Irishman Walking (Stage 1 Chapter 13)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
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.

Submitted: July 17, 2013

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Submitted: July 17, 2013

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By Michael Denis Crossey

 

6 August, 2009: It felt good to up camp and be on my way by six-thirty. Not long after hitting the road I made a quick stop at a Seicomart convenience store for a chicken and rice breakfast. A kind of lunchbox deal or what the Japanese called 'obento'. It did the trick for a while, and made me all the hungrier for the road ahead. Some kilometers further along I set down once more on a bench to make a few adjustments to the straps on my backpack, and to tuck into the remainder of the obento that I had carried with me from the store.

Just as I set down on a bench, I began to wonder, too, where I might dig a tiny hole to bury the obento wrapper, which was not so easy to do with so many people about. I could see various little groups of people out for an early morning walk. "The people of Bikuni must be early risers.” I thought, as I pulled my little army spade out from the backpack and began to dig. “Where did they all come from?" I wondered. There were no houses about, or at least what could be seen from where I set. “Perhaps the drove here!” When the Japanese did something, they usually did it well. Walking or cycling, for example, they willingly forked out the money for the costly sporting gear. “Looking good went hand-in-hand with doing something well,” I thought.

‘Get a bicycle, you will not regret it, if you live’ (Mark Twain). A good few of the people who passed me, even those on their bicycles seemed to know each other. "Haiyai ne?" (You are early, aren't you?), a shopkeeper called out to a couple of them as they made their way on their bikes at a brisk pace. As I could make out, the shopkeeper dusted everything around her with one of those stick dusters that was good for little else, but shifting the dust from one place to another. Those horrible little things were a trusty tools to many a wife in Tokyo, if I recalled correctly.

Apart from important places, it was usually far from easy to judge from my maps what lay ahead of me. Even the more detailed maps that I purchased back in Otaru where little better. Some of the maps showed the long tunnels, which did not surprise me since there were quite a number of the massive tunnels to face soon after leaving Otaru. In many instances, the map gave the names of the tunnels, too, but little more. Getting the names of some of the massive tunnels was helpful as it was nice to know sometimes just where exactly I was at on the map. Which in turn allowed me to gage my progress on the roads better.

It was not long after leaving the town of Bikuni that one hell of a steep road with bends that went to the right and then to the left, and up and up and on and on. It seemed as if it the steep climb would last forever, for I could see no end insight for the life of me. On the straight sections of the road the traffic did not slow down at all, but appeared to increase speed once out of the bend. Some drivers did not even reduce their speed when they entered the bends that it was all an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately, I had only seen accidents aired on the NHK television news in Tokyo. Every large truck that passed me left a trail of gray dust and fumes. There was simply no escape, but to cover my mouth the best I could with the linen flannel Kei-san had given me when we parted at Atsuta.

My slow and steady upward tramp was not helped any by the sun, which got more intense as the morning wore on. To add fuel to the fire, I just then discovered that I had left Bikuni without first filling up my water bottles. It was not until a four or five kilometers further on that I was able to see some signs of life coming from what I could make out to be an ice-cream shop, a restaurant, and some vending machines. Both of the buildings stood a little apart, but I was more interested in the vending machines, for the thirst I felt. I set down on a bench and began sipping from the can of 'Aqururius Vitamiu', or so the print on it read, and that set me back ¥100 yen. How the sugar saturated beverage felt so good just then.

A glance at my old bicycle clock that I carried with me in one of my pockets told me that it was eight-thirty. Just as I was putting the clock back into my pocket a car pulled into the restaurant car park and stopped. Two elderly ladies got out and greeted me with friendly smiles and a couple of words that I had trouble hearing. "Are you about to open up for business?" I asked, and which they answered in the affirmative. "Do you have coffee?" "Hai! Dozo!" (Yes! Please come in!), and motioned with her hand for me to enter the establishment.

It had a rather large interior that doubled as a place to eat as well as a souvenir shop selling a wide range of touristy stuff. I set down at one of the tables and took out my battered notebook hoping to finish some of what I had started last night. Just then one of the ladies served me the coffee I ordered. I asked her what the name of the restaurant was, to which she told me that some twenty years ago when they opened the place they decided to call it, 'Green Holiday.' They hoped to cater to the tourists who visited the area in the summer months, and that they closed up for winter, hence the name, Green Holiday.

