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Trip 13 -- Japan

Message 1: Slipping and slurping from Tokyo to Sapporo

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Sat, 27 Feb 2010 10:36:56
Subject: Japan update #1: Slipping and slurping from Tokyo to Sapporo

"Ride trains and eat" was my response when people asked what I would do in Japan. With a more-persistent-than-usual sushi craving this year and enough American Airlines miles to get me there and back, I declared it time to go. I'd been there once before, singing with the Harvard Glee Club 17 years ago, but I didn't remember it very well. I did, however, still have 6,000 yen left over from that trip. This proved to make things very inconvenient.

Through my friend Philip at American Airlines, I got upgraded to first class on the way over, and to be sure, 2D is a wonderful seat. And it was the first chance I'd had to fully relax in weeks. For 14 hours, my primary responsibilities consisted of watching "Julie and Julia," "Love Happens," and five episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and my biggest challenges were learning what the four "lumbar" buttons were on my seat controls (they had something to do with back support) and figuring out how to pause the video so that I could respond to questions like "Would you like everything with your smoked-salmon canapes -- capers, onions, sour cream?"

"Why, yes, I would," I responded.

"Wait till you see the ice-cream sundaes," Philip's colleague, Debbie, said.

Like the canapes and the salad, the sundaes were brought out on a cart and prepared at my seat. In between was the main course, wasabi-crusted salmon, which was tasty although the wasabi was too subtle for my tongue.

I put my Bose headphones on and thought the plan had suffered engine failure, for I no longer heard the hiss of the engines. I'd never worn noise-canceling headphones on a plane before.

"Lumbar" eluded me, but the "bed" controls were easy enough to figure out -- over a period of 45 seconds the seat would recline, the leg rest would come up, and everything would smush together, allowing me to lie down, separated from the nearest passenger by a wall. I used the restrooms a couple of extra times just so I could make and unmake the bed.

Toward the end of the flight, I put on "Julie and Julia." And just as Julie was burning her first boeuf bourguignon, the first-class cabin started to smell like a pastry shop.

"Now that's some good service," I told Debbie. "I put on a movie about Julia Child, and it smells like a bakery in here."

"I saw what you were watching and made it happen," she said. Then lunch came out: seafood chowder and a freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie.

I had some business to take care of at Narita Airport: buy a train ticket into Tokyo, buy a two-day subway pass for use later in the trip, and activate my Japan Railways Pass. I didn't withdraw cash at the airport as the 6,000 yen I already had would get me into town, and I could get money there.

A three-week JR Pass is a great deal: for 57,700 yen (the price hasn't changed in 13 years), you can ride any JR train, and seat reservations are included. When you consider that a three-hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo to Osaka normally costs more than 13,000 yen, the pass pays for itself quickly.

I'd spent many fun hours on hyperdia.com (a timetable search for Japanese trains) and knew most of the trains I'd want reservations for. The JR agent at Narita copied my list by hand onto a piece of paper, then searched each train in a volume about the size of the Boston phone book, then punched the requests into a computer. A half-hour later I had 24 little reservation tickets -- for all but three trains: one short hop where it would be no problem to ride in a non-reserved car, one overnight train where I'd be taking my chances riding non-reserved, and, most problematic, my last train near the end of the trip, which was to be an overnight from Himeji to Tokyo on the Sunrise Seto and which he said was already full. Worse, there were no non-reserved cars, so I'd have to pay for a costly compartment if I wanted to ride. I decided I'd check back later for cancellations and, if necessary, make other plans.

I thanked him for all his help -- he had been very patient with all those reservations! -- and, as the sun set, headed into Tokyo, where I'd booked the Economy Hotel Hoteiya on the outskirts of town, near where I'd be going the following morning. The room was only 2700 yen, and the hotel featured an elevator the size of a home refrigerator, a sign forbidding singing in the shower, and the sweet smell of barbecued eel.

One bit of research I'd forgotten to do in New York was to figure out where the Citibank branches were in Tokyo. Most foreign bank cards won't work in Japanese ATMs, but they'll work in Citibank ATMs, and that's my bank anyway. They're also supposed to work in ATMs at 7-11 convenience stores. I'd spent most of my 6,000 yen on the hotel room and on the train tickets I'd bought at the airport, so it was time to get money. I asked the hotel manager whether there was a Citibank nearby, and he showed me on a map.

