Irishman Walking (Stage 1 Chapter 18)

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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

 

 

23 Aug, 2009: An open stall at the roadside sold watermelons for ¥500 Yen. After the business of paying for a small watermelon was done, the attractive middle-aged women standing behind a table spoke glowingly of a campsite nearby, like it was a Butler’s Holiday Camp. Along the way two elderly men stopped the van they were in so as to talk to me. They must have realized that I was heading in the direction of the campsite. “It’s as windy as hell,” one of them said, the other nodded his head in agreement. “Well! Thank you.” Replied, “But will give it a look over anyway. Besides, I heard it had a shower.” A little earlier I had stopped by at a shop to pick up a couple of cans of beer, but the woman who shared me knew nothing about the campsite. Could hear the sound of shower–water running. “That’s my son!” she said with a smile. “He’s a lucky guy,” I thought to myself as I grabbed my backpack up from the floor. Back out on the road a small lorry passed me by. It was loaded up with tomatoes and watermelons. A couple of the tomatoes fell from it, but when I drew near I saw that they had become smashed all over the tarmac. It was not a loss!, for tomatoes were coming out of my ears.

Soon one quarter of the watermelon was cut and eaten, but I felt it best to keep the rest until the evening. Or even until the morning for that matter, for there was nothing else by way of food on me. Well, there was still a can of 'Dydo Demitasse’ coffee that I had almost forgotten about. Yet, so much for my thoughts! Soon the coffee was gone, and another quarter of the watermelon followed it into the same dark dungeon. Up ahead a road sign told me that I was seventy kilometers away from Lake Juniko. Then there was the town of Senjojiki, some twenty-seven kilometers from where I stood, still thinking about the last piece of the watermelon. If all went well then should be tramping through there by early evening tomorrow. It was by this road sign that I set down to rest, and began to lighten the load in my backpack by tucking into the remainder of the watermelon.

Up ahead of me I could see the road sloping upwards, and I was certainly not looking forward to that. Still, the upward slog was there and the lady was not for turning. When I got to the top of the slope an old and closed up café came into view. A giant rock set in the center of what must have been a once beautiful garden. Fighting through the overgrown bramble to take a peek through one of the windows was not the easiest of tasks to achieve. A number of stools stood along the counter, with cushion covers changed by dust and time. Upturned cups and glasses were neatly placed next to coffee making equipment on the counter. Other cups with saucers were placed on top of one another on large wall shelves. Just about everything I could see looked as if they were waiting to be used. An old menu by the side of the cups on the counter showed prices of yesteryear. A bowl of ramen or noodles cost four hundred yen.

A faded calendar hung on the wall. It displayed the month that the place must have closed its doors, 'July 1996'. Soon after leaving the ruins and overgrown garden, I arrived back at the crossroads. A road sign told me that Hirosaki was straight on, whilst Route 101 went left towards Goshogawara. Ajigasawa was away to the right, where I was headed. It was also here that I would at last take my leave of this picturesque little road, which ran for quite a distance between the sea and the busier Route 12. It was along this much busier road that that Ajigasawa lay, though how long it was take me to get there was anyone’s guess. For just as I turned onto Route 101 a slight happening occurred that almost brought my mission on the coastal roads to an end. Of course, it was completely my own fault. I was so engrossed in my maps, while walking that I failed to see the hazard ahead of me. And when I did it was too late to stop or step back.

The trench or pit was the size and length of a grave, though by no means as deep, it was deep enough to hammer home the point of my stupidity. Such was the tumble I went head over heels into the pit that my backpack broke the fall. It was a strange feeling looking up at the sky from where I lay. "Was this what it looked like from the grave?" Pulling my self to my senses, I was pleased that my backpack limited the shock, though I was also now beginning to wonder just how well the perishable items that I picked up at a shop earlier faired.

Back on the road once again and replenished at a local restaurant, and where I cleaned myself up a bit, I felt ready to kick up some dirt proper. However, the gentle sound by a short burst from a car horn caused me to stop in my tracks and look around. A handsome young foreign chap set smiling behind the steering wheel. As I moved to the side of the van he leaned out of the window and offered me a life. This I sadly had to decline, even though it would have been nice to talk to him more. Travis, the name he gave me, came from Boston, and was currently living in that part of Japan. Why or where he was headed to I failed to ask, or even if he was married for that matter. On a parting note he took a banana from a bag on the passenger seat and offered it to me. The banana would do me nicely for tonight I reassured him with a smile. It was true, for I only had water and if Travis was correct, then there were no shops to be had for more ten kilometers. After our short chat, and with the banana safely packed away, the fighting spirit was again aroused.

When I think back on my history with my favorite fruit, I vaguely could recall having a rather heated debate with a fellow student on whether a banana should be termed a fruit or not since it had no seeds to its name. “Fruit had seeds!” the other student told me with gusto. Of course, that was long before anyone had their own computers, and digging up the material to backup my side of things was one hell of a headache. It was funny how I had no recollection of how the debate turned out, or if it was ever concluded. It was all such a long time ago, and everyone in the class more than likely had other more important issues on their minds. Thanks to a little book I came by recently by chance, I was able to discover, at last, that some species of bananas possessed tiny seeds in the center. Fruit in general were the ripened ovaries of plants, which held the plant’s seeds. In this growing process, bananas were no different! What we buy today, or perhaps to appeal more to the consumer at large, bananas were purposely produced to be seedless.

