Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 19, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

“Consciously or unconsciously, men are proud of their firmness, steadfastness of purpose, directness of aim. They go straight towards their desire, to the accomplishments of virtue – sometimes of crime – in an uplifting persuasion of their firmness. They walk the road of life, the road fenced in by their tastes, prejudices, disdains or enthusiasms, generally honest, invariably stupid, and are proud of never losing their way. If they stop, it is to look for a moment over the hedges to make them safe, to look at the misty valleys, at the distant peaks, at cliff and morasses, at the dark forests and the hazy plains where other human beings grope their days painfully away, stumbling over the bones of the wise, over the unburied remains of their predecessors who died alone, in gloom or in sunshine, halfway from anywhere. The man of purpose does not understand and goes on full of contempt. He never loses his way. He knows where he is going and what he wants. Travelling on, he achieves great length without any breadth, and battered, besmirched, and weary, he touches the goal at last; he grasps the reward of his perseverance, of his virtue, of his healthy optimism: an untruthful tombstone over a dark and soon forgotten grave.” (Joseph Conrad, ‘An Outcast of the islands’).

25 Aug, 2009: A starless night came down on me and the last thing I remembered seeing before falling asleep were the tiny fishing boats growing fainter and fainter out on the restless sea. Every now and then the horizon, too, would appear to disappear behind some waves, larger and fiercer than the one before. “A wind must have been blowing across the water.” I thought to myself, as I lay propped up on one elbow looing out from the tent. Strong steady winds did that sort of thing! Of course, Japan did not have the trade winds, and sorts of reefs and bays that caused those monster waves the surfers enjoyed in Hawaii and in Australia. Being a land lover at heart, I still had much respect for the rivers, seas and oceans, from the great Pacific to the Arctic, the smallest ocean in the world with its middle permanently covered with think ice, and where life was scarce. But this was the Japan Sea that mattered now! “Surely the fishermen could see me, too?” I wondered. For now the campfire that I had lit in the sand earlier, burned furiously, belching out volumes of orange sparks that mixed with the thick white smoke.

It was just before sunrise when I awoke from the sound sleep to the fresh wind over my cheeks, and which bore a chill in off the sea. The wind and rain did not come as I had thought, but I had hammered down everything just in case. When I first got my trusty little Dunlap tent I had to confess that I was disappointed when I first examined it at the store in Kanda in Tokyo. It was about this tent that I committed the hopes and aspirations in all weather conditions, which hampered me much of the time so far on my mission. But I did not care much about it now! For an excitement built in my heart at the thoughts of the conclusion of this stage of my mission near at hand. When I did finally up camp, there was an unbounded joy in my heart as I set off along the road in a mood of fervor.

A touristy looking sign by the roadside informed me that Mount Shirakamidake (Kurosaki) was twenty-four kilometers away, and located some six kilometers from the coastline I followed. Mount Shirakamidake was part of a mountain range on the northern Tohoku region of Japan, stood 1,203 meters high. With gentle slopes of windswept grassland and shrubbery that served to moderate the seasonal winds that blow in over the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). A dense beech forest covered the mountain; a beautiful mountain range that straddled both Akita and Aomori Prefectures. I stopped momentary to look at its beauty and to talk a few snapshots. People did that, which was the reason why it was called ‘Tomaridake’, the stopping mountain.

“Juni-ko” Ecological Museum and Conversation Center, as the sign read, was seventeen kilometers down the road. A main attraction for many outdoor lovers most of the year round, were the various hiking trails that zigzagged through the forests that lead to the waterfalls and lakes. The Ammon Falls was perhaps the most popular among the falls. Most of the trails that lead to the waterfalls had been paved, and although flat at the beginning of the hike, became elevated and narrower the further you went into the valley. Also, the hiking trails led to Mount Shirakamidake, the tallest peak in the mountain range. The Juni-ko, or ‘twelve lakes’ were located on the northwestern section of Shirakami Senchi. The area offered a scenic day of hiking and camping, as well as, boating and fishing on and around the lakes and ponds.

For those wishing to learn more, a small visitor center was located at the Juniko Eco-Museum Center Kokyokan, where information on the area’s beech, among other things could be got. Juniko in English meant twelve lakes, yet no less than thirty-three lakes could be found in the area. One of the things of interest that drew many visitors to the lakes was the brilliant color within them. Aoike Lake, for example, had a rich blue color that poets saw as resembling a sky upon the ground. It surprised me to learn that a permit was required to enter into the core of the forest area, which was protected by the UNESCO World Heritage. This could only be obtained by mail at least a week in advance, although earlier was advisable. This was especially true if the permit had to be posted to another country. It was of course better to go in person to any one of nine offices in the area during business hours from Monday to Friday, even up to the day of a planned visit. However, even this was not so easy since there were only a few visitor centers in and around Shirakami Sanchi.

The extensive Shirakami Sanchi mountain range, which straddled the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures in the northern Tohoku region, was declared one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan in 1993. It was home to the last virgin beech forests in Japan. There was an excellent museum at another visitors center in Fujisato in Akita that had much about the forests, and with information offered in English, and another one between Hirosaki and the Anmon Falls in Aomori that even had a theater showing a thirty-minute reel on the beech forests. The sky broke and the rain began to fall soon after I decamped. It did not last long! Like yesterday, a cloudy blue sky replaced the rain for much of the day. The road ahead had its good share of morning traffic, cars mostly with just the driver in them, passed by. Then there was the occasional tourist coach with elderly Japanese tourists onboard. Out on the high sea I could also see a few large fishing boats heading to some place of importance, the best spot to fish. Once more the road crossed over the railroad tracks, but as I would learn in due course, they did not cross as many times as yesterday.

Up ahead a group of elementary school children waited at a bus stop for the bus take them to their school. They all turned to look at me as I made my way towards them. “Good morning” I called out in English in as joyful a voice as I could muster. All of the children giggle some call back at me with their smiling faces. “Good moningu, good moningu, Amelikajin? Amelikajin?” A little further along the road I drew near to a junior high school girl walking slowly in the same direction. As I passed her by I could that there was something in her facial expression, if not walking pace that told me she did not want to go to school. She did not answer my morning greetings to her as I passed. From a road sign I learned that Noshiro was sixty kilometers away, the final two days of tramping. Both Lake Juniko and Iwasaki Town were much nearer at fourteen and ten kilometers, a somewhat cheerful thought. “Perhaps a nice hot breakfast somewhere in Iwasaki.” Away to my right a rice farmer wore a mask as he sprayed the paddy field what I understood to be chemicals. Perhaps I should have done the same, for the strange smell in the air as I passed by. “Why me!” I thought, as I upped the pace. Thanks to the gentle morning breeze, the bad smell remained with me for quite a while.

For some ungodly reason the traffic picked up along the road making it impossible for me to crossover to the other side. I picked up my pace even more! It was the only way to put distance between myself, and the fumes. On a elevated slope a few meters up above, a local train rattled past. Away to my right the sea rolled freely onto the sand, unmolested by the hand of man. Another touristy looking sign told me that Tsubakiyama beach lay six kilometers further along the road. And soon I found myself climbing up the first steep incline of the day. At the same time my insides were bursting to pay a visit to an outhouse somewhere, as nature was calling in more ways than one. “A tree would just have to do.” I mumbled, as I fiddled about to unfasten my little army spade. A noodle shop sign read “Ramen 101”. An appropriate name, I thought, since the restaurant since it was located next to Route 101. “There must be a god,” I jokingly mumbled to myself as my eyes caught sight of a public toilet a little ways up ahead. “What luck!” I mumbled to myself as I dropped my backpack down on the hard sunbaked soil beside a wall. What horror! “Oh no!” The toilet was locked, and state of the building looked as though it had been that way for quite sometime. There was nothing to do but to move on and find a more isolated place away from the busy road.

There was nothing to do but to move on. “It was going to be one of those days” Some monkeys sat looking down at me from the trees. I wondered if they knew how I was feeling, or if they were the reason why the toilet had become locked and abandoned. A road sign told me that Henashi JR train station was on Route 193 that went away to my right. “Fuck it.” I did not want to take any detour now. Besides, a train was not what needed, but where there was a station, there was most certainly a toilet, too. “Perhaps somewhere off the road behind a tree, will do just as well, monkeys or no monkeys. ” A giant windmill rose up before me like a white goddess. I had long believed them to be the most graceful and beautiful of manmade inventions. Well, that was until my eyes fell on a giant waterwheel. Gazing at this massive wooden structure was something different indeed. There it stood, turning, turning, turning as if alive and in a world of its own; this powerful thing seemed to beacon me on. “Come and look, but don’t stop! For like me, you must not stop”. Soon I reached the top of the steep incline, and it was, the giant waterwheel in all its magnificence. The waterwheel stood at least five stories high. There was nothing new or recent about the surroundings in which it moved, and for a moment I felt that I had walked back time.
I set down near to the giant waterwheel. There was better place to be just then to see what could be done to relieve the pain in the little toe on my left foot. Splash, splash, splash, the water sounded when the wheel hit it. It was easy to see the actual problem so to deal with it. Perhaps it was a new blister forming, or was it a cut on a previous botched operation that had not quite healed? Either way, the pain was beginning to make it known to me. If only my old friend the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) was near, how I felt sure its salty waters would work magic as it had done countless times before. Still, it was not the sort of injury or pain to hold me up or slow me down any, or so I hoped. Being on the road once more would certainly answer my concerns one way or another, I just needed to keep my wits about me for the traffic that sped by. To paraphrase the Irish-born author-cum philosopher, Iris Murdoch, ‘Other forms of transport grew daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remained pure in heart.’ Seven young male cyclists past me in the opposite direction, a couple of them waved to me as they went by. And not an easy thing to do whilst negotiating the steep incline that the faced. A dead cat lay on the road, its guts scattered about the asphalt. The flies that hovered around the remains clearly enjoyed their unexpected feast. Now the traffic on the road had become noticeably busier with the passing of time. A road sign that I passed just now told me that Sawabe JR train station was on Route 194, to the right. An hour or so had gone since the cyclists passed me, the old hunger pings could be felt.
After sometime I stopped at a restaurant by the side of the road to take a peek at the menu on an elegant little stand outside by the entrance. The restaurant looked a little on the posh side, but I was not sure when the next one might appear. Beside, I was hungry, and it was quite clearly open for business as there were a few customers sitting eating at a couple of tables. With that, I turned to make my way inside. However, the manager or owner of the place, who must have observed me from one of the large windows, had other ideas. As I was about to loosen the straps on my backpack to take it off and enter, the fellow in question approached me and met me at the entrance. There was a silent phase for a moment, then he made a cross sign with his arms. This was a form of body language that symbolized ‘No!’ or something along those lines. Not a word passed between us! The Japanese loved silence phases as a form of communication. And though I read somewhere that one should never follow them with a joke of a sharp remark, I was very tempted to demand a reason. I had experienced similar happenings a few times previously on my long tramp down along the Aomori Prefecture coastline, so I was no stranger to encountering such monkeys. However, rather than let it get under my skin, I simple turned around and headed back out onto the open road again.

A tiny police car passed me by a while earlier. Unlike all the other police cars that had seen here and there, this time its lights were not flashing. I never really understood why they needed to have the lights flashing all the time. Four middle-aged men peddled up the steep inline that I was descending. They looked quite a sight puffing away in their efforts to get to the top, their bikes loaded up with camping gear. One of these determined chaps acknowledged me with a nod and a smile. Something in his face told me that we understood and respected the difficulties of one another’s goals. Still there was no way he dared to take his hands off the handlebars to wave. For a short time I wondered if they would stop at that racist guy’s restaurant, just two kilometers in the direction they were headed. “Why shouldn’t they stop there?” I thought. It was the only place to be had for quite a distance afterwards.

The police car that I noticed earlier drove past me again just now, though this time in the opposite direction. “How were the cyclists doing?” I wondered, as the police car reached the top of a hill and disappeared out of sight. On the beach a little to my right I could see three large piles of broken logs and planks of wood. I was not quite sure why the wood was where it was. Even if it had been washed up by the tide, it looked as if some effort was being made to clean up the beach. It was not until I was well passed the piles of wood that it dawned on me that they were bonfires in ready for some festival.

Japan was a country of festivals or matsuri, which were held throughout the year. The principle Matsuri were Shogatsu, which was held over the New Year. This was soon followed by the Setsubun matsuri, which was held at the start of February to usurer in spring. Then at the beginning of March came the Hina matsuri, the Doll festival for girls. Three main festival where held thought the month of July! The Tanabata matsuri was when people visited temples where they wrote their wishes on tiny pieces of paper and then fasten them to the branches of trees. The largest festival in Japan for the people it attracted was the Gion matsuri, held in Kyoko in mid-July, and famous for its thirty-two floats. Last, but not least was the Shichigosan matsuri held on 15 November of each year. ‘Shichi-go-san’ meant, ‘seven-five-three’ in English. The numbers symbolized the age of the children at the time of the festival. For example, boys were aged seven or five, and girls were aged seven or three. It was a time when young children were donned in traditional kimono accompanied by their parents to a local Shinto shrine in order to pray for a healthy prosperous life.

A road sign told me tat Iwasaki JR train station was nearby, not that it mattered to me. At first, I thought that I had also reached the town of Iwasaki, but as I passed the train station the name board above the entrance read, ‘Mutu Iwasaki’. A quick look over the train time schedule on one of the walls told me only ten trains ran per day. The first morning train ran at “07:16AM” and the last one at “8:45PM”. On the road again I tramped along unperturbed and non-the wiser, and needless to say still hungry for want of something to eat.

With the absence of food, I sat down by a vending machine to enjoy a cool can of Coca Cola. Thoughts of the Japanese tramper or wonder, who passed me a while back popped up again. In fact, we had been passing one another on the road this last couple of hours. How did this fellow tramper of mine live? Did he have to rely on the sympathy of others? Had personal circumstances forced this man to wander the roads, like, a lack of work, a broken relationship, or whatever? I also wondered if he was heading somewhere in particular, as I was? Or was he just following his nose to here and there, kind of where his fancy took him. This great nation of Japan was one hell of a very settled land, and whereby no one should step out of line. After all, Japan owed much, if not all, of its past successes to stability and the settled state of its people. All that I could hope for at that moment was that the wind of fortune would change for the better, so as to allow my fellow counterpart on the roads, to settle down.

Then again, was this tramper’s purpose for being on the road as pleasing to him as it was to me? What were the reasons why people like this man wandered the roads? Undoubtedly in the past, war and famine and a host of other natural and unnatural elements were reason enough for people to move. If anything, my own country, Ireland rubbed shoulders with Japan when it came to famine and unrest of one kind or another. Of course, none of these reasons mattered much to me, than my own. Especially now with the end of this stage of my mission was so near at hand. Such were my thoughts as I got to my feet and grabbed hold of my backpack. Even when I stepped back out onto the road my mind raced on about the Japanese tramper.

“Did not a ‘home’ provide a base, a sense of place, or ‘family’, a sense of belonging?” Or so I wondered to myself. After all, many trampers or wanderers had no homes to call their own. To me this was a sort of crack or hole in life, one that I might well even have slotted my own situation into. As to the place I rented in Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo, and where I will of course be glad to return to, I found it difficult to refer to it as my home. The same was true with just about every other place that I rented over the years, whether inside Japan, or overseas. Then again, how this looked in the light of that noted expression: ‘where a man hung his hat, was his home’ or something like that? It all somehow mattered little to me!

There were many examples of wandering people, the Japanese fishermen, who sailed the seas far and beyond, where a settled people. Did not they have their families and homes to return to after a hard days work out on the heavy seas? Early records had told of fishermen who sailed great distances from their homes. In the fifteenth century, fishermen, who lived in and around the Osaka area, fished in the waters as far away as western Kyushu. The mountains were where the lesser orders lived, gypsies, hunters, woodworkers, and others. Clearly, too, the mountain regions were the sparse part of the country.

The ‘sanka’, or who might better be referred to as mountain gypsies, was also a word that literally meant ‘mountain cave’. However, the sanka often camped along side mountain streams and rivers. They scratched out a living by the fish they caught and sold, and by the bamboo wares they made, like brooms and baskets, etc. The sanka sold these things in the towns and villages they walked to in the mountains. Especially following the Second World War, the sanka melted into the modern way of living and settled down. The island of Kyushu was one of the places many of them came to live a more sedentary life in.

Another distinct group of wandering people who finally came settle down, were known as the ‘matagi’, or hunters. Like the sanka, the hunters were a mountain people who applied their trade there seeking out game such as, wild boar, bear, and so on. Then there were the ‘kijiga’ or woodworkers, who made out a living by felling trees to making tools, toys, accessories, and furniture, among host of other household goods. Also like the mountain gypsies and the hunters, the kijiki blended into the population at large and settled down to a more sedentary lifestyle. To quote from a book that I read recently, titled, ‘The Forgotten Japanese’, “Wanderers of this sort most likely died out in one generation but were followed by others who fell into similar circumstances.”

Much about the people of the mountains had disappeared completely from postwar history. Perhaps historians might have been more kind to those distinct groups of people. Perhaps if the history books had properly documented to shed a brighter light on these long scattered and almost forgotten ancestors, how might Japanese people look back over the past? If only, if only, if only! Then it might have been shown that many of today’s Japanese families could trace, at least part of their roots back to such distinct groups of mountain people. For all that I had heard to date from people whom I talked to in and around Tokyo, and else where on my travels about the country, were their boastful words on ties to a Samurai past.

Not so long ago for that matter, such as, in the early post war years, people walked a lot more than they did today. Early mountain paths, once busy long before the turn of the century were reopened, if at all they had ever disappeared. Even along the mountain paths countless people tramped from town to town, and back again. In short, people back then simple had to walk, for it was the only way to survive or to make a living. For a while I was able to clear my mind and think about absolutely nothing. However, somewhere further down my mind turned more to people of the road. “If wandering the roads could be considered a profession, rather than merely an necessary part of one, surely it would out pace prostitution as being the oldest?”

Across the way from where I sat a road sign informed me tat it was forty-eight kilometers to Noshiro City, with Hachimon and Lake Juniko twenty-eight and six kilometers away. Once on the road again the first tunnel in a good while came into view. Fortunately, it was only two hundred and ninety meters long. Still, the cool breeze against my face was most welcomed on that hot day. A cool flow of sweat down my forehead, turned warm as I emerged into the piercing sunshine at the other end. Up ahead a train shunted out from a station and headed north, in the opposite direction. As the train passed me, I could see that the carriages were loaded up with people, young and old. “Where was everyone off to?” I wondered. Soon I tramped by Juniko JR train station, which told me that the lake of the same name was nearby. I had grown tired of seeing the name ‘Lake Juniko’ on many road signs and felt good about getting past it. Just then a bus pulled away from a bus stop as I got near. I wondered how the driver of the bus knew that I did not want a ride? Or perhaps, like me, he did not care. I did not notice if it was full or empty. Once again a pain in my little toe was starting to occupy much of my mind.

As luck would have it, a roadside restaurant stood across the road from the train station. Chucked up on a little sign outside, I could see that both ‘A lunch’ and ‘B lunch’, were fish-based. “Mmm! Not good!” I mumbled to my self as I pushed open the door and entered, my backpack still strapped firmly to my back. I left the backpack by the entrance and made my way over to one of the tables. “Mmm!” I thought as my eyes scanned down the menu on the table. There were only three meat-based dishes on offer, but I was too hungry now to care much. Two of the three meat-based dishes, udon and katsudon I knew well and had tried both of them umpteen times at establishments elsewhere along the way. The other of the three was titled, “Sutamina”, which was a play on the English word, ‘stamina’. And which was promptly ordered, more from interest than not. When the dish was finally placed on the table before me, I could see that it looked very similar to the dish I had eaten last night, called ‘gyorin’, only this time the fried slices of pork were placed neatly on top of the rice. I ordered my second glass (‘jugi’) of Asahi beer. One of the girls working in the kitchen placed a small plate of green peas on the table beside the beer. I never quite found out why the Japanese linked green peas with drinking beer. Once again, I did not care much either way.

It also felt good to have anything inside of me regardless. Baring the fish-based dishes, of course! Whatever my feelings were about the taste, or customs, the food did the trick. And, true to its name, I felt more than ready for the road again. Just as I left the restaurant, a motorcyclist out in the car park was stepping out of his riding gear. As I passed by the motorbike, the rider was about to enter the restaurant. With a broad smile on my face and with my best Japanese, I called over to the fellow by the door, “Riding a motorbike was easy, try tramping the roads from morning to evening.” In an equal and jovial mood he called back to me as I stepped out onto the hot tarmac, “Gombate kudasai!” (Do your best!)

It had gone one-twenty and the sun took up where it left of, attempting to cook me beyond belief. The information on a road sign told me that I had already gotten twenty kilometers under my belt. Noshiro City was less than twos way at forty-four kilometers. My mind raced at the thought of my goal being so near. “Surely I could at leas get another ten kilometers done before I call it a day.” Not far from the road sign I stopped to take a photo of a beautiful old house with a thatched roof. “Where have all the good architects gone, long time ago?” Wasn’t there a song that went something like that? My thoughts needed no answers, and it felt good to really feel happy at last, for a sense of achievement was flowing through my body.

Another road sign told me of Matsukami JR train station was on Route 264 away to my right. Every time I passed a train station my mind would play games with me. “Come on, give up now. Take the train, no one would know.” I knew that I would know, and that was more than enough for me to keep going. Besides, I soon learnt in the first week on the road that this undertaking was not for the faint hearted, and it certainly had no room for cheaters either. Across the road, surround by a rice paddy, a lone building stood. It turned out to be the train station itself. By then the traffic on the road had greatly lessoned, but I still had to keep my wits about me crossing it. The motorcyclist whom I joked with outside the restaurant earlier passed me on the road. A hearty wave, two hoots from the horn and soon he was out of sight. To where he was headed I could only but imagine. Perhaps he too was nearing the end of a break away from the hassle and bustle of city life.

Deep in the pine forest away to my left I could hear the discharging of a shotgun. “Mmm!” For a moment I wondered if hunters still lived that wandering sort of life that I spoke of earlier? After all, cowboys could still be found in America! A road sign told me that Kurosaki was away to my right. A Sagawa delivery truck wised past me heading north. “How many kilometers did those fellows cover in a day?” I wondered to myself. It felt strange how such little things reminded me of life in Tokyo. Soon I would be there and back into the usual routine. A second shot was heard, but this time it was much more faint than previously. After a while I decided to stop at a shrine to boil water to make a cup of tea. The rest, if not the tea, might rejuvenate some spirit into me. Or so I hoped as a tinge of boredom were creeping into my mind! The shrine grounds were usually quite secluded away from the roads and the traffic, including an abundance of quality trees that cast out magnificent shadows to rest under.

A lonely looking red colored ‘torii’ looked down at me as I entered. All the shrines I stopped to rest at had at least one tori gateway. After all, what would a Shinto shrine be without a torii, a kind of gateway by its entrance, its two upright supports and two trademark crosspieces! Certainly the most spectacular torii for its location, if not most famous, rose out from the Inland Sea at Itsukushima shrine, and where I was sure to visit during a future stage in my mission. Once upon a time, torii gateways were made from wood, and there were still a good few of them that remained, however, in recent times concrete appeared to have proved itself a worthy replacement for durability.

So it was on this hot day in late summer that I set down to rest on some cold dusty steps, in the gray shade so as to make a hot cup of tea. The cobwebs hung from the top right hand corner or the torii. The lower half of the torii had become overgrown by moss, which told me that the surroundings were not as dry as they appeared. Separated by the rooftops of the Kurosaki homes and Route 101 was my old friend, the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). From the steps where I sat, I was given a most delightful, thanks to the torii gateway, a framed image of the blue-green calm waters of the sea. How inviting it all looked to me! “Mmm!” I started thinking about taking a dip in whenever I made camp later on. Still, my body was saturated with sweat! Yes, I needed to swim. Then again, I was never one for counting my chickens before they were hatched, as the fable reminded me.

The hardest times on the road were those days when the sun was at its strongest and there was not a single shade to hide under. So the shrine grounds proved to be good places to stop and rest at for a while. For the most part, it was one of those days when the sun beat down on top of me. If I did come to a little shop by the roadside I would step inside for a while to cool down, or perhaps sit outside under a tiny shade to enjoy a cool beer before moving on once more. There was one thing about these little stops that I found a little hard to handle. For whatever the reason, most of the proprietors of the shops must have felt it their duty to stand outside to keep me company until the last drop of beer was gone. It was not really a problem, since useful information on the road ahead could often be picked up.

Up ahead a tunnel came into view. How I hated those long tunnels south of Otaru up in Hokkaido. Every I sighted a tunnel I would think of those massive dark holes. Of course, I hoped that similar tunnels would not appear again. Fortunately, the tunnel was just 627.4 meters long. Not bad at all when compared with some of the monster tunnels in southern Hokkaido, some of which ran for more that the kilometers. What was interesting about this tunnel was the way it sloped downwards in the direction of Hishiro. Completed in February 1975, it was nowhere near as new as those massive jobs on the great northern island.

Just as I approached the tunnel a tourist coach, with North Japan printed on the sides, rushed past me heading in the same direction. Most of the tourist coaches that passed me were loaded up with elderly passengers. “Mmm!” I remembered thinking how nice it was for the elderly to be able to spend their pensions on such trips, and wondered how it would be for the new elderly who followed in the years to come. The Japanese society was rapidly aging. Currently, about one out of every four in the population was sixty-five years old or above. Caring for the elderly was one hell of a challenge for the government and society at large. The need for housing, caregivers, and facilities that helped to make the elderly more comfortable was something that needed careful thinking about. The rest of the world was watching to see how the Japanese dealt with this growing problem, of sorts. According to some thinkers, already one in about ten people in the world was over sixty that was 810 million persons. By the year 2050 this ratio would jump to one in five. God forbid not only in Japan, but governments around the world would need to take immediate action to address that matter. After all, just about every body hoped to be able to enjoy their retirement in as comfortable a way as possible.

Another closed up roadside café with its garden overgrown stood a little ways from the side of the road. A peek through one of the dirty window allowed me a glimpse into its past. A calendar on one of the wall read, July 1988. “Wasn’t that around the time when the Economic Bubble burst in Japan” I wondered, as I looked about the interior from where I stood outside. On another wall I could see a Coca Cola poster. It showed the picture of a beautiful smiling young Asian girl holding one of those classic glass Coca Cola bottles, with the black stuff fizzing out at the neck. “Mmm!” The sight of the old bottle made me try to recall the time when I first drank a Coke. I began to feel thirsty at the thought! Back the early days the customers would have looked at that poster on the wall when they entered the café.

Soon a road sign told me that the little town of Omegoshi was away to the right. There were so many beautiful little summer homes dotted along this segment of Route 101 that ran along a good portion of the coastline. I counted three Japanese soft porn magazines scattered by the roadside, too. The tattered magazines must have been discarded by someone who stopped their car, for there was also a small pile of cigarette butts next to one of the magazines. In the good times, Japan had become known as home to a “throwaway culture”, which I guess spoke more about a wide range of discarded items to be found on the local rubbish dumps in useable, working, mint condition. There once was a time when people did not throw away broken or old things, like they did during the bubble economy years when the throwaway culture was most visible. Just about everything would be used and reused until it became useable. Then they would be sold to recycling merchants, who would amend, alter, or modify them in someway to be sold on. Now, too, throwing away useable things still went on, but on a much lesser scale. Money was scarce! Unlike now, a hundred years ago things were cheaper to repair. Not only in Japan, but in many countries, there were also lots of itinerant repairmen who roomed from town to town fixing all sorts of stuff, pots and pans, sharpening knifes, mending umbrellas, and so forth. Some of them made quite a living at it, too!

Another road sign told me that I was doing just fine, for Noshiro was now only thirty-two kilometers away, or good hard day of tramping. Akita, the capital city of Akita Prefecture, with a population of nearly 325,000, was only ninety-one kilometers further along. The city had been devastated on 14 August 1945, when 134 B-29s targeted an oil refinery there. Some 137 people lost their lives in the raid. According to my research, it was believed to have been the final bombing of Japan in World War Two. However, all of this meant little to me now, as all that I could think about was getting to Noshiro in good time before my knees gave out altogether. It was also at this point in my mission that I said goodbye to Aomori Prefecture, as I stepped wearily over the boundary into the township of Happa in Akita Prefecture proper. Just as I did this I began to laugh. “Why had the famous Marx Brother’s enter my thoughts?” I wondered. As I made my way, now limping along by the side of the road. Perhaps my little toe was trying to tell me that it had not fallen off yet, but would do so if I did not attend to it soon.

At last I settled to rest myself at a place called Hachimori, and to see what could be done to the blisters in my feet. “Fuck it! Bad timing!” It had often been the case that when I arrived at a campsite ground the necessities of life, such as a waterhole, or a place to get something to eat at, had just closed up for the evening. As usual, the public toilets tended to be well cared for, or spick and spam as my grandmother used to say. But there was little else of use open. Neither were there the two or three minute coin operated hot showers, for ¥100 or ¥200 yen a pop. Two very attractive young female staff members reassured me that not all was lost. They told me that if I continued along Route 101 for ten or fifteen minutes more, I would come to an onsen or spa where both a shower and food could be had. They also told me that the onsen was an inexpensive place, which was what I wanted to hear. My spirits were mush raised by this news, and with my trusty little one-man Dunlop tent now firmly pitched, with the camping things tossed inside to await my return, I headed down the road in the direction I was given; with of course, the remains of my soap and a few fresh clothes to change into afterwards stuffed under my arm.

