Thursday, October 21, 2004

Hello Kitty: I love her really Posted by Hello

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Episode 9: Central Honshu & Kansai {geishas,a scary night in the forest & cars,cars and more cars}

"Oh why don't they just put that bloody cat on their flag and be done with it. Right in the middle of the neon sun. Go on, you know you want to!!". I was having a bad day and one Hello Kitty bumper sticker too many pushed me over the edge. It had rained for the entire of the first two days leaving Tokyo, which didn't make fighting through the traffic any more fun. Not that you could actually tell where Tokyo finished and Kofu began...they just sort of merged together, same Pachinko Parlours, same 24 hour restaurants, same Honda Civics and Nissan Sunnys. The highlight- in fact the only thing of any interest at all- had been a long stretch of road lined with dozens of love hotels. Love hotels are where Japanese couples will go for a bit of privacy (the term 'love' is probably a little misleading, if you know what I mean). If there were awards for tack, love hotels would win hands down. From the turret and battlement architecture to the pink neon signs, the theme rooms including 'Tarzan and Jane' and 'The Mickey Mouse Room' (I checked), and the European names such as 'Hotel Paris' and 'Spain Love Palace' (because it's only Europeans who go for dirty weekends in hotels, obviously).
I'd hoped to climb Mt Fuji but despite riding within spitting distance of it for about 50k's I still hadn't actually caught sight of it. I put up my tent in the rain on a disused bowling green and ate most of the chocolate cake Chaco's sister Naoko had given me (officially the most delicious thing in the whole world). In the morning it was still raining and didn't look like stopping in a hurry. Besides that, there was already snow on the top of Fuji by this time of year. It would have to wait. I rode off into the mist hoping I'd at least see it before leaving the country.

Things improved as I approaching the southern Japan Alps, where I was able to get onto minor roads and escape the relentless traffic. At the end of the third day I lost track of time a bit, and riding through dense forest up a steep hill realised suddenly that it was getting quite dark and I still hadn't found a place to sleep. Not much later I spotted one of the distinctive red Torii gates which mark the entrance shrines and went through to check it out. A narrow path twisted up through the forest, eventually emerging at a clearing high on a hilltop where the shrine stood precariously, looking down at a small town in the foothills way below. No-one was around so I went back to collect my stuff and then laid out my sleeping mat under the shelter of the shrine and then cooked up some dinner, admiring the view. That night I woke up at about twelve to the distant sound of drums, but thought nothing of it and fell back to sleep. An hour or so later I awoke again with a start- The drumming had got much louder and there was some kind of chanting now too. I scrambled out of my sleeping bag and went to investigate. Hundreds of lanterns were crawling slowly up the road like a giant snake from the town below. Of all the times to come to this shrine, I had to arrive on the night of a bloody festival!
The drumming was now very close. They HAD to be coming to the shrine- I'd seen nothing else of any significance on the way up the hill. I packed up my things as fast as possible and tried to decide what to do. I thought of staying put and pretending I'd come to watch the festival, but no-one else had come and they might not welcome outsiders so close to a religious celebration. In the darkness the chanting and drumming sounded pretty intimidating, and shrines can be pretty spooky places at the best of times. So I did what any intrepid adventurer would've done under the circumstances: I panicked and ran away. After packing my pannier bags at record speed I ran back down the path, loaded my bike in a flash and cycled further into the forest up the hill just as the first lanterns came into view.

Now listen carefully good people because I have some important advice for you: If so happens you're ever invited to a late night forest-cycling session in bear territory, JUST SAY NO.
The road soon started to climb even more steeply and it was slow going. In the light of my head torch I was already jumping at every shadow, when suddenly a pair of yellow eyes appeared by the road up ahead, like something out of a comic-book. I stopped dead still and it was several moments before I was able to bring some scale to the eyes and calculate that whatever the creature was, it was considerably smaller than me. Still I jumped a mile when the thing darted towards me before disappearing into the forest.
I crossed two passes of 1500 metres and despite wearing all my clothes it was still very, very cold. Twice more I had near heart-attacks when unidentified creatures appeared suddenly by the roadside. At about four o'clock a vending machine appeared a round a corner in the middle of nowhere like an angel from the darkness. I drank two hot coffees and then continued into the night. At six o'clock the sun slowly started to rise and I found myself in a beautiful valley surrounded by high peaks. I arrived at the small village of Tsumago, famous for it's Edo period traditional houses and usually teeming with tourists, but thankfully at this hour it was peaceful and I had it's immense beauty all to myself. This was the Japan I'd always imagined: narrow stone streets, wooden shops with red lanterns hanging outside, several small shrines smelling of incense, and puffs of smoke rising from chimneys and drifting up towards the mountains. An old lady came out of a shop and started opening the shutters. She bowed slightly when she noticed me and said "Ohayo Gozaimas" ("Good Morning"). I wandered off to take a few photos and when I got back a plastic bag was attached to my handlebars containing two hot rice balls. I tried to find the lady to thank her but she was gone.
I rode for about a day through this idyllic landscape before gradually the mountains started to recede, the villages started to become towns and slowly but surely I returned to the realms of Convenience stores and Pachinko and traffic jams. For two whole days either side of Nagoya I got so fed up with the relentless concrete and congestion I seriously thought about calling it a day. It rained all the way and I spent money I didn't have on junk food and stopped at shops I wasn't really interested in just as an excuse to get off the road.

I nearly missed Kyoto. How you can go past a city of one and a half million people without noticing is beyond me, but somehow in my rain-induced tunnel-vision I missed the turn-off and was a fair way down the road to Osaka before realising I was going the wrong way.
Yet another typhoon was coming in so I set out to find a youth hostel to shelter in for a couple of nights. The first two places were full but I got a bed in the third. It was a bit run down, but a sign promised free chocolate and beer in the evenings. I couldn't really afford it, but vowed to eat two thousand Yen's worth of chocolate and checked in. All my gear was soaked through, and I was feeling fed up and in need of some company. It turned out to be a very good decision. This typhoon was even worse than the last and at least 60 people were killed across southern Japan. After three days of cycling in the rain now I was sitting inside watching it on TV, but at least I had some good company amongst the other travellers stuck indoors, including my third foreign cyclist of the trip: Josep from Spain, an extremely likable guy who disproved my long held theory that all long distance cyclists (except me) are completely bonkers.
After the typhoon had passed I rode out to the Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of one of Japan's few remaining Geisha on their way to work. I again found myself in the Japan I'd always pictured, but as with most such idyllic places in the world, every man and their dogs knew about it too. A single Geisha in kimono and full make-up was being hounded in the street by twenty or so amateur paparazzi of different nationalities. I turned and rode off in the opposite direction.

On the road towards Kobe the traffic continued where it had left off, but at least the sun came out for a while. Somewhere along the way I spotted a small metal Pachinko ball by the side of the road and stopped to pick it up. This was of course fantastic news. I've seen the movies, I know what happens next: the boy takes the ball to the Pachinko parlour and, with a naive smile, drops it into a machine. One ball becomes ten, ten becomes a hundred and he puts the money on rank outsider 'Three-legs Suzuki' in the Tokyo handicap stakes who miraculously comes in first (after a particularly infectious strain of Foot and Mouth wipes out the rest of the field at the starting gate) and the boy walks off into the sunset with pockets stuffed full of Yen. All my money problems were solved! I walked confidently into the next Pachinko hall I came to and fed the ball into a machine near the entrance. PING...CLUNK. Nothing. Not a sausage. The ball disappeared, taking my dreams with it.

Kobe was made famous by the terrible earthquake in 1995 that knocked down half the city and killed around 6000 people. It was rebuilt remarkably quickly and nowadays you'd hardly know anything had happened, except for a couple of tasteful memorials. From Kobe I'd hoped to ride across the longest suspension bridge in the world to Awaji island, between Honshu and Shikoku, but unfortunately bikes and pedestrians weren't permitted so I had to take the nearby ferry instead. Because of it's location just of the coast of Honshu, Awaji has become a kind of defacto holiday resort, though with it's drooping palm trees and sad looking ice-cream stalls it didn't really merit the title. I felt there was an unwelcoming air about the whole island, with many of my waves and Konnichiwas going unanswered, though perhaps I'm being unfair as I did rush through pretty quickly in my keenness to put some kilometres between myself and the madness of Honshu. It was only 60k's from one side of Awaji to the other and at the far side I was again faced with a car-only bridge- but this time there was no ferry. The only option was to try and hitch a ride with one of the trickle of vehicles going the same way. In case you've never tried, hitch-hiking with several large bags and a bicycle isn't the easiest activity in the world. It was pretty disheartening standing there in the hot sun being able to actually SEE the place I wanted to go but having car after car crammed with apologetic-looking people pass by unable to help. When on a couple of occasions a pick-up truck approached I was practically down on my knees begging the drivers to stop, but (perhaps because of which) they only stared straight ahead and drove on by. After more than two hours a friendly off-duty highway patrolman named Matsimoto-san stopped and offered me a ride. It took longer to load my bike onto the roof-rack than it did to actually cross the bridge, but finally I was in Shikoku, the third of Japan's four main islands, where things would surely get better.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Jitensha lane Posted by Hello

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Episode 8: Tokyo {priests in fishnets, natural disasters and food glorious food}

Getting off the train at Aizu Wakamatsu station I didn't recognise Mizuho at first, waiting by the exit dressed in fishnet stockings and smoking a cigarette. It was Saturday and I'd interrupted the night out she was having with friends. We jumped in her flashy new car (complete with DVD system and's a tough life being a priest) and raced off to a small restaurant/ drinking establishment in the middle of town.
Inside, the other priests were holding up their reputations as respectable members of society by getting unashamedly inebriated on beer and tequila. Recounting my Hokkaido adventures over a few drinks I completely forgot how tired I'd been and agreed that going on to a late night darts bar would indeed be a bloody good idea. Funny how that happens. Consequently I can now cross off 'Play darts with a Japanese priest in fishnet stockings' from my list of things to do before I die.

By another amazing stroke of good fortune and generosity a Japanese cyclist by the name of Ken, who I came into contact with on an internet forum, announced he had a very good spare wheel from a trip he'd made around Africa which I could have for nothing. What a guy! After saying a sad goodbye to my friends the priests, I wobbled out of Aizu hoping my old wheel would hold out long enough to pick up the new one.
That afternoon it rained like I've never seen it rain before. It started so suddenly and so ferociously that there wasn't even time to put my raincoat on before being absolutely soaked to the skin. Under usual circumstances I can't understand people who complain about the rains, you get wet, you get dry again and you're back where you started. It's not like we're made of sugar. This is particularly relevant in England- if you live in England and moan about the rain you're doomed to a life of misery, as far as I see it. But this was different. It rained so hard I was thinking of ringing Noah and asking for carpentry tips. With nowhere to shelter I just kept on riding. Just when I thought I couldn't get any wetter an oncoming truck sent a sheet of water from the road straight at me. And then, as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped and the sun came out and a large rainbow appeared over the hills.

