Sunday, December 5, 2010


Nothing in particular happened on the first day in Furano, but complete chronicles require diligent documentation and thus you are presented below with a description of events which are not necessarily of interest, but did indeed occur and so shall be recorded.

A woman at a tourist information desk explained which bus to take to get to the rider house I’d be staying at. She followed her advice with a smile, a bow, and the following statement:

“Thanks for using our tourist information desk. I hope you’ve found our services to be helpful, and also that you might find a permanent home here, settle down, and meet with me regularly to practice English. Have a good day.”

“Are you kidding, your English is perfect!”

Her response was another polite bow. I walked to meet the bus.

I walked down a narrow, little used path to get to the rider house. Upon entering, it felt like I’d stepped back in time. It was an old, 2-story wooden building offering refuge for tired bikers and cyclists.

The hundred-year-old structure complained with creaks and moans as I walked, and carried on into the evening with various utterances of old age. Wary of the ghosts and spooks that often live in such places, I slowly and carefully walked down the old wooden steps for a bath.

I caught my breath as a figure appeared at the bottom of the stairs.

An old man emerged from the shadows and faced me, but said nothing. We both stood in silence, assessing the situation. Old Japanese men are unpredictable. They also sometimes dislike foreigners and have considerable training in martial arts. I steadied my gaze and tensed my legs.

His wild grey hair moved with life as he broke the silence with a grave warning: “Don’t go in the bathwater without washing first. Understand?”

I nodded yes and proceeded in, glad that the situation had diffused. I pulled on the door to shut it behind me. It clamoured and stuttered as it closed, protesting the movement.


The bath was a hand-built wooden box, full with hot water. It looked more like a waterboarding device than a bathtub. I washed first and entered, imagining the screams of people fighting for their lives to withhold information from angry, brutal captors.

I stretched out as much as possible and closed my eyes but the experience was anything but restful. The old building was again full of noises. The walls creaked and moaned. The ceiling wasn’t quiet either. Tick. Tick. Tick. Thump. Tick. Tick. Tick. Thump.

I tried to relax, but couldn’t. The old man had rattled me. I felt naked and vulnerable, submerged inside the small, wooden torture device. What were all the noises?

A spider above me stared from its web. I swear there was distain in his little spider eyes. I’d had enough. There would be no relaxation tonight, and morning couldn’t come too quickly.

I slept in a big room along with several other guests. Among these guests was the old man, but I awoke alive and unharmed – a fact for which you, my reader, should be grateful, for it means that you will see, at the very least, one more entry in this ongoing journal of mine. If you are still reading, I thank you.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yuki-san and The Tree

This post is a fictitious entry from the diary of Yuki-san, who picked me up on the way to the town of Biei. The events are real but it’s written by me – it’s my attempt at her perspective.

Dear Diary:

Today was so exciting! It was my second day traveling in Hokkaido and you won’t believe it – I picked up a Canadian hitchhiker!

I saw him in the distance wearing a big, blue backpack. The next thing I knew my foot was on the brake and I was slowing down. It must have been fate! Two travellers crossing paths, but only one with transportation – yes, dear diary, I have rented a beautiful, white, Toyota Fielder. Check it out! Cool, right?!


I stopped, rolling down my window as the hitchhiker said hello in Japanese. He looked super cool with his sunglasses on. He looked like Bruce Willis.

I introduced myself as Yuki because I think my family name is difficult for foreigners to say. I asked him to join me and of course, he agreed. Why wouldn’t he? As a hitchhiker, I believe that is is singular purpose!

He got in the car beside me. We both wore big smiles. You know how excited eyes can glisten, dear diary? I believe mine were gleaming like stars. I had a travel companion! I remembered the English word, adventure, and I yelled it out loud as I accelerated.


David laughed – oh yes, I should mention, he told me his name was David – like David Beckham! He called himself “Dave” and I told him that in Japanese it sounds like de-bu, which means “fat.” He acted offended, but I’m pretty sure he was kidding about that. Anyway, I called him David after that.

Oh, dear diary, you know how I can carry on sometimes. I think I talked for twenty minutes straight. I told him about my hairdressing job in Aichi, a recent history of my annual vacations, even the air-miles I used to get here! David grinned a lot and tried to make jokes. I believe that trying to be funny is more important than actually being so. Most likely, David shares this opinion.

I told him that he looks like Bruce Willis. He disagreed and suggested that perhaps all white people look the same to me, but no, no I’m right about this.

I was happy to find that David spoke a fair amount of Japanese. He still used his dictionary a lot though, even for simple words like “wheat” and “taxes.” He tried to speak some English with me but I got a bit embarrassed and changed the subject. Anyway, we had an adventure to discuss!

My goal for the day was to find a tree. Of course, it was not just any tree – it’s quite famous and I had come a long way to see it, so David had no choice in the matter. We were off to find the tree. Of course, I asked him if it was ok, but I was not prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer. I locked the doors just in case.

I handed him a map and asked him to navigate.

David is kind of funny, but he is not a good navigator. We ended up on a road that got more and more narrow until it wasn’t a road anymore. He kept saying, “No, I think this is right.”

He taught me a fun English phrase: the scenic route. Diversions are fun! We found some very scenic wheat!


Eventually, we found the tree. I explained to David that it’s famous because it was in a TV commercial. He said “Oh, that makes perfect sense.” He looked in his dictionary but found no translation for the word ‘sarcasm.’ What do you think it means, dear diary?

I photographed the tree endlessly from every possible angle, but this one is the best. Majestic! I can’t wait to show my friends back home.


I dropped David off in Furano, the beautiful town of lavender. I told him to have some lavender-flavoured ice cream. I hope he does!

He told me he plans to hitchhike all the way back to Tokyo. I advised him to check his compass and maps often. His directional handicap worries me a little.

Well, in summation, dear diary, today was one of the best days of my life. I met a cool hitchhiker who looks like Bruce Willis and shares a name with David Beckham. And oh, that tree! Such noble and dignified majesty! Yes, I believe my life is complete.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

“So, why did you pick me up?”

Hitchhiking is rare in Japan (even more than in Canada) and for many drivers, I was the first one they’d picked up. For others, I was the first they’d ever seen. Answers to the question, “What made you decide to pick me up?” were interesting and varied.

Some people were complimentary:

“You have a good, handsome face.”

You seem like a cool guy.”

“You looked friendly.”

Others had hoped to spare me from various perceived discomforts:

“You looked cold.”

You looked hot.”