After two kilometers of tramping in the direction I was given, there was still nothing that looked anything like an onsen. The road was flanked on both sides by pine trees, through which an occasional glimpse of a glittering sea could be seen under the darkening sky. The odd car sped past, but other than tat, there was not a sole insight to get information from. Finally, and as luck would have it, I stopped at an office building. Through a ground floor window I could see a young man sitting behind a desktop computer, unaware of my looking at him. With a gentle tap at the window, the fellow quickly turned, his face showing an element of surprise. How I must have looked to him as I stood there, I could only but imagine.

After a couple of seconds of coming to terms with the unexpected intrusion, he stood up and approached the window and opened it. Of course, I profusely apologized for taking the fellow away from his work, which he looked so absorbed in. It only took a few seconds to explain to him the reason for my intrusion. “Oh! You mean the Hataku Onsen!” Or so I was told. “’It’s a good two or three kilometers further along the road in that direction,” he said pointing in the direction that I was already headed. “Another two or three kilometers?” I answered him not quite wanting to believe my ears. “Well! I guess there will be no warm bath and hot food tonight,” I said to the smiling fellow, half wondering if he understood what I was rambling on about. With that, I turned and made my way back towards the campground where my tent and sleeping bag waited to welcome me in to another world.

Sleep was just as important as food, if not water! Sleep was that thing that relaxed the body and mind. The muscles and mind needed to rest after a long day of countless movement and thought. During sleep the breathing slowed and the rate of the heartbeat decreased. Of course, there was much that was not known about sleep, like, why the brain continued to function in the form of dreams, of even of the importance of dreaming, and so on. For me it did not matter one way or another since I could never remember my dreams at all when I woke up. What I did know now was that I looked to hit the sake (sleep) with every step I took back towards my tent.

I was not a happy man! Besides the thirty-five kilometers that I had already clocked up under my belt since morning, this evening’s aborted venture had caused me four unnecessary kilometers. “Fuck it!” I called out not caring who heard me. “I should have stayed in my tent and rested. Instead, I was now retracing my steps back in the direction of the campground. For a while I even wondered if the two girls, who had more than likely gone home to their own warm futons, or beds, understood that I was walking? I tried to laugh and put a positive spin on my little dilemma, but I could not. All sorts of useless things came in and out of my head, including the saying thought to have come from Benjamin Franklin (1706 to 1790), one of America’s founding fathers: ‘Believe nothing of what you heard, and only half of what you saw.’ I felt foolish!

Beyond hitting the sack, there was little else worth doing when I got back to my tent, but sleep. It was too dark to read or write, and the way I felt whenever I got back, I was in no mood to do anything anyway. A solitary tea bag lay on top of the rest of my junk that was pushed into a corner of the tiny tent. I poured some water from a flask into the pot and placed it on top of my little Capt. Stag burner to boil. “Perhaps after a hot cup of tea, things might not seem so bad after all.” I told myself, as I turned to make more space in the tent. Slowly I began to look on the bright side of life once more. “Fuck it!” I said to myself remembering that I still had some postcards to be got ready, written and posted before I tramped into Noshiro tomorrow. “I will have to wrap things up at Noshiro and continue from there this coming winter. It had been a very long and hard tamp. Just how many cuts, and blisters, and muscle pain I had along the way seemed unimportant now, for the end smelt so good. I feel good with myself for getting as far as I did. For sure it was a good opener to my mission, or to something that now seems much bigger than I previously imagined. It was not cheap! There were many things, which I lost along the way, camping gear, clothes, even time. But what hurt most of all was losing one of my recently completed notebooks. That was in Kanita in Aomori. The loss of the three weeks of irreplaceable information, to say the least, will forever linger in the back of my mind for a long time to come. Regardless, my many hours on the roads required positive thinking. All that I could see now was the hot bath waiting for me at a hotel in Noshiro.”

26 Aug, 2009: In the morning I was much wiser about Noshiro, the end of my final stretch on this long hard tramp. A phone call from a friend had planned to meet me in the lobby of the Dormy Inn. The plan was to have a few days together, mainly to celebrate the successful completion of Stage One of my mission. And, if at all possible, to relax the best I could before returning to a so-called normal lifestyle in Tokyo. There was only thirty kilometers left to Noshiro and I had two days to do it in. It was not often on the road that I could say that the last stretch was going to be a piece of cake. There was funny feeling in my stomach. It probably had something to do with this being the closing of a chapter. In a while the funny feeling lessoned, for a part of me looked forward to the following chapters to come, too.

A road sign told me that Akita City was eighty-eight kilometers, and Noshiro was down now to just twenty-seven. From the sign I learned that Hashimori Yukko Land was four kilometers further along, thought at the time I had no idea what the place was all about, and although I had more time than I needed to reach Noshiro City I was in no mood for taking a detour to find out. Soon I found myself at Iwadate Beach where I stopped for a spell to rest. There were the usual facilities at rest areas, parking, public toilets, and ramps by the entrances for handicapped people to use. High up in the sky the clouds were dispelling, which told me that the sun was going to have its way with me for the next twenty or so kilometers. It was not very long after leaving Iwadate Beach when I got to Hachimori Yukko Land. There was also a rest area, but fewer facilities than there were at the beach.

I stopped outside a place called Dry Valley Restaurant, dropping my backpack down at a vending machine near the door. The sweat on my hands made the pocket phone cover all shiny. It was twelve o’clock and I was expecting a call at any moment from my friend about our planned meeting in Noshiro. The sun was beating down on top of me, so I treated myself to a cool can of Fanta from the vending there while I waited for the phone to ring. Not for from where I set, a fellow was drinking a large bottle of Kirin beer. “Didn’t I see that guy getting out of a car a couple of minutes earlier?” I wondered to myself. He kept glancing over at me, or in the direction where I was sitting and, as my mind was occupied with my own concerns, I prayed that he would not try to strike up a conversation with me just then. Then again, I heard it said in that great movie, ‘How Green Was My Valley’, that prayer was another good, quick, clear direct thinking. The relentless heat from the sun had by now seeped into my mind and made me rather antisocial. Besides, the fellow had just lit up a second cigarette in the space of five minutes, whilst the fumes from the first one already polluted the air around where I set. “Smoking, drinking, and perhaps driving!” Something was troubling this fellow, I thought to myself. The only thing to do was to grab my things and move to another place a little further away. This time I decided to find a spot up wind, a course that led me past where the fellow was sitting. Not a word was spoken by either of us when I passed him by, which was just as well. Then again, perhaps he too was lost in his own thoughts.

Just then a sporty looking American made van pulled in to the car park. It was a real home away from home, only on wheels. It even had two parabola dishes fastened to its rear window, which made me wonder why the guy driving it left home in the first place. There must have been a kitchen sink inside there somewhere. “Just the sort of thing for those who love luxury on the road.” I felt to myself as I turned towards the road. Just as I was pondering about the customized van as I passed it, my worst fears were realized. It began with a sturdy slap on my right shoulder, followed by a shellfish being shoved almost up my nose. A quick shuffle of my feet brought me face to face with yours truly, the fellow I had hoped to avoid a little while ago. A touristy looking sign told me I would soon be approaching yet another rest area up, and which went by the name of Shirakami-Sanchi Futatsumori. And that Kanoura Observatory was just three kilometers further along, not that it mattered to me. According to road sign, Noshiro was now only seventeen kilometers away. Akita City was still a good hike at seventy-eight, whilst Minehama was only ten kilometers down the road. The road signs were welcomed sights for me since they helped me to plot a rough bearing. Time wise, they also give me some idea of how long it would take me to get to a particular place. And thanks to experience, it was something that I had become quite good at.

A van slowed down with two young Japanese men inside it. The fellow sitting in the passenger seat called out to me through the open window. “Hay! Do you speak English? Do you need a lift?” At first it did not register that I was the one being spoken to, as I continued on my way somewhat lost in my own thoughts. They almost immediately I could make out an American sounding accent. Then I became aware that the van had slowed down to walking pace. But before I could answer the young fellows, the van sped off across a bridge, around a bend and out of sight. “Perhaps they thought I was ignoring them on purpose?” Or so I wondered. It was nearing the end of the holidays, and I know that foreign students studying in America would soon be returning to their colleges and universities. For a good spell along the road I felt a little bothered at not stopping and talking with the young fellows in the van about their time in that great country, the land of the free.

Still feeling hungry I stopped at a bakery, ‘Fresh Bakery Boselcetto’, by the side of Route 101. Already the absence of shops and restaurants away for the bigger towns told me that it was going to stay that way until I got near to Noshiro. In fact, there was little by way of a good shop, or restaurant since leaving Otaru in Hokkaido. Which was part of the reason why that shop on wheels I passed a few times in Aomori was doing a thriving business with the local housewives and elderly. My last stop of eh day before picking up pace on the homeward stretch was at a little roadside-eating place called, ‘Papu’. There I settled on having a hot bowl of shio ramen, or noodles. At the café I had a little chat with the two very delightful proprietresses. Both of who were most helpful in supplying me with the necessary information about where to get the bus to Akita City. Later on the road once more I wondered how the information could be of use, since I really needed to get to the train station, where it was agreed to meet up with my friend.

Along the way I passed a group of elderly citizens engrossed in a game of gate ball, that they do not even look in my direction. “Olympics? Hmm!” I wondered if gate ball could ever become an Olympic sport? A Sagawa delivery truck passed as I emerged from a Lawson convenience store. The truck reminded me that the hassle and bustle of Tokyo was really not so far away. The sight of the truck also caused me to remember the last of my postcards to family, friends, and acquaintances, which I had written out a couple of days earlier. These I now have just deposited into a postbox by the convenience store. In a field across the way a fire is burning. The amount of smoke told me that it was not a camper’s fire, but the work of a farmer burning grass and leafs. On closer observation, I could see that the fire was too small beyond its smoke. It was not easy to see what was fueling the fire. Certainly I could not see grass or leafs on fire. For a while a long the road I wondered what was the purpose of the fire at all?

Soon two young girls around nine years old pass me by, they too were wrapped up in their own childish discussion about what I had no idea. They took no notice of me as they went by. How everything seemed so very different to years ago, when little children would run after me pointing their fingers at me in their childish joy. “Gaijin, gaijin” (Alien, alien), or “America jin, America jin”. On a rise away to my left a lone train rolled past. Above the entrance to an apartment building reads the sign, ‘Herb Garden’, but for the life of me, I could see no herb garden anywhere in sight. A blue tourist coach with ‘Tabe Bus’ printed on its side shot past at one hell of a speed. A convoy of cars followed it closely behind. “Even on my motorbike I would have trouble keeping up with it, dangerously bumper to bumper”. I was able to see some children in a number of the cars. I surmised they had been picked up at school by their mother’s and were now on their way home. The tour coaches were really about on the road in large numbers today. Another filled u with elderly Japanese tourists shot past at great speed, this time ‘Shohoku Bus’ printed on its side. Soon I go past an Eneos gas station advertising a liter of regular gas at “¥123”. A nagging muscle pain took its toll or slowed me noticeably down to a crawling pace. A touristy looking sign told me that Futatsui was away to my left on Route 63. There was also that dreaded word, ‘Central’ before the word, ‘Noshiro’, which from experience told me that it would more than likely be a good ten kilometers further on.

27 Aug, 2009: A giant thermometer above Route 101 read twenty-one degrees centigrade, which seemed just right. However, the overcast sky might have other ideas. According to a tiny sign by the side of the road, I was officially in Noshiro City and where the first stage of my long tramp officially ends. The town of Futatsui branches away to the left on Route 209. That dreadful word ‘Central Noshiro City’ once again appeared on another road sign that pointed ahead. How many kilometers there was left to get there was another question. If it was not Central Noshiro on the road sign, it was Akita City! Like a carrot dangling before a donkey, I could feel the pull on my nerves to continue my tramp further towards the city of Akita. It felt like Akita was enticing me to conclude this stage of my mission there, and not in Noshiro as planned. But what the hell, I was too tired to think straight about anything now! “I can not reach you this time my dear Akita City-sama, for other plans had made themselves known to me.” I found myself calling out, not caring who heard me. “Next time! Yes! Next time for sure! Please wait!” I called out again, as I passed under the umpteenth road sign. There was a lack of reserve strength left in me to call upon, still on the final kilometers to the city, I did not feel the want or need to sit down and rest. Each step I took felt so important! It was on the forty-fifth day on the road that I finally reached Noshiro! And as expected, I was pretty much in a wretched state, worn out and worn down.

Up ahead of me a tiny army of elementary school children approached from the opposite direction, with the eldest of them leading the way. It felt strange to me how the children all looked down at the ground as they made their way along. ‘A penny for your thoughts’, I wanted to say, to use the term penned by the playwright John Haywood. Not one of the children looked up at me as we drew near. Then as we drew close enough I called out to them in a jovial voice could muster. “Good morning!” I said in English, as they passed by. With this, they all raised their little heads and looked in my direction. The little faces looked more startled than merry. “Shit!” I thought to myself, “What was it that awaited these kids at school?” For that was where they were all headed. To me they looked like they were being marched away to meet their firing squad. How troubled their sweet little faces looked, perhaps it was that time of the year when school exams awaited them. Much had been written about the rigors of the Japanese education system, with the dreaded rote learning a fundamental teaching tool.

Even I hated the school test times when I was their age. Then again, I could not remember a single thing I learned worth mentioning as a result of my school days. Sad! In fact, it was not until I left secondary school, did my ability in the ‘Three-Rs’ (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic) improve. Unlike these youngsters, how my friends and me literally ran all the way up the road to school. Or not to forget those days when we would cut across the bog meadows so as to pluck apples, just to get chased away by the farmer. Mmm!” Sweet memories! We would play ‘tag’ with one another all the way up the road towards Saint Kevin’s Primary on the Falls Road. Then after school was over, the whole process would be repeated. We were happy kids!

A lone cyclist passed me by heading south. Not a word was spoken nor a wave between us. Perhaps it was something in the air that made people in these parts so cold. What had become of that on the road brotherhood? Yet another road sign showed that Akita getting nearer, sixty-five kilometers away, with Oga at forty-eight, and Ogata at twenty-nine. “Perhaps that might be the last sign on this segment of my tramp,” I thought. The road was now busy! People were on their way to work. Besides the heavy traffic, political posters remained a constant traveling companion for me. They were everywhere, pasted on walls, on boards stuck into the soil, all of them smiling, waving, or pointing at me from every direction! “How could such posters influence anyone?” Or so I thought. “If anyone of them got down from their high horse, and accompanied me on the coastal roads from top to bottom, surely that would have got them elected.”

Across the road stood a coin laundry called Toritodon. If only such a place was around all the times I camped when I really needed one. “Fuck it! My dirty clothes would now just have to wait.” Outside of the Noshiro JR train station all that I could see were taxis lined up everywhere. “Where the fuck was the Shihoku bus stop?” I wondered. All that a young chap working the desk at the ticket office, could tell me that it was out there somewhere. In Tokyo, if people did not know where someplace was they would shake their heads and more or less leave you to your own devices. This was not the case here as I first expected. Perhaps he saw signs of disappointment on my face. For no sooner had the young chap ended his sentence when he stood up and walked outside the station motioning for me to follow. Not being one to hang about, I quickly grabbed my backpack and hurried after him. The young man clearly wanted to help me. Then, pointing beyond the line of taxies, he told me that my bus stop could be found over there beyond the taxies. With this he turned around and hurried back into the station and to his work that awaited him. Of course, I thanked the young chap for his help and made my way past the taxies where I was directed. Though grateful as I felt, I still could not help wondering why he had to go outside the station to tell me where the bus stop was. Perhaps he thought I could not understand the Japanese language. Though, I learned it might be closer to the truth to say that I could never fully understand the Japanese people. Then again, some people I knew had said the same about me, too.

There it was, a lone bus stop, and which looked as though it catered to all the buses, local and long distance routes. Perhaps I was looking for something that looked more set aside for long distance buses, that I never imagined one bus stop for all of the buses. On second thoughts, perhaps I should have thanked the young man more profusely for his assistance. I propped my backpack up against the bus stop and waited for the bus to arrive, which according to the schedule would not be very long. At nine-thirty in the morning my bus rolled in and stopped, the door opened and I got on dragging my backpack with me. Now my eyes felt heavy, and I wanted to sleep for the one-hour journey, but was not able to do so. For whatever the reason, I neither cared to look at the roads that I would tramp along in the coming winter months. For the moment my work was done, and that was the end of it. There was nothing else to be done, but just to sit there and let the bus driver do his work. For the entire journey the sky was still heavy and overcast, and at last we arrived at Akita JR train station.

What little I possessed of any shape or form, it was my ability to adjust to changing conditions. I should be proud, but I could not feel anything just now! My progress on the roads had been rapid, well most of the time, so I could not complain. I had done my best! Now on the home stretch towards my goal, the domesticated life style that I grew used to in Tokyo, or elsewhere for that matter, and which I had dispensed with in the early days of my mission, would soon return. Naturally it was not difficult to see that I was once more in the midst of city life again. A whole host of various chain stores began to appear when the bus crossed into the city limits, and increased in number, with all the famous names, the nearer the bus got to the city center. The last time I set in a Starbucks was in Kojimachi in Tokyo, but I knew that this would soon change. And so it was that I soon found myself sitting in one by the station in absolute idleness, contemplating the meaning of life. It was nearing the time when I would make my way down the road to meet my friend in the lobby of the Dormy Inn. I wondered if I would be greeted with a smile and congratulations?

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Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 18, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

23 Aug, 2009: An open stall at the roadside sold watermelons for five hundred yen. After the business of paying for a small watermelon was done, the attractive middle-aged women standing behind a table spoke glowingly of a campsite nearby, like it was a Butler’s Holiday Camp. Along the way two elderly men stopped the van they were in so as to talk to me. They must have realized tat I was heading in the direction of the campsite. “It’s as windy as hell,” one of them said, the other nodded his head in agreement. “Well! Thank you.” Replied, “But will give it a look over anyway. Besides, I heard it had a shower.” A little earlier I had stopped by at a shop to pick up a couple of cans of beer, but the woman who shared me knew nothing about the campsite. Could hear the sound of shower–water running. “That’s my son!” she said with a smile. “He’s a lucky guy,” I thought to myself as I grabbed my backpack up from the floor. Back out on the road a small lorry passed me by. It was loaded up with tomatoes and watermelons. A couple of the tomatoes fell from it, but when I drew near I saw that they had become smashed all over the tarmac. It was not a loss!, for tomatoes were coming out of my ears.

Soon one quarter of the watermelon was cut and eaten, but I felt it best to keep the rest until the evening. Or even until the morning for that matter, for there was nothing else by way of food on me. Well, there was still a can of ‘Dydo Demitasse’ coffee that I had almost forgotten about. Yet, so much for my thoughts! Soon the coffee was gone, and another quarter of the watermelon followed it into the same dark dungeon. Up ahead a road sign told me that I was seventy kilometers away from Lake Juniko. Then there was the town of Senjojiki, some twenty-seven kilometers from where I stood, still thinking about the last piece of the watermelon. If all went well then should be tramping through there by early evening tomorrow. It was by this road sign that I set down to rest, and began to lighten the load in my backpack by tucking into the remainder of the watermelon.

Up ahead of me I could see the road sloping upwards, and I was certainly not looking forward to that. Still, the upward slog was there and the lady was not for turning. When I got to the top of the slope an old and closed up café came into view. A giant rock set in the center of what must have been a once beautiful garden. Fighting through the overgrown bramble to take a peek through one of the windows was not the easiest of tasks to achieve. A number of stools stood along the counter, with cushion covers changed by dust and time. Upturned cups and glasses were neatly placed next to coffee making equipment on the counter. Other cups with saucers were placed on top of one another on large wall shelves. Just about everything I could see looked as if they were waiting to be used. An old menu by the side of the cups on the counter showed prices of yesteryear. A bowl of ramen or noodles cost four hundred yen.

A faded calendar hung on the wall. It displayed the month that the place must have closed its doors, ‘July 1996’. Soon after leaving the ruins and overgrown garden, I arrived back at the crossroads. A road sign told me that Hirosaki was straight on, whilst Route 101 went left towards Goshogawara. Ajigasawa was away to the right, where I was headed. It was also here that I would at last take my leave of this picturesque little road, which ran for quite a distance between the sea and the busier Route 12. It was along this much busier road that that Ajigasawa lay, though how long it was take me to get there was anyone’s guess. For just as I turned onto Route 101 a slight happening occurred that almost brought my mission on the coastal roads to an end. Of course, it was completely my own fault. I was so engrossed in my maps, while walking that I failed to see the hazard ahead of me. And when I did it was too late to stop or step back. The trench or pit was the size and length of a grave, though by no means as deep, it was deep enough to hammer home the point of my stupidity. Such was the tumble I went head over heels into the pit that my backpack broke the fall. It was a strange feeling looking up at the sky from where I lay. “Was this what it looked like from the grave?” Pulling my self to my senses, I was pleased that my backpack limited the shock, though I was also now beginning to wonder just how well the perishable items that I picked up at a shop earlier faired.

Back on the road once again and replenished at a local restaurant, and where I cleaned myself up a bit, I felt ready to kick up some dirt proper. However, the gentle sound by a short burst from a car horn caused me to stop in my tracks and look around. A handsome young foreign chap set smiling behind the steering wheel. As I moved to the side of the van he leaned out of the window and offered me a life. This I sadly had to decline, even though it would have been nice to talk to him more. Travis, the name he gave me, came from Boston, and was currently living in that part of Japan. Why or where he was headed to I failed to ask, or even if he was married for that matter. On a parting note he took a banana from a plastic shopping bag on the passenger seat and offered it to me. It was true, for I only had water and if Travis was correct, then there were no shops to be had for more ten kilometers. So the banana would do me nicely for tonight I reassured him with a smile. Bananas had been my favorite fruit since childhood, and still loved to tuck into a banana sandwich when the opportunity arose. After our short chat, and with the banana safely packed away, the fighting spirit was again aroused.

When I think back on my history with my favorite fruit, I vaguely could recall having a rather heated debate with a fellow student on whether a banana should be termed a fruit or not since it had no seeds to its name. “Fruit had seeds!” the other student told me with gusto. Of course, that was long before anyone had their own computers, and digging up the material to backup my side of things was one hell of a headache. It was funny how I had no recollection of how the debate turned out, or if it was ever concluded. It was all such a long time ago, and everyone in the class more than likely had other more important issues on their minds. Thanks to a little book I came by recently by chance, I was able to discover, at last, that some species of bananas possessed tiny seeds in the center. Fruit in general were the ripened ovaries of plants, which held the plant’s seeds. In this growing process, bananas were no different! What we buy today, or perhaps to appeal more to the consumer at large, bananas were purposely produced to be seedless.

A sign enlightened me of the presence of Juni-ko Ecological Museum and Conservation Area, which was not exactly nearby, but rather some sixty-one kilometers down the road. Senjojiki Town was twenty kilometers, which if all went well enough I would surely pass by tomorrow. What I did come to soon after the sign was one of those beautiful giant windmills. There was of course a stop to gaze up at the powerful structure, with such gentle beauty about it. A company called ‘Fuhrlander’, a name that did not sound very Japanese one bit, made the windmill. The windmill stood along and away to my left with its great blades turning with gusto, like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps the person who oiled it should have received an award as a job well done.

Another road sign I passed along the way told me that Fukaura and Sejojiki lay along Route 101, and that Hirosaki was to the left on Route 31. The rain began to fall as I made my way through Ajigosawa. Many young people, who were I suspected, on holiday from college or university, or simply just enjoying the weekend together by the sea, took shelter under some trees. Taking shelter under a tree was not the most advisable way to escape from a downpour. Unperturbed by the falling rain, some of them continued to barbecue under a bridge a little ways further along. The rain came down heavily now, but I was in no mood for stopping. The army cape kept most of my things dry, but as expected, my poor old beat up pair of boots continued to take a hammering.

There were times when it was so hot tramping the roads that I could scarcely breathe. One thing I could be sure of was that I would soon become sweaty and dirty, if not hopelessly tired. As the day worn on and the sun dropped I tramped on more and more reluctantly. Gradually, my steps grew shorter and shorter. No longer able or willing to go on, it was time to make camp. Night came on quickly and the moon reigned high up over the sea lighting my camp in an array of gray and black shadows. A couple of T-shirts that I washed earlier during one of my stops now lay over a bush growing out of the sand. How ghostly white in the moonlight they looked. When you were tired, it was never easy to focus the mind. And with the absence of old memories to call upon from out of the dark shadows in my brain, the dim somber twilight of the summer kept me company on this subdued sleepy beach.

Each day I would awake to the rising sun and made camp when it went down. Sometimes I would watch the sun go down. Other times I was too sore, tired and weary to care about it. On a good day the twilight lingered beyond its time as if it was waiting for me to complete camp. When I woke in the morning the sun’s rays came streaming in through the flaps and shown right into my eyes. It was time to get up and back onto the road. Often from morning to dusk my hours on the roads involved none other than long stretches of asphalt coastal roads, many fenced in by insurmountable hills. Sometimes, too, there were inequalities of road surface. The new segments of roads were often one or two meters above the old disused roads they replaced, which went nowhere.

The people living on the coastline or near enough to it were inclined to fight the elements. Many houses I passed by had strong and high wooden fences or barriers build around them to protect mainly against the heavy winds and snows in the winter months. The people in this part of the country, I felt, did not live in fear of an expected massive earthquake or tsunami occurring anytime soon, like the people did on the Pacific coastline. Even though Japan did have more than its fair share of natural disasters, as far as I knew it, the country did not suffer from the most violent of storms, tornadoes. According to my research, from 3-4 April 1970, thirteen American States were hit hard by some of the biggest tornados in history. Although the deadest tornado to hit the country occurred on 18 March 1925 when 695 people died in three States, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The biggest recorded tornado that ever touched down in America, however, was over the Texas plains near the town of Gruver on 9 June 1971. The wind and rain were such features, even in the summer. I knew that much first hand. In the worst of times great gusts of wind had caused trees to blow down. Heavy rains led to landslides and great waves had inundated entire towns. These things hit home more when they happened at night. Perhaps because of some tragedy in the past the people were long gone, whilst the frames of deserted homes and ruined furniture remained here and there along my route.

24 Aug, 2009: A Sunkus convenience store seemed a good enough place to stop in at to pick up some supplies, like food and beer for later on when I made camp, which would not be long of course. The driver of a small lorry stopped by the side of the road to have a chat with me. Back in Tokyo such unexpected happenings would cause people to be on their guard. However, this was on the road many miles from Tokyo, and where such things happened a good number of times. In Tokyo where people avoid even eye contact, such things would seldom happen. Out in the boom docks people did not seem to need any reason to stop and chat to me, for they just did it. Often they did so only to satisfy their own curiosity as to what I was all about, and the when, why, where to everything. Of course, I could not see myself; my ragged appearance must have looked to others to spark their interest in me. It did not take very long to answer the usual gauntlet of questions, for I knew all the answers backwards, and soon our little friendly chat was concluded with a few kind words, like, “All the best”, and “Good luck”, and so forth. As quickly as the man and his lorry appeared, he and the lorry were gone.

Not ten minutes had gone by whenever the man driving the lorry reappeared on the scene when he pulled up by the side of the road. This time through the window of the lorry he was holding something wrapped in tinfoil, and needless to say, it was a gift of food, which I was more than glad to receive. He told me with a shy smile that his wife had prepared the little food parcel especially for me. I thought as much since the package was still warm! Out on the roads all day long was hard, so kindness like that and from someone who did not know me from Larry, kind of dug deep into my heart. Unexpected as the little food gift was, it was one of the many heart felt actions of generously that I had experienced with strangers on the roads. A kindness that outpaced anything I had experienced from anyone in Tokyo. After the man drove away, for the second time, I set down by my tent to cut my dirty nails with the nail clipper. I could see an elderly fellow some fifty meters away cutting brambles at the edges of a field. Our eyes met and before I knew it he was standing by my tent talking to me as eagerly as he had cut into the brambles. Although my brain was tired and I had to admit, not many of his words registered either. He told me that he had come across anyone like myself on the roads before, and was keen to take a little peek inside my tent to see how a tramper of the roads lived, which I was more than obliged to let him do.

The man’s eyes widened with surprised at the tiny size of the tent. Perhaps because of the tents tiny size everything inside looked as thought it was in disorder. One perplexing outcome that I always had was never being able to find what I needed or wanted at a particular time, which I was happy to enlighten the elderly fellow about. Unlike other people I stopped to chat with who asked the same old gauntlet of questions, I was asked about how things faired with the tent in bad weather. “Ooame no ato no shuppatsu wa tokuni taihen data.” (”Decamping after a night of heavy rain, in particular, was a real bummer, you know, hardest of all.”). I continued! “Tento ya nebukuro wa amide kata zukeru no ga taihen data. Mizuwo fukunde umaku tatamenakatta.” (”My tent, and sleeping bag were usually rolled up into neat little bundles, but when they became damp, it was hard to do that, and often tended to exceed their normal size, if not weight, kind of awkward like.”). It was growing dark and with this I was again wished all the best, and the elderly fellow turned around and made his way back over to where he had been cutting the brambles. The work must have tired him out, as he picked up his tools and headed towards his tiny lorry that was parked up on the road. He was an interesting old fellow, and appeared more interested in my tent than in me, which suited me just fine. It did not take the elderly fellow long to gather up his hoe and scythe and drive off in the direction of his home.