With the color green in the name, and whatever else the name implied, it did not surprise me any to see a collection of National Geographic magazines on a large table, as well as one hell of a thick book about the fisheries and aquatic life in Hokkaido. There were numerous other wildlife books, magazines and artifacts on similar topics, too. None of them were for sale, but for the interested customers to browse through at their leisure. Some of books and magazines were in English, and I felt sure that there were a good number of foreign visitors to the area.

What did surprise me, however, was the upright piano positioned just to the left of the table I set at. "Dozo!" (Please!) one of the elderly ladies said when she saw me staring at it. "Piano ga hikereba naa de mo, watashi wa gakufu ga yome masen.” (Oh! I wish I could, but I don't know how to read or play a note), I answered. It also felt good that my rusty Japanese language ability was finally coning together. "Darega hito no desu ka?” (Who plays it?) I asked her. "Hikitai hito wa dare demo.” (Anyone who wants to), she said with a smile. "Oh!" I said with a touch of embarrassment at my ignorance. If only I could have played it, for what an impression I might have left had I been able to rattle out something classical.

During my couple of years of schooling in Austin, Texas I once took a music class for an entire semester. Flicking through the pages of a couple of the music textbooks I was assigned to read through before the start of the first class sent shivers through my body. “What the fuck had I got myself into?” I could still remember thinking to myself. It was too late to switch over to some other subject. I felt destined for an 'F' at the end of the semester, if I lasted that long. Fortunately for me, one hell of a great music teacher, Professor Bernard Gastler literally dragged me through the fundamentals of music cords, and by the end of the year when the course was over, thanks to him, I could read music and play the piano with some competence. I can still recall his very first words when he entered the classroom. “You will all earn an 'A'! Every body smiled and appeared happy. He then asked who in the class had absolutely a zero musical background. My hand was the only one that went up. To cut to the chase, I ended up graduating with a proud 'B', which to me was as good as any 'A' that I earned in various subjects afterwards.

When I transferred to a college in Irvine, California I had a similar experience under the guidance of another great music teacher of a similar name, Professor Herbert Geisler, thought that time with handballs. Alas, both experiences were now donkey's years ago. Before those short lived musical experiences I never even looked at a piano or even heard of hand bells. Sadly, I have long since reverted back to my old ignorant ways and have not gone near a piano or thought about the beautiful sound of hand bells being rung.

"Okuwari?" (More coffee?), came a voice from the kitchen. "Thank you!" From my maps I could see that it was only a matter of time before I would have to say good bye to National Route 229 for a while and head onto Route 913 bound for the towns of Suttsu and Shimamaki. There was less litter about the road than on previous roads I tramped over. Still, there were the usual discarded empty beer and juice cans, the occasional milk carton, and so on. Just as I was folding up my maps to put away I could see from one of the restaurant windows a large van pass by outside, 'MegMilk' printed on its side. It reminded me to keep an eye open for a shop somewhere to pickup a small carton of milk to add to a nice hot cup of tea at camp tonight.

As my tramp along Route 913 moved along, I was not at all sure the surroundings were as beautiful as the ladies at Green Holiday made them out to be. For the most part my tramp took me past fields of green grass and clusters of trees away to the side of the road, and it was not for a good while before I was to join the sea again. In the distance of the Shakotan-hanto I could see large hills and small mountains that I would surmise were no more than 1,000 meters high. The Shakotan-hanto Peninsula jutted into the Nihon Kai (Sea of Japan) to form a beautiful coastline surrounded by clear blue waters. Also, varieties of outdoors sports in this large mountain resort area with its many hot springs were there to be enjoyed. “Yes! The lighthouse overlooking Shakotan Misaki (Cape) looked quite majestic in a cute sort of way,” I thought.

I came to a parking area or rest stop where the public toilets were closed. I was not in a good mood and began to feel depressed. For me it was a boring segment of the road that wound inland, and where any normal person might have called it a day and flagged down a ride in a car. Soon, any negative feelings I harbored began to dissolve when my old friend the Nihon Kai came into view again. However, the positive feelings, were short lived. Within an hour, my old enemies, a gauntlet of monster tunnels made a reappearance.

