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.