There was no need to tell him everything, like, once everything was finally crammed into the correct place in my backpack, my final chore each morning was to cast an eye over the camp area for any articles I may have overlooked, especially tent pegs. This was something that I never quite perfected, for only to often would I discover when evening came that something was missing. It was pointless to grumble or feel depressed about the loss, I would just shake my head decidedly and tell myself to be more careful next time. Loosing stuff somehow defeated the purpose, as the loss could be seen in terms of money, time and effort to obtain the thing in the first place. This was a common occurrence among all explorers and adventurers. On his great expeditions to the Antarctic more than a hundred years ago, the Irishman Ernest Shackleton was no stranger to this annoying problem: “We do know for certain that the only case of beer lies to this day under the ice, and it was not until a few days before our final departure that one of the scientists of the expedition dug out some volumes of the Challenger reports, which had been intended to provide us with useful reading during the winter nights. A question often debated during the long, dark days was which of these stray sheep, the Challenger reports or the case of beer, any particular individual would dig for if the time and opportunity were available.” Fortunately, they also had also taken some bottles of wine with them!

A strong urge to take a leak (urinate) at a public toilet nearby quenched any lingering thoughts about the short meeting with the elderly fellow, which kept creeping in and out of my mind. However, my visit to the toilet could not have been more mistimed. Some cleaners were busy at work when I entered. Fortunately, there was no problem in using the toilet, one of the elderly male cleaners reassured me. “Dozo! Dozo!” The man said with a smile, as he stopped what he was doing and dropped the cleaning things into a bucket. Unfortunately, I did not quite see it that way myself. Since my childhood, going to the toilet to perform my duties, so to speak, was a very private thing. Therefore, with the toilet cleaners puttering about outside the tiny cubical somehow took the satisfaction out of taking a badly needed dump (defecate), too. After giving my hands a good soapy going over at one of the sinks, I turned and headed for the entrance and where I dropped my backpack. Another elderly cleaner stood and watched me make my way past the sinks and outside. Even as I headed back over the road to the spot where I had camped last night, I could sense the man’s eyes fixed on me.

Actually, I had stopped caring about what people thought about me a long time ago. However, there were a number of times 0n the road when I would amuse myself with the thoughts. After all, I believed that people stopped to chat with me, because they had some gut feeling, or ‘haragei’ in Japanese, that I was an all right guy. In other words, not dangerous, or might sponge off them for something! I also believed that when they left, a seed had been planted in their mind or hearts. A sense of obligation existed, which was called ‘giri’, which was something very much refined in the Japanese culture. Hence, the little gifts of food that I had gladly received on a good few occasions thus far on my mission; and would undoubtedly experience again and again on the proceeding stages, too. Well, perhaps true from those in a better position to reciprocate this cultural bind that pervaded their everyday existence.

It had often been said that when the Japanese talked to one another they tended to keep a greater distance apart than people did in my neck of the woods, in Western Europe. This was not noticeably so whenever they stopped on the road to chat with me for a while. Likewise, it was also said that they seldom made eye contact, or felt it best to avoid making eye contact. This might have been true with young students who where often shy, or unsure of themselves, anyway. However, this could not have been further from the truth with the people I came into contact with. They were not shy at all, and often the first to stop and talk.

Just as I shouldered my backpack the rain began to make its usual untimely appearance. The rain stopped and started for much of my tramping along Route 101 bound for the city of Noshiro, located in Akita Prefecture. Noshiro was to be my final destination on this first stage of my mission. Not that it mattered much to me, Noshiro was known for the basketball team of Noshiro Technical High School. Yuta Tabuse, the professional basketball player graduated for this high school where he led the team to three national championships in the years he was there. Tabuse became the first Japanese born professional basketball player to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in America, where he made four appearances for the Phoenix Suns between 2004 and 2005. Noshiro was also the birthplace of the actor, Shiro Osaka who appeared in a long line of movies in a career that covered almost five decades. He was especially known for Tokyo Story (1953) and Pigs and Battleships (1961). Another tour coach with Konan printed on its side passed me by. I was the second Konan tour coach that passed me in as many days. Of course, it was by no means the only tour company coach that sped along the roads. Although the sky looked the same as it had this morning, barely a patch of blue to be seen here or there, I felt good. A fresh breeze caressed my face, and cooled the sweat across my chest. Now with every step I made, a clear sense of pride and achievement was slowly replacing all the other feelings that came part and parcel with being on the roads. The countless muscle pains in my legs and else where that plagued me umpteen times previously had now vanished. “God! Was it all in the mind?” I momentarily pondered as I made my way along road.

A road sign up ahead that I stopped to look at read, “Noshiro 87km”. In three days it would all be over! The city of Fukaura lay just twenty-three kilometers down the road, with Lake Juniko a little beyond there. “Mmm!” It would be hard to shake off this sense of completion, which I was enjoying. “Why should I? I had earned it.” I told myself, as I turned and left the road sign behind me. Some railroad tracks ran near to the road. I could not recall the tracks being so near before, but there was something comforting about their appearance. Of course, I had still not decided how I would return to Tokyo or rather, which way was best way to make that journey when the time came. “That would just have to wait until I got to Noshiro.” I told myself.Soon I came to a sign that read, “Welcome to Fukaura 20km”. With a population of close to 10,000, Fukaura was a pleasant little place located in the Nishitsugaru district of Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan. Away to the right a seawater swimming pool looked empty and much less inviting than the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). Yukiaizaki Campground, which I decided to head for, was eighteen kilometers away. At least hoped to get way past there before my day was up. A good bit further along the road another road sign told me that Noshiro eighty-three kilometers. Both Lake Juniko and Iwasaki Town were no more than a day away. “Mmm!” I wondered if I would be able to keep up the steady pace that I had been enjoying in order to get Noshiro City down to sixty kilometers by sunset, or when it came to make camp. Just as I was toying with this a train rumbled past in the opposite direction. There was something wonderfully majestic about the sound of local trains passing by in this part of the country that I could not quite equate with the noisy racket the rolling stock in Tokyo made.

Yet another road sign told me that there was a rest area up ahead and not far from my destination, Fukaura, which was just two kilometers. The rest area was pretty much like many of the other ones I stopped at along my way. It had toilets, handicapped facilities, a place to get food, and a shop to buy gifts at. The road sign also told me that Cape Yukiaizaki was thirteen kilometers further along. The food to be had was mainly fish based, a bit on the pricey side, and geared towards tourists. The Japanese loved all kinds of seafood, which I would prefer not to see; King crabs, shrimps, squid, as well as, mussels, and oyster that were popular in my own country, too. Fish was the staple food, next to rice, and provided as much as fifty percent of the protein intake. Not with me! The tiny fishing boats that I had seen throughout my long tramp down along the coastline caught a lot of the seafood that people enjoyed eating in Japan.

I settled on treating myself to one of the less expensive dishes, shio ramen (noodles), ¥600 yen, and needless to say, a glass of cool beer to help wash it down with, for ¥450 yen. As I waited for the bowl of noodles to arrive I counted fifteen elementary school children and a couple of adults, whom I took to be their teachers, through one of the windows. They were very much similar to the young children back in Tokyo, and looked to me like they were in the sixth and final year at school, not at I was a good judge of age in this country. Perhaps the children were on one of those little school trips before their final graduation. Then again, it was nearly the end of August, and most schools held their graduation ceremonies in March at the end of the school year. “Mmm!” I could feel my mind working overtime as I waited for the bowl of noodles to arrive. Perhaps they attended a rural school, as their numbers where few, or perhaps they were part of a larger body of students, schools often did that, divided their students into little groups on school outings or trips. Even with the collapse of lifetime employment policy, Japan remained very much a groupist culture, where groups within groups helped cement the communal greater good. There were also a good number of college age kids about the place, too. “Where they there because they wanted to be, or were they there because of peer pressure?” All of them had bicycles loaded up with camping gear.

Most of the universities and colleges followed a semester system. It was not exactly clear to me when the kids started back at school at the end of their summer break, though I knew that it was near at hand. The summer school break in Japan commonly lasted for six weeks, whilst the elementary, junior, and senior high schools in Hokkaido (and Nagano Prefecture) had a shorter summer break. In Japan, almost all the schools followed the trimester system each school year. The first term began at the first of April to late-July. The second term lasted from early-September to late-December, with a two-week break that lasted to the first week of the New Year. The third term began from early-January to late-March, with a weeklong spring break.

All of the students appeared to be well behaved, or not too loud, which was nice to see. Back in Tokyo, college students could usually be heard before they were seen whenever they got together. Whether it was bad manners on my part, I decided to polish off the remainder of the watermelon that I had carried for much of the day, before leaving the café to hit the road again. The way I saw it, it was one less item to carry with me on the road. Soon after leaving the café and shouldering my backpack it began to rain. Some people sought shelter under the eaves of a roof, and waited for the downpour to pass. The elementary school children darted towards their school bus, with their teachers close behind. Just as they clambered on board the bus, a beautiful shiny red BMW car pulled in to the rest area and stopped. A rather fat and somewhat ugly young man got out. An attractive young female stepped out from the passenger side. Both of them made for the touristy shop, but not before the fat guy gave me a cold stare as we passed. Perhaps he took offence to me looking at the beautiful girl who followed close behind.

Less than five kilometers away from the rest stop area I stopped to boil some water for a cup of tea. This was more a result of my cultural upbringing than any sudden attack of laziness or need to rest. Not ten minutes had passed since the water boiled and still enjoying the tea and a few broken biscuits when a Japanese chap sauntered by. Not a word passed between us! This at first suited me just fine, but soon I kind of regretted it. It was not the first time that our paths had crossed. It was back at the rest stop area when I saw him in the tourist shop, although no one else seemed to notice him, or pretended not to notice him. The Japanese people at large were masters at that! Even then I could not help but wonder what he was all about, where he had come from and where he was headed. Those old gauntlets of questions that I had been leveled at me time and time again where now on my mind about him. I had noticed the way the man was dressed, the tattered clothes, and the dirty cloth-bag strapped around his shoulders. The ragged appearance made the man standout among the other shoppers, groups of well-dressed tourists about to rejoin their coach that waited outside. Perhaps looking about the souvenir shop reminded him of better days.

Unlike the other people around him, he was must certainly not on holiday. There was something calm and gentle about the man’s rugged, unshaved, weather-beaten face. Perhaps life out under the stars was not so bad after all. Many of the Japanese I spoke to in Tokyo were under the view that the homeless were homeless because they wanted it that way. Speaking from experience, the man’s lifestyle had no doubt hardened him somewhat, for it had in some way taken a toll on me. “Did he choose to live in this carefree manner?” I wondered to myself, as I packed away my little burner. “Did he live that way because of circumstances?” Often things were not the way they seemed. Even though my own situation was by no means secure either, I was on the roads by choice. And in the next day or two when this stage of my mission ended, it was back to the office to make ends-meet, so to speak. “Mmm!” For a while I wondered if the man observed the people he saw here and there, like, I tended to do. Did he think about the kind of lives they lived, or the jobs they did; or where they were going to, or coming from? Or did he close his eyes to them and pretend that they were not there, like, many Japanese did? Did he do what I did, like, bathe in the salty seawater, wash his clothes in a river, or under a cold water tap in some park somewhere; or at the sink of some public toilet somewhere? I even wondered what kind of questions the man might have asked me had we struck up a conversation.

Somehow I felt that his questions would have been very different to the usual gauntlet of questions that I had been had asked on the roads so far. One question that some people had been put to me from time to time was: “Why did you embark on such an almighty venture?” Of course, I was never quite sure of how to phrase my reply for why I was tramping around Japan. Even George Leigh Mallory’s reply to a similar question on climbing Mount Everest, “because it is there”, did not seem to fit. At least I never for the life of me ever thought I would set out on such a thing that would later become a burning ambition, or rather, my mission in life, as I came to call it.

It was not an easy question to answer, especially in the early stages anyway. It was not like, climb the mountain thing at all, but far from it. Of course, people took great effort to expend their energy in different ways, like, Mallory climbing up mountains, or others walking through forests, or traveling across vast deserts and so on. My answers lay on the roads that were clear. And I knew myself well enough to see that I would never be contented unless I had walked them thoroughly. To me this so called long distance walking thing, or tramping as I preferred to call it, was better than anything else I had ever done previously, even sex. And all the wine, women and drink put together, down through the years for that matter. It made me think deeply, and unselfishly, about myself, which made it all the more frightening it an enticing sort of way. So, too, I came to learn things about myself that I could not learn when sitting at my computer in Tokyo surfing the Internet, or reading the many books that I would have felt depressed had I not read. All of this was now very clear to me, even after the many days of blister after blister and toe nails hanging off by the thread, made normal walking one excruciating hell of a trail. I sat on a wooden bench sipping the last drops of my tea. Below the majestic coastline, with the calm, yet powerful sea made its way over some rocks. It was a wonderful sight to look down over the sea from the high altitude I was at, and to see where I was headed stretching away to the south. Down the road I could still make out the tiny figure of the man, but soon like the rocks in the sea, my fellow tramper had disappeared from view. Just then I recalled a passage in Allan Booths book, ‘The Roads to Sata’ of a similar encounter. Of course, the age of the chap who passed a little while ago, told me that it was not the same person. Or had I just seen a ghost? Of course not!

Along my way I passed many beautiful flowerbeds and flower boxes that flanked both sides of the road. Each time when I tramped past the flowers the muscle pain in my body literally disappeared, which caused me to wonder if such problems were more a figment of my imagination than not. On a downside, it was also during those times that I learned just how ignorant I really was about nature. The flowers were of many kinds and colors, a few I knew the names of, but many I did not. This ignorance was usually hammered into be for a good while, as the beautiful and colorful rows stretched for kilometer after kilometer. No sooner had I passed the last of them, for a while anyway, did wildflowers growing by the side of the road takeover where the potted plants ended. A young boy ran along the narrow pavement with a football tucked under his arm. As we drew near to each other, I motioned him to be careful, for fear of losing his balance and falling in front of a speeding car. A road sign told me that Noshiro was now seventy-three kilometers away, and that if I continued to keep good time and pace, getting it down to sixty was now very much within my grasp. Also, the sign told me that both ‘Lake Juniko 27km’ and ‘Wasaki 23km’ were a day away, perhaps tomorrow.

A 500 milliliter can of Coca Cola at a vending machine I set down next to drink cost me ¥100 yen. The other soft drinks in the vending machine were around the same price, ¥100 yen. At another vending machine by a different company had the cans of soft drinks at the same cost. Clearly there was some kind of price war going on between the two stores outside which the vending machines stood. As I set enjoying the can of Cola, whom do you think should saunter up to near where I was sitting? It was none other that my fellow tramper of the roads, the Japanese guy I had seen twice previously today. I must have overtaken him somewhere back on the road without noticing it. Perhaps he had stopped to take a nap somewhere, just as I liked to do when the moment suited me. As before, not a word was exchanged between us, which I found myself now beginning to regret. How was it that I could easily stop and chat with any Tom, Dick or Harry, yet, found myself felling shy in the presence of this man? Also like before, I set and watched him disappear down the road until he was well out of sight.

There was not even a simple non-committed nod of the head to acknowledge one another. Not even the tiniest comment on the weather, which I knew was a daily concern to us both. Actually, I had lost my watch somewhere on the road days earlier and was thinking about what time it was when my fellow tramper passed me by. How might he have reacted had I asked him for the time? Surprised perhaps! Most Japanese tended to turn a blind eye to many taboos that they sooner did not exist. They were very sensitive to any taboo topic, like, the yakuza, burakumin or outcasts, the Pacific War, as the Second World War was better known in Japan, or even on the pros and cons of holding on to the Royal Family, particularly when they felt culturally justified about them.

Like me, perhaps he did not have a watch now. Under it all, I guess ‘time’ had a similar meaning for both of us, compared to the busy, hardworking people in the rest of the country. On the road it only really mattered to me at the end of the stage of my mission, the hurry to catch a flight, to check the times of a bus, or a train back to Tokyo; in other words, a routine life-style in Tokyo that I would have to get used to all over again. Of course, he too must be going somewhere in particular. Otherwise, why was he on this road heading in that southwest direction? Then again, being on the road for so long it was easy to lack the concept of time. Then again, night when the sun went down and day when it rose again was all that I really needed to care about. Either way, it was all a matter of looking out for yours truly and to live accordingly. I stopped to take a leak by some railroad tracks not far from a quaint little JR train station called Hiruto. While I was doing this, I recalled the times years before when I last urinated alongside a section of railroad tracks. That was way back in the mid-1970s when I spent a year as part of a London Transport permanent-way gang. The gang was stationed at South Kensington in London to be precise. A good few times on my way to work some of my work collogues could be found at the station bar at South Kensington downing a couple of pints before heading over to the cabin across the tracks.

In fact, in those days it was rather a frequent occurrence for someone to pop out to relieve himself as we all waited for the last trains to stop running in order to get on the tracks and put right what needed to be put right. Then we could make our way under the stars and down over the tracks to where the job was to be done that evening. Then there was the pounding of hammers, the turning of screws, the shoveling of ballast under the sleepers so as to make everything look proper under the gauge, which was usually placed on the tracks by the ganger. The ballast packed between the sleepers and around the tracks was very important to keep the whole railroad place when the stock rolled by, as well as to facilitate the drainage of water. “Mmm!” I thought London would not be London without its rain!

On bigger jobs different gangs would be brought together. The work usually involved the lifting and replacing of whole segments of track, which had to be done on one single night, and sometimes without stopping for one of our customary tea breaks. Thought that did not seem to stop some of the gang from popping off somewhere along the tracks for a piss (urinate), which I surmised was the result of a couple of pints at the station bar. The surrounding darkness was lit up by our gas lamps, which we placed on a wooden sleeper on which the tracks were placed. Of course the rest of London, the real sleepers slept proper while we hammered away to finish the job before the first train started rolling.  For a moment I wondered if I had a better sense of freedom back in those days than I believed I had now? In those days I did not care about tomorrow, and I think that I was happy were I was at. But since those days, I have been blessed with the opportunity to tramp along some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. With the closing of time, I probably will not have the opportunity to travel like this again. The splendid coastline appeared again and again on the long hard walk down through Hokkaido, and which now continued to show its beautiful face here and there as I made my way down along the Aomori coastline.

Along my way I stopped in at a couple of stores to see if there was something I might need for the road, which I could not quite think of offhand. At one out door goods store, ‘Hareyu’, I picked up a 740g ‘Captain Stag’ gas canister, which was just as well since the one I had was about to run out at any minute. The way I drank tea and coffee the 430g canisters finished much too quickly for my liking. “Mmm!” I wondered why people bothered buying the smaller canisters, for even the cost compared to the bigger ones was off-putting. The second store I called in at, ‘MaxValu’, was a large store-cum supermarket just off to the side of Hareyu. American’s, sort of, loved to contract their English words to make them their own, which was a cultural thing I thought. Yet, something in the spelling of this store’s name told me that it was more Japanese than it was American English. Then again, it was only a name!

At MaxValu I picked up a bottle of inexpensive red wine to tie me over for the next couple of evenings. The wine kind of took the boredom out of the long nights, I felt. Like the powerful Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) in the day, a cup or two of red wine in the evenings had been a good comforting friend. In the situation I was in, lonely under the elements day and night, it was usually easy to find the time to indulge myself in one kind of alcoholic drink or another. ON those days when I was able to notch up 35 plus kilometers, then it was a little reward for a job well done! In the case of the inexpensive red wine in particular that I would pick up at a store along my way, all were first time brands for me, with no favorites among them. It made it more interesting that way! On the label of the quarter full bottle of wine, which was stuffed deep into my backpack for a couple of days already, read, ‘Santa Helena, Gran Vino, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008’. The red wines from Chili had not disappointed me as yet, when it came to buying a bottle.

The sun had baked down on me relentlessly! Earlier on in the day, and with no letup in the sun high overhead, I hoped to stop and relax under a shade somewhere, of course, with the cold bottle of Yebisu beer that I had just picked up then. So hot was the sun I recalled how the beer warmed with every passing second. More often than not, finding a good place to rest was not as easy as one might thing out on the road. There were a lot of road works and the racket caused by work being carried out on a bridge behind me, meant any inkling to rest for a spell kind of evaporated outright. The work and noise of the power drills was so relentless that I could have sworn I felt the bridge shake long after I had passed across it. Even after some kilometers further down the road, I could still hear a faint sound of the work on the road and bridge going on. When I finally did sit down somewhere to rest, the beer that I had picked up to cool me down had become loop warm.

For sure, my list of useless notebook on Japanese workmen, as well as on other unwanted noisy visitors, who seemed to appear out of nowhere when least expected, was full up that I soon gave up the notion of making any further entries. Then again, perhaps I was just annoyed at things not doing smoothly enough as I stuffed the notebook back into the pouch I carried on my hip like a cowboy might carry his gun and holster. During those times when things did not go according to plan, bouts of depression would set in, and I would find all kinds of useless thoughts occupying my mind. To my left I could see Fukaura JR Station, a rather lonely looking place, and where a train waited, almost empty of passengers. When I thought more about it, I could not recall seeing a train full to the brim pass me by. Perhaps the train in question was waiting for the signals to change so as to continue its journey south, where I too was headed. Just as I was tramping past the entrance of the train station, a local orange colored train that was headed north pulled into the station and stopped. Unlike the older and sluggish looking local train that had just pulled in, this one that had been waiting was rather beautiful in appearance; its shinny white carriages, each with an orange and white line printed on the sides. Soon after the local train had come to a stop, the train that had been waiting patiently pulled slowly out from the station on its journey south. A little further along my way, the railway tracks joined the road, but such was my absent mindedness at times that I could not recall seeing another train pass by.

Nearby the train station stood an empty kaiten (revolving counter) sushi restaurant, where the lunchtime crowd would soon appear. Outside the restaurant where pictures of various sushi dishes that were mostly priced at ¥105 yen per plate. As I said, there were no customers inside the place yet, but I felt that that would soon change, which was one of the reasons I did not bother to enter. One of the things my students back in Tokyo would ask me was what my favorite Japanese food was. Each time I would reply, almost without thinking: “Sushi of course!” Unfortunately, I did not feel the urge to stop this time around, as I was in no mood for crowds or rest. Besides, I was tramping along the road with a good steady pace, or as the saying went, ‘Why stop when the going was good?’ One town after another fell away like tenpins, and in no time at all I reached the outskirts of Fukaura, a most attractive little seaside town. Every February the town of Fukaura was famous for holding a local salmon cuisine event. Among other things, the event was accompanied by local performing arts for the many visitors to enjoy. It was also the birthplace of the numerous Sumo wrestlers (e.g., Aminishiki Ryuji, Asofuji Seiya, Kaiho Ryoji, and Masatsukasa Koshin in particular who was forced to quit in April 2011 after being found guilty of match-fixing).

If only the rest of the seaside towns were as beautiful as Fukaura, then I would most certainly have not covered as much ground as I did, but hang around a while to enjoy the towns more. Perhaps, something might have been made for another list, this time of towns, the most beautiful among them highlighted for future reference. For its scenic beauty, I felt that Fukaura was quite on par with the seaside towns in my own native land, Ireland, which were quite beautiful to say the least. As I made my way past the quaint little houses and shops, a middle-aged man was hurrying to deliver newspapers. For a while our pace was such that it appeared we were shoulder-to-shoulder, if not together as we went along. Just then a shopkeeper standing at the entrance called out to him in a friendly manner, “Tsukarete imasuka?” (Are you tired?) And to which the newspaper deliveryman called back in the affirmative.

In the west Belfast that I knew in my younger days, friendly banter was common! And just like Ireland, Japan was an ancient land with its own precious customs and traditions that had remained the test of time. Yet, perhaps more so than any other country, Japan was a country of continuous change. Everywhere I looked, for example, old was being replaced by new. On roads and landscape had changed with countless buildings coming down and others going up. In the cities at least, old customs were replaced by more modern ways. Already this had been seen in dress and fashion, as well as in the homes and in education. Nothing went untouched by the claws of change. It could be noted in the language people spoke and in the laws and politics they looked towards. Quite unlike Ireland, change could also be imposed on the people by natural calamities. Of course, earthquakes, or the very water that surrounded the country in the form of a tsunami. Japan was also a country that boasted having more than fifty active nuclear reactors, so even such accidents were not to be sniggered at. Especially when a large earthquake in 2007 forced the Kashiwasaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant to shut down for twenty-one months.

It was nice to see that a sense of place or community was still very strong among the people living in the rural areas, which had pretty much died Tokyo; or replaced by a form of social policing and a strong sense of peer pressure. In many of the small places I passed through, local communities established familiar ties in their way of life and participated in everyday affairs along with everyone else. In his book, ‘The Forgotten Japanese’, (wonderfully translated by Jeffrey S. Irish), the Japanese folklorist once spoke of life in tiny villages, as being so small that communal living was claustrophobic. At one time when the cities were young, where people lived in close proximity with each other, they felt a strong attachment to their local communities.

In Tokyo, on the other hand, this sense of place or community aspect was quite scattered, if not altogether lost. In some ways, this was true with me, too, with respects to my own hometown community connections. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since I left Ireland proper to travel around the world and to experience live and work in foreign lands. Even though some old Irish friends remained back in my old hometown of Belfast, or made their living and family life close to their roots to be precise, in my heart I envied them. The long absence from my own roots meant that I had become kind of outside of my old community, like a hermit with his eyes always open for some place to call home. You could only feel like a tourist among the strong knitted communities, at least I did every time I traveled back to Belfast to see family members and friends. In the early days of my travels, not being part of something never really bothered me, like it did now. Aging did that to you! That said it somehow seemed different when I realized that I had lost my cultural identity. Was it any wonder that ex-patriots held onto whatever connections were left to remain them of their identity, their roots?

Soon most of the newspapers were delivered, and with the lighter load to carry the man’s pace quickened, and soon I was left behind. A sign pointed in the direction of Yuhi Park, but when I turned my eyes in that direction to take a look all that I could see was my old friend the sea. The road (Route 101) for Noshiro led me nearer to my destination, whilst another road for Fukaura Port branched to the right. Soon I tramped past a statue of a naked man, the hand held aloft, in it a plant of some kind. “Mmm! A laurel leaf?” For some reason what was in the hand stuck in my mind for a while. I had seen many similar statues in Europe. Just about every road in Tokyo was home to a statue that felt them a complete waste of money. I had also heard here in Japan that there were more statues than anywhere else. So empty were most of the pocket parks I passed, that I wondered what was the point of having them. Nothing surprised me anymore!

The hands on a clock in the pocket park read 4:55. “Mmm!” I thought, feeling my mind about to work overtime! “Wouldn’t the time seem the same if the hands on clock turned the other way, anti-clock?” It was something silly to occupy my mind with for a while, or to drown out the tiredness I could feel creeping into my body as I tramped along the road. “Surely all that needed to be done was to reverse the numbers, not to forget the clock motor, too.” Things were the way they were because of history. In the northern hemisphere anyway, he shadows on sundials rotated in a ‘clockwise’ manner. History had also taught us that it was in the countries in northern hemisphere that industry, wealth, and science won out over the countries in the southern hemisphere. If it had of been the other way around, then we might all be seeing the time differently. Regardless of how the time looked, the angle of the sun in the sky told me that it was time to increase my pace, or to kick up some dirt as I went, so to speak. Soon the pocket park was behind me and well out of sight. A bridge spanned a tiny inlet from the sea and to me appeared to be more of design than of purpose. It seemed to stand by itself that I wondered it its construction was a total waste of time, money, and effort. But then again, what did I know?

A public toilet appeared up ahead, where I stopped for a moment to shake hands with the unemployed (penis, urinate). Just as I was dumping my backpack onto the ground a car pulled in and stopped. But also most immediately, the engine started up again, the car turned back onto the road and drove away. Something told me that the young couple in the car was afraid to stop, for fear that I might ask them for a lift. Of course, that could not have been further from the truth. A road sign over the road from the toilet told me that I was on target for reaching my goal in good time, “Noshiro 64km”. I stopped momentarily to take a peek through the window of a Japanese pub, which being near to the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea), was appropriately named ‘Anchor’. The interior was too dark to make out anything of interest, but for the reflection of a local bus pulling away from a bus stop behind me. It was easy to see without looking directly at the bus, the words, ‘Kanon Bus’ where printed on the side. Soon the bus was gone up the road, with its passengers all heading in a northerly direction. “Mmm!” I wondered if that local bus belonged to the same Kanon Company, or tourist coach that passed me by earlier on in the day.