As luck turned out, the tunnels I faced for the remainder of the day were not overly long as I had first thought, which again instilled my old view about things. Many of the tunnels were constructed in the first half of the decade (2005), and had nice broad sidewalks that were good enough for three people to walk on shoulder-to-shoulder with out danger. But fortunately or unfortunately, I was very much by myself on a lonely segment of the road, with little more than my own thoughts to while away the time as I went along. That said, I tried to keep myself above the hardships and the various forms they came in. I liked to tell myself that a lessor person would have given up long ago, and that I was made of sterner stuff. Then again, hardheaded was perhaps nearer to the truth.

Logging about a heavy backpack usually meant many little stops through the curse of the day, which of course added up time wise and add to the depression I felt later on. This time I stopped to boil some water by the tiny harbor at Shakotanmisaki in view of the lighthouse there. The homemade biscuits I bought at Green Holiday hours earlier went down just dandy, with a nice cup of hot tea to accompany them. Often too whenever I rested, it felt good to kick off my boots and socks exposing my tired, bruised feet to a warm breeze that gently caressed them. Resting took to time, too much for that matter. Nature was one of the best ways for dealing with much of the pain caused by being out on the roads all day long. Of course, nothing beat a plunge in the sea for a quick fix for both body and mind.

It was not always easy to find somewhere pleasant to sit down and relax at, away from the relentless sun, and the noise and dust kicked up by the passing traffic, and which would be in your ears and sticking to your face in no time. Even as I passed through the little town of Hororui earlier, there was nowhere to stop and rest not even for a minute. Soon after the last biscuit and drop of tea it was back up onto the road again. And just as soon as I did that, a tunnel once more greeted me, its 165 meters of length offered a nice cool shade from the sun for a short while. The jury was still out for me when it came to tunnels, but they had a usefulness not only for the motorists.

Along the seafront all the key touristy points and interesting spots were occupied by groups of young Japanese people, the noise of their laughter could be heard long before they could be seen. As I drew nearer, I could see many of them posing for snapshots, which amazed me since their laughter was literally nonstop. Many of the young people smoked as the talked to each other, which did not surprise me any. It was just the same in Tokyo. Even when I stopped by at a campsite some kilometers further along to get a soft drink from a vending machine, I could see the area was pretty well chocker blocked with tents and people, mostly young. There were a fair number of families and children enjoying their time together, a short break no doubt from grinding out a living at some job somewhere.

As far as I could make out, there were no shops or restaurants nearby, and even worse for me, there were no showers about the place to be had anywhere. Like the monster tunnels, I was no advocate for campsites, especially if they charged absorptive prices and had little to offer, like no hot water to wash my tired body under. Perhaps the 'bad-business' message had failed to get around properly, for I had passed quite a few campsites at various times along my way, all devoid of campers. Even in the height of summer, some of them were closed to business. Or like Kei-san told me at the campsite in Atsuta, which also only had three or four tents on it at the time, “The great vision or campaign of building campsites all over Hokkaido to lore tourists never quite materialized the way the local governments had hoped. ” Why pay when you can stop on a rich sandy beach for free? Then again, a hot shower or even a soak in a bath (not sento or public bath), was what I missed most on the road.

Time, too, was often not on my side. At least as far as arriving at campsites went, it was usually too early for me to stop and think about erecting my tent. Tramping further on, short of the sun going down, before hitting the sack, if not the red wine, always seemed more logical. It was a little before three o'clock, not far beyond the town of Notsuka, when I finally came upon a restaurant flexible to other dishes besides fish. Tonkatsu teshoku was settled on, not to mention a jug of cool Sapporo beer to wash the food down my dry throat. I had not eaten since the chicken and rice I had sitting on the bench this morning. That was nearly twenty-five kilometers back. Now with my body replenished, I felt more than ready to notch up a few more kilometers before calling it a day.

