The internet is full of travel blogs, and travel blogs are full of inspirational stories highlighting the glory of travel and the unforgettable moments found while wandering. There are, however, very few negative tales out there and those that do exist are rarely taken seriously.
So when The Australian Times announced a Travel Writing Competition I joined the masses and started thinking of all those magnificent moments that I’d had abroad. With hundreds of my own personal instances to count, I started to realise that maybe telling a stimulating tale of smooth sailing and happy times wasn’t the way to stand out. Dig deeper, my inner voice said, find something unique. Tell a story that won’t be expected.
Clearly my inner voice was right. I triumphed as the winner by telling the tale of my friend and I in Japan, lugging around far too much baggage and resolving our blundered travel plans with an age old form of self-medication: beer.
Picture this: Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.
February 9, 2013.
My travel companion and I are dragging our miserable behinds awake, hair askew and false eyelashes stuck in eyebrows. The thrill of the night before fading, we pack away our heels and curlers and our cute hats and makeup. The dizzying feeling of being fabulous in the ice bars is long gone as we knuckle down for a day of flat shoes, jeans and hard-core travel from Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, to Tokyo and then up into our dream hostel in the middle of the Japanese Alps — by plane, train and hire car.
We’ve got one hell of a day ahead, but we’re experienced (hung-over) travelers. So when we find ourselves at Sapporo airport being asked “Didn’t you get the email”, we looked at each other and blinked. Email?
0605: I sit on the floor of Sapporo airport, surrounded by suitcases and backpacks while my friend argues with a man in a red uniform. We soon find out that our amazing morning effort was in vain; our flight has been cancelled and this guy is useless. At this point in time they can’t even refund our money. Keep arguing.
0630: Still sitting on the floor and we’re beginning to start a trend. Suddenly everyone follows and we all hit our phones, trying to out-book each other for the very last seats off this snow covered island.
0635: Hysterics kick in and we giggle. Insanely. The only option left is a train and we hate trains.
0640: We become those foreign travelers that every native hates. Suitcases rolling at breakneck speeds, backpacks clearing a path behind us, we hustle to the JR Ticket Office. A man behind the counter dies a little inside at the prospect of having to deal with two foreign girls first thing without his morning coffee.
0700: We depart with a handful of tickets and instructions burnt into our minds. The worst part of everything is over. We have direction; a way off this blizzard riddled island. Life’s good!
0850: Station in the middle of nowhere. We take a moment to sit on the plastic chairs and study our tickets. Here we have a fifty minute wait, yet at the next stop we have exactly two minutes to change trains. Silently we vow that’s open season; only the strongest survive a two minute changeover.
0855: I come back from the bathroom to find my friend grinning oddly. Worried for her sanity I ask what’s so funny. She kindly points out that we won’t make it into Tokyo until after 8pm and that our accommodation is a further eight hours travel away.
0900: Sometimes the only thing you can do at 9am is crack open a local beer and smile creepily at the station attendant.
0910: Feeling better with beer, we hit the phones to try and find somewhere to stay in Tokyo instead of trying to make our final destination of Hida-Takayama. This doesn’t go well and before long we need to abandon the public telephone that has clearly time traveled here from the 70’s and head back to the freezing platform.
0930: We both stare at the speaker that crackles to life 5 minutes after the train was due. Why yes, clearly the train is late, thank you for telling us. We wait like ice sculptures, neither game to mention that our subsequent two minute change over at the following station is blown.
1510: It’s crush or be crushed at Hakodate-eki! It’s here that we take a Korean-American under our disorganized wing. The station attendant happily lumps our ragtag group of foreigners together and puts our seats at the front of a carriage — in the naughty corner — so we can stare at the driver’s door.
1600: Provisions low. Cabin fever setting in. Is there a bar on this elephant? Wait, where are we again? We dub our new companion ‘Tae-Alfred’.
1815: Tae-Alfred helps us at the next changeover, but eventually questions our excessive amount of luggage, which we now refer to as ‘baggage’, said with a French accent. When my friend answers that it’s “for all the handbags”, he looks confused. She clears it up for him, “The handbags go with the shoes, of course.”
2100: Residential status: still homeless. State of mind: slightly intoxicated. Tae-Alfred is napping, most likely to drown out the sound of our chattering. We’re in love with the Refreshment Cart; booze on wheels.
2245: Tokyo! Kiss the ground. We part ways with Tae-Alfred and scrape together our 100yen pieces like precious food coupons before seeking a pay phone. After the shambles of the day we finally find a hotel. Crisis averted! Too tired to celebrate.
2323: We’re out of the final station and never catching a train again (until morning as we could only book one night). Hotel sign in sight, we could almost jump for joy.
2326: Defeated! The salt in our travel wounds is the magnificent visage of a flight of regal red stairs at our hotel entrance. They stand between us and reception, but there is a trolley of cardboard next door that looks warm, and we do have enough scarves to make a shanty town.
[Original article written for and published by The Australian Times UK for their Great Travel Writer Competition. It can be found here.]