It was about a ten-minute walk, but it turned out to be a different bank, and the ATM had closed just before I'd gotten there. I tried another ATM next door, but it wouldn't read my card. And the two nearby 7-11s' ATMs just spat out my card with a message that said "Service temporarily unavailable." In the end I walked around the entire northeast corner of Tokyo for an hour and a half, unable to get cash.

At the hotel I checked on-line and determined that all the Citibank ATMs were in other parts of Tokyo. I didn't fancy a long trek at 10:00 at night (I was saving my Tokyo exploration for later in the trip!), especially as I'd be leaving the hotel at 5 a.m. to catch a train. All I wanted was dinner.

I did some calculations. I had 1192 yen. If I spent 1000 on dinner (or found one of the few places that took credit cards), I'd be able to afford the entrance fee at a house I intended to visit the following morning, and then I could get money when I arrived in Nikko in the afternoon -- assuming I could find a place to take my card.

I found a little restaurant and had two 500-yen plates of sashimi: tuna and some beautifully colored mackerel. I apologized for not ordering more, and I had to forgo sake. I returned to the hotel and went up the tiny elevator, and I was soon asleep.

My first destination was Mito, about 90 minutes from Tokyo by train (plus a 30-minute walk) and the location of the gorgeous Kairaku-en, one of Japan's top three gardens. The name means "to share pleasure with people," and Nakari Tokugawa, the ninth lord of Mito, built the garden in 1841-42 as a public park. He also built the Kobuntei, an elegant house with sweeping vistas over the nearby lake and hills. He used the house for entertaining and for meditation. The house's entry fee of 190 yen left me with just two yen to my name (not enough, alas, for any of the tasty snacks available from the food stalls).

Kairaku-en's annual plum-blossom festival had just begun. The plum blossoms had started to bloom -- some white, some pink. Having gotten there early, for a while I had those plum trees mostly to myself, as well as the shrines and the forests of cedars and tall, straight-as-arrows bamboo. Some cartoonish signs were posted: One required that you pick up after your dog, provided the droppings were the shape of perfect three-tier soft-serve ice cream; one showed a large dog flanked by a terrified woman, cat, and car (were big dogs banned from the park?); and one showed a boy running from a dog and a cat in a box. What could that mean? Don't abandon your pets?

By the time I'd completed my stroll through the park, it was getting crowded, and I sat down for a short koto (13-string zither) concert. The five players played mostly in unison, but eventually they broke into counterpoint and filled the garden with energetic song.

What a glorious scene! People had flocked to the garden just as they had for 168 years, to enjoy the views, the music, the cool air, and the first signs of spring from the plum blossoms. I left the garden and walked along the lake, listening to the singing of the black and white swans, and watching people ride their bicycles and walk their dogs.

I'd budgeted extra time for the garden and was finished early, so I took an earlier train back to Tokyo. This gave me just enough time before a connecting train to rush around Otemachi (Tokyo's main financial district) in search of a Citibank, which I eventually stumbled upon, thanks to a little help from the clerks in a post office. I put the card into an ATM and soon heard the comforting whir of money spitting out of the machine. "Arigato gozaimashita," the ATM said as I removed my card and money.

Normally I hate when machines talk to me, but this time I didn't mind. "Arigato gozaimashita!" I yelled back, and I ran back to the station.

The Nikko Narusawa Lodge is a little far from the center of things in Nikko, but it's up in the hills above the train station, and I'd chosen it partly for the price (3675 yen) and partly because the Web site had pictures of the owners' dog, Bea-ta, of whom I had a good view from my second-floor terrace. I arrived too late in the day to get to Nikko's famous temples and shrines, but I had time to visit the Nikko Woodcarving Center and try the local brew, Nikko Beer. Then I took the long walk into town.

The streets were nearly deserted as the sun set. I took a long walk out to the Gamman-Ga-Fuchi Abyss, where a pathway is lined with hundreds of protective Buddhist statues. It was dark as I headed back into town, and the streets were unlit, winding, freezing, and slippery with ice. I ascended the hills containing the temples and shrines, ultimately seeking Gyoshintei, a renowned serene spot for dinner.