Following directions to an onsen just outside the town of Nikko in the early evening where I planned to treat myself to a wash, I somehow ended up cycling onto an expressway. Quite how I did it I'm not entirely sure, though having managed to get myself trapped in a train station the week before this latest cock-up didn't come as a total surprise. There hadn't been any of the tollgates that usually mark an expressway entrance, but now here I was undeniably riding down the expressway with four lanes of traffic whizzing past, getting some very strange looks from inside the vehicles. I made a brief attempt to go back the way I'd come, which involved riding the wrong way down a single lane on a blind corner, but after a very close shave with a very large truck I thought better of it and carried on the way I was going.
The next exit was 7 or 8 kilometres away, so the highway patrol had plenty of time to spot me on camera and come out to meet me at the off-ramp. At first I tried to laugh the whole thing off but clearly riding a bicycle on the expressway is a very serious matter.
"Passport", said the Policeman.
I handed it over. He spoke into his radio:
"Officer Kowasaki to base, we have a foreigner cycling on the expressway, I repeat, a foreigner CYCLING on the expressway". He gave them my passport number.
Now I was really worried- with such a long list of misdemeanours to my name the chances of getting that visa extension (and therefore finishing the journey) seemed to be getting slimmer and slimmer. In fact, considering my history of getting lost on mountains, losing bags and attempting to first hitch-hike and then cycle on the expressway, I'd be surprised if this nation of law-abiders will ever let me within sight of there shores again.
While waiting for my details to be confirmed, the officer started searching my bike for some kind of registration number, obviously faced with the problem of having a box to fill in on his report sheet but nothing to write in it. I pointed to the British Standards safety number on the frame and he wrote it down, satisfied.
There was some kind of delay checking my passport, but after assuring the Policeman I'd be sure to stay well clear of expressways from now on thankfully he let me go. I gave up looking for the onsen and instead pedalled back to town and put up my tent in the Emperor Meiji memorial garden.

Riding a bicycle from one side of Tokyo to the other was about as much fun as, well...riding a bicycle from one side of Tokyo to the other. The city started a full two days before I finally arrived at Chaco's home in Tama-shi in the western suburbs. Following numbered routes around the city outskirts navigation wasn't too much of a problem, but nearer the centre as the broad major roads dwindled off into a web of nameless smaller ones I had to resort to my compass to keep going roughly in the right direction, before eventually hitting a main road again. Twice on the way I was cut up badly and only saved by loud blasts on the novelty clown horn I'd bought as a joke from a One-hundred Yen shop back in Hokkaido.
As hectic as the traffic was, it could've been worse- at least Japanese drivers mostly observe the rules of the road. Come to think of it, at least there ARE rules of the road, unlike plenty of other Asian countries I could mention.
When I finally arrived in Tama, Chaco and family- who'd been doubtful (to say the least) that I'd be able to locate them amongst Tokyo's 12 million other inhabitants- were waiting in front of the house holding a huge 'finishing' ribbon. It was a fantastic feeling to have made it all the way there from Hokkaido by my own steam.

I'd seen so many photos and heard so much about Chaco's family I felt like I knew them already. Didn't stop me feeling nervous as hell though. Mind you, ten weeks earlier at the start of the journey I would've been worse. One thing I'd always found daunting about the idea of going to Japan was the formality and social etiquette and a fear of offending people through my ignorance of the culture. I know now though that the Japanese are very generous in making allowances for foreigners, and are used to most of our ways now anyway. There are a few things you do need to know- always take your shoes off before going into people's homes, for example. They'll usually provide slippers to change into, though since I can only just about squeeze my big toe into them I usually give them a miss. And never use soap in the bath or you'll be in big trouble. Other than that you're pretty safe really.

I arrived filthy and exhausted, and it was great to be able to unpack my bags and relax for a while- and to enjoy some fantastic home cooking. After surviving largely on a diet of instant noodles and curry-rice for the past couple of months I was now being undeniably spoiled: Amazing Tempura made with veges straight from the garden, Sushi (of course), Ramen (noodle soup)- during which I was told off for not slurping enough (did you hear that mum? NOT SLURPING ENOUGH!!). It brings out the flavour, apparently. And one night we had a kind of savoury pancake called Okonomiyaki, a dish that turns cooking into a social event. The ingredients including pork, veges, bean sprouts and a flour and egg base are brought out to the table along with a huge communal hotplate and then the actual cooking part is up to you. My theory is that it was invented by a tired housewife who got fed up one day and said "That's it I've had enough! Here are the ingredients, you can cook your own dinner!". Anyway, it was truly delicious, if I do say so myself.
And no meal would be complete without a cup of green tea and a bowl of Miso soup. Incidentally, I think I've discovered the secret of why the Japanese live longer on average than most other nationalities and generally stay so thin: they don't have dessert! Though if you ask me a daily helping of trifle or cheesecake is more than worth sacrificing a few extra years for.

The Koiso's are a close family, and on the frequent occasions when Chaco's sister Naoko and her family came over for dinner there'd be no less than four generations eating together.
The youngest member is Ayane, Naoko's impossibly cute three year old daughter, who surprised everyone by not bursting into tears at the site of a scary big-nosed foreigner (it was touch-and-go for a minute though). And the eldest is Ayane's Great-grandmother, who lives with the family despite being senile and almost immobile and requiring constant care. I have nothing but respect for their dedication in looking after her, particularly Chaco's poor mum who always seemed to be running around frantically, reminding her to take her medicine or explaining who the tall strange-looking man is.
As in much of Asia, loyalty to family is immensely important in Japan, though with today's heavy workloads and hectic lifestyles, not to mention the ageing population, traditional values often take a back seat and consequently nursing homes are a growth industry.

Despite some terrible weather we did manage to venture out of the house a few times. It was only a short walk to San-Rio Land, where Japanese kids are taken to be brainwashed into worshipping Hello Kitty for the rest of their lives. I desperately wanted to go and pay homage to the icon of all things cute (or alternatively tug on her pretty little whiskers to see if they're real...), but Chaco (wisely) wouldn't let me.
Central Tokyo was all I'd expected it to be: the neon and the ten story TV screens, the noise and congestion, the ranks of suit clad businessmen and bizarrely dressed teenagers, the cavernous electronics shops and the department store the size of small towns...everything moving at a hundred miles an hour. It was a real shock to the senses after spending the bulk of my time up to now in the rural backwaters of northern Japan. What did surprise me though was the little pockets of calm that can be found amongst the madness; hidden shrines and temples and zen gardens that help keep the people in touch with the other side of Japan, preserving a little sanity away from the neon and the gargantuan levels of consumer-excess.
At one stage we were waiting at Shinjuku station to take a train on the notorious subway system. Shinjuku is one of the busiest stations in the world, with over two million people passing through it every day.
"We'll never get in there!", I said as the train rolled in, almost silently. It was full by any previous measure, but I followed Chaco's lead and we forced ourselves into the mass of bodies, before one of those guys employed solely to physically squeeze as many passengers as possible onto the train came along and added another dozen or so people, and then we were off. So there are elbows in ribs and faces in armpits and I'm feeling like a battery hen on visitors day, wondering how on earth people can put up with this on a daily basis.
"This is crazy", I said, "How can people live like this?"
Chaco just shrugged and replied with a completely serious expression: "You should see it at rush hour".
The subway gets so busy that particularly in the evenings there's a major problem with salary men, drunk or otherwise, taking advantage of their close proximity with female passengers to have a quick grope. The victim is often too scared to say anything (or in the tangle of bodies may not even know who the culprit is), so the men generally get away with it and the problem continues.
I got a surprise when talking to Chaco about safety in Japan; it has an exceptionally low crime rate (a mugging will make the front page of the newspaper) and I said that I never feel remotely threatened in Japanese cities, even at night. But Chaco told me that as a woman she doesn't feel anywhere near as safe. Most women apparently have had at least one, if not several experiences of flashers or peeping toms or other sexual harrassment. Teen-aged girls are particularly vulnerable. Chaco pointed out a large sign in front of a school which said 'BEWARE OF PERVERTS'. I spoke to other women about the subject and they completely agreed. This came as quite a shock to me and shattered some of my illusions about Japanese society.

I got the new wheel from Ken as promised and spent a whole afternoon in a small restaurant in downtown Tokyo listening to very entertaining stories of his travels by bike in Africa, followed by a run-down of his interesting plan to cycle across the Sahara by adding a balance wheel to the bike and riding on the railway tracks!
Meanwhile at the Koiso household they never needed much excuse to have a party, and as a kind of 'Welcome to Japan'/ 'Farewell' party (depending on whether or not I'd be given a new visa) Chaco invited all her friends around and we all lent a hand in the preparation of another feast. Colin the Travel Weasel also came over, back in Tokyo from his cycling trip, and everyone had plenty to eat and drink and marvelled politely at my Sushi-rolling skills.

I enjoyed myself so much I ended up staying in Tokyo for 2 1/2 weeks. I would've left a little earlier but for a typhoon that came through- the worst of the year so far, in a season that already seen a record number of typhoons, many people believe as a consequence of global warming. Adding to the list of natural disasters there was an earthquake late one night. It only registered as a three on the Richter scale but it was enough to shake the house around a fair bit. I woke up terrified shouting: "IT'S AN EARTHQUAKE!! WHAT SHALL WE DO?!?"
"Go back to sleep",Chaco replied, and did just that, her expression suggesting I was being a bit of a pansy.
Tokyo is sitting directly on top of two very active tectonic plates and earthquakes like that are a fairly regular occurrence. But it's a well known fact that 'the big one' is well overdue, so it amazes me that people can stay so calm when everything starts shaking. It's a case of "what will be will be" I suppose, they've earthquake-proofed the buildings as much as possible and practised countless evacuation procedures and there's not a lot else they can do.

Incredibly, I got my visa extension. Whether because of computer error or clerical blunder I don't know, but it was clearly an oversight and gave a mighty bashing to my faith in Japanese efficiency. I went to the immigration office armed with an array of excuses for my misbehaviour expecting lie-detector machines and the like, but in the end I was in and out in less than an hour.
There was still time for one more party to celebrate the formal announcement of the engagement of Chaco's other sister Yuko and her boyfriend Ban-san, and then finally the time came to hit the road again.
I pedalled off into the traffic carrying a few extra kilos than I'd had on the way in (around my stomach), with a strong feeling that Tokyo is a place everyone should see at least once while they're on this planet.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Rishiri-san, seen from nearby Rebun island, off the north coast of Hokkaido. Posted by Hello

Monday, September 20, 2004

Episode 7: Travels with Chaco {cannibals, russian sailors and other unusual characters}

With a couple of days to kill before Chaco`s arrival I took the opportunity to hang around in the park and do absolutely nothing for the first time in a long while, merely lazing around under the tall trees reading, or sitting by the carp pond watching dragonflies. Even allowing for the fact that the toilets squealed an out of tune `Edelweiss` whenever anyone walked within half a mile of them, this was a very fine park indeed. I even made friends with the local cannibal community. A large group of them were enjoying a barbecue and a keg of beer and one man beckoned for me to join them. "Excuse me, let`s eat each other!", he shouted, raising a glass of beer. The rest of the group toasted their friend, who waved at me again. "Let`s eat each other!!". I`m willing to try most things once but being eaten is one of the exceptions. I declined politely and thankfully that was the end of the matter.

