Irishman Walking is about my walking the coastal roads of Japan through a series of summer, winter, spring, and autumn 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. This summer (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 is planned to start from Fukuoka City this winter and will end at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage is planned to last for five weeks.
By Michael Denis Crossey
14-19 July 2009 continued: Today was my last day in Cape Soya. After chahan (fried rice) for breakfast at the restaurant I decided to take a brisk walk about the area to help limber up for hitting the road tomorrow. This miniature venture took me up to the top of the hill that overlooked much of the coastline and beyond. As before, the area was deeply linked by emotion and history. A Japanese Imperial Army lookout post still remained, a dark reminder of a profound militarist past. Sadly for me, the interior of the old lookout post was closed to the public at large. Across the way from the lookout post hung a large bell. As I drew nearer I could see an inscription, which read: ‘Peace Bell.’ I stopped for a moment to ring it.
Not far from the peace bell stood a large monument dedicated to the memory of the passengers onboard the ill-fated Korean Air flight 007 that a Soviet jet fighter shot down on the first of September 1983. The plane vanished into the Sea of Okhotsk with all 269 passengers and crew. The only thing that came out of the tragedy was the bag of unanswered questions, theories and conspiracy theories. All the more Intriguing since the Boeing 747 black-box flight recorder was never found. This made it impossible for aviation experts to reconstruct the final hours of the tragedy.
Upon a plaque were the names of the passengers from no less than sixteen countries. One name in particular sent a shiver up my spine. Susan Campbell! “Fucking hell!” I mumbled to myself, thinking if that could be the very same, Susan Campbell, a young New Zealand girl who used to sneak sandwiches out to me from the hotel where she worked at that summer. My tent was pitched a short distance from the hotel. That was in the Sinai Desert way back in the late-1970s. In those days I was hitchhiking through the Middle-Eastern countries, where I camped and literally lived like a desert rat scavenging for food and water wherever it could be got. Susan, a teacher by trade in her own country took a year out for the want of doing something different with her life. During our short couple of weeks together we had become good friends, and spent just about all of her time off work hiking about the area with me. When we finally did say our sad goodbyes we planned to meet up again in London, her next big stop, and where she hoped to find work. Of course, those were the days before computer and smart phones made things convenient. Also, in those days you could leave a message or letter for someone at your embassy. Such was our plan! Unfortunately, my selfish lust for the roads was such that I did not return to London again for the next ten years, and by then it was too late. When I visited Christchurch in New Zealand a couple of years after our parting, I tried to look her up, but sadly, to no avail. We were never to cross paths again.
While doing a bit of window shopping a print on a T-shirt caught my attention. It contained information on a type of bear, which I had a personal interest in. I just had to go inside of the shop for a better look, and to see what else was on the shelves. My intention was to pick something up for my daughter, Anna in Tokyo, and to post it to her before I left Cape Soyo once and for all. On one T-shirt I picked up to look at were printed the words: ‘Cut it out if it’s bad for nature. We should do something good for the next generation’, as if I did not know! It did not take me long to find what I wanted. Namely, one ‘M’ size, black colored T-shirt, with an interesting depiction of a pair of viscous looking eyes and a set of frightfully sharp looking teeth on it.
Like the shadow of a nightmare, visions of my stepmother in Belfast many years ago entered my mind. I found the fear of that apparition startlingly near, and her fuming, shouting in turns at all of us, my brothers, sister and me. None of us escaped her wrath. “Children should be seen, but not heard”, was one of her favorite remarks. It was not so amusing the very same letters that made up ‘mother-in-law’ could also be found in ‘woman-Hitler’. Of course, I had many vivid descriptions of what it was like to live under the same roof with her, as it had not been a field of flowers. But the past was all of little concern to me now. For the present, bears occupied my mind. According to the label on the T-shirt, the print depicted the eyes and teeth of the Hokkaido Ezo brown bear, and it was thought to be the most dangerous of bears on the island.
Time was spent in my tent penning a few more sentences on to the postcards I promised, the first of five sets soon to be in the post before I left. “When I landed at the airport (14 July) I was unable to get a bus directly to Cape Soya where my big tramp is to begin. Instead, a bus took me into Wakkanai city, from where I got one to the cape. So time consuming. It took me one hour. As I pitched my tent it began to rain and I could feel a wind kicking up. On 16 July I did some washing, but the rain had started to fall again. Somebody told me that there was no rainy season in Hokkaido. If that was the case, then what was it that I was experiencing since I got here? Rain or no rain, I needed to start out on my big tramp tomorrow, the 17 July.”
