Japan Part Four: Hokkaido and Tokyo (3rd – 12th November 2019)

Hokkaido

As we headed for Japan’s Northern island, we were on our own, with no more Servas members available to host us. It had been an absolute marvel being hosted, both financially and culturally. We learned an enormous amount from our hosts, and our time in Japan was all the richer for it. However, on this leg we were flying solo, and we enjoyed having the freedom to work to our own timetable.

The JR Pass made travel to Hokkaido possible. The cost of rail travel that far would have been impossible for us, but now we could sit back and enjoy the comfort of Japan’s bullet trains for the full five hours from Tokyo. We changed trains just outside of the capital city, taking advantage of the layover time to try a local drink. It was a pint of local beer made half with lager and half with stout, and it was surprisingly drinkable (sorry Rob!)

We followed this with a can of Highball (very popular in Japan) and a few beers from a corner shop, and settled into our warm and cozy train carriage. It turned out that a Highball is essentially whiskey and soda, and pretty unpleasant, but the beer was great. The journey flew by, and it was pitch dark when we finally arrived, slightly tipsy, at Hakodate station. We had to put on everything warm we had for the walk to the hostel (the nearest land to Hokkaido is Vladivostock, which tells you all you need to know about the climate), but we arrived safely and gratefully sank into a restless, dorm room sleep.

The next morning we woke, excited to see the city and what mischief we could get up to. At the start of the previous week we’d been able to sleep outdoors with just a sleeping bag laid over us. We’d then seen Autumn, and the start of Winter in the Alps. Here in the North, it was baltic, and felt like the depths of Winter to us, though of course as far as the locals were concerned it was still quite temperate. The region is generally under several metres of snow from December until April.

We borrowed a couple of bikes (another brilliant hostel with free bike hire) and headed to Goryokaku Park, a pentagram shaped citadel surrounded by a moat. The sunshine did little to warm us but we were thoroughly enjoying the crisp bright air, and sat having a small breakfast surrounded by the most glorious foliage.

The day before we’d been talking about how travelling has been really bad for our health. We’ve been eating a lot of convenience and snack foods, and a lot of sugar. We were both feeling the effects, since we’d usually be eating mostly veg at home. As the science around the benefits of fasting intermittently is fairly convincing, we decided to have a go at the 5:2 diet, in an attempt to redress what was happening to our bodies in terms of glucose intake. For some strange reason we had picked this day to start, and after cycling nearly 7km to the park, the half banana we each ate barely touched the sides.

After enjoying the park and the expansive views of the mountains beyond, which looked surprisingly like the peat moors of the Peak District (except that they were much further away, and what appeared to be a mossy covering was in reality a forest), we cycled back to the hostel for a tiny lunch of miso soup and tofu. We then found a tourist info centre and took advice about climbing Mt. Hakodate on the edge of the town. We’d heard the view from the top was one of Japan’s best nighttime views, so wanted to get some advice from the centre about the best way down in the dark. When we checked with the guy at the counter if it was ok to descend the paths at night he replied “I’d rather you didn’t”, adding that “if you have a torch and are very experienced it might be ok”. That didn’t fill us with confidence. What were we getting in to? But as we had a torch and we are experienced, and Mt Hakodate is only 334m high, we thought we’d be fine.

We cycled to the bottom of the hill and then slogged upward, pushing the bikes. It was hard enough to walk, let alone cycle, but we thought the ride back down would be so much fun it would be worth it. This end of Hakodate, from the train station to the hill, reminded us of documentaries about Alaskan towns. It had a kind of ‘frontier’ feel to it, with its docks and clapboard buildings, its wide streets and icy winds. From further up the hillside we could look down steep sloping roads to the wide bay below, marvelling at the colour of the frosty waters.

We locked the bikes up at a visitor centre car park a hundred metres above sea level, and started to walk up the hill. Here was where the lack of calories really caught up with us. We’d cycled about 17km already, and were only having 500 calories each that day, and now we were trying to haul ourselves up a steep hill! Luckily we had a long time before sunset, and we could stop and rest frequently. It felt remarkably similar to trying to move at altitude, where your body knows it’s missing something essential and every fibre is screaming out for it. Despite the ominous response from the guy at tourist info, the path was a wide gravelled track, with no beguiling off-shoots that could confuse someone in the dark. It also criss-crossed a road that led all the way to the summit, so we were not concerned about descending in the dark.