Reunited with Chaco once more, we took a bus out to the wilds of Daisetsu-zan National Park where we hoped to climb Asahi-dake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido. Chaco had never climbed a mountain before and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. She thought she`d climbed one once until a cruel individual who`s name will go unmentioned pointed out that it had actually been a hill.
If there was ever a perfect advert for the joys of the great outdoors then Daisetsu-zan in the Autumn is it: crisp mountain air, crystal clear ponds and sparkling streams, incredible views and more different reds, yellows and oranges than you can shake a stick at. We took our time on the way up and Chaco and I were both surprised how easily she made it to the top. With a bit of breath remaining we decided to take the loop track back down which featured an open-air hot spring right next to the path. When we got there I stripped off and jumped in, hoping no little old ladies would come by. Bliss...
Paranoid of a bear sighting on the final section through dense forest we sung our little hearts out all the way to the bottom, the sound of my voice probably clearing the area of bears for at least a couple of weeks. Chaco seemed fine until the moment I told her how far we`d walked and then she nearly collapsed.

Back in Asahikawa I went to my first `Biking` restaurant, so called not (to my disappointment) because they sell food for cyclists, but because the Japanese can`t pronounce the letter `V`, as in `Viking`. There wasn`t a very viking-like atmosphere inside (mainly old ladies), but with all the salmon and assorted meats and cake we could shove down our throats for a mere Y1000 I wasn`t complaining. Presumably they don`t get ravenous European hikers in too often or they`d be out of business by now. I ate and ate until I felt sick and then ate some more. A little earlier I`d planned to try and start a viking style brawl after the meal, but now I was too stuffed to even move and Chaco had to roll me back out to the street.

On the north side of town a little later we hitched a ride with the very first car that came by, which belonged to Yuka and her friend Yoko. Our destination was Wakkanai, which as well as being the northernmost city in Japan also sounds a lot like the word for `I don`t know` in Japanese. It was a good job Chaco was there or with my bad pronounciation it could`ve been a tad embarrassing when drivers asked where I wanted to go.
Yuka and Yoko were both bank clerks in their early twenties and obviously picked us up for a bit of excitement. They dropped us off at a campground in their hometown about 50kms north, and then returned an hour later to invite us to Yoko`s house to eat Sukiyaki. I`d never tried Sukiyaki before, which was a relief to them because they`d never cooked it before. It`s basically beef, tofu and vegetables cooked together in a big pot and served with a raw egg (don`t worry, the egg gets cooked by the heat of the other food). Truly delicious. I liked Yuka and Yoko, they were very sweet, but talking to them made me a bit depressed. Although they were well paid, neither of them enjoyed their job, with it`s compulsory overtime and very short holidays. In the current climate though, quitting a good position, particularly early on, is considered very unwise indeed (particularly in Hokkaido which has a lower percentage of office jobs).
They`d been on holiday to Tokyo and Kyoto and liked them, but were basically stuck in a rut in a small town, too scared to give up their jobs and go out into the rest of the world. Of course Chaco and I tried to convince them that it wouldn`t be as difficult as they thought, but they just couldn`t seem to think about it as an actual possibility.

Our next ride was with a lady in her forties and her young daughter, who were on the homeward leg of their weekly 300km round trip to the hospital in Asahikawa, where the girl gets treatment for a severe allergy.
"That`s hard", said Chaco, "It`s such a long trip".
"Not at the speed I drive!", said the mother, and as soon as we got onto a straight stretch she put her foot to the floor.

Gazing out to sea from the lonely junction where they dropped us, it really looked likewe were standing at the edge of the world. Both of us still exhausted from two freezing nights in the tent in Daisetsuzan, the couple of hours that passed by that roadside felt like much longer. I reminded Chaco of something I`d often said about hitch-hiking, that just when you think no-one will ever stop and are about to give up, someone will always turn up to save you. Well almost always...there was that time in outback Australia when I got stranded and ended up sleeping in the mouth of a giant crocodile made of stone. Anyway, with barely a car in sight I was struggling to convince even myself of this theory when Maeda-san rolled up in his big 4x4 and announced he was going all the way to Wakkanai. Rescued again. We followed the coast all the way, which was rugged and lifeless except for occasional groups of fishermen trying to ambush salmon next to river mouths.
Maeda-san told us about the problems they have with Russian sailors in Wakkanai, who get drunk and steal things and generally behave like Russian sailors. There`d been a so-called mafia shooting in Wakkanai the year before and the locals were still nervous. Maeda-san was currently studying Russian to try and communicate with them and create a better relationship.

After a couple of days without a wash the first thing we did in Wakkanai was head for the public shower block near the harbour. Inside, several huge-looking Russians were arguing with the two tiny female attendants, shouting and cursing at them in backwards R`s. After so much time spent amongst the mostly quiet and reserved Japanese, the Russians seemed pretty terrifying.
Our plan was to take the first ferry the following day out to Rishiri, one of the two islands off the north coast, almost within spitting distance of the Russian mainland. Shopping for supplies I noticed the other customers were giving me a wide-berth, and the shop assistants avoided making eye-contact when I went to pay. Then I realised what it was...I`d unwittingly put on my `Aeroflot Airlines` t-shirt. Hopefully this will be the one and only time in my life that I`m mistaken for a Russian sailor.
That night all the campgrounds were full and we were pointed towards an area near the ferry terminal where bikers apparently sometimes put up their tents and told we could try there. It turned out to be a walkway with a concrete floor, and Chaco wasn`t impressed. I had to agree it was a miserable spot, but all the hotels were out of our (my) range, so it would have to do. Just across the road from our tent was a big (and very expensive) hotel, which Chaco gazed up at longingly. "Matt, can we stay in a place like that one day?"
"One day honey". I replied. How does she put up with me?

A typhoon arrived in Rishiri island not long after we did. I may be a skinflint, but seeing as this was a natural disaster I was prepared to upgrade from the tent to a simple log cabin. Chaco seemed satisfied. When the rain finally stopped I set off to climb the mountain that is essentially the whole island, whilst Chaco opted for the more relaxing option of a quiet bike ride by the sea. The hike was a tough one but the views were worth it, out to neighbouring Rebun island, back to the mainland and all the way to Russia off in the distance.

Rishiri was hardly central Tokyo at rush hour, but Rebun island next door was even more laid back. Rather than wait for the single bus which does a loop of the island just for the 5km journey to the campground, we decided to hitch. After all of 30 seconds a tiny pick-up truck pulled up and we had a ride with a local fisherman, a huge man wearing filthy overalls with a towel tied around his head in the uniquely Japanese style. There wasn`t much room inside so I had to ride in the back of the truck. Chaco hadn`t even finished closing her door before the fisherman put his foot down and we raced off up the road. Just a couple of minutes later we stopped at a small shed next to the sea where the fisherman fetched us two enormous pieces of fish, already gutted and ready to cook. Tearing up the road again Chaco confessed we din`t have anything big enough to cook them on and soon we stopped again, this time at the fisherman`s house where he went inside and came back carrying an old metal barbecue full of coal already burning strong. He placed it on the back of the truck next to me and we tore off again. Another five minutes and we arrived at the campground, where the fisherman unloaded all the stuff and then sped off in a cloud of dust, shouting out the window that he`d be back later to collect the barbecue. What a guy!

The ext day we went for a very beautiful walk along a ridge past terraced hillsides full of tea plants and with great views over to Rishiri. Unfortunately we were too late in the year to see the wildflowers that Rebun is famous for, but on the positive side we also missed the truckloads of tourists who come with them and had the place virtually to ourselves.
The morning we left we passed a small grocery store where two women were engaged in trying to wake up the owner, who had apparently overslept, by shouting loudly through the letterbox. "She`s probably drunk!", one of the women said, and they both laughed loudly. Rebun felt different to anywhere else I`ve been in Japan, more laid back and less formal. I was sorry we had to leave so soon.

Chaco had been bitten by a mystery insect during the night and her eye lid was now the size of a golf ball, so she was in no mood to wait long for a ride out of Wakkanai. Thankfully Machida-san came by almost immediately and we had a ride all the way back to Asahikawa.
Machida-san appeared very nervous at first to have picked up a foreigner, but relaxed a bit when he found out I was from England (Chaco relaxed too when she found out he spoke English and she`d be spared translation duties for a while...). "Where in England do you come from?", he asked, in what sounded strangely like a Welsh accent. I told him and he got very excited. "Ah, Bristol! Bristol Rovers! Bristol Temple Meades station! I`ve been there!!". Machida-san was a maths teacher and had made five trips to England during his long summer breaks. He spoke of his time there fondly and said he thought of it like a second home. His knowledge of the place was amazing, particularly on the subject of football. "So do you follow Bristol Rovers or Bristol City?", he asked. And then, "Ah Rovers...are they still in division three?". Unrequested, he rattled off the names of the entire 1966 World Cup winning side. I asked what his favourite memory of his time in England. "Drinking in a pub in Liverpool with the scousers. They were very friendly". I nearly joked that they were probably trying to figure out the size of his wallet, but didn`t want to spoil it. "You could understand what they were saying then?", I asked. "About fifty percent", said Machida-san (you could tell he was a maths teacher). I was impressed. That`s at least ten percent more than I can.
It turned out Machida-san lived in Tokyo and as it happened worked just a few minutes drive from Chaco`s house. I asked what he was doing all the way up in Wakkanai. "I had the day off so I decided to take a holiday. I flew up here from Tokyo and took this rental car along the coast. Now I`m going to Asahikawa to fly home". A one day trip to Hokkaido from Tokyo! That`s like going to Rome for the day from London. Then Machida-san smiled sheepishly. "My wife doesn`t`t know where I am. It`s a secret trip!". He loves travelling so much that he takes off around the country at every opportunity. He doesn`t tell his wife in case she wants to go with him.

Arriving in Asahikawa (for no less than the fourth time on my journey) we were walking in the dark with our packs to set up camp in my usual park when a car pulled up and offered us a ride. It took a moment to sink in: hitch-hiking in Japan is so easy that even at night, in the middle of a city, when we hadn`t even been asking for a ride, a car stopped. Maybe they thought I was a local.
The park was a total mess when we arrived, though it wasn`t until the morning that we could see the full extent of the damage. The last typhoon had obviously been very bad here. At least a couple of dozen of the beautiful tall trees had been knocked down and lay in twisted piles on the previously pristine lawn. They must`ve been a hundred years old at least. It was a terrifying example of what nature is capable of. We found out later it had been one of the worst typhoons of the year with 30 people dead or unaccounted for across the country, including one man on Rishiri island where we`d just been.

Saying goodbye to Asahikawa for the last time we jumped on a local train down to the town of Kami-furano and rented bicycles for a short tour of the very pretty surrounding countryside. I was eager to give Chaco a demonstration of the joys of cycling, but it ended up being a demonstration of how to spoil a perfectly good picnic when I got so full on the free samples in a large souvenir shop that I didn`t have any room left for the food we`d brought along.
In the evening we went to try our hands at park golf, which much to my surprise was actually enormous fun. Park golf (or `paruku gorufu` to give it it`s proper Jinglish name) is basically a miniature version of the real thing for people who are too poor or don`t want to waste a whole day to play the real thing (golf is hideously expensive in Japan). The holes are only about 50 yards long and instead of a full set of clubs you use only a large croquet-style mallet to whack the ball around. Like the real thing though it`s harder than it looks and we spent most of the time laughing at each other`s crapness or cheering flukey pars, much to the annoyance of some of the other players who were wearing full golfing attire and obviously taking it very seriously.