There had been a few intermittent bursts of enthusiasm, but this time I was determined to go. I was becoming restless, not only with myself, but with the tourists, or I was beginning to feel like a novelty every time they stopped to talk to me. A good many of them seemed unable to pass by my tent without first pausing to take a quick snapshot in my direction. This provided part of the cue to pack up and move on regardless of the weather. Another reason was the optimism I left Tokyo with had become dented for allowing the miserable weather conditions to hold me up. What kind of a solider would that make me in other perhaps more terrible circumstances? Now the urge to pull my finger out, gained in strength. At least I hoped that it was more real than merely wishful thinking. A sense of euphoria was running through my brain as if some great thing was about to happen and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. The coming hours would soon determine whether or not I was going to put my money where my mouth was, and to hit the road once and for all.
With the cards finished, all I needed was to get stamps for them. I peered and listened, but saw or heard nothing, for the rain had stopped. The weather was looking up. A strong dry wind had encouraged me to wash some clothes and hang them over a rope nearby. Also hanging from the rope was a sign in Japanese telling the readers to ‘keep out’. Beyond the sign the fishing boats secured in their moorings last night, were gone. In the early hours the noisy outboard engines could be heard. Still, the put-put-putting sound of the engines did not bother me as much as the ceaseless rain. There was not much rain last night beyond a drizzle that came of nothing. Some hours before the drizzle was the heaviest wind and rain that I experienced in years.
The task of up routing my canvas home of sorts from its grassy foundation overlooking the sea was now about to begin The washing fluttered in the breeze drying, still had a ways to go before it would be wearable. There was a final stop in at the noodle restaurant that I had grown accustomed to the last few days. “Some fuel for the road wouldn’t hear any”, I thought to myself, making my way over the road, but what? I did not feel very hungry, but I was unsure at how long it would take me to reach Wakkanai City, or if there was some other place between the cape and there to eat at. Perhaps a bowl of chahan, or hot fried rice, would do the trick. It had a heavy enough dose of calories to set me comfortably on my way. Like before, the elderly female cook placed a cup of hot coffee on the table before me. While I waited for my order to arrive, I put the last touches to my postcards that had to be done and out of the way. “I have begun packing up my tent and everything. As soon as breakfast was finished, then it was on the road. Wish me well. Ha! I will write again soon (17 July).” From the restaurant window I could see a postbox not far away, soon my postcards would be on their way, too.
On the eve of my pulling up stakes and heading on out of Cape Soya, I wrote a note and put it inside a wine bottle, the last drops of which I consumed last night. My plan was to bury it near to my trusty little tent early before the sun rose to lesson the chances of being seen. It was an inexpensive wine that kept me company on those stormy nights, and, like a good friendship, I was very glad that I had it with me. (Vignes de Paul Valmont Rouge Fruite Vin De Pays D’oc (2008)). As to the note that I put inside the bottle, I wrote: ’17 July 2009. Greetings fellow travelers. I camped right beside the spot you found this bottle at with my note in it. My name is Michael Denis Crossey, an Irishman, from Belfast at birth, but an Internationalist at heart. You are welcome to try and find me at… . Sincerely Michael C.’
On the morning of the seventeen the weather had cleared. Glimpses of a subdued light from the sun told me that this was the day to take to the road. A chill wind blew in my face as I commenced with packing up the still damp camping things. I trusted my washing, too, would excuse me for not waiting any longer for it to dry properly. Besides, the rain had drenched some of my stuff for long enough, so there was no way they were going to dry anytime soon. It was a near perfect day for walking with the bright morning sun, at times blocked out by a few fluffy clouds.
The plants poking out from the hedges by the wayside were in full bloom. The air was full of a mixed sweet smell from the sea and from the damp ground. As with the poodles on the asphalt road that I stepped over and around, the near and distant landscape still possessed a drenched gray, dull look. “Strange!” I thought to myself careful not to get my boots wet. It was the height of summer! My steps took me through the car park and then onto the road, Route 238. Now my tramp along the coastal roads of Japan was about to begin, and Wakkanai City was to be my first target. It was from there whence I had come on the bus three days earlier. It somehow seemed crazy to be returning to the place, but I had no plans of stopping there again. As far as I could make out from my maps, there were few big teeming cities stretched out along the roads ahead, but for Wakkanai, Rumoi, and Otaru, and with little else in between.