It was around this time, as I traipsed through the slush and ice in the dark, that I realized there was a hole in the bottom of my left shoe. I've had these slip-on Merrells for three or four years -- they've gone through cave rivers and up volcanoes and, as my grandmother would have said, they didn't owe me anything. But this was a particularly imprudent time for them to give out. I plugged the hole with a plastic bag and hoped I could find something to replace them in Sapporo.

It took about an hour to find Gyoshintei, after climbing a lot of hills, acquiring a lot of ice in my shoe, and veering to the side to allow the occasional car to pass. I took off my shoes and sat on the tatami floor for a beautiful set meal featuring the local specialty called yuba (tofu skin). Part of Gyoshintei's charm was supposed to be its setting next to a garden, but all I could see in the window was the reflection of the interior lights. Still, it was a delicious, comforting meal, a nice respite from the cold.

Before I left, I used the restroom. I entered the stall and the seat lifted automatically. There was a console with buttons designed to summon various patterns and strengths of spray, should I need them -- this is fairly standard in Japan. And a blue light illuminated the bowl, lest I have any misgivings regarding my intended trajectory. Frankly, I wish they'd focus their lighting efforts on the dark, icy streets instead.

It was a long, desolate 30-minute walk back to the Narusawa Lodge. I saw only a couple of people on the streets, and indeed, I'd been one of only three parties at Gyoshintei. If Nikko was becoming overcrowded, as my guidebook made it out to be, I didn't notice.

I got an early start to the temples and shrines: Renno-ji, a 1200-year-old temple featuring three giant wooden Buddhas and paintings of the Gohan-shiki ("Nikko torment," in which high-ranking officials were forced to eat huge amounts of rice to reverse any misfortunes); Tosho-gu, a Shinto shrine complex with storehouses, buildings with beautiful paintings, one especially gaudy gate, and Nemuri-Neko (Japan's famous wooden sleeping cat); and several other shrines and tombs. Part of the appeal, of course, was the setting, on hills with tall cedars.

Near Renno-ji, behind the Treasure House, was a small, quite perfect garden. It featured snow-covered trees, a pond partly covered with ice, a bamboo bridge, and a little pagoda on a rock jutting into the pond. The sky was overcast but the sun was almost peeking through. Behind all this were the mountains surrounding Nikko. There was no color, but the shades of white and gray made this the setting that would inspire the perfect calligraphy painting.

On my way north, I stopped for a truly bizarre dinner in Morioka -- more about that later -- but first I took care of a couple of things at Morioka Station. I needed to call the place I'd be staying the following night and ask them to pick me up at the train station. I put a coin in the pay phone and just got someone on the other end when the phone cut me off. I put a larger coin in and the person on the other end found someone who spoke English, and I made my situation known, and then I got cut off. I ran to a store to get change and then made the call again. The first guy was back on the line and by the time he got the English-speaking woman I was cut off again. Finally, after four tries, I was able to arrange the pick-up and have a polite good-bye without having the call terminated.

I also went to the JR ticket office to check on getting a reservation for that Sunrise Seto from Himeji to Tokyo at the end of my trip. It was still full, but I'd checked on another series of trains. Were they available? No -- the overnight would have its last run on March 12, and I needed to go on March 13.

"Is there another train from Himeji that will get me to Tokyo the morning of March 14?" I asked.

The agent punched in some information and immediately presented me with a reservation for the Sunrise Izumi, which had exactly the same schedule as the Sunrise Seto -- departing Himeji at 11:35 p.m. (just before my JR Pass would expire!) and arriving at 7:08 the following morning. Now, I don't know why there are two differently-named trains running on the same route with the same schedule, and of course I'm skeptical whether they're really two different trains -- we shall see -- but at last I had all the essential reservations of my trip.

Morioka has few attractions, apart from a shrine, a park, and the 300-year-old "rock-splitting cherry tree," which grew out of a crack in a large rock but, according to legend, pushed through the rock from below. Sadly, the netting surrounding the tree's lower parts dulled the visual effects of this phenomenon.