You looked wet.”

“You looked lost.”

And many others gave answers that just can’t be categorized:

“It seemed like I was in a movie.”

“You’re tall, and easy to see.”

“I saw you and thought, the longer I spend helping a hitchhiker, the less time I have to spend with my annoying wife.”

My next driver, Daisuke-san, picked me up because he was lonely.

“I moved here recently for work,” he explained. “I don’t have any friends nearby.”

“How far are you going?” I asked.

“Well, I was on my way to buy some shoes, but I’ll take you as far as you need.

That’s what I call a win-win.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Maybe it was just a coincidence, or perhaps some kind of benevolent guiding spirit influenced my fate, but I showed up in Nayoro just in time to check out Takeshi and Makoto’s university festival (remember the posters from the Mission?).

The food vendors were all university students, but they might as well have been Bangkok cabbies battling for my attention. I suspect that it had something to do with my race, which often gave me an undeserved (but not entirely unwelcome) celebrity status in Japan. The students hounded me until I’d eaten about 15 plates of yakisoba, yakitori, takoyaki, and all kinds of other delicious Japanese festival fare. I topped it all off with ice cream. Yes, my life is rich.

While I ate, I planned my escape from the food tents. It would not be easy. With determination and focus, I strode quickly away from the tents, complimenting the students on their cooking accomplishments as I passed.

“Eat more!” they cried, but I ignored them.

“Come back!” they yelled, but I played deaf.

I did not share their interest in slowly killing me with hot, delicious karaage.

My escape landed me in the audience of a comedy show, which I’m sure was funny if you’re fluent in Japanese. I was better able to appreciate the second act of traditional dancing, complete with flags, drums, and elaborate costumes.

07 - July 17 - Nayoro

By the end of the day I was exhausted from all the eating and didn’t want to go back to my campsite to sleep in the rain. A stroke of luck sat me beside Yuri, who offered me a place to stay for the night. She invited some friends over and we took turns killing zombies in a subtitled version of Biohazard for Xbox. Who’s too old for a video game sleepover? Not this guy.


In the morning, I must regretfully report, my masculinity took a big hit, as I was convinced to try a favourite Japanese activity known as purikura. Yuri told me to be as ‘cute’ as possible. I hesitate to post this picture, but see below for the unfortunate results of my first foray into modeling.

08 - Aug - Randoms

Now listen here, reader – instead of thinking less of me for participating, be impressed that it took more than a year in Japan for me to get roped into the extremely popular activity (very few boyfriends in Japan have the option of saying no). Also, I can’t help but think that the cameras were somehow mis-calibrated to produce the creepy, pale, ghost-faces you see in the photos.

It was time to hit the road again, but it was nearing noon so Yuri and her friend made some lunch, sending me off with a full stomach. Thanks, girls.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Today, I Smelled of Oil

I stood beside the large, hot, pool of water, wondering whether I should enter. My hesitation stemmed from the shimmer of oil covering much of its surface and its strong sulphuric smell. A man near me guessed my dilemma and was happy to offer advice.

“Go on, get in. It’s ok, it’s healthy. The oil is good for your skin.”

The colourful, fluid shapes on the water’s surface danced around my legs as I dipped them into the water. I sat down and began to relax, imagining the oil’s therapeutic qualities rejuvenating my skin. The other bather joined me and we chatted for a bit, but he seemed to fall asleep during our conversation. I’d had enough of my oil bath anyway and got out to shower off. I lathered twice but still left smelling like a gas station.

My next driver took me to a local reindeer farm for the simple reason that he loves reindeer. I hoped he didn’t notice the scent of crude oil I’d been emanating since the bath.


Back on the pavement, I came across a bicycle gang of junior high school girls. I saw them sizing me up so I took a risk and asked them about local places to stay the night. They giggled a lot but eventually pointed me in the direction of camp mosquitoville.


It seems that in Hokkaido, there’s just no escaping these suckers. Amazingly, I suffered not a single bite. Maybe that oil did some good after all. Anyone up for a vacation in the Gulf?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Booze and Business

You may have noticed that, for an Epic Hitchhiking Journey, the last week or so was a little light on the actual hitchhiking. After days of traveling by ferry and on foot, it was time to hit the road once more. Time to outstretch my weathered, sunburnt, hitchhiker’s thumb to the wild world of overpasses, underpasses, highways, and byways.

I was picked up by three business men in a Toyota. The car ride was notable mainly for the awful condition of the three men, who were loudly suffering at the mercy of a universal malady with many different names – futsuka-yoi in Japanese – to us English speakers, the hangover.

The topic of their conversation never moved far from their various complaints of headaches, stomach-aches, bruises, and nausea – all resulting from the prior night’s requisite session of binge drinking. They’d successfully managed to entertain some business clients, who’d moved much closer to a deal as a result of the prior night’s debauchery.

“It’s all part of doing good business,” explained one of the three, though no explanation was necessary. Japanese business without drinking is like golfing with no clubs. Evidence of this phenomenon can be found on any night of the week, in virtually any urban location, where dozens of men in suits stumble home or just pass out in public. Favourite resting places include park benches, train cars, and the classic sidewalk / street curb combination.

Now, I’m all for respecting individual choices and generally try to avoid casting judgement, but I see a big difference between drinking because you want to and drinking because you must. To me, the idea that alcohol poisoning equates to good business strategy is questionable at best, but in Japan, the practice is apparently not up for debate. It just is.


“Drink up, now, Takashi. My promotion within this fine company we work for depends on our ability to impress these clients with our red faces and increasingly loud voices. Haha, isn’t karaoke fun? Let’s order another round of drinks, eh, Takashi!

“And look! Look over there, they’re signing the contract! Let’s celebrate, Takashi. Have another one. Down the hatch, ‘atta boy! You’ll do well in this business, I can tell. I can remember when I was your age, still learning how to get shitfaced with clients so that we could forgo the crippling customs and awkward formal speech required of us during those dreadful, sober, daytime meetings. Now where are my shoes? I know they were around somewhere … Maybe I left them on the street behind the restaurant, where I vomited that second time. Oh, damn, how long ago did my last possible train home leave? Christ, my wallet is empty! How much did I spend on booze tonight?

