Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Day with the Locals

The concept of hitchhiking is pretty simple. Enter a car at point A, exit at point B, mission accomplished. I hope you’re shaking your head though, because by now you know that in Japan there’s always more to the story. The Japanese have a way of pulling you into their world.

An old crab fisherman helped me find a campsite near the town of Rausu.

“This town is special,” he told me. “It’s the best place in Japan.”

He looked wise. I believed him. I mentioned that the town’s name is pronounced similarly to the wingless human disease agent, "louse.” He quite enjoyed the comparison.

I pitched my tent and called Yoshida-san, who I’d met at the hockey party the night before. He came unexpectedly to the campsite with a home-cooked meal for me - fresh fish, of course.

He took me for a scenic drive along the Shiretoko Peninsula with his very curious 5 year old son, who was fascinated by the deer grazing beside the road.


“Why are there deer here? What do they eat? How many deer are there? Do they have names? How old are they?”

Dad patiently answered each of his son’s questions. I admired that. Sometimes I see parents thoughtlessly dismissing their kids’ endless requests for answers and explanations, and though I’m not a parent, I can’t imagine not indulging the curiosity of an inquisitive little tyke.


Next, Yoshida-san took me to meet a friend of his, Arakawa-san, a burly vice-principal and former judo champion. I don’t imagine he has a lot of problems with discipline at the junior high school where he works.


Over dinner, he asked for my help teaching English to his class of 11-13 year olds the following morning. Two classrooms in two days? Is this a sign? Should I be teaching instead of traveling?

Maybe so, but our next stop was a unique hot spring outside of town. It was unlike any hot spring I’d been to and I’ll certainly never forget it. It was one of my favourite experiences in Japan.

The infamous Bear’s Hot Spring lies deep in the forest. It is entirely outdoors and entirely free, meaning there are no staff, no showers, no coin-lockers, and no ticket-vending machines to remind you of civilization. It’s just you, steaming hot water, and mother nature.

I followed the two men through the darkness across an old, rickety bridge, down a winding dirt path through the trees. It’s a monthly pilgrimage for the men, who seek tranquility, catharsis, and probably a little time away from their wives.

The air was crisp, the moon was full, and a nearby river flowed to nature’s rhythm, calming the mind and soothing the senses. Steam, illuminated by starlight, rose from the water’s surface and disappeared upward among the trees.

I got in slowly, adjusting to the hot water. No one spoke; we just closed our eyes and relaxed. I breathed the warm steam into my lungs and felt my heartbeat slowing to a measured, rhythmic pulse. Time passed, unnoticed and unmissed.

The Bear’s Hot Spring is thought by many to have a spiritual quality.

Colour me a believer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Toilet Water

“Thanks so much for picking me up.”

“Ah, no problem. What’s your name?”

“I’m Dave. What’s yours?

“I’m Nao.”

“Nice to meet you Nao. What do you do?”

Now, up to this point, the Japanese needed is quite simple. It’s among the first Japanese I learned and I used it often. The question of occupation, however, sent me rifling through my pocket dictionary more times than I can remember.

  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a crane operator!
  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a security guard!
  • “I’m a ____” –2 minutes later– “Ah, a tombstone salesman!

But sitting beside Nao, watching Prodigy music videos and prudently monitoring his police radar-detector, my dictionary didn’t help.

“My job … toilet water.”

“Oh, a plumber?”

“No, not a plumber. Toilet water.”

“I’m sorry to hear that Nao, I really am.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

“I like apples?”

My next driver, a Japanese high school English teacher, insisted on introducing me to his class. Excellent!

I walked slowly through the school with him, noticing the similarities to my own high school -- long hallways, blackboards, science projects. He led me to his classroom. It was my first time in a Japanese high school and I was curious to see how the students would react to me.

“Their English is … very bad,” he warned as we approached the classroom.

I walked in with a big, friendly, Canadian smile. I noticed that they all had the same blue shoes on, indicative of their grade. I introduced myself slowly. “Hi! My name is Dave. I am from Canada.”