Wanko-soba in Morioka has to rank as one of my strangest-ever dining experiences. I had to wait 30 minutes after entering, even though there were other diners eating and plenty of open spaces. This, I learned, is because my own server would stay at my table throughout my meal.

I was seated alone on the floor in my own room, with sliding doors. A waitress brought soba accompaniments -- salmon roe, pickled vegetables, nori, scallions -- and a large bowl to dump my unused soba broth into. I was also brought a box of matches, which were used for counting the bowls of soba I ate. Then I waited for the frenzy to begin.

The waitress gave me one bowl of soba, and then she brought out a tray of 15 more bowls, each containing about a mouthful and a half of noodles. After I finished my bowl, I raised it so that she could dump another bowl's contents into it. And we repeated this process speedily and noisily, until I'd finished all 15 bowls on her tray. Then she went and got another tray.

Usually I took a little bit of one of the accompaniments and added it to each bite, but sometimes I just ate the noodles plain. At full speed I was eating about four bowls a minute, with rhythmic scooping and slurping. The meal was tasty, if a little monotonous, even with the various side dishes. After about 80 bowls I hit soba fatigue, but I kept going.

I declared the meal over after 102 bowls. I was full but not stuffed, and with a 22-minute brisk walk to Morioka Station and about 16 hours of train rides ahead of me, I hoped not to feel awful. Besides, I wasn't anywhere close to the record of 559 bowls!

Well, I don't know whether soba contains tryptophan or they pump it into the air in Morioka, but I've rarely slept so well. I slept the hour from Morioka to Hachinohe, and then from Hachinohe to Aomori on the next train (I almost slept through my stop). For the seven-hour overnight train from Aomori to Sapporo I had a "carpet" seat -- a space on the floor with a blanket and a thin curtain between me and the next passenger. I tried, to no avail, to stay awake until we entered the Seikan Tunnel, which at almost 54 kilometers is the world's longest and deepest railway tunnel (about 3 kilometers longer than the Chunnel). I got a breath of fresh air during the hour layover in Sapporo and then slept almost another four hours to Kushiro.

I had just over half an hour in Kushiro and, too late, discovered a wonderful fish market. It was an indoor space with dozens of vendors selling dried and fresh fish and sushi; most noticeable were the large crabs. I picked up some marinated dried octopus, an addictive snack, but I wished I'd had time to peruse the offerings more closely.

I hurried back to Kushiro Station and discovered that the train I'd planned to take to Mashu no longer ran -- I'd have to wait a half-hour for the next one (and call the guest house again to revise my arrival time). This train was just one car, and it puttered along through snowy fields and forests, past station houses that were tiny log cabins. Most stations seemed far from any road or house, and some were so under-used that the conductor didn't even bother opening the train doors, since no one was getting on or off.

A driver from the Kussharogenya Guest House picked me up as promised. The guest house looked like a large wooden pyramid that descended from space, and it was run by a friendly family. One of the sentences on its Web site read, "If there is a thing needing a thing, the hot water which a retortable pouch or convenience food want to warm, I cope." This is how I talk sometimes! Clearly this would be a good place to stay.

I took a walk to Kussharo-ko, one of several lakes nearby, where I stopped into the one restaurant and had a snack of ruibe sashimi -- supposedly an Ainu (indigenous people of northern Japan) specialty of frozen salmon, but the appeal was lost on me because the coldness made the texture rubbery and the taste dull. Upon leaving, I slipped and fell on the ice -- I'm surprised this hasn't happened more often! Then I sat in a hot spring, watching about 100 noisy geese clustered in the one part of the lake that wasn't frozen over. Soon a man came by and tossed food pellets all over them, and he played soft music on a small wind instrument while they ate.

Dinner at the guest house felt like a small family gathering. There was soft string music playing, and the owners and a couple of the other guests took turns at darts. Then the four guests -- an Italian couple, a man from Osaka, and I -- were called to the table for octopus carpaccio, chawanmushi (custard with ham), yakitori, and dessert custard. After dinner they popped popcorn and put the Olympics on TV.

Breakfast consisted of marinated fish, fish tails, pickled vegetables, egg, miso soup, and my nemesis in Japanese food: natto (fermented soy beans). I'd tried it on my last trip and found it perfectly vile, but I was ready to try it again. A woman at the guest house showed me how to mix it with mustard and soy sauce and eat it with rice.

