As we approached Hakodate, the weather deteriorated until it seemed like we spent the entire last hour of the flight in a cloud bank. When we finally landed, we were carried along in a crush of people to baggage claim. The terminal was a maze of contrasts. It was sparse and there were a lot of unsmiling Japanese guards in uniform, but on the other hand there were pots of brightly blooming flowers everywhere. We gathered our bags and found our guide, Keiko, who led us to our bus. It was cold and dark and raining as we headed for our hotel in downtown Hakodate.

As we sat there dazed and confused in bus seats that were surely not designed to accomodate American-sized butts, Keiko began an enthusiastic monologue introducing us to Hakodate. She offered to take whoever was interested out for ramen or sushi after hotel check-in so, after depositing our bags and puzzling over the controls on the toilet in our room, we joined the group in the lobby.

As we walked to the restaurant, everything seemed very surreal. I felt like I was walking through the world of "Blade Runner". There were so many funny looking cars and signs and banners and the constant hum of voices and music over a loudspeaker. I chalked it up to exhaustion, but then Walt said "I feel like I'm in "Blade Runner" or something".

Keiko hustled us through the basement of a department store filled with food booths and people enthusiastically peddling their wares, back out onto the futuristic street, down a narrow alley, and through the doors of a tiny noodle shop. The staff looked somewhat surprised, but when Keiko began translating our orders, they began cooking up huge bowls of ramen. It was the perfect meal for a cold, wet Japanese night.

The next morning, after a buffet breakfast of strange Japanese breakfast favorites (pickled vegetables, salty fish, tasteless rice gruel, salad, and numerous unidentifiable substances) and even stranger Japanese versions of American breakfast favorites (How do they make those scrambled eggs and why is the bacon almost raw?) we headed for the Hakodate Morning Market which was located right behind our hotel. There were stalls and stalls and even more stalls of more crab than I ever imagined - huge crabs, hairy crabs, live crabs, cooked crabs. There was an even greater abundance of multiple varieties of squid. Then there were the attractively arranged melons that looked like giant cantelope and cost upwards of $40 each. Incredible! Keiko told us they are sent as special gifts on special occasions. It was great fun wandering among the stalls trying to communicate with the vendors.

The rest of the morning was spent touring various points of interest in Hakodate - a pentagonal fort, a lookout tower, an old legislative building, a Trapist monestary. The rain continued unabated. We passed a multitude of tiny houses with brightly colored roofs surrounded by little gardens filled with vibrant flowers and bushes. I was also impressed by the numerous drink vending machines - an average of 3 per block - offering everything from tea to beer, the lack of litter, and the daring maneuvers of the boxy little cars. Everywhere we went, huge black birds (ravens?) cawed at us.

This is our tour guide, Keiko, and some of the members of our group. The picture on the bronze plaque is of a very smart man. If you rub his head, you are supposed to get smarter.