On Monday June 27th, we decided to check out a local restaurant. It would seem that almost everything is closed on Mondays for some reason, but one place that was open for business was Mami (マミ – like “mommy”), the restaurant that Hasegawa-san runs. (This was the restaurant that I had ended up playing badminton outside of at 10:30 at night.) We stopped in to give it a shot. We actually ended up having yakiniku, which while delicious, isn’t cheap. I narrowly avoided the awkward situation of not having enough money to pay our bill. Good thing I didn’t order a beer!
The highlight of the evening was encountering my JS students as they returned home. (They did live there, after all). They were very happy to see me, but super excited to meet my girlfriend. The eldest son gave us a couple cookies as a special gift. They are very sweet kids.
On Tuesday, we drove to Yoichi, the dullest place on Earth—not counting Iowa. I wanted to show Marissa where I go when I need to buy something, rent a DVD, or just get a coffee, but I tried not to talk it up too much, since it’s not especially noteworthy. In fact, the drive there was the most interesting bit.
We went to Mr. Donut, a doughnut shop chain that I’ve come to appreciate for their regular black coffee. We each enjoyed a cup of joe and sampled the various doughnuts. To be honest, I don’t really care for Mr. Donut’s doughnuts because they have an extremely light texture, and they just seem to be chock full of artificial ingredients. They have a couple old-fashion style doughnuts that are tolerable, but their standard “rings” just taste phony, and I think their frosty might actually contain plastic. However, having a coffee with Marissa again, like we used to do all the time in Seattle, made Mr. Donut exponentially more enjoyable.
Fun fact, the Japanese pronunciation of “doughnut” is “do-natsu” (ドーナツ). So Mr. Donut is always pronounced as “Mr. Donuts“, even though there isn’t an S at the end. At first I thought that the doughnut chain must have messed up their logo and left out the S, but I quietly realized it was just that katakana pronunciation sneaking in. A similar confusion surrounds “taco”, the Mexican food staple. Taco is always called “takos” (タコス) in Japanese, whether it’s multiple tacos or just a single taco. This time though, the reason is that “tako” is already the name of a food in Japan; octopus (蛸 - たこ). I’ve always dreamed of ordering tako tacos, just for the alliteration.
While in Yoichi, we also checked out the Aeon, which is actually a collect of multiple stores, like a little shopping mall. We checked out the super expensive melons in the grocery section, and the random junk in the 100 yen shop, which is like a dollar store in the US. We couldn’t leave without sampling some takoyaki (蛸焼 – octopus dumplings), which I always lovingly translate at “octopus balls”. They were quite delicious, five bucks well spent.
On Wednesday, we tried to visit Cape Kamui (神威岬), only to discover that the path had been closed due to strong winds. I was actually legitimately proud that I was able to read the sign on the closed gate, even though the gusts of wind nearly knocked me off my feet, so I suppose anybody could have figured it out from the context. Disappointed in our bad luck, we decided to just keep driving past the Cape, rounding the west side of the Shakotan peninsula. It was an adventure because I hadn’t gone that far before.
The drive was extremely beautiful, with more and more cliffs-meet-sea landscapes the further we went. The natural splendor was intermittently interrupted by long tunnels, much like the stretch of road from Yoichi to Shakotan. Randomly, we stopped in the tiny town of Kamoenai (神恵内), where we checked out the local Shinto shrine. We then took an inland route, hoping to circle around back to Shakotan, and ended up traveling on Route 998, the craziest mountain road that I’ve ever seen. The road snaked around the mountain side, back and forth so many times, I’m pretty it crossed over itself at multiple points. There were bridges and tunnels, and some weird stretches that had tunnel-like covered sections; I think to prevent them from being covered by snow in the winter. We really got the feeling that we were driving through the middle of nowhere and the feeling of isolation was magnified by the lack of other cars on the road. It was like an ultramodern ghost trail.
Throughout Marissa’s visit, I was looking at the very real prospect of running out of money before my first paycheck arrived. Then on June 30th, I finally got my first real paycheck. To celebrate, we bought a bottle of Shakotan Wine from a local store and climbed up to Bikuni’s lookout to enjoy it. We didn’t have any proper wine glasses, so we drank from the next best thing, a Hello Kitty sailor-themed glass. The lookout gave us a spectacular view of Bikuni, the marina, and the surrounding waters. While the wine turned out of to be a bit too sweet, it wasn’t enough to spoil the mood produced by the gorgeous sunset.
After finishing the wine, we headed to Jun’s Shop (純の店) for a proper dinner. The Jun family seemed genuinely happy to see me at their restaurant again, and we even ran into some teachers from Hizuka ES. (As I later discovered, my good friend Yamazaki-san was actually eating upstairs as well.) While the combination might not have been on the menu, I ordered sashimi and tempura for us both. Luckily, the Jun family is very accommodating, and they presented us with an amazing dinner. I was happy that Marissa was getting the real Shakotan seafood experience.
Friday July 1st, we made yet another attempt to see Cape Kamui (神威岬). This time we were successful. We walked the hilly trail out to the tip of the cape, enjoying the stunningly blue water and dramatic rock formations along the way. I tried to share the Legend of Cape Kamui’s iconic island rock spire, but unfortunately I was a little unclear of the details. It seems that many of Shakotan’s cool island rock formations have legends associated with their creation, and that all of them involve lovers throwing themselves into the sea.