I still couldn't stand it. My problem wasn't so much with the taste (it's almost tasteless but has the faint hint of sour baked beans that sat in the refrigerator for too many weeks), but rather with the texture. It was like eating one of those spider webs that you walk into and can't get off your body. I took a bite and instantly had a gooey strand from my mouth to the chopsticks to the rice bowl, and then I took a bite of something else and the strand extended to my main plate. I pulled the strand away with my hand, but the effect was temporary. Every time I ate rice afterward, the strand came back and the rice lost its flavor.

I had a short walk around the woods after breakfast, saying hello to people and their playful dogs, and then I was driven back to Mashu. I reached Abashiri in two stages: first a train to Shiretoko-shari, a continuation of the line I'd ridden the day before. This one was crowded, so I stood at the front of the car, near the driver. What a splendid forward view to have of these forests and snow! Clearly other people agreed with me, as I was soon joined up front by people taking pictures. I also started to wonder what kind of maintenance went into keeping all the tracks clear of snow.

The second train was the special "Ice Norokko," which runs just twice a day in winter. It's part of the same line, but the cars are equipped with coal burners to keep the passengers warm and to provide space for grilling squid and fish. From time to time a JR employee would come and shovel more coal into the burner. The cars were festooned with stuffed animals, including a giant bear at the front. And the seats on the north side of the train faced out, allowing a beautiful view of the Sea of Okhotsk.

My main goal in Abashiri was to take one of the Aurora "icebreaker" cruises that head out into the ice-choked Sea of Okhotsk, but either due to global warming or because it was the wrong time of winter, there was no ice to be seen. There was plenty else to do in Abashiri, though, such as visit the Abashiri Prison Museum. The prison was founded in 1890 to stave off threats of attacks from czarist Russia: Prisoners were brought from other parts of Japan to build roads and infrastructure around Hokkaido. The self-sustaining prison also contained farms that taught the inmates how to maintain animals and crops, giving them skills to be used once they were released. It can't have been fun working outdoors all day in the ice and snow! This prison was in use until the 1980s, when a new prison was built nearby.

Another interesting attraction was the Museum of Northern Peoples, which compared the lives of the Ainu with those of other northern ethnic groups such as the indigenous inhabitants of Siberia, Greenland, and Alaska. Now, this part of Hokkaido isn't that far north -- it's about the same latitude as Milwaukee or Munich -- but then again, the northernmost part of Hokkaido is only about 60 kilometers from Sakhalin Island in Russia, so the comparison is apt. There are definite similarities in the way they build semi-subterranean homes and preserve food for winter by drying or smoking it.

After the museums closed, I had a little walk around the town. It was virtually deserted -- it felt like midnight even though it was only about 6:00. It was well below freezing, and the sidewalks were thick sheets of ice. During those rare stretches where patches of sidewalk had been cleared, it was a step down of a few inches, and then back up when the ice resumed. Abashiri had one main shopping street, but no one was doing any shopping. I was, it seemed, the only one foolish enough to be outside!

I had dinner at a sushi place called Murakami, where I was the only diner. I sat at the sushi bar and watched the Olympics with the sushi chef and the waitress, and I had the special "Okhotsk" set, of which my favorite was the scallops. Then I went to the location of Abashiri Beer for a raw-beef salad and a tasting of the three beers (pilsner, white, and dark). There was one other party, but it still felt like a lonely experience, and I wondered how all these restaurants stayed in business through the winter.

There were plenty of people in Sapporo, though! I checked into the Toyoko Inn near Susukino, Sapporo's main restaurant and entertainment area. This was a good-value hotel with a clean, compact room offering good views of the lights of Susukino.

Sapporo doesn't have that many attractions, especially in winter when the botanical gardens are closed, but there's still enough to do. First, I bought new shoes, and even in a big city such as Sapporo it was hard to find shoes for big Western-size feet. I eventually found black Nikes that were on sale and was happy to be able to walk outside without getting my feet wet.

No, people don't come to Sapporo for the museums or historical buildings -- in fact, Sapporo's such a new city that it's built on a grid system and all the addresses are given as points on the grid. But people do come to Sapporo to eat and drink.