Route 238 was to be my new friend for the next thirty-five kilometers, or such was my hope to get that far and beyond before the sun went down. “Noting but misfortunate!” I whispered, absently to myself. How needed something to feel good about, for nothing but misfortune had hung over me so far. Now my mind was a mixture of anger and excitement as I looked straight with an intense, yet mournful gaze about me. The mammoth mission that had long been building up inside of me was about to start. Allan Booth’s book, ‘The Roads to Sata’ had planted the seeds in me. Now everything was different! Unlike Booth, and the others who tramped along one route or another through Japan, from top to bottom or bottom to top, that was only half of the story for me. For me, the plan was to hold true to the coastline roads all the way. Not only that, but to tramp around the main, and not so main, islands that made up the shape of the country. In other words, my mission was to walk around Japan, which was the second largest coastline in the world; namely, to start and to finish in the same place, Cape Soya in Hokkaido.
Soon I recovered my senses, and felt calm and ready, as the roads needed that, clear thinking. Like the sailor’s respected the sea, I had to feel the same towards the roads that lay ahead. Just as I stepped onto the road a young girl was walking a large dog. “A nice dog!” I called out to her as we passed in opposite directions. She smiled, but said nothing. She resembled one of the staff that served me at the noodle restaurant. I did not stop to enquire! What was the point? A lone motorbike passed me going in the same direction and its young rider waved to me. I waved back! It was the first wave that I had in a long time. Moments later a police car, passed with its lights blinking, but there was neither sound nor wave of the hand.
It felt good to be free from the confines of my tent bogged down by the dismal weather for three days. If it did not break when it did I would have gone mad with rage. A fresh feeling now penetrated my heart with every step. Two motorbikes passed and two more hands waved. Two tour coaches loaded up with passengers sped by in both directions. Passing by Wakkanai Airport the airplane tails pointed to the sky tall and proud. Far away in the distance I could see the arm of giant windmills hard at work. I could see rain clouds gathering, too, and they were fast hiding the mountain range behind. I stopped by at a convenience store called ‘Seicomart’ where I picked up a lunch box of sushi and a 500-milliliter carton of Meiji milk for only ¥100 yen.
Up ahead, I spotted a small post office that looked open. Two elderly people, whom I took to be husband and wife, ran the tiny place. There faces told me that a language problem was about to happen when they looked up at me as I entered. Not one to waste time if I could help it, I placed the T-shirt I bought for my daughter Anna on the tiny counter. “Kore o Tokyo ni okuritai no desu ga” (This, I would very much like to send to Tokyo), I said in polite Japanese to the elderly couple who listened attentively. I then picked up a pen and began to write down the name and address in Tokyo on the paper in which the T-shirt was wrapped. The comical expression on their faces told me that this would not do. They were, of course, quite right, for the paper wrapping used by the souvenir shop was much too feeble and easily torn to handle a journey of any kind, let alone by post.
After some deliberation together, the woman turned to me and suggested I rewrap the T-shirt using the trendy little plastic carrier bag from the souvenir shop. “Iidesu ne!” (Sounds great!) I said with a smile, and she set about folding it neatly with the T-shirt inside it. Her husband, who had just ducked into a backroom, reemerged with masking tape. “Kousureba iidesu yo!” (This should do the trick), he said placing it on the counter. Soon everything was done! The elderly lady then produced a small peace of white paper and a brown magic marker.
Soon the name and address was done, for the second time. With the woman’s help, the package was tapped and ready. The stamps came to only ¥280 yen! I thanked the elderly couple for their assistance and felt good tat what I had perceived would be a problem turned out to be quite the opposite. And with a hearty goodbye it was out the door and merrily on my way heading west along Route 238. The first couple of hours after leaving the post office were uphill, which was a good thing if you wanted to look at the scenery and take snapshots. With hour after hour on the road such things had become rather secondary for me. Much of the uphill tramp was occupied with stopping to rearrange the straps on my backpack. For the first time since leaving Cape Soya, the weight on my back had become quite noticeable. For starters, the straps were beginning to bite into my shoulders. On the downward side of the road I stopped momentarily to take in the sight of a most beautiful volcano, Rishiri To (Mount Rishiri).
A dormant volcano, 1,721 meters tall, the inhabitants often called Mount Rishiri Rishiri-Fuji. To me it looked so majestic with its massive body poking out of the calm blue sea. It was a view to behold that remained in view for some days thereafter. Rishiri Island was a remote island some twenty kilometers off the northern tip of Hokkaido. A part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park system, home to six thousand inhabitants who made a living mainly from tourism and fishing.
