lit studio.

Oh how I covet this naturally lit studio.

After a few hours of empty buildings, my cold makes itself known. Time for lunch and the second museum. Hokkaido Museum is a compact institution, chronicling the region’s history from prehistoric times to present: standard stuff but a good overview with an introduction to the Ainu, Japan’s First Nations people. Like most of the Japanese museums I’ve visited, it’s staid and orderly. Everything is just so. Each country and city tells it story in its own way, I suppose.

Hokkaido Museum

Hokkaido Museum

Next on today’s sightseeing list is the Mount Moiwa Ropeway, which promises a spectacular view of Sapporo at night. This means navigating the JR bus, the local subway, a tram then a shuttle to the ropeway up the mountain.

Mt. Moiwa Ropeway

Mt. Moiwa Ropeway

Tunnel vision

Tunnel vision

The promises are kept. Hills to the south appear layered in shades of purple. The city lights to the north sparkle in every colour. The land stops at the black ocean, and the sky overlooking it all darkens to indigo.
The View

Capturing it all is a phalanx of photographers, bristling with tripods and telephotos. My tripod frustrated me so much, I gave up on it in Tokyo. But I need to improve my low-light photography and I don’t want to leave Moiwa without shooting Sapporo at night. So I make judicious use of rails and suchlike.

Phalanx of Photographers

Phalanx of Photographers

As the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Couples cozy up. Apparently, this is a romantic spot to do so, as the love locks testify. Arrive without a lock? You and your sweetheart can buy one in the gift shop.

Love Locks

Love Locks

Alas, I am without a sweetheart and have no need for a lock. Feeling cold in body and spirit, I return to the ropeway.

On my way back to the hostel, I stop off at a drug store in the hopes of finding something to relieve my cold symptoms. Naturally, no one speaks English. My phrasebook is only helpful in finding a pregnancy test. Huh? Whatever. So how do you use hand signals for a cold? You don’t. Instead, you wander around looking for things that go with a cold in Japan. And there they were: face masks. Beside them were cough candies, “nazal” sprays, Vicks VapoRub, and other accoutrements that I couldn’t decipher. Regardless, I found what I needed. Pulling out the phrasebook (skipping the pregnancy bit), I found out that the spray was unmedicated. Perfect! I pay for my armload of remedies and return to my digs. And, no, I did not wear a mask.

Back at the hostel, I re-heat my Seico Mart supper, spray my nose, spread the VapoRub, and get an early night.

Hours later I’m sick to my stomach. So much for Seico.

On the Move…Again

Day 20: May 26, 2015

Good morning, Hakodate. I’m exhausted, but I can’t dawdle too much. I need to be on the train to Sapporo, which is a few hours away. First, I need to shower, gather my stuff then head downstairs for the free breakfast.

Free hotel breakfasts aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re on budget and I don’t have to search for food. It also gives me time to go online and book a room in Sapporo at Guesthouse Waya. Because I absolutely don’t leave things to last minute, me.

As I clean up my dishes, one of the servers notices my Canadian baggage tags. She lived in Vancouver and Niagara on a work visa. She loved Canada and Canadians and very much wants to return. That makes me proud.

Thankfully I’m within walking distance and I meet the 10:36 train.

Speaking of Canada...

Speaking of Canada…

The landscape of Hokkaido is much different than that of Honshu. It’s lush and uncultivated; much more like Canada. As I look out the window to my right, I see Uchiura-wan Bay; to my left, thickly treed hills. Yeah, I love train travel.

Lunch on the train

Lunch on the train

There’s little to do but read, eat, and answer Nature’s call. Normally, the latter isn’t an issue, but when last I checked this was an old train with traditional Japanese squat toilets. I’ve avoided them the whole trip; arthritic knees make squatting pretty much impossible. Alas, I may not have a choice. On a moving train, no less. It’s all part of the adventure. So, I take a deep breath and gird myself. My stalwartness is rewarded with a western toilet! Hurrah! It’s the small things.

The train pulls into Sapporo at 2:45 and I follow the detailed directions to my hostel. A steep staircase leads me to Guesthouse Waya, a quaint place that’s a little rough around the newly built edges. I’m greeted by a young guy, Takahashi, who checks me in and shows me around. It’s more “open concept” than I’m used to, but I’m here now and, well, I don’t have much choice. Besides it’s only four days. Waya has been open for about six months and is owned and operated by Takahashi and his friends.