“Oh, Takashi, look at me, I’m a wreck! How do you think my long term health is looking in light of my alcohol abuse? How is it affecting my family relationships and my son’s image of proper conduct? How will my wife react when she finds out I had to pay for yet another hotel – not because I’m out of town, but because of a pressing need to join other grown men in karaoke boxes bellowing 1980s children’s anime songs for the third time this week? I’m a god-damned mess. You need to set me straight! Get me some help. Show me the path to sobriety!“

“I’m sorry Mr. Kato, I’m afraid I can’t do that. The next round of drinks just arrived. Besides, you’re talking nonsense. Drink up.”


Sunday, June 13, 2010

How To Be A Good Samurai Warrior


Hagakure is a book based on the teachings of a famous Samurai named Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a man with many opinions on how a good and honourable Samurai should conduct himself.

At a library in Japan I discovered that these interesting bits of 18th century wisdom have been translated into English. I spent some time reading and made two lists:

Samurai Advice With Which I Agree

  1. Be humble and look for good role models.
  2. Don't yawn or sneeze in front of people and always keep a clean appearance.
  3. Don't treat people coldly or harshly even if you're busy.
  4. Don't rely too much on others.
  5. Encourage bravery in kids; they should fear neither darkness nor lightening.
  6. Write letters thoughtfully, as though the recipient will make them into a hanging scroll.
  7. Quickly correct your mistakes and don't talk behind the backs of others.
  8. Always help the ill.
  9. Reprimand privately and gently; praise publicly.
  10. Everyone should have the chance to practice beheading criminals.

Samurai Advice With Which I Disagree

  1. A real man does not think of victory or defeat; he plunges recklessly towards an irrational death.
  2. After reading books, it is best to burn them or throw them away.
  3. On being asked to do something, don't show pride or happiness; it's unbecoming.
  4. Loyalty trumps righteousness.
  5. Whatever one prays for will be granted.
  6. To accomplish great things, simply become insane and desperate.
  7. Make decisions within 7 breaths.
  8. Suicide for the death of one's master is honourable and often expected.
  9. Live doing the things you like, but don't tell this to young people.
  10. Bleeding from falling off a horse can be stopped by drinking its feces.

Rider House

I paused before entering the building. I was nervous. For $10 I had booked a night in a rider house, a hangout for motorcyclists. It had been recommended to me as an ‘interesting’ place to stay.

I looked at the sign, which said:


For all you know, that says Hell’s Angels – Enter and Die, but by this time I’d learned to read some Japanese and knew that it said Ryda Hausu.

I didn’t have a motorcycle (or even a handlebar moustache) and wasn’t sure how that would go over. I wasn’t sure of anything, really. I opened the door and walked into a haze of tobacco fumes.

There were about 8 men in the room. They’d been smoking and chatting, but now they were all staring at me. From behind a desk, an older woman looked at me curiously. “May I help you?”

“Uhh, reservation for Dave?

The woman took my $10 and showed me where to put my backpack. Still, everyone was silent. I greeted the men quietly on my way to the stairs. As I climbed upward, one of the men called after me, “Hey, when you’re ready, come join us.”

I did, and quickly realized there’d been nothing to be nervous about. These guys were the complete opposite of the Hell’s Angels. First of all, most of them wore slippers and, well, it’s pretty tough to look menacing in slippers. They were incredibly polite, bowing, saying their pleases and thank-you’s, sipping tea, and giggling at fart jokes. Aside from the bikes outside, there was nothing ‘badass’ about them.


Soon the drinks were poured, and everyone spent some time with a microphone introducing themselves.

I had a great time, and it was so cheap that I decided to stay an extra night waiting out the rain, catching up on emails, and spending an afternoon at the local library absorbing some Eastern philosophical wisdom from Hagakure, a book of Samurai teachings - a practical and spiritual guide for the Japanese warrior. Details in the next post.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The ‘Dangerous’ Thirty Kilometre Hike

If, somehow, you came across my bunk and found this note, it's possible that I have died during the legendary 30km hike. Please tell my family that I love them.

Despite repeated warnings about the hike’s safety, others at the hostel were also willing to risk their lives for the experience. Five of us woke at 4:30 am for a monstrous breakfast to supply the energy we’d need to navigate the various perils presented by the hike.

Eat up, travellers, you may never eat again…

I know you’re expecting a story, and I hate to disappoint, but from a ‘danger/thrill seeker’ perspective, the hike was quite tame, with few perilous cliffs to avoid and not a single clawed, poisonous, or rabid creature to fend off. Indeed, we saw not one glimpse of falling rocks, fiery calderas, landslides, or quicksand. For better or for worse, It was in relative safety that we traversed the length of the island.

No longer concerned with my premature demise, I was able to enjoy the hike’s scenic views of rolling hills, endless coastlines, enchanting forests, and stony beaches, with not a single mishap or calamity to report.

Collage - Rebun Island

There was an Australian couple among us who were a photographer/journalist team. They told me stories of their time in Japan and I did a bit of translating for them when I could. We wondered whether a little romance was brewing between the Japanese pair. Eight hours is a long first date but things seemed to be going well.

Collage - Rebun Island2

Despite keeping a pretty quick pace, the 8-hour hike took us 10. As we approached the hostel we were all a bit too tired for the numerous bouts of yelling and waving that comprise their standard arrival ritual – everyone's welcoming cries were met with a weary silence.

“Welcome Baaack!!”

“Why aren’t you responding?”

“Welcome Baaaaaack!!”

[Among ourselves] “They never give up, do they?”

“Welcome Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!!!!”"

More songs and dances were not in the cards for me that night. I found my bunk and fell into a deep sleep. At least until that damned wake-up call, that is.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


As I stepped off the ferry onto Rebun Island I found myself in need of two things. The first was liquid, so I bought a bottle of cold green tea from a nearby vending machine. My second requirement was for information. I’d read about a legendary hiking trail that ran 30km along the length of the island.

I walked toward the ferry terminal’s information desk, where sat Mitsuyo, a smartly dressed woman smiling at the Japanese tourists she was helping. Her smile faded though, when she saw me walking toward her.

I don’t often have this effect on women, so I pondered the cause of the fear spreading across her face. I decided it wasn’t me she was afraid of, it was my Caucasian-ness – in particular, the likelihood that I’d speak to her in English. As I approached the desk she bowed and tried to recompose her customer-service-smile, but her widening eyes betrayed obvious concern. Will he speak Japanese? What if he doesn’t??

I guess a bit of background is necessary here. As a Canadian, if a person speaks to me in a foreign language I will shrug my shoulders and simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” In Japan though, the response to an English question is nearly always some combination of heartfelt concern and wide-eyed terror – usually more of the latter.