My first lunch was at the Nijo fish market, a small space with a few dozen vendors. Somehow it didn't have the frenzy I hoped for, though, and not many of the stalls had places for eating -- but I did have a good set meal with salmon roe, sea urchin, scallops, tuna and salmon sashimi, and crab miso soup.

Hokkaido waters are known for their crabs, and after much persuasion, I got to eat many of them for dinner. I hoped to eat at Ebi-Kani Gassen, which offered an all-you-can-eat-in-90-minutes option (with an all-you-can-drink supplement!). It's on the 12th floor and thus has great views of Susukino.

But the hostess told me the all-you-can-eat deals were only for parties of two or more.

I worked up what I hoped would be a polite, stubborn charm. "Please? Do you have anyone I can eat with, then?"

And to my amazement, she found someone. She summoned another diner who spoke English. "She says the all-you-can-eat is only for two people or more," the diner said.

"Well, that's a little unfair, don't you think? I didn't bring anyone to Japan with me."

"Would you like to join me and my husband? We've just started."

"Really? I'd love to, but I don't want to bother you."

"It's no problem."

But there was a problem: They hadn't gotten the option that included the hairy crabs, which were the ones I was unfamiliar with and thus most wanted to try. And everyone at the table had to order the same set. (This rule I actually agreed with, since the sets were priced differently.)

"You don't like hairy crabs?" I asked her.

"There's too much fat inside."

I stood for a moment, thinking, wondering whether to run from a place with oppressive rules or stick it out and hope that things would change.

And then things changed. The hostess said something to the other diner. "She says you can sit at that table over there and order the all-you-can-eat, and you can get this option," she said, pointing to the menu I wanted. "Just this once they'll make an exception." But don't you ever try something as sketchy as this again, she implied.

"Oh, thank you! I really appreciate your help," I said, feeling as though I'd gotten away with a high-stakes bank robbery. "And next time I'll bring my girlfriend and tell her what a wonderful place this is."

I was glad I'd persisted. I had the three-crab menu: king-crab legs, snow-crab legs, and whole hairy crabs. They brought a large pair of scissors, rather than a mallet, for dismantling the crabs. The sweet snow crabs I was familiar with, and the firm king crabs were the tastiest -- the only ones that made me sit back, sigh, and thank God to be alive. The hairy crabs were new to me: They really were covered with hair, and under all that hair were the spines (I've got the scars on my fingers to prove it!). They were similar to the crabs I grew up eating during visits to Florida -- the kind that you open with a "key" and that ooze wonderful orange innards. The meat itself wasn't as tasty as the other crabs', but the experience was worth it.

And the more I thought about it, the more I was right to be stubborn. It was just as easy to bring out one plate with a requested number of crabs as to bring out two. Why exclude single diners? Also, while the restaurant was almost full when I'd entered, I was the last diner to leave. Wouldn't they rather have my business?

I walked around after dinner, marveling at the anatomy of entertainment districts in Japanese cities. Each building's lobby has a directory showing the several (or sometimes even just one) establishments on each floor. Sometimes the directory is also outside, and you crane your neck up to see what kind of places are contained within. They're mostly little bars or restaurants, some with just a few seats, or sometimes they're hair salons or other small businesses. One building near my hotel, for instance, had bars called Passion, The Nikka Bar, Bar Night Kids, Bar Origin, and Club Mode (For Women to Gaiety Scene).

There's usually just one little elevator serving all nine or ten floors. You get off at one of the upper floors and there's a short hallway with a couple of doors on each side, each marked with the name of the bar but not always giving any hint what kind of place it is. Curious, you pick one and step in, and if it's a quiet place your presence will surely be noticed, but you will be greeted politely. You try to surmise in a couple of seconds whether it's the kind of place where you want to stay for a while.

I had fun just riding up and down elevators, looking for a quiet place for a drink. I found one place with a few empty bar stools, and I sat and had a beer -- and then the bartenders did a short acrobatics act, juggling bottles and eating fire.

I went into another building and into another place on a high floor, hoping to sit with a drink and enjoy the views of Susukino. I opened the door and was greeted by a well-dressed man. This was a swanky place! It had plush seating, pretty lighting, even a white baby-grand piano.

