My god it’s amazing what an effective pair of ear plugs can do for one’s quality of rest. Between those and a certain acclimatisation to the relentless jangling of the level crossing warning sound, I have had a couple of rather decent nights’ sleep.
Which means this post shall be altogether more cheerful. Hurrah!
Starting with toilet roll. Don’t worry, this shan’t delve too far into the murky depths of bodily functions. It’s just that, our first week in Japan saw us staying in a few different hotels, all of which I noted provided the thinnest, most overly absorbent toilet paper. I did, honestly, wonder if maybe Japanese people didn’t pee so much, so needed less paper. I personally had to roll off about a metre of the stuff to satisfy my own hygienic standards.
But in one public toilet, daughter and I were sharing a cubicle and heard the lady in the next one rolling off sheet after sheet after sheet after sheet of the stuff. Daughter whispered loudly, “That’s a lot of toilet paper!” I nodded and smiled, ridiculously relieved that I wasn’t the only one who found the delicately-thin paper totally inadequate.
Anyway, this week we have been staying in our self-catering apartment, so I’ve been out buying the necessary homeware, and have discovered that proper, thick and padded toilet paper is, in fact, available. So all that thin rubbish is just a short-term, short-sighted economic saving, just like the tracing paper-style stuff – god, do you remember it? – we had to endure in school…
Anyway. Enough about toilet paper.
Would you like to know a bit about what we have been up to? Last week, after a couple of days in Sapporo, we got the train to Noboribetsu, where I failed to enjoy the onsen thanks to daughter’s modesty (see posts passim). Noboribetsu is a wee town up in the mountains of Hokkaido island, a wonderful change of scenery from the cityscapes of Tokyo and Sapporo.
It does, however, stink like rotten eggs, since it’s nestled in volcanic country, and its chief tourist attraction is Hell’s Valley, a moonscape of dips in the mountains with constant exhalations of sulphur from the lava deep underground. It’s a vista both barren and brutally beautiful – alternately snow-covered mountainsides and yellow-stained sweeps of gritty ground. The stench was impressive but I was raised by a man who drinks real ale, so was unfazed.
The next day we caught another train to Hakkodate, which was the first port in Japan to open itself up to the outside world, in the late 19th century, which means that much of its architecture is sort of quaint, colonial style, which reminded me of New England Boston. (I haven’t been to Boston.) Not that I saw much of said architecture – I stayed in the hotel room to write, while husband and children ventured out in the snow and caught a cable car to the top of the hill overlooking this city; son had a pancake aggressively stolen from his very fingers by a crow, and I’m afraid that might be his abiding memory of our entire three months in Japan.)
The proprietor of our hotel – whose décor centred around breeze block walls – was charming and helpful, and told us that there was to be a fireworks display that evening in the harbour, in celebration of something. We never found out what. We walked to the refurbished warehouses at the harbour which are now home to upmarket gift shops, and had dinner in a German beer hall. Well. Yes.
Husband chose pork. I said, “Are you sure you want the pork? It might be undercooked.” (I ought to point out here that husband is obsessed with food hygiene, claims to have suffered food poisoning twice before and has an unholy terror of undercooked meat. And the chicken we have so far encountered in Japan tends to err on the pink side.) Husband persisted with the pork. You know what comes next, right?
After dinner we marched along the busy road along with hordes of other people to watch the beautiful fireworks display over the harbour waters, delighted to have happened upon the city on just such a night. We slipped over the icy pavements back to the hotel and settled down for the night. Until I was woken by husband huffing, puffing and groaning at about two in the morning.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that he had food poisoning and was sick as a dog.
Children slept through the palava, thankfully. Next morning, when the situation was explained to them, which was necessary thanks to husband failing to get up for breakfast (fortunately, since all that was on offer was sushi and other unidentified, uncooked meat and fish), son said, “Mum told you not to have the pork.” I looked away, so as not to inflict my smug expression on still suffering husband.
And then we had a four-and-a-half hour Shinkansen journey back to Tokyo, for which husband does actually deserve a medal, since he heaved himself out of bed and endured the overheated taxi to the train station. Though he did make me carry his luggage.
And this is us ensconced in our Tokyo bolthole, directly above the railway line and level crossing. I love it. It is already our den, and children and I have already explored the winding roads in short distances in every direction, familiarising ourselves with our environment. We have found umpteen grocery shops, a pharmacy, a McDonalds and innumerable other restaurants. Also three parks within walking distance.
Tokyo is quite the the most bonkers, vast and over-populated city I have ever visited. It is a multitude of towns joined together. It is 10 Londons. It is 100 Edinburghs. It is heaving, noisy, jangling with sounds, people and colour. I thought our apartment was urban enough, what with the trains on one side and the main road not far away on the other. But just two stops south on the train and we are in Shibuya – Oxford Street on speed. Just 20 or so minutes on the “circle line” train round the city and we are in the huge Ueno Park, home to a zoo and countless museums and art galleries. Our apartment, it turns out, is in a positively residential area.
Language. This is my current bugbear. I’m furious I can’t understand a word that’s said to me. I can fashion some very basic sentences: “Mizu wa arimasuka?”; “Otoire wa doko desuka?” “Melon soda futatsu okudesai.” But when someone speaks to me? Haven’t the foggiest. I stare blankly until they wave a carrier bag at me, or point at a button on the till screen to confirm I’m old enough to buy alcohol (“Look at this face!” I laughingly said – loudly, like an English person speaking to a foreigner – “This is old!” “I know,” the cashier replied dryly, “but the machine doesn’t,”) and then I work out what they’re saying and respond accordingly.
Will I have picked up any of the language by the time I go home? I really hope so. But maybe only if the Japanese stop being so damn helpful and understanding.