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.