My walking pace by now had become much slower than when I set out on the road this morning, and which had remained quite constant, baring the odd burst of speed, which lasted right up until only thirty minutes ago. I was tired! Now both my mind and body were no longer united on the same thing, or goal. The fatigue and feelings to push on were no longer producing worthy results. At least, I was failing to notice any great progress, like the falling away of villages, towns, landmarks Surely some kind of a compromise between my mind and body, if at all possible, was in the offing. “Perhaps if I stopped and rested a while I might see things differently?” I told myself.

As luck would have it, I found myself at a quaint little roadside place called ‘Gyoin’, a café-cum restaurant, or so the sign above the entrance led me to believe. I shuffled my tired body inside the premises where two middle-aged staff, the cook and the waitress greeted me. The waitress directed me to a table by a window that offered a pleasant view of the sea. The background music was also pleasant and nice and light on the mind, which suited me down to a tee. It was a mixture of theme music from old movies, and some pop songs of an earlier day. Some of the tunes I knew well and some others I did not. From the menu I selected one of my usual dishes on the road, katsu teishoku, and a cool bottle of Kirin lager beer to wash it down with. The food turned out to be excellent! The food was so delicious and the service so friendly that I thought it might be nice to come again. If only that was possible! If I ever returned to this area again on my motorbike, I would most certainly stop by at the café again for a bite to eat, but perhaps not a beer since I would be riding.

As to the importance of food, we all needed to eat if we wanted to be fit and healthy. Good food intake was also related to staying warm, and for the energy that kept the body working, or in my case, walking. For the young and active among us, the proteins in the different foods helped repair the body against injuries. Though for me, I liked to think that my little swims in the salty waters of my old friend, the Japan Sea, was just as good against the aches and pains I suffered almost daily on the roads. Much of the protein we put into our bodies came from my favorite foods, like, beans, nuts, meat, and to some extent, eggs. It also came from my least favorite, like, fish. Dairy foods such as milk, which I just loved to drink in the summer months, were rich in protein, too. Energy was the bottom line, or something the body continuously burned off all the time. I read somewhere that one banana, for example, supplied enough energy to bicycle about half an hour, which in Tokyo for me meant about ten to twelve kilometers. Much of the same could be argued for carbohydrates, such as sugar and starch, or all those sweet foods, like, jam and cakes, etc. Carbohydrates were rich in the cereals, bread, and potatoes, which I tended to eat on a regular basis, especially oatmeal and milk for breakfast at my place in Tokyo. Even the fatty foods, most of which I tried to avoid the best I could, like, cheese, chocolate, and margarine, were loaded up with energy. On the road, however, all kinds of food and drink had to be treated with respect, for the times I had gone without either.

As was often the case, the campsite was just about empty of tents and campers when I arrived. Perhaps Key-san whom I spent sometime with at a campsite in Ofuyu was right after all, the camping boom, as he told me, never really happened. However, there were two attractive young female cyclists camping nearby. Later on when we shared one of the few picnic tables to prepare our evening meals at, not that I had much to prepare, one of them told me that they were in the fashion business. She also told me that she was a professional photographer, and that her colleague, and the more attractive of the two, was a professional model. They were on location or assignment to get a series of outdoor snaps for some fashion magazine. Of course, the theme for the photographs had to do with cycling, camping, and nature. The photographer was quite up to the challenge, her young colleague, the model, she told me absolutely loathed the outdoor assignment, and could not wait to get it over with. While I was at the campsite the young model spent much of the time resting in her tent complaining of some illness. She showed her face only once that evening to nibble on some of the food, which the photographer had prepared for her, only to return to retreat to the confines of her tent soon afterwards.

Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 17, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

22 Aug, 2009: It was a bright sunny morning when I finally stepped out on to the road to make a start. The minute hand of my pocket watch read eight-thirty. The traffic on the road was sparse, but began to build up as the morning wore on. A dip in the sea earlier had done me good. Without the salty sea waters I feared that ultimate recovery from so severe a muscle pain would have been tediously slow. Breakfast still wanting, it would have to wait for I wanted to get away while the fresh feeling to do so lasted. I could feel the traces of sand inside of my boots. Perhaps it had got there this morning when I kicked the sand over what remained of the campfire from last night. It was still too early for business hours when I stopped at a quaint little seaside restaurant in the hope that something might be had. “We open at ten-thirty,” the proprietress told me. It was nearly two hours short of then, and I did not want to hang around. “Well, thank you anyway.” I said mustering a smile and turned back onto the road. Now thoughts of food replaced those of the sand in my boots.

A kilometer further along the road I stopped by at a little store. There I bought an ice cream cone or ‘poke’ as it used to be called growing up on the streets of west Belfast. A most elderly chap ran the little place, and he was keen to learn in what direction I came from that day. “From Tappi Zaki?” he asked, leaning over the counter with his eyes keenly fixed on me. “No, from Cape Soya.” The usual gauntlet of questions followed, which did not bother me one bit. Everything I said was then quickly translated by the elderly proprietor to his little grandson whose nose and eyes barely cleared the counter. The child stood there behind the counter with his eyes wide open and fixed on me like I had just stepped out of a spacecraft.

Soon the ice cream poke was finished and it was time to move on once more. As I turned to make my way out the door the old fellow wished me all the best, which I thought was nice of him. The morning sun felt hotter than yesterday. A tour coach with Konan printed on its side passed by me at a fair speed, and the rush of air as it sped along felt good. Up ahead I could see a road sign, which were proved quite helpful in giving me an idea exactly where I was and how good I was doing. It was never easy to know where exactly I was with only my maps without a good clear road sign to put me right. Besides, the maps were fairly tattered with some of the place names hard to make out. Once more the road parted. It was there that I would leave Route 339 in favor of Route 12 heading to Ajigasawa and past Lake Jusanko. The main reason was to stay, as near to the sea as possible, though maps could be so confusing. One of my maps spelt Ajigasawa, ‘Azi Ga Sawa’. A stop at a little roadside stall netted me six juicy tomatoes for just one hundred yen, which would have been unheard of in Tokyo. There was no one at the stall, only an empty cup to drop the money into. “Trust was a many splendored thing,” I mumbled to myself as I dropped the appropriate coin into the cup.

On the whole, I missed Hokkaido and the kindness from the many people I stopped to talk to along my way. For different reasons people fell in love with that great northern island and returned again and again. The unyielding beauty of the place had smote them, like the haze along the mountaintops, and the fuchsia on the hills. The bears, too, tended to reside far in the interior, whilst snakes existed just about everywhere. Of course, the nature and its beauty was not peculiar to Hokkaido, but existed it did all the same across much of Japan. Now, of course, Hokkaido was very much in my past, for the Aomori coastline, with the occasional half a meter long snake slithering across my path, was very much a part of the present and near future. The seagulls and the crows above seemed less at odds together, than I was with myself.

A road sign told me that Ajigasawa, Shamiki, and Lake Jusanko, were now forty-four, fifteen, and two kilometers from where I stood. With a glance at the tiny red tomatoes that I had carried with me told me I could see that none of them were broken However, it was best to eat them sooner rather than later. “Perhaps I should hold on to the tomatoes until I got to the lake,” I thought as I turned my attention to idea of enjoying a nice hot cup of tea when I got there. Just beyond a paddy field the sudden bark of three large dogs startled me. If that was not enough the dogs made a rush at me as I passed. “Fuck off!” I called out as I stood still for a moment to let them know who was in charge. The dogs slowly backed away in the direction they had come. They had got the message no doubt, that this lady was not for turning, to paraphrase those pathetic words once spoken by Thatcher, and with that I slowly continued my way south along the road.

Thoughts of the two dogs that charged at me remained for a while. “It was a good thing that the beasts were on leashes for fear that they would have had me for lunch,” I thought. “Even if the fucking restraints were a bit on the long side,” I felt. The last thing I needed now was to get bitten. Some years ago when I tried to separate my dog and another dog from fighting I got bit just above the right ankle. I did not think much of the wound at the time, except run it under a cold water tap a few times to keep it clean. After about four months the wound still had not healed, and following some persuasion from friends, I visited Saint Luke’s Hospital in the Tsukiji area of Tokyo. I remembered the doctor giving me a stern ticking off for not coming sooner, and that if I had of waited any longer I might even have lost my leg, if not my life. The wound was so bad, that the doctor needed to cut the surrounding tissue, or rotten meat, away from the damaged area with a scalpel. There were a couple of further visits after that, and gradually things went back to normal. Even with my insurance, the procedure proved financially costly into the bargain.

At the time of the bite I was not sure where Japan stood on rabies, although I was concerned to find out when the wound in my right leg failed to heal. After some research on the Internet I learned that rabies was a viral disease, which caused acute encephalitis; or in layman’s terms, an inflammation of the brain in warm-blooded animals. Once upon a time, all human related cases of rabies were fatal, or up until Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux finally developed a vaccine in 1885. The rabies virus attacked the central nervous system, leading to disease in the brain then death within days of the bite. Being a dog owner, I knew that all domesticated animals in Japan were required to be vaccinated, a procedure that cost close to 4,000 yen. However, the way the economic situation was with people, and cash being short everywhere, I would not at all have been surprised if some dog owners chanced not to have their animals inoculated. At the time of the bite I was not sure where Japan stood on rabies, although I was concerned to find out when the wound in my right leg failed to heal. After some research on the Internet I learned that rabies was a viral disease, which caused acute encephalitis; or in layman’s terms, an inflammation of the brain in warm-blooded animals. Once upon a time, all human related cases of rabies were fatal, or up until Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux finally developed a vaccine in 1885. The rabies virus attacked the central nervous system, leading to disease in the brain then death within days of the bite.

I also knew that rabies could be transmitted from one species to another, and infected dogs to humans were one example of this. Roughly 97 percent of human related rabies cases were the result of dog bits. And around 55,000 people died each year from rabies, with most cases in Asia and Africa. In America, animal control and vaccination programs had effectively eliminated the fear of rabies as far as domestic animals were concerned. Likewise, thanks to the strict animal control and vaccination programs in Japan, rabies among animals had become entirely eliminated. Up ahead a building, which looked a bit like a hotel, could be seen. As I drew nearer, the name read `Hotel Hamanatsu`. The design of the building reminded me very much of the many love hotels that I had passed on the roads. There was also a usual high wall around it to shade the guests from prying eyes. A bit further along the road a sign told me that Sannobo Fukushima Castle was off to the left. Unfortunately, I had to push on without the pleasure of stopping to visit the place.

A restaurant stood at the side of the lake, and which I was happy to see it was open for business. An elderly man entered just before me, and held the door open for me. I dropped my backpack on the floor by the table I set down at. As far as I could make out the food on the menu looked pretty much fish based. Luckily for me, I spotted another dish that I could easily stomach. Katsudon was deep fried pork, placed on top of a large bowl of piping hot rice and a partly cooked egg led over the top of it. As I waited for my order to arrive, I thought about the day’s journey. It had been a pleasant tramp thus far, and Route 12 was a good road as roads went. There were few cars on the road to consider, which was just as well considering that it was a narrow road with two single lanes for traffic.

It was easy to see from the windows that the sun continued to bake down and that the shadow cast out from the nearby trees and rough by the roadside offered little protection. By the time I reached the restaurant all those rules to good walking had evaporated. Ten thirty in the morning or not, a cool bottle of beer of any brand was wanting. Ever since leaving Cape Soya I had done my best to dispense with my conservative attitude towards food and stomach just about any dish available to me. Or such was the warning I had been given by a friend in Tokyo before setting off. This seemed reasonable advice considering the enormity of my undertaking. Of course, there were just too many times when food, or even water for that matter, was not easy to come by. That said, I failed miserably, in that fish based dishes had been a real obstacle for me. There was the odd time when I choose to go hungry rather than indulge my inners with such stuff.

It was easy to see from the windows that the sun continued to bake down and that the shadow cast out from the nearby trees and rough by the roadside offered little protection. By the time I reached the restaurant any rules for good walking had evaporated. Ten thirty in the morning or not, a cool bottle of beer of any brand was wanting. Ever since leaving Cape Soya I had done my best to dispense with my conservative attitude towards food and stomach just about any dish available to me. Or such was the warning I had been given by a friend in Tokyo before setting off. This seemed reasonable advice considering the enormity of my undertaking. Of course, there were just too many times when food, or even water for that matter, was not easy to come by. That said, I failed miserably, in that fish based dishes had been a real obstacle for me. There was the odd time when I choose to go hungry rather than indulge my inners with such stuff.

My hardship was not only with the fish-based food that I found hard even to look at, but also with my equipment either lost through carelessness or damaged by the elements. This included my trusty little one-man tent, which took such a hammering two nights ago at Cape Tappi, when one hell of a powerful wind bent the tent poles beyond repair. It was just as well that it happened when it did on the final days of this stage of my mission. “Perhaps I could make Noshiro my final stop,” I thought, while doing my best to straighten the poles by hand the best I could. I glanced at one of my maps also told me that Noshiro was as good as any place to get transport back to Tokyo from. It was easy to see that the road, Route 12, headed via Shariki and then on to Ajigasawa. With the help of my maps I pondered another smaller road that ran in the same direction, and nearer to the sea, which was what I needed most. “Surely this was the best way to go,” I thought as I put the maps away to make room for the food that had just arrived.

Naturally the little coastal road was the way I needed to go if I was to be near to my old friend. The fresh smell of the seashore and the sound of the rolling waves was a great medicine for a tired mind. After only a kilometer or so along the narrow coastal road I stopped to chat to an elderly lady who was working in her garden. After a little while she went into the house to get something, motioning with her hand for me to wait. A few minutes later she reemerged carrying a tray with a large slice of watermelon on it, as well as a glass of ice coffee and some biscuits. “Wow! Thank you! How kind of you! What a nice surprise,” I said to the lady as she placed the tray down on the wooden bench next to me. It was a hot day and the cool juicy watermelon melted in my mouth with every bite. It did not take me long to finish what was on the tray, as well as to answer the usual gauntlet of questions that I anticipated coming. Of course, I did not mind the lady’s questions one bit, and found our short time together under the shade to be a most pleasant rest, before hitting the road again proper. When I did finally shoulder my backpack to take my leave to south along Route 12, it was not until the lady presented me with a one-liter plastic bottle of frozen water.

A sign pointed at a building away to my right, which read ‘Jusan Area Puritication Center’ “What?” I said to myself as I looked up at the sign. “Shouldn’t that be ‘Purification?” I was not the best of spellers since as long as I could remember, but even to me it was a clear spelling mistake that surely went unnoticed all the way from the keyboard to the printers to the road where it now could be seen by everyone who cared to notice. Not long after I left Route 12 I came to another road sign. It told me that Ajigasawa was thirty-three kilometers away, with Hamano Myojin Shrine just two kilometers further along. Back in Tokyo I knew of a shrine with a similar name, the Kanda Myojin Shrine as it was called, was originally built in 730 AD. The shrine was also was called Kanda Shrine, and was home to three major Shinto gods, two of which belonged to the Seven Gods of Fortune. So it was easy to see why vast numbers of business people and entrepreneurs visited the shrine to pray for their success and prosperity. In some ways I was no different, for I needed good fortune to shine my way, although being the atheist that I was, I could not see myself going so far as to pray. Ajigasawa was a town with a population of around 10,000, located in the Nishitsugaru district on the southwestern corner of Aomori Prefecture. Weather wise, the coastline had short cool summers and long cold winters with heavy snowfall.

During the Edo period (1603 to1868), the Nambu clan controlled much of the area around Ajigasawa. In 1491, the samurai and founder of the Tsugaru clan, Oura Mitsunobu (1460-1526), resided in the village of Tanesato, now part of Ajigasawa. Economically, Ajigasawa was very dependent on agriculture, such as, rice and horticulture, as well as on commercial fishing. The sea around Ajigasawa were abundant in many kinds of fish, for example, red snapper, Atka mackerel, horse mackerel, flat-fish, angler fish, salmon, cod, octopus, and shark. Also, Ajigasawa Beach was only a ten-minute walk from the train station offered a breathtaking view of the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea).The beautiful Kurokuma no taki, or Black bear falls in English, which got its name from its appearance, was also listed seventh on the list of Japan’s top 100 waterfalls.

Soon I passed by a tiny lake with no name located between the sea and the road I tramped along. Beyond I could see a small range of hills and a comb shaped mountain or volcano that pointed majestically to the sky. It would not be long now before I past the Myojin Marshes. How the marshland sparked memories of my youthful days of growing up in west Belfast. The bog meadows could be seen from the front window of our little redbrick house on Saint Katherine’s Road.How I still could recall the countless rows of tall bulrushes, a common name for a variety of wetland plants. Even thought the bulrush stems were far from being strong and broke rather easily, we used them as swords to fence with, or as spears to hurl at one another, and even just to lose ourselves in for the fun of it. It was all part of our hind-and-seek fun and banter, and tomfoolery of a long gone past, but for me those were happy days to look back on and to dream about in my aging years. Looking back now, I guess we should have been taught to look more kindly on the bog meadows. In the wintertime the pond in the center of bog meadows froze over and people would come from all around to skate on it. In the milder weather the swans could be seen stopping there. Even as children we knew of a famous story that told of an ark made from bulrushes, in which the infant Moses was placed.

The tall trees stood proud by the side of the road I now tramped along, and the shade from them was comfortable. In a field to my left a lone cow stood mowing away contentedly. Up ahead I could make out another road sign, a van was parked a little ways beyond it with its parking lights blinking away. “Aha!” I said, as I drew close to the sign. “Something on Noshiro at last! Good!” Now I could see that I still had one hundred and thirty-two kilometers to go to get to Noshiro, not to mention the end of this stage of my mission, too. With almost seven weeks on the road, it felt good to have some idea of my destination. As I passed the van I thought of Ajigasawa again, now twenty-six kilometers behind me. Everything seemed to be coming together nicely, and it all felt so good, not even the loss of my notebook mattered much to me now. That could all be dealt with later!

Just as I was lost in my little old self of feeling good about my progress and achievement on the roads a car shot past almost hitting me as it went. “Fucking hell!” I mumbled under my breath, while stepping quickly off the road altogether to collect my senses. With a look at the right side of my backpack that the car had brushed against, I was happy to see that there was no damage done beyond its already grubby appearance. Then I realized that another car heading in the opposite direction had made it impossible for the driver who nearly hit me to move wider out of my way. Even if the driver had his foot pressed down a bit too firmly on the pedal I felt. “How would it have changed things had I been completely daydreaming?” I wondered to myself, as I tried to switch my mind away from the near miss.
A sign told me that Takayama Inari Shrine was located in Goshogawara City, with Ushigata Town off to the left. Parts of Goshogawara City, with a population of around 55,000, came under the limits of the Tsugaru-Quasi-National Park. Goshogawara occupied two separate sections of landmass, the larger being landlocked in the middle of the peninsula, and the smaller located along the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) where I now stood. Similarly, the economy was divided between agricultural products, such as, rice and apples, as well as, commercial fishing of clams, etc. Also, the electronic giants Toshiba were a main employer and producer of HD and DVD drives. The city had a cold maritime climate with cool summers, although today was rather on the hot side. The winters were very cold with heavy snowfall, so I considered myself lucky that I was not in Aomori at that time.
The Tachi Neputa Festival in Goshogawara city had become quite famous for the illuminated three dimensional elaborately painted paper floats. Though similar to the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, the floats at the Tachi Neputa Festival were much larger in size with some towering higher than 20 meters. The Tachi Neputa was held every year from the fourth of August to the eighth of August, so I had missed it by around two weeks. It was perhaps another example of my bad timing, although it was not among my plans to be on time either. That said, I preferred to avoid all kinds of places where people congregated for one reason or another, even office parties, weddings, and funerals, to name a few. The last day of the festival was the most popular of all, since all of the floats could be seen standing together. In addition, the popular Japanese singer, Yoshi Ikuzo, who came from Goshogawara, was sure to make an appearance. Because of the large crowds who came to the festival, it was not always easy to get a good spot to enjoy the festival atmosphere. Besides, the floats were so large that they could not be missed. The festival closed with a fireworks display, which lasted for two hours.

The Takayama Inari Shrine history could be traced back to the tenth century, and was one of the most famous Shinto shrines in northern Japan. The shrine gave homage to the Inari god, which presided over good harvests and wealth, perhaps similar to why business people and entrepreneurs visited the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo for prosperity. The Takayama Inari Shrine was also known for the spectacular row of red torii gates in its large garden. Alas, I had no time to stop and visit the shrine. The main thing for me was to make more ground before my day on the road was over. It would not be easy going now, for the sole of my right foot was hurting something bad. It was another of the many blisters to deal with later on, no doubt.

23 Aug, 2009: An open stall at the roadside sold watermelons for 500 yen. After the business of paying for a small watermelon was done, the attractive middle-aged women standing behind a makeshift table spoke glowingly of a campsite nearby, as if it was a Butler’s Holiday Camp newly opened in the area. Along the way two elderly men stopped the van they were in to offer me a lift, which I politely declined. They must have realized that I was heading in the direction of the campsite, as they hit on the topic before I even told them. “It’s one hell of a windy a windy place,” one of them said, whilst the other nodded his gray haired head in agreement. “No one camped there anymore,” the other man at the wheel said, looking right at me, as if trying to read something in my face. It was true, I was tired and I was disappointed to hear them speaking so about the campsite. I had hoped to make camp there early to enjoy a good proper swim in the sea, and just rest the best I could. “Well! Thank you for the information.” I replied, “But I’ll give it a look over anyway. Besides, I heard it had a shower.” “A shower?” The man in the passenger seat said. “I’m not sure about that. Anyway, good luck with your walking.” The van drove off down the road, leaving me alone with my own thoughts once more. “Perhaps they were right.” I felt them more knowledgeable about the area than the woman selling the fruit. “Perhaps I should just keep right on walking a while longer.”

A little earlier I had stopped by at another shop to pick up a couple of cans of beer, as I felt sure that I would make camp soon. However, the young woman who served me there knew nothing about any campsite. I could also hear the sound of shower–water running. “That’s my son!” the woman said with a smile. “He’s a lucky guy,” I thought to myself, as I grabbed my backpack up from the floor and re-shouldered it in one sweeping movement. “Not only for the shower, but to have such an attractive mother.” Back out on the road a small lorry passed me by. It was loaded up with tomatoes and watermelons. A couple of the tomatoes fell off the back as it went over a bump in the road. When I drew near I saw that the tomatoes had smashed all over the asphalt. “Not my loss!” I thought, as I stepped over the mess. I had already had my fair share of tomatoes this last couple of days they were literally coming out of my ears. Tomatoes were a good food source for those worried about their metabolism, the digestion of food and elimination of waste. I had burned off so much body fat on the roads already that there was very little left of me as it was. Thanks to the long distance walking from morning to sunset, I was one of those with a lower body fat percentage with a high Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR); therefore, a higher calorie requirement than average to sustain this rigorous lifestyle out on the roads. Then again, that all soon changed between stages, during the lengthy rest periods back in Tokyo, no thanks to the beer and eating at countless restaurants.

Soon one quarter of the watermelon that I had bought was cut and eaten, but I felt it best to keep the rest until the evening. “Mmm! Perhaps I should hold on to some of it until the morning.” There was nothing else by way of food on me! Well, there was still a can of ‘Dydo Demitasse’ coffee that someone had given me, and I had almost forgotten about. Yet, so much for my thoughts! Soon the coffee too was gone, and another quarter of the watermelon followed it into the same dark dungeon of my stomach. Up ahead a road sign told me that I was seventy kilometers away from Lake Juniko, which was a good two and a half days tramp. Then there was the town of Senjojiki, some twenty-seven kilometers from where I stood, but that did not matter any, as I was still thinking about the last piece of watermelon. My water bottles were low, and the sun always seemed hottest a couple of hours before it set. If all went well then I should be tramping through there by this time tomorrow. It had gone five! It was by this road sign that I set down to rest awhile. “Fuck it!” I said, thinking about my shoulders, which began to hurt. Looking at my backpack on the ground by my feet, I knew that I needed to lighten its load. “What better way was there than by tucking into the remainder of the last of the watermelon?” This did not take me long!

Up ahead I could see the road begin to slope upwards, and I was certainly not looking forward to that. Still, the upward slog was there and there was noting to do but muster up some energy and get on with it. When I got to the top of the slope a shut up long abandoned café also came into view. In the grounds where the café stood, a giant rock set in the center of what must have been a once beautiful garden. Fighting through the overgrown bramble to take a peek through one of the café windows was not the easiest of tasks to achieve. A number of stools lined the counter, the color of the cushion covers on each of them now changed by dust and time. Just about everything else I could make out looked as if it was waiting to be used. Upturned cups and glasses were neatly placed beside the coffee making equipment on the counter. A neat stack of cups and saucers were placed on top of one another on large shelves on the wall behind the counter. A faded calendar hung from the wall. It displayed the month that the place must have closed its doors, ‘July 1996’. Below the calendar a faded menu stood in its holder by the side of the cups and saucers. A price of yesteryear for a bowl of ramen (noodles) was 400 yen.

Soon after leaving the abandoned café the overgrown grounds where it stood, I arrived back at the crossroads. A road sign told me that Hirosaki was straight on, whilst Route 101 went left towards Goshogawara. Ajigasawa was away to the right, and it was there that I was headed. It was also at the crossroads that I would at last take my leave of this picturesque little road, which ran for quite a distance along the coastline and the much busier Route 12. It was now along Route 101 that Ajigasawa lay though just how long it would take me to get there, I did not have the foggiest idea. For just as I turned onto Route 101 a slight happening occurred that almost brought my mission on the coastal roads to an abrupt end. Of course, it was completely my own fault. I was so engrossed in my maps, while walking that I failed to see the hazard ahead of me. And when I did finally notice it was too late to stop myself from falling or to step back.

The hole was the size and length of a grave, though fortunately for me it was by no means as deep. It was deep enough, however, to hammer home the point of my stupidity. “That’s what happened when you don’t pay attention!” I remembered thinking, as I lay in the hole on top of my backpack. Such was the tumble into the hole that I went head over heels that my backpack broke the fall. It was a strange feeling looking up at the blue sky from where I lay. “Was this what it looked like from the inside of a grave?” I wondered. Then, pulling myself to my senses again, I was pleased that things seemed all right, thanks to my backpack. Just as I set up in an effort to get to my feet, I began to wonder how the perishable items that I had picked up at a shop earlier faired from the tumble.

The main thing was to climb carefully out off the hole, which I was able to do without removing the backpack, and to get back onto the road again as if nothing had happened. A little ways down the road I stopped at a local restaurant to replenish my weary body with food and drink, and to clean myself up a bit. But soon it was back on the road again to kick up some dirt proper. However, I had not gone very far when the short burst from a car horn caused me to stop in my tracks and look around. A handsome young foreign chap set behind the steering wheel of a van, grinning from ear to ear. As I moved to the side of the van the young man leaned out of the window and offered me a life. This I sadly had to decline, even though it would have been nice to talk to someone in English for a while. Travis, the name he gave me, came from Boston, and was currently living in that part of Japan.

Why or where he was headed to then, I did not ask, or even if he was married for that matter, though I suspected he was. There was something settled in his nature, and he seemed very knowledgeable about the area. On a parting note Travis took a banana from a bag that lay on the passenger seat and offered it to me. “Well, thank you,” I said taking it from him. Gifts of food were the best of all, and I knew the banana would do nicely to kill the hunger pings, for a while anyway. For I only had drinking water left and if he was correct, there were no shops to be had for the next ten kilometers at least. After our short chat, and with the banana now safely packed away, the fighting spirit was once again aroused in me. Even with all of my own selfish shortcomings, it somehow felt really good to be free on the roads, free from the shackles of commitment to anything or anybody. “Won’t all that change when I got back to Tokyo?” I wondered, not really caring until I did get back there.

A sign enlightened me of the presence of Juni-ko Ecological Museum and Conservation Area, which was not exactly nearby, but rather some sixty-one kilometers further down the road. Senjojiki was twenty kilometers, which if all went well enough I would surely pass by around lunchtime tomorrow. What I did pass by soon after the sign was, what I considered, a beautiful giant windmills. There was a short stop to gaze up at the powerful blades, a rotor of more than twenty meters in diameter, turned gently. Each of these giant windmills was more than capable of producing around a hundred kilowatts of electricity. “Wow!” How tiny I felt I was as I stood looking up at this beautiful monster. It was not made by a Japanese company, but ‘Fuhrlander’, a German firm, one of the growing numbers of independent manufacturers of wind energy worldwide. The windmill stood tall some distance off to my left with its great blades turning like there was no tomorrow. “The attendant who oiled it should have received an award for a job well done.” I thought, as I turned to continue my way south along the road. Surely it was only a matter of time before we would see this turning giants poking up out off the sea, which I thought to be a more suitable place to have them.

