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.