Mitsuyo looked at me. Please let him be fluent in my language.

I should have spoken Japanese. I was at least capable of asking the question, if not understanding the whole response. But I didn’t. Call it a mean streak if you like. Fully expecting to incite a panicked response, I fired off my question in my native tongue.

“Hi, I’d like some information on this island’s famous 30-kilometre hike.”

She blinked. I was certain she’d only understood “Hi.”

She looked around for help but she was all alone. Her mind was racing, reaching for those long-forgotten English words jumbled in a little, seldom used pocket of her brain. Could years of subtitled Hollywood movies and vague memories of high school grammar lessons somehow result in a comprehensible sentence? She doubted it and so did I.

“I … I … no … English … speaking,” she said, making a big X with her hands while bowing deeply.

She saw it as a failure, but to me the exchange was a success. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations once in a while. For me, not understanding most of what was said to me had even become normal – a daily occurrence. Anyway, Mitsuyo’s panic was short lived; her pulse returned to normal when I asked about the hike again, this time in (broken) Japanese. Her response was disheartening, though.

“I’m sorry, we don’t give out information on that hike. It’s too dangerous.”

“A man from my book did it!” I protested.

“Please don’t do the 30-km hike. There are lots of other nice, shorter, safer hikes on this island.”

“Thank you, I understand,” I said, and left the counter, inclined to try anyway. How dangerous could a hike be?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Yoko’s Music

Yoko looked at the clock and grinned with anticipation. 5:25am. It was almost time.  There was excitement in her eyes – it was the best part of her day.

She picked up her cane and walked slowly over to the desk, removing the tape from its familiar spot. She put it in the old tape player and rewound it to the beginning. She looked up at the hostel’s ancient speakers, connected to the tape player by long, snaking cables stapled to the walls.

Her hand found the volume dial and turned it slowly upward to a spot just a few degrees beyond ‘max’ – the same spot it rested every morning at 5:26.

Now she waited. Her finger rested anxiously on the ‘play’ button. Just a few more minutes.

She wondered about the dreams she was about to interrupt. What beautiful bits of paradise were the hostel’s patrons about to leave behind? Perhaps rich meals, gorgeous vistas, and lovers’ arms would soon be no more than vague memories, fleeting and forgotten.  Others might have felt sympathy just then, but Yoko smiled at the thought. Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

5:30. CLICK.

The tape slowly began to roll and the first bars started to play. The speakers whined and crackled in protest, but, as always, they dutifully delivered the morning wake-up call.  You might call it music, but to the disoriented guests, shocked out of sleep at 5:30am, it was nothing more than an ear-splitting, unwelcome cacophony.

Yoko sat in her chair, still smiling, as guests all around her began to stir. A collective hatred for Yoko’s morning “music” only compounded its effect. The smart ones wore ear plugs. Others pressed pillows and blankets against their heads. If they’d been listening closely, though, they would have heard old Yoko, quietly singing along with her favourite song.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

100% Certified Insane

Sometimes insanity makes little appearances in our lives. Like the woman at work who’s a nudist tap dancer, or the crazy guy at the supermarket who stares at you, unblinking, while he bags your groceries. We can usually handle those. They’re just small doses of crazy.

The next hostel I stayed at was a large dose of crazy. I have a theory that when young Japanese men and women are diagnosed with ADHD they are not given the appropriate medication. They are given a plane ticket and a new job at the Momoiwaso Hostel in Hokkaido. Have I mentioned this already? They’re crazy.

Extra strength crazy. Prescription crazy. May cause irrational fears, disillusionment, and, eventually, the questioning of one’s own sanity crazy.

On the way there, the hostel-truck passed through a tunnel. It looks ordinary, but of course, there was a little bit of crazy hidden inside. It's the Time Tunnel.

“TIME-U TONNERU!!” they all yelled. “TIME-U TONNERU!!!!”


The tunnel is a kind of time warp. We all set our watches half an hour forward because, “You see,” they explained, “Japan has two time zones – one for most of Japan, and one for the other side of this tunnel!” And oh, the confusion the new time zone caused. The mayhem! What did the staff have to say about the resulting double checks, mix-ups, missed ferries, and general asynchronicity with the island’s other restaurants, shops, and activities?

“Yep, we’re crazy!”

Our arrival was met with yelling, screaming, singing, dancing, and more screaming. Guests were outnumbered by the hostel staff, whose exuberant cries dwarfed even the most courageous guests’ attempts at yelling back.

A bell sounded and the evening’s mandatory information meeting began. It lasted for three hours. It began with a lecture about the island and quickly moved on to a quiz-show with audience participation, a Darth Vader mask and various other costumes. The meeting ended after sundown with the nightly ‘obligatory’ song and dance session. I use quotes because long term guests often try to sneak out, having realized that it’s damaging to the vocal cords and perhaps dangerous to your health to yell and sing with reckless abandon night after night.

[I hope I don’t sound like too much of a downer here. Don’t get me wrong – the first night was fun and the second was amusing – but by the third night I’d stopped singing and was searching for sharp objects…]

The following day, as various guests arrived and left, I realized that the insanity I’d seen upon my arrival was by no means unique. Every arrival and departure, no matter how trivial, required fanfare. Staff would wave goodbye for more than 10 minutes, even after the people leaving had stopped looking.


In describing the insanity I certainly can’t leave out the morning wake-up call, but I think that deserves a post unto itself. Suffice it to say that the island was beautiful – the hostel was nuts.


Friday, March 26, 2010

How to Confuse and Disturb Old People

After recovering from the mountain climb I needed something easy. I signed up for a bus tour of the island.

Show me a bus tour in Japan and I'll show you 50 senior citizens with really expensive cameras talking about the weather. (The people, not the cameras). Light danced across the surface of the sea, attracting tourist eyeballs and Nikon lenses alike.


A few of the old people stopped talking about the weather and turned their attention to me.

“You’re from Canada? Canada has delicious salmon, right?” asked one woman.

“And great mountains for skiing,” chimed in another.

“And you have the beautiful Aurora!” said a third.

It seems that, in Japan, these are three of the things for which Canada is especially famous; I was asked about them everywhere.

Unfortunately, while I’m sure they’re true, I'm unable to enthusiastically reinforce any of these notions. To me, salmon tastes the same everywhere. The only place I've skied in Canada is Ontario's Blue Mountain, which is a mere hill compared to Whistler or the mountains in Japan. And, well, technically I've seen the northern lights, but I saw them in southern Ontario. They were nice, but not magnificent like you can see from up north.

