My eyes drifted away from my phone into the snow-capped scenery overlooking the window. The tall evergreen trees covered with snow calmed my heart. It was December but not yet Christmas. I was seated on a bus filled with guilt and contemplation. Were my actions an hour ago reasonable or was I just plain selfish? From time to time, I would dismiss the negative thoughts and marvel at the beauty of the untouched snow we passed by.
I took a paid leave from work so I could take my friend and his companion to the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gifu — Shirakawago. My friend and I worked for five years in the same workplace until I resigned and pursued a training program in Japan. Coming from a tropical country, experiencing snowfall in winter is a must and probably one of the major reasons that my friend decided to visit. It was his first time in the land of the rising sun and I was filled with excitement to revisit Shirakawago again with someone from home.
It was 7 am and I was a few minutes on foot from the hostel where my friend was staying when he sent a message. He decided to move the schedule to 8:30 because he woke up late. In addition, he wanted to avail of the free breakfast from the hostel. I was filled with irritation! I woke up at around 4:30 in the morning of winter and walked for 30 minutes to my town’s train station before daylight just so I could be on time. Now, who wouldn’t be disappointed and annoyed?! I decided to keep my cool and just sent him a message to meet me at the bus station instead.
I was on the bus and my thoughts were drifting. My friend and his companion missed the last bus to Shirakawago partly because of a mistake in the direction that I sent. And there I was asking myself, “Am I not tired of traveling to Shirakawago so many times?” It was already my fifth visit. It would have been a whole new experience if I were with companions. I was actually looking forward to building a snowman and throwing snowballs at each other. Oh well, it was another solo travel again.
It was the same place, only with a different drop-off point. The gassho-zukuri farmhouses, the village people going about their daily lives despite the influx of tourists, the scarecrows that remained fixed throughout the change of seasons, the not-your-typical snowmen, the whole ground covered with inches of snow ——-all of these and even more make Shirakawago one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s that magical picture of a quaint village that you thought you’d only see in a Christmas postcard.
Was I reasonable to just leave my friend to tend to himself and find the bus stop? Or was I just plain selfish in going to Shirakawago ahead so I could enjoy the scenery? I couldn’t come up with an answer. The important thing was I apologized. Shirakawago is that charming of a place that would make you feel like others are at a loss for not having had a chance to see it.
Out of a sudden, I lost my balance and I saw my bronze Sony Xperia being flown away more than five feet away. I was too surprised at how it even kind of leaped out of the outside pocket of my bag. I was still trying to stand my ground or else I would be tumbling down the ground when I saw a man run after my cell phone and grabbed it. After I said my “Arigatou Gozaimasu” to him, I immediately ran beside a post to keep myself from being blown away. There is a department store just a few steps from where I was standing. I decided to take shelter in it and let the strong wind pass by.
I arrived in Sapporo the previous day. I decided to spend my holidays in Hokkaido for this year. My December doesn’t seem complete if I don’t experience a white Christmas. The place has been in my must-see destinations list in Japan. I only booked for three nights in the hotel because I didn’t know if I could handle the temperature in Japan’s northernmost island.
I had just crossed the street from Otaru Station when the strong wind blew. I was holding a walking map that I got from the tourist center. With the unfavorable weather at hand, I deemed it much comfortable to rely on Google map. It took me at least 10 minutes to get to the Canal. It was hard to take photos as the snow was pouring down heavily and at the same time, I was trying to protect my camera from getting wet. After I walked to the other end of the canal, I decided to head to Sakaimachi Street.
The walk to Sakaimachi Street was terrible. The pair of gloves I bought from the convenience store was not giving my hands enough warmth. For the past few weeks, my hands have been having small cuts because of the winter cold in Japan. I had not eaten anything and I was keeping my eye specifically on ramen restaurants. I kept getting disappointed as I saw mostly seafood restaurants and cafes serving sweets. I was too hungry that I ended up eating in 3 cafes that I passed by. There were actually museums and shops along the way but I didn’t bother to go inside anymore. I decided to just head back to the station. I just couldn’t take the cold, the wind, and the heavy snow. At one point, I decided to buy an umbrella because the weather was just too much. The man told me the umbrella cost 540 yen. I knew I was being ripped off, but probably I just couldn’t think and act well and so I still ended up buying it. I honestly felt so bad afterwards not just because I decided to pay for it but because of the illusion I had in mind that everybody in Japan is honest and trustworthy. It didn’t help that I kept seeing the same plastic umbrellas in other shops with a 200-yen price on it.
I finally reached Otaru station after taking shelter in multiple shops every few minutes. There was a moment I wanted to cry and kept telling myself I just want to reach the station already. That’s how bad the condition in Otaru was. And when I finally was about to buy the train ticket back to Sapporo, the ticket machine was not in service. The train service going to Sapporo was stopped because of the weather condition.
