Bikes and fresh seafood/Sapporo is number one/the journey begun
We land in Sapporo at 9pm local time. The airport is nearly empty and we make it quickly to baggage claim to retrieve our bike boxes and duffel bags. Women in uniforms with skirts are attempting to remove our items from the carousel and we run to take over. They smile and bow. We load a cart and head to immigration. There is no line. “Konbongwa” (good evening). The officers are curious about our bags, “Military?”. I respond, “No we bought these from an army surplus store.” “Where?” “Chicago”. “Oooooh”. Points to the boxes “These?”. Jason air rides, “Bicycles.” Astonished expressions from both officers seem to come from a place part awe, part suspicion. We are asked to open a box and when we do one of the officers practically jumps back. Many “oooohs” and “aaaahs”. They are impressed and we explain best we can our route. No doubt they find us interesting and seem to be satisfying their own curiosity more than anything else. Apparently sated, they gesture to close the box and thank us. “Gambate” which we will find out later means “good luck”, “go for it” or “try your best”.
At the train underground ticket machines are straight forward but we confirm with the information desk. It’s late enough that we don’t need to pay for a reserved seat. It costs about $34 total for the two of us. The cart left behind, we haul our things onto the train car and tuck best we can into a corner. Jason wants to confirm that our destination, Sapporo Station, is the one called “Sapporo” and not “Shin-Sapporo”. “Sumimasen” (excuse me). He points to the map “Sapporo Station?”. They are polite but seem unsure. Nearby a young woman chimes in, “Do you need help? Where are you going?”. I sit next to her and she directs me. Ours is the stop after hers. We begin to talk about where we are going and where she is from. She is home from university in Aomori visiting family. Aomori is where our ferry will land when we leave Hokkaido, the island we are now on, just north of the main island. She feels like an old friend. She smiles easily and expresses excitement for our adventure. She has an open heart and love for life. This is my first opportunity to give a name card with both hands. This is customary in Japan among business associates but I have designed and screen printed cards for Jason and I specific to our journey. She pronounces our names from the kanji. Her name is Natsumi. She tells me the typhoons are coming late this year and hopes for us good weather. We reach her stop and exchange well wishes.
Jason and I depart soon after. We can feel the weight of the hours and our luggage as we make our way out of the station. We have been in transit for 34 hours since leaving Chicago. We step out into the night. We are in Japan.
We convince the suited taxi driver that our things will fit, or does he convince us? A bungee cord is employed. $6.50 (about 650 yen) to get three blocks to the APA Hotel. We would have paid $100. Well, maybe not. He does not accept our tip and we soon read that tipping is not customary and can even be seen as offensive. Instead we give arigatos freely throughout our trip.
We wake the next morning but I do not remember this. Sapporo station is again our destination but for a highly recommended onigiri shop, Arinko, for breakfast. Jason has made these triangular rice balls filled with bonito flakes, boiled egg, tuna or other various ingredients and finally wrapped in seaweed. They are like sandwiches-an easy lunch to take with you. Arinko is tiny and you can see the women assembling the onigiri “with love”, as the sign indicates. Jason takes note of their technique.
We take our macha lattes, soup and onigiri to a university campus nearby. The peaceful grounds whisper to me to attend school again. There is a bench by a shallow brook amongst trees and grass. A student practices the recorder on a rock by the water. Crows everywhere here caw a distinct and nasally “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
We walk more of the campus observing bike lanes, greenhouses, and students playing tennis. Clouds roll in. We make it to the hotel just as the rain begins. Time to assemble bikes.
Once Jason’s bike is complete, he is tasked with getting us a late lunch and tracking down the location of the wi-fi hot spot from Global Advanced Systems delivered to the wrong APA hotel in Sapporo. While he is gone it arrives. The mail system runs with an efficiency we will never know in the US.
Assembling my own bike with OOIOO playing in the background fills me with joy (OOIOO is a Japanese noise rock band introduced to me some time ago by my ever hip friend, David).
So, too, does the assistance of distant acquaintances and the magic of kismet. One logistic we had been met with by mostly dead ends or expensive solutions was how to forward and store for the month our empty bike boxes and duffel bags. Then, just three days before our trip, I attended a Rapha-sponsored group ride in Chicago, organized in part by our friend and current pet sitter, Mia. As I waited for my espresso from the Rapha-mobile before the ride, the barista pitched the new store and club house opening in Chicago and mentioned the world-wide membership and locations. I asked about club houses in Japan. There are two. Geoff, who was standing next to me and who I am meeting for the first time, starts talking about racing cyclocross in Japan. He was also stationed there for some time in the military. I tell him about my trip and he offers to introduce me to his cycling contacts in Japan. He comes through and for this I owe him many domos. Daisuke, from Osaka’s Rapha club house and whom Geoff spoke highly of, generously offers to store our things for the month.
After assembling my bike I call Rapha Osaka and speak with Takashi. I can hear his smile and trepidation through the receiver. The club house is small and with little storage but Daisuke is “the boss” and what he says goes. Takashi says he will confirm the plan with Daisuke who is not at work today. As an aside, it is Respect for the Aged Day. Within moments of hanging up the phone Daisuke sends me a message with the address of the employee who will receive and store our things while we travel. The cycling community is strong and knows no boundaries. I feel privileged to be a part. There are not enough arigatos.
Jason returns with okonomiyaki which is a savory pancake smothered in sweet okanamiyaki sauce and mayo. This one is shrimp and pork. It is from a highly recommended restaurant in, again, Sapporo Station called Fugetsu. I would be happy to “fugetaboutit”. Well that’s harsh, but funny, right? Jason says I am not being fair to Japanese street food and he’s probably right. But while it satisfied my empty belly it was a bit much at the time. Too much sauce. Hungover I’d probably pay to have it shipped to Chicago.
We finish setting up my bike and taking care of other logistics. Hours have passed and it’s time to get a bike lock and head to dinner for donburi, which translates to “rice bowl”. We want Kaisan Don, seafood rice bowl, specifically toro (fatty tuna) and uni (sea urchin) which Sapporo is famous for. We do not want to eat a third meal from Sapporo Station, though this is where the hotel staff first recommends. We tell him we have a bike and can travel. He immediately directs us to Kita No Gourmet at the Curb Market or Jyogai Ichiba. He also locates a bike shop that is still open at 7pm, Wolfgang. We’ll start there.
We head out on our maiden voyage via bike. Constant reminders to ride on the left are exchanged between the two of us. Wolfgang is a small custom shop. The owner emerges from the clutter, stepping over and on bike tires. We buy a lock and Jason exchanges name cards with the owner. He pronounces our names from the kanji. This will never get old for me. Jason, remarkably, planned our entire trip. I owe him so much for this. My one contribution of making these name cards, however, has had a great impact on our experience in Japan. I know we both feel a sense of pride taking part in this custom. It connects us to the people we meet in a more profound way. Natsumi, the woman from the train, and I email one another throughout the trip.
On to Kita No Gourmet. We ride 15 minutes through dark streets before turning a corner to a very lit up seafood market. This strip must be full of energy during the day. It is empty now. We ascend the stairs to the left of the market and find ourselves at the location of a truly special meal. This is the splurge our good friend Suzi back home has afforded us with a gift of Yen.
The uni is sweet and not slimy but almost paste-like the way it spreads over the tongue. Unctuous. The toro is fatty and marbled like steak. We indulge. This is Japan. We are here at 8 and the place closes at 9. I observe the chef cleaning his work station with the same care and reverence with which he must have prepared our meal; a meal I will forever chase in dreams.