Not having seen much of Canada yet, I'm really not the ideal ambassador but I do enjoy telling people about the power of Niagara Falls, our talented hockey players, and that my parents make maple syrup.

An older woman interrupted our conversation about Canada. She was concerned for my safety while hitchhiking and startled me with the following question:

“Aren’t you scared of being attacked by homosexuals?”

I shouldn’t even have tried to answer. It didn’t help that my Japanese wasn’t good enough to explain my thinking. My response included violent gestures and went something like this:

“I’m not scared. If my car hit different car is bigger problem. Homosexual bad people not common I think. If hitchhiking death, is probably because car hits other car.”

My status as an ambassador had gone from bad to worse. The women were shocked and confused. Without another word, they turned back to the scenery and began to talk about tomorrow’s weather.

Monday, March 22, 2010


I wake up during the night, my bladder screaming with discomfort.

This has to be taken care of IMMEDIATELY. I feel around in the dark for my flashlight, searching, searching -- to my left? no ... to my right? no ... it must be in my pack. I cannot hold this much longer.

My hands wildly tear open the pack in the darkness and I continue the flashlight-search. As the pressure builds, I find clothes, sunscreen, maps … yes! Finally I have light.

I quickly dress, more for mosquito protection than for warmth or modesty. It’s a tough call to make right now, but I throw on pants and a shirt while rocking back and forth urgently – incessantly. I honestly don’t know if I’ll make it and consider with self-disgust the mess I may soon make.

I move onto my next battle – the tent zipper. Of course, this last barrier to freedom is caught in the tent fabric. I fiddle with both zippers, getting them stuck again, and again, and again. I beg for it to open. It does.

I practically fall out of the tent. It’s possible that I am kneeling beside it while peeing. I may even be moaning with satisfaction. Please do not judge me here.

Vast legions of mosquitoes have clearly heard my struggles and recruited neighbouring clans  to attack every possible patch of bare skin. I hardly notice; the relief is that good.

But all too soon, I stop. I am empty.


I am so angry! All this effort for like 10 seconds of urination? This is a new low point in my life. Is it really just me, or is there a freakish law of the universe that gives your bladder senior citizen tendencies while sleeping in a tent?

I crawl back to the tent, bitten and ashamed. I begin to cry softly as I realize that I've left the tent door open. Countless bloodthirsty, unforgiving mosquitoes await my return.

A new low indeed.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Mountain – Part Three

What goes up must come down, so yes, there’s a third part to this story. Frankly, though, I wish there weren't. A huge waterslide would have been far more enjoyable.

As I headed back down the weather turned nasty. In rolled heavy clouds, high winds, and my old friend – cold, unrelenting rain. I passed a small group of hikers on their way up. I was impressed by their fortitude; their view from the summit would be little more than rainclouds and fog.

Three hours into the hike down I realized I’d made a critical mistake – I’d taken an incorrect path. I was too tired to be angry with myself and much too tired to go back up to find the correct route. I wearily continued down the wrong path, not knowing where I’d end up.

I reached a parking area where I’d hoped to hitchhike out but it was deserted. I waited for 10 minutes, praying to all the Gods I could think of for a car to appear.

“Please, please send me a car! Any car! I don’t care if the driver has body odour, or makes me uncomfortable. You already failed to deliver on the my ‘waterslide’ prayer, what’s up?!?

The Gods either don’t exist or didn’t care; they sent only more rain. I continued walking down the muddy path leading away from my campsite. My food supplies were gone and the hours dragged on. I stopped often to rest my achy legs and tried not to notice my growing hunger.

Finally, (finally!) I reached a fork in the path and was saved by two wonderful bird-watchers who pointed me in the right direction. Two long hours later I was back at the campsite.

If my climb and descent were mapped, the path would look like a huge, tilted slice of pizza with the crust at the bottom and the tip at the summit. In case you’re considering it, I strongly recommend against the pizza-perimeter method of mountain climbing. In all, my journey lasted 14 hours. Certainly a success, but a tiring one, to say the least.

Exhausted, I passed out in my tent, dreaming of elevators, escalators, and chair lifts, those wonderful human inventions that that have largely rendered involuntary vertical climbing obsolete.


The Mountain – Part Two

I was climbing quickly and making very good time.

Just past the halfway point I reached an old, wooden cabin. It  was meant for emergency use during snowstorms but my legs were tired and I decided a power-nap couldn’t hurt.

I struggled with the stiff door and ducked inside. I scanned the room with my flashlight, finding emergency supplies, a few bunks, and -- ahh! -- a man was staring at me. I'm not sure who was more shocked but we both apologized shamefully – I for the intrusion and him, well, being Japanese I believe he was apologizing for his mere existence.

I trust that we both found forgiveness, though very little was spoken. I found a dry spot on the floor and lay uncomfortably under my sleeping bag. Sleep was impossible though – the man snored like a chainsaw. No – like several chainsaws. I wrapped my head in a sweater but it was no use. The cabin’s walls shook with each rumbling intake of breath. With no hope of sleeping or even an uninterrupted thought, I left. If you are reading this, sir, please accept my apology and I shall accept yours for corroding my newfound inner peace.

The last hours were a struggle. The path was steep and covered with loose volcanic rock – I often lost my footing. I was using my hands in a lot of places and wished I’d had gloves.

Finally, (finally!) I made it. If you haven’t climbed a mountain before, let me tell you, all the clichés are true. There really is no feeling like being on top of a mountain. There is something in our nature that drives us to be at the top of things and I was rewarded with a rush of adrenaline – the rush that never fails to justify the effort of the climb.

The sunrise brought with it a panoramic view of snow-specked cliffs, green pine forests, and sleepy towns nestled beside the great Sea of Japan.

I breathed in the cool mountain air. Life was good.




Friday, March 19, 2010

The Mountain – Part One

I paused in the darkness at the bottom of the mountain and looked back at the last glimmering signs of civilization -- at vending machines and cabins and a parking lot of cars. And then I looked forward -- upward -- at the climb ahead. The familiar world twinkled behind me; a world unknown loomed above.

I knew vaguely what was coming -- what it would take to reach the summit. I'd climbed mountains before. But never alone. This was my journey, not to be shared.

And lest you think I'm being melodramatic, consider climbing for 10 hours, venturing high up to a cold, windy peak where, even in July, patches of snow defiantly refuse to melt. Consider a starless night, an unlit path, and a flashlight that had better not die.