At the top was a mass of buildings and antennae; a cable car, restaurant, tourist shop, viewing platform, and strangely a TV and radio station with all the associated masts. We went to the highest point and marvelled at the view of the city below. Hakodate sits on a tombala: a sand bank between two land areas. To the North is the rest of Hokkaido island, mountainous and cold. To the South, the small lump of Mt. Hakodate. The city itself sprawled between the two, low-lying between the sea on both sides.

We soon grew too cold standing on the platform, and retreated to the sunward side, where a huge carpark topped the road. We climbed a railing and sat on the other side above a precipitous slope, where we could feel the last rays of the setting sun and watch its radiant display. There had been no other people on top of the mountain (except presumably those in the shop and restaurant) as it was bitterly cold, but we scootched down into the long grass and waited. A flock of rooks settled near us, and provided the most incredible aerial display against the backdrop of celestial fire, swooping down into the ravine below, whooshing upward on the intense and ferocious wind. The sun set finally behind a low bank of cloud and the birds started to settle. We decided to climb back over the railings, gently unfurling our frozen legs, to head to the other side where we could see the city light up, and take in one of Japan’s “top three nighttime views”.

As we turned around we stood agog. The top of the mountain was simply covered with people, and more kept appearing. Every cable car was crammed full of people, and it seemed that the whole of the island of Hokkaido was turning out for this famous sight. After the isolation of our glorious sunset, the people were an unwelcome surprise, and we spent a fair few minutes trying to get anywhere near a spot with a view below. We almost felt aggrieved – we’d done the work, climbed the hill, frozen our arses off waiting for sunset, and now these interlopers in jeans and jumpers had just arrived in a warm cable car and taken all the best spots! But we did find somewhere, and as dusk settled toward night the city began to gleam. It wouldn’t have necessarily been in our top three best nighttime views, but it really was beautiful and we were glad we’d stayed.

We headed down before it was fully dark, feeling that the experience of watching the lights come on had been enough for us. Also, after only 200 calories and all our activity, we didn’t have enough to easily keep warm so we thought it best to get back to our bikes. The walk down in the quiet of the wood at night was an almost tactile experience. You felt that you could reach out and touch the darkness. That it was enveloping you, swallowing you, with the gentle crunch of the gravel underfoot it’s heartbeat, the skittering of creatures in the leaves it’s aches and pains. The city lights blinked at us through the trees and Maeve lamented that all of those on the mountain top, who just went in a cable car up and down, would never have this experience. As the path crossed the road for the second of three times, we left the forest path. The light was plenty to see by without our headtorches, so we could turn them off, not needing to watch our footing on the smooth tarmac. The darkness took our hands. Follow me, it said. And we did.

Back at our bikes, a little thoughtful from the silence of the walk, we decided to head to the town’s local public onsen, or hot spring baths. We were very cold and aching from the bike ride, so that seemed like just the thing. Our reflectiveness didn’t last long as the pure joy of freewheeling downhill for a kilometre was simply too great, and we whooped and laughed all the way through a beautiful park, and down the quiet open roads.

When we reached the onsen it looked strangely familiar: like a local leisure centre you’d find in any town across England. Except in this one there was no gym or fitness classes, just hot steamy happiness! Inside the entrance door we stood looking bemused until a woman from the reception counter came over to help. She explained in a combination of Japanese and gesture that we had to take our shoes off and if we had socks we could wear them, and if not, we could borrow some plastic shoes. We had socks obviously, it was freezing outside. We then locked our shoes in a locker (free, unlike most in the UK), and went to a machine where we paid for two tickets. We took the tickets to the counter where they were checked by the helpful woman, and we were sent upstairs. And that’s the last we saw of each other for a good hour as the onsens are segregated for men and women.