The time came for Chaco to return to Tokyo and I found myself alone again and faced with another marathon hitch all the way back to the shrine and Major Bumsore. The journey started well, waiting only five minutes or so for the first ride. Attempting to make conversation with the driver as we weaved through the hills I asked him what he did for a living. "Penis!", he shouted suddenly with a large smile on his face. "I`m sorry?", I said, thinking I must have misheard. "Penis!", he shouted again. OK, he`s definitely shouting `penis` at me. It was happening, the ride I`d always dreaded. I started surreptitiously reaching for the door handle and trying to calculate whether I`d survive leaping from the car at our current speed. The driver frowned, reached behind and then showed me a small packet of something with a Japanese label. "Penis!", he shouted again. I looked more closely at the packet. Peanuts. He was a peanut salesman. Thank God for that. We reverted back to Japanese after that (well he reverted back to Japanese and I reverted to my jumble of sounds that on a good day vaguely resembles it). The driver was trying to persuade me to let him buy me lunch in Sapporo, but I was having an attack of the guilts for all the immense kindness I`d been shown already in Japan and wouldn`t let him. At this time I was thinking of having some hitch-hiking cards printed up saying `Thanks for stopping, but before you agree to drive me anywhere please promise not to buy me anything or give me any money`. When we arrived at the expressway junction where I`d asked to be dropped near his house in Sapporo it didn`t look like a promising spot, and he insisted on taking me another twenty kilometres to the next interchange. I thought it wise to accept as he still looked a bit sad about not being able to buy me lunch.

I`d only been standing at the interchange a couple of minutes when a police patrol car pulled up with lights flashing. Two officers jumped out and raced towards me looking so angry you`d have thought I`d just murdered their sisters or something. The uniform of the highway patrol is obviously based on that of the American traffic cops, but they missed the mark slightly and ended up looking like rejects from Thunderbirds. The more angry looking of the two marched right up to me and shouted in my face in Japanese "You must not hitch-hike on the highway!!". I took a step back, amazed he was so worked up. "This is not a highway", I reasoned, but this made him even more angry. "This IS a highway, and you must NOT hitch-hike on the highway!!".
A little annoyed by the treatment I was getting I continued to protest. "No, the highway is over there". I pointed towards the tollgates a hundred metres further on. The policeman looked like he was going to erupt, but fortunately his partner intervened. He pointed to another road, just 20 metres from the one I was on and leading to exactly the same place. "That road OK", he said in English. But the first policeman wasn`t finished. "Gaikokujin Toorokushou!!", he demanded. This is the special card that foreigners have to carry with them at all times so that the police can keep tabs on what they`re up to. If you`re foreign and don`t have one you`ll be locked up immediately. Short term tourists are exempt though so I showed him my passport instead. Suddenly I remembered the visa extension I`d be applying for in a couple of weeks time and regretted having argued. I relaxed a bit though when he wrote down my name as `Matthew James` and handed back the passport. They waited as I walked the very short distance to the other road, then nodded in satisfaction and drove away.

Next I was picked up by a salaryman. He had salaryman written all over him; the pristine black suit, white shirt, black tie and can see countless examples of this stereotype running around any Japanese city like legions of ants. I asked him what he did for a living. "Salaryman", he replied. He put on the Beatles` `Misery` and chain-smoked all the way to Muroran.

The following morning I rode for a couple of hours with an old man who seemed friendly enough but I couldn`t understand a single word he was saying. Not a sausage. My Japanese is, let`s face it, terrible at best, but I can at least under normal circumstances make a little conversation about the weather/ my journey/ work,etc. But this time it was hopeless. Eventually we gave up and drove all the way to Hakodate and my boat to Honshu in embarrassed silence.

Summer now well and truly over, when the ferry docked in Aomori once again it was only 5 o`clock but already starting to get dark. I may still have had some chance of hitching out before nightfall if I hadn`t got myself trapped in the train station. You probably think it must be pretty difficult to get trapped in a train station, but I managed it. I hadn`t even wanted to go into the station in the first place, I simply wanted to cross from one side of the railway tracks to the other. But unnoticed by everyone including myself I passed through a set of ticket barriers and that was it. When I tried to go back the officer growled at me that I wasn`t going anywhere without a ticket. Came through by accident? Yeah, heard it all before mate. I walked through the station and tried the other exit, but with the same result. It was half an hour before I finally managed to escape (using the cunning tactic of making a run for it when no-one was looking), but by now it was well and truly dark and I had little choice but to stay the night in Aomori. Finding a distinct lack of parks to put my tent up in, I decided to use up the little treat I`d been saving for just such an occasion: a night in a capsule hotel.
Faced with an ever-decreasing amount of space in their cities and an ever-increasing number of drunken salarymen needing somewhere to crash after missing the last train, the Japanese came up with the ingenious solution of renting out not whole rooms but dividing each one into miniature cubby-holes not much bigger than the average coffin and selling those instead. I`d wanted to stay in one of these places ever since seeing Michael Palin stay in one years ago on `Around the world in 80 days`. Perhaps because I`d built it up so much the experience ended up being a bit of a disappointment. By the time I`d played with the TV, set the alarm clock and made the observation that the space I`d paid Y2500 for was almost precisely the same size as the inside of my tent, there was nothing left to do but fall asleep.

During my ride from Aomori to Morioka with a 70 year old rice farmer there occurred another of the great linguistic cock-ups of modern times, though this time I was the guilty party. Other than the details about the driver mentioned above, I managed to understand very little else he said. Chaco told me later that they speak with a strong accent in these parts, but she was probably just being nice. The farmer was obviously under the impression that I was deaf rather than incompetent at Japanese, as rather than rephrasing his (many) questions differently or speaking more clearly when I couldn`t understand, he just repeated himself at double the volume. My end of the conversation not holding up well at all I got out my phrasebook and started asking the farmer questions about his family and his work. Not that I could understand many of his replies mind you, but at least it was a conversation of sorts. Anyway, I got to one question and he seemed to be confused, so I repeated it. He still looked puzzled, so I repeated it again slowly, with a slight change of emphasis. No joy, and an even more baffled expression. Several more attempts followed, all putting the stress in slightly different places, and then I realised I`d been looking at the wrong page and had just asked the driver six times if he please had a safe where I could keep my valuables. I laughed until my sides hurt and still couldn`t stop. The farmer must`ve thought he`d picked up a madman. He didn`t say much for the rest of the journey.

I waited only five minutes, for the next ride, which turned out to be the last of the journey. The driver was heading back to his home in Tokyo from a conference up north and could drop me within a short train ride of Aizu Wakamatsu and the shrine and Major Bumsore and a decent night`s sleep. We talked about the job he`d recently finished as an irrigation engineer in west Africa, and the impressive array of exotic diseases he`d managed to pick up during his stay. And then, completely exhausted I very rudely fell asleep (not falling asleep is one of the unwritten laws in the hitch-hikers code) and didn`t wake up until we were turning off the expressway. We stopped in a small cafe near the interchange, where I bought us both a coffee and then wandered off in a bit of a daze to look for the nearest train station.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Better watch out for these little fellas Posted by Hello

Monday, September 06, 2004

Episode 6: Return to Hokkaido {the story of how I hitch-hiked half the length of Japan and ended up with more money than I started with}

Walking to the edge of town, bikeless for the first time in nearly two months, I felt like a part of my own body had been removed. I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave the bike. Not yet. I made several excuses to myself: It`s much better to start hitching at the crack of dawn to catch the traffic. It'd be much safer to leave the bike in Aizu Wakamatsu with Chaco's friend- but in truth the bike had become my comfort zone and I wasn't prepared enough to leave it just yet.
The men in the storage centre were a bit confused when I came back just a couple of hours after telling them I'd be gone for three weeks. Outside I climbed aboard my trusty friend with a new found fondness. The withdrawal symptoms had been worse than I'd expected. I decided it was time to give my bike a name. Every bike needs a name right, or it's bad luck. Or is that boats? Anyway, not far down the road I felt again the soreness that had had come to my nether regions in the past couple of weeks after some long days in the saddle and the perfect name came to me. And so Major Bumsore was born.

I'd expected the road through the mountains to Aizu Wakamatsu to be a tough one, but several very long tunnels took out almost all the climbing. Aizu was different to any other city I'd seen so far. Many Japanese cities were bombed heavily during World War 2 and rebuilt on American style grid-systems, but Aizu fortunately escaped and the city is still a maze of narrow streets, with the occasional very old wooden structure still surviving here and there.
One such place was the large shrine looked after by Mizuho-san and her family, and this is where the Major would be living while I was away. Mizuho introduced me to her friends, all Shinto priests in their early twenties, one of whom it turned out would be driving east to the next city of Koriyama that very afternoon, from where there`s easy access to the expressway which leads all the way back to the top of Honshu. I was welcome to come along. In the meantime Mizuho kindly offered to take me for a look at the city's famous castle. It was actually a reconstruction, as with so many of Japan's castles because in old times they insisted in building them out of wood, usually on the highest hilltop, and then wondered why they kept being struck by lightening and burning down.
Back at the shrine Mizuho found some cardboard and set about making me a full set of signs in Kanji characters for the cities I`d be passing, which I could wave at cars to let the drivers know where I`m going.
I liked Mizuho and her friends very much. Wearing their traditional gowns and hats when we first met they looked every inch like highly respectable priests, but `off duty` they were no different from the majority of other Japanese young people I`d met. Most Shinto priests in Japan inherit their positions through their family, though they have to go to a special university in Tokyo for four years first in order to qualify. Their duties include looking after the shrine where they`re based, conducting wedding and funeral ceremonies, blessing new places of business to encourage the favour of the Gods, and attending the various Shinto festivals throughout the year. On the way to Koriyama Takada-san told me that he at first resented the responsibility of becoming a priest. "My father is a priest, and although I am not forced to become a priest too, it is expected of me". After his studies he got a job running a bar in central Tokyo and delayed returning home for two years. Eventually he met his girlfriend, Mizuho`s sister (also a priest), when she came into the bar and six months later he decided to give it a go. The irony of two priests meeting in a pub didn`t escape me.
Takada-san said "In the bar I often worked fifteen hours a day. But look at me now. Do I look busy? Not exactly. From what I`d seen he`d spent most of the morning sitting around drinking tea. Mizuho had also told me that although it`s hard to get away from the shrine for long she does have plenty of free time and overall it`s a pretty good deal. And this is how they seemed to view their position: not something they do because of some kind of deep spirituality, but partly because of family responsibility and partly because, well, it`s not such a bad gig. Oh yeah, priests are also exempt from paying taxes...