The path grew darker with each step. My flashlight beam pierced the black night air, an oval of white light uncovering rocks and roots once shrouded in shadows. I passed incomprehensible signs in Japanese characters, always choosing the steeper route and hoping for the best.

With no group to slow me down I climbed much to fast and before long I had to rest. Breathing heavily, I drank some water and checked my map, which told me nothing; I hadn't even reached the climb's first checkpoint.

Up, through the vegetation I trekked. Higher and higher. The temperature fell, slowly but steadily, minute by minute. My warm breath was visible in the night air. Drops of sweat beaded off my face. Higher and higher.

As I mechanically climbed upward, my mind turned inward. I suppose introspection is natural on such a solitary trek, devoid of distraction. Self-analysis certainly isn't a habit of mine and yet with every worldly interference removed I began to think about my life and my values. These thoughts distilled during the lonely climb upward, each step bringing a little more understanding. Enlightenment? I might call it that, but I’d hate to be accused of melodrama twice in one post. Let’s call it inner peace. I won’t get too philosophical but I think the cultures that send their youth on solitary rites of passage are onto something.

I climbed onward.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Luckily, most of the ‘lonely road North’ had been smooth sailing. The last stretch, however, was not.

My pack’s waterproof cover was holding up well but my body was soaked. Takeshi, Makoto, and their stuffed Sesame Street characters were long gone and I was tired from the mission.

Only four cars had passed in an hour of waiting and I was beginning to accept that I’d have to pitch my tent beside the road in the rain. It wouldn’t be the end of the world but it certainly would not be pleasant.

That’s when a bus came to a stop beside me.

“Are you getting in?” asked the driver.

“What? Is this a bus stop?” I asked.

His patronizing look answered the question before he did.

“Yes, this is a bus stop. Are you coming?”

I was flabbergasted. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere? And I just happened to be waiting there!

IMG_5516So I got in. I know – it was cheating. I almost told him to go on without me. But I was cold, wet, and well, I was the only one on the bus so it was kind of like hitchhiking. The driver was talkative and gave me a coffee and some sweets. (If there’s some kind of Japanese politeness rule where I’m supposed to turn down all these offers of food, well, I guess it’s their fault for assuming I know it!)

I stayed the night at a quiet Japanese inn and took a ferry out to the island of Rishiri in the morning. 

As the ferry approached the island I saw the great Rishiri Mountain growing ever larger. I thought of my student, Teruyo, a woman who’s climbed more than a hundred mountains in Japan. She’d told me to try climbing one in Hokkaido. An overnight climb would get me to the top by sunrise. I looked up again at Mt. Rishiri. It was tall. It was Ominous. It beckoned.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poster Boys on a Mission

From the back seat I shook hands with my new driver and his best friend as they introduced themselves.

“Hi, I’m Takeshi.”

“Hi, I’m Makoto.”

“We’re on a mission.”

I know we just got started, but let’s pause the story for a minute.

You may be aware that there are a few things that every guy loves doing. I won’t go through them all, but sitting at number four on that list (just below being part of a heist) is going on a mission. From religious missions to space missions to missions impossible, we have been doing them for eons and we just can’t get enough. If there’s a guy near you right now, take a look at him. He’s probably either on a mission or in the planning stages of one.

You can imagine, then, the relish with which I took in this fantastic news.

“A mission? That’s amazing! I am on board. One hundred percent. I’m here for you. What are your mission objectives?”

“We must visit every Seicomart convenience store in this part of Hokkaido. We have to cover 400km and get to 30 stores. We must finish before the last one closes.”

They were volunteer organizers for an upcoming festival at their university and had distributed posters with an incorrect date to all of the stores. Each store had to be visited individually and had a number of sub-objectives for completion:

1) Run inside store

2) Quickly explain situation to staff

3) Find inaccurate poster

4) Change date using black marker

5) Run back to car

Unfortunately, my spoken and written Japanese were inadequate for sub-objectives 2 and 4 but I enthusiastically and flawlessly completed numbers 1, 3, and 5 at each location.

I wondered if they couldn’t just phone the stores and ask the staff to change the dates, but that would have simultaneously killed the mission and heavily damaged my reputation as a man -- I kept silent.

To these guys, phoning wasn’t an option. They were donating their time, Takeshi's car, and considerable gas money to help out their school. I was impressed. They were literally ‘poster boys’ for the famous Japanese work ethic and I was happy to help (and of course happy for the ride too, which took me most of the way up the ‘lonely coast’ I mentioned in an earlier post – good decision, Dave).

The ride also netted me an invitation to the festival advertised in the posters. A wanderer cannot also be a planner, though, and I couldn’t commit to going. I had no idea where I’d be that very evening, much less in 10 days.

And yes guys, I know, I haven’t forgotten. You’re wondering whether we completed the mission.

You bet we did.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rain Delay

With my hitchhiking status temporarily on “rain delay” and no old ladies to flirt with, I was stuck for something to do. I opened my journal to a blank page but couldn’t think of anything to write about.

Then a thought hit me. This is Japan! How can I not have much to write about? What do you see? Hear? Smell?

Inspired by that insight, what follows is a comprehensive sensory description of my rainy afternoon in the roadside service area in the town of Oumou, Hokkaido, Japan on Wednesday, July 8th, 2009.


To my left, two cheerful ladies are laughing while rearranging the displays in a little gift shop. They glance over at me from time to time, probably wondering who I am and what I’m writing about.

The service station itself is fairly nondescript – grey tables, grey rest rooms, and a row of vending machines filled with green tea and cigarettes. Out the window is a gloomy town, sulking under the relentless rain. I’ll venture out there soon, but I need to finish my…


…coffee. It’s heavily sweetened and is especially useful in washing down the awful Calorie Mate blocks I have purchased. They are a chalky meal-replacement that compete with North Korea's military food rations for worst meal ever. On the upside, I’m pretty sure they last forever. I wonder how long my…


…dried scallops will last. My pack is closed at my feet but I can smell them from here. The fishy scent competes with the odour of cigarette smoke, which wafts lazily in my direction from a group of business men, who are likely in a hurry and are very focused on…


…the noodles they are eating, loudly slurping them with the characteristic fervour common to noodle-eaters everywhere in Japan. The sound is expected – even encouraged – and I have, as a matter of pride, developed my own special technique of sending sputtering strands of carbohydrate noisily down the hatch.