Another road sign that I passed told me that Fukaura and Senjojiki lay along Route 101, and Hirosaki was to the left on Route 31. Fukaura was located in the Nishitsugaru district of Aomori Prefecture and had a population of nearly 10,000. The Senjojiki coastline was a rock shelf that spread for some twelve kilometers, and because of their shapes, some of its majestic rocks were given names, like, ‘lion’ and ‘helmet’, and so forth. During the hot summer months the area was a magnet for sea loving enthusiasts. Hirosaki was a castle town with a long history stretching back as far as the Heian period (794-1185). Also with a population of over 180,000, Hirosaki was one of the larger cities in Hokkaido. Located on the southwest part of Aomori, the local government was bending over backwards in an effort to promote the city’s image with catchphrases, such as, ‘Apple Town’ and ‘Apple Colored Town’, and so forth. The city was a regional commercial center for much of the prefecture, with apples and rice being among the main agricultural products; in fact, twenty percent of the apples in Japan came from Hirosaki. Like most fruit, I loved apples, but never saw a single one in the time it took me to tramp through Aomori Prefecture.

The rain began to fall as I made my way through the town of Ajigosawa. Many young people, who were, I suspected, on holiday from college or university, or simply just enjoying the weekend together by the sea, ran to talk shelter under some trees. Taking shelter under a tree was not the most advisable ways to escape from the rain, for the thunder and lightning that often came with it. Others I could see appeared unperturbed by the falling rain, and stood where they where chatting away on the sandy beach. One small group of people continued to barbecue under a bridge a little ways further along. Height, and isolation were just two of a number of factors for why lightning bolts hit were they did. Standing alone under an isolated tree was sort of asking for trouble. Even rocky and stony mountain ranges were frequently struck by lightning in a single year, and many times in the same place. Even simply taking shelter in a doorway, or lean against the door could hold one hell of a hot surprise for the unsuspecting victims.

This was true even when the thunder and lightning was far away. Lightning often struck from as far away as five kilometers and more from the center of the thunderstorm. Should lightning threaten, it was better to take proper protective action, such as in a safe building or vehicle. As neither was immediately available to me, I was going to have to put up with it. Since there was little I could do to reduce the risk of being fried alive, it was better just to keep moving, or hope that a safe shelter presented itself. And which was exactly what I was doing anyway, even if I had no immediate plans to duck in anywhere soon. The rain came down heavily at times, with the odd crack of thunder away in the distance. Still, I was in no mood for stopping or taking shelter, for my pace was good and I did not want to stop when the going was good. My old tattered army cape kept most of my backpack things dry, but as expected, my poor boots continued to take another hammering.

The state of the weather could have one hell of a powerful affect over your nerves. If it was not bucketing down with rain, there were times when it was so hot tramping the roads that I could scarcely breathe. One thing I could be sure of regardless of the weather conditions was that I would soon become sweaty and dirty, and as the time drew on, hopelessly tired, too. It was not ‘much ado about nothing’, like all in my mind, or nothing to worry about. It was not that easy! Often I really needed to call on some inner strength from somewhere to curb the mental fatigue, or lingering depression, or negative self-questioning, which would show its ugly face. Quite a few times when the day wore on and the sun began to dip down over the sea, I would feel reluctant to take another step. My steps, slower and shorter feelings of no longer able, nor wanting to go on away further would enter my mind like a cancer. It was time to make camp I would tell myself, but this was not because my body was truly tired, or the blisters or muscle pain had become too much to tolerate any longer. Rather, the bouts of depression had seemed to win the battle! “Fuck it!” I would sometimes feel myself wanting to shout out at the top of my voice, but even on the isolated roads I was unable to do even that.

Night came on quickly because it did, not because I wished it to. The moon, too, reigned high up over the sea lighting my camp in an array of dull, gray and black shadows. Then, unannounced, just as the depression had come on to me, it would take its leave of me. Then the hollow it left in me would soon begin to fill up with light again. The darkness would be replaced by other more inviting colors, and positive thoughts. Already the nights were longer and the stars had become more familiar and beautifully perfect objects to me. But even such amazing sights could not keep me awake, for I knew that I needed to be as ready as I could be for the long hard road again when morning came. There was no giving up now or never, I was in this for the long haul, and that was that.

My main chores in the early evening were to secure camp and peg the tent firmly against any possible downpours and strong winds that could blow in from the sea unannounced. A couple of T-shirts that I washed earlier during one of my stops on the road now lay over a large bush poking out from the sand. “How ghostly white the washing looked in the moonlight, “ I thought, feeling glad with myself that everything seeded in order. When you were truly tired, it was never easy to focus the mind. And with the absence of old memories to call upon from out of the dark shadows in my brain, the dim somber twilight of the summer kept me company on the subdued sleepy beaches.

Even still, I did my best not to look at thing in terms of routine, which was easy to fall into back in Tokyo. Each morning I would awake to the rays of the rising sun, or make camp a little before it went down in the evenings. When timing went just right, I would sit and watch the sun go down over the sea. Other times I was too sore, tired and weary to care about it. On a good day when every thing on the road went right, the twilight lingered beyond its time as if it was waiting for me to complete camp, to sit down by my tent with a glass of red wine to enjoy its glory. When I woke in the morning the sun’s rays came streaming in through the flaps and right into my eyes. It was time to get up and back onto the road, again.

Often from morning to dusk my hours on the roads involved none other than boringly long stretches of asphalt coastal roads fenced in by insurmountable hills. Sometimes, too, there were inequalities of road surface. The new segments of roads were often one or two meters above the older, or disused roads they replaced, and which often went nowhere in particular. Often from morning to dusk my hours on the roads involved none other than boringly long stretches of asphalt coastal roads fenced in by insurmountable hills. Sometimes, too, there were inequalities of road surface. The new segments of roads were often one or two meters above the older, or disused roads they replaced, and which often went nowhere in particular. I had been caught out a few times taking the old and abandoned roads in an attempt to avoid one monster tunnel or another only to discover that they ran into the sea or a blocked up tunnel or an insurmountable hill. There was nothing for it but to retrace my way back to the new road, or else to try and find some other route.

It was not just the abandoned roads that caught my attention in one way or another, but other signs of life, too. The people lived along the coastline, or near enough to it, were inclined to fight the elements much more than the average Joe Public in the city. Many of the houses close to the coast I passed by had high and sturdy wooden fences, or barriers, build around them for protection. The people in this part of Japan did not live in fear of an expected massive earthquake or tsunami occurring anytime soon. That was more of a greater concern of the people did on the Pacific coastline. The fences and barriers were mainly a protection against the ferocious winds and snows that blew in from the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) during the winter months. Still, along Japan Sea, the wind and the rain were such features, even in the summertime. I knew that from much firsthand experience. In the worst of times great gusts of wind had caused trees to blow down. Heavy rains led to landslides and great waves had inundated entire towns. These things hit home more when they happened at night. Perhaps because of some tragedy that happened in the past, the people who once lived along the coastline were long gone. Only the frames of deserted homes, and often with ruined furniture, too, the signs of a hasty getaway, remained here and there along my route. Each and every abandoned ruin with a hidden story to tell!

Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 16, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

20 Aug, 2009: In Japan the countless outdoors groups of one kind or another had gained in strength in recent years. I had lost count of the many groups of elderly, and not so elderly, hiking and nature-loving enthusiasts on my own long ‘hike’ down along the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) coastline. The average group member had become much more knowledgeable than previously on areas of prospective interest. Perhaps the increased audiences and subscriptions for specialty outdoor magazines, which had grown in publication throughout Japan, noted this. There was now a nationwide reporting on historical places to visit, with countless sketches and stories on adventures written by likeminded people, who of course had been there and done it. The magazines often included many reviews on the local cuisine to be enjoyed. Most of the magazines were printed on glossy pages with colorful flashy layouts containing advertisements on the latest outdoor fashion or gear to wear or have. The colorful magazines targeted the public education aspect, to wage war on the couch potato to get them to move their fat arses, to get outside and miles away from their television sets. After all, the magazines told us, it was a way for people to maintain health and enjoy their life more.
It was clear that the outdoor magazines were an educational tool, and a travel guide for the consumer, with the added objective of generating even greater interest in the great outdoors. Therefore, I believed there really was a niche for outdoor keep fit kind of magazines, but as to lasting survival or living longer, I was not so sure. Nothing lived or lasted forever anyway! On a positive note, the magazines gave their readers clear and informative descriptions of places to visit, with timely updates on outdoor activities and on various events going on in different regions of the country. It went without saying, the magazines proved a sure barometer for the increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts. In my own case, trying to read up on a good number of the places before I passed through them proved somewhat worthwhile.

It was in Aomori Prefecture where the Hakkoda Mountains, Hirosaki Castle, and the Sannai-Muruyama site were to be found. Concerning the Sannai-Muruyama site in particular, excavations had been underway since 1992. The remains of pit-dwellings, including long shaped houses, and even the graves of both adults and young children had been uncovered. In addition, the mounds of debris and the remains of pillar-supported structures, storage pits, clay mining pits, and disposal pits used for refuge were unearthed. Even early roads had been found, all of which gave some insight into the characteristics of the settlement and the natural environment of the Jomon period. The find included clay figurines, clay and stone ornaments, wooden digging sticks, woven bags and fabrics, lacquered and bone items. A large number of pottery items, stone tools were now unearthed for the early history buffs to see. In November of 2000 the Sannai-Muruyama site was finally designated as a National Historical Site.

Seikan was the longest and deepest operational rail tunnel found anywhere in the world. The tracks ran for almost 54 kilometers, 23 kilometers of which ran under the seabed. The level of the track was about 140 meters below the seabed, or 240 meters below sea level. (The Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland would be the longest undersea tunnel set to open in 2016).There were two stations located in the tunnel, Tappi-Kaitei Station and Yoshioka-Kaitei Station, and were the first railway stations to be built under the sea. At first both stations had museums that detailed both the history and function of the tunnel. However, now only the one at Tappi-Kaitei Station on the Honshu side remained. It was on a train on the Tsugaru Kaikyo Line that carried my weary self and battered belongings through the Seikan Tunnel beneath the Tsugaru Strait bound for the town of Kanita, with an economy dominated by commercial fishing. The Seikan Tunnel joined both the main islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. And when I got there it was in the town of Kanita in Aomori where I camped the night. It was also there that the greatest lose so far on my entire tramp down along the coastal roads happened. It was the second of three completed notebooks now gone, but never forgotten. Even with the following newspaper article that appeared in the Kanita area proved unfruitful:

大きさ:     横15センチ 縦21センチ位。表紙の色:   灰色 (使い古した感じのノートです)場所:      キャンプ場からデーリーヤマザキ(コンビニ)の路上日時:      8月19日夕方から8月20日昼
私は、アイルランド人です。今年の夏は、色々の願いを込めて、徒歩で北海道(宗谷岬)から、秋田(能代)まで歩きました。 蟹田で、8月19&20日にテントect背負い歩いていた私を見た方もいると思います。蟹田に着いた日(8月19日)から8月20日の間に大切なノートを無くしました。と ても疲れていたので、2冊のノートが落ちたのは気がつきませんでした。1冊は英語でびっしりと書いてあります。もう一冊は、未使用です。北海道の宗谷岬を7月14日に出てから、毎日出来事を書きとめた大切なノートです。素晴らしい日本の自然と、優しい日本の人々、、、出版予定の大切な物です。毎夏、日本の海岸線を全て歩き続編を出版予定です。お心当たりの方は、親切な蟹田警察署((遺失物係):0174-22-2211又は、日本人の友人(Aさん)の携帯 xxx-xxxx-xxxx に御連絡ください。宜しくお願い致します。マイケル クロッシー

(Translation: The size of my lost notebook was about 148 X 210 mm. It was not in good condition as it was well used. I had been walking along the coastal roads from Cape Soya bound for Noshiro, the first stage of my long walk. While walking along these roads I took many photos and wrote lots of notes. When I arrived in Kanita I was very tired. In the early evening somewhere on the road from the campsite to the convenience store (Daily Yamazaki) two notebooks fell out of my bag. One was completed and the other was new and unused. Size: 15 cm X 21 cm. Color: gray (well used and old one & new one). Place: Somewhere between the campsite and the Daily Yamazaki convenience store. Date/time: Between 19 August 2009 (evening) to 20 August 2009 (noon). If you find the notebooks, please call the Kanita police station on 0174-22-2211 or me at xxx-xxxx-xxxx in Tokyo. Thank you very much! Michael Crossey)

Honshu was the largest of the main islands, which consisted of 60 percent of the landmass. What mattered more to me now was the prospect of reaching Noshiro in Akita Prefecture seemed to grow more remote with every ensuing hour. When I felt that way on other occasions I would still push on. However, the unsuccessful search for my notebook only resulted to delay my departure from Kanita by a day and a half, or in other words, 50 kilometers of tramping the road, at least. This delay, of sorts, forced my hand to make some changes to my plans. Without an early start it was pointless to begin the Aomori section of my long tramp from Kanita as I had hoped. Because of the lack of time left for me to reach my planned goal to Noshiro, I was forced to choose a new place from where to start from. This meant that I would need to take a train to a new starting point if I was to conclude the first stage of my destination in Noshiro as planned. My new starting point in Honshu was at a place called Imabetsu, some stations further along the line. In fact, Kanita was served by three stations on the Tsugaru Line of JR East, as well as by Route 260, which I would have to give a miss this time around. It was important that I began from Imabetsu if I was to keep my rendezvous with a friend who I had planned to meet in Noshiro. Earlier my friend was kind enough to telephone the local police station in Kanita for me to explain about the loss of my notebook, and ask if they had some ideas on how I might be able to recover my loss.

Regardless of the loss of the notebook, and the many reasons for setting out on my mission in the first place, not to mention the countless risks and backbreaking hardships involved along the way, certain attractiveness urged me on. It all had little to do with the beautiful nature I encountered along the way or the sense of freedom and place that I felt, but the powerful rush of adrenaline I got as I got nearer the conclusion of the various stages. Somehow this rush in question made it all worthwhile, for it was quite on par to my first ever climax with the opposite sex, the sort of thing one wished could happen every time. When I arrived at Imabetsu, I made my way to Route 339 bound for Tappisaki. A light rain had begun to fall by then. Up a head I could see a local bus waiting at a bus stop to pick up some school children. The bus started off as I approached and the children waved to me from the windows as it passed. As I turned to wave back at them, I could see a ‘Tunnel Museum’ advertisement on the side. Another signpost told me that ‘Yoshitsune-Seaside-Park was not so far. Once there, another sign told me that I could park, swim, use the toilets; drink coffee, and camp, and with little more than my backpack and butt to park, everything on offer suited me just dandy.

It would be good to drop the backpack somewhere for the straps had begun to dig into my shoulders. Soon it was propped up against one of the cafe tables I set down at for a while to rest and to see what they had to eat. From the menu I ordered a bowl of miso ramen or noodles, and a nice cool bottle of beer. As it turned out, the place did not have bottles and I had to make do with a 500 milliliter can of Kirin lager that cost ¥400 yen a pop. There must have been something wrong with the ticket machine when I pressed the appropriate button to pay for my bowl of noodles. No sooner had I put in the coins, ¥600 yen, and was about to press the one of the buttons when a workman showed up out of nowhere and wheeled the machine away. Of course, a tiny commotion resulted for me to get my coins back, as the guy seemed startled at what I was rambling on about, but got them back I was determined to do. A little later the workman came and apologized and assured me that everything would be put right very soon, if I would kindly wait. True to his word; a new and much smaller machine was soon wheeled in and placed one the same spot where the old one in question stood.

The new machine was set up and ready very quickly, and just inches away from the only vacant table in the place, and where I now turned. The other tables were lined up in a way that made an ‘L’ shape, three tables ran horizontally with one table placed to the right of them. There was a good meter length of space between each of the tables. So the restaurant did not feel crowded, even though all the other tables were taken up with salary men and women. It was lunchtime and everyone seemed to be trying to talk at the same time. I was in no mood for noise, and besides, the hunger pings had left me now anyway! Looking over to where my backpack now set propped against a wall near the door where I had just moved so as not to get in the way of the new machine as it was wheeled in, I now toyed with the idea of just hitting the road. Just then a young family entered, with three young children on tow. They stood around the entrance area waiting for a table. They were lively children and more than willing and able to contribute their part to the already lively background noise. This I took to be a message from above that it was time to get a move on; besides, they would be happy get quickly seated, for nobody liked waiting.

I was not long out off the door when the light drizzle started to fall again. The rain proved too much for one middle-aged chap to venture outside the house to take in the two birdcages. The two colorful birds were clearly exposed to the elements, which now began to beat down hard on the road and trees. I could see two beautifully colored birds of a feather, each one parched on tiny twigs that were placed across the wooded cages that held them. Both of the tiny occupants appeared unperturbed by the raindrops that entered the cage. Clearly, their landlord of sorts who continued to look out the window at me as I now passed by the house, was unconcerned. The wooden cages were rather attractive and the design looked like they were of a past era, perhaps late Tokugawa or early Meiji. When I glanced back I could still make out the he guy standing in his living room looking out through the window in my direction as I made my way south along the road in the rain. For a while I continued to think about the man at the window. There were a couple of dated scars on his face, quite similar to those on my own face, thanks to a motorbike crash I had in London so many years ago. “Had the man been involved in some serious road accident years ago?” I wondered, doing my best not to notice the rain. Now I thought about some Irish friends whom I had not seen in years. Some years ago over a few pints of Harp lager at a pub in Belfast I remembered telling them about the motorbike crash and how it left me in a coma. Just then one of them asked me when was I thinking of coming out of it. Everyone laughed!

Further along the road I passed an elderly fellow sitting on tiny stones that covered much of his garden. Unperturbed by the falling rain, the man plucked away contentedly at the weeds that grow in between the stones. “Perhaps the rain made it easier for him to perform such a monotonous task.” I thought as I passed him. Up on a rocky slope high above the road some workmen dangled from long ropes. They appeared to be poking away at the soil with long spear like poles. What exactly they were up to I had not the slightest idea. Much of the high slope had recently been covered with pine trees, for now only the freshly cut tree stomps remained as sad reminders of changing times. Further down the road thing I could think of was that the workmen dangling from the ropes were checking for loose rocks and stones.  About three weeks or so back I also passed by workmen dangling from ropes on a rock face high above the road (Route 231). Then it had something to do with a landslide. Whatever they were up to, it looked dangerous work. “Mmm!” Now only the sad looking stumps remained, but what would be there in the future? The planting of more trees? Concrete? More than likely, another manmade structure to reduce the chances of landslides and falling rocks, no doubt. Soon a sign by the road tells me that there a ‘Comfortable parking Area lay just four hundred meters up ahead. A road sign points to the town of Goshogaiwaru and Kodomari. Both thirty-one kilometers further along, with Tappi only six kilometers. Usually towns meant food!

Somewhere along the line I stopped by at a dimly lit and sparsely stocked little shop that sold cigarettes, beer and not many other things. It could only be imagined that the little place had seen better days. Perhaps like many places business went down with the bursting of the Bubble Economy and the loss of jobs in the area. Inside, a fat elderly woman got up from the tatami floor where she had been sitting when I entered. “Nan de sho?” (What do you want?) She asked in a tone of voice that I took to have an unfriendly air about it. “A bottle of beer would be nice.” “Nani mo nai!” (Nothing!) This answer surprised me since I could see a number of bottles of beer through the class doors of an ancient looking cooler. Clearly she was not interested in serving me, a foreigner, which surprised me again as I thought money was money regardless whose hands it came from. Then again, it did not matter either way, for a racist was a racist.

For my part, I did not know whether to laugh or say something rude back to her, instead I just cringed my teeth as I slid the door shut behind me and turned back on to the hot road once more. “That was a waist of time,” I told myself. “What a rude cow!” Once more I found my mind was working overtime. “How could people like that exist, as if life was not hard enough already? What kind of person could be rude to someone they did not know?” I thought, while also wondering if I should have said something to her. She was an enormous woman, and on in her years, she looked around 70 I felt. The was she dragged herself off the tatami to see who had entered the shop told me that she was not what I would have called healthy either. “Fuck it!” I thought again, as I fought with myself to stop thinking about the unwanted encounter. Besides, I needed to keep my wits about me, for the last thing I wanted was to have an accident. The first bridge and tunnel that I came to on this segment of my Honshu tramp, I was pleased to see, were both short. The Kinbanpaku Tunnel ran for only 85 meters. I was in no mood to face anything longer.

Just as I poured a little of the red wine into the plastic cup that had served me well since leaving Cape Soya, a light drizzle began to fall. “Fuck it! It didn’t matter, for the rain made things pleasantly cool. “Bull’s-eye!” I thought, as I looked at the tiny ripples in the wine when a lone drop of rain hit home. “Mmm!” That little cup had served me very well indeed! It had held all kinds of liquid, from cold, warm, and hot. And now a drop of rain water, too. “Ha!” A certain smile came to my face at the thought! It was on more than one occasion during those heavy downpours when I could not be bothered to venture outside my tent to take a leak (urinate). My little plastic cup saw to that! Then I remembered another time on the road when I tried to be somewhat scientific when I used the cup a few times, and not for tea or coffee. It was somewhere on one of the long tedious roads up in Hokkaido, when I pissed into it just to get a rough idea on the amount of urine I discharged in the course of a day. Come to think of it, I do not think I ever really found out the result, and gave the pseudo experiment up as a bad idea soon afterwards. Besides, during the times when it did not rain, I found that I drank much more water than when it did, because of the hot sun. Even on those hot days the amount of water I did consume was never the same quantity anyway. On those hot days, I also found that the urge to stop and take a leak did not enter my mind even once, for the sweat kept me permanently wet from morning to evening. It would have been an even hotter summer for sure if it were not for the incessant rain that fell.

A beat up old truck with ‘Fuku Ito’ printed on the doors slowed down and stopped a little ways up ahead of me. When I passed by I could hear a familiar voice call out to two women who were looking over the cans of food and vegetables for sale. “Oi!” (Hay!) I could feel their eyes looking at me as I passed them. Something told me that this shop on wheels and me would be sharing this section of the road for a while. Already it was not the first time we had passed one another. One of those local vote-for-me vans sped past, with the name ‘Watanabe’ colorfully spread out over its sides. Inside the van a number of white gloved hands waved frantically about, as if powered by a thousand volts of electricity. I guessed it was that time in the year when such notable dignitaries came out of their holes and cracks to show that they cared for ‘you’ and ‘your’ place in Japan, if not the world. “What or who on earth were they waving at?” I wondered, as I tried to close my brain to the noise of the loudspeaker fixed to the roof of the van. Besides myself and the sea, and the clowns in the van, there was not a sole in sight. Surely they could not be waving at me, for foreigners in Japan had no vote. Perhaps they were waving to the few fishing boats far out on the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). It would not have surprised me!

A road sign told me that I was just a kilometer away from the town of Minmaya in Aoyama Prefecture. Progress was surprisingly good! That meant that I was heading in the right direction for Cape Tappi. “Good!” Even on the coastal roads it was easy to get lost if you did not keep your wits about you. Just then Route 339 divided, with Kodomari and Cape Tappi veering away to the left with Tappi Fishing Port straight on. “Which way suited my purpose?” I mumbled as I dug about for my maps. If I choose to go straight on I would come to a memorial dedicated to the Japanese writer Dazal Osamu (1909-48) was born Shuuji Tsushima in Kanagi in Aomori. Said to have been one of the foremost fiction writers of 20th-century Japan, some of his works became movies, The Whistler, The Fallen Angel, and Adventure of Kigan Castle.

There was also a section of steps that looked as if they would lead me back out on to Route 339, which seemed to make more sense to me. It turned out that I made the correct choice, for the road led to a place where food could be had, as well as a good place to make camp. Most importantly, there was also to be found the Tsugaru Kaikyo Sen Tunnel Museum, the reason for my detour in the first place. Unfortunately, the restaurant had just shut its doors to business for the evening. A glance at the business hours on a board through one of the door windows told me that it would not open up again until nine the following morning. My aim was to get away as soon as I finished visiting the tunnel museum. There was nothing else to do now, but find a place to pitch my tent at for the night. A study of my maps later on would at least set my mind at rest about tomorrow. There were a couple of directional things I needed to smooth out before hitting the road proper, like which roads went exactly where.

One good way of occupying the mind in the evenings was to think about the people I met along the way, particularly those whom I stopped and spoke to in the course of the day. On the whole since arriving in Hokkaido, just about everyone I crossed paths with had shown me much kindness, if not generosity in some little way. On the same note, almost everyone appeared interested in me or in what I was doing, which kind of felt good. “Mmm!” I thought at those times, “It was nice to be noticed! Well, sometimes anyway.” Of course, it would be very wrong of me to speak with absolute authority paint everything with a brush. However, as far as I was concerned what seemed to be missing were the smiling faces. “Mmm!” I found my self even wondering if the people in Aomori were happy. Of course, with a completed notebook now lost, and which I had spent many hours writing stuff into, I was in no mood to smile either. It was not easy to put pencil to paper now, for the loss was still too fresh on my mind to concentrate on anything for very long. Therefore, I was not in a good mood at all, and found it hard to see things in a positive light. So depressed had I felt that I even toyed with the idea of giving my mission up and returning to Tokyo. Then again, what was the point of that, for I hated my live in Tokyo anyway, the most expensive city in the world!

If it was not for the sea and the fresh Aomori air, I would have sworn that I was already back in Tokyo, for the long faces, and unfriendliness I felt. Strangely, this unfriendly nature or atmosphere of sorts acted positively on me. Not so much to ease the bout of depression that I was feeling, but on my quick pace on the road. The kilometers were falling away like ten-pins, which suited me just fine, as the sooner I got my butt out of this place the better. At least it was the only way to calm my nerves, or so I felt. It was no secret that getting into a regular exercise routine was a great way to manage stress as well as relieve the symptoms that caused stress. I also knew that I needed to do something, as being cold or rude to others was very much against my nature of things. At least, I did not want to look like I was miserable even if I felt so. I even found myself absolutely refusing to look at the people I passed on the road, but to ignore them completely like they ere not there.

It was said that understanding something was wrong was half the cure. Perhaps the quick pace had helped to burn off some of the stress. I did not know for sure, but something was not quite right. “God! What was happening to me?” I wanted to shout. Yes, something was wrong, but what? I knew that I should not be speaking or even thinking in such a negative way about anyone. Especially about people I did not know or knew nothing about, for to do so was a sign of weakness and I did not want to be seen as being that kind of man. The loss of my notebook was still burning into me big time, and I was furious with myself for being so careless. Being tired was no excuse! Yes, the changing weather conditions had played a big part on my mind, too, but that was no excuse either. On those miserable rainy days up in Hokkaido I found it easy to switch off from the people about, or to pretend that they were not there. All that I had to do was to keep my eyes fixed straight ahead of me and to try and think about old friends, the places we went to, or the things that we did together.

I thought about my early days in Japan and how I used to feel so comfortable in the company of the opposite sex and the relationships that formed. But soon, I found myself beginning to recall the dark sides of these, too. Down through the years there had been just too many negative experiences in my dealings with Japanese women, lovers or colleagues alike. Whether those days could be seen as experiences in my life, or a fucking waste of time, the jury was still out. Breaking up with the few women I had become close to kind of poured water on an already flickering interest in the Japanese female. The partings always left me with so many unanswered questions. I wondered if the cultural differences between us were just too wide to begin with, like, the personality conflicts that were created, like, the differences in values, attitudes, and behaviors, and so forth. When people went so far as to get married, many more differences would soon appear out of nowhere. There were more than 30,000 ‘kokusai kekkon’ or international marriages each year in Japan between Japanese women marrying foreign men. For such marriages discrimination in the economic and business front were often experienced, like the difficulties of finding suitable employment and holding on to it, not to mention, the near impossible mobility and career aspirations. Strain on these relationships could also arise through social ostracism from relatives and friends who cut off ties. Of course, there were a host of other problems resulting from divorce or separation, which my own experience would not allow me to go into here.

Like I said earlier, being in such a negative chain of thought could be beneficial in more ways than one. For one, it helped me to increase my pace on the roads; so much so, I even felt that I could literally sprint along without even noticing it. That was good too, because my mind was so pre-occupied with other things to feel tired or to even notice the kilometers falling away. Only in the evenings when I went over my maps would I notice how good the day had been, distance-wise, if nothing else. Last but not least, when the mornings came, my mind always felt so stress-free, which was the best way to start off on the road again, with or without breakfast. Along the way I tended to pick up as many useful looking touristy pamphlets and brochures telling of the areas I was passing though or headed towards. The downside of this was that my backpack soon became heavier as a result. After a sizeable amount of this stuff had been collected, it was only a matter of time before I would need to call into a local post office somewhere to send them back to Tokyo for future reference.

Sitting next to me on the train to my coastal road starting point, was a young American woman who was part of the JET program. In the course of our talk, my loss of my notebooks undoubtedly came up. It raised my sprites when she told me that something so important would likely be handed into a local police station somewhere. However, such feelings were short lived, as I knew well that the chances were slim, or god forbid, zero they fell into the hands of the village idiot. There was no escaping the fact, it was a great personal loss, and this much had already been made clear at the Kanita Police Station hours earlier when I was there to report the loss. If I was to rate my luck since arriving in Aomori on a scale from one to ten, then I would give it the lowest mark, one. The weather had been miserably wet and windy all the way to Akita Prefecture. Even most of the people I passed looked miserable, too.