My first travel day in Hokkaido might not have gone well but it didn’t mean I did not enjoy the region. My friend met up with me on Christmas Day. I thought I was going to spend the holidays alone. I tasted the most delicious vegetable soup curry in a restaurant called Garaku. I had a beautiful view of Nakajima Park from my hotel. And I finally understood what it means when people say Hokkaido has some of the best powder snow in the world.
I inserted the 20 yuan bill in the ticket machine. Instead of seeing a ticket card, the same bill came out again. I got a different yuan bill and the same thing happened. I kept doing it over and over again for more than five minutes until I gave up. I didn’t care if there were people lining up. I actually wanted them to notice me or at least the person standing behind me. Finally, I gave up and took just two steps away from the ticket machine. And then one of the best things happened. A long-haired young woman wearing a black overall jumper dress stood beside me and kept pointing to the 10 yuan bill sign while saying something which I completely didn’t understand. She had a reprimanding tone, but I didn’t mind it at all. After a day of staying in China, I kind of noticed that it’s just the way people there speak. I understood her gesture, so I got a 10 yuan note and inserted it in the ticket machine. Just after a few seconds, I successfully purchased a ticket card on my own.
I arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport the previous day. It was past midnight when the plane landed. I didn’t expect that I’d travel to China alone considering the political tensions brought about by territorial disputes between China and my country. I was even hesitant to go on this trip even after I already bought my ticket. But I have a goal. And traveling to China is part of it. So I was off to Beijing!
On the day of my arrival, I decided to go to Tiananmen Square. There were a lot of people lining up in the ticket counter, so I tried out the machine. However, the machine just kept on spitting the money. I turned around and smiled at the woman standing behind me. I raised the yuan note, pointed to the machine and asked the lady “How?”I was hoping she’d get it. But she just smiled blankly and moved her head sideways. I was frustrated. How could she not get it? I was sure she had seen I was having trouble. I stepped aside. Then she purchased her own ticket. I tried again and did exactly the same thing the woman did. But I was again unsuccessful. I approached the lady guard who was just standing a few steps away. I asked for help using the same gestures that I did with the woman. She just looked at me, turned around and talked to the lady guard beside her. I was even frustrated then. But no. I had four days more in this country and I wanted to learn how to purchase the ticket card on my own. So I stood in front of the ticket machine again and tried several times. I stopped when someone tapped my back. It was the lady guard. She pointed to the ticket counter. I knew about the ticket counter, but I wanted to use the ticket machine. Eventually, I just gave up and headed to the counter.
There was another incident when I asked help in the subway but all I got was a sideways movement of the head. I’ve been to other non-English speaking countries in East Asia and I’ve never really faced any language barrier with those countries. I was frustrated because I kind of think that when I asked for help from the locals, they focused so much on the language that I used and not on my gestures. In some countries, I had no problem relying on gestures so I somehow could not get why the people I approached in the subway couldn’t.
I was at that point when I didn’t believe asking someone would gain me the help I needed. I was ecstatic when the young woman in the subway approached me and pointed out to me what I did wrong, why the machine was spitting out my money. Just when I’d lost hope, someone was out to save the day.
I sat on the far back of the bus, away from most people. It was going to be an hour and 5-minute ride from Shin-shimashima bus terminal to Kamikochi— the Japanese version of the Alps. I kept on fidgeting as I wait for the bus to leave.
It was a Facebook post in November by one of my colleagues. The scenery in the photo amazed me. I wondered in which country she went. I looked at the comments under the photo to find some clues. Surprisingly, the place isn’t abroad. It’s just here in Japan.
It had almost been eight months and I was reminded of the Alps. I wanted to go somewhere for my birthday weekend. I’d been attempting to book a flight to Taiwan, but I was torn because the view of nature in Kamikochi was something I could not wait to see. In the end, I chose to travel domestically.
It was around 10:35 am when the bus finally arrived in Kamikochi. I must have drunk a lot of water before the journey because right after getting off, I just had to run to the restroom. I knew I was going to walk for several kilometers in a forest, so I just had to stuff myself with food. I looked around for a place to eat at the arrival terminal. I had ramen for lunch and then I was off to find the most important thing in my list — the bear bell.
I scolded myself for forgetting to bring a jacket. The place is situated on a high ground so it felt cold to just wear a simple blouse which doesn’t even have long sleeves. In the end, I did manage as the long walks kept me warm. In situations where I couldn’t see a single hiker in view, my heart rate would go faster and I made sure my bear bell tinkled louder.
How To Get There:
From Matsumoto Station, take the ALPICO Line for SHINSHIMASHIMA and get off at SHINSHIMASHIMA station. It takes 30 min and costs ¥700. From SHINSHIMASHIMA station, take the bus bound to Kamikochi.