Unfortunately the all-female dorm is booked, so I’m assigned to a bunk of my choice in a mixed dorm. I score the lower bunk, because I absolutely cannot climb ladders with my knees. Takahashi leaves me to sort myself out. I fall into my routine of pulling up the sheets and mattress on the lookout for bugs, then proceed with parking my stuff. As I crawl in the surprisingly roomy bunk, I realize that I’ve stopped moving. It’s the first time in about two days that I can rest without being jostled. I snap on the reading lamp, pull the curtain closed, and hole up to decompress.

After an hour or two, I’m off to get some dinner. Takahashi recommends a place around the corner called Cowlicks, or something like that. It serves hearty curry at a reasonable price. When I arrive, I realize that I’ve left my phrasebook at my digs. Naturally, no one speaks English and the menu features few pictures. Somehow I manage to order a meal and a beer. I’m full and happy.

Curry supper

Curry supper

My next stop is the Seico Mart (which I’ve dubbed Psycho Mart) where I buy beer and chips for now, and break and marmalade for breakfast. Finally, I’ve learned my lesson and will make toast in the morning instead of going out to eat. It also helps that there’s no coffee shop nearby.

I return to the hostel, retrieve my tablet from my bunk, and join my hosts and hostel-mates in the common room. My plan to check email is thwarted by fun conversation, chips, beer, and plum wine. This would definitely not happen in a hotel.

Northbound Train

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Day 19 (Part II): May 25, 2015

There’s no turning back now. I board the bus that pulls up at the stop. The driver nods when a mention my first destination. As we drive away, I try to focus on what lies ahead. My immediate concern is meeting trains on time, which I haven’t bothered too much about so far. However, there might be a sleeper train leaving Tokyo destined for Hakodate, Hokkaido, and I want to be on it.

After a minor internal panic attack (Holy shit I don’t recognize this route!), I reach the train station and board the JR for Tokyo. An hour later, I’m wandering around another train station with the help of an old man, trying to find the ticket booth. We spot the queue, which I join and bow to the old man. As I wait, I thumb through my phrasebook and bookmark my travel guide.

Eventually I reach a ticket agent. After some pointing and sighing and fumbling with pages, we determine that either there is no sleeper car and if there is, it’s booked up. Confusing, yes? So confusing, in fact, I re-read my guide and join the queue again to talk to someone else. Same answer, different agent. I do learn (both times) that there is a train to Hokkaido (with multiple connections).

So I have another choice: stay in Tokyo or take the train to Hokkaido? Tired and grumpy, I drag myself outside away from the crowd in an effort to clear my head and find wifi. My sense of adventure trumps my low-blood-sugar-induced bad mood. I book an overnight stay at a guesthouse in Hakodate then hustle to reserve a seat and find my train.

Right, well, it’s 5:20 p.m. and I’m bound for Shin Aomori station where I’ll connect with a train heading to Aomori then board another for Hakodate. I inhale a takeaway meal of rice, veg, and meat that I bought from a kiosk on the platform.

Everything aches.

Apparently few foreign tourists travel north; there is little to no English on any of the signs. As I gaze out the window, the scenery reminds me a bit of Canada. For the first time in about three weeks, I feel a little homesick.

I make my connection at Shin Aomori to arrive at Aomori at 9:00. The train to Hakodate leaves at 10:18. There’s no wifi so I can’t contact the guesthouse. I quash a mild sense of panic with logic: there’s nothing I can do so why worry. As I wait, I chat with an American guy, who’s teaching English in Aomori, and his Japanese friend. They tell me that the 10:18 is the last train (another reason not to worry: no choice). They’re returning from a trip to Tokyo. Apparently a one-way ticket is about $200 for residents of Japan. Thank god I have the JR Pass; I can’t imagine paying out for each trip.

