Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Day with the Locals

The concept of hitchhiking is pretty simple. Enter a car at point A, exit at point B, mission accomplished. I hope you’re shaking your head though, because by now you know that in Japan there’s always more to the story. The Japanese have a way of pulling you into their world.

An old crab fisherman helped me find a campsite near the town of Rausu.

“This town is special,” he told me. “It’s the best place in Japan.”

He looked wise. I believed him. I mentioned that the town’s name is pronounced similarly to the wingless human disease agent, "louse.” He quite enjoyed the comparison.

I pitched my tent and called Yoshida-san, who I’d met at the hockey party the night before. He came unexpectedly to the campsite with a home-cooked meal for me - fresh fish, of course.

He took me for a scenic drive along the Shiretoko Peninsula with his very curious 5 year old son, who was fascinated by the deer grazing beside the road.


“Why are there deer here? What do they eat? How many deer are there? Do they have names? How old are they?”

Dad patiently answered each of his son’s questions. I admired that. Sometimes I see parents thoughtlessly dismissing their kids’ endless requests for answers and explanations, and though I’m not a parent, I can’t imagine not indulging the curiosity of an inquisitive little tyke.


Next, Yoshida-san took me to meet a friend of his, Arakawa-san, a burly vice-principal and former judo champion. I don’t imagine he has a lot of problems with discipline at the junior high school where he works.


Over dinner, he asked for my help teaching English to his class of 11-13 year olds the following morning. Two classrooms in two days? Is this a sign? Should I be teaching instead of traveling?

Maybe so, but our next stop was a unique hot spring outside of town. It was unlike any hot spring I’d been to and I’ll certainly never forget it. It was one of my favourite experiences in Japan.

The infamous Bear’s Hot Spring lies deep in the forest. It is entirely outdoors and entirely free, meaning there are no staff, no showers, no coin-lockers, and no ticket-vending machines to remind you of civilization. It’s just you, steaming hot water, and mother nature.

I followed the two men through the darkness across an old, rickety bridge, down a winding dirt path through the trees. It’s a monthly pilgrimage for the men, who seek tranquility, catharsis, and probably a little time away from their wives.

The air was crisp, the moon was full, and a nearby river flowed to nature’s rhythm, calming the mind and soothing the senses. Steam, illuminated by starlight, rose from the water’s surface and disappeared upward among the trees.

I got in slowly, adjusting to the hot water. No one spoke; we just closed our eyes and relaxed. I breathed the warm steam into my lungs and felt my heartbeat slowing to a measured, rhythmic pulse. Time passed, unnoticed and unmissed.

The Bear’s Hot Spring is thought by many to have a spiritual quality.

Colour me a believer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Toilet Water

“Thanks so much for picking me up.”

“Ah, no problem. What’s your name?”

“I’m Dave. What’s yours?

“I’m Nao.”

“Nice to meet you Nao. What do you do?”

Now, up to this point, the Japanese needed is quite simple. It’s among the first Japanese I learned and I used it often. The question of occupation, however, sent me rifling through my pocket dictionary more times than I can remember.

  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a crane operator!
  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a security guard!
  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a tombstone salesman!

But sitting beside Nao, watching Prodigy music videos and prudently monitoring his police radar-detector, my dictionary didn’t help.

“My job … toilet water.”

“Oh, a plumber?”

“No, not a plumber. Toilet water.”

“I’m sorry to hear that Nao, I really am.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

“I like apples?”

My next driver, a Japanese high school English teacher, insisted on introducing me to his class. Excellent!

I walked slowly through the school with him, noticing the similarities to my own high school -- long hallways, blackboards, science projects. He led me to his classroom. It was my first time in a Japanese high school and I was curious to see how the students would react to me.

“Their English is … very bad,” he warned as we approached the classroom.

I walked in with a big, friendly, Canadian smile. I noticed that they all had the same blue shoes on, indicative of their grade. I introduced myself slowly. “Hi! My name is Dave. I am from Canada.”

Most students shyly looked away or continued with their tasks. I heard a couple quiet ‘hello’s from the back.

“Ask him some question,” prodded their teacher.


Finally, a girl asked, “What is … hobby?”

I told them I liked sports and shifted into English teacher mode. I had them guess which ones, acting out the sports they didn’t get.

A second question came: “I like apples?”

I chuckled. Finally understanding the state of high school English in Japan, I felt proud of my students back in Kawasaki for their achievements.

A third question, from a boy at the front: “Do you have a big ….” The room erupted in giggles. He was told off by the teacher, but I noted that his grammar was perfect.

For lunch, the teacher and I went to a restaurant for esukarope, a local specialty of fried pork cutlet over rice pilaf in a demi-glace sauce. The food was delicious, but Takahashi-san was looking a little stressed:


He explained that the spread of cell phones is damaging interpersonal relationships among high school students. “Really, face-to-face conversation is losing!” he exclaimed, gesturing between our faces with his fork.

He also told me about the "monster parents" he has to deal with. They have no respect for authority and think they know more than the teachers. They anger easily and demand detailed explanations for imperfect grades.

“Cheer up Takahashi-san! Don’t let those awful parents get to you! Cell phones will have positive effects too, and kids will learn social skills. The future is brighter than you think!”

But part of me sympathized. Every line of worry on his face was borne of a disruptive text message or parental criticism. His classes had more than twice as many students as mine had. It’s not an easy job, so here’s to all the teachers out there – of English, or anything else. And if you’re reading this, monster parents, go easy on them. You know who you are.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Team Spirit

A little over a month ago (or about 2 years in internet-time), I promised a story involving a man named Narawa-san. With my ride-count up to five I was on a great streak that day, and my luck continued to hold. Literally seconds after wandering out from the convenience store, dried-squid-snack in hand, a quiet, humble man in a quiet, humble sedan slowed to a stop beside me.

He was headed to the town of Nemuro to attend his recreational hockey team’s annual summer party. We listened to his favourite CD (a Japanese version of Diana Krall) and discussed his job as a Xerox employee. He described it as “not exciting but not boring,” a category into which I imagine most jobs fit.

About half an hour later, he pulled over onto the shoulder and asked if I’d excuse him to make a phone call. I had a few minutes alone with Diana. When he re-entered the car, he turned to me and explained the situation.

“I’m sorry, I know this is a strange question, and it’s ok if you don’t want to, but … you seem very friendly and … would you like to come to the party? I just called my friend and I think everyone would like to meet you. It’s at an abandoned school, and lasts until tomorrow morning.”

Now, I know that sounds a bit iffy, but I could plainly see that Narawa-san wasn’t a serial killer. Not that I didn’t consider the possibility, but you see, I always look for clues to expose potentially dangerous drivers: what music they listen to, how they drive, what they’re wearing, whether there's a bloody knife under the seat hastily covered by an extremist anti-establishment magazine ... a person’s car is a world of clues – but Mr. Narawa’s character profile was exemplary, its margins doodled with rainbows, baby pandas, and unicorns.

So I happily agreed to go to the party, and soon found myself among the friendliest group of townies you’ll ever meet. If I ever join a rec hockey team, I hope they’re exactly like these people.

I learned all of their names, and answered their many questions as best I could. (How many kinds of fish does Canada have? Do you know any NHL players? What’s your favourite kind of fish?)


After a great meal, we played midnight basketball in the school's gym. I don’t remember whether my team won, but I will say that the influence of alcohol does little to help your jump shot.

We slept on the floor in sleeping bags (or rather I slept while random tickle-fights broke out among the more inebriated of us) and in the morning we ate fresh fruit and sweets for breakfast.

Sometimes I think about how differently my trip would’ve turned out if my departure had been off by a week, a day, or even a few minutes. A different set of people, and a different set of adventures. To quote Will Ferguson,

In these days of global tourism it is becoming harder to have authentic travel experiences. Hitchhiking, however, is a completely singular activity. It is unrepeatable, unpredictable. No two hitchhiking journeys, or rides, are ever the same.

So true, Will. So true.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Spice of Life

Sunday was a particularly heavy hitchhiking day – I covered over 300km over six rides on my journey Northeast to Nemuro.

Map picture

Many readers have written in asking for more descriptions of the people I traveled with. No, that’s a lie, but in any case, I give you, in order of appearance,

The Cast of Characters

Mr. and Mrs. Iida
These two retirees had come from Chiba (near Tokyo) and were also doing some sightseeing. They asked me lots of questions and happily listened to stories from my trip.

Satomi & Naomi
A cheerful mother and daughter out grocery shopping. I mentioned that they were the first women to pick me up, and Naomi got a little nervous and said, “Ehhh, maybe we should not have picked you up!” I smiled and took out my pocket knife did my best to look harmless.

A middle-aged teacher who’d learned English from American missionaries. He asked that I stay at his house for two nights, but I got a weird vibe (probably nothing) and just took a ride to the next highway. He gave me the phone number of a young English teacher in the next city who might enjoy my company. Before we parted, he prayed to God for my “safety and continued good fortune.”

A mirthful, 25 year old “cow-milker” who was very excited to pick me up. He seriously considered skipping work to take me farther along the highway. Perhaps cow milking isn’t as much fun as I imagine it to be. (Don't they have machines for that now? Maybe Yuuichi is better than the machines. That's what I like to think.)

A Professional Recycler. This guy loves to recycle and made a career out of it. Keep in mind that these professions are gleaned from basic Japanese, the limited contents of my pocket dictionary, and whatever gestures are possible while driving. (And yes, if that's what you're picturing, the trip really was an entire month of charades.)

My final, and certainly favourite ride of the day – find out why in the next post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I took my camera down to the beach and photographed the waves. Join me, Beethoven, and the dazzling effects of Windows Movie Maker as we re-live one of the more peaceful moments of the trip:

Where Was I?

Oh, kind, forgiving readers, I must apologize. All this talk about Hokkaido and I haven't even done you the courtesy of showing you a map. Here's Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido. I chose it for its great summer climate and many hitchhiking-friendly rural roads. Kind, welcoming people and beautiful landscapes were a wonderful bonus. Special thanks to MS Paint for the stylish text-box and awesome red circle.

Paradise is a place in which existence is positive, harmonious and timeless.

-- Wikipedia

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Hostel

Friday, 6:15pm
I'm sipping hot tea on the tatami-mat flooring of my hostel room. The rice-straw has a noticeable, fresh scent; I wonder if it's new. I can hear some other guests chatting down the hall. The only words I make out are travel, hungry, and foreigner. I am pretty sure that's me. I hope they will be joining me for dinner. The wind whistles outside as I update my journal and wait to be called to eat. The hostel owner is serving fresh deer tonight and my stomach growls with anticipation. In Japanese fashion I give my belly a calming, circular massage until a loud call pervades the hostel. Dinner is served.

Friday, 11:30pm
Just finished dinner. I can barely move to prepare my bedding. I think I ate half a deer. We were served raw strips of venison, which we grilled at the table with vegetables. I met the 2 other men staying at the hostel -- an old fisherman and a talkative consultant who spoke some English. Armed with beer, sake, and potato-liquor, he did nothing to hide his objective of getting me drunk. Tomorrow will tell, but I'm pretty sure he'll be the one looking for advil in the morning.

To include the fisherman in our conversation, I spoke Japanese where possible. It was not so well accepted.

"Wow, your Japanese is terrible," the consultant had told me, following a botched verb conjugation.

His criticism caught me off guard. He was right, I am still a beginner, but in Japan, if you use even simple words (like a-ri-ga-to) people invariably tell you that your Japanese is excellent.

I took a drink and countered loudly, "I apologize if my faculty of speech in your mother tongue is incommensurate with your lofty standards for communication. Oh, did you not understand that? Wow, your English is terrible."

Maybe I am a little drunk.

Saturday, 8:15am
Did I pack any advil on this trip?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Wind Palace

"Can you see them?"

"No." I peered through the binoculars.

"Yes you can, keep looking, you will see them."

"What do they look like?" I saw nothing but rocks.

"They look like rocks," she said.

"Ooh, I see them."

There are at least 20 seals in that picture, sunbathing on the tail of rocks jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.

I was with a seal/wind expert named Ayako on the second-floor observatory of a wind-themed tourist attraction called the Wind Palace. The people of Erimo love their wind. According to the information booklet,
The day on which the wind blows more than 10m/s is over 290 days in a year. To us, Erimo's townspeople, the wind is inseparable.
Not as inseparable, however, were me and my $5, which I eagerly forked over to experience the second attraction of the Palace -- a large wind tunnel that blows up to 90km/h, simulating the gale-force winds frequently felt on the cape.

Standing in the tunnel, I leaned into the wind created by the huge fan in front of me. My heart beat faster. The roar of the air rushing past me was deafening. I walked closer to the fan with my arms spread wide, pretending I was Bill Paxton in Twister.

"It's an F5!!" I screamed, but the wind stole my words and Helen Hunt couldn't hear me.

It was a cool place, but unfortunately other tourists aren't as enthused. Apart from about 10 staff members I was the only one there. One of them kindly drove me to a local youth hostel, noting, as he drove, the yearly decline in the number of tourists the area sees.

He blamed the economy -- I blame their marketing. Five bucks for a wind tunnel experience and seal-viewing? Give me a marketing budget and a small office (sheltered from the wind) and I'll get revenues up.

In any case, if you're ever in southern Hokkaido, do the Erimo folk a favor and check out "Kaze no Yakata" (Wind Palace) in Erimo-misaki, Japan. It'll 'blow' you away.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Fast and Slow

Ask anyone from Hokkaido and they'll tell you that people there drive fast. It makes sense -- the roads are straight, the lanes are wide, and there's usually a great distance between cities and towns.

But it's simply not true. Even out on straight country roads I often felt as though I could comfortably have jogged beside the car and kept up.

It was certainly no problem for me -- in fact it was great -- lazily making my way around the island with free rides and no schedule to keep. Open-ended vacations really are the best kind. Hiroshi-san, my latest chauffeur, drove especially slowly. I gazed out the window, counting blades of grass as we coasted through the countryside.

I'm not even sure if he had to brake as we rolled to a stop in a small gravel parking area beside the road. He opened the door and turned to explain to me why we'd stopped. He'd learned to use simple Japanese sentences with me:

"This place has very clean water. It is delicious. My son likes water. Today, I will bring it to him. It's cool and refreshing. Please taste it!"

I looked around, enjoying the experience. Certainly, no conventional tourist had seen this place.

From over a green hill in front of me, a narrow stream of spring-water splashed down and formed a small pool beside some pipework. I opened a valve and, as promised, out poured cool, clear, refreshing water.

We got back in the car and ambled on, chatting about the decline of our respective golf games. From Toronto to Tokyo, there isn't a golfer in the world without a love-hate relationship with the sport.

We parted ways about 20 minutes short of Cape Erimo. I stood beside the road and waited for a ride, slowly becoming aware of a nagging discomfort. Newton's Third Law: If you drink a lot of spring-water, you will soon have to pee.

I pondered the cultural implications of doing so beside the road. I'd seen enough drunks in Tokyo zipping, swaying, rocking, and shaking in alleyways to suspect that it wasn't a grave faux-pas to evacuate in semi-public places. Not worse than in Canada, anyway. I made my decision. I dropped my outstretched thumb and faced away from the road. I assumed the quintessential stance of urination -- legs apart, hips forward, shoulders back.

But no sooner had I reached for .... what's it called? You know, that little metal part of a zipper that can be pulled up and down? Anyway, that convenient little nub lacking sufficient nomenclature was on its way south when I was nearly hit by a BMW.

"Are you trying to hitchhike?" I heard from through the open window.

"No, I'm trying to take a leak," is what I should have said, but all I could manage was 'yes'.

I got inside, deciding my personal needs could wait. He was a fisherman, and aside from the bimmer, he certainly looked the part. His clothes were faded and torn, and the dark, leathery skin of his hands gripped the steering wheel. He hit the gas hard, flashing me a toothy, fisherman's grin. Did I say Hokkaidans drive slowly? This guy brings up the average considerably.

He drove as though we were being chased, flying around turns and speeding over hills. He crossed the solid center line into blind corners to pass slower (more sensible) drivers.

He looked over at me from time to time, always smiling, evaluating my reaction to his passion for speed and disregard for human life. If my grip on the door handle didn't betray my discomfort, my bladder-wary locked knees certainly did.

We pulled into the tourist center parking lot, having made the 20-minute drive in under 10. He bid me 'sayonara' before squealing off. "I terrified a Canadian this morning," I pictured him proudly telling his fisherman friends. I'm sure they all chuckled with approval as they hauled in their catch.

As for me, I quickly found a restroom and was relieved, in both senses.

Big Truck, Big Fee

Say hello to Kawaii-san. In English, Mr. Cute.

His name might have another meaning, but when I commented on it he laughed and nodded. He's an electrical worker who loves jet-skiing and has two little "kawaii" children, aged 3 and 5.

It was the closest I ever came to riding with a trucker. I had no idea how to translate 'nice rig' so I told him, "Your truck is interesting and cool." Didn't have quite the same ring to it, but he agreed. His big, yellow SK-139 was a real beauty.

I only spent 53km with him but it was a great time. (Yes, I'm a stats nerd; trip-length is just the beginning of the useless-but-interesting data I collected during the trip. I'll blog about it later on.)

He was much more talkative than most other drivers, and by some miracle I understood everything he said to me. He joked a lot and had many questions about my time in Japan.

"What's the best thing about your trip so far?" He asked.

"All the people I've met and the kindness they've shown me."

He laughed at me. "No, be serious."

"I AM serious!" I said.

He smiled, and offered me a can of coffee. "Certainly I am the first to be this kind to you."

I was quite thirsty, and accepted the coffee -- but had to break it to him that my other 14 drivers had made similar offers.

This did not please him. He was now in a kindness-competition with 14 of his countrymen. He looked down at a couple of onigiri (rice balls) between the front seats -- probably his dinner.

"Did they give you food, too? Eat these rice balls. What else can I give you? Here, take my wallet. And the truck, too. It's yours. Everything but my wife and kids. Now who is kindest?!?"

I laughed. He'd proven his point.

The crowned king of benevolence dropped me off at a campground outside a small town. I pocketed his wallet, got out of the truck, thanked him for him for his generosity, and walked up to the campsite office.

Some of the campgrounds in Hokkaido are free of charge. Most others are $3 to $5 a night. This one was $50. That's not a typo. Fifty dollars! Below are samples of the various facial expressions that constituted my reaction to this abominable fee.

The campground office attendant patiently waited for the end of my "collage de visages" and explained that the campground was meant for vehicle campers. They had no options for simple, tent-carryin' folk like me.

But I shed not a single tear, for I am nothing if not resourceful in times of need, and I rebelliously avoided paying the $50/night fee by pitching my tent beside the campsite, in a deserted area next to a beach.

I walked to a nearby hot spring, where I spent some of my considerable campsite savings on the luxuries of a much-needed shave, a long, hot bath, and a dinner of tempura and soba noodles followed by ice cream. Relaxed and hunger sated, I walked slowly back to my tent. I fell asleep to the waves lapping against the nearby shore, and dreamed of big yellow trucks and lower-class rebellion.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Cup Might Look Half-Empty, but Trust Me, it's Overflowing

Looking back at my entries so far, I realize that I've written a great deal about the frustrating or difficult aspects of my trip:

  • "Longer, and longer, I waited. Doubts supplanted hopes" (The Beginning)

I know, I know. It's chock-full of trials and tribulations, disappointment and hardships, peril and privation. But let me not mislead you, valued reader! Most of the time, I was on top of the world -- driving through beautiful countrysides and making friends with interesting people.

But alas, happy times do not always make for fascinating stories. Misfortune and calamity seem to lend themselves more easily to engaging storytelling.

However, by expounding on the bad and ignoring the good, I am doing a grave disservice to potential hitchhikers everywhere. It's an experience that I highly, highly recommend.

And so, lest you begin to think I spent most of my time in Hokkaido wishing I were elsewhere, I'll be making an effort to tell you about what a great adventure hitchhiking can be. Posts to remind us of the good times. Post to remind us of the better times.

Stay tuned.


Dave's 7-11 receipt read:
  • fried chicken - ¥125
  • green tea (500ml) - ¥150
  • xylish gum - ¥100
But Dave wasn't looking at the front of his receipt. He was looking at the back. It was a mess of intersecting lines and confusing foreign characters.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand your map ... are those train tracks or buildings?" Dave asked.

He looked hopefully at the girl. She looked helplessly back at him. And there they stood, hopeful and helpless.

For some length of time -- longer than a moment, but shorter than a while -- they simply stared at each other, separated by a big convenience store counter and an even bigger language barrier.

Dave was lost.

7-11 employees had been exceedingly helpful in the past, but not in Tomakomai. Oh, how Dave hated Tomakomai. Toh-Mah-Ko-My. That cursed name would stay with him 'til his death, he was certain of it. It was an industrial port city of 200,000 people, and they all seemed to be working against him.

"I can take you as far as Tomakomai," he recalled the driver saying to him earlier that morning. And of course, Dave had accepted. How could he have known? No, there was no way. Dave, through no fault of his own, had agreed to be dropped off in the most geographically confusing location on Earth.

As the crow flies, he was exactly 2.8 km from where he needed to be. A cakewalk. A cinch! But Dave was not a crow -- he had not the wings nor the perspective of a crow, and instead he accepted his 3rd illegible map of the day and headed out the door with an appreciative nod.

He sat on the curb and studied his newest "map." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the others as well. He studied all three together, positioning them vertically, horizontally, even upside down, hoping for clarity -- for some vision of a way out of the godforsaken city.

Dave was certainly no imbecile -- in fact he'd often prided himself in matters of intelligence -- but time passed and Dave was simply unable reconcile these three little mysteries of geometry that didn't deserve to be called maps.

So he stood up and walked.

He slowly roamed Tomakomai's labyrinthine streets, stopping in at convenience stores from time to time. In Japan, they are ubiquitous, and after three hours he happened upon his 6th convenience store of the afternoon -- another 7-11.

The clerk's name was Kanako. Dave patiently listened to her directions, and nodded at the appropriate times, but by now it was more of a game to him. He had no intention of following her advice -- in fact he'd do the opposite. He'd been skeptical of their guidance for quite some time, but by now he was certain; Tomakomai was home to a malicious consortium of convenience store employees, all colluding to keep him from leaving. Strict orders from the top prohibited communication of anything but directional misinformation.

But this story does not end in Tomakomai, a fact owing not to Dave's ingenuity -- and certainly not to the help of 7-11 staff -- but to a surfer named Osamu, who saw a tired-looking young man with an outstretched thumb in the middle of what he knew to be the most geographically confusing place on Earth. Tomakomai.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dear Journal:

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Dear Journal:

I want to thank you for being here for me.

I know this trip has been harder on you than it has for me. It's only been a week, but your paper is no longer crisp and your spine has seen better days. You have been hastily -- dare I say, carelessly -- packed and repacked so many times.

Your pages, once clean and white, are now forever tattooed with my muddled prose -- not even prose at times! Call them, rather, reckless scrawlings, peppered with awkward sentence fragments and embarrassing spelling errors. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I even switch to point form. Your disappointment is tangible and I apologize.

When we travel together I enjoy breathtaking views, eat great food, and meet wonderful people; you live in a dark pocket in the bottom of my pack, fighting for space among socks and souvenirs, your only friend the Orange Hitchhiking Bible, with whom you share that depressing little space (I do hope you get along alright -- I know he can be preachy at times).

And yet you suffer these indignities in brave silence. I commend you, dear notebook, I do.

But pause, kind notebook. Think not of the cross you bear. Instead, remember that your hardships are not for nothing. My words, recorded onto your fine pages, will one day be heard. An email, a blog, a magazine, who knows?

But my medium of choice, here and now, is you. And I promise I will tell them how well you served. I'll dedicate an entry entirely to you, and the world will know your sacrifices. The world will know the part you played in this journey of mine.

So, in all sincerity, from the tip of my pen to the bottom of my heart,

Thank you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Day Unlike Any Other

My day started in Mrs. Shimizu's kitchen and ended at a haunted campsite. Do you have a few minutes? Let me tell you about it.

I woke up to big smiles, happy good mornings, and a delicious Japanese-style breakfast. I ate, said goodbye to my surrogate family, and they dropped me off beside a highway heading North.

I surveyed the area. Time for another hitchhikeability check.

A grin formed, and slowly widened as I scanned my location. I was in the hitchhikers' Mecca. The road was straight for miles, cars were frequent, and I was blessed with beautiful weather. The icing on the cake was to my left -- a large roadside service area and a parking lot filled with cars.

When you go to Mecca you expect a spiritual experience, and within mere seconds I got mine.

Like an athlete before a race, I closed my eyes and visualized the perfect execution. A car slowed and stopped beside me. The window slowly came down, and in a low, sultry voice a beautiful woman--

"Excuse me! Do you need a ride?"

His name was Tsubasa. He was not even female, never mind the swimsuit model who'd inhabited my visualization -- but, as they say, hitchers can't be choosers.

He was a young LED salesman on a business trip, headed to a meeting where he was about to make the biggest sale of his career. Five hundred grand. A sure thing, he called it.

"Wow, congratulations," I said. "What's the commission like on that kind of--"

"That's not my dream, you know," he interjected.

He explained that all his life he'd longed to own a convenience store. Not a chain of stores -- just one. He'd spend his days in front of a wall of cigarettes, looking out from behind a chewing gum-lined counter -- making the lives of locals a little more ... convenient.

It's important to have dreams in life, and 76km later I wished him the best of luck as he drove off to his meeting.

If Tsubasa was interesting, the next guy I met was even more so. A mother and son stopped in their minivan where I joined -- cool! -- another hitchhiker, Tatsu.

It was fitting that I was still close to Mecca, because he reminded me of a Japanese Jesus. Forgive the blasphemy here, but the similarities were striking. He'd been traveling alone for months. He was very thin, with weeks of facial hair. He was living off just $3 per day, making rice balls in the morning for his meals. He was wise, too, imparting lots of good hitchhiking advice.

The driver showed great kindness, taking us to her home, where Jesus took a much needed bath. We had some snacks, and Jesus amazed us all by turning water into green tea.

We walked to the highway together, and I started to say goodbye when he stopped me.

"Will you write a message for me?" he asked.

I agreed, and he took out his tent, all sides of which were covered with messages from people he'd met in his travels. He called them his friends, but we both knew they were disciples. I took his marker and wrote a note. I affixed a Canada pin to it and wished him a happy Canada day. It was July 1st!

He walked off into the distance. Jesus had left me, and this is where my story gets darker, my dear readers.

"I sell tombstones," said my next driver. He squinted at me through curls of cigarette smoke. He didn't say much else, but he brought me to the vicinity of a campsite I was looking for, and not the graveyard I'd been half expecting. I thanked him for not making me a client, and I think he muttered something about death.

It was a lonely 20-minute hike to the campsite, and as I got closer the air thickened with fog. The place was deserted. It might as well have been a graveyard; not even birds lived here. I walked slowly to a large wooden building with boarded windows. The only sound was the soft hum of vending machines, which cast an eerie glow into the mist.

Day quickly gave way to night, and I pitched my tent as rain began to fall and a cold breeze picked up. Was Hokkaido always this cold in July?

I took these pictures of the haunted campsite. See the light coming from the second floor window? That's the ghost of a girl who died of hypothermia many winters ago. The light is a fire she makes each night to keep warm.

I shivered in the cold, damp air inside my tent as I recorded the day's events in my journal. I wrote quickly. The sooner I got to sleep, the sooner I could leave this bone-chilling campground. I should never have left Jesus.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Home Away From Home

I should have known better. Waiting for a ride in the middle of the city ... What was I thinking! Trying to hitchhike in an urban center is about as useful as trying to hail a cab in a cornfield. And it was raining, and windy. Imagine this, but with a cold, driving rain:

Yep, I should've known better, I thought as I walked through the rain back to the train station. I decided to take a familiar page out of the hitchhiker's playbook and take a local train to the edge of suburbia. Not seeing any options on the station's train information board, however, I asked an attendant for some help.

"Excuse me -- hi -- I want to take a train to Kikyo station, but I don't see it on the board."

"That's because it doesn't leave for another hour and a half. I'm very sorry."

As is typical in Japan, he'd apologized for something that wasn't remotely his fault. Since coming to Japan I've started doing it too, almost unconsciously. For example:

Person I'm with: "It's too hot today."
Me: "I'm sorry."

Anyway, I forgave him and considered my next move. Faced with a 90 minute wait, I decided to try hitchhiking once more (I know, what was I thinking!), again standing out in the rain waiting for a ride that didn't come. It's alright, I assured myself, I'll get a ride at Kikyo.

And did I ever. Two of the friendliest people I met in Japan stopped in their blue Subaru. They were Mr. and Mrs. Shimizu -- a husband and wife from Shikabe. After five minutes of casual chit-chat, Mrs. Shimizu changed my outlook on hitchhiking in Japan:

"Would you like to spend the evening at our house, in Shikabe? Our daughter speaks English. We have a spare bedroom. We'd love to have you."

"Wow, yes, thank you, yes, of course, thank you!" I said, astonished by their kindness and trust. "I'd love to go with you! Where's Shikabe?"

It wasn't far. I was a bit surprised as we pulled into their neighborhood - most of the houses I'd seen in Japan were packed tightly together, arranged in neat, but cramped rows. Hokkaido has more space, however, and the Shimizu family home was surrounded by tall trees and rich greenery.

From the driveway I could see that the house was very nice ("A Swedish design," noted Mr. Shimizu), and it was even more beautiful inside. Rich hardwood floors lay under leather furniture and high ceilings. What a change from my stuffy tent and musty hostels!

I walked in the house and met their daughter, Keiko, a very friendly girl who'd spent time living in England. She spoke excellent English, but humbly denied this fact, as is expected in Japan. Her bilingualism would prove invaluable later on -- I'd studied Japanese, to be sure, but I was simply unequipped to discuss the Iranian election results or MJ's possible overdose without a translator (I can usually replace unknown vocabulary with gestures, but gesturing a drug overdose and subsequent death over dinner is usually best avoided).

Mrs. Shimizu asked me if I'd like to take a bath before dinner. Hmm, I thought. I diverted my hosts' attention and sniffed my armpits, but only the pleasant aroma of Gillette filled my nostrils. Ah yes, I recalled, having a bath before dinner is traditional in Japan.

The bathroom was a standard setup in most ways -- a little seat for washing, and next to it a big tub for soaking. But in one respect, this was no ordinary bath.

The water came not from a city pipeline, nor from a well. It came from a natural hot spring deep in the earth. The water was steaming hot and pure as the driven snow. Even in Japan it's very rare for a household to have a hot spring bath. You might call it a bath of kings, though technically it was a bath of Shimizus.

Clean as a whistle, dry as a bone, and happy as a dog with two tails, I sat down with the family for a delicious dinner. We ate, drank, chatted, and watched TV.

It was a perfect evening. I hadn't embarked on this trip expecting to be drinking sparkling wine on a leather couch in a Swedish-designed house watching a 50-inch LCD TV after a hot spring bath. But more than all that, I felt ... at home. It had been over a year since I'd seen my family, and that night I was reminded of them. I couldn't have asked for more.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Shikotsuko and Toyako

Have to keep up to date with the pictures:

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Foggy Memory

The briney air of Hakodate drifted in through the open window of my hostel room. I lay on the futon, reflecting on the morning's success. I'd received not just a ride, but a guided tour of Lake Onuma.

My driver, a retired teacher, had insisted that we go up into the mountains beside the lake.

"It would be a shame for you not to see Onuma. I'm taking you there."

In particular, he wanted to show me a mountain that's shaped like a rice bowl. I didn't really see the resemblance, but he was very excited about the rice-bowl-shaped mountain, to the point where disagreeing with him would probably have gotten me stranded out there.

