Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nippon Extremities: Hokkaido XV

August 22, 1997

Shortly after I awoke, I walked to the train station nearest the campsite, and found that I had a ninety minute wait until the next train.  I hitched instead to a station on a different line, but that train was an hour later still.  I decided then to hitch to the intersection of the two lines.  My reason for wanting to take the train was that I could completely bypass Hakodate, a large city that would be nearly impossible to hitch out of, and go instead to the station at the base of a large Trappist Monastery.  Luckily, the family who picked me up lived near the monastery, so I didn't need a train after all. The car was somewhat decked out and the driver young, driving slowly, since his mother, child, and pregnant wife were aboard.  Yet I could feel that he really wanted to floor it.  We stopped to look for frogs in a large pond, then checked out a secluded waterfall that fed a beautiful stretch of river that made for the perfect place to lay up a few days camping and fishing.      

The monastery was a large brick structure built on some beautiful grounds that overlooked the sea.  It appeared closed to the public, so I sat instead in the forest and read some of Thomas Cleary's translation of old Chinese zen sermons, hoping to soak up some of the place's energy.  

Back down at the sea, I was picked up by a young guy whose father was a Protestant minister, educated in England and at Princeton.  The ride was pleasant, and he treated me to a nice seafood lunch at a restaurant that was the childhood home of a once famous Sumo wrestler now decades retired and quickly becoming forgotten.

In Matsumae, the entire camp site had disappeared (a fact I was pleased to discover while in a car rather than after doing the 6km on foot), so he doubled back and dropped me at the town's castle, a small rather unimpressive structure that admittedly had a good view of the sea.  

 I walked around the temples of Teramachi, the centuries-old.  It felt refreshing somehow to be back in the peaceful atmosphere of Zen which I haven't felt in 6 months. Here, on the cusp of Honshu, I had found traditional Japanese architecture again.  This town, like all the other seaside towns on the southern coast, was filled with sturdy, nondescript buildings erected to withstand a harsh winter.  Most of Hokkaido looks like this:  new, Western, and completely at odds with the beautiful environment that surrounds it.   But there's a lot to be said for old wood and tile to bring about a sense of peace and quiet.  Each of the four protective deities of one temple gate had zori on, as if they sneak out at night in order to fight desires.  

Further up, out of sight in the old cemetery, an old woman chanted sutras for her dead relatives.  The towering trees offered shelter from the freaky burst of rain which came on and off like a faucet.  I tore myself away, and was able to catch a ride immediately, a bit of pure luck as moments later the faucet was completely opened, and the rain poured down for two full hours, all the way into Hakodate. 

In the city, the rain was like a typhoon.  I don't know if it was the fogged up windows, or because I hadn't been a city for awhile, or because I'd had more caffeine than food, but I was feeling antsy and wanted to get out of cars for awhile.  After I checked into a cheap and friendly hotel, the rain stopped and the sky cleared completely.  I walked down the gentrified waterfront and was delighted by all the warehouses refurbished as restaurants and beer halls.  Maybe it was the rain, but everything looked new, clean, and neon-cool.  My walk took me to the Motomachi area with its mixture of old and new, of Japanese and western.  At time, I felt like I was in San Fransisco or Seattle.  Other times I was in an Asian port city like Singapore or Shanghai.  I kept walking through quiet residential districts, with old wooden homes kept by old women walking old dogs and hocking up old phlegm.  On past huge Nishi-Honganji to the foreigner's cemetery, the segregated Russians, Chinese and Protestants treated to a view of the Bay that they're not in a position to never enjoy.  Lots of churches and an old blue Victorian house which looked a mere facade.  Up a speedy ropeway for the city's famed night view, then into a museum of trick paintings.  As I strolled the quiet streets, I thought that this city would've been a great place to have been a university student.  I continued in this spirit by downing a couple of pints at the local microbrewery pub.  It brought on a silly kind of drunk, and as I walked around the waterfront area, I sang songs made up on the spot, inspired by what I saw around me.  

August 23

Up and out early, to the Trappist Convent.  Unlike the monastery's peace and quiet, this place was full on tourist hell with vending machines, souvenir stands, and a parking lot filled with buses.  I really felt for the nuns inside.  Perhaps this says something about me as a Buddhist, or as a Catholic.  For some reason, this frenzy doesn't bother me at a temple, but at a church I still see it as sacrilege.  Another thing to ponder:  if this sickens me so much, why am I here, and why didn't I happily partake in buying some of those famous cookies?

For the first time in a long while, I hopped the wrong bus, but didn't mind the walk through the Goryaku Fort toward the train station.  There I hopped a train, riding on a seatless car with only a large raised platform on which I could stretch my legs and look out the large windows opposite.  Since I didn't have the option of hitching across the sea, I took the train, but made a point to get off at the second stop, it being closer to the sea than the first.  From here I would circumnavigate nearly the whole of the Tsuruga peninsula and be far enough away from Aomori City to easily thumb a ride.   In addition to all this, I was excited to pass through the eerie 23km tunnel under the strait.  Being down that long was strange enough, but for some unexplained reason, we stopped for a while in the middle next to another train.  From the window, I could see other parallel and bisecting passages, as if this whole thing was one big interconnected underwater maze.  

In daylight again on the other side I hopped out in Kanita.  Immediatly, the hot clear weather, vegetation, and architecture helped me recognize the Japan that I know and love.  Ah, to be back on Honshu!  I flagged a ride with an English speaking guy from Osaka, an irony in that I didn't meet a local and be forced to deal with the infamous Tohoku dialect.  The driver and I kept up an interesting conversation up the coast to Tappizaka, then back down the other side to Kanagi.  I wanted to see Dazai Osamu's birth home, but it was under renovation.  Luckily, an old woman waved us in. Albeit without furniture, it was one of the most beautiful homes I'd ever seen, with dark wood, alternating western and Japanese rooms, chandeliers, and even a three-way staircase which met on a landing in the middle.  After having such a wonderful, warm place to play a child, I couldn't understand how Dazai wound up so twisted an adult.  

I parted with my new friend, and started on my long trek south. Mount Iwaki stood out across the rice fields.   It took awhile to get a ride to a town whose name I can't remember, so will call Gochisosama.  When the driver initially passed me, I could see though the windshield the surprise on his face, then he swung around and picked me up.  He was too shy to ask questions, but what was worse was that he let me off in the center of town after passing an turnoff that could've been more useful.  Cursing, I walked a long way back.

Then three young local guys picked me up.  They each had really long names, which I forgot in seconds. Little wonder, since I couldn't remember the name of their town either.  So began a fun ride where I taught them swear words in English, and they taught me Tsugaru-ben which I also promptly forgot.  As they were basically out joy-riding and little else to do, they took me 80km to Jūniko Lakes, along a breathtaking stretch of coast through little fishing villages, and a sun that turned into a bit pat of butter that melted into the sea.  Well past dark, I set up camp in the parking lot of a restroom across the road from a ryokan.  I had all I needed here, a patch of grass for the tent, a toilet, and a vending machine for morning coffee.  The curious ryokan owner came out and we chatted for a few minutes.  He came at me in mid conversation, and due to the darkness, it wasn't until he was a meter away that he saw that I was foreign.  He assured me that there were no bears about...

On the turntable:  Gerry Mulligan, "The Gerry Mulligan"


No comments: