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.

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