Not long after setting out from the restaurant the 177 meter long Nishikawa Tunnel stood firm beside its old predecessor off to the right. It took a little over a year to complete the tunnel, from October 2004 to December 2005. As wide and as tidy as any of the tunnel sidewalks I had seen, or tramped along, four or five pedestrians could easily stroll comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder on this one. Soon came the Mui Tunnel (December 1999-October 2001) and its 700 meters of shear boredom. It was long, but not long enough for me to really get into my old thoughts of past people, places or events of yesteryear. For whatever the reason, I was also in no mood to hum a tune, or sing a song, or even recall some faces I had seen this last couple of days that I tended to do to kill the time tramping through some of the tunnels. Perhaps it was just as well that I was unable to compose a single sentence, or meaningful thought since my heart felt heavy enough anyway. Depression! This time, too, there were no wide sidewalks to make my way along, and which had the trimmings of safely about them. Perhaps similar to many of the previous monster tunnels constructed during this decade, now well behind me thank god, the new Mui Tunnel's predecessor lay dead and forgotten, off to the side. One thing was sure, over the course of time nature would work its magic on those old tunnels.

There had been much activity going on about the roads, like, rerouting, uprooting, closing, repairing, building, rebuilding, digging and dripping and all of those things found in, so called, modernizing the infrastructure so dear and important to countries like Japan, where transportation is king. Since the start of the Meiji Period to the present, old roads, bridges, and tunnels had been closed or demolished one after another, for one reason or other new, longer and bigger ones replaced them. All kinds of construction of roads, tunnels and bridges, were going on, on many of the roads I tramped along since starting out on my mission. Many of them, which I had cycled on, over, through, and across, decades earlier were now gone. In other words, a good few of the roads that Alan Booth tramped along on his epic tramp from on end of the country to the other (at the same time I was cycling), where no more.

It was never easy to keep track of the many times I setup camp on an abandoned road, for the heavy heart that old thoughts instilled in me on those lonely nights. There were times, too, when my tent stood tall at the mouth of a dead tunnel, which I once cycled through on a previous trip, and now there they stood, no longer useful, or but the proud remains to someone’s old dreams.

There were so many evenings when I set outside my tent on a warm evening trying to recall long gone cycling journeys along particular stretches of road. Perhaps helped by a glass of red wine to help while away the hours, I trying to put the past in to some order. But then as the evening hours wore on and the wine bottle empty, feelings of dissatisfaction would creep in. “What was the point of racking by brain about specific things?” I would think to myself, feeling depressed to find out each time that my brain was utterly devoid of much of anything. “Yes! It was a waste of time. Well! At least until the next chance arose.”

With its smooth and almost pothole-free roads, the earthquake-proofed buildings, its extensive public transit systems, Japan’s infrastructure continued to expand, and envy other countries of the developed world. Tokyo Sky Tree was already long in the planning, and buy the time it is completed in the summer of 2012 it would be the world’s second tallest structure in the world’s most earthquake-prone country. Already, the Akashi Kaiky? suspension bridge, completed in 1998, to link Kobe City to Honshu was famed for having the longest central span in the world. Also, the bridge, which carried part of the Honshu-Shikoku Highway, was one of the three routes now open to Shikoku across the Inland Sea. In short, Japan's infrastructure and its economy did not exactly go hand-in-hand, so to speak.

Nothing could be truer! The cost of keeping the nations public infrastructure was extravagant beyond belief. Japan forked out around five percent of its national GDP (about $240 billion USD) on maintenance projects that stretched from Kyushu to Hokkaido. Compared with both the United States, and Great Britain, which spent around two percent, and two point five percent, of the national GDP on maintaining the infrastructure, respectively. For Japan, this did not come cheap! To help keep the country's chin above the water, road tolls and vehicle taxes, which remained the most expensive among any of the developed countries, the government continued to drain exorbitant amounts of money from the average taxpayer.

What came out of all this planning and maintaining were roads that connected places rarely visited by anyone, yet still were re-paved and maintained on a regular basis. In addition, multiple highways linked cities with marginal differences in length and overall travel time. Mammoth construction projects to boost tourism to towns and rural areas oftentimes failed some lofty objectives set forth by the many local government and construction companies. By no means the only example, and thanks to my research of the Internet, was the Takasaki Kannon-Yama Recreational Park, now abandoned and left to nature to reclaim. What a total waste of the taxpayers’ money! “Fuck it! My money!”

