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.

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