A Little Glitch & a Lotta Help: Welcome to Japan (and Murray is not your friend)

Just south of Sapporo, the beautiful city of Chitose was our entry point into Hokkaido.

Having lived in Japan both as a 7th Fleet sailor stationed in Yokosuka onboard USS Blue Ridge and as an English language teacher after that, I’m familiar with Japan – its ins and outs, the aspects of life here that make it fascinating and wonderful as well as – at times – puzzling and frustrating. In selling Barbra on the idea of doing our first bike tour in Hokkaido, I’d pretty much painted for her a picture of paradise. I described a land of exceptionally low crime, cleanliness, every modern convenience conceivable, incredibly kind people, great camping spots, and a culture different enough from our own to keep things interesting. There might even be some decent fishing, I offered. She already knew about the food – some of the best seafood, beef, pork and noodle dishes in the world. Given that Hokkaido is the least populated and least visited part of Japan, we probably wouldn’t even have to deal with the crowds that often plague other parts of the country. In fact, the only con I conceded was that Japan can be quite expensive; but even that deficit could be offset by the inexpensive (sometimes free) camping I anticipated.

However, as the trip got closer I began to have a tiny, nagging doubt. Maybe I’d oversold Japan. After all, it had been awhile since I’d lived there. In the interim, Japan had experienced a bubble economy collapse, a disastrous nuclear energy plant melt down, and the passing of time along with the challenges an ever changing world presents to all of us. And then there are the tricks our own memories play on us. What if it turned out to not be as good as I remembered it?

Anchorage to Seattle to San Francisco marked the first leg of our flight schedule, and it wasn’t until the final stop on that leg, San Francisco, that we realized we had not allowed enough time between landing at Haneda Airport, Tokyo and our connecting flight to Chitose, Hokkaido. An optimistic Japan Airlines ticketing agent in San Francisco assured us we’d make our connection – but I was fairly certain we’d made a mistake.

Upon arriving in Haneda we scurried to baggage claim where I had my first opportunity to dust off my never-was-very-good Japanese and explain our situation. Incredibly – and impressively – the baggage handler at the luggage carousel already knew about us and our bikes. He smiled and nodded in their direction as a baggage handler approached pushing a handtruck loaded with three boxes – our two bikes and our bike trailer. Almost simultaneously, our two “luggage” boxes with their brilliant orange duck tape emerged onto the carousel. Phew! Next…

A woman in a JAL uniform seemed to materialize out of thin air. While Yamamoto-San (Ms. Yamamoto) explained to us that we needed to get over to the domestic flights air terminal as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, two baggage handlers helped us load our luggage onto two smaller hand carts – which, by the way, are free in Japan. The race was on.

We followed Yamamoto-San to the baggage check-in counter where she consulted with other JAL agents, and then she made what appeared to be a “command decision” to circumvent normal baggage check-in procedures and get us and our luggage directly over to the boarding gate. With the perfectly quaffed, calm Yamamoto-San alternately leading the way and helping to load these huge boxes onto the elevator to the train shuttle platform, we were all perspiring a little. Arriving on the shuttle deck it looked like we just might make it. Yamamoto-San was on a radio, talking urgently and quickly enough that I could understand almost nothing…

…until she mentioned Murray. Murray… Murray… The word sounded so familiar and yet I couldn’t quite recall its meaning. And then, with what sounded like disappointment in her voice, she said the word again. Muri. 

Muri! As language sometimes does, the meaning suddenly came back to me. Muri means impossible. 

We were not going to make our connecting flight. Despite our assurances that we weren’t really bothered by this turn of events, Yamamoto-San seemed truly disappointed. Back at the baggage check-in counter, she offered to book us into a hotel. I explained that the glitch was really our fault for not allowing sufficient time between flights, but she insisted that, no, it was her airline’s responsibility. In all of my glowing descriptions to Barbra regarding Japan, I had probably not payed sufficient homage to the legendary customer service the Japanese people are known for. 