Inside the changing rooms, we put our clothes and other belongings in a locker (again free) and then took the key into the onsen itself. Most people also carried a basket of bathing products, and a small towel/flannel.

The onsen was a large room, full of steam and heat, with three large pools inside. Around the edges were seats with shower heads above and taps with buckets. This is where you sit to give yourself a good scrub before entering the hot springs. And we mean scrub: a full and thorough cleaning. Some people also brushed their teeth and shaved (no hair dyeing – there were signs posted about this). There were rules on the walls about washing before being able to use the pools, and there was no way you could just walk in and get in a pool without everyone noticing. This was ok for Maeve who had soap, but Jay didn’t. Inside the onsen he stood looking confused and a very enthusiastic man waved him over. Did he need soap? Yes, thank you. He was given a handful of shower gel, and went and sat at a stool to wash in the plastic basin. As he was rinsing down the man appeared next to him again, brandishing a pump bottle. For hair, he said. Great, thanks. Shortly after, again as Jay was getting ready to leave the wash area, the man reappeared. For face, he said, beaming.

Another issue Jay faced using the onsen which Maeve didn’t was in negotiating nudity. It is forbidden to wear clothing into the onsen, and everyone was naked. Fortunately, most people use their small towel or flannel to considerately cover their genitals when walking around, presumably to avoid giving someone sitting at a wash basin an unwanted close-up. The towels also came in handy for rinsing under cold water to cool off, and for something to sit on in the sauna. Jay had an (aptly named) buff, and was grateful to be able to use that to avert any potential confusion. That, and careful negotiating of the pool steps meant that there were no issues, and we were both able to relax in the hot springs with little drama.

The water in the onsen was dark brown and extremely salty. It bubbled straight from the ground, heated by the furnace at the Earth’s core itself, and was carefully mixed with cold water before pouring into the pools, to bring the temperature down from over 60C to 39-42C. As well as the inside pools, there was also an outdoor onsen on each side. There is something relatively primal about sitting in a steaming outdoor pool of mineral-rich ground-heated water, that stirs the soul.

Inside next to the three main pools there was a sauna (more of a steam room given how wet everyone was) and icy plunge pool, and Maeve made judicious use of both. After an hour or so of muscle soothing salt water, it was time to leave and we met in the foyer, drunk with heat and ready to sleep, weary at the thought of several kilometres of chilly cycling ahead. Back at the hostel, the sole private room was available (at more or less the same cost as two dorm beds), so we moved our stuff into there, ate a strange but thrilling dinner of dry-fried broccoli, tomatoes and chilli, and drifted into a blissful sleep, dreaming of floating in steamy waters and a darkness so deep it could hold you.

Sapporo

The next day we got up to another bright blue cloudless sky. We decided to head further North to the city of Sapporo, where we’d heard it was about to snow! It took longer to get there on the local trains than it had to get to Hakodate from Tokyo on the bullet train, despite the huge disparity in distances, however it was a spectacular way to spend a few hours. The colour of the sky was intense and the train line crossed deep sparkling waters, surrounded by mountains clad with every kind of green, brown, orange and red our eyes could interpret. We slowly circled an enormous volcano and then followed the coastline around a shimmering bay.

At Sapporo it was very definitely Winter. Again we donned our layers and our packs and started the walk to the hostel. Maeve had been feeling travel sick and we collapsed on a bench there waiting for our room to be free. It was a strange hostel, where we’d booked something called a ‘twin room with loft’. It was basically a double bunk bed on top with a single bed below it, surrounded by walls. Seriously, the room was actually the size of the bed and you had to squeeze past the ladder when you opened the door. We managed to blag a decent room though, one with a huge window, so we were pretty happy with it overall. While Maeve rested Jay went foraging and found plenty of places where Christmas carols were playing. In a supermarket awful versions of Christmas classics blared out, but excitingly, they had soya yoghurt and all we needed for a lovely meal.

The following day we went for a wander around the city. En route to tourist info we came across a gallery with a display of local pottery by some incredible artists and spent a long time gazing at some of the displays. At TI we were told about a nearby town with a Christmas light display that had started a few days earlier, and how in another town a little North, it was due to snow the next day!