An hour later I board my last train of the day. The farther north I go, the older the trains seem to get. This one appears to be out of an Agatha Christie mystery. Had this been earlier in the day, I’d think it was cool; at this time of night, not so much. The carriage rattles and rocks and keeps me awake but not my fellow passengers, all four of whom appear to be fast asleep. I’ve turned the seat in front of me around so I can put my legs up. It’s pitch dark out and I wonder for the umpteenth time whether I could just blow off my room and push on to Sapporo. Stick with the plan. Shivering, I zip up my hoodie then put on the second one that I bought at Mount Fuji.

So jealous of sleeper cars.

One of the few rules I have for travelling solo is to not arrive at a new city after dark. So much for that. It’s one in the morning when I arrive in Hakodate. I take a cab to the guesthouse only to find a note taped to a chair inside the glass door: it’s closed and I’m to call in the morning. I figured that was the case, but I’m pissed off anyway. Nevertheless, I turn around and stomp to the nearby Comfort Inn. One of benefits of hotels is that they have a night desk clerk. Quick math tells me I’ve gone over budget tonight, but I don’t care. I need a bed.

I need to stop moving, at least for today.

Mystery in Hakone

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Good morning, Hakone!

View from my room

Day 19 (Part I): May 25, 2015

Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse has two buildings: one with the private bedrooms and the other with the communal dining room. I’m dressed and ready to meet the day, but most of my quiet fellow diners are still in their sleeping robes and looking a little dazed. The buffet-style breakfast consists of hard-boiled eggs, toast, juice, yogourt, and cereal.

Travelling solo brings out my chatty side, so I start on the three women sitting at my table. They’re university librarians from France, two of whom live in the Alps and the third lives in the south. Talk inevitably turns to future destinations. I’m thinking of going to France, so when is the best time to go?

“August, especially Paris,” says South of France.

“Oh, why is that?”

“Because there are no Parisians!”

After the meal (and travel advice), I stow my backpack (I only booked one night), gather my belongings, and head out to catch the bus. My morning will be filled with art then I’ll take the train north all the way to Hokkaido.

The bus arrives precisely at 9:07. It winds up the narrow road, past lush trees and charming houses.

Narrow roads and narrow misses

Narrow roads and narrow misses

The Japanese are renowned for their efficient use of space, and the roadways are no exception. The bus turns into a small space that looks like a parking spot. My heart stops, thinking this is the end of the line, until the driver reaches out the window and presses a button on a nearby pole. He’s parked on a roundabout that turns the bus so it can continue around the tight corner without having to make a gazillion-point turn. Naturally, I take pictures. Naturally, the driver rolls his eyes.

Isn't this the coolest thing?

Isn’t this the coolest thing?

My stop is announced over the PA in English (this is pretty common in tourist areas and major cities) and I get off. I circled the Hakone Open-Air Museum in my Rough Guide months ago: modern art outdoors. What’s not to get excited about?

Hakone Open-Air Museum

Hakone Open-Air Museum

I photograph the sculpture in the parking lot then walk to the ticket booth.

Ichi, ku da sai.”

The woman smiles pleasantly and replies in English.

I smile back, swing my pack off my shoulder to retrieve my wallet.

It’s not where it should be.

I move aside to dig around. Nothing.

I start pulling everything out: guide book, rain cover, rain coat, tablet, sun hat, tripod…no wallet.

I retrieve my phrasebook out of my pants pocket and flip to the relevant page in the Emergency section. “I’ve lost my wallet,” I tell her, pointing to “Saifu o na kushi mash ta.”

Despite my pointing, this is more English than she’s prepared for so she turns to her co-worker who asks me to draw a picture, which I do. A perfect solution. Between them they learn when (between 9:07, as on the bus schedule, and 9:36 as on the camera timestamp) where I think I misplaced it (bus stop or bus). They call the bus company, but nothing’s been reported. I feel both regret and thankfulness. I’d write a letter of commendation if I knew their names and how to write in Japanese. All I can do is bow a lot.

I catch the next bus to retrace my steps. Nothing at the bus stop. I return to the guesthouse. They check my room while I retrieve my pack. I agree move to the dining room so have more space to search. Nothing.

Right. Don’t panic. Call Visa. I fish out my travel journal where I’ve written emergency info. The guesthouse payphone won’t take toll-free numbers so the owner’s son offers me his mobile. When I dial all I get is a message in Japanese. He listens and tells me that the number is out of service.