In the case of Kamui Rock, the cliff jumper was a girl named Charenka, the daughter of the Ainu chief in the area. Legend has it that popular historical figure Minamoto no Yoshitsune was on the run from enemy forces and had fled into Hokkaido. (Yoshitsune was a general who I’ve actually read about in classic novel, Tales of the Heike. If I remember right, he was a kickass military strategist, but he was eventually betrayed by somebody and forced on the run.) Taking refuge in an Ainu village, he meets Charenka and they instantly fall in love, or at least she does. (It seems that Jorouko Rock has a similar origin story also involving Yoshitsune and a different chief’s daughter named Shirara, so maybe he was just the love‘em and leave‘em type.) Anyway, Yoshitsune heads further north and Charenka follows him, but only gets as far as Cape Kamui. Overcome with grief and gealousy—and this is the part that’s unique to Kamui’s legend—she cursed the location, saying that any ship that sails near with a woman on board will sink. Then—like every rock formation legend I’ve heard so far—she throws herself into the sea, and her spirit transforms into Kamui Rock. In olden times, people really believed that the presence of a woman would sink your ship if you went near Cape Kamui, so women were actually prohibited from going there.
After the crazy gorgeous cape, we stopped off at the Abe family farm, so that Marissa could see the amazing rolling hills with the mountain background that I had talked up so much. Mrs. Abe was working in her field when we arrived, but she took the time to invite us in for tea, which we did. It was very nice talking with Mrs. Abe, not only because of our interest in her farm and family, but also because she spoke English well enough to communicate with Marissa. Not wanting to be too much of bother for Mrs. Abe, we thanked her for her generosity and headed back to Shakotan.
Yamazaki-san had invited us over to his house for a dinner with his family. He knew Sukiyaki (好き焼き) was favorite Japanese food of all, so that’s what he had prepared for us. What a guy! The entire Yamazaki family was there, including Yamazaki’s mother, who also lives in the house. The children’s piano teacher, Takano-sensei, was also in attendance. I was a little worried that Marissa might have a hard time eating raw egg, which is what you do in Sukiyaki—it’s basically just sweet meat that you dip in egg—but she had no trouble with it.
Yamazaki’s mother offered some umeboshi (梅干し - sour pickled plums), one of the Japanese foods commonly thought to be difficult for foreigners to appreciate. Not only were we able to tolerate them, but Marissa genuinely liked it and ate a couple more. During the meal, we were also treated to some raw uni, since it’s considered Shakotan’s specialty.
Conversation went pretty smoothly considering I had to translate for Marissa. The Yamazaki’s asked about how we had met, and I kind of laughed to myself because I always tell too long of story in English. Luckily my lack of Japanese proficiency meant that I couldn’t include my usual ridiculous amount of detail, so the story didn’t seem to bore anyone. Marissa turned the question back to the Yamazaki-san and his wife, and they shared their own story with us. It was delightful dinner conversation.
Eventually we went outside for some fireworks, which they call “hanabi” (花火), literally meaning “fire flower”. It didn’t register in my head at the time, but it was June 1st, and Marissa was wearing my red “Canada” sweatshirt that we had gotten on a trip to Victoria, BC. While we had joked about celebrating the Fourth of July a little early, on face value it would appear that we had actually celebrated Canada Day. Of course, the fireworks were provided by the Yamazaki’s, who knew nothing of Canada Day or Independence Day, so in truth it was just your standard summer party in Japan. We had a really wonderful time.
On Saturday July 2nd, Marissa had her flight back to Italy scheduled for 5:00pm. In an effort to squeeze every last drop of fun out the trip, we drove into Sapporo around noon. We parked the car at Hiroko-chan’s house and walked down Odori Park. The weather was sunny and warm, with hardly a cloud in the sky. Weather so beautiful seemed unfitting for the despair I was fully expecting to be in the next few hours. However, we seized the time we had left and genuinely enjoyed it.
We shared an ear of Hokkaido’s amazing sweet corn, which even though I had talked it up hyperbolically, still did not disappoint. Then we got ice cream cones, which also proved delicious and perfect for the occasion. Still hungry, we eventually got some bento sushi from a Lawson’s nearby, and had a little picnic in the park. I savored every moment.
We ventured into Sapporo’s underground, thinking that we might have time for a coffee at Pronto, but as I looked at the clock, I started to worry that Marissa might be late for her flight. I had never actually driven all the way to the Chitose airport before and I was totally guessing at how long it might take. Instead of delicious Pronto coffee, I suggested that head to the airport now and, hopefully, get coffee there.
As it turned out, this was a wise decision. First, I had considerable difficultly finding an onramp for the southbound expressway. I think I must have wasted 45 minutes trying to simply get on the right road. Once we were on the expressway, I drove faster than my little Suzuki Wagon R had ever been pushed before, trying to make up some time. After we actually made it Chitose, there seemed to be an excessive amount of local roads we had to drive though before we arrived at the New Chitose Airport. Fortunately, we had left early enough that my mistakes didn’t do any real damage. We had plenty of time.
In the airport’s crowed shopping mall area we found some overpriced, subpar coffee and sat down. While the environment was busy and the coffee kind of lousy, I still thoroughly enjoy it there with Marissa. We talked about the distance and our future, and while the mood was somber, it was hopeful. Already we were figuring out when we could see each other next.
At the security gate we said our farewells. We hugged that kind of long serious hug that you do when you know you’re not going to see your loved one for a longtime. We kissed, and even though the conservative Japanese culture probably wouldn’t approve, we kissed passionately, yet tenderly. We cried. Then she went through the gate where I couldn’t follow any further, and she was gone. Alone again.