Saturday, January 19, 2013

Nippon Extremeties: Hokkaido (Epilogue II)

August 24 & 25

I suppose saying something like, "For the first time in my three years in Japan, I found myself afraid,"  is overstating it a little.  I found myself not afraid, per se, but cautious.

The guy seated next too me was the drunkest and particularly aggressive.  He would start conversation as a pretext to entertain his mates, who roared in laughter at his asinine questions and atrocious English.  After such a long day, I really didn't need this.  A couple of times I nearly told him in my roughest Japanese to knock it off. 

The martial artist in me began to formulate a strategy.  As he was the transgressor, and sitting beside me, I would deck him in the face as hard as I could if things escalated.  Then I'd strike the side of the neck of the guy directly in front of me, hopefully taking him -- the biggest -- out of commission.  The driver would of course be too occupied to retaliate quickly, and the two behind me were pretty small and seemed harmless. As how to get out of the van, well, I'd have to deal with that later.

I'm a bit disappointed at this whole yanki thing. When I first came to Japan, I was intrigued by these people who fought so hard not to assimilate in this country famed for assimilation.  Yet it wasn't long before I realized that this bark has no real bite, being mere fashion with no real depth at all.  Many of the yanki I've talked with are surprisingly unintelligent.  I once asked a friend, a reformed "bad girl," her opinion, and she said that theirs is a world very narrow, and alone they're quite shy, unable to resist the pressures to confirm.  They find strength in others of their ilk. 

The truth in that was ever apparent now.  Yet as the ride went on, the guys up front turned out to be pretty nice, and the one's in back quiet.  As the ride wasn't long, I decided just to ignore the loudmouth's bullshit.  A couple of times he told me that his job was to help hitchhikers, and at the next parking area, he set out to prove it.  He wandered around, asking every driver to give me a ride.  I groaned, knowing that these guys with their hair and their clothes were going to scare off absolutely everyone.  So I wandered to the fringe of the parking area, hoping to find a dark and quiet corner where I could put up my tent.  I thought that I might as well give hitching one last shot, and walked to the on ramp.  I winced when I saw the driver of the van running toward me, but he merely handed me a coffee and apologized for his friend's behavior.  

Within minutes I got a dream ride from a couple heading to Osaka, who over the next three hours sped at 150kph about a quarter the length of Honshu.   At Tsuru, they tried to help me find a place to camp, but since they had a couple more hours driving and had to work in the morning, I asked them to just let me out and I'd fend for myself.  

The whole area seemed little more than a single road and some rice fields.  I decided to camp on the beach.  Facing a 5km walk, I made a half-hearted attempt at hitching, and was surprised to get a lift from a man just past middle-age.  He explained that his daughter had studied in Australia and was now a local English teacher.  There were many Canadians in the area, so he'd had lots of experience with foreigners.  Asking me if I was hungry, I lied and said no, but he took me back to his restaurant anyway, the place long closed this late on a Sunday.  He served me coffee and eggs, then pushed a couple of booths together and told me I could sleep there.  We talked a while until his attention turned more and more toward the television.  I saw this as a chance to beg off and go to sleep.  After a long seventeen hour day, I finally came to a dead stop.

As I drifted off, I thought of the nature of fortuitous timing and good luck.  Of how each ride had set up the next, and any single missing link would have brought the whole thing crashing down.  Watching one ride blend into the next worked as well as counting sheep, and it wasn't long before I was gone...

...I awoke the next morning around six.  The owner had yet to get up, and rather than wait, decided to leave him a note.  I started to write in Japanese, then settled on a simple "Thank you" in English, followed by my name in katakana.  I figured that it made for a better souvenir.

Out on the main road, I caught a short lift from a salaryman on his way to work who dropped me just this side of Obama.  It was a glorious day, bright and clear, yet I wasn't fully awake enough to trudge a few kilometers with a full pack.  I almost reverted back to my initial plan of sightseeing here, then decided once again to return in the future.  Sometime yesterday, probably as I flew past Oga-hanto, the purpose of this trek morphed from a slow, four or five-day meander in the direction of Yonago, into an all-out burst of speed and endurance.  And as a truck surprised me by stopping on a narrow road at the center of town, its driver telling me he was going to Kyushu, I knew I was as good as home.

I've come to the conclusion that all Japanese truckers are a bit loony, crazed for company, prone to chatting incessantly in a way that people do when they've been devoid of sleep for such a long time that their brain is tricked into functioning at a high rate of speed.  This driver was a nice guy, a bit younger than I.  A typical week for him consisted of taking carpets for Nissan cars from Shizuoka to Fukuoka, then a day off, followed by the return trip and a day off again.  I asked him why he took backroads rather than the expressway, and he explained that the owners didn't want to pay the 30,000 yen in tolls.  It is for this reason that the narrow country roads are jammed with rigs too big to traverse them, ofttimes carrying hazardous cargo through sleepy fishing and farming villages.  (I asked the driver what was the most dangerous freight he'd ever carried, but he just laughed and said that he wasn't allowed to tell me.)   In one such village, a narrow lane lined by homes centuries old proved an impossible place for two big beasts to pass one another.  One vehicle inched forward, then waited for the other to do the same, their driver-side mirrors gently tapping each other out of place like some gentle bout of sumo.  

My driver told me stories of the road, of accidents and ghosts and junior high school aged hitchhikers.  A trucker's life is one that doesn't allow for girlfriends, or even possessions.  I recognized in him a loneliness and a need to talk, and as the sole duty of hitchhikers is to provide a good companion, I sat back and let him go.  He had a remarkable way of continuing on a single topic for around 30 minutes, this time about greasy fast food, the next time about why Land Cruisers are the perfect vehicle.  So I listened to his talk as we passed two Japanese warships and an oil tanker anchored in surprisingly small, cove-like Maizuru harbor Onward into scenery unmistakably San-in, where the rocky coastline is nudged by rice fields, and the villages are indistinct from one another, yet each one just as charming as the last.

In Yonago, I walked the last kilometer home.  The sight of my fiancee's truck out front made me congratulate myself of my continued good timing, catching her on her lunch break, since I didn't have a key.  Yet after five minutes of knocking, I realized that she wasn't home.  I trudged to her office, where I was told that she'd been in the hospital for the previous week.  And in a moment of horror, I didn't realize that the unrecognized Japanese word "kensa" meant "tests," and mistook it instead for its English sound-alike, "cancer."

Fifteen minutes later, I entered her hospital room, and the look on her face was as much a delight to me as my presence was to her.  For a long while, she looked at me like I was a hallucination, like she couldn't quite grasp that I was real.  She told me that she had had some stomach trouble which had passed days before, but the doctors wouldn't let her go home.  My return gave her the strength to insist that she check out a week early.

So I guess that my Hokkaido trip had purpose after all. Like in a fairy tale, this ronin had literally traveled back from the end of the earth, through hostile environments of volcano, bramble, and ice; encountering severe weather conditions and spirit-bears; moving at an inconceivable pace in order to rescue a princess being held captive against her will.

On the turntable: Cat Stevens, "On the Road to Find Out"

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