Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido (Prologue)

Another from the archive series.  After four months wandering remote stretches of rural China, I had intended to spend the summer of my 30th year at Shin Shizen Juku (SSJ), an old Leftist commune created by 1960's Tokyo student dropouts, which had since converted into a working farm.  But I arrived to find the owner, Hiroshi Mine, heading up the driveway on his way to a three month stint studying Organic Farming in Australia.   Hence, there would be no farming that summer.  So I passed the time studying kanji, trying to make sound from the shakuhachi I'd bought shortly before boarding the ship in Tokyo, and doing yoga with Ali MacGraw on the only video in the place, played on a TV that had no reception.   After I week of this, I hit the road...

July 23, 1997

I'm deliberately violating my own rule on never reading travel books while traveling myself.  But in this case, it's Paul Theroux's Old Patagonia Express, almost appropriate as we're both encased for a great length of time in our own means of transport.  Where he began his trip looking out into whirling snow, I find my views enshrouded in fog.  Throughout the ship are televisions that stream what is captured by the video cameras on the bow.  Previously, that had been the flight of seabirds and the white tussle of waves, but as the fog thickened, the screens went from grey to a sudden black, and these turned off screens make me feel uncomfortable for some silly reason.

I'm probably the only one who notices, for there's a definitively relaxed atmosphere on board the Sabrina, this ship named for an Audrey Hepburn film.  Young kids run past the salaryman types who are dressed down in tees and shorts, all bound for summer vacation in Hokkaido. This ship is probably the nicest I've ever been on, the closest to an actual cruise liner.  I can merrily while away my time sleeping, reading, or eating.  I especially like my curtained bunk, which offers me a place to escape.  I hardly need it here like I had needed it during my six weeks in  China, where the act of going about my own business had been less a natural default, and more of an intentional effort to avoid stares. 

So I happily wander.  The ship's spiral staircase seems built strictly for aesthetics as they are impossible to negotiate when the ship rolls.  I'm slightly alarmed at not being able to see lifeboats, but the escape chutes look pretty cool.  People sit alongside the windows, feet propped up on a handrail.  I find myself unable to avoid looking at a particularly beautiful pair of legs stretching from a chair nearby.  One bearded guy sits doing storyboards for a film, or possibly for manga...

July 24  

In the morning, I'm late disembarking, and thus miss a good chance to hitch a ride with one of the cars coming off the ship.  I make a late desperate attempt, but after the last vehicle passes I realize that I've stood there so long that I've also missed the bus.  A waiting taxi takes me into Kushiro, and from there I ride up to Tsurui-mura on a bus filled with mentally handicapped adults... 

 ...the cool wind of late afternoon brings with it fog.  It makes the woodchip pile outside my room smell like gin.   Spiders construct an Indra's web of glistening water beads, each reflecting one another.  The highway stretches away into the fog, defining the cliche, "lonely road."  Riverside paths are lined with fronds the size of truck tires.  I watch Henrika (German poetess) walk into the fog, hoodie up, arms folded into her sleeves like a medieval monk, with the Velvet Underground playing somewhere deeper within the house..

July 25

...holding yogic breath silences the world... flute competes with the squeal of pigs being murdered beyond the trees...

July 27

...every night here, the features of the landscape are bleached out by fog, significant details gradually lost according to the order of the color spectrum.  I sit out back and play my flute.  The landscape is familiar here -- it could be Oregon, Indiana, or Pennsylvania -- and every now and then the notes conjure up a scant shadow against the ever-fading wet blue light.  Closer in, the shadows appear more clearly as foxes, masters of shape-shifting and trickery, who with one last look over their shoulders, disappear again into the trees.

We had passed quite a few foxes on our way to a party last night.  A former student of SSJ had called and said that she and her boyfriend were staying at his lakeside cabin, and that they were bored and wanted company.  What passed next was a surreal David Lynchian ride out there, speeding through tight turns in the fog, all the while listening to some cheesy soundtrack tape, complete with faux American coked-up DJ patter.  In the tightest turn, Jan and Dean sang the opening chorus of their ominous hit.