To the west of Wakkanai on a clear day you could see Rebun and Rishiri islands. The kanji characters for ‘Rebun’ and ‘Rishiri’ meant ‘profitable writing’ and ‘profitable buttocks’, respectively. Not only did the names of the islands have very different meanings, but also true of the landscape and terrain. Rishiri was round-like, high and volcanic, whilst Rebun is long, narrow and quite flat. Like the less remote Cape Soya, both islands attracted a considerable number of Japanese tourists each year, especially in the summer months.
There were a number of reasons for this pull on tourism. Both Rishiri and Rebun were known as the flower islands. The Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, the most northern park in Japan, covered more than 21,222 hectares. The impressive image of Mount Rishiri, which rose well above the island to a height of 1,712 meters, had long been a prominent feature on postcards and brochures that promoted Hokkaido and the most northern islands. In addition to the attractive scenic places and hiking routes on both islands, was the accommodation to be had, including youth hostels, one on Rishiri and three on Rebun. Alas, neither of the islands was on my planned schedule, and time, or lack of it, was always an issue that weighed heavily on my shoulders. The miserable weather conditions that held me up in Cape Soya for three days, was a dint on my current plans, so I needed to make up ground.
If all went well I would soon be in Wakkanai City, but I had no intentions of stopping to camp if I could help it. The sound of a train could be heard away in the distance. Perhaps it left Wakkanai and was heading south, which was what I hoped to do. Worn out by the last few kilometers, there was still a ring of triumph in it. It had been a hard day, but a successful day in terms of distance covered. The sun touched the horizon as I finally tramped through Wakkanai. My body was feeling tired, I had to make camp soon, but not there. The few hours that I had spent looking about the city, just killing time before the bus for Cape Soya, was time enough.
It was a little beyond Noshappumisaki (Cape Noshappu) with Wakkanai now well behind me, when I finally made camp. Soon the tent was erected and the stuff that I had carried on my back all day was dumped into. My smelly boots were soon replaced for a pair of flip-flops. The temperature dropped to just below ten degrees centigrade and remained there the whole night and into the morning. The good thing about making camp on or near to a beach was the rich supply of washed up deadwood to be had. The wood was dry and light, and easy to gather making it ideal for a campfire. The dip in the temperature was as good a reason as any to build a fire. In no time at all the fire began to take nicely. In a little while the larger logs were blazing away casting out fair bit of heat about the surrounding area.
In a little while, too, my tired eyes were soon blinking dreamingly into the flames. If it was not for being so tired, I was sure the sights and sounds around the deserted beach would have made the hairs on the back of my head standup. The gleaming wood on the fire, for example, cast an eerie shadowy pattern out across the sand. The dancing shapes seemed to be in harmony with the crashing sound of the waves against the rocks. In a little while, the dizziness of slumber and red wine possessed me. Now the gentle whistle from the wind did not seem like any weird and eerie intrusion, for my mind felt calm, and the sounds about became music to my ears. In a little while, thinking became impossible, but that could wait until the morning. My eyes could no longer focus on anything. Almost subconsciously, I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept the sleep of an exhausted foot solider.
Day four away from Tokyo: It was a little after six in the morning not far from Cape Noshappu when I broke camp, to continue my big tramp south towards Bakkai. It seemed logical enough to me that I should get underway as early as possible. Or at least, it allowed a better chance to get further, more kilometers under my belt. It was also to see just how my body and mind would coup with the longer hours on the road. On the previous months, before I set out on the first stage of my mission along the coastal roads, my mind was stacked with all sorts of ideas of glamour and romance. Perhaps my mission had instilled all sorts of positive things in my mind. Many people failed to find their mission in life, and were often miserable for it.
It was true that I had discovered my mission in life, or so I believed. It was also no secret that walking was an excellent form of exercise, when done properly. But how did that hold up when it involved walking 35 kilometers of on a daily basis? My body and mind was just about shattered, and it was only the first day. According to a study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, discovering your mission in life helped you to stay mentally sharp. In other words, researchers found that people with clear intentions and goals in life were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. By yesterdays end, however, the harsh realities in the form of muscle aches, cramp, blisters, pain from even the tiniest of cuts and scratches, not to mention stiffness throughout my entire body, told me a different story. That I was a novice, or naive! Even the heavy rainfall that kept me at bay in Cape Soya for three whole days had literally worn me down mentally, that I was on the verge of giving up and returning to Tokyo.