"Yes, it looks exactly like a rice bowl," I agreed.

He dropped me off right at the door of my Hakodate hostel. He'd driven me 141km -- easily my longest ride yet.

I put my pack down and took a nap. Riding in a car all day is hard work!

I woke up, my stomach screaming at me for sustenance. In the city I'd seen many huge tanks full of crabs, likely unaware of their eventual destination -- the bellies of hungry tourists. But before you get too choked up over the crabs' fate, dry your eyes and remember that it's all part of the

Ciiiircle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle--
The Circle of Life

I contributed to the Circle by devouring a particularly delicious crab served over steamed rice at a little restaurant in an old part of town.

I had to eat quickly though, in order to catch the bus to the top of Mt. Hakodate. It's one of the most beautiful views in Japan, especially at night. People come from all over to see it. It's spectacular. It's inspiring. It's a postcard maker's dream come true.

And I saw nothing.

That night I learned the Japanese word kiri, which means fog -- blankets of which obscured my view of the legendary cityscape. I cursed the fog. I told it to move. But it just sat there, thick, gray, and uncompliant.

As you can see above, I took the token tourist picture anyway. Gorgeous, no? I'm thinking of making prints to sell.

I also chatted with a group of Thai MBA students fluent in both Japanese and English. They headed back to their hotel though, and I took the bus back down the winding mountain road.

Back beside the water, I took some pictures of the quiet harbor front, where visibility was much better.

Disappointment slightly mitigated, I headed back to my hostel and slept, unaware of the fantastic fortune awaiting me the following day. More on that later.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sapporo Pictures

Here are some of the pics I took in Sapporo, where I spent the first couple days of my trip.

A Lunchtime Haiku in Hokkaido

"Americans aren't
The bastards you think they are
Or most, anyway."

"I'll take you for lunch,
And explain my beef with them."
"Thank you, I'd like that.

"But let me treat you
In thanks for the ride you gave.
I owe you one, friend."

He slowly explained
Over great seafood and rice
Why he hated them.

Biting racism
Of which he'd been a victim
Had soured his views.

In A New York pub
An ignorant waiter had
Used cruel racial slurs.

And, in stark contrast
Kind Canadian waiters
Made no such remarks.

"Don't let this waiter
speak for all his countrymen,"
I quietly urged.

"I guess you are right,"
He conceded with a sigh.
"Still, glad you're no Yank!"

[Please forgive the paraphrasing -- it's pretty rare that conversations happen naturally in haiku]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Putting the "Hike" in Hitchhike

I packed up my tent. It was time to go south on the next leg of my Epic Hitchhiking Journey (EHJ). My Orange Hitchhiking Bible (OHB) said I needed to get to highway 37. On that day, and on many others, the OHB was essential to my EHJ.

Leaving the lake, I asked a local mechanic how far it was to the road I'd need.

"How far is it to the road I need?"

"Turn left, and walk up the hill. It takes about 15 minutes," he said.

[15 minutes later]

I stopped and put down my pack, sweating and out of breath. What was that mechanic thinking? I was squarely in the middle of nowhere. Not only that, but what he called I hill, I call a mountain. But the scenery was great, the weather was nice, and EHJs are not supposed to be easy, so I kept walking.

[30 minutes later]

Drenched in sweat, I rested again. I never weighed my pack, so I can't tell you exactly -- but if you'd asked me then, it was about 100kg. I cursed that crazy mechanic.

I figured I was about halfway to highway 37. In this picture you can see my destination in the distance. Note that I started walking at sea-level.

Averse to hiking another hour, I evaluated the hitchikeability of the road beside me. Conditions were poor:

Curved and mountainous

Narrow to nonexistant


I stuck out my thumb anyway, repeating the 'hitchhiker's mantra'.

Eventually, someone will stop.
Eventually, someone will stop.

Someone did, and his name was Shin. He was a pleasant plasterer, on his way to a plasterers' meeting. Exactly what goes on at plasterers' meetings, I have no idea. I do know, however, that they are great people. Better than mechanics, especially.

Shin dropped me off at highway 37, saving me more walking and sweating. Checking online, I now see that my "15 minute" walk was really a 7.1km, 1.5 hour mountain trek with 150kg on my back (yeah, it got heavier). See for yourself:

You might think that I misheard the mechanic's directions, or that he was just trying to screw with me, but that kind of thing was actually not uncommon on my trip. Consistent underestimation of walking distances was something I came to expect in Hokkaido. Five minutes usually meant 10 or 15. And 15 minutes often took the better part of an hour.

In any case, Shin dropped me off, I assumed "the pose," and soon received a conditional offer for a ride from an old man with a dog.

"Your pack has Canadian flag on it -- are you Canadian?"

"Yes, I am."

"Good. Americans are bastards. Let's go."

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I like looking at people's groceries. You know, when you're waiting in line at the supermarket, and you check out what's in the carts of the people around you. It's fascinating. There's nothing else to do, so I tend to imagine how the food fits into their lives:
I wonder if all those chocolate bars are for her? No, she looks about 30, probably has a family. Bet dad's having the dark-with-almonds. Yeah, and the Kit-Kats are for the young'uns.

Why would he buy the expensive apples? Didn't he see the cheaper ones? They even looked better. Probably an inexperienced shopper. His wife will set him straight when she scrutinizes the receipt. It will be brought up in their next argument, which he will lose.