What followed was great hospitality Japanese-style -- free booze and barbeque.  Along the way, William had become drunker and drunker, at first asking silly questions, eventually becoming quite ugly, the skeleton of a broken relationship causing him to attack Daniella for setting him up, then going after Marc (Aussie surfer stoner) for not being more sympathetic.  Our hosts had grown quite uncomfortable.  Suddenly, he, Marc, and Henrika had decided to hitch into Kushiro for a party and were off.  Daniella, Ann Marie, and I had been driven home by our drunken hosts who argued in the front seat over his driving. Back at SSJ, we had found that some animal had gotten into the kitchen and had eaten all our bread for the week.  I turned in then for a fifteen-hour sleep, broken for a single hour to eat cereal.

I awoke at four p.m. to another gloomy misty day.  Marc told me that they'd tried hitching, but rather than being taken south to Kushiro, then had been driven north, and eventually went to sleep in a bus shelter.  In the early morning they had hitched down to Kushiro, then were forced to backtrack home.  William appeared around six p.m., and kept saying that he wants a normal life, supposedly meaning marriage and steady work.  Every travel story he has involves moving to this country or that, meeting a woman, then deciding he isn't ready for marriage after all.  Inevitably, he finishes each story by saying so-and-so is angry with him, as if he himself is free from fault.  I don't doubt that his anger and unsociability is fed by this, which manifests itself once again, alienating whomever he happens to be involved with, in an ongoing vicious circle.  He is the classic example of a man trying desperately to fit in somewhere, yet his own personality keeps him from fitting in anywhere.  Sadly, he seems to see marriage as the ultimate acceptance, but he willfully pushes the woman away, then turns around and claims that he isn't ready to get married.  Yet, when approached, he is willing to talk for quite a long time, a sure sign of his loneliness.  His monologues and opinions are so far from truth that it's apparent that his is a skewed reality, not seeing anything clearly, least of all himself.  And this anger he feels has no room at a place like SSJ, and his presence is a serious detriment to its peace.  He is planning to depart this week, and I gladly count the hours...

July 29

Clouds, hills, fields, and rain.
How can such a poetic moment
Produce no poetry?

July 30

...from Robert Barclay, writing on the creative silence of the Quakers, of going beyond words to silence thoughts and desires, resulting in "a flood of refreshment."  Shades of zen?  Later, reading on Quaker marriages, old style, preacher-free, a mere commitment to each other, without old "tinned food"...

...wandering Kushiro in the fog, through Moo, and Egg, amidst Picasso's swirls, internal base jump.  Jazz adds spice to my coffee...

August 1

...the weather remains cool so the kettle boils.  William has been playing ninja, hiding out from Ryoko (SSJ person-in-charge).   thinking him gone, she'd been buying food for three, yet he's eating for two: seven eggs for breakfast, and earlier this week, four out of the remaining seven slices of bread.  It's bad enough that he's freeloading off us, but he's showing absolutely no respect by hiding bicycles and hoarding noodles and laundry detergent in his room.  And he's making no attempt to work or help out.  His presence is so loud and large that three other people have no hope to drown him out.

Ryoko on the other hand.  As we aren't farming this year, she'll only buy us staples, which she insists consist merely of bread, rice, butter, and milk.  Last week her interrupting my class in order to make asinine comments was bad enough, but to ask me to change classes in the midst of teaching was was obnoxious.  Her loud voice and frantic rushing about make her nearly as cacophonous as William.   As I read Mine-san's books on ideal communes and kibbutzes, I almost laugh at how fucked up SSJ is...

...yet today we actually did some work, cleaning the splattered cowshit caked on the windows and the milk lines of a barn.  I was a little wary of the cows at first, but eventually realized that they were more scared of me.  Plus they were fascinating to watch, almost smart, despite the reputation.  They seemed to instinctively know when it was lunch time, coming over to the fence and mooing to be let in.  They then moved to their usual stalls to be harnessed in, and began to eat.  To get water they'd press a lever with their noses.  Being harnessed in, they couldn't get at the flies on their backs (despite having incredibly flexible necks), so one smart cow would toss dry hay onto her back as cooling relief.  Working felt great, though my only reward came from a cow who sprayed my legs with her warm shit...

(To be continued...)

On the turntable:  Vic Chestnutt, "West of Rome"  
On the nighttable:  John Dougill, "Kyoto:  A Cultural History"

1 comment:

MC said...

I just read The Old Patagonia Express this year for the first time and really enjoyed it. I don't necessarily have a policy of not reading travel books while traveling myself, but it usually ends up that way. I guess I use them for inspiration or to further my knowledge about places I've traveled to.