Last night when I was pitching my tent, a strong wind started to pick up making the task rather difficult. Only when I finished hammering the last of the tent pegs into the soil did the wind cease. It was not long after that when I lost the notebook. Before the loss I remembered feeling hungry, which was not a good thing since all the restaurants and shops were closed. Even the wine in the little flask I carried with me was just about empty. The evening meal consisted of two cups of hot tea, a broken biscuit, and the smell of meat being cooked on a barbecue by three young men not ten meters way. Sadly for me, there was no invitation to join them, and it looked like I was just going to have to make do with an empty stomach.

I remembered sitting by my tent adding to my notebook when I heard the sound of laughter. Five young college aged girls appeared to be having fun preparing the evenings meal, whatever that might be. If only it was possible to join them, but again there was no invitation, and did my best not to watch them. The only good thing to look forward to, besides what was left of my red wine, was a hot shower, which I badly needed. The shower lasted longer than I had expected, five minutes in all for ¥100 yen. Soon I was back at my trusty little tent overlooking the Nihon Kai. All my writing had been done and as I did not feel like reading any more, there was little else to do but hope that tomorrow would be more fruitful. It was not what the clouds harbored or how hard the sun beat down on me that bothered me, for I had grown accustomed to expect nothing and accept all. Being on the road all day long was no holiday. All sorts of weather had to be put up with, so it did no good moaning. The evenings around camp, was a time to wind down. Only then could I look at the course of the day in a more favorable light and sense of accomplishment. This was all the more made easy when the weather was calm with the moon and stars high up in the clear sky. This was one such evening, windless and pleasantly warm.

A group of young girls had just cycled into the campsite grounds, and soon set about erecting four large dome-shaped tents. To my surprise, none of the tents were Colman’s, which seemed to be just about everywhere. There was little else to do, so I spread my old army cape out over the ground beside my own little tent and lay down on it to rest. It was one of those lazy evenings and I did not care if the morning was slow in coming, or not. Rest was always something that I looked forward to, especially in the evenings when I looked out over the sea or stared blankly into an open campfire. Now however, I lay on my back and looked up into the not so dark sky above. I could feel a light breeze sweep across the campground and the fabric of my tent bend under its strain. “What the hell!” I mumbled to myself. Without looking, I stretched out my left arm and felt about the entrance of the tent for the wine bottle. Some would say the wine bottle was three-quarters empty, whilst others would see at as being one-quarter full. Me! I just thought that I was damn unlucky not to have thought about picking up another bottle when I had the chance earlier on. “Fuck it! I might as well finish it properly this time.”

Just as I poured a drop of red wine into the old plastic cup that had served me well since Cape Soya, a light drizzle started to fall. “Fuck it!” As I watched a couple of drops of rain make tiny circles in the wine. That little cup had served me well indeed, and it had held all kinds of liquid, cold and hot tea and coffee, soup, juice, drinking water, beer, red wine, and now rain water. “Ha!” Just then I remembered using my trusty cup for one other purpose. It was somewhere on the roads up in Hokkaido, where I once pissed in it just to get some kind of mathematical idea on the amount of urine I discharged in a day.

The young girls, who had also been lying out beside the tents chatting away, soon sprang to their feet. In no time at all, everything that had been scattered about their camp area was grabbed up from the ground and tossed inside of the tents. Then they made their way over to the cooking area to start preparing the evening meal. I placed the cup of wine inside one of my boots to keep it from falling over. Then I made my way over to the shower rooms to have my first hot scrub down in what seemed like forever. As I made my way from the shower rooms and back over towards my tent a light shower was now falling over the campsite. As I made my way past the cooking area, I could see the girls’ heads through the steamy windows. “What were they cooking?” I wondered. “Perhaps I should have helped them putting up their tents, then they might have invited me to dine with them.” God I felt hungry!

21 August, 2009: Nakadomai Town had a population of around 12,000 and was located in the Kitatsugaru district of northeastern Aomori Prefecture. On the outskirts of Nakadomai Town a road sign told me that Lake Jusanko was thirty-three kilometers away, and a good days walk when I put my mind to it. Perhaps at Chokandai, just five kilometers from where I stood now, I could to pick up some food and water. Last night I could have choked someone for want of something to eat and drink. On the road as I now was, the past somehow did not matter anymore, for soon my mind would be occupied with other things. And what a nice way it was to begin the day with. The sight of a beautifully proportioned female cyclist passed me by at great speed. She was clad in her tight fitting cycling gear and gave me a brisk wave as she went by. “If only I had my bicycle with me now” I mumbled to myself as I returned the wave, which I do not think she saw, Of course, I did not have a bicycle, and anyway she was quickly gone from view and from my life. My thoughts about the cyclist lingered in my head for a good while longer. I wondered where she had come from and where she headed?

Another sign told me that Chokandai Parking Area was only 300 meters further along. There, I could use the toilets, and look at the beautiful scenery, so the sign inferred. The parking area was indeed located on a beautiful point overlooking the sea. “A prime location too good just to park cars at,” I thought as I turned off the road and made my way for the toilets. Unfortunately, a clear view was not possible because of a mist that had built up some ways out over the water. There seemed no shortage of signs along the way, which in some ways was good, I felt. One sign told me that Nanatsutaki Falls was just two kilometers from where I stood. Another sign reminded me that with every step I was getting nearer to Lake Jusanko, now twenty-two kilometers further on. Another female cyclist passed. Perhaps she and the cyclist who passed me earlier belonged to a female cycling club.(A photo of Lake Jusanko by M. Hiraga)

At last I came to Nanatsutaki, which meant Seven Water Falls in English. There were 517 waterfalls in Japan that had names. Perhaps most of them were located in remote mountainous areas. With a growing interest in hiking groups and tourism in recent times, the number of visitors to the waterfalls had increased. However came with at a price, as the increased number of visitors had placed significant pressure on the surrounding environment. It was at the waterfalls that I decided to sit down and boil some water for a cup of tea and to get a bit of my washing done, for it was a hot day and I knew that my clothes would soon be dry. A little later as the water was about to boil and the clothes were spread out on the hot ground to dry, two coaches filled to the brim with tourists stopped momentarily for the tourists to get a look at the waterfall through the windows. From where I set, the cool breeze that came off the gushing waterfall felt more than pleasant upon my naked chest and shoulders. There was no better way to experience nature than to feel it gently touching you. That said, the passengers on the coaches appeared more interested in looking at me and at my T-shirts, underwear and soaks, all spread out before them, than on the beautiful waterfall. The two coaches did not stop for long, and soon they were gone. It was so hot that everything was dry by the time I was ready to hit the road once more. The day could not have been better and it felt good after the rest.

For while I thought about the tourists on the coaches and wondered how they felt. Perhaps if I was not there some of them might have got down from the coach to get a better look of the waterfall and perhaps taken some photos. Then again, that segment of the road was too dangerous for large vehicles to stop for any length of time. I thought about the roads I had tramped along all the way down the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) coastline and the distance I had covered until now. It was a good feeling to have done it, and it was good, too, that I did not feel so depressed like before. But there was no getting away from it, I had lost lots of stuff along the way. That was why if anyone told me that walking was a cheap way of traveling I would laugh in his or her face. Baring odd exception, nothing came for free, not even the air we breathed or the water we drank.

I had lost so many things in my life that I never even had the time to work out what value or worth the stuff meant to me. If only I could even recover all the stuff I had lost on the roads since leaving Cape Soya. “Mmm!” That was impossible, besides, the damage was done. They were gone forever. Losing stuff had become second nature! Being tired was no excuse either! I had been careless, to put it simply, with a lack of discipline into the bargain. On a positive note, these were things that I could work on improving., especially with the loss of the notebook to add to everything else. I was expecting a phone call from a friend in Tokyo who was to give me some travel information, and I pondered the reason why I did not received it. It must have been after two kilometers of brisk walking when I suddenly realized that I had left the pocket phone behind by the river where I stopped at to fill my water bottle. “Fuck it!” I said as I dropped my backpack down by a tree and headed back in the direction I had just come to look for the phone. “Fuck it!” I swore again. For losing the phone that had been leant to me by the friend whom I was expecting the call from was almost as bad as losing my notebook.

Along Route 339 I passed a number of bus stop huts that were boarded up. Perhaps this was one of the many signs that I had seen that the times were changing. In Hokkaido just about every tiny out of the way town that I tramped through had at least one vending machine in place, but little else worth stopping for. Up ahead a road sign told me that Kodomari rest area was two kilometers away. As expected, there was the usual parking lot, a public phone box, and toilets with handicapped facilities. What interested me most of all, there was a restaurant. Another road sign pointed in the direction of Orikoshimai and Lake Jusan, where I was headed under the hot clear sky. The sun was literally cooking me dry! The last of my water bottles was nearly empty, but it did not bother me any as I did not have much further to go I felt where drinking water could be had. A welcoming breeze made its presence felt as I passed under the arches of an overpass. Such was the chill from the breeze that I was tempted to pause to let it dance over my body a while longer, but decided to push on instead. Soon I was standing at Kodomari rest area, but unfortunately for me, the restaurant was closed. Away to my right a dead rabbit lay rotting by the roadside, which in someway told me that it was going to be one of those days. Another road sign pointed left for Kodomari Dam, one kilometers away, not that it meant anything to me. A police car slowly passed by, its lights flashing like mad. It was the same with the police cars that passed me up in Hokkaido, all lights and no sound.

Another road sign told me that Goshogawara was forty-eight kilometers away, Lake Junsanko thirteen kilometers, with Cape Gonzenzuki nine kilometers. When I reached the town of Kodomari I fixed my eyes on yet another sign, which pointed towards a monument of Tsugaru, where Matsuo Kinsaku (Basho) the most famous poet of the Edo period (1603-1868), was said to have composed some of his haiku when he traveled through the area. A bell announced that it was five o’clock. Soon I spotted a restaurant, and I wondered if it would be open for business. It was! The ramen (noodles) restaurant in Aomori did not seem to have the wide range of dishes on offer similar restaurants did in Hokkaido. Still, it was no good to complain, for progress on the roads had been good. Getting something to eat before finding a place to make camp could only be good. I ordered a beer, not one of my favorite brands, but it did the trick regardless. The television sitting on a shelf by the wall was on, but the volume was so low I could not hear it. Moments later an elderly women and a young child entered the restaurant. They sat down on some cushions beside a low table over some tatami mats. The waitress went to their table first to take the order, even though I arrived before them. Not long afterwards my order, too, was taken. The feeling that the Aomori people were not as kind and generous as people were up in Hokkaido.

I pulled my notebook out off my bag, placed it on the table before me and opened it. Until a few days ago, it was usually easier to find my notebooks than my pencils. At last I found one and began to add continue where I left off last time, but I had not written much when I looked up to see the waitress return carrying a tray of food, but it was not for me. “Perhaps the katsu curry dish I ordered took longer to prepare”, I thought to myself. It was not easy to concentrate, for my food intake today had been small and the hunger pings gripped me hard. Just as I tried to get back into my notes the waitress returned again, this time carrying what looked like my order. It was! Further entries into my notebook would just have to wait, and pushed it to the side to make room on the table for the katsu curry. For a while I had harbored the feeling that the food I had eaten recently was like the people I passed on the road, uninviting. Up until now I had eaten my frugal breakfasts and lunches, and had longed hoped for something more homemade. In this case, however, the food before me turned out to be the best katsu curry dish that I had ever eaten in my life. It was absolutely mouth watering, and which was a nice way to round of my long hard day on the road.

Not long after leaving the restaurant I came to a T-junction on the road. The arrow pointing to the right led to Shitamai and Cape Gongenzaki. The arrow pointing left, which was the way decided to head, went to Goshogawaru, past Lake Jusanko and Osamu Dazai Memorial Hall or “Shayokan”. It was a magnificent, semi-western style house built by Dazai’s father in 1907 during the Meiji period. The house had since been designated as an important national cultural property. Now it was home for much of what once belonged to Dazai, such as, his handwritten manuscripts and private letters, and writing utensils, as well as a favorite cloak he often wore. The memorial hall also gives visitors in rare insight into Dazai’s youthful years.
Dazai Osamu was born on the nineteenth of June, 1909, two years after the house was built, and left this world on the thirteenth June, 1948. He was a Japanese author considered one of the foremost fiction writers in the country during the twentieth-century. Dazai Osamu was also noted for possessing an ironic and gloomy wit, with an obsession towards suicide. There still remained a question mark over his short life as to whether Dazai Osamu killed himself or was murdered. The rumors of the time were that he was murdered by Tomie Yamazaki who then took her own life after disposing of his body in a nearby canal. It may have been that Dazai took his on life since there was no proof whatsoever to back up any of the rumors.What interested me was that his family had disowned him and, which led him to live a life of poverty almost overnight. It was a life on the streets where he was reduced to begging to stay alive from one day to the next. If that was not enough, Dazai Osamu was hit with a serious illness. It was only through the compassion of others was he able to pull himself up by the boot strings. “Though battling an illness that each and every night left my robe literally drenched with sweat, I had no choice but to press ahead with my work. The cold half pint of milk I drank each morning was the only thing that gave me a certain peculiar sense of the joy in life;” (Seascape with Figures in Gold (1939), Osamu Dazai).

The sun began to set fast as I continued to tramp along, in an attempt to get in a few more kilometers before calling it a day, so I quickened my pace. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had seen in quite a while, and right in Aomori, too, a place where I would be glad to see the back of. The redness from the sun reflected off a road sign that I stopped for a moment to look at for fear of missing something. “Hirosaki 70 KM, Goshogawara 44 KM, Lake Jusanko 9 KM”. Much further on another road sign informed me that Lake Juniko was seventy-eight kilometers away, and that Bense Marsh was only one kilometer further along in the direction I was headed. The Tsugaru Peninsula included the wetlands of Jusanko and Juniko lakes and marshes, all of which were part of the Tsugaru Quasi-national Park, a protected landscape managed by the local prefectural government. I paused for a moment to look at my road maps to see what other roads went where. It did not take me long to reach the marshland where I continued along a road that ran through a pinewood forest. Pine trees remained green throughout the year and were said to symbolize youth and longevity. From and artistic perspective pine tree branches were popularly used for bonsai and as decorative plants in Japanese gardens throughout the country. Almost two-thirds of Japan was covered by forest of different deciduous and evergreen species of trees. One of my favorite places was the Meiji Jingu Koen (Park), an oasis to escape to from the hectic concrete megalopolis of Tokyo life. In the park there were lush woods of broadleaf evergreen trees of oak, camphor, and chinquapin. The years had made the Meiji Jingu Koen appear ever so

Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 15, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

8 August, 2009: Across from where I camped stood a rest house called ‘Minshuku Tanaka’. Last night I ventured over to see if food and beer of some kind could be served to a lonesome tramp like myself. Unfortunately for me, service was reserved only for guests. They saw no reason, however, why I should not be able to have a large bottle of nice cool Asahi beer at a fair price, ¥400 yen. So thristy was I that the beer was finished in less then ten minutes. After that I set by my tent taking in the calm evening scenery around me. But it was not long before I made a return visit to the minshuku, for the very same purpose. After a short, but friendly chat with the proprietor of the place who was busy preparing the evening meal for the guests, I retraced my steps back over to where my tent stood alone by the waterfront. Just as I reached my tent with the opened bottle in hand, it dawned on me that the second bottle of beer had not been paid for. Perhaps the proprietor had been caught up in my little stories on my tramp down along the hard roads that the he had totally forgot to ask me for the money. Or so I wanted to believe. Regardless, the situation needed to be corrected at once, so I pushed the opened bottle of beer deep into the sand so that the breeze coming in from the sea would not blow it over. It had happened before, and I did not want to be the one this time around to be out of pocket. For luck was not often on my side, especially as far as the elements were concerned.

The sand was warm and I knew that the timing could not have come at a worse time. I was tired, it had been a long day, and now i longed this time to enjoy the cool beer, not to hurry it like the first beer. It had been a long time since I last had a warm beer. When I was a child growing up in Belfast the beers sold in my father’s pubs were right off the shelf at room temperature, not the cold shelf. Today, people had this thing about cool drinks. Long before the 1970s, and the Beatles, the public house cliental preferred their bottled beers that way. The only cool beer was served on draft. Perhaps a few pubs, if I was not mistaken, had a single ice shelf with no great variety of bottled beers on it. The cold temperature killed the taste! Then again, times had changed! The way I felt now was that even a nice cool bottle of beer was what I wanted. Of course, I still believed that not all drinks were best served cool, like real ale or Guinness, for the accentuated full body and rich tastes.

The front doors were not shut fast and I could hear people in the kitchen hard at work. Through one of the kitchen windows I could makeout two figures moving about, whom I took to be the proprietor and his wife, who turned out to be a very attractive woman. As far as I could tell, from the food being prepared, there was only one guest stopping at the place that evening. And it looked like they had just prepared the last of the evening dishes for whoever it was stopping there. They now sat down at the kitchen table to have their own dinner, when the sound of my tapping at the window momentarily started them both. “I forgot to pay for the beer!” I called out to them through a mosquito screen that covered the open window. I could hear a burst of laughter from the wife within. I was unsure if it was my unexpected visit, or the boyish look on the man’s face that she was laughing at.

Realizing it was none other than the lone camper, the man stood up from the table and came over to the window and opened the mosquito screen. There was a broad smile on his wife’s beautiful face, as she too got up from the table and went over to the sideboard to get something. “I’m sorry for troubling you, but I forgot to pay for the last bottle of beer” I said, this time in Japanese, as I dropped the four silver coins into his extended hand. “I had forgot all about it,” he said with a broad smile, as he clasped the money in his hand. “Thank you for remembering” he said. “I was sorry, too, to have disturbed you at the table.” The smell of the food did not help my hunger pings any. And with that, I turned away to make my way back over to where my liquid evening meal awaited me. “God! I wish I had not seen them eating” I thought to myself, as my eyes focused on the bottle poking out from the sand.

Not much later that evening, as I sat still enjoying the remains of the second beer and still winding down from my long day on the road and the gauntlet of massive tunnels, the front door of the minshuku opened. It was no other than the wife walking over the parking area towards in my direction. I could see that she was carrying something in her hands. “These are for you”, she said to me in Japanese, as she dropped six tiny tomatoes into my open hands. “Thank you very much!” I said as I placed the welcomed gift into an empty cup on the ground beside me.

“This is not the best of places to camp”, she said looking me in the eyes, whilst pointing straight at some signs that hung from a make shift fence just a meter from my tent stood. It had been said in knowledgeable circles that eye-to-eye contact was a sign of trust and honesty. Of course, such unfounded views have long since been debunked, for politicians, business people and bankers were masters of deception, and they did it with a smile. For my own part I never mastered the art or technique of looking right into a person’s eyes when talking to them. Instead, I tended to look at just about everything else, moving or stationary. The Japanese were not masters of this either, but when one of them looked you right in the eyes, it had to be serious. “There were poisonous snakes there, not to mention falling rocks.” She informed me.
When I made camp a few hours earlier I looked at the signs just to the side, but I never bothered to find out what they said exactly. Perhaps it would have been ovious to a less tired mind, but to me it failed to register. She must have noticed the puzzled expression on my face, and pointed towards the rocks and boulders, which lay scattered about the tarmac where they had come to rest. The tarmac covered pavement ran the length of the small coastal front where I camped. “Many of them had come crashing down a couple of days ago. That’s why this fence is here”, she informed me, “Mainly to keep the children away”. “Oh, I see!” I answeed looking out over the hundreds of rocks the size of human heads. “Thank you again!” The warning reminded me of last night when I had heard some strang rumbling sounds of something heavy falling, and the man who called out to me this morning, which I now believe was something similar to what the woman had just told me. “Danger lurked in every corner along these pasts, especially from above”, I thought to myself, as I left my washing where it was across the fence, and dragged my tent a few meters away to what I hoped to be a safer spot.

At around eight o’clock a loud tune was sounded across the campsite speakers. A few quick steps over towards the giant rock jutting out from the sea seemed as good a place as any to spend my final hour in this beautiful little gem of a spot. From the top of the rock I had a good view of the surrounding area. Down the road where I would soon be tramping a tunnel awaited me. It was not the sort of thing I wanted to set eyes on so early in the morning, and hoped that it was nothing very long. and that it did not mark the beginning of yet another long battle with the massive tunnels. Fortunately, it was only 210 meters long.
The main winding road that ran through Tomori felt as if it was going to go on forever. “Or did I just feel bored?” There was nothing useful in sight, like a convenience store or cafe to call in at to pick siomething up for breakfast. At last I came to a prosperous looking little grocery store that looked as if they could break a ¥10,000 yen bill without any trouble. The little store was well stocked with all kinds of food items, although no one was about the place, staff or customers, whenever I entered. Until my eyes fell upon an elderly sitting slightly at the rear of the store out of sight from the door as you entered. For the last couple of kilometers, my mind was preoccupied with picking up something to eat. “A few light provisions, too, for whenever I stopped on the road to make a cup of tea or coffee later on would not be a bad idea.” I wondered. Here I bought a 170-gram carton of Bulgaria yogurt by the dairy products company, Meiji. It cost ¥100 yen, which did not take me long to dispose of. Also a 500-milliliter soft drink, ‘Guarand’ by Kirin for¥120 yen, helped to quench my thirst. To me, Kirin was better known for its beers, but it was too early in the morning to think about such things. That could wait!

For as long as I could remember, I was unable to resist the urge to buy a bar of chocolate. Nothing was better than tucking into a calorie loaded bar of Morinaga milk chocolate while it was till hard before hitting the long hot road. The label on the chocolate bar proudly showed that the company or the chocolate had been in business since 1918. If that was not enough, I picked up a box of ‘Moonlight’ biscuits, or so it read on the label. The biscuits were also produced by Morinaga, and set me back the pricy sum of 180 yen. If the chocolate and biscuits were not enough to treat myself with on the road, I rounded things of with a packet of sweet bread, ‘Sugar Margarine Raisin’ by Yamesaki at ¥105 yen. In the case of the bread, how was it that prices for the same item could be so different? Just yesterday at a little out of the way shop I bought the exact same brand of bread for ¥126 yen. I guess it all had something to do with that thing called Capitalism, get the most for the least. Regardless, the healty yogurt, and the sugar saturated beverage, sweet bread and chocolate were enough to set me on my way in a positive mind.

The first long tunnel of the day did not take long to present itself. The ???? Tunnel was 1,075 meters long, and took three years to complete it from March 2003 to March 2006. In some little way I was torn between two minds. I found myself becoming more acceptable of the long tunnels for the cool shelter they offered me, especially from the scortching sun. At the same time, I felt guilty about allowing these damp gray monsters to influence me in such a way. The term, ‘No Surrender’ was something I knew very well from growing up in Belfast, and the long hours on the road needed a positive mind.
Near the mouth of the tunnel some tents were erected and I could hear the voices of people before I could see them. As I drew near I could see adults and children alike enjoying the warm inviting tidal waters of the sea. Ha, ha, ha! Splash, splash, splash! How I envied them! There was nothing better than a happy family enjoying their time together. Some workmen were also busy about the road, and, like the people on the beach, they took no notice of me as I slowly past them. Compared to everyone, I felt like a tramp loaded to the hilt with my only possitions strapped to my back. What a sight I would have looked to them, had they noticed me. My clothes were tattered and soaked with sweat, and the dust from the road was everywhere on my face, arms and legs. Then again, on second thoughts I did not envy them, my mission was work enough, and honourable work at that. There was nothing to be a shamed of, I was really living my live and there were some people out there who enved me for it.

I little further along I stopped to jot down some information and dates into my notebook. And before continuing along the road proper, I took some photos of the sights about me, with the pocket phone camera a friend in Tokyo lent to me. The phone was a lifesaver! Not for any need to use it to call somewhere in the case of an emergency, more for the camera function. After about ten minutes I got to my feet, and with my stuff safely stored away, and the backpack firmly strapped in place it was time to head off again. Just then as I was about to set one foot in front of the other to head off, I noticed that the workmen had put down their tools and sat down. “Were the lazy buggers about to have a tea break?” Or so I jokingly mumbled to myself with a smile in their direction. Just as I was about to enter the cool shade of a long tunnel, I could not help but notice them all looking back at me. The Japanese had that great ability of making you feel uncomfortable, like I was guilty of some crime, or about to perform some unforgivable act. Or was I just feeling paranoyed with being out under the sun too long? “A penny for their thoughts!” I wondered, trying to redirect me mind on the road ahead. In seconds, I was swallowed up into the long gray dungeon and out of sight, and soon I was once more lost in my own arrangement usleess of thoughts.

“Mmm!” Some tunnels were cleaner than others, I thought. Here and there, however, I could see the usual bits and pieces of discarded junk about the sides of the tunnel. There were many empty cigarette cartons, soft drink cans, and bits of paper with god knows what printed on them. One thing I noticed about most of the discarded rubbish about the roads at large I tramped along, was just how undamaged it all appeared. The discarded cans were clean and free of dents. The cigarette packets appeared fresh and crisp as though they had just been purchased, or tossed there only minutes earlier. One thing I remembered from the classic films I liked to watch at my apartment in Tokyo in the evenings, with a glass or two of red wine of course, was the way the characters in them would role up their empty fag packets in the palms of their hands before tossing them away. In the good old days, smoking a cigarette or tossing things away was deemed a manly thing to do, or that was how it came across to me from my Saturday morning trips to the Broadway Cinema as a child growing up in Belfast. Well, at least until I once watched ‘Blazing Saddles’ staring Lee Marvin, when the cowboys around the campfire expressed their manliness by eating beans and farting afterwards. One useful little discarded item, which caught my eye as I neared the exit of the tunnel was a little cloth pouch. It was not often you found something useful on the roads, however this little cloth pouch looked in mint condition and could be fastened to a belt, my belt. It had a set of blue, gray, and yellow lines horizontally arranged along the bottom. Any number of things could be put into it, so I knew then and there that it was worth keeping, until I thought about how to use it.

At eleven-thirty I stopped in at a roadside restaurant called ‘Umirari Menu’. I was surprised to see so many customers, as it was still short of lunchtime by a good thirty minutes. All the best window seats were occupied. Usually whenever I did stop by at a restaurant, I preferred to sit next to a window, for the natural light it gave me a chance to write or read. Being indoors at any place in recent years, the old eyes were not what they once were. Even with the aid of my reading glasses, there was nothing like the natural light coming in through a window for the difference to be noticed.

Some heavy wooden stools lined the counter, and the only unoccupied table and chairs waited in a windowless corner for some willing butts to polish them. “What the fuck!” I was hungry. I dropped the backpack by the table in the corner, and set down. Perhaps it was not so bad after all, for the privacy it offered, which was often an impossible task to achieve in Japan. After a quick glance over the menu I decided on a bowl of noodles, or shio ramen to use the proper name. Needless to say, this was accompanied by a badly needed glass of cool beer, in this case, Asahi “Dry” as if I was not dry enough.Previous experience had taught me that it was better to eat whenever possible, even when the hunger pings were not there. Tramping the long hard roads for hours on end on an empty stomach in the hope of finding a place to eat at open, more often than not meant going to sleep on a hungry stomach. For the most part, too, tramping from one town to the next, through tunnel after tunnel and over bridge after bridge with a positive mindset, was just as important as the food and water.

The shio ramen that I ordered turned out to be quite different to the shio ramen that I sometimes had back in Tokyo. Even thought I was quite hungry, the Uminnara Menu’s version of this noodle dish was so fish-based that I could hardly enjoy it. Much of my time at the table was spent picking through all kinds of fish, to be deposited on a tiny tray on which the bowl of noodles rested. My battle with the bowl of shio ramen had caught the attention of a young girl sitting at a neighboring table. One thing that I found agreeable about the restaurant, baring the beer, was the choice of background music. The music was the soundtrack from a number of classic American westerns, like, ‘Shane’ that stared Allan Ladd. This was followed by the soundtrack from, ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’. Perhaps if it had not been for my preoccupation with removing the fish from the bowl of noodles, I might even have stopped a bit longer and ordered another beer.

Lager for many people was a good summertime drink, but in wintertime I would not even look at it. The writer Mark Twain wrote about a conversation he once had with an Irishman: “The don’t drink it, sit. Give an Irishman lager for a month, and he’s a dead man.” God forbid, I was well into my sixth week on the roads already, and a good few sips of that piss colored had passed my lips. The Japanese public taste had long centered on a lighter style of lager. If you wanted traditional ales, stout, or porter then you were wasting your time in Japan. Writing on American beer, Gregg Smith wrote that it was so light, that a person could almost drink enough to swim in. This could very much apply to the stuff sold here in the land of the Rising Sun. Give me a Guinness or an ale any day!

The coastline remained breathtakingly beautiful along the road. Even the cluster of tents here and there on the sandy beach, blended in nicely with the surroundings. The Colman company would have been happy to learn that most of the tents I passed were produced by them. Some campers enjoyed themselves splashing about in the surf. A couple of salutary figures set on the rocky coastline and looked out across the water. “What secrets were they thinking about?” I wondered. For me, there was no need to stop, but to continue on. There was a lot of road to get behind me before I could sit down and go over my own thoughts.

