The crew of the Mariner does a very good job of managing expectations. Once again the immigration process was not nearly as bad as I had feared. We did have our mug shots and fingerprints taken, but it was very high tech and efficient, not at all like going through central booking. They sent people in shifts so we didn't have to wait in line very long, so the whole process only took a couple of minutes. And the Japanese are so polite it was hard to really mind.
We made landfall in Hakodate on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The weather, naturally, was perfect: 74 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. (Well, maybe one or two.) We were escorted into the port by a tugboat and a pilot boat. The pilot boat -- and I have photos to prove it -- was spouting a jet of colored water that changed from red to blue to green to yellow. It might be hubris to suppose that this was to celebrate our arrival except that the local authorities actually held a welcoming ceremony in the ship's lobby with a coterie of bouquet-wielding high-school girls and a procession of local dignitaries. The ceremony was still going on when we had to go catch the bus for our tour.
Everyone I've ever talked to who has been to Japan remarks on how clean it is, and I am joining the club. Even the tugboat that escorted us into the harbor was the cleanest I've ever seen. Not a spot of rust (well, maybe one or two). The dock was spotless. The town was spotless. The tour busses were spotless.
I make it a point to learn a few phrases in the local language wherever I go. You can get an awful lot of mileage out of "hello", "please", "thank-you" and "I don't speak X" for the locally appropriate value of X. My first opportunity to try this in Japan was in a small local museum (The Hakodate Museum of Northern Peoples). I greeted the curator (whom our tour guide called "sensei", which struck me as very endearing) with "Ohaio gozaimas" (which is the polite rendition of "good morning") and he lit up with surprise and went into a flurry of bowing and expounding on how wonderful it was that I spoke Japanese. Of course, it was all in Japanese so I couldn't really understand a word he was saying. It almost broke my heart to tell him that he'd just heard pretty much my entire repertoire.
Our tour then took us on a cable car ride up Mount Hakodate, which is only about 1000 feet high, but still afforded spectacular views thanks to the beautiful weather. Nancy and I then struck out on our own to explore the touristy part of the waterfront. Hakodate is not a major draw for Americans, so nearly all the tourists were Japanese, and the whole day we did not meet a single person who spoke English.
We were feeling adventurous so we decided to try our luck at a sushi bar. It's amazing how much a Japanese sushi bar looks and feels like an American one -- modulo the fact that everyone is speaking Japanese. And it turns out the protocols are a bit different from what we're used to. We managed to order some Sake (which in Japan is not called sake but nihon-shu) but we sat there for 20 minutes before we figured out that we had to order our sushi from the waitress rather than from the sushi chef as they do in the States. But once we got that sorted out we had some of the best sushi I've ever had in my life. I've had sushi in a lot of places: LA, San Francisco, New York, Vegas, but it all paled in comparison to this random hole in the wall in Hakodate. I ordered omakase (chef's choice) so I got a little of everything, including some stuff that is considered "challenging" in the States, like uni (sea-urchin roe). The reason it's challenging in the States is that the uni isn't fresh, and when it isn't fresh it tastes slimy and disgusting. But when it's fresh, like it was here, it's not fishy or slimy at all. It's got a delicate, nutty flavor. And all the other fish was correspondingly higher quality than what you typically get in LA.
The other pleasant surprise about Japan (or at least Hokkaido -- we'll see what happens when we get to Tokyo) is that everything is cheap. The dollar may be weak, but apparently the Yen is weaker. We might not be able to afford a hamburger in London, but sushi in Hakodate was a bargain.
The only negative surprise about Japan so far is that ATM machines are nearly impossible to find. We've been to a lot of places, including a lot of third-world countries, but we have never had as much trouble finding an ATM as we did today. In the entire touristy waterfront of Hakodate there is not a single one. (We asked.) We finally found one in (wait for it) a 7-11 store, where I also picked up a couple of bottles of Japanese single malt scotch which I can't wait to try.
I'm writing this off-line because we're still in radio silence until we get out of Japanese territorial waters later tonight and they can turn the satellite link back on. Connectivity will of on-again-off-again until we get out of Japan about a week from now. Until then, sayonara!