The little anti-bear bell, fastened at the bottom of my backpack this morning, chimed away in sequence to my steps. Discarded litter from passing motorists lay rotting by the roadside. It was about then when I realized I had lost a cooking pot and a toilet roll I kept inside it. “No doubt an inadvertent contribution to the tons of litter that I had already passed by so far” I mumbled angrily to myself for being so careless. Just as I was thinking about where I could buy another pot a motorcyclist sped by. Like a scythe cutting swiftly through tall grass, a long shadow sliced across the road. This was a good sign and the sun was breaking through. Yet, like a lawnmower powered by an engine, the motorbike also left behind a ghastly smell of spent fuel. Another motorcyclist soon passed, but in the opposite direction with a similar smelly effect.
“Perhaps it fell off just a little ways back”, I thought again as I stashed my backpack behind some bushes by the roadside. It was only a matter of retracing my steps a couple of kilometers back to have a look. Alas, nothing came of the effort to find the pot, and so I headed back to where I left my backpack. “Hi!” A lone female cyclist clad in her tight fitting cycling gear called out to me as she past. She was headed in the direction of Wakkanai City from whence I had come. No sooner was the girl out of sight when a guy passed on a 50cc scooter loaded up with camping gear almost as big as the tiny contraption he rode. A black Harley Davidson passed by with its middle-aged rider clad in light fitting black leather reading gear. There was no wave, only a hard, cold glance in my direction. “A Sunday rider no doubt, and back to the office once Monday came”. Just as I watched him disappear out of sight, thoughts of Elvis entered my mind.
As luck would have it, the female cyclist who passed me a little earlier in the day was squatting down by a Coca Cola vending machine enjoying a soft drink. The toilets at the roadside stops that I pulled into were usually very clean and well stocked with toilet paper. The larger roadside stops tended to have a restaurant and shop, among other things, but a fresh water tap to refill my water bottles at was all that I really needed.
After relieving myself at ‘the john’ (toilet), I walked over to where the girl was sitting for a chat. I asked the usual set of questions that had been leveled at me numerous times by the tourist at Cape Soya; Where were was she coming from and headed to, etc. She told me that she was on a fifty-kilometer jaunt on as expensive looking racer. Also she said it was something she did most weekends, or whenever she could make the time. She was not as young as I had first thought she was, but thanks to her love for cycling, I could make out a well-proportioned and muscular body. I also learnt from her that there would be no more restaurants or roadside stops for more than twenty kilometers. She asked me if I was hitchhiking, and was rather surprised when I told her that I was walking around the entire country.
I had not gone five kilometers along Route 106 from the roadside stop when my feet began to hurt. The blisters were beginning to make them known to me. Soon I just had to sit down at a bend in the road to attend to them. At that moment, four Harley Davidson’s roared past, each sporting a tiny American flag madly fluttering. The bandages offered some relief and soon I was back on my feet again notching up the kilometers. Way up ahead I could make out a parked motorbike with its rider standing by it. Perhaps she had stopped for a rest.
As I drew nearer I could see that the bike was a Harley Davidson and the rider, who was pushing on in years, was smoking a cigarette. Apparently, he had also stopped to take in the scenery, which was indeed breath taking on that segment of the route. The usual words of greeting and questions were exchanged, as well as, the surprises and encouragement given to me. It was also a good chance to have my photo taken with the pocket phone camera. This the rider kindly did. I did not have many photos of myself thus far. For whatever reasons, the photos I had taken to date were mainly of road signs.
On my way again another cyclist passes by. It was not a beautiful lady like before, but a middle-aged man. He peddled on for a little while then made a U-turn back in my direction. Like before, the greetings are given and some photos are taken. I was then complemented on how well I spoke the Japanese language. I am then asked if I work for a Japanese company, which I answer.
19 July, 2009: It was near seven-thirty when I hit the road again and left Yukuomana behind me. Sleep was good as the spring in my step was testament to. My backpack seemed lighter, too, which made me wonder if I had forgotten something. The morning was cold and the wind was doing its best to make a meal of me. Route 106 was uneventful and near dead of traffic. If ever it looked like rain, it looked like rain soon. I approached two parked Harley Davidsons, but I did not want to stop. As if I just appeared out of a puff of smoke, the facial expressions on the riders seemed amazed at my tramping. Collecting their senses, they wished me well. “Gumbate kudasai”, they called out as I passed them. I smiled and thanked them, and called for them both to ride safely.
It was only a matter of time that the drizzle, aided by a westerly wind, would see its way through the flaps of my army cape. By the close of the days tramping I was soaked through. The cars, trucks and tour coaches left their mark on me as they sped over puddles as they passed. It did not matter which side of the road I tramped along as my cape was near proving useless. I cannot recall being clad in a rainwear that kept me completely dry.