In the end, we declined the hotel, reasoning it would be simpler to spend the night stretched out on the comfortable seats in the waiting area, grab a cup of coffee in the morning and board a flight that would get us into Chitose at a time coinciding with check-in at our hotel. Our hotel in Chitose, by the way, did not charge us for the cancelled reservation.

Udon & Iced Coffee – our first breakfast in Japan!

And so, rather than arriving in Chitose on the night of May 29 as planned, we spent the night in Haneda Airport, sleeping relatively soundly in the seating area. The floors were so clean they gleamed. The restrooms were spotless. The coffee and bowl of udon we had for breakfast were excellent. And when we finally arrived at our modestly-priced hotel in Chitose, our room, though perhaps a bit small by American standards, was utterly immaculate, appointed with an excellent bathroom (including a nice, deep tub and more features on the toilet than either one of us is likely to ever use), a comfortable bed and truly plush bathrobes. 

Welcome to Japan.

Intrepid Trepidations

Staring at my readied bike loaded with gear for this summer’s epic adventure, I am filled with… fear, excitement, anxiety, worry, nerves…

I’ve read so many articles and blogs and books about traveling. The common theme in these stories is excitement. The stories often have a dramatic edge. In the spirit of excitement, there is often reckless abandonment of caution and unplanned success. The stories are invigorating and inspiring – always with a happy ending. As my bike stares back at me, daring me … I find myself thinking that I’ve never read the version of the story that started with a daunting case of nerves. This seems to be my story.

The inspiration for this summer’s adventure began a few lifetimes ago. When I was young, my family used to camp. I remember watching bicyclists loaded with camping gear trekking along California blue roads from the window of our VW Camper. I loved to ride my bike. And I was instantly in love with the idea of being self-sufficient on two-wheels trekking anywhere I wanted to go.

Anyone who has known me over the past few decades could testify that I am an adventurous person. I have been known to get up and go do something based on very little information, sometimes on just an idea that something would be fun. I have had many happy endings to those stories, just like those I have read. So why worry now?

I stare at my bike. Its panniers and fork bags puffy with camping gear. As if in answer to my question, the front fork bag of my bike falls off and spills.

It’s the logistics of this trip that make it like no other. I’ve always been able to fill a backpack or a suitcase and go. But this summer, the adventure includes more than what can be packed in a backpack. We’ve planned a trip that involves bicycling around a foreign country for three months. The activities on the trip are to include sightseeing, culinary adventures, fishing, photography, backpacking and maybe even pack rafting. Aside from test packing and other activities we can do to get ready while in Alaska, the additional logistics are mind boggling. In order to get this trip started, there is the first leg – which seems to be the most daunting of the logistics – we need to maneuver all of our gear from our tiny village of Chignik Lake, through the city of Anchorage and all the way to the north island of Hokkaido, Japan. The other part of the logistics is planning for daily mileage and making sure we are in good enough shape to pull off this physical adventure.

All this planning is, of course, in theory. I have so many questions… How many miles can we realistically bike? Can we carry all the gear we want to carry? Are we over packing? Are we forgetting something critical? Will our gear be safe from thieves? Will we be able to find campgrounds as easily as we hope? Will the roads be safe to ride on? Are we going to have trouble transporting our gear with the airlines? Is this too big an undertaking?

So, Jack and I sat down to tackle, not the questions, but the psychology behind the questions. Our discussion centered around the question, “Do we really want to take on a trip so far outside of our comfort zone?” The answer, it turned out, was a resounding Yes!

So, plane tickets have been purchased. The first test packing has been completed. Our trip itinerary is coming together. The bike and treadmill workouts are underway. And the faith that we are resourceful people is the response to those questions that really can’t be answered until we begin the journey.

And now I propose a toast: Here’s to another summer of epic proportions living well off the beaten path. Cheers!