Of the 98 airports scattered about Japan, and some of which I have had the honor of using, no less than ninety percent of them were failing to generate a profit. Of course, every country had times of actual need, like, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, or continues improvement of education and social services, remained ignored and unchanged. The fact was that even the village idiot could not be so blind to this wasteful, wanton and pork barrel spending, that served no one but those with their hands and interests in the till, namely, the construction companies and individuals in the local and national government. Notwithstanding the inevitability of that thing called 'change', Japan, the most conservative of countries next to those that were Muslim-run, wasteful government spending was, simply speaking, a tough habit to kick.

With all of this new building and construction going on going on it was hard to see that Japan was experiencing hard times, at least when seen from the roads. “Yes! Japan really was a country of bridges and tunnels.” Just as I was thinking this, the little Raikishi Tunnel (February 2003-September 2004), just 166.5 meters, popped up, that not unexpectedly. Short as they were, on quite a few occasions these tunnels did not have a sidewalk to their name, and often appeared quite dangerous into the bargain. More dangerous than any of the monster tunnels I would add. Besides the sidewalks, in the monster tunnels you could hear the traffic coming before you saw it. However, this little concrete job (tunnel) of sorts, welcomed me with quite a broad sidewalk for its length, which was pleasantly unexpected indeed. Compared to many of the older jobs I tramped through, the broad sidewalks were modern developments of these times, now local people and school children were able to walk or cycle through the them without the fear of becoming road fatality statistics.

Soon I emerged from the south side of the 158 meter long Yobetsu Tunnel, old for Japan standards, it was opened in November 1973. In comparison to the recently opened tunnels, where the sidewalks were rather wide, they tended to be quite narrow to none existent in the older jobs. Carting a heavy backpack along a narrow sidewalk, often damaged by age, could be quite hazardous if you did not keep your wits about you and tread carefully for fear of falling under an oncoming car. The last thing I needed was to get a sprained ankle, too, which would almost surely set me back in more ways than one.

High above the road, workmen dangled at the end of long ropes. They were busy digging away with picks and power drills at loose soil and rocks to notice me on the road far below. With a quick snap of my camera pointed in their direction, I turned and headed on along my way. The Kamuimisaki Tunnel, (February 2005), took almost two years to build and ran for a good 703.5 meters. The tunnel was just long enough to make me hope that it was the last tunnel of the day, for I was tired of them, and was beginning to think that if I faced anymore they would be coming out of my ears. At last, as I neared the exit of the tunnel I could make out the shape of some houses. A good bit of greenery surrounded each of the houses, and as I drew nearer still, I could clearly catch the sound of the rolling sea off to my right.

As I left the tunnel, it felt like I was entering into another world, if only for a short time. However, with in a seconds, my thinking was corrected by the appearance of yet another tunnel. "Hell no! Surely it can't be one of those dreaded massive jobs?” I thought to myself as my steps drew me nearer to it. The metal name plate read: 'Kozaki Tunnel... 1,162.5 m... 2002, Jan - 2004, Feb.' Right or wrong, there was one thing you could be almost sure of on the roads and that was that good things did not last as long as the bad things. “Fuck it” I was feeling depressed again, which was not good.

When I entered the tunnel my old bicycle clock read five-eighteen, or five-thirty when I tramped out at the southern end it. It had been one hell of a brisk tramp, and even on tired limbs I did my best to get out from the fucking place as quickly as I could. Even before the Kozaki Tunnel was well and truly behind me by any great distance, I had decided to keep my eyes open for a place to make camp regardless of whatever else popped up.

As fortune had it, just a few meters beyond the south side of the Kozaki Tunnel lay a segment of the old Route 229. It was not so difficult to climb down the steep embankment that led from the new road to get to it. By doubling back up the old road a short while, I soon came to a grassy patch that proved an excellent spot to pitch my trusty old tent on. There was nothing like bedding on a natural mattress on a fine summer evening! After my tent was at last pitched the next thing I had to do was to scamper over some rocks to the rocky beach below so as to see about washing some clothes the best I could in the foamy tide. My body could wait! Even as I thought about my dirty rags it was already going through my mind to take a dip in the inviting waters. On a downside about swimming in the sea or pool, I absolutely loathed getting water in my already troubled eyes.