Other aural surroundings include the laughing gift shop staff, the flat drone of the rain, and the hum of the nearby vending machines. And softly, barely audible, is the little scratch of my…


…trusty Cross pen, smooth in my hand, dutifully passing ink to paper and transferring just a touch of friction back to my hand in return.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Decision

I scanned my map, considering my next move. My plan was to follow the coast Northward, but a great number of locals had tried to talk me out of it because traffic on that route was so sparse.

“Go inland -- you’ll never get rides along the coast,” agreed a group of bus tourists I’d met at the rest station.

Another factor I had to consider was the weather forecast. The local weatherman was talking about rain, rain, and more rain, which certainly works against the hitchhiker. One might think you’d benefit from drivers’ sympathy in the rain, but bad weather has the even stronger effect of making everyone look a little more sinister. Picture dark grey clouds, blankets of rain, and Mother Teresa standing on a street corner. Is she concealing a knife under her habit? Possibly. Never trust a wet nun.

No, inviting a dripping wet, possibly dangerous stranger into your car is simply not as appealing as doing so for a dry one. I’d learned this the hard way, spending rainy days catching truck spray beside highways and ducking into convenience stores for shelter. The “poor hitchhiker in the rain" sympathy doesn't really exist to the extent that I'd hoped.

I had to make a decision. Should I risk it? My larger plan was to complete a loop of the island. The map of my Epic Hitchhiking Journey just wouldn’t look right with a big wedge cut out of it. The naysayers had a point though; it was a very desolate area and there were other, busier roads I could’ve taken.

But those locals were forgetting something. Lower traffic frequency also means a higher per-car chance of pick-up. Drivers think, “He’ll never find a ride out here … maybe I should stop.” You might only see one car in half an hour, but you’ve got a pretty good chance that he’ll give you a lift.

And you know what? Rain is just water. H2O. Life-giving. Ubiquitous.

I made my decision. I’d head North.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Eri dropped me off at a convenience store at 5am where I scored another ride.

At this point in the trip I was long past the stage of worrying about whether someone would stop. Drivers had been faithfully responding to my “thumbs up” for two weeks now and my confidence in the method was unshakeable. I’d mentally added hitchhiking rides in Japan to ‘death’ and ‘taxes’ as one of those few things that are certain in this life.

I hopped in with Naomi, who, despite a toothache (and the fact that it was 5:00 am!), drove me 20km out of her way to show me a famous wildflower park. She was in good spirits (oral-anguish be damned, I think she said in Japanese), and was happy to tell me about her work as a scallop factory worker. Apparently it’s a fascinating vocation, though I think the smell would get to me.


In the next town, that unshakeable confidence I mentioned earlier was challenged. It was a dreary fishing town, made even drearier by a steady drizzle.

Half an hour of walking on a nice day is nothing, but in the rain it’s pretty depressing so when another scallop-worker picked me up I was more than grateful. Wait – another scallop worker? Yep. Different company, same industry.

I support positive stereotypes, so spread the word: all scallop workers are friendly – this one gave me a sweet peanut butter sandwich (The Japanese add lots of sugar to their peanut butter).

A little further down the road, I walked into a rest stop to wait out the rain. I was sitting beside the window thinking about scallops when an old woman nearby told me to sit down beside her. I paused, but she motioned aggressively for me join her at the table.

“Come here, sit down. Here, these are for you.”

As though it were the most natural thing in the world, she handed me a bag of dried scallops and continued to speak.

“I’m rich, you know. I have lots of money and a big house. Very big.”

She didn’t appear to be rich, but appearances certainly aren’t everything. I ate a scallop and played along.

“That’s impressive,” I said. “Do you live near here?”

“Yes, all my life. Yes, yes, it’s very big indeed. So many rooms, and you know, it’s only me living there. It’s very sad. Isn’t it sad?

“Yes, sad,” I said.

“I have so much money and so much food and no one to share it with. No one to share the warmth of my table heater. My children are gone; my husband is gone… If I died, no one would find me for weeks. Maybe longer.”

(What do you say to that? I bet the smell would be pretty bad …)

I didn’t have time to answer anyway. She surprised me with a question.

“Do you think maybe you and I could get married? You’re good-looking, and I’m rich.”

“Sure,” I said, popping a dried scallop into my mouth. It was raining out, and I was thinking that perhaps we could both benefit here – her from some much-needed company, and I from a place to sleep, and, well, she was an interesting old lady, if a bit depressed.

“Well, maybe you could stay at my house—“ she paused, thinking. “No,” she said. “No, it's too ______." And with that, she bid me goodbye and left.

Too what? Your guess is as good as mine. It was a word I didn’t know, and by the time I had the sense to check my dictionary I’d forgotten it. It bugged me for days. What was the reason?

I put the scallops in my pack, which, for the next 3 days, smelled like scallops.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Guilty as Charged


Your Honour, I hereby confess to having committed a blogging felony. Having no money for a proper attorney, I choose to represent myself in the blogosphere court of law.

To the charge of “Breaking from chronology in an otherwise sequential narration,” I plead guilty. I committed this crime under my own volition, with no external aid or influence. I am of reasonably sound mind and I am prepared to pay any necessary damages or heed any court ordered injunctions that may be issued.

In hopes that my sentencing may be reduced, I request that the court kindly allow me to put forward a defence, vis-à-vis the context of my misdemeanor.

As you may have guessed, I breached the aforementioned code in order to convey the terrifying tale found in the prior post. Frankly, screaming kids are too much fun to write about.

The two days that I skipped include myriad ‘touristy’ achievements including, but not limited to, viewing sunsets, touring museums, and sampling local cuisine. In short, I got a little ahead of myself.

In my haste, I missed two noteworthy points. I apologize for such omission, and will now take to the keyboard and shamefully assume the duty I so carelessly shirked in the previous post; I will fill you in.

First, I visited the famed Abashiri Prison Museum, which has the same aura as Alkatraz in the US, or Azkaban in Harry Potter (instead of death-eaters they have teams of hyper-flatulant sumo wrestlers). The visit was engaging and interesting.


Second, I was fortunate enough to have both a tour guide for the day and a brick-and-mortar roof over my head – another welcome break from tenting.

For these luxuries, I thank directly the wonderful Eri-san, and indirectly,, which is nothing short of a young traveler’s dream come true. It’s a global community built around a website, where people offer couches, spare beds, and floorspace at no charge to those trying to travel cheaply. That description fit me pretty well, and after joining the site, a quick search led me to Eri, a really positive, outgoing girl with a passion for meeting new people and trying new things.


