I thought it was strange that the little baggage car towing, golf cart-like, vehicle-etts had snow plows on them when I first flew into Sapporo. It made a little more sense the next time, as there was some fresh tracks to be had in the few inches of snow on the tarmac. I am still perplexed as to how much snow those little carts can really push, but then again I am not one who can speak to the low-end torque or all-terrain specifications of airport equipment. And if I put all my energy into trying to explain other aspects Japan that perplex me, then I would simply explode. But as we landed on this snowy runway, in an amount of snow that would close schools in many major cities, I was in for a night of travel experiences. A night, as I have come to realize, would end up encompassing overall travel in Japan fairly well. This night of awkward encounters, polite refusals, and a few unplanned changes ends up a great example of what someone might be able to expect from a journey to Japan.
My brother and I were on our way to Rusutsu Resort to film a promotional video focusing on their deep and light powder. We had just been skiing in Hakuba where our original companion had broken his knee cap and so we abandoned him and carried on to Rusutsu. Another friend, George, was convinced to buy a last minute ticket to Japan to meet us and help film. But, for now, Jake and I were stuck in Tokyo's Haneda airport while George flew through Narita (Tokyo's main hub) and on to Sapporo. This was that moment that many travelers to Japan have: it is when they realize that Tokyo has two main airports and the rest of their group is at the other one. No worries, we'll all meet at Rusutsu. Well, maybe not. A snowstorm in Sapporo delayed all incoming flights except for the one George was on. So, Jake and I waited, we people watched, and were treated to a crash course on oversized baggage on Japanese low-cost air carriers.
Our ski bags were meticulously measured so they could be sure the 200cm bags were in fact over the 80cm limit. They were measured again. We were told they would not fit. We were given the 'X' (forearms raised and crossed, the non-verbal Japanese symbol to a foreigner that means 'NO') the first of many an 'X' directed our way this evening.
There was some very deep thinking on the part of the desk agent and then a solution! We paid a set amount of yen for the oversized bag and the bag could then fit in the plane. I thought this was a standard solution to oversized bags, but the airline desk agent was fatigued after coming up with the answer to our predicament and demonstrating via tape measure, hand signals, and a price chart, the reasoning behind our increased fare.
The hours moved along and apparently so too did the storm in Sapporo, until eventually our flight boarded, flew and landed at New Chitose Airport on the Island of Hokkaido. The snowy tarmac as mentioned above.
Rusutsu Resort has a shuttle bus that runs from the airport to the resort, but we had long since missed that shuttle during the weather delay. It was getting late, maybe 11 pm, but Sapporo is a city of 2 million people and the New Chitose Airport is rather large as a result. I assumed that we would have no trouble finding a way to Rusutsu or maybe some budget lodging or at the very least a corner of the airport to crash until the next shuttle in the morning. I was certainly mistaken.
The airport is not in the city of Sapporo and by the time we got our bags the last train to Sapporo had left. The last bus to sapporo had left even longer ago, and everyone in the airport had also left except for one lady at the information desk and a dutiful security guard.
Our first question at the information desk was, "how can we get to Rusutsu?" and we got a definitive 'X' that we interpreted as "you can't."
Next, we inquired about getting to Sapporo to stay the night and it seems that a taxi was our only option, if we could fit ourselves and our stuff into one.
Actually, even better, there was a hostel-like set up in the airport that offered $30 beds for the night, the lady pointed out on a brochure. Perfect! We lugged our stuff up and up to this hotel/hostel/sweaty layover-snore-factory only to find out it was shut tight and with no vacancies. That's what I imagine they would have said if someone would have opened the door for us. Instead we just got more 'X' from behind a glass barrier.
Well, it wasn't going to be too bad to just occupy a corner of the sprawling airport and get some floor sleep until morning; it's been done many times before, and this is a large and quiet airport with some nice nooks to sleep in. The only problem it turns out is that you are not allowed to sleep in the Sapporo airport and the lone night security guard had caught on to the foreigner's inherent desire to sleep in airports, or just break the rules that the Japanese had in place. Whatever his past experience with pesky airport-sleepers, this guard was on to us, and he was armed with an unbelievable loyalty to his sworn duty, an intense distrust of airport-sleepers, and a never ending supply of the 'X.'