Right. Don’t panic. I have my JR Pass and my passport: my tickets to the Canadian embassy in Tokyo. There I can contact the bank, Visa, and my parents, and get myself sorted.

“Where are you staying tonight,” he asks.

Nowhere. I’m homeless. But this doesn’t bother me. In fact, I am so damn focused right now that nothing phases me. Houston, we have a problem but it’s under control.

“Go to the police station,” he suggests.

Good idea. I get packed, get directions, and get the bus.

Minutes later I disembark a few steps away from the Hakone police station. I know this only because of the red overhead light mounted on the small square silver building. There are no squad cars, no shield logos, no symbols of authority.

I slide the door open and call out. “Hello! Konichiwa!” Nothing. I enter the small office furnished only with a desk and two folding chairs. Wanted posters and a fish calendar adorn the walls; the only other indicators that I’m in the right place. Or in a Stephen King novel.DSC_0190

No one home.

No one home.

I exit and look outside for signs of life. Next door, uniformed firefighters are getting into their firetruck. I point to the building I just left.

“Police, hai?”

A fellow gets out and leads me back, reassuring me, in broken English, that I’m in the right place and I need to wait. Don’t they have a fire to put out?

I go back in, walk past the desk … and notice my wallet sitting there, completely intact! Tucked underneath is a neatly written note presumably from the finder. All I can read is the time (9:30) and a phone number. Relief merely approximates how I feel. I slump into a folding chair and laugh.

Now if I were anyone else, or simply not Canadian, I would scoop up what’s mine and call it day. But, no, I wait to file a report. So I pull off my daypack and retrieve my passport from my money belt. I hear the sound of tires on gravel and turn to see a big truck pull up to the front of the police station. A stocky man with close-cropped greying hair and dressed in street clothes gets out and enters the station.

Konichiwa! Do you speak English?” He shakes his head in response and sits opposite me at the desk. So I suppose he’s a cop. I pull out my phrasebook, point at “Saifu o na kushi mash ta,” open the wallet, then point at me. “Mine,” I say, holding my passport next to my driver’s licence displayed in the wallet’s plastic window.

He compares the real-life me with the passport and licence versions. I think he’s gone from “Is this her?” to “What crappy photos!” in about ten seconds. Nevertheless he grunts, “Hai,” then picks up the phone. “Find English speaker,” he says.

Within minutes I’m on the phone with a translator who explains that the finder is entitled to a reward of about 10 to 20 per cent of the contents, unless he turns it down. Meanwhile, the officer talks to the finder on his cellphone. He gestures at me, I hand him the phone, he talks to the translator, then hands her back to me. “The finder doesn’t want the reward,” she says, “He just wants a thank you.”

That’s it? I can do that! Wait! What the formal Japanese for thank you? Panicked, I thumb through the phrasebook, but not in time. The cellphone is in my hand and I’m faced with my biggest cultural hurdle so far.

Konichiwa! Do you speak English?”


“Okay, then. Domo arigato! Domo arigato! Thank you so much! I don’t know what else to say. Thank you, thank you!”

He laughs good-naturedly, at least that’s my hope. I hand the cellphone back to the officer and pick up my wallet. “Hai?”


I shove my wallet deep into my pack. “Domo arigato! Sayonara!” I wave as I slide out the door.

It’s 1:30. Suddenly, I feel lightheaded and empty and hungry. I cross the road to the convenience store, buy a Snickers, and inhale it.

What now? Do I rush to the gallery and start the day again? Or cut bait and return to Tokyo station in hopes of catching the overnight train to Hokkaido. I’m tired, irritable, and disappointed in myself. What shit planning, dumbass.

Then I stop. I didn’t panic. In fact, I did exactly as I planned. And a kind person came through for me when I needed him most. It’s another adventure.

I decide to move to my next one.



as I walk Toronto

through my lens

shannon alberta

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Attempting to remove the packages from my pantry, one bag and box at a time.

Writer Beware®: The Blog

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At home and abroad.


Words, words, words


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The Editors' Weekly

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lumpy darkness

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An Irishman's blog about the English language.

Saturday Afternoon

at the Kavanaghs