Otaru / 小樽 (03/04/08)

On the train to Otaru I feel very off. I think it’s the combination of painkillers and a gutful of alcohol from last night. Well, it’s traditional for me to move from place to place with a superb hangover. I assumed the foetal position on the train for a while. I remember the time I was with Gurpal in a restaurant in France on the Val d’Isère Christmas uni ski trip and mixed sudafed with red wine resulting in a psychadelic experience. That was a bit too much for me though, and I wasn’t keen to repeat it. Still, once I’ve decided that’s what this is the feeling of anxiety about what to do if I suddenly need to vomit subsides.

Passing through Yoichi I wonder if I should have stopped off there too, but my fellow guests at Lodge Mellow and Tabi no Kousaten didn’t enthuse about it much. Perhaps it was the lure of the “phachinko” (sic) parlour I observe from the window when the train pulls in there. Not much snow down here and I miss it already. The sea is close by and a flock of gulls takes off.

***

I arrived in Otaru at four in the afternoon. Despite my early confidence, it’s not a great surprise that I can’t find the place where I’m staying. Also, the wheels on my supposedly “robust” suitcase (yeah, I declined to take a backpack as I figured a suitcase was way more convenient) were starting to stick and get chewed up. Not cool. I decided to ask someone in the street who initially said they didn’t know it but then had a flash of inspiration and came chasing after me, with kids in tow.

I arrive at the hostel (which was, incidentally, very well hidden) and am greeted by the Obaa san’s shiriai, who is “very surprised by my japanese”. But I am wise to the exaggerated praise. Actually I didn’t realise she wasn’t the owner (which goes to show how much I understood), but then the real owner comes to greet me after and the penny drops. I chat to her a little – notably I tell her I don’t need room heating (which costs extra) because I have lots of meat. She says she does too but it’s cold. I say well I have lots of chest hair too. She laughs.

We spoke about why I can “speak” Japanese for a little bit – everyone is interested about this. I guess they just don’t run into that many foreigners, or less still foreigners who can speak Japanese to the standard of a 3 year-old infant.

I decided to hit the streets and went for a walk around the canal, which is probably the most famous thing in Otaru because of its European-ness. Doesn’t look that European to me.. In fact I was more intrigued by the assortment of dilapidated factory buildings in between the canal and the seaboard. I take some nice pictures – it’s a grey day but I figured maybe black and white is ok. Next I walk down to the pier, which really looks like a scene from a mobster movie. I can imagine the Yaks rocking up in black mercs to dump bodies *shudder*. Or maybe it’s the Russian mafia I should be concerned about, given the amount of Russians in town (and the apparently well-known fact that they are stealing/scamming car shipments from Japan to Russia). The gradation of the sea is beautiful though, and possesses a certain surreality. It feels like the end of the world – as if I am looking off into oblivion. Perhaps it’s a reflection of my mental state at the time – just departing on my journey, alone, injured, not knowing where I’m going or where I’m staying from one day to the next.

I make a large circle around the town centre and come across the entertainment district. It looks like there are some nice izakayas there, maybe I’ll go back for dinner. Next I try to find an internet cafe but no luck, so I head back to the station to visit the tourist information office, but it’s closed.. There’s a fellow traveller picking up maps, but we only exchange a few words before she scurries off into the deepening night. So I go to a department store and buy a laundry bag – I’ve been hankering after one since I saw my roommate in Lodge Mellow in Niseko using one. It’s perfect for travelling! I do find one but make a gross error of judgement in deciding what size is required.. Doh.

By this point I’m starving but head back to the canal to see it lit up by gas lamp before walking back to the entertainment district. However there are only salarymen roaming around the streets and I can’t be bothered to walk all the way up the hill. I go back to a small street that I passed by earlier on, looks like fun, only room for 6 or 7 people in each place so I figure I might be able to chat to some people. As it turns out (given that I am writing this months after the event), this was one of the most fun meals of my entire trip. First I make friends with the owner and two customers – one is an Ojii-san who is getting drunk (Keiji perhaps?), the other a woman whose birthday is today (Ayako?). We talk about relationships with foreigners and public displays of affection. Sadly I can’t remember exactly what was said! Keiji (let’s just assume that was his name) gets more drunk, befriends me and buys me a beer. He remarks how I am like a Japanese in my eating preferences and that I am very friendly; he feels like i’m a good person, other foreigners give him some kind of cold feeling (didn’t catch the full meaning of what he said), but good if I’m friendly. We have similar dislikes in food (ikura, tarako), I’m clearly in. He asks what I think of Japanese women, and I tell him they’re not bad ;) he thinks I should marry a Japanese girl and live in Otaru.

Throughout the evening I’m given Okinawan shortbread, another pint of beer, some ika shio (salty squid – very strong taste and probably not for everyone), some karaage, some sticky miso paste with sesame (which was awesome), a sausage and then another beer from a different customer who has just won money at pachinko. There are also some Chinese customers who turn up a little later, who are very smily. Pachinko-san (Nokori) and the Chinese try to converse, but face major difficulties and ask me to translate(!!!). That was very entertaining, and led to much toasting and beer-swilling. Another “customer” who is sitting beside me turns out to be the real owner – I ask him if he’s married and he says yes, to “mama” (the lady who’s running the place), slightly embarrassing, but how was I to know?

I come home and talk a little with the owner. She says I’m only the second foreigner to come and speak Japanese with her at her hostel, which I find quite surprising (if I didn’t already make that point just before!). She urges me to get up early and go see Otaru as I’m not staying long, which I thought was sweet. She gives me a heads up on where to go and where to find a good sushi restaurant for lunch. Otaru is quite famous in Japan for its sushi, even though I was to find better elsewhere in Japan for less money later on my travels.

I hear snoring through the wall (again), and wonder why a) everyone snores, b) why i’m always in the next room (there were others available), c) why all the walls are so goddamn thin. For some reason I recall a night in Thailand the previous October where I listened to a tremendous shouting match between a couple who were either in the next room or upstairs. I wonder what happened to them… I was almost concerned enough to alert the staff at the time. Anyhow..

The next day I get up earlyish and wander back to the canal, all the way along to some crossroads miles down the waterfront. I see some old buildings, and look in the Venetian glass museum – is Venice famous for glass? Looks boring, but I laugh at the picture of Japanese girls wearing old school bloomer-style period dresses (available for dress-up and picture taking, naturally).

Next I eat some free cake samples in a cake shop, but didn’t find it that impressive even though there were loads of people in there, and then find sushi-ya dori (sushi street) and realise I walked up it the day before. I’m underwhelmed by what’s on offer, though the Â¥3000 maguro, chuu-toro, oo-toro set is very tempting.. mmm.. Still I have a lunchtime recommendation for sushI from the ryokan lady, which I head off to find next. It looks like it’s closed but after much deliberation I try the door and turns out it’s open. Seems they are not used to seeing foreigners, but goes down OK with a few grunts and nods. The sushi is awesome, probably the freshest I’ve ever eaten. I was hoping for chuu-toro, but strike out. I make a note to self to look in koji (or tsukiji).. After lunch I go see some art at the museum/library, and find a couple of very nice pics. I realise it’s been a while since I did that kind of cultural stuff (yes, supremely eloquent). They have free internet in the café, so I try to make a plan for today/tomorrow.

I get into a big fight with the Jalan website (which is excellent by the way and was my saviour on many occasions, although to start with, when I could hardly read any of the characters, figuring out what needed to go where in their forms was a bit of a mission..) and it takes ages – I run out of time and have to go get my stuff in order to catch a train to Sapporo, for a weekend of fun around town.

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