My body had not gone very far from the restaurant when a four-wheel drive truck slowed down and stopped a little in front of me. As I drew up to the door of the car, the smiling face of its driver motioned with his hand for me to hop in. Just like the man had done with the movement of his hand for me to get in, I declined, indicating with my moving fingers that I preferred to walk. Just as he had stopped, the man waved, and with a bump of the horn, the truck was gone. Such was the power of the body language, it did not surprise me any that not a single spoken word left our lips. Not long after the truck drove away, a Seicomart convenience store came into view, but I decided not to stop. Besides, there was not a single shade about the place, under which I might sit and enjoy a nice cool can of Sapporo beer. As I passed the store, a lone motorcyclist set on a walkway next to his Ducati motorbike that was loaded up with camping gear. Unlike my usual self, I felt in no mood for idle chat, for the time seemed so much against me.
Soon another little tunnel showed its face, but there was little to complain about for it was just 105.5 meters long. Away to the right of the tunnel I could see a shrine of some considerable size, but did not bother to stop to investigate. It was the same with the Catholic churches, I hardly noticed them anymore when I passed by. Those youthful days of making the sign of the cross whenever I passed one were long gone. Now I saw religion as one of those things for those who felt they needed a spiritual walking stick. A little beyond the shrine was a kind of enclosed swimming pool, which was the sort of thing I needed most of the time. The pool was fed by water from the sea. Though I somehow thought it was a questionably convenient place to have a pool, right next to the inviting sea. Perhaps it had some worth to the local community, perhaps to teach children how to swim or dive in sea water. It was not quite like the enclosed pool I had passed some ways back, which was used for diving practice and for teaching children how to swim in the sea.
Even after tramping through the tiny tunnel, something told me that it was only a matter of time when one of those monster tunnel jobs would show its ugly face. This came in the form of the Horikappu Tunnel, which ran for 1,453 meters. And a boring tramp no doubt had my mind not been preoccupied with other things. While tramping through the Horikappu Tunnel I could not help but think about two other tunnels I passed by earlier, but was unable to use them. On was a really ancient job of yesteryear that had been drilled through solid rock. Parts of an old and customary bridge that preceded most tunnels I passed through lay decaying beside the old tunnel. The other tunnel was for some reason under guard, and when I stopped to take a photo, I was told not to do so, but to move on. As with the shrine, I could not bother my arse to find out what it was all about. “Fuck it! I had better things to do like kicking up dust.” I mumbled to myself wondering how far I should go until it was time to make camp somewhere.

Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 14, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

7 August, 2009: It was around seven-fifteen when I finally hit the road. The light from the sun increased with the passing minutes. A little ways off I could see more clearly with each step that the mountains were now dark with foliage. With in an hour my war with the tunnels was on again. The first tunnel of the day ran for 765 meters, which for me was too long for so early in the morning. But there it was and that was that. The tunnel was nowhere nearly as long as the monster job I practically ran though last night to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Just as I was about to enter the tunnel my eyes feel on a middle-aged woman sitting down by the quay. “Perhaps waiting for her husband’s fishing boat to return.” I mumbled as I tried to get my mind away from the walk through the tunnel. “Did waiting patiently like that harden these local women in someway?” I wondered. Then again, perhaps they woman wound not need to wait so long. She could easily contact one another with their pocket phones to talk over his arrival times, or whatever. I stopped momentarily to observe a glittering pin far out on the sea, and to jot down a few notes before I started on the tunnel. A fishing boat, no doubt, was rapidly approaching the shoreline, but it was still a good ways off from where the woman sat. Soon she would help her husband pull his little fishing boat up onto the beach. “What would their first words be to one another?” I wondered again, as I turned to make my way along the road. Whatever was said, I suspected they would talk about the nights catch and the calm sea, and perhaps what was for dinner tonight. As I put away my notebook, I could now make out the shape of the outboard engine on the boat, very soon they would be together. “A lucky man!” I mumbled to myself as I turned to face the cold gray tunnel that waited on me. “It was nice to have someone wait on you!”

‘It’s by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them’ (Ernest Hemingway). Like with tiny speck of the fishing boat far out on the sea, only this time on the road far in the distance I could see something moving, but I was not quite sure what it was. After a short while I could see it was a cyclist fast approaching, and I could also see that the bike was well loaded up with camping gear. It was around the middle of the tunnel when our paths met. Tunnels were not the best of places to converse with anyone in, in any language, or at any time. There were the usual sort of greetings, and questions on where each of us coming from going to, and so forth. However, I think we both understood that the location did little justice, to either of us, and with the best of wishes to one another, we started off once more in our respected directions.

A little before entering the tunnel that I had just tramped out off, another sign told me that the village was some twenty kilometers away. As I stood for a while looking at the scenery about me, I could make out two more tunnels up ahead of me. I suspected one of them to be a massively long job, which also kind of told me that it was not going to be a good day. A road sign facing in the opposite direction informed me that I had left the village of Shakotan, famous for its sea urchin fishery, some thirty kilometers back, and which offered me some little sense of accomplishment. “Perhaps it wasn’t going to be such a bad day after,” I hope as I made my way along the road, while also keeping my eyes open for speeding traffic. Soon another long uninteresting tunnel to deal with appeared. Daitenyu Tunnel, which opened in March of 1996, was just over 635 meters of sheer boredom. It was difficult to think of anything good to say about the massive tunnels, though it could have been worse. As was often the case, a bridge preceded the tunnel. The Daitenguhashi Bridge opened was opened about a year earlier than the tunnel in December in Heisei 7 (1995). The couple of hundred meters of openness and beauty that lay between the two tunnels where the bridge spanned was to me similar of a sugar cube given to a horse for performing a trick well. In less time than it would take for a sugar cube to dissolve in warm water, the beautiful scenery was gone as a neared the second tunnel.

It was here at the mouth of the Sainokawara Tunnel that I took a last look back at the little heaven I was about to leave. The Sainokawara Tunnel was opened in March of 1996 and ran for 1,834 meters. The tiny bridge of the same name preceded the tunnel. The bridge was opened in the same month and year as the Daitenguhashi Bridge, in 1995. Whenever I was within about 300 meters from exiting the Sainokawara Tunnel the bright view of the sea hit me square no. If I did not know any better, I would have sworn that the tunnel led right on into the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). For a moment, too, some crazy thought entered my head as if the tunnel was trying to tell me something, as if it had been reading my mind: “Alright! I’ve had enough of you, too. So this is where you are getting out. Now fucking swim.” Just then my wondering thoughts were broken by the appearance of a cyclist heading towards me in the opposite direction. I quickened my pace to reach the tunnel’s mouth at the same time as the cyclist, for I did not want for us to have to exchange words in the tunnel like before. As luck had it, out timing could not have been better as we reached the mouth of the tunnel together.
Unlike myself and certainly unlike how I felt, the cyclist was not what I would have called a young man, but somewhere on the tail end of his days. The sweat poured from his face and his arms were exposed under the blistering sun, which had made a guest appearance this last hour. “Where were you headed?” he asked me, together with a host of the usual questions. And like other occasions when I stopped to chat with a fellow traveller, the usual formalities were exchanged and snapshots posed for. “Be careful of the oncoming traffic,” I told him with a smile. “The were some crazy drivers about.” None of my fellow travelers wanted to stop and talk for very long, myself included, for we all had some hidden schedule important to no one but ourselves to stick to. I watched the fellow until he had cycled out of sight in the direction from whence I had come. I knew the roads ahead of him that he had to face, and he knew the roads that I was tramping towards, too. We were both wise men of the roads that had learnt on the job so to speak! “Would he really make it to Soya Misaki?” I wondered. “Of course, he will.” I concluded as I turned and continued my way along the long hard road ahead of me as the sun continued to beat down.

For a while I thought about the two cyclists I had seen today. Both of the little encounters had been only a short distance and time apart, but I felt both cyclists were unaware of one another heading in the same direction. “Mmm!” It was a shame I thought to myself. Traveling together might have made their time on the roads more memorable if not in meaning. Both of them were around the same age, or more past that ambiguous term ‘middle-aged’, than not. Just where the first of the two had come from, I had not asked, or perhaps because I forgot to ask. After all, it was in the middle of the Sainokawara Tunnel when we stopped to chat for a short while. The second was from Sapporo, and like he said, he was making the rounds of this beautiful island like most of the people I met. At that moment it dawned on me, too, that he was riding a female touring bike. Then again, perhaps it was less strange that the old mamachari (old wife’s bicycle) that Michiko M had been riding when she called out to me near Okimi Bridge quite a number of kilometers back

Not wishing to dispense with such useless thoughts as I enjoyed thinking about the people I met here and there along my way, the need to sit down and rest for a while proved more pressing than anything just now. I threw off my backpack at the entrance of the Madoiwa Bridge where I would soon enter. As my little pot of water was set to boil on the tiny burner, and with some tissues in hand, I ducked into some bushes nearby to lose weight of a more personal nature. In a little while I was sitting down by the bridge that preceded the Madoiwa Tunnel to enjoy a nice cup of freshly boiled tea. Across the bridge the tunnel seemed to stare back at me. It was opened in March of 1992, and ran for 565 meters, or just about the length of a tunnel that I could tolerate without much sweat, or stress. Anchored far out at sea a strange looking ship set. Giant cranes about its deck towered up towards the heavens. Not that I could say for sure, but to me it resembled a small oil platform. Japan was not an oil producing country, so I kind of doubted the exact nature of the vessel. Just as I emerged out from another tunnel, a road sign told me roughly my location, and where I was headed. “Thirty-eight kilometers! That would make Wanai more than a days tramp away.” I mumbled to myself as I went over my maps trying to see the distance on paper. The road sign also told me that Central Komoenai was four kilometers further on. Once again I wondered about the word ‘Central’. “That’s so annoying!” It seemed so strange to me for the word to be used whenever there was still so far to go, and it was not the first time that I saw this word before the name of the village today.

Not so long away from the tunnel and across a bridge lay the tiny sleeping town of Kawashira. The only things noticeable were the workmen drilling into the tarmac on the road leading into the town. Some meters beyond the workmen were a group of children being taught having snorkeling lessons in a little enclosure concreted off from the open sea. As I stopped to look at the children having fun with their lessons alone motorcyclist rode past in the opposite direction. Perhaps he too was on his way to catch a ferry back to the island of Honshu. How I missed my own wheels, a large American motorbike stored away in a cold damp garage in Tokyo awaiting my return. To my surprise, the motorcyclist turns around and rides over to where I was standing. It was none other than Kimiko from Osaka who spoke to me for a short while yesterday. She was on her way back to Otaru where she hoped to pick up the ferry that would take her and her motorbike back to Osaka. Kumiko’s trip was at an end, and then I guess it was back to work and the grind and toil of city life for her once more.

“Have you eaten?” Kumiko asked me in Japanese, with a beautiful smile to greet me. I replied that I was keeping an eye open for a place where I might buy something at for that very purpose. It was not easy to see myself, or whether being on the road so long made me look as though I was undernourished. A tramp at heart, I was in many respects homeless into the bargain. In fact, baring my motorbike and a couple of bicycles in Tokyo, I never owned anything solid, like, land or property. My life in Japan involved paying the rent and the bills, and all the other costs of living. “Do you have any money?” She asked me, and to which I answered in the affirmative, with a hint of embarrassment at the unexpected question. Of course, I thanked her very mush for her concern, while at the same feeling my face was beginning to heat up. I hoped that she did not notice my face reddening. “Are you sure?” She said, looking me right in the eyes.

Clearly, Kumiko was one of the most persistent of strangers whom I had ever met. Once again I answered that all was well as could be, whilst not quite knowing how to react to such unexpected interest in myself or in my financial matters. In short, she struck me as one of those really caring from the heart kind of people, or the type of person that could wait a whole lifetime to meet. I wondered if our path would ever cross again, as this was our second little encounter in as many days. But somehow I knew that this was the final one, and goodbye really meant goodbye more often than not anyway.  I was worried about the long tunnel just up ahead, for I was in no mood to face another one just now. But there it was! God forbid, the Kawashin Tunnel was no less than 2,106 meters long, or more than two kilometers of concrete boredom. The tunnel took exactly three years to construct, from February 2000 to February 2003. It was preceded by the tiny Kawashira Bridge, opened in February of 2003 (Heisei 15) in the year of the Sheep. The endless gauntlet of long tunnels was really getting me down that I was beginning to feel like a sheep, like kind of wanting to just give up and go home.

If one massive tunnel was not enough, the jaws of Make Tunnel now awaited me, and then there would be others to deal with after that. This was how it was, get through them and shut up! Each time I emerged from one tunnel and into the tiny heavens that lay between them, the beauty made the effort worthwhile, if only for a moment. Often it was far from easy to describe vividly the magnificent-cum awe-inspiring scenery that lay before me. This as also one of the reasons why I mostly hated even the sight of the monster tunnels as the stole much of this beauty form me. Then just as the beautiful scenery had been taken in, soon the next tunnel would appear. The sun always felt hotter in the area between the tunnels. Perhaps because of the increasing heat beating down on my shoulders did the cool of the waiting Kinaushi Tunnel appeared. It was as if its 1,008 meters of cool dark air was calling me into it. “Come on my friend, I am here to serve you.” As for those monster tunnels, I found myself loathing them even less. If it was not for the continuous rain, it was from the heat that I sought shelter in them for a short while. Most of the tunnels that I had to deal with went from around 1,000 meters in length to more than 2,500 meters (Omori Tunnel). In many cases by the mouth of the monster tunnels a long pipe ran the length of the roof, and where birds made their nests.

The short tunnels, or how I felt tunnels should look, were often few and far between. Just how many of these quaint little jobs I passed on the roads, the kind that blended in nicely with the surroundings, I had no idea. With all of this building going on, it was easy to imagine the days of these little tunnels were numbered. I had given up counting the massive tunnels, too, that appeared before me again and again. And which bored like a cancerous artery deep inside the earth’s belly. Even the somewhat more recently opened tunnels of moderate length, like, no more than 750 meters long, were far from quaint to the eye. This was all part of progress and development of course. In other words, it was the kind of progress and development that abandoned one quaint little tunnel after another in favor of a collection of massive jobs. It was also the kind of progress and development that cheated tourists at large (and trampers like myself), from much of what attracted people to this northern most island in the first place: the wildlife, the scenic beauty, and so much more to be enjoyed.
Trying to view the massive tunnels, and bridges, from a nonpartisan standpoint was not easy to do for this Luddite of the roads, as I proudly considered myself. Therefore, I was no proponent of anything massive, and the existence or need for such god all mighty structures did not sit well with me. Not that it mattered much in any shape or form to anybody. Then again, I knew that there were those in the know, like, the designers, contractors, builders, and the construction industry at large that would hail the completion of them as lifetime achievements, real feathers in their caps. Even for the notable dons, like, the prefectural government officers and ministers of state who gave the go ahead to begin construction, not to mention those who oversaw compilation of the monster tunnels and bridges, and whose names were there to be seen on the metal plates by the mouths of most, if not all, all came to open them, proudly attended the openings of these eyesores with much pomp and ceremony.

Certainly, the money, the length, the depth and the effort that went into them warranted some ceremony of deep reference to these dark, necessary evils of our times. In broad terms, progress was the true symbol of Japan, in a social climate that saw little or no storms of controversy. As far as I could make out, the only thing that could be felt were winds that swirled about the mouths of these massive jobs. And the only things about them that interested me were the hundreds of dead moths and butterflies that lay by the sides of the mouths as I entered. In fact if it had not been for the hundreds of years between us, I would have sworn that the great poet Matsuo Basho had been looking over my shoulder. “There was such a pile of dead bees, butterflies, and other insects, that the real color of the ground was hardly discernible.” (Matsuo Basho/Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa). Japan did not need to prove anything to the West anymore like it once felt it had to in the yesteryears of the Meiji Restoration. Then Ito Hirobumi, and other influential oligarchs who rubbed shoulders with one another in those days, drafted the country’s constitution that leant towards “Civilization and Enlightenment”. Even with the bursting of the Economic Bubble many years later, the leaders of Japan continued to travel along the gray and cloudy roads of progress in the belief that they had the popular support of the people behind them.

In the last decade in my own country, Ireland, progress and development had proceeded at a faster pace than anything Japan had ever experienced in recent history. Such was the country’s economic growth that Ireland was even referred to as the ‘European Tiger’; or at least for a while, until the bubble burst wide open in 2010 with dismal consequences affecting all walks of life, especially in the building industry. This brought the European tiger pretty much to its knees, if not ‘skinned’ for want of a better word. The demise of the Irish economy saw the guts and brains of the country, and the disgruntled unhappy youth, spilling out to other countries far and wide in search of work and a better future. Pressure from the main European powers, such as Germany and England, to borrow huge sums of money to improve the country’s economic conditions, had really sent out a resounding warning to other weak European countries, like Greece and Spain, all united under one currency, the Euro. Some political leaders in Europe voiced a stinging criticism at the Irish government for dragging its feet. As far as the European Union was concerned, there was only one topic open to debate, if at all that. A decision had to be taken to pump billions of Euros into the Irish economy to confront, not just Ireland’s contemporary needs, but the European Communities economic worries concerning other member countries, too. It was like the fears of the mad cow disease all over again, how to stop its spread?

Astoundingly, some intellectuals had voiced the opinion that the Republic of Ireland had kissed decades of its hard fought for freedoms and popular rights away almost overnight. Like Japan, Ireland was clearly in a pickle. With this new Irish problem unfolding before the eyes of the world, it was felt that other more stringent austerity measures in the shape of ‘big cuts’ and ‘higher taxes’ were required. I felt as if security, freedom, justice, and happiness had to be placed on the shelf for the time being. This was done in the name of ‘survival’, of course, as the different political oligarchs in Europe termed it. In turn, tens of thousands of Irish people demonstrated against the injustices placed on them, whilst the big knob bankers and business leaders who many argued caused the problems in the first place, and now appeared to be getting off scot-free. In the climate of no clear leadership or ideas, the European tiger went all the way from development, progress and economic growth to a nation in crisis almost over night.
Perhaps I should step down from my green, white, and orange soapbox for a while and return to this thing called ‘progress’, in Hokkaido. Forgotten for so many years, Hokkaido was the most recent of the main Japanese islands to be developed. Excluding the Seikan Tunnel, which was opened in March of 1988 to link Hokkaido and Honshu, a traveler on the roads like myself had to question the need for those massive and costly tunnels and bridges, all in the name of progress and development. Could not have the taxpayers’ money have been spent better spent? Like I said earlier, tramping through these ungodly lengthy tunnels had only served to hide so much of the scenic landscape from the naked eye. As to the people I met along the way, the less friendly they appeared to become the further south I tramped. A good number of them failed to acknowledge my presence whenever I said good morning or hello to them in Japanese. Or even with a little nod or wave in their direction as I passed by. One minshuku or Japanese inn I stopped by at to enquire if they could served food to outsiders like me, and if not, to ask if there was a restaurant or shop close at hand where I might be able to pick something up at. The stern faces and waves of the hands told me that they were quite uninterested in helping me. “No water!” came the blunt reply from someone, as I lifted one of my water bottles to indicate that it was low.

Japan was a very conservative country if ever there was one, and it had its share of a few hard-boiled eggs (extreme right wingers) like anywhere else in the world. You never really quite knew if they were being racist to you or not, like you would in the West. In the West you knew it when you met a racist, for they would tell you right to your face for fuck off with a few less appropriate words added for good measure. “Why don’t you fuck off back from where you came from?” After leaving the shade of the minshuku entrance where the cool air from an air-conditioner could be felt, it was back out in the heat from the sun that beat down on me with a vengeance as if trying to tell me something. “So you tried to escape me did you?” I could also feel the presence of unfriendly eyes follow me up onto the road, but I did not care. “Let them look!” After all, I felt free. “Mmm!” Hungry and thirsty, too! My water supply was now just about nonexistent, which not took up most of my thoughts.

Fortunately for me, I soon came upon a freshwater waterfall with one long thin metal pipe sticking out from the side of the rocks. Below the old rusty pipe, a plastic bucket overflowing with the cool icy water set invitingly on the ground. “There must be a god hiding somewhere. A god of water, no doubt.” A weather beaten sign hung beside the bucket, but what it meant I had not the foggiest idea. I knew that the Japanese farmers used pesticides on their fields, but a did not recall passing any farms or rice fields recently. “Fuck it! It looked alright!” I told myself as I knelt down to scope up some of the liquid gold into my mouth. “Mmm! Nice!” Perhaps the sign said something, like, the water was clean and drinkable, and to please keep it that way. After quenching my thirst, and cooling my face and head at the waterfall, my bottles were soon filled. It was not the first waterfall that I passed, but it was the first that I could get at to drink from. On the road once more I asked an elderly chap if there was some place nearby where I could get food. At first he looked at me like I had just jumped out from a bush, which told me that he did not notice my approach. Perhaps a foreigner was the last person he expected to encounter. Collecting his composure, he squatted down by the side of a tiny stream, and dipping his right hand into the water to wet it, began to draw a map in the hardened sand. “How far away was it?” seemed as good enough question as any to ask him. “About two hundred and fifty meters” he answered me in Japanese. I thanked the man from my hungry heart, and set off making my way in the direction he had just given me.

The town was called Kamoenai, and the little roadside restaurant on the edge of the town that I stopped at went by the name of ‘Maruman’. It did not take me very long to devour the pork cutlet on top of a bowl of rice (katsudon) I ordered, not to mention empty two jugs of cool Asahi beer into my belly. “Mmm! Oshii desu!” (Delicious!) I said, to the waitress, with a smile in her direction. The waitress turned out to be the proprietress of the establishment. “Were you camping?” she asked me, and then went on to tell me that I had just passed by a campsite, which I had failed to notice. Most of the campsites I passed along my way were so empty, or hidden by trees anyway, or off the road and unmarked, that you had to keep your eyes wide open for little signs of some sore to find them. Also, most of the campsites were not mentioned in any of my maps. As it was, on one of my maps the campsite was called, ‘Kamoenai Youth Travel Village’, and a rough guess told me that it was at least one kilometer back up the road from where I had come a little earlier, if at that. Pride was not part of my baggage, especially on the roads and elements all day long, non-stop, day in and day out. Besides, retracing my steps only to make camp seemed to me to be a bit on the defeated side of things.

It was true that I would have been more comfortable at the campsite with a warm shower, and to wash some clothes and get them dry by tomorrow. Even just rest for the sake of resting before hitting the road again in the morning all seemed tempting. Either way, I decided to push on, for a glance at the old bicycle clock I carried in one of my pockets told me that there was still a good few hours of daylight. “Just gone three! Fuck it! It was too early to even think about calling it a day,” I mumbled to myself, when the lady disappeared to take an order from another customer. On top of that, Kamoenai was a lifeless little place, without even a Seicomart convenience store in which I might be able to pick up an inexpensive bottle of red wine to help ease my tired mind with in the evening when I did make camp. It was gone three-thirty when I finally left Maruman, both body and mind well replenished.

One picturesque little tunnel I came to, its name I failed to jot down, ran for just 218 meters. Away to the right as I emerged from this tunnel my eyes fell upon two massive constructions all in the name of economic progress and development, no doubt. “For fuck sake! Was there no end to such ugly crap?” I swore to myself. It was like someone had run his or her ink-stained fingers over a beautiful canvas painting. With the construction going on all around the area it was easy to surmise that if ever I came this way again in the not too distant future, the little tunnel would be gone or abandoned. Opened in 1971, which was old by Japanese standards, already its days were numbered.

What I could see now were two giant concrete legs, which reminded me of the time when the Tonari-Nippori Monorail in Tokyo was being constructed. Propping my backpack against a railing of a bridge, I made my way down the steep embankment where part of the old Route 229 lay. Soon I stood next to the old blocked up tunnel that I had seen from up above. There was nothing special about the old tunnel and road, other than to say that I had bicycled this way some two and a half decades earlier, and as Alan Booth had done on foot on his top to bottom venture through much of the country. It was very true; parting could be such sweet sorrow, to paraphrase one great advocate of the stage many years earlier. It was only a matter of time before I would run into another massive job bored into the side of the earth or scaring the beautiful landscape. A bit further along and across a couple of bridges, I came to the new Moiwa Tunnel. Completed in March of 2000, it ran for 1,042 meters, and stood mockingly near to its dead predecessor. The Kamitomarioobashi Bridge, which led to the tunnel, was opened in November in the year of Heisei 12 (2000), the year of the Dragon. Off to the right set my old friend, the Nihon Kei. Not far from the white rolling tide, I could see the sad faded shape of the old tunnel and road. When a tunnel or bridge was decommissioned, so to speak, the names too were usually removed. In this case, however, I could still see the gray nameplate above the mouth of the old abandoned tunnel. The name was too far from where I stood to make out, but there it was, like a sunken ship, still holding onto some sense of dignity.
My rather slow emergence from this long grave of sorts presented me with the sweetest sugar cube and delicious of biscuits that I had tasted all day long. Apart from the scenery, which was breathtaking, the giant rock in its entire splendor set there under the sky. Its shape made me momentarily stop to think of the Sphinx at Gaza, and where countless tourists flocked to Egypt to see and to take their photographs standing next to it. But here I had all to myself, and not a tourist in sight. On closer observation, the great rock resembled the shape of a rabbit. Now I found myself thinking about a white rabbit I once had for a pet in Tokyo donkey’s years ago. At the end of its life it climbed up onto my chest as I lay on the sofa watching television, and looked square into my eyes. Then with one deep last breath, its ears drooping downwards, its little body in a Sphinx-like position, my rabbit went to sleep forever. The rock, too, like a giant gray rabbit crouched on its belly, ears pointing down to the white foamy tide below. Its eyes could be seen to gaze out over the vast sea beyond the coastline. How oblivious it appeared to the noise of the world speeding past along new Route 299, whilst below, the abandoned old route closed and forgotten lay silent and alone.

Irishman Walking: Stage 1 Chapter 13, Summer 2009.

Irishman Walking is about my walking around the Land of the Rising Sun, mainly along the main and coastal roads of Japan through a series of spring, summer, autumn, and winter stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. In the summer of 2012, Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 started from Fukuoka City in the winter and ended at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage lasted for five weeks.

By Michael Denis Crossey

6 August, 2009: It felt good to up camp and be on my way by six-thirty. Not long after hitting the road I made a quick stop at a Seicomart convenience store for a chicken and rice breakfast. A kind of lunchbox deal or what the Japanese called ‘obento’. It did the trick for a while, and made me all the hungrier for the road ahead. Some kilometers further along I set down once more on a bench to make a few adjustments to the straps on my backpack, and to tuck into the remainder of the obento that I had carried with me from the store. Just as I set down on a bench, I began to wonder, too, where I might dig a tiny hole to bury the obento wrapper, which was not so easy to do with so many people about. I could see various little groups of people out for an early morning walk. “The people of Bikuni must be early risers.” I thought, as I pulled my little army spade out from the backpack and began to dig. “Where did they all come from?” I wondered. There were no houses about, or at least what could be seen from where I set. “Perhaps the drove here!” When the Japanese did something, they usually did it well. Walking or cycling, for example, they willingly forked out the money for the costly sporting gear. “Looking good went hand-in-hand with doing something well,” I thought.

‘Get a bicycle, you will not regret it, if you live’ (Mark Twain). A good few of the people who passed me, even those on their bicycles seemed to know each other. “Haiyai ne?” (You are early, aren’t you?), a shopkeeper called out to a couple of them as they made their way on their bikes at a brisk pace. As I could make out, the shopkeeper dusted everything around her with one of those stick dusters that was good for little else, but shifting the dust from one place to another. Those horrible little things were a trusty tools to many a wife in Tokyo, if I recalled correctly. Apart from important places, it was usually far from easy to judge from my maps what lay ahead of me. Even the more detailed maps that I purchased back in Otaru where little better. Some of the maps showed the long tunnels, which did not surprise me since there were quite a number of the massive tunnels to face soon after leaving Otaru. In many instances, the map gave the names of the tunnels, too, but little more. Getting the names of some of the massive tunnels was helpful as it was nice to know sometimes just where exactly I was at on the map. Which in turn allowed me to gage my progress on the roads better.

It was not long after leaving the town of Bikuni that one hell of a steep road with bends that went to the right and then to the left, and up and up and on and on. It seemed as if it the steep climb would last forever, for I could see no end insight for the life of me. On the straight sections of the road the traffic did not slow down at all, but appeared to increase speed once out of the bend. Some drivers did not even reduce their speed when they entered the bends, that it was all an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately, I had only seen accidents aired on the NHK television news in Tokyo. Every large truck that passed me left a trail of gray dust and fumes. There was simply no escape, but to cover my mouth the best I could with the linen flannel Kei-san had given me when we parted at Atsuta. My slow and steady upward tramp was not helped any by the sun, which got more intense as the morning wore on. To add fuel to the fire, I just then discovered that I had left Bikuni without first filling up my water bottles. It was not until a four or five kilometers further on that I was able to see some signs of life coming from what I could make out to be an ice-cream shop, a restaurant, and some vending machines. Both of the buildings stood a little apart, but I was more interested in the vending machines, for the thirst I felt. I set down on a bench and began sipping from the can of ‘Aqururius Vitamiu’, or so the print on it read, and that set me back ¥100 yen. How the sugar saturated beverage felt so good just then.