Then the man told me there would be a 10,000-yen charge to stay for an hour. This included drinks and one woman.

The woman was about my age, maybe a little older, and she spoke very good English. She put her arm around me and led me toward the front stools with the sweeping views. "Where are you from?"

"The United States. What about you?"

"I'm from the Philippines."

"My best friend is from the Philippines! What part?"

"Manila. I'll be going there in a couple of weeks."

"You have a piano here? I'm a pianist."

"Oh, really?" she said, trying to seat me.

"Oh, thank you, but right now I just want to sit somewhere with a drink and read for a while." Trying to make a smooth exit, I said, "Maybe I'll come back tomorrow."

"I hope so," she said, and she handed me a card with her phone number in case I couldn't wait that long.

A bar called the Electric Sheep had what I was looking for. It was cater-corner from my hotel, on the top floor, and it was bustling but quiet enough. I enjoyed a few of their special drinks made with yuzu (a citrus fruit a little like a grapefruit but smaller) and then went back to the Toyoko Inn and had a good rest.

The next morning I took the subway out to the suburb of Makomanai, which has an attractive birch park containing the Sapporo Salmon Museum -- or the colorful Living Museum of the Toyohira Salmon, as the signs have it. The introductory exhibit detailed the life cycle of Hokkaido-area salmon, which begin their lives as those delicious orange eggs; then, at adulthood, they swim all the way to the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, where they spend most of their lives; and finally they return to Japan to spawn and die.

But best of all, the museum had tanks containing live salmon in various stages of life -- some that were just eggs; some that had sprouted little heads and tails but still carried the former egg sac, which contained nutrients; some that were just an inch long but could swim; and some that were nearing adulthood.

I tried to walk through Makomanai Park back to the subway, but the deep snow made it impossible. I took the subway north to the other highlight of the day: the Sapporo Beer Garden. The original Sapporo brewery, dating from 1876, now houses a museum describing the origins of the brewery and the steps in making beer; most interesting were the old posters and TV ads.

And of course it's a great place to have a meal. The main restaurant is in a rustic setting in one building of the old brewery, and I had the "Ghenghis Khan": a Sapporo specialty of grill-at-your-table lamb, cabbage, and onion. I had to go for the all-you-can-eat-and-drink-in-100-minutes option here, too -- it's always a challenge and I always make it worth it! There were two kinds of lamb, fresh and frozen. The fresh was sweeter and tenderer, almost like beef. The frozen tasted, well, more like lamb. Both were delicious. And I had half-liter mugs of the four beers: Sapporo Classic (probably the tastiest), basic Sapporo (a little lighter than I like), Yebisu (a little fizzier), and Yebisu Black (not quite as full-tasting as I expected of a dark beer).

I didn't last much more than an hour. Part of the problem of these all-you-can-eat deals is that they focus on one kind of dish, so there was no respite from the lamb here, or the crab the night before, or the noodles in Morioka. And another problem is the time limit -- moot if the food monotony takes over, but I could have had a couple more crabs the other night if I'd had more time. (These are problems I didn't have to contend with at the five-hour, three-restaurant JW Marriott brunch buffet in Dubai, which remains by far my most body-punishing food experience to date -- but I keep looking for something to surpass it!)

Back in town, I had a couple of hours to kill before getting on the overnight train leaving Hokkaido. I took a few more of those little elevators up into buildings. I didn't want any alcohol, but a cup of cocoa would have been nice -- and I found it at a place called the Secret Garden, which had its menu posted outside. There were just a few white bar seats and one small back room. The floral decorations around the restaurant (and on some of the patrons) suggested that they don't get many male patrons, but they served me politely, and it was a nice place to while away some time.

I was sad to leave Sapporo -- I could easily have hung out there for a few more days, exploring more tiny elevators and poking my head in little bars and restaurants. I tried to think whether there was anything like that in Manhattan and the only thing that came to mind was the buildings on 32nd Street in Koreatown. I seem to recall doing karaoke on the seventh or eighth floor of one of them recently, and come to think of it, a lot of them do have directories and little elevators. Looks like I'll have some exploring to do when I get home.

Cheers,
Seth

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