I stood rather self-consciously by the roadside holding up the sign for Sendai, the next big city on the route, and nervously practising my hitch-hiking smile. With just a few seconds for the driver to make a decision as they approach it's important to get this right: you`ve got to smile enough to appear friendly, but overdo it and you end up looking like an escaped mental patient. Appearance is also important and I'd put on my least ragged t-shirt especially for the occasion.
Since it`s extremely unusual for people to hitch-hike in Japan, one of my worries had been that people simply wouldn`t understand what I was trying to do. Back at Yamagata Information Centre I`d asked the staff to write down a couple of useful hitching phrases for me, and was trying to remember the right way to say "Excuse me. Sorry to be rude. Are you going to Sendai today? Could I possibly join you if it`s not too much trouble? Excuse me.Sorry.Thank you", when a large campervan pulled up and rolled down the window. I wasn`t even halfway through my bow when he beat me to it. "Sendai? OK!"

This was Endo. At least he told me his name was Endo, though his business card said 'Brian the dog-handler'. Endo had the unique ability of being able to drive at breakneck speed and watch TV at the same time. The Olympics was on and the fact that he was sitting in several tonnes of speeding metal wasn't going to stop him watching the Judo final. I asked him if this was legal and he pointed to one of the dozen or so other appliances attached to the dashboard, labelled 'Radar Detector'. "No problem!", he said, smiling.
By the time Endo dropped me off at an interchange on the outskirts of Sendai it was starting to get dark, so I decided to call it a day and put up my tent next to a river in a quiet park nearby.

I woke up feeling pretty confident after the the success of the previous day, but back at the expressway 'on' ramp I'd suddenly become invisible. As they approached, most of the drivers seemed to suddenly notice something interesting in the opposite direction or drop something on the floor, anything to avoid making eye-contact with the strange foreigner. An old couple who'd noticed me at first stared straight ahead when they got closer wearing terrified expressions, and I could imagine the wife telling her husband "Don't look at the hitch-hiker, honey, whatever you do DON'T look at the hitch-hiker!!!". Where had all that famous Japanese politeness gone all of a sudden??

After more than two hours I was rescued by a friendly 60 year old rice farmer called Mr Suzuki. As we talked I discovered that in a small corner of Japan, Beatlemania still exists. Suzuki-san raved about his collection of 60s and 70s British pop memorabilia, which included more than 600 Beatles records. He was ecstatic to have picked up an Englishman, though his excitement declined when I couldn't answer any of his obscure Beatles trivia questions. I redeemed myself however when the topic turned to football, and on the way through Sendai we pulled up outside the home of Suzuki-san's second passion: Vegalta Sendai FC {currently third from bottom in J-League division 2}. As it happened Sendai would be playing at home that evening and Mr Suzuki invited me along to join him, but as much as I'd have loved to watch a mediocre Japanese second division football match {no really, I would!!} I had no idea how long it might take to get to Hokkaido and thought it unwise to give up a whole day.

After another long wait under the midday sun a tiny box-like car pulled up. Sanae and Keiko, middle aged housewives and lifelong friends were off on holiday together for a couple of days. They clearly thought picking up a hitch-hiker was great fun and giggled away as they took it in turns to bombard me with questions about my journey. Do you like Japan? What do you think of Japanese food? Can you use chopsticks? Aren't you scared travelling alone? They both had sons my age, and Keiko's eldest had done a lot of cycling too. They liked hearing my stories and before long I felt like I'd been adopted.
We stopped for lunch in a noodle house at an expressway service area and my meal had been paid for before I even had time to protest. In return I treated them to ice-cream, then the inquisition continued all the way to Morioka. The two of them were teary-eyed as we said our goodbyes by the side of the road and clearly felt guilty about leaving me there. Keiko told me I reminded her of her son, and then she pressed something into my hand. It was a Y10,000 note. "For your journey to Kyushu", she said. I told her firmly I couldn't accept it and tried to give it back, but she started crying. "It makes me happy to give you this. I don't need the money, please take it."
They`d already driven me nearly 300 kilometres and bought me lunch. I felt extremely guilty as they drove away.

I hadn't had much time to mull this over before a car containing three young guys came tearing past, screeched to a halt a hundred metres or so further down the road, reversed back at almost the same speed and then jolted to a halt again right beside me. The three of them looked about fifteen and sat there staring at me before the driver mumbled something at me. He had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and wore a baseball cap at a rebellious angle. Even after asking him to repeat what he'd said I understood nothing other than that they were going somewhere near Aomori, but this was good enough for me.
After fastening my seatbelt I made several attempts at conversation, but received only monosyllabic grunts in reply. God knows why they picked me up. After a while they switched drivers, but 45 minutes or so later the guy with the baseball cap started screaming a torrent of abuse at his friend. It turned out he'd taken a wrong turn and driven almost 80 kilometres in the wrong direction {though at the speed we were going it hadn't taken long}. It was the only time so far in Japan I'd seen someone get angry. The drivers switched back and we retraced our steps in an even more uncomfortable silence. By the time we reached their destination just south of Aomori it was getting dark. I bought the guys some beers in a Konbini to sat thanks {finally succeeding in getting a smile out of them} and then took a bus the last stretch of the way to Aomori, arriving just in time for the overnight ferry to Hokkaido.

Walking into Hakodate before sunrise after a few hours sleep on the boat, I spotted a 24 hour Seicomart and was sucked in through the doors. Seicomart had completely disappeared in Honshu, replaced by the inferior {but excellently named} Camel Mart. It was like bumping into an old friend.
I jumped on the first train heading out of the city, and when the last housing estate and industrial site had given way to open road I disembarked alone at a tiny station and traipsed off to find the main road north. But before long i realised something was wrong- like an idiot I'd left Mizuho's destination signs on the train.

Despite their being no shortage of traffic an hour or so passed and still no-one stopped. I felt a bit lost...without a sign to show the passing cars I wanted to go somewhere I was just a crazy smiling foreigner standing by the side of the road with his thumb in the air. And then I had a sudden vague recollection of hearing somewhere that an outstretched thumb is considered a rude gesture in much of Asia. This would certainly explain why no-one was stopping. After all, if the average English driver saw a Japanese guy standing by the roadside smiling and giving them the V-sign, I doubt they'd be in a hurry to invite him round to tea.
A very large army convoy came by, taking several minutes to pass. For a so called demilitarised country Japan has an awful lot of tanks, that's all I can say. I put on my best hitch-hiking-with-a-tank smile, already sensing the headlines in Hitch-hiker Monthly, but to no avail.
When I was finally rescued it was by a man who knew only one phrase in English: "I make fish cake!". He was very proud of his phrase and used it several times before dropping me off just 15 minutes or so up the road. Within minutes I had another short ride, this time with a student from Sapporo University. I asked if he thought of moving south after his studies, as many young people do, to Japan's more densely populated regions in search of work, but was glad to hear he was happy in Hokkaido spending his time fishing, hiking and (in winter) skiing. He spoke a bit of English but was concentrating so hard at one stage trying to remember a word that he nearly went straight into the back of the car in front, swerving off onto the verge at the last minute.
Although slow I was enjoying these short hops from town to town as they allowed me to meet a lot more people. The opportunity to talk to folk from all walks of life is the main joy of hitch-hiking for me.
But when the next car stopped and the driver announced he was going all the way to Asahikawa- my final destination and a good six hours drive- it was too good an opportunity to resist. What's more, Sofue-san and I got on like a house on fire and the journey flew by. Around lunch time we stopped in a small restaurant overlooking the sea and after hearing I'd never sampled Hokkaido's famous seafood Sofue -san insisted on treating me to a dish of fresh sea urchin.
Approaching Asahikawa Mr Sofue had a fairly intense conversation with his wife on the phone and then apologised repeatedly for not being able to offer me a bed to sleep in (after already driving me several hundred kilometres), even though I'd told him I wanted to camp.

So I made it all the way from Aizu Wakamatsu to Asahikawa- half the length of the country- in just two and a half days, quite possibly an all time record, and still with a couple of days to spare before Chaco's arrival.


Kilometres Hitched: 1300
Lifts given by priests: 1
Lifts given by tanks: 0
Money spent on journey: Y6000
Money given on journey: Y10,000
Number of drivers confused: Lost count.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Evening on the Japan Sea coast, North Honshu. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Episode 5: North Honshu {typhoons, holy mountains and a brush with the law}

The ferry docked in Aomori and I rode into town just in time to catch the finale of the week long Nebuta festival. There's no shortage of festivals in Japan {even the Japanese lose track of them}, but Nebuta is one of the big ones. Brightly coloured floats strung with lanterns were pushed and pulled and twirled through the streets by teams of men chanting and singing to the pulsating rhythm of enormous drums. Literally thousands of people dressed in traditional costume danced along behind, singing ancient songs celebrating the return of warriors from battle. Some of the floats were sponsored by Asahi beer and judging by the number of red faces presumably a keg or twenty of the stuff were included in the deal.

Scenically northern Honshu basically continues where Hokkaido leaves off. Unlike Hokkaido though it's not a particularly popular destination for tourists, and due to it's wild terrain and low population density it's considered the back of beyond by city dwellers further south. Not far out of Aomori the first of several mountain ranges which together run the length of Honshu rose dramatically and much more suddenly than I'd anticipated from the rice paddies. Consequently what I'd assumed would be a simple 25km ride south towards Sukayu Onsen ended up taking the best part of the following afternoon. Serves me right really for ditching the reliable, detailed maps I had been using in favour of a cheapo version from the everything-for-a-hundred-Yen shop, despite my better judgement telling me otherwise {"Buy the one with the contour lines you cheapskate"...the little voice said..."You'll only regret it!" Pretty handy that little voice, I really ought to start listening to it}.

Next day having purchased the largest bear bell on the market I set out on a spectacular hike around the crater of a volcano {which went, I'm sure you'll be glad to hear, entirely without incident}, then headed back down for a bath.
I hadn't realise before that Sukayu is well known among onsen connoisseurs as being one of the few which are still 'Konyoku'- mixed sex. Once upon a time they were all that way, but today's generation of onsen goers are a bit more conservative than in days of old, and now only a handful remain faithful to traditional ways.
The photos on display in reception looked promising: men and women, young and old, relaxing together in a huge cedar bath tub. The scene when I stepped nervously from the changing room clutching my modesty towel, however, was slightly different. First of all, there was not a woman in sight. Several dozen mostly 50 to 60 year old men sat around two sides of the bath, legs dangling in the water and modesty towels draped over shoulders or discarded completely. On the far side a partition separated the women's washing area from the main bath. Every single man had his eyes trained on the opening, muscles taut, like wild animals ready to pounce. Minutes ticked by but not a single woman came out. The men were clearly having no fun at all, but judging by the giggling from behind the partition the women were having a great time, which only seemed to add to the men's frustration.
After about 15 minutes a woman emerged suddenly, causing a momentary flicker of excitement amongst the men before they registered she was at least 75 years old and simultaneously crossed their legs or lowered themselves into the water. Clutching my sides with laughter by this stage and starting to get a few funny looks I decided to call it a day.

Back at my tent I was approached by a middle-aged man in hiking boots carrying a shiny red tomato. This was Nakamura-san, an extremely thoughtful and likable man travelling the country alone, climbing mountains, photographing nature and composing haiku poems.
After talking about our journeys for a while he handed me the tomato and composed a spontaneous haiku influenced presumably by having watched the movie 'King Arthur' a couple of days before:

'English Traveller,
Like Arthur King'.