At last I pulled into a rest stop only to find the restaurant closed. A lit up vending machine offering the usual soft drinks and iced coffee worked. Once the coins were produced I foolishly pressed the wrong button and out tumbled a plastic bottle of Japanese green tea, which not only looked like piss, but I suspect tasted like it, too. It had been a long hard tramp, and crashing out for an hour entered my mind. My wet clothing and the depressing nature of the place encouraged me to tramp on.
A glance at my map told me that just fifteen kilometers had been notched up. The increase in the rain had slowed me down. It was strange the way the weather conditions influenced my mind. It was being told to pitch my tent and rest while the rains passed. God forbid! There was nothing else to do, but to get into some dry clothes and sleep the best I could till morning. Pitching the tent in heavy rain and wind was not a task I would wish on anyone. The rainstorm was just one of the challenges to be dealt with. To add to my frustration the little tent was beginning to show its age. The threads that held the tent together were stretched to their limits. The winds had placed great stress on the supporting tent poles, some of which were now bent. One of the four little supporting pockets in the tent corners had loosened making it difficult to hold the tent pole in place.
By my camp, not far from the beach, the winds and rains were now crating havoc. Scrambling out again, getting more and more drenched with every passing second, I dug and dug and dug like there was no tomorrow. Working frantically in the wet with my little army-like fold up spade the small trenches around the tent was taking shape. A puddle at one side was increasing in size before my eyes. It was getting too big for comfort. If the rain did not let up anytime soon it was sure to seep under the tent. No sooner were my efforts on the trenches done, when the tent pole came away from its moorings. Forcing it back into its place was not an easy job to complete in the relentless wind and rain. Fearing it would come loose again; I rammed the spade deep into the soil next to it for added support. Back inside my tent there was little else to consider, but to rest up as best I could, while the war with the winds and rains and my tent raged on outside. Somehow in the madness of it all, I fell into a sound sleep.
20 July, 2009: I awoke to the sound of the rippling waves on the lonely beach nearby. By morning the rains had passed, and the winds in from the sea seemed gentle upon my face. A quick splash in the sea to wash away the dirt and sweat of yesterdays tramp was as good away to begin my day as any. Like a good soldier of the wild I cleaned my tools and equipment the best I could. My dirty boots were soaked through from hours of tramping in yesterdays rain. With more to gain than lose, I carried the boots with me into the sea to wash. It was just after eight fifteen when I finally got back up on to the road and headed south. The weather was dry and overcast. The road remained silent for quite for a good while, but for the occasional passing truck, I was in heaven.
Wondering over strange lands, roads and places many kilometers away from the madness of city life gave me boundless delight. A vast silence reigned over the road for much of the morning. Still, the hours came and went, but the distance tramped slowed joyfully with the passing time. In the evenings, I was free to camp where I liked, free to enjoy the heat of a naked fire, and free from the questions and prying eyes of busybodies. It did well to choose carefully where I stopped to rest for a while, as not every place was what it seemed. The times I sat under the shade of a tree at some scenic spot only to discover that I was being attacked by hundreds of ants and mosquitoes.
The distance I set for myself was measured in terms of towns, as opposed to actual numbers of kilometers. Often the towns that I hoped to reach or pass through were around thirty kilometers apart. There was often little worth stopping for in between. The only rule I placed on myself was to tramp not less than twenty kilometers a day. There was no timecard, as such, but I did hope to make camp around sunset at the latest, but was prepared to go beyond then if necessary. Squeezing out a few extra kilometers at the close of day had very little to do with endurance or sacrifice or self-denial. Of course, tramping in the rain, or mere drizzle, seemed more logical than not, not that my current record was something to be proud of. There was that time when I was unable to make only fifteen kilometers because of the rain, but was determined for it not to hold me back again.
On better days, and when I was well rested I knew that I could get past thirty-five kilometers, and ready for more. With the lengthy distance between the towns, it was inevitable that I would go short of food (or water), but this I was prepared for too; or to make the most of what little food or water came my way. To counter such possibilities, I tended to overfeed myself whenever I could. This was no problem since the hours on the road usually left me with a voracious appetite. Before leaving Tokyo I had readied a good few packets of supplementary-food powder (and vitamin pills), which offered only a short-term boost when food was not to be had at any cost. Beyond worrying about getting supplies, my biggest fear remained the rain, which kind of took the fun out of the adventure in more ways than one.
