Finally on the RIGHT train, it wasn't as express as my original ticket but I pretty much deserved the extra two hour travel time. The landscape out the window was drastically different to all my other Shinkansen trips - a lot more agriculture and flat land, occasionally hidden from view as we plowed through the middle of a misplaced mountain. The flora seemed to change the further north we progressed as well - to be expected as we passed into a cooler climate. Seeing as I had traversed the world's longest two-tier bridge down in Shikoku, it seemed only fitting that I would also get the chance to plunge into the Seikan Tunnel. Not content with losing 1,430 ferry passengers in 1954, planning commenced and construction finally began in 1971. A whopping 17 years and US$3.6 billion later, the tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait was opened. At almost 54km in length, and around 240m below sea level at the lowest point (100m below the sea bed), it is an impressively long time to spend in a tunnel. Unfortunately for the tunnel a lot has changed since 1971, and it is in fact cheaper to fly there from Tokyo in 3hrs rather than go by train in 10hrs (unless you have a Japan Rail Pass like me of course).
The sun was setting as we pulled into Hakodate, and let me tell you the first thing I noticed is that it was a little bit chilly. Luckily, I had packed insufficient warm clothing (ie. none) and had not managed to book ahead for any accommodation. My plan was to experience a "capsule hotel" - an array of coffin-sized habitations complete with radio and TV, mostly used by businessmen who have missed the last train or I guess anyone looking for a budget option within the insanely expensive Japanese accommodation market. After asking several people for directions but only receiving blank stares in return, I began thinking that capsule hotels were in fact a myth or just an hilarious joke played by Japan on the rest of the world. I gave up at around 10pm when walking the streets without any feeling in my fingers ceased seeming like a good idea. I stumbled across a Pension (family-run accommodation) called "Happy Puppy" - the people were really friendly, the traditional tatami rooms were great, and the prices were reasonable. I didn't see any puppies. I was reluctant to remove my shoes at the front door of the building (for everyone else's sake), but it was pretty cool to wander around the hotel in my complimentary slippers.
The bathroom was another matter, as I couldn't for the life of me work out what was going on. The entire room was completely automated to a crazy new level. The main lights would turn on as you entered. More lights would turn on as you entered a cubicle, as well as a fan automatically spinning on. Mmmm, heated seat. After backing one out I looked in vain for a flush button, but naturally the flush was only triggered as I left the cubicle. Luckily the fan was programmed to continue going for a few more minutes. No taps at the sink - motion detection triggers instead. I skipped showers because I simply couldn't work it out.
Refreshed after essentially spending the previous day on trains, I woke up pretty early and ready to hit Hakodate at full speed. This was largely because I only had one day there before returning to Tokyo - an authentic whirlwind tour, Japanese style. Hakodate was one of the first ports in Japan to open to foreign trade - in 1853 under the conditions of the Treaty of Kanagawa the port was opened to America, and soon other countries followed suit to establish their own consulates there. Many of the consulates were constructed in the same area near the main port, and they brought with them their own individual architectural character from their respective home countries. Walking the streets I felt I had left Japan and was walking around some nondescript quaint European town.
Unable to fight the urge, I hopped on the cable car to the top of Mount Hakodate to see what the view had to offer. Well worth every Yen! To the north the horizon offered a myriad of snow-capped mountains, while to the south it overlooked the very pretty port city - seemingly being squeezed by two seas at its sides. The night view is regarded as one of Japan's finest, but I didn't have the time or inclination to hang around for a few hours in order to find out. I had drinking to do.
That's right, Hakodate is also a little famous for Hakodate Beer, so I decided to stick with what I know and ventured into their brewery for a taste test. Safe in the knowledge that no preservatives were going to screw with my head the following day, I dove straight in and ordered some food to make a real afternoon out of it. The sun was shining, so I headed outside to the deck area and immediately nostalgia swept over me. Subiaco, Paddy McGuire's, Sunday afternoons. Beer also swept over me, not unlike the many afternoons spent at Paddy's. But in this case the beer was different... different in a good way. Different in a FREE way.
And we all know free beer simply tastes better. You see, out of sheer boredom I had begun writing in my journal, and keen to get the facts straight I asked the waitress a few questions about their beer (am I not a connoisseur after all?). Anyway, suddenly the manager appears and asks me if I am from a magazine. Sensing an opportunity I went along with it, and sure enough a few minutes later I was an international beer & restaurant journalist reporting on their brewery, sampling all sorts of free seafood and their whole selection of beers. Sure, I had to take a few notes but it was a price I was willing to pay! For the record my favourite was Mori, a Belgian-style wheat brew with a light, fruity aroma and super smooth taste.
With a few days left to burn on my Japan Rail Pass I decided to make the most of it and investigate Hokkaidō Island to the north. Seeing as this was very much a spur of the moment decision on my behalf, I had no real idea of what I would find there. The day started pretty badly, as running late into Tokyo station I jumped onto the platform just as the doors of a Shinkansen were closing. Seeing as I had arrived roughly 1 or 2 minutes earlier than the time on my ticket, I safely assumed it had to be my train. Or not. As I would discover later, the sheer efficiency of the Japan Rail system was my downfall, as my actual train was due to arrive and depart only a minute after the one I had actually boarded. Of course, I had no idea this was the case until the ticket inspector arrived to deliver his best "look of horror" face. No translation was needed. As another fitting display of Japanese customer service, he found a passenger with better English skills to explain where I would need to transfer in order to get the correct train. Not satisfied, he radioed ahead so that I was met at the station and escorted to the correct platform. He also managed to organise another ticket to save me later hassles. The lovely woman who met me spoke a little English, and after a little chatting I discovered that by sheer fluke she had actually visited my little hometown of Perth. It really eased the tension I felt as an ignoramus gaijin, and helped to pass the two minute wait as I asked her about her visit to Australia.