This fear of sorts could be traced right back to my childhood, and those Saturday night scrubbings my sister Anna and me got in the old tin bath in our house in west Belfast. How I used to howl like a kitten with its eyes closed in search of its mother’s tit. My sister Anna would laugh, and call me names at my misfortune. How I hated my grandmother during those few seconds, when she poured a bucket of warm water over my head to rinse away the soap from my hair. Then there was the time school when the teacher tried to teach us all to swim. He had us line up at the side of the pool like little Hitler’s youth and would walk along behind pushing us into the chlorine-infested water one-by-one. But I was too cleaver or stupid even for that. I had made sure that I was near the end of the line so as to, kind of, live longer on dry land. When he did get to me the timing could not have been better. Just as he heaved his outstretched hand to push me in to the stinking pool, I twisted sideways. Everybody got into trouble that day for laughing when the teacher clad in his outdoor clothes went tumbling headfirst into the water. I think my excuse was just as wicked as my intentions, when I told the head teacher on the following morning that I had heard someone creeping about behind me and just turned around to look.

If only you allow me,
I will willingly wipe
Salt tears from your eyes
With these fresh leaves (Basho).

The magic wonders the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea), or any sea for that matter, had worked on my body on previous occasions were already well fixed in this mortal mind of mine. Even with the salt from the sea still stinging my eyes, how supercalifragilisticexpialidociousticly rejuvenated I felt afterwards. If only I could have said the same about my washing, however, which looked dirtier and sweatier than when I started to rinse it out in the salty waters. It turned out to be much easier to wash my body than to wash a few torn T-shirts, socks with holes in them, not to mention a couple of pairs of underwear that were on their last days. The sea was, of course, not the best of places to get the best out of a bar of soap, which was quite useless. However, in the absence of a freshwater stream, or river, or even a park with a water tap in it to solve this mundane concern of mine with, the Japan Kai had to do.

Scattered about me were some large rocks upon which I thought to drape my washing over in the hope that the heat from the rocks, and a nightly breeze might at least make the clothes some ways wearable by morning. Then again, the spray from the sea carried by the breeze had caught me out a few times before. Besides, I was not quite sure of just how far the tide would come in and splash all over the rocks. If that happen everything could be lost. “It was better to be careful than sorry!” I thought as I make my way over the sand with the wet clothes dangling from my arms. After a little while the washing hung over a fence some distance further up the abandoned old road instead. “Surely I won't forget about them when morning came,” I wondered, as I gathered the wet clothes up in my arms.

Once the washing was out of the way, I set about rigging up my little Captain Stag burner to see about making a nice hot cup of tea. There was nothing like a good strong cup of tea when you had nothing else to do. Earlier this morning I had bought a 300-milliliter carton of milk, and had carted it along with me all day for the sole purpose. Usually because of the unpredictable weather, I tended to avoid buying easily spoiled or difficult to handle goods, such as milk, cheese, and butter, even chocolate which I loved most of all, but I felt confident that the little milk that remained would not spoil.

With a cup of hot tea in one hand, and the powerful sound of the sea splashing about uncaring under the cloudless sky, what more could a tramp of the roads want? My grassy little campsite was my hermitage for the night! While sipping the freshly brewed cup of hot tea, this time with milk, I was able to reflect back over my day. With my maps I was able to get a good idea of the ground covered, the places I stopped by at to eat or to rest, even the people I spoke to or just saw here and there could be pictured clearly. And the times on the road when I would prepare my mind for one of the many long tunnels I had to face. I recalled nearing the exit of the Yobetsu Tunnel, for example, when a female voice called out to me. When I looked around I my eyes focused on a young women as she approached. Then I could hear the sound of the 250cc motorbike engine slowing down and stop. "Walking desu ka?” The woman called to me, as she pushed the fizzer of her helmet upwards.

Soon an attractive women stood by her motorbike, with the helmet under her arm. It was never easy to guess a Japanese woman's age, and less gentlemanly even to ask, however, I took her to be somewhere in her thirties. "Yes!" I said, smiling as if I had just stopped to chat with someone I met in a park during a Sunday stroll. It was not the kind of smile reserved for unexpected encounters with an attractive female somewhere in Tokyo, where I preferred to shut myself away in my apartment like a recluse, with mybooks and writing. To save her the trouble of asking me the usual gauntlet of questions just about every Japanese I spoke to tended to ask me, I continued. "All the way from Soya Misaki. Today I had come this far after setting out from Bikuni." As with a good many of the other Japanese people ail met along on the roads, she seemed impressed. Then again, there had been a few who looked as though I was off my head. "Wow!" she said, "Sugoi wa! Shinjirarenai!” (That's great! It's almost unbelievable!).