Jeez, that's a lot of fish. I bet she's entertaining tonight. I wonder how many people? She looks wealthy -- probably has a big house. With an indoor pool. Wish I'd been invited.
Funny how the mind wanders. The blog, too. Don't worry, there's a segue:

In my basket was exactly one item: a can of Sapporo beer.

What does that say about me? To the perspicacious, it says that I'd just come from the nearby Sapporo Beer Garden and passed on the $40 all-you-can-drink option in favor of my two-dollar can of pure, golden Sapporo beer.

Crrack! Glug Glug ... Ahhhhhh. Smooth. Like my transition up there ;)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Icing on the Cake

The car drove away, its occupants waving enthusiastically as it grew smaller in the distance. I walked through a small park to the shore of Lake Tōya, where a G8 summit was held just a year ago.

I pitched my new, blue tent near the water, watching the sun low in the sky. As darkness came, I went into the tent to update my journal, but didn't get much written before dozing off.


I was awoken by loud voices and laughter outside. As my senses returned, I heard the distinct sound of fireworks.

I got up to watch them. Colorful explosions of green, red, and gold cascaded brilliantly toward the lake, reflecting off the water as they fell.

Forgive me, it's corny, but the moment was magical. My first day of hitchhiking had been an unqualified success. Starting in Sapporo, I'd received four fantastic rides, covered 140 scenic kilometers, and seen two beautiful lakes in southern Hokkaido.

How fitting that it should end with fireworks.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I walked up to a pavilion at the rest stop, facing about 10 senior citizens relaxing, enjoying the summer weather.

"I need a place to stay, and I have a tent. Does anyone know of a campsite near here?"

Two women heard this and ran off, saying, "Maybe ___ ___ ___ find ___ ask ___ !"

My Japanese is far from perfect.

The others explained that the women would soon return, and began asking me questions about my trip. Everyone was supportive of my hitchhiking aspirations.

Everyone except one.

An old guy in the corner took a draw from his cigarette and shook his head, "Impossible!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Impossible!" he said again. "No one will pick you up. You should go home!"

Everyone was looking at him.

"Go home," he repeated. "There are too few cars in Hokkaido, and people won't stop, and the weather will turn bad, and you will have problems. Impossible."

Then, as if to prove him wrong, the women came back -- one with a map of local campgrounds, the other offering a ride. He was apparently unaware of the vast stores of kindness waiting, wanting to be tapped from the hearts of Hokkaidans. And with a negative attitude like his, I could see why.

"Impossible でわないよ," I said to him with a smirk, and walked back with the women to their car. I got in, joining a one-legged man and a dog eating a bowl of green-tea flavored ice cream.

A Family of Four

From the back seat of the minivan, I quietly watched the driver and his wife argue in Japanese.

"This is the perfect time, what's wrong with you?" he asked, heatedly.

"I can't, I just can't do it!" she protested.

"Why do you study English then? What a waste! There is an American in our car, and you've only said hello!"

"Actually, I'm Canadian."

"Did you understand him? He said he's Canadian. Two years of listening to those tapes every night, I hope so! Ask him something. Ask him a question."

She slowly turned around to face me, straining the seatbelt; straining her nerves. I saw fear and embarrassment in her eyes, and I felt sorry for her. "You ... you ... you ... how old?" She looked at me anxiously. I didn't have time to answer.

"That's not right, mom!" I heard from behind me.

"Yeah, you got it wrong," said the second kid. "How old ARE YOU!"

I turned around to face the brothers, surprised. "I'm 25. How old are you?"

"I am 13 years old," he said, proudly. I looked at his brother, who straightened his back and theatrically declared, "I am 11 years old!"

So the kids practiced their English with me, while the husband bemoaned the high price of his wife's apparently useless English lessons. After asking for my name and what sports, movies and music I like, we switched to Japanese, and I learned that they wanted to be a doctor and an actor someday. That gave the parents a good laugh, who'd had no idea of their kids' career ambitions.

They dropped me off at a highway service area, having driven half an hour out of their way for my convenience. I bowed and thanked them. I gave Canada pins to the kids, thrilled to have met them and their quarreling parents.

The wife, who'd clearly been rehearsing in the car, bowed back and said in English, "Please enjoy travel, I miss you."

The Beginning

I stood beside the road.

Well, here I am, I thought. This is it. This is what I came for. Weeks of anticipation, days of planning, a big backpack, and a shiny new compass in my pocket are all telling me it's time to begin.

I stuck out my thumb, facing the traffic. I felt ridiculous.

Dozens of cars whizzed past, taking no notice of me or my outstretched thumb. I looked at the drivers with a helpless smile, silently asking them to stop. They offered nothing but foul exhaust fumes.

Was hitchhiking in Japan really possible?

Ten more cars passed. Then twenty. Then fifty. A few people waved, some smiled, but most just looked at me, curious, but unwilling to stop. I pictured the cars' occupants talking about me:

"I would never pick up a hitchhiker."
"He might not speak Japanese."
"Yeah, and he could be dangerous."

I began to question the feasibility of my plan - to hitchhike thousands of kilometers around the island of Hokkaido. It was an ambitious goal, especially considering that I'd never hitchhiked anywhere, much less Japan.

Longer, and longer, I waited. Doubts supplanted hopes. Would cars really st---

BRAKE LIGHTS! A car had stopped.

I stepped up to the open window and told the driver where I was going. With a calm smile and a wave of his hand, he invited me to get in.

My adventure had begun.