A glance at my old bicycle clock that I carried with me in one of my pockets told me that it was eight-thirty. Just as I was putting the clock back into my pocket a car pulled into the restaurant car park and stopped. Two elderly ladies got out and greeted me with friendly smiles and a couple of words that I had trouble hearing. “Are you about to open up for business?” I asked, and which they answered in the affirmative. “Do you have coffee?” “Hai! Dozo!” (Yes! Please come in!), and motioned with her hand for me to enter the establishment. It had a rather large interior that doubled as a place to eat as well as a souvenir shop selling a wide range of touristy stuff. I set down at one of the tables and took out my battered notebook hoping to finish some of what I had started last night. Just then one of the ladies served me the coffee I ordered. I asked her what the name of the restaurant was, to which she told me that some twenty years ago when they opened the place they decided to call it, ‘Green Holiday.’ They hoped to cater to the tourists who visited the area in the summer months, and that they closed up for winter, hence the name, Green Holiday.

With the color green in the name, and whatever else the name implied, it did not surprise me any to see a collection of National Geographic magazines on a large table, as well as one hell of a thick book about the fisheries and aquatic life in Hokkaido. There were numerous other wildlife books, magazines and artifacts on similar topics, too. None of them were for sale, but for the interested customers to browse through at their leisure. Some of books and magazines were in English, and I felt sure that there were a good number of foreign visitors to the area. What did surprise me, however, was the upright piano positioned just to the left of the table I set at. “Dozo!” (Please!) one of the elderly ladies said when she saw me staring at it. “Piano ga hikereba naa de mo, watashi wa gakufu ga yome masen.” (Oh! I wish I could, but I don’t know how to read or play a note), I answered. It also felt good that my rusty Japanese language ability was finally coning together. “Darega hito no desu ka?” (Who plays it?) I asked her. “Hikitai hito wa dare demo.” (Anyone who wants to), she said with a smile. “Oh!” I said with a touch of embarrassment at my ignorance. If only I could have played it, for what an impression I might have left had I been able to rattle out something classical.

During my couple of years of schooling in Austin, Texas I once took a music class for an entire semester. Flicking through the pages of a couple of the music textbooks I was assigned to read through before the the start of the first class sent shivers through my body. “What the fuck had I got myself into?” I could still remember thinking to myself. It was too late to switch over to some other subject. I felt destined for an ‘F’ at the end of the semester, if I lasted that long. Fortunately for me, one hell of a great music teacher, Professor Bernard Gastler literally dragged me through the fundamentals of music cords, and by the end of the year when the course was over, thanks to him, I could read music and play the piano with some competence. I can still recall his very first words when he entered the class room. “You will all earn an ‘A’! Every body smiled and appeared happy. He then asked who in the class had absolutely a zero musical background. My hand was the only one that went up. To cut to the chase, I ended up graduating with a proud ‘B’, which to me was as good as any ‘A’ that I earned in various subjects afterwards.

When I transferred to a college in Irvine, California I had a similar experience under the guidance of another great music teacher of a similar name, Professor Herbert Geisler, thought that time with handballs. Alas, both experiences were now donkey’s years ago. Before those short lived musical experiences I never even looked at a piano or even heard of handbells. Sadly, I have long since reverted back to my old ignorant ways and have not gone near a piano or thought about the beautiful sound of handbells being rung. “Okuwari?” (More coffee?), came a voice from the kitchen. “Thank you!” From my maps I could see that it was only a matter of time before I would have to say good bye to National Route 229 for a while and head onto Route 913 bound for the towns of Suttsu and Shimamaki. There was less litter about the road than on previous roads I tramped over. Still, there were the usual discarded empty beer and juice cans, the occasional milk carton, and so on. Just as I was folding up my maps to put away I could see from one of the restaurant windows a large van pass by outside, ‘MegMilk’ printed on its side. It reminded me to keep an eye open for a shop somewhere to pickup a small carton of milk to add to a nice hot cup of tea at camp tonight.

As my tramp along Route 913 moved along, I was not at all sure the surroundings were as beautiful as the ladies at Green Holiday made them out to be. For the most part my tramp took me past fields of green grass and clusters of trees away to the side of the road, and it was not for a good while before I was to join the sea again. In the distance of the Shakotan-hanto I could see large hills and small mountains that I would surmise were no more than 1,000 meters high. The Shakotan-hanto Peninsula jutted into the Nihon Kai (Sea of Japan) to form a beautiful coastline surrounded by clear blue waters. Also, variety of outdoor sports in this large mountain resort area with its many hot springs were there to be enjoyed. “Yes! The lighthouse overlooking Shakotan Misaki (Cape) looked quite majestic in a cute sort of way,” I thought. I came to a parking area or rest stop where the public toilets were closed. I was not in a good mood and began to feel depressed. For me it was a boring segment of the road that wound inland, and where any normal person might have called it a day and flagged down a ride in a car. Soon, any negative feelings I harbored began to dissolve when my old friend the Nihon Kai came into view again. However, the positive feelings, were short lived. Within an hour, my old enemies, a gauntlet of monster tunnels made a reappearance.

As luck turned out, the tunnels I faced for the remainder of the day were not overly long as I had first thought, which again instilled my old view about things. Many of the the tunnels were constructed in the first half of the decade (2005), and had nice broad sidewalks that were good enough for three people to walk on shoulder-to-shoulder with out danger. But fortunately or unfortunately, I was very much by myself on a lonely segment of the road, with little more than my own thoughts to while away the time as I went along. That said, I tried to keep myself above the hardships and the various forms they came in. I liked to tell myself that a lessor person would have given up long ago, and that I was made of sterner stuff. Then again, hardheaded was perhaps nearer to the truth. Logging about a heavy backpack usually meant many little stops through the curse of the day, which of course added up time wise and add to the depression I felt later on. This time I stopped to boil some water by the tiny harbor at Shakotanmisaki in view of the lighthouse there. The homemade biscuits I bought at Green Holiday hours earlier went down just dandy, with a nice cup of hot tea to accompany them. Often too whenever I rested, it felt good to kick off my boots and socks exposing my tired, bruised feet to a warm breeze that gently caressed them. Resting took to time, too much for that matter. Nature was one of the best ways for dealing with much of the pain caused by being out on the roads all day long. Of course, nothing beat a plunge in the sea for a quick fix for both body and mind.

It was not always easy to find some where pleasant to sit down and relax at, away from the relentless sun, and the noise and dust kicked up by the passing traffic, and which would be in your ears and sticking to your face in no time. Even as I passed through the little town of Hororui earlier, there was no where to stop and rest not even for a minute. Soon after the last biscuit and drop of tea it was back up onto the road again. And just as soon as I did that, a tunnel once more greeted me, its 165 meters of length offered a nice cool shade from the sun for a short while. The jury was still out for me when it came to tunnels, but they had a usefulness not only for the motorists. Along the seafront all the key touristy points and interesting spots were occupied by groups of young Japanese people, the noise of their laughter could be heard long before they could be seen. As I drew nearer, I could see many of them posing for snapshots, which amazed me since their laughter was literally nonstop. Many of the young people smoked as the talked to each other, which did not surprise me any. It was just the same in Tokyo. Even when I stopped by at a campsite some kilometers further along to get a soft drink from a vending machine, I could see the area was pretty well chocker blocked with tents and people, mostly young. There were a fair number of families and children enjoying their time together, a short break no doubt from grinding out a living at some job somewhere.
As far as I could make out, there were no shops or restaurants nearby, and even worse for me, there were no showers about the place to be had anywhere. Like the monster tunnels, I was no advocate for campsites, especially if they charged absorptive prices and had little to offer, like no hot water to wash my tired body under. Perhaps the ‘bad-business’ message had failed to get around properly, for I had passed quite a few campsites at various times along my way, all devoid of campers. Even in the hight of summer, some of them were closed to business. Or like Kei-san told me at the campsite in Atsuta, which also only had three or four tents on it at the time, “The great vision or campaign of building campsites all over Hokkaido to lore tourists never quite materialized the way the local governments had hoped. ” Why pay when you can stop on a rich sandy beach for free? Then again, a hot shower or even a soak in a bath (not sent or public bath), was what I missed most on the road. Time, too, was often not on my side. At least as far as arriving at campsites went, it was usually too early for me to stop and think about erecting my tent. Tramping further on, short of the sun going down, before hitting the sack, if not the red wine, always seemed more logical. It was a little before three o’clock, not far beyond the town of Notsuka, when I finally came upon a restaurant flexible to other dishes besides fish. Tonkatsu teshoku was settled on, not to mention a jug of cool Sapporo beer to wash the food down my dry throat. I had not eaten since the chicken and rice I had sitting on the bench this morning. That was nearly twenty-five kilometers back. Now with my body replenished, I felt more than ready to notch up a few more kilometers before calling it a day.

Not long after setting out from the restaurant the 177 meter long Nishikawa Tunnel stood firm beside its old predecessor off to the right. It took a little over a year to complete the tunnel, from October 2004 to December 2005. As wide and as tidy as any of the tunnel sidewalks I had seen, or tramped along, four or five pedestrians could easily stroll comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder on this one. Soon came the Mui Tunnel (December 1999-October 2001) and its 700 meters of shear boredom. It was long, but not long enough for me to really get into my old thoughts of past people, places or events of yesteryear. For whatever the reason, I was also in no mood to hum a tune, or sing a song, or even recall some faces I had seen this last couple of days that I tended to do to kill the time tramping through some of the tunnels. Perhaps it was just as well that I was unable to compose a single sentence, or meaningful thought since my heart felt heavy enough anyway. Depression! This time, too, there were no wide sidewalks to make my way along, and which had the trimmings of safely about them. Perhaps similar to many of the previous monster tunnels constructed during this decade, now well behind me thank god, the new Mui Tunnel’s predecessor lay dead and forgotten, off to the side. One thing was sure, over the course of time nature would work its magic on those old tunnels.
There had been much activity going on about the roads, like, rerouting, uprooting, closing, repairing, building, rebuilding, digging and dripping and all of those things found in, so called, modernizing the infrastructure so dear and important to countries like Japan, where transportation is king. Since the start of the Meiji Period to the present, old roads, bridges, and tunnels had been closed or demolished one after another, for one reason or other new, longer and bigger ones replaced them. All kinds of construction of roads, tunnels and bridges, were going on, on many of the roads I tramped along since starting out on my mission. Many of them, which I had cycled on, over, through, and across, decades earlier were now gone. In other words, a good few of the roads that Alan Booth tramped along on his epic tramp from on end of the country to the other (at the same time I was cycling), where no more. It was never easy to keep track of the many times I setup camp on an abandoned road, for the heavy heart that old thoughts instilled in me on those lonely nights. There were times, too, when my tent stood tall at the mouth of a dead tunnel, which I once cycled through on a previous trip, and now there they stood, no longer useful, or but the proud remains to someones old dreams.

There were so many evenings when I set outside my tent on a warm evening trying to recall long gone cycling journeys along particular stretches of road. Perhaps helped by a glass of red wine to help while away the hours, I trying to put the past in to some order. But then as the evening hours wore on and the wine bottle empty, feelings of dissatisfaction would creep in. “What was the point of racking by brain about specific things?” I would think to myself, feeling depressed to find out each time that my brain was utterly devoid of much of anything. “Yes! It was a waste of time. Well! At least until the next chance arose .” With its smooth and almost pothole-free roads, the earthquake-proofed buildings, its extensive public transit systems, Japan’s infrastructure continued to expand, and envy other countries of the developed world. Tokyo Sky Tree was already long in the planing, and buy the time it is completed in the summer of 2012 it would be the world’s second tallest structure in the world’s most earthquake-prone country. Already, the Akashi Kaikyō suspension bridge, completed in 1998, to link Kobe City to Honshu was famed for having the longest central span in the world. Also, the bridge, which carried part of the Honshu-Shikoku Highway, was one of the three routes now open to Shikoku across the Inland Sea. In short, Japan’s infrastructure and its economy did not exactly go hand-in-hand, so to speak.

Nothing could be more true! The cost of keeping the nations public infrastructure was extravagant beyond belief. Japan forked out around five percent of its national GDP (about $240 billion USD) on maintenance projects that stretched from Kyushu to Hokkaido. Compared with both the United States, and Great Britain, which spent around two percent, and two point five percent, of the national GDP on maintaining the infrastructure, respectively. For Japan, this did not come cheap! To help keep the country’s chin above the water, road tolls and vehicle taxes, which remained the most expensive among any of the developed countries, the government continued to drain exorbitant amounts of money from the average taxpayer. What came out of all this planning and maintaining were roads that connected places rarely visited by anyone, yet still were re-paved and maintained on a regular basis. In addition, multiple highways linked cities with marginal differences in length and overall travel time. Mammoth construction projects to boost tourism to towns and rural areas oftentimes failed some lofty objectives set forth by the many local government and construction companies. By no means the only example, and thanks to my research of the Internet, was the Takasaki Kannon-Yama Recreational Park, now abandoned and left to nature to reclaim. What a total waste of the taxpayers money! “Fuck it! My money!”

Of the 98 airports scattered about Japan, and some of which I have had the honor of using, no less than ninety percent of them were failing to generate a profit. Of course, every country had times of actual need, like, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, or continues improvement of education and social services, remained ignored and unchanged. The fact was that even the village idiot could not be so blind to this wasteful, wanton and pork barrel spending, that served no one but those with their hands and interests in the till, namely, the construction companies and individuals in the local and national government. Notwithstanding the inevitability of that thing called ‘change’, Japan, the most conservative of countries next to those that were Muslim-run, wasteful government spending was, simply speaking, a tough habit to kick.

With all of this new building and construction going on going on it was hard to see that Japan was experiencing hard times, at least when seen from the roads. “Yes! Japan really was a country of bridges and tunnels.” Just as I was thinking this, the little Raikishi Tunnel (February 2003-September 2004), just 166.5 meters, popped up, that not unexpectedly. Short as they were, on quite a few occasions these tunnels did not have a sidewalk to their name, and often appeared quite dangerous into the bargain. More dangerous than any of the monster tunnels I would add. Besides the sidewalks, in the monster tunnels you could hear the traffic coming before you saw it. However, this little concrete job (tunnel) of sorts, welcomed me with quite a broad sidewalk for its length, which was pleasantly unexpected indeed. Compared to many of the older jobs I tramped through, the broad sidewalks were modern developments of these times, now local people and school children were able to walk or cycle through the them without the fear of becoming road fatality statistics.

Soon I emerged from the south side of the 158 meter long Yobetsu Tunnel, old for Japan standards, it was opened in November 1973. In comparison to the recently opened tunnels, where the sidewalks were rather wide, they tended to be quite narrow to none existent in the older jobs. Carting a heavy backpack along a narrow sidewalk, often damaged by age, could be quite hazardous if you did not keep your wits about you and tread carefully for fear of falling under an oncoming car. The last thing I needed was to get a sprained ankle, too, which would almost surely set me back in more ways than one. High above the road, workmen dangled at the end of long ropes. They were busy digging away with picks and power drills at loose soil and rocks to notice me on the road far below. With a quick snap of my camera pointed in their direction, I turned and headed on along my way. The Kamuimisaki Tunnel, (February 2005), took almost two years to build and ran for a good 703.5 meters. The tunnel was just long enough to make me hope that it was the last tunnel of the day, for I was tired of them, and was beginning to think that if I faced anymore they would be coming out of my ears. At last, as I neared the exit of the tunnel I could make out the shape of some houses. A good bit of greenery surrounded each of the houses, and as I drew nearer still, I could clearly catch the sound of the rolling sea off to my right.

As I left the tunnel, it felt like I was entering into another world, if only for a short time. However, with in a seconds, my thinking was corrected by the appearance of yet another tunnel. “Hell no! Surely it can’t be one of those dreaded massive jobs?” I thought to myself as my steps drew me nearer to it. The metal name plate read: ‘Kozaki Tunnel… 1,162.5 m… 2002, Jan – 2004, Feb.’ Right or wrong, there was one thing you could be almost sure of on the roads and that was that good things did not last as long as the bad things. “Fuck it” I was feeling depressed again, which was not good. When I entered the tunnel my old bicycle clock read five-eighteen, or five-thirty when I tramped out at the southern end it. It had been one hell of a brisk tramp, and even on tired limbs I did my best to get out from the fucking place as quickly as I could. Even before the Kozaki Tunnel was well and truly behind me by any great distance, I had decided to keep my eyes open for a place to make camp regardless of whatever else popped up.

As fortune had it, just a few meters beyond the south side of the Kozaki Tunnel lay a segment of the old Route 229. It was not so difficult to climb down the steep embankment that led from the new road to get to it. By doubling back up the old road a short while, I soon came to a grassy patch that proved an excellent spot to pitch my trusty old tent on. There was nothing like bedding on a natural mattress on a fine summer evening! After my tent was at last pitched the next thing I had to do was to scamper over some rocks to the rocky beach below so as to see about washing some clothes the best I could in the foamy tide. My body could wait! Even as I thought about my dirty rags it was already going through my mind to take a dip in the inviting waters. On a downside about swimming in the sea or pool, I absolutely loathed getting water in my already troubled eyes.

This fear of sorts could be traced right back to my childhood, and those Saturday night scrubbings my sister Anna and me got in the old tin bath in our house in west Belfast. How I used to howl like a kitten with its eyes closed in search of its mother’s tit. My sister Anna would laugh, and call me names at my misfortune. How I hated my grandmother during those few seconds, when she poured a bucket of warm water over my head to rinse away the soap from my hair. Then there was the time school when the teacher tried to teach us all to swim. He had us line up at the side of the pool like little Hitlar’s youth and would walk along behind pushing us into the chlorine infested water one-by-one. But I was too cleaver or stupid even for that. I had made sure that I was near the end of the line so as to, kind of, live longer on dry land. When he did get to me the timing could not have been better. Just as he heaved his outstretched hand to push me in to the stinking pool, I twisted sideways. Everybody got into trouble that day for laughing when the teacher clad in his outdoor clothes went tumbling headfirst into the water. I think my excuse was just as wicked as my intentions, when I told the head teacher on the following morning that I had heard someone creeping about behind me and just turned around to look.

If only you allow me,
I will willingly wipe
Salt tears from your eyes
With these fresh leaves (Basho).

The magic wonders the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea), or any sea for that matter, had worked on my body on previous occasions were already well fixed in this mortal mind of mine. Even with the salt from the sea still stinging my eyes, how supercalifragilisticexpialidociousticly rejuvenated I felt afterwards. If only I could have said the same about my washing, however, which looked dirtier and sweatier than when I started to rinse it out in the salty waters. It turned out to be much easier to wash my body than to wash a few torn T-shirts, socks with holes in them, not to mention a couple of pairs of underwear that were on their last days. The sea was, of course, not the best of places to get the best out of a bar of soap, which was quite useless. However, in the absence of a freshwater stream, or river, or even a park with a water tap in it to solve this mundane concern of mine with, the Japan Kai had to do.

Scattered about me were some large rocks upon which I thought to drape my washing over in the hope that the heat from the rocks, and a nightly breeze might at least make the clothes some ways wearable by morning. Then again, the spray from the sea carried by the breeze had caught me out a few times before. Besides, I was not quite sure of just how far the tide would come in and splash all over the rocks. If that happen everything could be lost. “It was better to be careful than sorry!” I thought as I make my way over the sand with the wet clothes dangling from my arms. After a little while the washing hung over a fence some distance further up the abandoned old road instead. “Surely I won’t forget about them when morning came,” I wondered, as I gathered the wet clothes up in my arms.

Once the washing was out of the way, I set about rigging up my little Captain Stag burner to see about making a nice hot cup of tea. There was nothing like a good strong cup of tea when you had nothing else to do. Earlier this morning I had bought a 300-milliliter carton of milk, and had carted it along with me all day for the sole purpose. Usually because of the unpredictable weather, I tended to avoid buying easily spoiled or difficult to handle goods, such as milk, cheese, and butter, even chocolate which I loved most of all, but I felt confident that the little milk that remained would not spoil.

With a cup of hot tea in one hand, and the powerful sound of the sea splashing about uncaring under the cloudless sky, what more could a tramp of the roads want? My grassy little campsite was my hermitage for the night! While sipping the freshly brewed cup of hot tea, this time with milk, I was able to reflect back over my day. With my maps I was able to get a good idea of the ground covered, the places I stopped by at to eat or to rest, even the people I spoke to or just saw here and there could be pictured clearly. And the times on the road when I would prepare my mind for one of the many long tunnels I had to face. I recalled nearing the exit of the Yobetsu Tunnel, for example, when a female voice called out to me. When I looked around I my eyes focused on a young women as she approached. Then I could hear the sound of the 250cc motorbike engine slowing down and stop. “Walking desu ka?” The woman called to me, as she pushed the fizzer of her helmet upwards.
Soon an attractive women stood by her motorbike, with the helmet under her arm. It was never easy to guess a Japanese woman’s age, and less gentlemanly even to ask, however, I took her to be somewhere in her thirties. “Yes!” I said, smiling as if I had just stopped to chat with someone I met in a park during a Sunday stroll. It was not the kind of smile reserved for unexpected encounters with an attractive female somewhere in Tokyo, where I preferred to shut myself away in my apartment like a recluse, with my books and writing. To save her the trouble of asking me the usual gauntlet of questions just about every Japanese I spoke to tended to ask me, I continued. “All the way from Soya Misaki. Today I had come this far after setting out from Bikuni.” As with a good many of the other Japanese people ail met along on the roads, she seemed impressed. Then again, there had been a few who looked as though I was off my head. “Wow!” she said, “Sugoi wa! Shinjirarenai!” (That’s great! It’s almost unbelievable!).

Unlike the children I taught at school in Tokyo, or people at large, those whom I stopped to chat with on the road were keen to ask me questions. “How far had you come? And “How far will you go today?” “I’m not sure,” I would answer them .” Perhaps I will tramp on for another hour or so, then call it a day.” “May I take your photo?” she asked me, smiling. “Sure! Was that a digital camera?” “Yes!” I felt foolish at asking, for Just about everybody used them these days. My own camera never worked well since I bought it, and felt it was because the sweat from my body had somehow gotten into its works. “Perhaps if I give you my e-mail address, you would send me a copy of the photo?” “I’m not up on computers,” she told me. I felt foolish (again) for asking. I thought just about everybody knew how to use such devices, for whatever the purpose. Then again, being a mere user and a late starter with computers, I was not really up on them myself. “Then perhaps you could do it via your portable phone, your keitai?” I asked again. Just about everybody in the country knew the ins and outs of using a keitai, if nothing else. “I’ll try!” With that, we exchanged e-mail addresses, wished one another all the best, I thanked her for stopping, and went our different ways.

She told me that her name was Kumiko, and for some reason her age, which I did not ask. Or perhaps there was something in my face that told her to tell me. It was a difficult question with it came to a woman’s age, or at least I learnt somewhere that it was bad manners to ask, so I tended no to as a rule. From experience, I found that the elderly Japanese females were far from shy about telling there age in the course of talking with them. Kumiko was fifty-four years old, which certainly surprised me since she wore her years well. She arrived in Hokkaido on a ferry from Osaka, and was on the tail end of a tour of the island on her motorbike.

Sadly, my recollections of this sweet little encounter had become a bit cloudy over the passing days. I thought that she was returning to Osaka the next day where she loved. I could not remember if she was on her way back to Otaru or to Tomakomai so as to catch the ferry to either Maizuru or to Nagoya, and then make her way back to Osaka on her motorbike. After we parted I tramped on for another hour or so, with thoughts of Kumiko popping in and out of my head for the remainder of the day. In short, Kimiko struck me as one of those really caring from the heart kind of persons, the type that could take a whole lifetime to meet. I wondered if our path would ever cross again, but somehow I knew that was that, and goodbye meant goodbye. “I wondered if we would ever meet again?” Somehow, that was one of the sad things about tramping the roads, you met so many people, but only that.

We did not talk very long, I recalled, which meant there was little time to cover anything of any great depth, strangers or not. We were both pressed for time, Kimiko to catch the ferry, and me to tramp as far as my legs could carry me before the sun went down. In the end, there was just enough time to pose for a snapshot of one another before she started off. The Japanese, especially the very young, had a thing about forming the ‘V’ sign with their fingers. “Wasn’t that something brought to prominance by Winston Churchill when he was leader during the Second World War.” I thought. To him it had something to do with ‘victory’, whilst here in this day and age it had something to do with ‘peace’. Though if only such a thing could be obtained for something so little.

We said farewell to one another, and turned towards our respective directions, and with a final wave Kimiko was gone. The road was a flat in both direction, but for me, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would be steering my way straight up a slope somewhere. If it did come sooner than later, then all the best, and which I hoped if anything would skirt closely to the sea. At such times, carrying a fully loaded backpack proved fairly heavy work in places, like on extra steep slopes with no end in sight. And with teh passing of the hours, this difficulty surmounted as the road continued to wind up and up well above the sea level. Usually, with thirty or more kilometers behind me, it was easy to imagine what it must be like going up Mount Everest (or any one of the fourteen great peaks in the world). Then again, that was also ‘a horse of a different color’, as the saying went.

In the dark, the strong lights from a flotilla of fishing boats loomed off on the horizon. In those evening hours the image of an animal moving at great speed across the beach made me sit up. Perhaps it was a cat or large rat, but whatever it was, I never saw it again whatever it was. Soon all thoughts were fading from my mind, I drifted off to sleep. At around five in the morning a man’s voice coming from the direction of Route 229 not far from my camp drew me from my slumber. He did not see me emerge from my tent, hidden by the small sand dun. Come to think of it, I was not able to see the site on which I would pitch my tent when I left the road yesterday. Even after scanning the direction of where the sound came from I still could not see the man, who continued to call out. The voice came from somewhere up on the road, and near were my clothes hung to dry.

At last I could seem him! When the man’s eyes did eventually fall on me, he froze. Perhaps the sight of a half naked and bearded foreigner, with an army spade in one hand, looking back at him was the last thing he expected to see. We stared at one another for a while in complete silence. Then as suddenly as his voice had pulled me from my sleep, he spoke again, this time to me. “Kujoitsuketa kudosai!” then in broken English the man continued. “Kono michi wa kiken desu!” (The old road is dangerous to use!). “Arigato!” (Thank you!) I called back to him. With that the man turned and headed back up to the road, to where he is car waited. Clearly he had seen my clothes drying, which must have caused him some concern.

Shortly afterwards, I could hear the slamming of the car door and the engine starting up. Glancing back over the sand dun in the direction of the road where the man stood a little while before, I could now see his car speeding away south. “Did he know something I did not?” I wondered. “What on earth made him stop his car and tell me that the old road was dangerous?” There was something caring about the Japanese whom I met on the roads, or something hardly found in Tokyo. “What kind of danger was he on about?” I wondered again. “Perhaps he had a bit of a history with the old road, like some personal tragedy.” Regardless of the guys welcomed concern, I was in no mood for changing course, at least not for a while. Besides, with my kind of luck, I would more than likely bump into the fellow again somewhere down the road later on, when the two roads joined again.

At first, I thought that not if I saw him first, but on second thoughts, if I did see him, I certainly would have liked to have asked him some questions. After all, it was not every day someone went to the trouble to stop their car and shout a warning about something. Of course, I was grateful for the warning, but became annoyed with myself for not being able to forget this short encounter once and for all. It kind of lingered in my mind for longer than I would have wanted it to. The unseen danger now occupied my mind, too. It sort of prevented me from taking in the beautiful landscape around me as I made my way along the unused road, one of the main reasons that I decided to take this stretch of abandoned road.
The thoughts continued. “Perhaps the man was one of the fishermen returning home from a long, hard night out on the sea.” I could not get the man out of my mind. “Was he one of the crew members on one of the many fishing boats I saw away out in the sea last night?” There was something strikingly beautiful about the strong glow from the big lights that hung just above the decks of the ships. I knew that the fishermen on the larger fishing boats returned to shore in the early hours, and made their way over to where they parked their cars. “Perhaps his warning had some credence about it.” My mind continued to work over time, which was not making me happy. “God forbid!” I called out, as if trying to force an end to such thoughts. I had already passed through many a dangerous tunnel with my wits about me and an open eye cast upon each fast approaching vehicle, another danger no doubt, but which I did not even contemplate much on after wards.

I did my best to redirect my mind on other things, which helped a little. Like, what I took to be a fast moving animal darting across the sandy beach last night may well have been a low flying bird of some sort, perhaps a large crow or seagull. Whatever it was, I noticed the thing through the side of my eye at first, like a rock hurled low across the ground. Or perhaps something somehow had come loose in my brain and was deceiving me big time. Being tired could do something like that! It was not like the animal had a sound about it, like a eagle swooping down the precipice on to a hidden prey, only to change direction not so far from the bottom and move swiftly away some meters from where my tent stood nearby. Nearby, but not near enough to settle my mind.

There was no point in crawling back into my sleeping bag and going to sleep. It was time to pack up and hit the road proper anyway. A nice long dip in the sea before I left, might help set my mind straight once and for all before I hit the road. Other fishermen began to make their presence known. This time three tiny one-man boats appeared from around the great rocks, with each of the occupants spearing away at the foamy waters like their was no tomorrow. They appeared oblivious to my presence, which was good, as I was about to dig a hole in the sand with the little spade to take a dump in (deficate). Their tanned faces appeared to read the ripples in the water that their spears had just made. Their sturdy little crafts danced up and down in the water as if enjoying the moment.