Friday, January 18, 2013

Nippon Extremeties: Hokkaido (Epilogue I)

August 24 & 25

Blurry details of a marathon streak down the west coast of Japan, two jaunts of seventeen and seven hours respectively.  I was woken around 5:00 by Greensleeves being played loudly through an unseen speaker.  I quickly packed up my stuff and drank a canned coffee bought from the adjacent machine which the ryokan owner had kindly turned on a few minutes before.  I welcomed the morning by strolling for a couple of hours around the eponymous twelve lakes, which were barely even ponds. Small too was Nihon Canyon, little more than a hill whose face had slid into the river below.   

At this early hour, there was no one else to be seen, barring a couple of sleepy caged bears, poor things.  Bidding them adieu, I headed down to the highway.  I walked awhile through the morning sunshine alongside the sea.  Due to the early Sunday hour, few cars passed, maybe one every five minutes.  I met a small group of hikers readying for their assault, looking overdressed and over-prepared.   

After about 45 minutes, I finally got a lift from a guy who'd lived in the US for three years.   Nearly a decade later, he couldn't speak English anymore.  During the next few hours, he regaled me with his American adventures, singing a few songs, and really sinking into reminiscences. 

I had originally planned to go around the coast of the Oga-hantō, but suddenly the skies opened up.  I told my driver that I'd changed my mind, and would continue with him to Akita, and from that moment, every time we'd pass a sign for the peninsula, he'd joking say, "Are you sure you don't want to get out?  It's not far, you know."

Entering Akita, I had been worrying about getting a ride out of a city this size, but ended up getting one immediately.  The trouble was that it took me two more rides to go a mere 60km.  In between, I had a long walk through a modern seaside town, raising surprised smiles from a group of employees at an auto fair.  

In Sakata, I was dropped in front of the Domon Ken photography museum.  As I was exiting the car, the driver who had said nothing through the entire ride, began to ask questions as if grilling me in a job interview, no doubt probing me for information to tell his friends.  In order to give him some good material, I told him that I was a professional photographer.  

But it was inside the museum that I could see the work of a true master.  His eye, choice of subject matter, and attention to detail were spellbinding.  It was like a Kurosawa film on still film stock.  His series on the hands of Masters was brilliant, and the photo of a single leaf on a single stone left me amazed.  I'm now completely sold on black and white photography, and hope someday to steal his image of Buddha's hands.  One of my former English students had compared my work to his, and in certain shots I could understand why.  The mere comparison leaves me flattered.  I was also greatly impressed by the building itself, an architectural wonder in complete harmony with its surroundings.  Yet its large grey blocks seemed a little too modern and "linear," at odds with the simplicity in which it enshrined.

After a brief lunch at a roadside stall, I was picked up by a guy on his way back from camping and hiking.  As I was going to Zempo-ji, our talk was on temples and yamabushi.  A great conversation, passing through the beautiful forest scenery of the Yamagata coast.  

The temple itself  didn't disappoint, the buildings and five-story pagoda dwarfed by tall hinoki trees.  From the hill behind, I had the rare treat of actually looking down on the pagoda.  Inspired by Domon Ken, I delighted at the simplicity of the place, inspired by the details of tatami, shoji, and polished metal.  

I got a lift to the edge of town by a young surfer, just in time to be picked up by a couple who followed the windy, coastal road a good 60km out of their way.  I got out, apologizing profusely, but the guy merely shrugged saying that since it was Sunday, they were just cruising around anyway.  (I promise not to smirk the next time someone tells me that their hobby is driving.)  Despite their good deed, they let me out near the train station, so I had a good long look at the town before getting picked up on the outskirts.  This time it was a woman and her junior high school-aged daughter.    They apologized for being unable to take me more than 20km, but the daughter had wanted to talk to me. The daughter spoke to me in exceedingly polite language, the mother in a slow deliberate voice usually reserved for children.  They were concerned about money and where I would stay, suggesting I try to find fellow Americans studying at a local branch of Shinshu University International Center, which for some bizarre reason had been plonked down in this little town in the middle of nowhere.  While hitching, its simply amazing how many drivers will stop for you, them commence to tell you how difficult it is to get rides in Japan.  The reality is that you are probably traveling as quickly as they are.  Japanese seem incredulous to the idea that you want to hitchhike, and rather than leave you on the side of the road, inevitably try to take you to a hotel, or a train station.   

In this case, I was able to compromise on a 7-11 on the edge of town, where I chatted briefly with two Americans from the local college, then was picked up seconds later by a Japanese guy and his Chinese girlfriend, embarking on one of the most interesting conversations of the day.  A couple of rides ago, the driver had asked me about my travels in China and Korea, curious how they referred to things Japanese, and I had found myself translating into Japanese words from languages that I don't speak. Now 30 minutes later, I could go right to the source.  Here we were, three people from three countries, doing as in Rome by speaking Japanese.   Being foreign, she and I could ask particularly direct questions, yet wrapped in the indirect speech that defines the Japanese language, they didn't sound altogether harsh.  I asked her a great deal about China, her life in Japan, and whether people in Japan could tell right away that she was gaijin.  I later regretted asking her this last question.  At the worst of times, I loathe being singled out as different, yet how natural it is to do the same to someone else. Is this a trait that I've picked up in Japan, a place where people have the unique habit of welcoming you with open arms, while simultaneously hold you at a distance with one arm or the other?  Or is it simply human nature to inquisitively look at that which isn't familiar?  Ironically, it was she who was surprised when he, rather than she, was the first person this entire trip who understood how tired I must be of answering the same questions and tried to find new things to discuss.  As we rolled on, I noticed the Shinkansen tracks rising from the rice fields, and realized that if I could set aside pride, i could be literally anywhere in matter of hours.

I waved goodbye to the couple from the mouth of a huge expressway, the first I'd encountered so far.  Sheltered behind some trees was a patch of grass where I could pitch my tent if I needed to.  It was 6:30 as I waited just inside the row of toll booths, the sky growing dark and dimming my prospects.  But in the next ten minutes, five vehicles stopped, the first four going the wrong way to Tokyo.  When I yelled "Tottori," up to the trucker in the fifth, he said okay, and we were off.  However, this guy was real idiot, agreeing to take me to a place that he didn't know, and when he realized that it wasn't on his way to Tokyo, got confused.  He seemed really cranked up on caffeine and legal speed, jabbering away in a dialect I couldn't understand, while simultaneously reading a map and balling along at 130kph.  I may have met the muse for those horrific photos of truck wrecks.

His mistake turned out not to be such a bad thing.  Once past the junction, I'd at least have weeded out the Tokyoite.  But at the interchange, he brought his rig to a complete stop, and for a moment there I thought that he was going to make me get out in the middle of the nighttime freeway, without an exit in sight, and traffic racing by at dangerous speeds.  In Japanese, I said the rough equivalent of, "My, this certainly is an unpleasant predicament!" to him, and "Fuck fuck fuck!" a few times to myself, before he roared down the ramp leading west and let me out at a rest stop 10km out of his way.

In the parking lot, I quickly downed a hot dog and a coke before hopping into a van.  Inside in the darkness I found myself surrounded by five young yanki types, drunk and acting tough.  For the first time in my three years in Japan, I found myself afraid...

(To be continued...)

On the turntable:  Jack White, Blunderbuss"


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