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.

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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

Urination

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.

What!!

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.

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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 clich├ęs 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.

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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.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bus-hiking

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.

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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.

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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.

Sight

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…

Taste

…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…

Smell

…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…

Sound

…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…

Touch

…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

Scallops

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.

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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.

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