On the days leading up to my departure from Tokyo, I was ready for all kinds of weather and conditions, or so I thought. Even before then I had decked myself out, at great expense, with hiking gear. The good pair of boots in particular was perhaps the most difficult of all to decide upon. Of course, everything was thoroughly waterproofed for the occasion. The contents of what I was to carry with me in my new backpack were checked and double checked umpteen times. Therefore, I was as materially ready as I would ever be. I was also well stocked up on various kinds of vitamin pills and a good assort of stuff in my medical kit. There were other odds-and-ends strapped to the outside of my backpack or dangling from it that I thought might come in handy at one point or another. A rolled up mat for added insulation in the cool evenings was a must at anytime. A tiny army spade for digging tiny trenches should the rainfall threaten. It would also make easier what rubbish there was to get rid of, as opposed to burning it. Then there were those tiny pits to be dug for more personal reasons of hygiene. Also dangling from my backpack was the little pot to boil water in for making tea and coffee or whatever. Most prominent among the things that hung from it were the four 500 milliliter water bottles.
There was a lot of cultivated land close to the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). The farms in Hokkaido looked like what I thought farms were supposed to look like. There was no comparison with the little plots of land in Tokyo farmed by toy-farmers. This was more for tax purposes than for any love for that glorious profession, farming. As I tramped past one large farm, I could see a number of Holstein cows contentedly grazing in the grassy fields. They lifted their heads to focus on me before returning to their grazing. Unafraid of me, a few of the cows made their way in my direction, perhaps for a better look. Others stopped where they were, but bellowed out in that sweet language of theirs: “Moo, Moo, Moo”. Where they trying to say something to me? Or perhaps to the cows that came nearer.
Some ways further along my way I stopped momentarily to take a snapshot of a stuffed dummy, or ‘kakashi’ in Japanese. It was positioned at the entrance of a tiny dirt road, and dressed in a uniform of the kind one might wear for directing traffic. Just as I was taking the photo a large truck loaded up with soil turned off the main drag and made its way along the tiny dirt road, perhaps bound for some building site or farmland. “Ah ha! So that was why the dummy was, were it was”, I thought to myself as I turned to make my way back on to the main road. The dummy left me with a smile on my face, knowing that someone had a sense of humor. For the first time since leaving Cape Soya I was beginning to feel at home on the road.
As I stopped to look at a road sign informing me that Central Teshio was seventeen kilometers away, an army of colorful Harley Davidson’s roared by. Many of the riders were clad in colorful leather gear, red and blue jackets and pants. For all I knew they might all have been part of some traveling circus group. My pace along the road was varied, both quick and slow with infrequent stoppages of various times for rest and water. There were a couple of times when I would tramp on and on for hours in the rain, as if seized by some irresistible impulse. But now the road was becoming dryer and dryer with every step I took following the last lengthy downpour, and which letup an hour earlier.
The sun in the sky continued to shine down on me in a most welcoming manner, not too hot for the cool breeze blowing in from the sea. And progress along the asphalt was steady. Soon a building up ahead came into view, and as I drew nearer to it, it looked like food might be had there. The hunger pings had taken my mind of the muscle pains that had been troubling me this last couple of kilometers. A few nuts and raisins made up the extent of my intake for breakfast this morning. “What if the fucking place was closed?” I began to wonder as the distance lessoned. “If so, the vending machine outside by the entrance would serve another need”. My water supply, like the state of my stomach, was at zero. I still had some of that hideous ocha (green tea) left, and which could only be stomached in tiny doses. “Fuck it! Closed!” At least the vending machine was working, which I promptly popped ¥150 yen coins into the slot, pressed the appropriate button and retrieved the bottle of ‘Aquarius’. This was disposed of in a matter of seconds.
An empty car parked by the entrance of the restaurant told me two things! Someone was inside even though the place was closed to business. And that I was so fucking hungry tat I would not forgive myself if I did not try my luck as investigate. So I slid open one of the glass doors and announced my presence to whoever was there. “Gomen kudasai?” (Is anyone there?) I called out, while at the same time trying not to sound too startling. Almost instantaneously, a small side window opened up, and a smiling round face that belonged to a cheerful middle-aged woman popped out. “Ima wa eigyo shite imasuka?” (Are you open for business?), I asked her smiling, and which was more a desperate plea than not. I had eaten nothing stable since setting out from Cape Soya on the 17 July, or three days ago to be precise. “Tabemono desuka?” (Food?) This was her reply, and at which I nodded my head in the affirmative. “Dozo, dozo, suwate kudasai” (Please, please come in and take a seat) she said pointing to some tables inside.