She took me sightseeing to a horse and llama farm, the actual Abashiri prison, and to the beautiful cape Notoro, where we had a late dinner of spaghetti and donuts by the Sea of Okhotsk.

We were unsuccessful in fighting off the enormous Hokkaido mosquitoes, but as you already know, I did manage to succeed in terrifying the (far more vulnerable) Hokkaido teenagers.

The 3:48am sunrise didn’t disappoint.



I hope these proceedings have not been unduly lengthy and can assure you that I shall henceforth submit additions to this living document known as ‘The Blog” in proper, chronological fashion.

I shall now retire to my cell to await sentencing. Court is adjourned.

IMG_5455 IMG_5452

Sunday, February 7, 2010


How can I describe to you that first scream? The one that came before all the other shrieking, and running, and sobbing. It was a scream I’ll never forget – a loud, terrified cry that set hearts racing and adrenaline flowing. It tore through the night, propelled by pure terror.

She was screaming at me.

Let me start at the beginning.

The night was special – in Japan, July 7th is the day of Tanabata. It’s a day to honour two lovers in the sky, separated eternally by a river of stars. The 7th day of the 7th month is the one time each year the couple can meet.

I hitchhiked to the beautiful Cape Notoro to watch the sunset, see the stars, and spend the night. By 9pm the last shimmer of light had abandoned the horizon and by 10 I couldn’t see a thing. I lay in my tent, completely alone in the darkness.

My solitude, however, was broken quite abruptly by a group of university students. I heard the crunch of gravel under tires and the closing of car doors. Voices rose and fell in conversation and soon I saw four small flashlight beams walking in the direction of my tent. There were two girls and two guys – perhaps young couples going for an evening stroll.

They weren’t walking toward the tent – they were on course to pass by it. But then my abode was noticed.

“Hey, what’s that?” I heard.

There was nothing especially funny about the question, or even the situation. Maybe I was crazy. Maybe I was possessed. But my response was laughter. Not soft, friendly laughter, but a kind of deep, throaty laughter that—given the circumstances—elicited quite a reaction.

The Scream.

First one, then both girls were shrieking, sprinting back toward the parking lot, away from the horrible laughing man inside the tent. One girl had erupted into tears.

I sat in the tent for the next 10 minutes, listening to the poor girl crying and the others discussing the tent monster. I felt terrible. I needed to apologize and prove that I wasn’t evil. I left the tent and walked slowly toward the parking lot, where about a dozen students stood chatting and consoling the two girls.

I knew that my task of appearing friendly would not be easy. I was a tall, foreign stranger shrouded in darkness – nothing but a pair of shoes illuminated by a flashlight beam, slowly emerging from the night.

I spoke to the group as I got closer. Somehow, telling people there’s nothing to fear always seems to indicate the opposite. But I did my best, hoping my muddled Japanese wouldn’t hurt my cause.

“Good evening, I’m so sorry, I’m really not scary, I’m very sorry – I’m just spending the night here in my tent. Where are the run-cry-girls? I must say sorry to them.”

A few pointed to the two girls cowering in the back. I called an apology to them, but they were clearly not ready to forgive. Many in the group were very friendly though, offering me hot tea and even a two hour ride the following day. They were all members of their university outdoors club, out for an evening of socializing and stargazing.

Eventually I met the frightened pair, one of whom spoke English.

“I am happy you are nice person, not ghost,” she said.

During Tanabata it’s customary to make a wish for the coming year. I wished that my laughter would cause no more tears. As far as I know, so far so good.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010


“If you’re going in the opposite direction, you really don’t have to give me a ride.”

“No, I insist!” he said. “I have lots of time. Do you know the word, nonbiri? It means living the slow life.”

“Nonbiri – the slow life – I like that!”

So Uchida-san threw his Suzuki into gear and pulled a u-turn; we headed West. The area is famous for its delicious deer burgers so I asked if we could stop to try one. We each had one from “Cowberry.” a roadside service centre restaurant. Sometimes the slow life involves fast food.


Uchida-san proved to be excellent company and the winding mountain roads afforded spectacular views.



Taking our time exploring picturesque vistas and highway service stations, we eventually arrived in Abashiri, my destination for the day. I thanked Uchida-san with a piece of Native-Canadian art I’d picked up at a little Canadian specialty shop in Tokyo. (Imported is still authentic, right?) He bowed, got back in his Suzuki, and headed back the way we’d come.

I heard that word, nonbiri, from many Hokkaidans on the trip. The island bears a stark contrast to Tokyo, whose residents work too much, sleep too little, and don’t have much time to really enjoy life.

Everyone together now, take a breath.

In …………

Out ………


Wednesday, January 20, 2010



It was perhaps the shortest teaching contract in history -- 45 minutes and I’d be on the road again. The teacher, Arakawa-sensei, was grateful for my help though, and he paid me handsomely in dried fish snacks.

Jack Handy is known for saying that the face of a child can say it all. Especially the mouth part of the face.

You’ll find, however, that the mouth part of the face can sometimes not say it all, especially when that face is Japanese and the desired speech includes the English ‘v’, ‘th’, or ‘r’.

“Pronounce: arrive there

“Alaibu zeah”

“Arrive there”

“Alaibu zeah”

“Uh … good!”

In this classroom, however, “interesting” pronunciation was largely overlooked in the name of making English FUN.

Arawkawa-sensei explained to me that most teachers think the main objective of beginner language courses should be a basic understanding of grammar and vocabulary.

“Sure, those are important,” he told me, “ but they can come later. They’re just kids! I don’t want them to go home and tell their parents about past and future tense -- I want them to report how fantastically fun it is to learn a new language!”

And in the fun department, Arakawa-sensei’s classes are an unqualified success. His enthusiasm and energy are infectious. As a student of mathematics I can attest that the following classroom poll is statistically significant by any measure:

“What’s your favourite subject?”

[in unison] “English!”



“Tell me again?”


With Arakawa-sensei running the show and I as his sidekick, we taught a fun, lively class. We only covered the days of the week and the names of some school subjects, but who cares? The kids were left smiling and laughing, their passion for English stronger than ever.


After class, as the kids were leaving for a break, two voices stood out – an impromptu game had started:


“Math, phys-ed!”

“Math, phys-ed, art!”

“Math, phys-ed, art, … … ehh … …”

On my way out I whispered to him. Physics.

“Math, phys-ed, art, Fee-Zee-Ku-Su!!”