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.