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.