Unlike the children I taught at school in Tokyo, or people at large, those whom I stopped to chat with on the road were keen to ask me questions. "How far had you come? And “How far will you go today?" "I'm not sure,” I would answer them .” Perhaps I will tramp on for another hour or so, then call it a day." "May I take your photo?" she asked me, smiling. "Sure! Was that a digital camera?" "Yes!" I felt foolish at asking, for just about everybody used one these days. My own camera never worked well since I bought it, and felt it was because the sweat from my body had somehow gotten into its works. "Perhaps if I give you my e-mail address, you would send me a copy of the photo?" "I'm not up on computers," she told me. I felt foolish (again) for asking. I thought just about everybody knew how to use such devices, for whatever the purpose. Then again, being a mere user and a late starter with computers, I was not really up on them myself. "Then perhaps you could do it via your portable phone, your keitai?" I asked again. Just about everybody in the country knew the ins and outs of using a keitai, if nothing else. "I'll try!" With that, we exchanged e-mail addresses, wished one another all the best, I thanked her for stopping, and went our different ways.

She told me that her name was Kumiko, and for some reason her age, which I did not ask. Or perhaps there was something in my face that told her to tell me. It was a difficult question with it came to a woman's age, or at least I learnt somewhere that it was bad manners to ask, so I tended no to as a rule. From experience, I found that the elderly Japanese females were far from shy about telling their age in the course of talking with them. Kumiko was fifty-four years old, which certainly surprised me since she wore her years well. She arrived in Hokkaido on a ferry from Osaka, and was on the tail end of a tour of the island on her motorbike.

Sadly, my recollections of this sweet little encounter had become a bit cloudy over the passing days. I thought that she was returning to Osaka the next day where she loved. I could not remember if she was on her way back to Otaru or to Tomakomai so as to catch the ferry to either Maizuru or to Nagoya, and then make her way back to Osaka on her motorbike. After we parted I tramped on for another hour or so, with thoughts of Kimiko popping in and out of my head for the remainder of the day. In short, Kimiko struck me as one of those really caring from the heart kind of persons, the type that could take a whole lifetime to meet. I wondered if our path would ever cross again, but somehow I knew that was that, and goodbye meant goodbye. "I wondered if we would ever meet again?" Somehow, that was one of the sad things about tramping the roads, you met so many people, but only that.

We did not talk very long, I recalled, which meant there was little time to cover anything of any great depth, strangers or not. We were both pressed for time, Kimiko to catch the ferry, and me to tramp as far as my legs could carry me before the sun went down. In the end, there was just enough time to pose for a snapshot of one another before she started off. The Japanese, especially the very young, had a thing about forming the 'V' sign with their fingers. “Wasn't that something brought to prominence by Winston Churchill when he was leader during the Second World War.” I thought. To him it had something to do with 'victory', whilst here in this day and age it had something to do with 'peace'. Though if only such a thing could be obtained for something so little.

We said farewell to one another, and turned towards our respective directions, and with a final wave Kimiko was gone. The road was a flat in both direction, but for me, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would be steering my way straight up a slope somewhere. If it did come sooner than later, then all the best, and which I hoped if anything would skirt closely to the sea. At such times, carrying a fully loaded backpack proved fairly heavy work in places, like on extra steep slopes with no end in sight. And with the passing of the hours, this difficulty surmounted as the road continued to wind up and up well above the sea level. Usually, with thirty or more kilometers behind me, it was easy to imagine what it must be like going up Mount Everest (or any one of the fourteen great peaks in the world). Then again, that was also 'a horse of a different color', as the saying went.

In the dark, the strong lights from a flotilla of fishing boats loomed off on the horizon. In those evening hours the image of an animal moving at great speed across the beach made me sit up. Perhaps it was a cat or large rat, but whatever it was, I never saw it again whatever it was. Soon all thoughts were fading from my mind, I drifted off to sleep. At around five in the morning a man's voice coming from the direction of Route 229 not far from my camp drew me from my slumber. He did not see me emerge from my tent, hidden by the small sand dun. Come to think of it, I was not able to see the site on which I would pitch my tent when I left the road yesterday. Even after scanning the direction of where the sound came from I still could not see the man, who continued to call out. The voice came from somewhere up on the road, and near were my clothes hung to dry.

At last I could seem him! When the man's eyes did eventually fall on me, he froze. Perhaps the sight of a half naked and bearded foreigner, with an army spade in one hand, looking back at him was the last thing he expected to see. We stared at one another for a while in complete silence. Then as suddenly as his voice had pulled me from my sleep, he spoke again, this time to me. "Kujoitsuketa kudosai!” then in broken English the man continued. "Kono michi wa kiken desu!” (The old road is dangerous to use!). "Arigato!” (Thank you!) I called back to him. With that the man turned and headed back up to the road, to where he is car waited. Clearly he had seen my clothes drying, which must have caused him some concern.

Shortly afterwards, I could hear the slamming of the car door and the engine starting up. Glancing back over the sand dun in the direction of the road where the man stood a little while before, I could now see his car speeding away south. "Did he know something I did not?” I wondered. “What on earth made him stop his car and tell me that the old road was dangerous?” There was something caring about the Japanese whom I met on the roads, or something hardly found in Tokyo. “What kind of danger was he on about?” I wondered again. “Perhaps he had a bit of a history with the old road, like some personal tragedy.” Regardless of the guys welcomed concern, I was in no mood for changing course, at least not for a while. Besides, with my kind of luck, I would more than likely bump into the fellow again somewhere down the road later on, when the two roads joined again.

At first, I thought that not if I saw him first, but on second thoughts, if I did see him, I certainly would have liked to have asked him some questions. After all, it was not every day someone went to the trouble to stop their car and shout a warning about something. Of course, I was grateful for the warning, but became annoyed with myself for not being able to forget this short encounter once and for all. It kind of lingered in my mind for longer than I would have wanted it to. The unseen danger now occupied my mind, too. It sort of prevented me from taking in the beautiful landscape around me as I made my way along the unused road, one of the main reasons that I decided to take this stretch of abandoned road.

The thoughts continued. "Perhaps the man was one of the fishermen returning home from a long, hard night out on the sea." I could not get the man out of my mind. "Was he one of the crew members on one of the many fishing boats I saw away out in the sea last night?” There was something strikingly beautiful about the strong glow from the big lights that hung just above the decks of the ships. I knew that the fishermen on the larger fishing boats returned to shore in the early hours, and made their way over to where they parked their cars. “Perhaps his warning had some credence about it." My mind continued to work over time, which was not making me happy. “God forbid!” I called out, as if trying to force an end to such thoughts. I had already passed through many a dangerous tunnel with my wits about me and an open eye cast upon each fast approaching vehicle, another danger no doubt, but which I did not even contemplate much on after wards.

I did my best to redirect my mind on other things, which helped a little. Like, what I took to be a fast moving animal darting across the sandy beach last night may well have been a low flying bird of some sort, perhaps a large crow or seagull. Whatever it was, I noticed the thing through the side of my eye at first, like a rock hurled low across the ground. Or perhaps something somehow had come loose in my brain and was deceiving me big time. Being tired could do something like that! It was not like the animal had a sound about it, like a eagle swooping down the precipice on to a hidden prey, only to change direction not so far from the bottom and move swiftly away some meters from where my tent stood nearby. Nearby, but not near enough to settle my mind.

There was no point in crawling back into my sleeping bag and going to sleep. It was time to pack up and hit the road proper anyway. A nice long dip in the sea before I left, might help set my mind straight once and for all before I hit the road. Other fishermen began to make their presence known. This time three tiny one-man boats appeared from around the great rocks, with each of the occupants spearing away at the foamy waters like their was no tomorrow. They appeared oblivious to my presence, which was good, as I was about to dig a hole in the sand with the little spade to take a dump in (defecate). Their tanned faces appeared to read the ripples in the water that their spears had just made. Their sturdy little crafts danced up and down in the water as if enjoying the moment.

 


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