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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When You Get to Vladivostok, Go East




Perhaps a dozen sailors crowd a travel office near the port of Vladivostok and dig into their coat pockets, pulling out packets of what appear to be bundles of U.S. dollars wrapped in typing paper. Oblivious to travelers dropping by to pick up tickets, the sailors duct-tape their packets into bricks and dump them into a duffel bag.


One of the men grabs the bag, carries it to the dock and walks it out past customs to the Antonina Nezhdanova, a ship that will be leaving for Japan within an hour. Minutes later, the phone rings in the office where the sailors are waiting. An office manager wearing several diamond rings picks up the receiver. "Hello?" she says. Then she beams. The suitcase, she is told, has safely made it through customs.


"Good boy, Oleshka," she coos, and she begins blowing kisses into the phone - kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss.


Somehow, it seemed an ideal beginning to our trip. Vladivostok, where I live, is the largest city in the Russian Far East, and it is better known for political corruption, creative tax evasion and the occasional contract killing. It is also the terminus of the 10,000-kilometer-long Trans-Siberian Railway, and I periodically see wobbly kneed tourists fresh off the train wandering the downtown with guidebooks in hand, wearing an expression that says, "Well, now what?" Sure, there are some interesting 19th century brick buildings - along with hundreds of sprawling gray apartment blocks - and many noteworthy rusty hulks line the harbor. But I imagine that some travelers who end up here can't help thinking, I went without a bath for seven days just for this?


Allow me to propose an alternative. If you are going to do the Trans-Siberian, don't end your trip in Vladivostok. Look around a bit - then catch the boat to Japan, 500 kilometers away. At $350 round trip, the cost isn't unreasonable, and for those heading on to most other countries, air connections from Japan are far better than in Vladivostok (The prices may be better from Vladivostok if you are flying on Aeroflot, so double-check.) Japan abounds in sights that stagger the imagination of anyone who has spent too much time in Russia - toy-like houses, sushi bars, lawns, city parks filled with deer, Buddhist and Shinto temples. Shockingly, in Japan no one urinates in elevators or leaves dead cats in the stairwell for the janitor to pick up. They don't even steal bicycles that Japanese commuters leave unlocked all day outside train stations.


My girlfriend Nonna and I sailed on the Antonina Nezhdanova, a passenger vessel that was also carrying 37 sailors going to buy used Japanese cars (All transactions are in dollars, and Russian customs sets strict limitations on the export of dollars.) Every Monday, the ship leaves Vladivostok, arriving in the Japanese port of Toyama-Fusiki on Wednesday morning. For those who can't wait to get back to Russia, the Antonina Nezhdanova returns on Friday. But we jumped ship and spent more than a week sightseeing before returning the following Friday.


The Antonina Nezhdanova is a Bulgarian-made ship named for a Russian actress, and it is not exactly a place where Love Boat babes lounge on the deck. There is a certain comfortable shabbiness to the ship - cigarette burns in the carpet, tallow-colored wallpaper - that should surprise no one who has been in Russia for any length of time. You can expect to be fed delicacies such as batter-fried bologna or pickled fish and onions. The pool was empty, and there's no good place to sit and watch the sea from indoors: Lace curtains block the dining room windows. Still, there were touching attempts at class: The hallways are decorated with reproductions of Renaissance art. Besides, there are other benefits. A ship at sea, like a train, has its own lulling rhythm.


The Antonina Nezhdanova was a floating microcosm of Russia. On the one hand, the waitresses had obviously spent many years honing their irritable and cheerless demeanors. On the other, the cleaning woman was remarkably friendly, and when I came down with a cold, the ship doctor prescribed antibiotics and refused my attempts to pay him. On the trip home to Vladivostok, the captain sent down a workman to install a television in our cabin so that we could watch dubbed movies as the ship lurched and fell (I got the sense that Americans are a rarity on the Antonina Nezhdanova - or maybe it's just that journalists are.)


The passage was cold and gray, even though it was summer, and we spent much of our time lying on our bunks, reading (Bring a book; there is nothing else to do, unless you like to nurse your boredom with a $10 bottle of vodka.) One U.S. fellow traveler on the trip home shared boxes of Ritz crackers with us. He had spent many years in the U.S. Navy and swore they were the best food for seasickness. Luckily, neither of us ever felt anything worse than a mild nausea.


During our second night on the ship, a girl named Ira knocked on our door.


"Do you guys want to go up to the bar with me?" she said. "They're supposed to have music, but I don't want to sit alone with all those sailors."


We joined her for a half-hour of bad synthesizer music before fleeing. Ira, on the other hand, had found the sailors more to her liking than she had anticipated and stayed on.


Despite some dirty weather over the Sea of Japan, we were lucky. As we approached the port of Toyama-Fusiki, the sun broke through the clouds. We spent the morning on the deck sipping coffee and watching the mountains known as the Japanese Alps cruise by across the bay. For anyone who has ever felt disenchanted with the way air travel flattens and de-dramatizes any landscape, sea travel is a glorious introduction to a new land.


Fusiki itself came as a shock after Vladivostok's looming grayness. From the ship you could see a town of single-family houses, some of them overgrown with ivy. There were stores and even some neon. And most shocking to those of us who live in a place where the sea freezes a meter thick every winter, we saw stunted palm trees.


Travelers in Japan will inevitably find their own destinations. Many, I assume, will dash for Tokyo. We skipped the super-expensive capital because we had Russian friends in Niigata who put us up and insisted on blowing their hard-earned Japanese wages on cab fares and dinners. The stay there allowed us to visit the island of Sado, where we happened upon a festival of drumming and dancing.


Few travelers, on the other hand, would want to miss Kyoto and Nara, the old imperial capitals. The world's largest Buddha occupies a temple in Nara, a lovely city where deer in city parks eat out of your hand. The Temple of a Thousand Buddhas, with its bleacher full of life-size figures, was one of the most impressive sites of our trip.


On the trip home, there was less room for strolling the outdoor decks. Our ship was crowded with the used cars that our fellow travelers had purchased. But despite a day and a half of travel time, there was a pleasant side to our rolling, leisurely pace. By the time the ship docked, we had re-acculturated. We were happy to sail back to our rusting, gray home port.