Most students shyly looked away or continued with their tasks. I heard a couple quiet ‘hello’s from the back.

“Ask him some question,” prodded their teacher.


Finally, a girl asked, “What is … hobby?”

I told them I liked sports and shifted into English teacher mode. I had them guess which ones, acting out the sports they didn’t get.

A second question came: “I like apples?”

I chuckled. Finally understanding the state of high school English in Japan, I felt proud of my students back in Kawasaki for their achievements.

A third question, from a boy at the front: “Do you have a big ….” The room erupted in giggles. He was told off by the teacher, but I noted that his grammar was perfect.

For lunch, the teacher and I went to a restaurant for esukarope, a local specialty of fried pork cutlet over rice pilaf in a demi-glace sauce. The food was delicious, but Takahashi-san was looking a little stressed:


He explained that the spread of cell phones is damaging interpersonal relationships among high school students. “Really, face-to-face conversation is losing!” he exclaimed, gesturing between our faces with his fork.

He also told me about the "monster parents" he has to deal with. They have no respect for authority and think they know more than the teachers. They anger easily and demand detailed explanations for imperfect grades.

“Cheer up Takahashi-san! Don’t let those awful parents get to you! Cell phones will have positive effects too, and kids will learn social skills. The future is brighter than you think!”

But part of me sympathized. Every line of worry on his face was borne of a disruptive text message or parental criticism. His classes had more than twice as many students as mine had. It’s not an easy job, so here’s to all the teachers out there – of English, or anything else. And if you’re reading this, monster parents, go easy on them. You know who you are.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Team Spirit

A little over a month ago (or about 2 years in internet-time), I promised a story involving a man named Narawa-san. With my ride-count up to five I was on a great streak that day, and my luck continued to hold. Literally seconds after wandering out from the convenience store, dried-squid-snack in hand, a quiet, humble man in a quiet, humble sedan slowed to a stop beside me.

He was headed to the town of Nemuro to attend his recreational hockey team’s annual summer party. We listened to his favourite CD (a Japanese version of Diana Krall) and discussed his job as a Xerox employee. He described it as “not exciting but not boring,” a category into which I imagine most jobs fit.

About half an hour later, he pulled over onto the shoulder and asked if I’d excuse him to make a phone call. I had a few minutes alone with Diana. When he re-entered the car, he turned to me and explained the situation.

“I’m sorry, I know this is a strange question, and it’s ok if you don’t want to, but … you seem very friendly and … would you like to come to the party? I just called my friend and I think everyone would like to meet you. It’s at an abandoned school, and lasts until tomorrow morning.”

Now, I know that sounds a bit iffy, but I could plainly see that Narawa-san wasn’t a serial killer. Not that I didn’t consider the possibility, but you see, I always look for clues to expose potentially dangerous drivers: what music they listen to, how they drive, what they’re wearing, whether there's a bloody knife under the seat hastily covered by an extremist anti-establishment magazine ... a person’s car is a world of clues – but Mr. Narawa’s character profile was exemplary, its margins doodled with rainbows, baby pandas, and unicorns.

So I happily agreed to go to the party, and soon found myself among the friendliest group of townies you’ll ever meet. If I ever join a rec hockey team, I hope they’re exactly like these people.

I learned all of their names, and answered their many questions as best I could. (How many kinds of fish does Canada have? Do you know any NHL players? What’s your favourite kind of fish?)


After a great meal, we played midnight basketball in the school's gym. I don’t remember whether my team won, but I will say that the influence of alcohol does little to help your jump shot.

We slept on the floor in sleeping bags (or rather I slept while random tickle-fights broke out among the more inebriated of us) and in the morning we ate fresh fruit and sweets for breakfast.

Sometimes I think about how differently my trip would’ve turned out if my departure had been off by a week, a day, or even a few minutes. A different set of people, and a different set of adventures. To quote Will Ferguson,

In these days of global tourism it is becoming harder to have authentic travel experiences. Hitchhiking, however, is a completely singular activity. It is unrepeatable, unpredictable. No two hitchhiking journeys, or rides, are ever the same.

So true, Will. So true.