Day 11 – Tuesday, October 2, 2007
With the timing we expected, our arrival and disembarkation from the ship was right on. In contrast to the immigration and bureaucratic delays we experienced in Russia, arriving in our first port was a model of efficiency. Four Japanese immigration officers had boarded the ship in our last port and had completed their work with our passports by the time we arrived in Aomori.
Barbara and I were on the squeaky clean pier at 8:10am. We were greeted by enthusiastic, but extremely polite a small group of local Japanese. Their job was, by their demeanor, to ensure our swift transition to their city. Several small booths were set up, but no one pressured us to buy anything. A short walk brought us to a waterfront park, with fantastic views back toward our vessel, as well as other waterfront attractions. Our first destination was the train station, about a mile away. With visitor maps in hand we had no trouble getting there. On our way there we stopped to ask a young Japanese woman if we were on the right track, in our halting, almost nonexistent Japanese, and she answered us in perfect English “And how may I help you?”
However, she was an exception as most Japanese we encountered spoke little English, but tried their hardest to direct us to where we were headed. In the train station, a very intimidating place, the ticket clerk even came out of his booth to assist us in using the computerized ticket machines. Once we arrived at the correct platform, it was important to find out where we were to stand to board the train. I asked a young man this question and with his limited English invited me to walk to the correct place. There were two red lines painted on the platform with the words in English “non-reserved seating”, with two angled lines to designate the beginning of the cue. Later, I think after he had consulted his English-Japanese dictionary, he came back to me with much more detailed instructions, very pleased that he could help me further. Traveling in this country can be a very humbling experience until you learn that with the proper body language, and smiles, someone will not only help you but walk you part of the way there.
By the time it came to board the train, we had been joined by several others from our roll call group, with whom we had shared Hideki’s suggestions, who were going to Hirosaki Castle. It goes without saying that the train was very clean and comfortable – and fast. Arriving 30 minutes later in Hirosaki, we proceeded outside to the bus pickup area, and showed our Japanese phrase “Is this the bus to Hirosaki Castle” to the first driver we met and was told (in body language) no” holding up six fingers and pointing to the #6 bus pickup area. Shortly after the #61 bus arrived and we were assured by the driver that this was the correct bus. A whirlwind ride took us to the other side of the city (about 15 minutes) and deposited us at the entrance to Hirosaki Castle and Gardens.
I won’t go into detail here, but this was a wonderful experience. Japanese parks and monuments are constructed and cared for in such a manner that everywhere one turned, there was a beautiful photo opportunity. So much so that I kept worrying that Barbara was so engrossed in taking pictures, that we would miss our train back to Aomori. At one point, just as we were about to enter the Castle, it clouded up and rained… just for a few minutes. This did not deter Barbara from her photo quest! She could not be bothered with the use one of the Castle courtesy umbrellas; “Can’t take pictures holding an umbrella”. As Castles go this one was “small potatoes” to some because it was small, but the overall grandeur put it right up there with the best, as far as we were concerned.
Once I finally got Barbara out of there (I was starving), we managed to find a quaint “lunch” café in a commercial building. No one spoke English and the menus were in Japanese; however their menus were in full color pictures of the items on the menu, with the price of the item listed in Yen. We chose one for 900 yen (rounded off to $9) that consisted of six or seven small cup size bowls of noodles with different toppings. One of which was a raw partridge egg on its bed of noodles. (I let Barbara eat that one) With the noodles we were served two small containers, one hot water and one of a sauce. Since the noodles were cold, you just poured the hot water on them to warm them up, and a bit of the sauce gave them a good flavor. On the table was a beautiful wooden box with a glass lid, in which were chopsticks. Since these chopsticks were “hinged” at one end, I had no trouble in using them to pickup and “slurp” up my noodles. Barbara asked for a fork, which our waitress instantly understood. It was a wonderful meal – 900 yen, no taxes, no tipping permitted.
After lunch, we reversed our course with the confidence of seasoned travelers, bought our tickets for Aomori, went to platform # 1 and waited for the train to leave at 2:29pm. Ten minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, we were informed (by body language) that we were at the wrong station, though both were in the same building, identical platform #s and departure times. After a mad scramble and more body language and polite help, we made it to our train with 5 minutes to spare. Humbled again!
In the country side on the way back, we saw field after field of rice being harvested, with the harvested stalks being arranged in a circular stack around six to eight foot stakes driven in to the ground. In the moonlight, these would look like a line of people standing out in the field. Very interesting.
After arriving back in Aomori, we strolled one of the main shopping streets, investigated a large fresh seafood market in the basement of a large department store, and just enjoyed people watching. One fast food restaurants we passed was – you guessed it – a McDonalds!
People of all ages, male and female riding bicycles complete with shopping baskets, on the sidewalks. Parking lots dedicated to bicycles. Sidewalks wide enough to park multitudes of bicycles. Taxi cabs with white cushion covers, with drivers wearing white gloves. Streets that were spotless. All most all cars were nearly new, and spotlessly clean with the exception of taxicabs, and always backed into their parking space. I have heard that automobiles older than five years have to be sold for export – some go to New Zealand. Never felt threatened or unsafe. This is a very regimented society. Walk/Do not walk signals that play a melody rather that a harsh beeping sound. Yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk before crosswalks indicating where to stand while waiting for the signal. Utility and construction workers with bands around trousers pant legs and hard hats strapped to their heads. Barbara also observed a “safety chair” for women using the restroom to park their child in – for safety. Signs in store windows with “Welcome Amsterdam to Aomori”.
We ended the day exhausted, having walked around ten miles, but knowing we would remember this wonderful day for a long, long time.
At our group meeting the next afternoon, there was not one negative remark as to how we were treated. Each shared stories as to how well they were treated by those they encountered. Oh yea, Barbara bought me a mans kimono purported to be 100 years old, for around $25, – right on the pier, count on her to find a bargain.
Our overall feelings – WE LOVE JAPAN!
Jack and Barbara