After a long rest and a hearty meal we checked the temperature. It was 6C outside and windy, and was due to be colder at the coast where the light display was. So we put on EVERYTHING we had before we ventured outside. A guy in the hostel asked in all seriousness if we were checking our kit to go mountaineering the next day. Err, yes, we replied, blushing slightly. But in our defense, we had just spent 5 months in Very Hot Places. While we were dressed for the arctic, outside the local residents were in normal Winter clothing, some hardy types even had exposed ankles!! The horror!

As we walked to the train station we passed a hotel car park and stopped still in amazement. Through what looked like a garage door a car was parked on a ramp. Someone pressed a button on the wall outside and keyed in a number and the car vanished upwards, another one taking its place, like they were on a huge automotive ferris wheel! They rotated until the selected car appeared, and the person outside got in and drove off. Honestly, Japan is in the Future!

After an hour on the train through the dark freezing evening, we reached the coastal town of Oturu where it was 4C and a bitter wind blew in from the sea. The leaflet talked of the canal by the docks being illuminated by thousands of lights, and a tower of illuminated wine glasses inside a shopping centre next to it. Jay in particular was smitten by the magic of Christmas in this Winter Wonderland and over the moon at the prospect of twinkly Christmas lights. In this darkest coldest part of Japan we were discovering that people take the concept of ‘bringing in the light’ during the winter very seriously, with light displays that run from November to March.

When we found the canal side light display, it was a little underwhelming; a string of LEDs along the bank and over two bridges. The 2000 wine glass tower was visible through a Tourist Info window and while still not as impressive as the blurb had made out, it was an interesting tradition that the town did this every year. We walked the canal, beautiful under the moonlight, and then headed back to the station, past an empty and freezing shopping centre where a man played a piano and sang outside a restaurant.

The following day, determined to find the snow, we headed to Asahikawa where it was due to start mid-morning. Another hour or two by train and we stepped out of the warm carriage into a bitter wind and leaden sky. As we were trying to waste a few hours before snow o’clock we headed to the TI:

What can we do here for a few hours that doesn’t cost anything?

Oh, there are second hand shops here for window shopping, and the park opposite.

Great, thanks.

Oh and you should go to the sake factory. You can taste the sake for free.

For free? Free sake?

Yes.

Yes.

So that was the plan. We followed a dingy road along the underneath of the railway line, out of town a little, trying to dodge the icy rain that had started to fall. The second hand shop was an enormous warehouse like a giant charity shop, but despite everything being second hand, the prices were still way over anything we could afford (much to Jay’s disappointment as they had a selection of Go Pro cameras). Scarily, they also had a large gun section where you could buy hand guns, hunting rifles, and what looked like assault rifles. They also sold Samurai swords. And Sylvanian Families.

Tiring of the musty smell we went to explore outside to find a shrine we’d seen marked on the map we’d been given. The walk through the park was interesting: all the benches, pagodas and water fountains had been wrapped up in sheets of plastic for the winter. We noticed some shrubs here (and elsewhere in the town) had been tied up with string, and we wondered if this was to protect the delicate branches from the ice and snow.

We didn’t find the park, and frozen solid from sleet, we huddled on a footpath next to a river in an underpass and ate a pot of raw vegetables (we were on another fasting day) and miso soup. As we sat and laughed about how ridiculous we would look if there were any passers-by in this weather, the sleet firmed up and it began to ever so gently and slightly snow. It was still too light and wet to settle, but it was a good sign.

Next stop, sake! We had not tried real sake before so were very excited at the opportunity to try it in Japan. We tasted several different types of the rice wine, ranging from very sweet to dry. They were light and delicious and a total revelation to us. We bought a small bottle of a fairly sweet sake to take with us, and a couple of small sake cups as souvenirs, happily heading back out into the wind with a little fire in the belly.

It was snowing – sort of – outside, however it wasn’t settling. We waited at the station, hoping it would get heavier, but after an hour it hadn’t changed so we decided to call it off and get the train back to Sapporo. On the train we watched as more snow fell, until we actually gasped on leaving a long mountain tunnel when we found ourselves transported from the darkness into an actual wonderland of white. At the next station we got off the train, knowing there would be another in an hour. It was too good a chance to miss, and we’d come all this way for snow after all.

