Yenless in Sapporo

There is something both thrilling and terrifying about being penniless in a foreign country. On my first night in Sapporo, perched at the counter of a closing sushi bar, I felt a jolt of excitement at whether or not the restaurant would accept my credit card. (Upon arriving, they’d claimed they would, but language barriers can result in humorous misunderstandings, like the time I mistakenly called my Argentine maid a gnome.)

In any case, I felt simultaneously out of my element and galvanized at the prospect of the unknown. Or maybe it was the wasabi.

I was lucky to have flown into Tokyo with Mary, a colleague of mine who works in my department, though you wouldn’t know it, based on how infrequently we speak to each other. Mary grew up in Japan and offered me many valuable insights into Japanese culture: wash your hands with wet wipes before eating, don’t stick chopsticks into rice bowls when you’re done. She also taught me how to write “teacher,” which I practiced dutifully in my journal while waiting for buses.

She was stellar company. We spent the 40-minute wait to pay to leave the Manila airport discussing Russian literature (her passion) and Dracula (mine).

The flight from Manila to Tokyo was 3.5 hours, all of which were spent in conversation. I’ve never talked to someone for that long on a plane, but given we’d been working together since July and had barely spoken, we had a lot to catch up on.


Once we landed, we had an hour or so in the Haneda airport before Mary hopped a flight to Osaka and I lingered around waiting for mine to Sapporo.

I should pause here to mention that Mary wasn’t my sole travel companion. In tow, for the duration of my travels around Japan, was my snowboard, packed into a traveling case with wheels. Also inside the case: snowboarding boots and all of Alicia’s winter clothes.

Somehow, as the trip unfolded, the snowboard seemed to grow in both size and weight. I felt a bit like those guys in Weekend at Bernie’s, propping up a dead guy and dragging it around. The snowboard garnered mixed reactions from other travelers: laughter, terror at nearly being sideswiped, bemusement, pity.

As I passed through security and into the Tokyo airport, where I’d need to re-check it, the customs agent regarded me with suspicion.

“What is that?” he asked.

“A snowboard.”

“Snowboard? From Manila?”

At this point, he probably thought it more likely to be a dead body.

Once it was checked through, Mary and I searched unsuccessfully for an ATM so I could get some yen. In the meantime, she bought me my first onigiri and a bottle of what we thought to be mineral water but was actually yogurt-flavored water. It’s as weird as it sounds.


Onigiri: a rice mound wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with something. (In this case, kelp.)

When she left, it dawned on me how completely out of my element and yen-less I actually was. Normally, I crawl into the comfort of a dark airport pub and sip a beer while awaiting my flight. Here, there were only open spaces and light. Few establishments accepted credit card.

I bided my time with a Matcha green tea latte from Starbucks.

Once I’d landed safely in Sapporo, I had to negotiate a bus from the airport to my hotel. I waited near the baggage carousel feeling re-energized, especially as my board emerged first. Joyously, I rolled it off the belt and hit myself in the face with it. The night was off to a great start.

I forewent a trip upstairs to an ATM in hopes of catching the very next bus to town, which I somehow managed successfully and with credit card. The bus ride to town was 40 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I find a special sort of comfort comes with being snug and warm on a bus conveying you to where you need to be, hassle-free.

Of course, once at the hotel, I discovered I couldn’t use the ATM next door and that the hotel restaurant had closed at 9. This is how I wound up in the sushi restaurant a floor below, which I found to be a better option in the end anyway.

I ordered a pint of Sapporo and asked the waitress what she recommended to eat. She pointed out blue fin tuna, which would be served raw.

Mary had mentioned that wasabi is served with raw fish because it kills the bacteria. I was torn: a germaphobe by nature, I dreaded getting sick. But I also have zero spice tolerance. In the end, I ordered the wasabi on the side but slathered it all over the fish anyway.

Holy crap. No sooner had I taken a bite, my entire nasal cavity was on fire. Painful? Kind of. Unpleasant? Surprisingly, not entirely.

It was in this way that I passed my first night in Japan: painfully out of my element, but surprisingly not entirely unpleasant.


A relaxing end to a day of travel.


Mmm! Sticky fried potato dessert thing.

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