Assuming Arthur King wasn't some random particularly wimpy guy he'd met somewhere, the Haiku made me very happy indeed.

My reward for the uphill struggle a couple of days earlier was a long and exhilarating downhill ride finishing in the Oirase Valley, the most famous tourist spot in the region. All along the roadside countless camera-wielding tourists were being offloaded from over sized buses by flag-waving stewardesses and shepherded off to the valley's numerous viewpoints. At one spot people were queueing three deep to get a photo of a waterfall. Admiring the nature around here was clearly a lost cause on Saturdays so I gave up and watched the other tourists instead.
It's well known that holidays from work are very short in Japan. I met one guy who couldn't hide his joy about being given 9 days off in a row for the first time ever. He was about 40. Being away from the workplace for your own leisure carries a fair amount of guilt here and the only way to resolve that is to bring back vast quantities of souvenirs for everyone left behind. Which takes up about half the holiday. From what I can tell the remaining time is in most cases split {pretty much 50/50} between taking photos of your group in a variety of poses in front of each and every tourist landmark encountered, and eating ice-cream.

Just a few times during my travels- the Great Wall of China was one, and looking out across the ancient Malaysiann rain forest from the top of a high waterfall was another- the experience has been so overwhelming I've had to pinch myself to check it's really happening. Up in the mountains along the road to Lake Tozawa I had another of those moments. The road beneath me clung to the mountainside for a while before darting into a tunnel straight through the rock and emerging on a high bridge. Suddenly everywhere I looked was green: an emerald green river with mossy banks, and pine and maple trees in more shades of green than I even knew existed creeping up the mountains from the valley floor. It was one of the few times on the trip so far that I wished I had a video camera, as photos just can't do this kind of scenery justice.

Why do they always pick on me? Do I really look so helpless and vulnerable? Whilst hitch-hiking around Australia and New Zealand I was picked up on several occasions by people claiming God had asked them to save me. On one memorable occasion I got a ride with a member of the 'Church of Aggressive Christianity', not as I'd initially feared a militant organisation {as such} but an association of street preachers from around the world. He realised we wouldn't be travelling together long and attempted to break some kind of world high-speed conversion record before I got out the car. If this guy was in used cars I'm sure he'd do rather well, and it was tempting to be cleansed of all sin just by repeating a few simple phrases, but let's just say if I'm going to hand over my soul it's going to take more than a 15 minute hard sales pitch. The Mormons have had several goes, including one episode when they cornered me after a performance by theTabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City {yeah I know, I'd brought it on myself...}. With nowhere to run I gave them the address of a guy who'd bullied me briefly in school and told them if they'd send someone round I'd be delighted to discuss things further.
This time a kindly looking couple approached me near Lake Tozawa, where admittedly I was looking a bit lost standing at a junction pondering over a map. After pointing me in the right direction, the lady mentioned seemingly as an after thought that they had a book in English I might be interested in back at their hotel. By the shore of the lake stood a huge white building that looked more like a mansion house than a traditional hotel. In large letters above the entrance were the words 'Kafuku no Kagaku', and below in English 'The Institute for Research in Human Happiness'. In hindsight the name does seem a wee bit suspicious, but at the time I decided {rather optimistically} it must be some kind of luxury health resort.
Inside, the floor, ceiling and walls were all painted an unblemished white, and soothing music played, just a little too loudly, in the background. Several ladies stopped what they had been doing and walked over to me with big smiles. One of them disappeared briefly and returned with a smartly dressed young man who stood and stared at me with the others. Another slightly older lady greeted me in English.
"Welcome. Please come with me for just a moment". The atmosphere was surreal to say the least and I didn't really know what to say.
"It's getting late, I should go", I replied.
"It won't take long", said the lady, and then began walking down a corridor with the smartly dressed man, motioning for me to join them. The little voice in my head was calling out again. "Get out of here you idiot! They'll turn you into a zombie and drink your brains with a straw!!!". But my curiousity got the better of me.
Down the long corridor, joined by the smiling ladies, we eventually we reached a wooden door and stopped outside.
"You must not talk in this room", the woman said.
Despite my 'get-the-hell-out-of-here' instincts being on overdrive I just couldn't resist finding out what was inside. When the smartly dressed man opened the door and we entered I found myself in a small church-like hall with rows of chairs facing a kind of altar, upon which stood what looked like a statue of Jesus glowing brightly. We approached the altar slowly and the woman motioned that I should join them in bowing to the statue. On closer inspection I saw it had the face not of Jesus but of a Japanese man I'd never seen before. We sat down and remained in silence for several minutes. The others were gazing at the glowing statue, but I was too scared to make eye contact in case I'd be exposed to subliminal messages saying "Join us! JOIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN UUUUUUUUUS!!!".
The lady leaned towards me and whispered in my ear.
"There are 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 dimensions, do you understand?"
I nodded, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about.
She leaned over to the smartly dressed man, presumably passing on the information, and he smiled. I glanced behind and saw the smiling ladies sitting a couple of rows back. They smiled at me. The lady whispered in my ear again:
"Are you happy?"
I thought for a few seconds, unsure of the best way to respond.
"Sometimes", I replied uncommitedly.
Again she leaned towards the man. Again he smiled.
"I must go", I said, suddenly desperate to get out of there. "It's getting late".
The lady nodded and we all rose to our feet, bowing once more to the statue before leaving the room. In the corridor she pointed to another statue. "This is Venus", she said, and then gestured towards the smiling ladies. "We are all Venus!". The smiling ladies smiled more than ever and clapped their hands with obvious glee.
"Well...thank you", I said whilst hurriedly putting on my shoes back at the main entrance.
"If you're ever in trouble, please contact us", said the woman, giving me several brochures in English. It was nice to know, but I wondered how much trouble I'd have to be in before going remotely near the Institute for Research in Human Happiness again.

In Japan individuals and families often practising the rituals of 3 or 4 religions side by side {Shinto ancestor remembrance ceremonies, Buddhist funerals, Christian weddings, etc}, which, considering the amount of religious conflicts around the world, is an admirable situation. In this climate of religious openness countless minority religions/cults have emerged and grown, though after a couple of horror stories in recent years {including the gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo subway} people are becoming a bit more sceptical. In the case of the Institute for Human Happiness I was more than sceptical after further research revealed the founder was an ex successful businessman turned self-proclaimed profit. I recognised his photo...the statue on the altar had been of him.

As rewarding as the central route had been I needed a rest from all the hills so decided to head west and then follow the coast for a couple of days. The coastal road brought idyllic fishing villages, and rice paddies largely replaced the giant vegetable fields more prevalent in Hokkaido as the crop of choice. It also brought an intense headwind that didn't let me ride in peace for a moment. And judging by the almost horizontal angle at which the trees were growing, it must've been blowing that way for quite some time.
Under different circumstances I would've been less than happy to enter the ugly concrete sprawl of Honjo City but at least the monstrous chain stores and pachinko parlours provided something of a wind-shield. Amongst the familiar names I spotted a store with a large sign that read 'Second Hand Megastore'. Despite Japan's 'throwaway' culture, second hand shops are something of a novelty. There's such a high turnover of gadgets and gizmo's that products quickly become obsolete when something newer and better {usually smaller} comes out. Inside I spotted a bargain almost immediately in the computer games section: a Gameboy Colour {recently replaced by the Gameboy Advance} for Y600, just 3 English Pounds. Then I noticed a cardboard box containing a small mountain of used camera phones. The price? Y200 each. Even more unbelievable was a Sharp Handycam digital video camera, which admittedly looked a bit on the large side compared to some of the latest models, but a digital video camera nonetheless. Y6000. About thirty quid. There's just so little demand for these 'old fashioned' used goods you have to practically give them away. I've heard of foreign English teachers in Japan fully furnishing their homes with discarded electrical appliances.

It was with some relief that I turned inland and began the ascent back into the mountains again. At the town of Tsuruoka I stopped to gather information about a hike I wanted to do following the ancient pilgrim route over the three holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan. The lady in the visitor centre thought I was joking when I said I wanted to cycle out to the mountains. "But it's nearly 40 kilometres!", she said, laughing. When I told her I'd pedalled all the way from Hokkaido she nearly fell off her chair. In Hokkaido long distance cyclists are ten a penny, but in Honshu it seems they're still something of a novelty.
Passing through the red Torii gate marking the entrance to the holy site later that day, I attempted to hitch a ride up the narrow road to the shrine marking the start of the pilgrimage. I'd hoped to cycle all the way to the shrine but found out that this was for some reason a toll road and the Jobsworth in the booth, not finding bicycles on his price list, decided I wasn't permitted to pass. I offered to pay- as much as a car even- but he wouldn't budge. Instead I asked a smart looking man in shirt and tie outside a nearby hotel {who I assumed worked there} if it would be OK to leave my bike there for a while. He grunted and waved, which I optimistically took to mean "Yeah, no worries!" { but in hindsight was probably more like "I can't understand a word you're saying mate, leave me alone!"}.
The way I figured it, by climbing no less than three holy mountains I'd be more than paying back my part of the bargain made with the Hokkaido mountain Gods {remember the one? "And I promise I'll even visit a shrine from time to time...".Pathetically feeble...can't believe I got away with it really}. After all, you never know when you might need another favour...
My pilgrimage began with a good omen when a car pulled over and I soon had a lift with none other than a Yamabushi priest. Yamabushi have been around for many hundreds of years, seeking enlightenment through intense physical hardship and meditation in the mountains, often surviving for weeks on nothing but wild roots and vegetables. These days seeing as they drive cars and charge pilgrims money for their blessing I'm assuming the hardship isn't quite as intense as in days gone by, though apparently most are still sincere about their search for greater spirituality.
At the end of our short ride I looked up at the sky. Grey clouds were drifting in and it didn't look too promising.
"It will rain", said the Yamabushi. "But tomorrow will be fine". And I believed him. After all, if you can't trust a mountain priest on his home patch for a decent weather forecast, who can you trust?
On closer inspection of my map I could see that the Dewa Sanzan route only actually reaches the summit of two of the holy mountains, merely passing close to the third. Oh well, I thought, that's one down before I've even started.
After following a steep stone staircase for an hour or so the track emerged above the tree line, providing an amazing view out across the surrounding peaks. Sure enough the rain started to fall heavily and I decided to take shelter in a small wooden cabin on the pass.
It rained torrentially the whole afternoon, the whole night and the whole of the following day too. After two nights alone in the cabin with nothing to do but study Japanese and eat biscuits whilst staring out the window and cursing Yamabushis, I exhausted my food supplies and with the rain still bucketing down knew there was no choice but to turn back. Having not seen a single soul for the whole of the previous day I was a bit surprised when a man came suddenly in through the door. Water was running off his raincoat in streams and he didn't look happy. I greeted him in Japanese but he angrily snapped back that he didn't speak English, and then stamped around for a while outside picking up a few small pieces of litter. When he came back I asked him clearly what he was doing out in such bad weather and he told me he'd come to clean the toilets. No wonder he looked so pissed off, I thought. He left soon after.
When I got back down to the spot outside the hotel at the foot of the mountains where I'd left my bike along with pannier bags containing the bulk of my worldly belongings, they were nowhere to be seen. I searched the whole area frantically, but the bike had completely vanished. I sat on a bench feeling despondent. My journey, by bicycle at least, could be all over. Of course it was insured, but it would be difficult to find a suitable replacement in a large enough size in Japan.
I was in the hotel asking to use the phone when I spotted one of my panniers in a room behind the front desk. When word got out I was there the manager came out and spoke wearing a serious expression. I understood they had my bike and I understood the word 'Police', but little else. She produced a sheet with my name, address and passport number, plus Chaco's name and telephone number. I didn't understand what was happening. Had something happened to Chaco and someone wanted to contact me? Meanwhile, down in Tokyo...

