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?