I always encourage my friends to visit. I like having visitors and I think it’s even more important to do so here in such a small town. Nik, my predecessor, told me that he never got many visitors to Saroma. This left me less than optimistic about friends visiting me, here in this far-flung remnant of empire, this village isolated from all but the rare fishing boat or mining expedition, where humans struggle against nature’s cruel chorus, their pitiful dwellings windswept and beaten from a hundred angry winters and their meager chattel at the mercy of gaunt, desperate vermin – a forsaken crag of hubris built upon the very precipice of earthly existence, unto which only the forlorn souls of broken men venture forth.
Wait, I think I’m talking about Russia, a little further north.
Saroma is actually quite accessible, with well-maintained roads, punctual trains and affordable air connections. It’s still a little far away from happenin’ Tokyo and hip Sapporo, and that’s why I consider myself lucky to have received numerous drop-ins over the 19 months I have lived here: Hannah and Yoshi; Ilkka and Petri; Natsuko; Remmington; Jon; Roxy and Daisy, and two weeks ago, Mike and Alissa.
I’ve known Mike and Alissa for about as long as I’ve been able to sentiently know other beings. Alissa and I were consistent and reliable line leaders in Mrs. Butler’s 2nd grade class at Swanson Elementary. Mike and I created several award-winning high school video masterpieces.While they are both intrepid travelers like myself, they couldn’t speak or read a lick of the Japanese language. This usually isn’t a problem with visitors; Japan itself is safe and efficient, the people friendly and honest. However, Alissa and Mike became hooked on the idea of taking a ferry to Hokkaido. Even after explaining that a ferry and bus would take twenty times longer than a plane, cost nearly twice as much and me three times as complicated, they just couldn’t shake the romantic notion of travel by ship.
Alas, I couldn’t resist either, so on March 19th, I flew down to Tokyo to meet these two friends and show them the way back. They had already chocked up an impressive list of adventures in Tokyo, causing me to wonder if they really needed any guidance. The next day we boarded the ferry and settled into a 19-hour sea journey to Hokkaido. There is something magical about ferries, something unique and especially exciting about setting off on a journey across the ocean. You are departing the safe surface of land and entering a world with a new set of rules. You pass by nothing familiar, you make no frequent stops, yet you are still part of the earth, with room to breathe, stretch. On most forms of transportation, you board, get on, ride. On a ferry, you truly embark.
It was certainly comforting to travel with friends who shared my nostalgia for ocean-going travel, and we quickly made use of the spacious and relaxing accommodation with a few cheap beers on deck as we left port. Mike came up with a game then that became quite popular with children in our cabin. Simply, the goal was to stand with both feet together and see who could remain standing for the longest. At first, it was far too easy. But by the next morning, as we passed the eastern mouth of the Tsugaru Strait, the seas had heightened to make the game much more interesting.
Interesting, and sickening. Mike and Alissa had to lie down and the baths and outer deck were closed by the crew. As we approached land after lunch, the ocean calmed, and we soon arrived into Tomakomai Port. A few hours later we alighted into a snowy Sapporo City. Mike and Alissa exchanged their Japan Rail passes at the station, in the midst of several thousand travelers stranded by wind and snow delays. Luckily, we were staying put that evening, in a hotel in Susukino. We made good use of the location, eating Ramen, playing arcade games, and singing some serious songs at karaoke.
In the morning we boarded a bus to Saroma, and arrived that afternoon, several hours late from the storm. My girlfriend Yoshie came over that night and helped me introduce Alissa and Mike to their first proper Japanese onsen (hot spring!) experience. Like many foreigners, they were astonished that something so mundane as bathing can become something as sublime as… bathing. To paraphrase Mike: “Bathing or showering is normally like a chore. This is great.”
The next day, Tuesday, marked a day back to work, but as Palmer citizens, Alissa and Mike qualify as work. After visits to the Town Hall, the Mayor’s office, the Elementary and Junior High Schools, and a hearty school lunch, we strapped into our snowshoes and headed up Horoiwa-yama for a view of Lake Saroma and the Sea of Okhotsk. Back to the house by five, Alissa and I prepared our ingredients for the evening’s dinner with my English conversation class, and Mike tried to reinterpret the meanings of Chinese kanji characters. After a successful and delicious class, complete with an impromptu rendition of the Alaska Flag Song, we retired to Kaiko, a local izakaya, to sample some local fare and Japanese sake. The day had effectively beaten all of us though, and after only a few beers we called it a night. After all, we had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us the next day.
On Wednesday, after a drive through Bihoro Pass, Kawayu Onsen and Abashiri, the three of us had another dip in the onsen on the lake and then tried our hands at curling in nearby Tokoro. Mike and Alissa caught on quickly, and we managed to get in a game in the last 20 minutes of our hour ice time. We only played one end and didn’t keep score but I’d say that Alissa ended up with a clear lead over Mike. Mike also agreed with me that the Japanese women’s team was by far the most attractive of this year’s Olympic curling teams.
Early the next morning we said goodbye at Engaru station as Mike and Alissa headed toward Hakodate on their Japan Rail passes. It marked the end of a legendary visit to Saroma by some great friends and great travelers. From what I’ve heard, the next week of their trip through Hiroshima, Nara, and Tokyo went off without incident or great difficulty. Both of them are now back to the real world in the wilds of America.