Chaco takes up the story from here:

* * * * *

The phone was ringing and i dashed downstairs. 'Hai, Koiso desu/Hi, this is Koiso'.
A guy having a low voice said 'Yamagata Keisathusho desu/I'm a Police officer at the Yamagata Police station'. My heart started pounding quickly, and it nearly came out. 'Nanananana....nanika, Matto ni arimashitaka?/What's happened ?' I nearly bit my tongue. the man having a strong north accent started explaining SLOWLY, which irritated me. I knew people working at a hotel saw Matt talking with someone last Monday. But Matt disappeared on Tuesday while leaving his bike by the hotel. They didn't mean to open bags put on his bike, but they worried that something happened to him. In the end, they found a letter I'd written for Matt, and phoned the Yamagata Police station. That time, it was raining and a typhoon had been approaching to Toohoku {{north Honshu}} area. I was a bit worried and hoped Matt was ok. The Policeman Ootani-san asked me some questions.

'What is his name?'

'Mashuu Goodohaindo'. I had to pronunce in a Japanese way.

'Mashuu Goodohaindo...Goodohaindo'

'Where is he from?'

'He is English.

'Can he speak Japanese?'

' A little bit. But if you speak fast, he couldn't understand'.

' Tell me his birthday'

'1979 10th of April'

'So how old is he?'

'25 years old'

' 25 sai ka.......', he whispered.

' How tall is he?'

' 183cm' {{Impressive...I didn't even know I was 183cm!!}}

'Tell me his ashidori' Ashidori means 'trace'{{ie. recent movements, so to speak}}. I nearly laughed. But I couldn't insult a Policeman. I'd ask for troubles. I have to be polite.

' He phoned me two days ago and said he was going to climb moutains.' He was writing down something while repeating what I said. He was like a detective indeed.

I mentioned Matt was strapping and sensible {{hang on, wait a minute! Strapping? Sensible? Chaco, you realise you can be prosecuted for lieing to a Police officer. Ok, go on...}}, and he had experienced to climb mountains many times. Ootani-san asked me where Matt had climbed moutains. Why do i have to answer? I felt like I had to explain to him that Matt hadn't done anything wrong.

After a few hours Ootani-san phoned me again, and told me the hotel owner had witnessed a foreign man in the place for rest that morning. He must have been Matt. I was SO relieved.......Ootani-san said happily ' Now, you dont have to worry about him. he is ok'. I thanked him.

Yesterday morning, mum dashed to my room saying 'Yokatta yokatta/I'm relieved! I'm relieved!'....she sounded like she was crying....she handed me the phone, a cheerful lady introduced herself that she worked at the hotel, and told me Matt had just arrived to the hotel and he was ok'. She said 'Ok, from now, he will have a hotspring and relax !'. Phew.....yokatta. yokatta.

* * * * *
So the man on the mountain had been sent to look for me. No wonder he'd been in such a bad mood. Feeling thorughly embarassed I wanted to get out of the hotel as quickly as possible. But the hot bath was too tempting. And then they brought me a huge meal on a tray, and well, it would've been rude to say no, wouldn't it?

As it turned out, the bad weather was due to an incoming typhoon- one of the first of the month long season- creeping inland from the warm waters of the South China Sea. Arriving in the city of Yamagata half a days ride from Dewa Sanzan, first priority was to find somewhere to sleep. With a typhoon approaching camping was out of the question, and with my meagre budget even a youth hostel would be really stretching the purse strings. By this stage I'd almost completely given up staying in organised campgrounds, mostly pitching my tent in public parks after dark instead. I'd more or less weened myself off the vending machines too. If I wanted to make it to Kyushu, this is the way it would have to be.
Riding around the streets I bumped into my second foreign cyclist of the trip. His name was Colin, AKA: The Travel Weasel. Having got my daily budget down to Y1000 {about 5 Pounds} in one of the most expensive places in the world I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, but this guy brought a new dimension to the concept of budget travel. Colin showed me how in the food halls of department stores it's possible to eat a whole meal's worth of free samples handed out by the stalls to attract customers. Later in a supermarket he located the girl in charge of discounting food and showered her with compliments about her beautiful eyes before asking if she might consider knocking the price down on our sushi {50% off, just like that}. He even tried to scam a night's accommodation from a couple of Mormons when they came to preach the good word {I've never known them disappear so quickly}.

The word typhoon comes from the Chinese 'tai fun' meaning supreme winds. And supreme they were. In the end, after a couple of beers, we opted to stay awake and watch the action from behind the huge glass front of Yamagata train station, the best seats in the house. By the time it had built up to full force dozens of bicycles lay scattered around the streets and trees were bent over double. The station doors crashed open and rubbish and debris were blown in from outside. Despite the dramatic scenes however, this turned out to be a fairly minor affair as far as typhoons go. By sunrise people were out starting to clear up the mess and within a couple of hours you wouldn't even have known anything had happened.

Colin and I said goodbye and set off to carry on our seperate adventures once more, but within a minute there was a horrible crunching sound from my back wheel. Having left the bike fully loaded for a few days several of the spokes had become dislodged and the wheel was now badly warped. I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry, that was for certain.
The young guy in the bike shop gave the wheel a thorough going over and bent it back into shape, then tried {in vain} to explain the problem in Japanese. All I knew for sure is that it wasn't good news. Eventually he had a brainwave...on his computer was a translation program, an incredible piece of technology: you just type in a sentence, hit enter and BING!, up pops your sentence in a completely different language. Well that's the idea anyway, but to put it politely this technology still has a bit of room for improvement. We puzzled our way through a succession of jumbled sentences about 'broken nipples' as he tried to explain in technical terms what was wrong with the wheel. Eventually i decided simply to ask the most important question, in the most straightforward way possible: 'Is the wheel strong enough to ride to Kyushu?' He looked slightly concerned as he typed, and then his reply appeared on the screen.
'Possible, you not reach Kyushu with this wheel'.
Knowing how uncomfortable the Japanese can be with passing on bad news, I pressed him a bit further. The frown deepened and he thought a little longer before replying.
'Probably, very difficult reach Kyushu with this wheel'.
I needed to hear it straight. Reasonable quality rims aren't cheap...I'd need to budget for this if it needed changing.
'I am sorry', he typed, 'You have chance like ball of snow survive in hell to reach Kyushu. I am sorry'.

Several months earlier Chaco and I had arranged to meet up for a 'holiday' {it's a hard life!} in Hokkaido in what was now only about a week's time {back where I'd started from...yeah, planned that one well didn't I ?!}. I'd planned to hitch-hike and leave my bike with a friend of Chaco's in Aizu Wakamatsu, a day's ride from where I was now. However, since I had no idea how long the wheel would remain in one piece it seemed a bit risky to continue, and I decided instead to lock it up in a cheap long-term bicycle storage centre by the station. It was a sad farewell, but there was a whole new adventure awaiting.


Kilometres cycled: 1397
Punctures: 0
Typhoons: 1
Attempted religious conversions: 2
Holy mountains climbed: 0.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The common vending machine. Endemic in Japan. Posted by Hello

Episode 4: Southern Hokkaido {manga, vending machines and other vices}

* (Y100= 0.75E / 0.91USD / 1.30AUD / 0.50 QUID)

Leaving the mountains of Daisetsu-zan behind, the pine trees were replaced briefly by rice paddies and vegetable fields before in turn giving way to the vast urban sprawl of Asahikawa, Hokkaido`s second city. After locating the campground (not an inconsiderable task) I got talking to a biker from Honshu called Takao. Motorbikes are enormously popular in Japan and every summer people from all walks of life take to the roads on anything from 50cc mopeds to Harley Davidsons. There`s a kind of common travellers bond here between bikers and cyclists, fellow riders always giving a wave or a Japanese style clenched-fist salute or sometimes a bow as they pass; the bikers, I suspect, feeling slightly superior for having an engine, and the cyclists feeling slightly superior for not needing one.
Takao was about to head out of town but on hearing about my journey suggested we go for some food and swap stories and information. We ended up in a fantastic `revolving` sushi restaurant in which freshly prepared dishes circulate around the room on a conveyor belt. Every plate costs the same so you just take what you like and they add up your total at the end. I sampled some super-fresh salmon, something I think may have been eel and a couple of other less easily recognisable sea creatures, all served raw on top of miniature portions of rice. At the end Takao absolutely insisted on paying the bill. I pleaded with him to at least let me pay for the drinks, but he waved away my money and roared off on his bike, wishing me a nice journey in his country.

There`s no denying it: Japan can be a very expensive place to visit, though if you don`t mind roughing it a bit it is possible to get by on a pretty low budget. Property prices here are astronomically high and consequently accommodation costs for travellers and residents alike can be horrific. There are many different variations of hotel and guesthouse and not all are too outrageously priced, but most will leave a serious dent in the wallet of a budget traveller on a longer trip. Even youth hostels are more expensive here than anywhere else I`ve been, averaging about Y2800* a night and sometimes clearing Y4000. So the only realistic option for an extended stay is to camp. Fortunately Japan is well-equipped in this department with an extensive network of campgrounds throughout the country, some providing a multitude of family facilities and others being merely a field with running water. But they`re always cheap (usually around Y350-500) and sometimes completely free.
Transportation can be expensive too, largely because the cost of fuel`s so high, although rail-passes are pretty good value. Alternatively, hitch-hiking apparently has a very high success rate if you`re game, and of course there`s always good old pedal power.
As for food, it`s possible to find cheap restaurants, particularly traditional Ramen (noodle) houses, where you can get a large and very filling bowl of noodles or rice for about Y500-600. Supermarkets are the cheapest source of supplies for cooking your own meals, or in my case `heating` your own meals (cooking would be too strong a term!), though they`re few and far between away from the cities and larger towns. Fortunately for the cyclist, a more reliable option exists: the convenience store (or `Konbini` in Jinglish). Konbini`s can be found wherever there`s a moderate number of local inhabitants, which is to say, they`re very common indeed.
As in nearly all shops in Japan on entering the Konbini you are greeted by the plethora of sales assistants inside with a chorus of "Irasshaimase!", a traditional welcome greeting and a word which will remain firmly ingrained in my mind until the day I die. No matter how many staff are present in a shop, each and every one of them will greet each and every customer in this way. In busy department stores, as you can probably imagine, it borders on the ridiculous. The staff have a set and very business-like patter they offer each customer from the initial "Irasshaimase!" to the final "Mata goriyoo kudasaimase" ("Please come again!") as you walk out the door. I`ve yet to witness any of them break this pattern and now see it as a kind of personal mission:

"Your change is 520 Yen, thank you for shopping at Seicomart"
"Terrible weather today isn`t it?"
"Your change is 520 Yen, thank you for shopping at Seicomart"
"I heard there`s a typhoon coming"
"Your change is 520 Yen..."