A few snowballs and a mini-snow man later, and Jay was a happy bunny. It couldn’t have felt more like Christmas, with the glass Christmas trees, bears and snow men we’d seen at the station making it all the more magical. Back in Sapporo it was still raining, so we hoofed it back to the hostel and our warm bed.

Hakodate(again)

The next day we left Sapporo and boarded the 5 hour train back to Hakodate. The train ride which had been beautiful and sunny on the way up a few days ago was spectacular on the way back, with snow on the surrounding hills and even on the volcano we’d circumnavigated previously.

As the train wound through the hills and forests, we decided to hop off at a ‘quasi-national park’ just outside of Hakodate, as the leaves were spectacular in their Autumn finery. It was also a chance to have a good walk around with our huge bags, as we’ve been trying to do at least every other day to make sure our legs are getting stronger. Initially we were reticent to do things when we had our luggage with us because it was too much for us, but it has definitely got easier over time (also we’ve sent home >5kg of stuff!).

We strolled around a murky and silent lake, with the occasional “CRANK” of a heron startled by our heavy footfall. The leaves crunched under our feet and the air was filled with the blissful smell of pine and leaf mulch. An hour later we were back at the train station, heading back to the same hostel we’d stayed at previously.

This was the first time in our whole trip that we returned to a place we’d already spent time. We loved our first visit to Hakodate, and loved the hostel we stayed at, where the staff were genuinely the friendliest we’ve ever met. We arrived at 3pm, having missed lunch, and were both tired and hungry. The guy on reception was pleased to see us again, and worried that we looked so tired. He rushed off and returned with bananas and bread for us! We soon headed out on the free bikes to go to the nearest supermarket for supplies. We also wanted to go to a bakery we’d read about where everything was vegan and they sold fig and walnut bread! We’d tried to go before but it was closed, and we’d been fantasising about it ever since.

After a few days away the city had changed a little. Christmas trees, signs and lights had gone up downtown around the docks. The old warehouses that now house tourist shops were glowing with twinkly lights and in the frosty twilight it was truly beautiful. On our way to the bakery, we stopped off at the most exciting tourist attraction of our travels so far: Japan’s first concrete electricity pole. Yes you read that right.

We found the bakery, shocked but not surprised that a tiny loaf of fancy bread cost about £8: nuts and fruits are exceptionally expensive here so that’s where most of the cost came from. We bought the smallest one we could and got the rest of the supplies from the shop nearby, then made our way back to enjoy our feast in the warmth of our hostel kitchen. It was almost empty that weekend, so we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves.

On our final full day in the North, we had a plan to make the most of the daylight. After a multiple-course breakfast we took the bikes first to the brick warehouses. We needed an envelope! While we’ve been away a general election has been called. Before we left, recognising the possibility, we registered to vote at Jay’s parent’s house. We also completed all the necessary stuff for postal proxy votes, before being told that is something you can only arrange for a specific election, so we had to wait for the announcement before we could send off our forms. The only envelope we could find was attached to a Christmas card, and so, our forms signed and dated, we sent them on their way to Essex, happy to know that we’re still able to take part in the democratic process.

From there, we parked the bikes at the public onsen, and started the long walk circumnavigating Mt Hakodate. There were multiple paths up and we were going to take a less traversed one up the opposite side, which crossed the top and then would drop us back down next to the onsen. It would be a long but pretty walk.

We started through a park; a typical Japanese park where words cannot describe the sheer beauty of it all, especially in Autumn, and trying to do so would be a string of superlatives (and of course the pictures don’t really do it justice).

We followed the road out the other side and walked around the hill to find the start of the path behind a shrine. We found a shrine and spent some time walking around it before we realised it was behind the next shrine (shrines are everywhere in Japan). We spent some time wandering through a hillside graveyard with exceptional views and then gave up, dropping back to the road and going a bit further round the hill. We found a(nother) temple and behind it, entirely unmarked, a small track disappeared into the bushes. Hoping we’d finally found the route up, we set off through the tall grass and scrub, into the trees and quiet of the woods above the city.

