Sapporo: a long way from Virginia

This summer, I was the only recipient of the Freeman foundation at Davidson who went to Japan, which was amazing, yet terrifying.

When I first learned that I had gotten the grant, I didn’t know where in Asia I wanted to go. Well, I had a vague idea, primarily either South Korea or Japan because I like K-pop and anime (which are totally valid reasons, right?) The reason I ended up in Japan was that I found a job there before I found one in South Korea. It turns out that if you want to teach English in Asia, you have to either a) have graduated college, or b) be planning on staying for over a year. Since I didn’t fit either of these requirements, finding a job was quite difficult, but I managed to find a private school in Sapporo that needed English teachers.

So now I had a destination, and I started to get really excited. Before this trip, I had never traveled by myself. And on top of that, I had never been out of the country (because, let’s be honest, Canada doesn’t really count). I started researching everything I could about Sapporo, and made a list of places I wanted to visit (fun fact: I left the list at home), started looking at Japanese fashion and norms to make sure I wouldn’t stand out too much.

As the time till departure approached, I came to some realizations. The first was that I really didn’t know any Japanese. Most everyone else with this grant had studied the language of the country they were going to, even if it had only been for a year. I, however, had never had any formal education in Japanese. I’d taught myself the alphabets (because Japanese is fun and has two), and had learned some basic phrases. This really wasn’t enough.

I was also terrified for Jet Lag. This phrase needs to be capitalized because it is big and scary and awful.

My first flight wasn’t the long one, but from Richmond to O’Hare. That flight was at 6:00 in the morning, so I was already off to a bad start. I couldn’t sleep on this flight because I was too nervous (I was leaving the country!!).

When we landed in O’Hare, I was intimidated. The place was huge. I struggled to find my terminal, but that wasn’t a huge problem, as I had a four hour layover. As such, I convinced myself to keep the panic to a minimal, and found breakfast, AKA a bagel with cream cheese and coffee.

While consuming said circular bread, I realized that the wifi was only free for 30 minutes, and it was quite possibly the worst wifi I have ever encountered. I was planning on downloading some songs for the flight to Tokyo, but that plan was nixed when iTunes wouldn’t work even when I was connected to the “internet”. So once I finished my midmorning snack I carried on to the human loading zone for my flight. Conveniently enough there were plugs under the chairs, so my phone was at full battery the whole time, which was clutch, since I had nothing better but to watch Parks and Rec.

The flight itself wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It was a pretty mixed bag of Americans, Japanese, and other Asians who had a connection in Narita (Tokyo) and then were flying home. I don’t really know how many people were on the flight, but I would guess close to a hundred? The plane itself was one of the new Boeing 787s, which was amazing. About 30 minutes after we departed, all the windows dimmed, so the cabin was dark pretty much for all of the thirteen hours, even though it was daylight the whole time (because time is weird).

Flying over lovely Hokkaido

The entertainment section was also nice, because on the back of the seats is a screen where you can watch movies (I watched Hidden Figures, Moana, and Harry Potter 6&7), play games (chess), and charge your phone. It was beautiful, but not quite enough to keep my mind off the fact that I was flying over the middle of the freakin’ Pacific Ocean.

The most frustrating passenger is clear, however. There was some old man sitting behind me and holy heck. His snores were so, so loud. Even at almost full volume, there were times I could hear him over the movie I had playing. That made napping virtually impossible.

And like that, we landed in Narita, and I touched foreign soil! Well, figuratively. I was literally just on concrete and linoleum the whole time, but you get the point.

If I thought O’Hare was big, well, I think Narita has it beat. When we left the plane, I followed everyone else, and picked up my luggage (because I had to re-check it for my domestic flight). There was some minor panic when everyone else’s stuff was appearing and mine wasn’t, but it got around the conveyor belt eventually. Then I had to go through customs. That went smoothly enough, and I communicated primarily through hand gestures and “arigato”. Once you’re finished with customs, which was pretty calm and quiet, you go through a door and bam! You’re hit with a wall of color and sound and it’s madness. I had no idea where I was going, I didn’t have my ticket for my connection to Sapporo, and I needed to check my luggage. I ended up spying someone from my flight and following him. We weren’t going to the same place, but he conveniently had been walking in the direction I needed to go. I found the place to check my luggage, and realized there were multiple airlines, all waiting to check my luggage. Well, I didn’t know what airline I needed, so I stood there with a dazed look on my face, and some kind lady came up to me, asking me what I needed help with. She pointed me in the right direction, my luggage got checked, and I got my ticket. She then tried to point to a map and show me where I needed to go. I knew I would forget as soon as I walked ten feet, and told her “Oh, I’ll just find it on my own.” The worried look she gave me was priceless.

While this is the Sapporo airport and not the one in Tokyo, you get the right idea.

Well, after much wandering, I did find the domestic flights. First, however, I found a mall. That’s right, a mall. There were many food options, lots of kitschy airport things, and some really expensive things, too. I settled on matcha chocolate, milk tea, and some kit-kats. Dinner of champions.

Re-fortified, I headed to the domestic terminal. It’s really tucked away in a corner, since most people who fly domestic are Japanese and can read the Japanese signs and don’t need brightly colored English translations, but I’m not salty.

When I went into the domestic flights terminal, I had to go through security again, which was much more lax than its American counterpart. I wasn’t sure of the procedure, so after I put all my carry-on items in a bin, I wasn’t sure if I also needed to remove my shoes. As such, I started slowly walking towards ~the other side~. To not look like as big a weirdo as I felt, I began sauntering/dancing. Okay, maybe that made things more awkward. But it made the Japanese customs workers laugh, so that made me feel better. And it turned out I didn’t need to take my shoes off, which was nice, because I hate lacing sneakers.

The flight from Narita to New Chitose (Sapporo) was nothing remarkable (mostly because I slept pretty much the whole way). However, the adventure from the airport to my hotel was fun. The biggest problem is that I stand out like a sore thumb. I have blue/green/grey eyes. I don’t really dress like the Japanese. I don’t have the same body shape as Japanese people. I had a big, red suitcase. So I was pretty self-conscious about myself. This wasn’t just me being paranoid, because when I was on the train going into the city, I heard some of the guys say something about “Doc Marten style,” and were looking not-so-discreetly at my feet. So, yep, I was a conversation starter. Yay.

Yeah. Sapporo is way bigger than I expected.

I exited the train, and knew that my hotel was nearby. After all, that was the main feature I was looking for when I booked it. However, due to Jet Lag, I made a wrong turn. There were parked cars along the way I had just come, so I didn’t want to turn around because then they would know I was lost. So I decided instead to walk around the block. Keep in mind that I had a very confused look on my face and was toting around a huge piece o’ luggage. Everyone I passed gave me the oddest look. One old man stopped, looked at me, waited for me to say something, but I just kept on going, because I knew I couldn’t communicate with him. Was this rude? …Maybe. But I found my hotel, so everything worked out.

Speaking of being rude, apparently people don’t make eye contact, or interact with each other at all. I’m from the South, I’m used to the whole, “Southern Hospitality” thing. So when I pass people on the street, I smile, I nod,  I say hello, I make eye contact. Turns out people don’t do that here. I’ve tried, believe me, but they just look down when they pass by me, or elsewhere. Which means I’m gonna have to make a major shift in my behavior.

So yeah, the first few days definitely had some culture shock to them. But I was excited to start work and explore Sapporo, both of which I got to do plenty of in the coming two months.