They seem like robots, except they`re not of course, I`m sure they go home every night saying "If I have to say that bloody word one more time...!". It`s just that business transactions, even simple ones, have their customary formal procedure to follow, and the role of the shop assistant is simply to serve the customer.

There are three main brands of Konbini in Hokkaido, each with a similar layout and selling very similar things. Along the front window will be a `Manga` comic stand and without fail a selection of people of all ages engrossed in them. On the far wall will be the Japanese-style fast food section, which will include sushi, onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed...much nicer than they sound!), bowls of instant noodles ranging in quality from budget to gourmet, pickled octopus tentacles and plenty of other delicacies of varying appeal. The drinks section will include vast quantities of cold tea, the inescapable Pocari Sweat and the equally worryingly named `Calpis`, a curious white coloured liquid which I haven`t yet got up the nerve to try. A couple of other candidates for the Stupidly-Named Products Hall of Fame can be found in the snacks department and include `Graham Biscuits` (proving that you can just give your product any old dorky western name and it`ll sell), `Lemonist Cookies` (we shall tolerate the repressive oranges no more!), and my favourite chocolate bar `Crunky` (I`ve already come up with the slogan for their next advertising campaign: `It`s Crunchy! It`s Chunky!! It`s Crunky(TM)!!!`). And finally there`s the `got so rat-arsed on sake last night you missed the last train home` department, which includes fresh underpants and socks.
Away from the larger towns I`ve come to rely on Konbinis, and most other cyclists I`ve spoken to also seem to be Konbini connoisseurs to some extent or other, each with their own personal favourite. For me Seicomart comes out top with the nicest rice balls and ice-creams. Second is 7-11 (best bread selection), followed by Dawson`s, which has the best toilets but lags behind slightly in most other departments.

Cycling and camping and eating cheaply from Konbinis or cooking your own food you can get by reasonably comfortably on around Y2000 a day. However, I like to push the limits of budget travel a little, and in the course of this trip I`m trying to conduct a kind of experiment to see just how cheaply travel in Japan can be done. So far though one thing as proved my stumbling block time and time again. Something so unavoidable and so cunning that it`s been the downfall of many a budget-conscious cyclist: the common Japanese vending machine.
Vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Japan. In larger towns and cities there`s rarely a point at which if you stand in the street and stretch out your arms you can`t touch at least two at once. Even in the back of beyond you can be riding along, minding your own business, when suddenly one of the crafty little buggers will leap out from behind a farmhouse or somewhere, all shiny in the sunlight and packed to bursting with ice-cold drinks, and well, if during a long ride on a stinking hot day you can just ride on by then you`re a stronger man than I am, that`s all I can say. As well as soft drinks, beer machines are common, and you`ll even occasionally come across ICE-CREAM vending machines. IT JUST SHOULDN`T BE ALLOWED!!!

Coming south out of Asahikawa towards my next intended destination of Furano the most direct way would`ve been down the main Sapporo road, but since that route was veritably teeming with traffic I opted to turn off onto the back roads instead. Navigating in Japan isn`t actually as difficult as you might imagine: On highways and main routes road signs are written in both `Kanji` (characters derived from Chinese, of which there are several thousand) and also `Romaji` (the roman alphabet we know and love. Considering I`ve only met a couple of other foreign tourists here so far this seems remarkably generous, but is apparently part of their plan (and it appears to be the in word at the moment) to `internationalise`. Whatever the reason, it makes staying on the right track a breeze and at some later stage I plan to travel the length and breadth of England translating signs into Japanese in gratitude.
On minor roads the Romaji largely disappears, meaning a bit of detective work and patience are sometimes required to match up what`s on the sign with what`s on the map, though it`s nearly always worth the effort as getting off the main drag can provide glimpses of places few other tourists get to see.
Heading south along such roads past the towns of Biei and Kamifurano the landscape was just about as idyllic as it gets. All around were gently rolling hills covered with corn, sunflowers and multi-coloured lavender, with the mountains of Daisetsu-zan providing a dramatic backdrop. I stumbled upon several tiny villages which appeared to have never heard about the economic boom of the `70s and `80s. The first of these I assumed to be some kind of ghost town, the only shop covered in dust and cobwebs, and vending machines by the roadside looking like antiques. I was considering testing one of them (just to find evidence of civilisation you understand!) when a small hunched-up old lady who must`ve been at least in her nineties shuffled across the road further down as if in slow motion, glancing at me for a moment before disappearing into a house.

In a slightly larger town at the end of the day I located the `Rider House` where I intended to spend the night. Rider Houses are quite common in Hokkaido (though more or less unheard of in the rest of the country), providing a bit of floor space and a roof over the head for bikers, cyclists and other more alternative Japanese travellers, making them a good place to meet other like-minded types.
This particular Rider House was run by a slightly eccentric biker-turned-bear-hunter. I told him the story of my close scrape up on the mountain and when I finished he just laughed loudly and said "You are a very lucky man!". The house was full of bears- stuffed trophies from his various hunting expeditions. Everywhere I looked they stared back at me, with snarling mouthes full of razor-sharp teeth.
Any part of the house which didn`t contain bears or photos of bears or other bear-related paraphernalia contained segments of the owner`s vast porn collection. Of course on the surface it looked like shelves full of Manga comics, however- and an extensive and thoroughly scientific survey in convenience stores has confirmed this- at least 50% of Manga is just a front for soft-porn. There`ll be a short comic strip about an exploding monster followed by a bit of token football and baseball news, and then fifty or sixty pages of women in various stages of undress. No wonder the Japanese like them so much.

Not far out of Furano I met a young Japanese guy doing a circuit of the country- a CIRCUIT no less- by bicycle. Perhaps because he felt he`d found a kind of kindred spirit he was extremely talkative, clearly believing I could understand everything he said. He met my interjections of random Japanese with an enthusiastic "So da ne!" ("That`s right!") and then continued on with his life story or what he had for lunch yesterday or whatever it was he was talking about. I really must learn more of this language!

Numerous landslides caused by a particularly bad typhoon the previous year meant the minor roads I`d hoped to take were closed, so was forced out onto the busy main road again. The sky was overcast and the road flat and straight, and after the magnificent landscapes of the past few days it felt like a bit of an anti-climax. When it started to rain I took cover inside one of the huge brightly lit buildings of which I`d already seen many, blotting the landscape on huge lots outside towns throughout Hokkaido. Inside the smoky hall stood row after row of the flashing, buzzing, incessantly noisy machines known as Pachinko. Pachinko is something of a national sport in Japan. It was only 9:30 in the morning when I walked in but already the place was half full. The game itself is like a cross between a fruit machine and pinball without the flippers. Turning a dial releases small metal balls into play which wizz around for a while before one hopefully lands in the target hole in the centre, the machine goes crazy, and three rotating discs come slowly to a halt revealing two cherries and and an apple. That`s more or less all there is to it. All the while lights are flashing everywhere and the mind-destroyingly catchy theme music gets faster and faster, as if saying "Ooh, this is your lucky day my friend! You`re gonna win this time for sure!".
The problem with Pachinko as far as I`m concerned, and it`s the same problem suffered by the `one-armed bandits` in Las Vegas, is that there`s not enough interaction between the player and the machine. Vegas gets away with it because it has free drinks and light shows and dancing monkeys. But Pachinko gets old pretty quickly, particularly I should add when you feed in a thousand Yen and don`t win a single damn thing. I`ve decided to see this as a blessing, however, as the last thing I need is a gambling addiction to go with my increasing vending machine dependency.

Somewhere during the course of the 50k`s between the Pachinko parlour and the small port town of Tomakomai, the rucksack I`d strapped across the top of my panniers on the back of the bike fell off. I wasn`t in fact 100% sure it had fallen off, but the chances of it having been stolen in the rural backwaters of Hokkaido on the couple of occasions I`d stopped seemed far lower than than the possibility that I`d forgotten to tie it on properly. The bag was actually almost empty except for a couple of rolls of used camera film, and back home I probably would`ve written it off, but in Japan, was perhaps worth pursuing.
In Tomakomai I flagged down a police car and out stepped the cutest policewoman I`ve ever seen. Not cute as in `sexy`, you understand, but cute as in `cute`. She looked like she`d only recently graduated from Hello Kitty dresses and pig-tails. Even her car was cute, quite possibly the smallest vehicle in world policing. I asked her if she was kept busy out here in the back of beyond: "Yes it`s very busy here. People drive too fast, there are accidents!", she said. God knows what she`d do if she came across a real criminal, other than perhaps dazzling them into submission with her cuteness. She wouldn`t last five minutes in London.
Anyway to cut a long story short I filled in a whole stack of forms and by the next day they`d phoned Chaco (my contact number) to say the bag had been found and handed in. What a country!

Life can be extremely strange sometimes. One minute you`re out watering the garden and minding your own business, and the next your house is buried under twenty feet of volcanic ash and you`re selling ice-cream to bus loads of tourists.That`s what happened to the people living on the slopes of Nishiyama volcano in southern Hokkaido, anyway. Quite why they chose to build their homes so close to the crater of an active volcano is something we shan`t dwell on, but in any event Nishiyama erupted in the year 2000 causing much devastation to the surrounding area.
Japan is one of the most volcanically active regions on earth, sitting on what`s known as the `pacific ring of fire`, so erupting volcanoes are nothing new. What was amazing in this case however was that amongst all the chaos and destruction someone had the presence of mind to say "No wait, don`t clear it all up, I`ve got an idea! We can put up souvenir stands and sell ice-cream and charge tourists Y500 for parking...we`ll make a mint!". That was exactly what they did, and now people (including me) come in droves to wander amongst the still smoking vents, half buried homes and fallen telegraph poles to get a first hand look at a real-life disaster zone.
I like to think it`s more than just morbid fascination though. It`s pretty fair to say Japan has more than it`s fair share of national disasters: along with the profusion of active volcanoes they also have to put up with earthquakes, typhoons and the occasional tsunami too. The concept of the impermanence of life (something I thought about a fair bit myself during the whole bear episode!) is an important element of Japanese culture and one of the central themes of it`s two largest religions, Shintoism and Buddhism. The need to rebuild their world at not too irregular intervals is also said to be a contributory factor to their famous industriousness.
Incidentally this is all part of the reason the Japanese love cherry blossom so much. Every Spring entire hillsides are turned pink by the tree`s blossoming flowers, and for just the week or so they`re in bloom there are cherry blossom viewing parties every night, with much philosophising and enormous sake consumption all round. It`s a real shame I won`t still be in the country to see it, but still- it`ll be a good excuse to come back for another visit!

The ride south to the end of Hokkaido was long but very pleasant, following the coast most of the way and sleeping out under the stars on wide windswept beaches. I boarded the ferry bound for the main island of Honshu with mixed emotions, on one hand sad to be leaving the unique and beautiful island of Hokkaido behind, but on the other curious to find out what discoveries and surprises lay beyond the horizon.


Kilometres so far: 925
Punctures: 0
Vending machine purchases: 67