When I finished eating the katsu curry (a deep fried rice curry dish) I searched about my little shoulder bag for the money to pay the bill. I knew that I had a ¥10,000 yen bill somewhere about. It did not take me very long to realize that, that was all I had on me. There were no smaller notes in my wallet or pockets, nor even enough loose change to settle the bill. “Fuck it!” I mumbled to myself looking up at the ceiling. I could make out three female voices coming from the kitchen. Also, there was the sound of cutlery and dishes being moved from one place to another, something being cut and chapped, and the running of water, and a whole host of other sounds from the kitchen. “Perhaps they were preparing food for the lunchtime crowds” I thought. It seemed a little strange being the first customer, but I was glad to finally get something inside of me. Some nervous glances up at the clock on the wall watched the hands getting closer to eleven, or the time that I hoped to get a move on. There was something about being the first customer, too, that told me perhaps it would be difficult for them to change such a large note as ¥10,000 yen. I was about to find out!
Just as I was toying with this possibility, one of the women came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with a thermos flask, a jar of instant Nescafe Excella coffee and a cup and saucer on it, which she placed it on the table before me. “Dozo, dozo!” She said smilingly. “You are all quite busy in the kitchen, aren’t you?” I said making some friendly small talk. She told me tat the three of them were busily hard at work preparing for a coach load of elderly tourists, who were scheduled to arrive at the restaurant within the next hour. I also learned that they were three sisters, the eldest being the owner of the establishment.
Just as we were chatting merrily away, the other two of the smiling sisters appeared, each carrying a large tray load of glasses, cups, and dishes. Soon everything was neatly placed on the tables and ready for the expected crowd. It was easy to see from their actions that they were very experienced and well organized. They seemed very contented with their efforts, s they looked over the tables to make sure everything was just right. While they were laying the tables the three sisters spoke to me in a cheerful hospitable manner, and which made me feel good in that my sudden appearance did little to upset the flow of things.
The elder sister was called Suzuyo, and the younger Miyoko. All of them were surprised at how far I had walked this morning, and even more so at my mission of tramping around the coastal roads of the entire country. They asked me if I was tired and pointed to the tatami matted floor over by some windows to indicate that I was more than welcome to take a nap before hitting the road proper. As much as I would have loved to have accepted their kind offer, I really had to get going. Especially as the sky had quickly clouded over and looked like it was about to rain. If so, then I needed to get a good few more kilometers under my belt in the coming hours.
“Please forgive me, but I have nothing smaller than this”, I said in polite Japanese pulling the ¥10,000 yen bill from my pocket. “Oh! We cannot change it! So sorry! But don’t concern yourself” Miyoko said with a smile, “It is on us.” Now all of the sisters stood before me smiling! Of course, I felt relieved at their exceptional kindness towards me, but not without an element of shame, too. My face began to color a little from embarrassment. It was not everyday one received such kindness or generosity, be it on the road or anywhere for that matter.
As with living in Tokyo, you could consider yourself lucky to get a smile. Indeed, life on the road was not easy at all, so any little bit of kindness from wherever was very much appreciated. The sisters accompanied me outside the restaurant to wave me off, and where I was able to get a couple of photos of them, which I would arrange in the appropriate place among my road-notes later on. Their warmth and kindness was beyond measure. It was like we had known each other for a long time; or so much so in fact that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, our parting was such sweet sorrow. Of course, I was the one who was leaving, or about to depart on my long journey on foot, perhaps never to return. I felt sad! Each of the sisters gave me such a big hug, and then with my backpack once more in place, I turned to face the road that lay stretched out before me. The gray heavy sky above me sort of brought me back to the real world. A couple of times I stopped to look back and low and behold, there they stood waving, but gradually a bend in the road appeared and everything was gone from view. For a while I could not get the sisters out of my mind. I really wanted to see them again, but when that would be I could not even imagine.
In the evenings the sound of the sea became more prominent. Gazing out from under the flaps of my tent all manner of creepy crawly things rustled about the sand. Another had appeared, of which I was not welcome! There were not many shells scattered about, but the few I saw like of stood out for the light of the moon on them. How long would it be before someone picked them up and perhaps tossed them back into the sea? Or for even for another animal like a hermit crab to move and make the shell its home? In some ways, I too was a bit of a hermit will to sleep anywhere convenient. In a science class donkey’s years back a teacher told us about shells and the animals that they were home to. Like everything on and beyond Earth, we all age! Therefore, we grow; too, including the shells the animals lived in. Like the tiny insects scurrying about in the sand, everything needed its fair share of food, calcium carbonate, and minerals, such as water to survive. Because of their special make up or organs the different minerals were then secreted into a shell making material, which formed on top of each other.