The trail was partially cleared as it rose, becoming easier to follow as it steepened. Eventually we topped out, but opted to avoid the concrete clad summit that we’d been up a few days before, instead circling around to a small outcrop where we found a bench, and sat in some very light snowfall to eat our lunch. We enjoyed the way the light played on the sea below, and the occasional noises from the city which drifted up to us, but we didn’t dawdle as there were only a couple of hours before darkness fell and we wanted to be back in the onsen by then. The path down began as wide gravel along the top of the ridge, winding in and out of the trees. Then it zigzagged sharply and steeply downhill for the final 20 minutes. Here we stopped again to sit and listen. Elsewhere in Japan, we’ve really wanted to just sit in silence in the forests to enjoy the sounds and maybe see some wildlife. But we’ve been in areas where we’ve been told to keep talking and making noise so we wouldn’t surprise a bear. It takes the relaxation out of sitting quietly if you’re waiting for a grizzly to come lumbering out of the trees at you! Here we could just enjoy it. We heard something shuffling around in the undergrowth nearby, something big enough to be a small deer and very close, but the thick scrub hid it from sight. Then we heard a tapping above us, and looking up we found a small fist-sized woodpecker, which had no mind for us at all, happily pecking away at a branch. Sadly though, no squirrels.

At the onsen we soothed our aching limbs for well over an hour, and sat in the outdoor hot tub watching the sky darken above the mountain, and the stars slowly come out. It was a magical way to end the walk. Back in the town, we took ourselves for our most extravagant treat: vegan sushi. It was the most expensive meal we ate in Japan (or anywhere), but we’d heard nothing but incredible stories about the place, and we thought it would be really sad to leave Japan without trying proper sushi. The chance to actually have some which we could eat was slim so this was our opportunity, and we went for it. And it was INCREDIBLE, especially when accompanied by home-made plum wine (with an actual steeped plum in it).

Tokyo

The next day we boarded our final bullet train (with foggy heads from plum wine and sake) to head back to Tokyo. Arriving in the city, the noise and hustle of so many people was almost jarring after the relative quiet of Hakodate at the start of winter. In the station we found a vegan ramen restaurant and had a nutritious and sobering bowl of tasty noodles and veg, which perked us up a bit! It was mid afternoon and we didn’t want to go straight to our hostel. It was also the last day we could use our JR passes, so we wanted to get maximum use from them. We made a plan to head to a nearby town on the coast where there was meant to be a beautiful Christmas display, as we were both (well, Jay mostly) feeling festive still, despite the slightly warmer temperatures. Around dusk, we arrived at the station and walked to a large shopping centre. It gleamed with lights and the shops inside were full of Christmas tat and music, and free samples of cava! In a central square there was a large Christmas tree, surrounded by Lexus sales people and a few cars. Weird. We went up to the rooftop, where people were walking their tiny dogs in designer clothes in a small dog park area. Next to that was a fantastical garden adorned with lights and glowing squirrels and woodland creatures, and an outdoor ‘room’ made to look like Santa’s house. It was all very twee, but Jay loved the lights and the magic, enjoying it all with a childlike glee (shared by several toddlers who also ran around gaping at the glowing animals, and the funny hyperactive white man).

We had learned in India that if something seems unusually cheap, compared to the prices around it, then chances are something is very wrong. However, we had been lulled into a false sense of security when booking accommodation in Japan where most places have been very clean, so we’d taken a risk with the cheapest hostel we could find in Tokyo for our last two nights. We had already spent well over our budget, and the reviews seemed ok, so it seemed worth a try. We arrived at the Star Inn just before 8pm, in a dark suburb of Tokyo. When we went in it was dimly lit and grimy, and there were no staff. We had to check in on facebook and make our way to our room where the key was in a tiny padlock across the door for us. The whole place had an air of depression and the few people there sat around in silence, looking pretty miserable, staring at their phones. In our room, which was the size of the bed, we stared at each other, trying to work out how to make the best of it. The bedding didn’t look spotless, but it wasn’t filthy, and there were only a few hairs on the floor. We’d only be sleeping there two nights and we’d be out all the time. It would be ok, it would be fine. Later that night, around 10pm, as we were sitting on the bed chatting, Jay noticed something black on his leg. In horror we realised it was an enormous bed bug, chomping away. Jay flicked it off, picked it up, and put it in the bin outside. It was late, we didn’t have many options, and we tried to tell ourselves it was just one. It wasn’t. Although the bed had been empty when we first checked it, we were now very much not alone. And there was no way we were staying.

We put everything we’d had out on the bed into a sealed dry bag, and we legged it out of the hostel. We stopped on the way out to ask the other guests if anyone else had found bugs, and were told they had, but just opted to cover themselves and their beds in DEET instead of leave. We didn’t have any DEET, and also, just No.

On the street rushing to the train station, we hastily booked the next place we could afford that had good reviews. We would arrive 30 minutes after they usually closed reception but they agreed to wait for us. An hour later we arrived at the hotel, and realised why we hadn’t selected it before – it was an OYO chain hotel. In India, our worst accommodation experience was with an OYO and we’d avoided them since then. But here, there wasn’t any dog poo in reception, and no one had left a motorbike running in the corridor, so things were already looking up! In any case, we had no choice now. We booked in for the two nights (at £3 more per night than the hostel) and gratefully made our way upstairs.

We were delighted! Instead of a grimy hostel full of critters, we’d ended up in a lovely room with a clean comfy bed and our own bathroom! It was small, but modern and looked really nice, like an actual hotel room. We stripped off just inside the door and put everything we had worn into the dry bag, sealing it and hanging it from a peg. Then we showered and thoroughly inspected each other. We had no bugs, and if any were in our clothes they were now in a sealed bag, and we’d wash and tumble dry them to death the next morning. We were both so relieved, and also grateful to the man with the terrible cold who had waited after his shift to let us in.

On our last full day in Tokyo we found online info about the best light displays for Christmas and went to visit them, knowing it would be the last time we were somewhere cool enough for it to feel like Christmas, as it would be summer in Fiji and New Zealand! First we went to check out the Shibuya crossing: a massive road junction in Tokyo which has been featured in numerous films and documentaries, where at rush hour up to 2000 people cross between the sky scrapers clad in neon and advertising videos.

We found a pop-up cafe that had vegan hot chocolate, topped with a cake and squirty soya cream, and then, as it started to rain just in time for dusk, we decided that our final stop would be the Christmas display at Tokyo Sky Tower.

At the Sky Tower, the lights and trees were captivating and we sat up on the rooftop market area drinking mulled wine and watching the moon as clouds shifted around it, and the branches of the Christmas tree swayed in the breeze. It was chilly but we were warm enough snuggled together with our hot drink. This would probably be the last time this year we felt cold, and it would be the last time we saw these recognisable stars (the ones we could see from the middle of the city anyway) until next Spring. But we’d gain a new sky, and we’d soon be in the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer, so it was a bittersweet feeling. The cold and the festive atmosphere did leave us a little homesick, and we were glad we’d be staying with friends when we got to New Zealand.

The next morning we packed our bags for the final time, had a ridiculous 30 minutes trying to post a parcel back to the UK, and then took the long train ride to the airport. We were very early but it gave us time for dinner, where a window looked out over the runway at the most glorious moonrise.

Airside, we tried to find a bar (the only way Jay can get on a plane without freaking out is to get drunk first). Instead we classily settled for a few cans of Asahi and a small bottle of sake while we sat for a few hours at our departure gate. Our flight left around 9:30pm and we were delighted to discover we were getting both dinner and breakfast on the plane (with the time difference there was actually 3 hours between the two meals!). We took advantage of the free booze and drunkenly started watching ‘Nine to Five’ as the lights of Tokyo vanished beneath us and we were enveloped by the dark sky over the open Pacific Ocean. At some point we would cross the equator, that magical imaginary dividing line between the global North and South. But we would be asleep then, unaware, and dreaming of frosty mountains, bears, and twinkling lights.

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