This was not an aggressive man, I have yet to encounter an aggressive Japanese person, but he was intent on not letting us escape him and steel some sleep. Escape would have been difficult anyway with our ski bags and large rolling duffels. So, for a little while we shuffled around the empty halls of New Chitose International Airport and the security guard wandered behind at a safe distance. It was a very, very slow-motion chase scene that didn't give the impression of a chase at all. From an outside perspective it could have looked like we were a group of three lost in the airport, and while we wandered around one member of our group, dressed up like a security guard, lagged behind because he was upset with us.
This was getting old. At some point we just had to cut our losses and try to get to Rusutsu that night. Downtown Sapporo is out of the way and then we'd still have to get to Rusutsu the next morning. We decided to swallow our pride and call a taxi.
The Taxis in Japan are just like everything else in the country: built for providing the customer with a high level of service, operated with pride, and of course miniature. All Japanese taxi drivers wear white gloves and the rear doors are connected to a lever so that the driver can open and close them for you from his seat. The meters are always used and no matter how many taxis you ride in Japan, you will never be ripped off or cheated. In fact, a simple taxi ride in Japan can lend great insight into how the entire culture operates; clean, safe, functional and with an emphasis on hospitality, honest, miniaturized (except for the amount of snow), and utterly confused when faced with loud foreigners and their very much NOT compact amount of luggage.
It seemed normal at the time for a taxi to be waiting outside of the airport, but in hindsight I see that this one taxi had already been called for us by the lady at the information desk before she left for the night. She knew we weren't going to be sleeping in the airport that night and I don't know how long this taxi driver waited for us to wander around, but he was still waiting when we emerged to see if any taxis were around. Just one taxi, on otherwise empty, snow covered roads, in the dark.
Initially, the taxi driver wanted to tell us that our gear wouldn't fit, however this might seem rude on his part, so instead we all stared at the pile of odd-shaped bags lying in the snow next to the little car with clean white seat covers and little fluffy objects dangling everywhere. As is the case most often when traveling in Japan, someone has to take charge, even if a few cultural norms are broken in the process. Whether this means being the first to walk away from an awkward conversation because it ended long ago and the other participant feels obligated to stick around out of politeness, or rearranging a taxi to fit your ski stuff, navigating Japan will be more difficult if you wait for a decision to be made. In this case, we reclined the passenger seat for one ski bag and rolled down the back windows so the other ski bag could stick out each side like it had impaled the taxi. One big duffel and backpacks fit in the trunk and the other duffel squished onto the back seat. Jake and I curled under the perpendicular and protruding ski bag and inhaled as we clicked the door shut to demonstrate that we could fit. We were in, and shortly thereafter off on a two-wheel drive journey through the snow to Rusutsu.
I didn't see much of the ride. We slid around a bunch and needed a few tries to make it up some short inclines. Nothing too crazy and nothing that our driver couldn't handle. As it turns out, If you drive a taxi on the island of Hokkaido, then you know how to drive in snow. I suppose if you drive a taxi in any major Japanese city then you can also drive in crowds. So, this man could drive well. Anyway, two hours and a $300 fare later we arrived at Rusutsu.
For the most part, our night's journey was over. Our extended journey through the Japanese mega-resort of Rusutsu, however, had just begun. I had never been to Rusutsu before this and after my evening's crash course in traveling Japan, I was greeted by a giant singing tree just inside Rusutsu's main doors.
"I'm just a big wax treeeee, a big wax treeeee" sang the.... well... the big wax tree and his jungly critter friends.
I realized right there that I was in a strange but exciting country, and I dropped all expectations I had of the weeks to come.
It is the first impressions of places you travel and experiences like these that help shape your opinion of a new location. Japan sure is funny, but it is very accommodating, friendly, and safe. It is the quirkiness of the place that makes it so much fun to visit and the mind-bogglingly deep powder that gives you a reason to go in the first place.