A sign enlightened me of the presence of Juni-ko Ecological Museum and Conservation Area, which was not exactly nearby, but rather some sixty-one kilometers down the road. Senjojiki Town was twenty kilometers, which if all went well enough I would surely pass by tomorrow. What I did come to soon after the sign was one of those beautiful giant windmills. There was of course a stop to gaze up at the powerful structure, with such gentle beauty about it. A company called ‘Fuhrlander’, a name that did not sound very Japanese one bit, made the windmill. The windmill stood along and away to my left with its great blades turning with gusto, like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps the person who oiled it should have received an award as a job well done.

Another road sign I passed along the way told me that Fukaura and Sejojiki lay along Route 101, and that Hirosaki was to the left on Route 31. The rain began to fall as I made my way through Ajigosawa. Many young people, who were I suspected, on holiday from college or university, or simply just enjoying the weekend together by the sea, took shelter under some trees. Taking shelter under a tree was not the most advisable way to escape from a downpour. Unperturbed by the falling rain, some of them continued to barbecue under a bridge a little ways further along. The rain came down heavily now, but I was in no mood for stopping. The army cape kept most of my things dry, but as expected, my poor old beat up pair of boots continued to take a hammering.

There were times when it was so hot tramping the roads that I could scarcely breathe. One thing I could be sure of was that I would soon become sweaty and dirty, if not hopelessly tired. As the day worn on and the sun dropped I tramped on more and more reluctantly. Gradually, my steps grew shorter and shorter. No longer able or willing to go on, it was time to make camp. Night came on quickly and the moon reigned high up over the sea lighting my camp in an array of gray and black shadows. A couple of T-shirts that I washed earlier during one of my stops now lay over a bush growing out of the sand. How ghostly white in the moonlight they looked. When you were tired, it was never easy to focus the mind. And with the absence of old memories to call upon from out of the dark shadows in my brain, the dim somber twilight of the summer kept me company on this subdued sleepy beach.

Each day I would awake to the rising sun and made camp when it went down. Sometimes I would watch the sun go down. Other times I was too sore, tired and weary to care about it. On a good day the twilight lingered beyond its time as if it was waiting for me to complete camp. When I woke in the morning the sun’s rays came streaming in through the flaps and shown right into my eyes. It was time to get up and back onto the road. Often from morning to dusk my hours on the roads involved none other than long stretches of asphalt coastal roads, many fenced in by insurmountable hills. Sometimes, too, there were inequalities of road surface. The new segments of roads were often one or two meters above the old disused roads they replaced, which went nowhere.

The people living on the coastline or near enough to it were inclined to fight the elements. Many houses I passed by had strong and high wooden fences or barriers build around them to protect mainly against the heavy winds and snows in the winter months. The people in this part of the country, I felt, did not live in fear of an expected massive earthquake or tsunami occurring anytime soon, like the people did on the Pacific coastline. Even though Japan did have more than its fair share of natural disasters, as far as I knew it, the country did not suffer from the most violent of storms, tornadoes. According to my research, from 3-4 April 1970, thirteen American States were hit hard by some of the biggest tornados in history. Although the deadest tornado to hit the country occurred on 18 March 1925 when 695 people died in three States, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The biggest recorded tornado that ever touched down in America, however, was over the Texas plains near the town of Gruver on 9 June 1971.

The wind and rain were such features, even in the summer. I knew that much first hand. In the worst of times great gusts of wind had caused trees to blow down. Heavy rains led to landslides and great waves had inundated entire towns. These things hit home more when they happened at night. Perhaps because of some tragedy in the past the people were long gone, whilst the frames of deserted homes and ruined furniture remained here and there along my route.

24 Aug, 2009: A Sunkus convenience store seemed a good enough place to stop in at to pick up some supplies, like food and beer for later on when I made camp, which would not be long of course. The driver of a small lorry stopped by the side of the road to have a chat with me. Back in Tokyo such unexpected happenings would cause people to be on their guard. However, this was on the road many miles from Tokyo, and where such things happened a good number of times. In Tokyo where people avoid even eye contact, such things would seldom happen. Out in the boom docks people did not seem to need any reason to stop and chat to me, for they just did it. Often they did so only to satisfy their own curiosity as to what I was all about, and the when, why, where to everything. Of course, I could not see myself; my ragged appearance must have looked to others to spark their interest in me. It did not take very long to answer the usual gauntlet of questions, for I knew all the answers backwards, and soon our little friendly chat was concluded with a few kind words, like, “All the best”, and “Good luck”, and so forth. As quickly as the man and his lorry appeared, he and the lorry were gone.

Not ten minutes had gone by whenever the man driving the lorry reappeared on the scene when he pulled up by the side of the road. This time through the window of the lorry he was holding something wrapped in tinfoil, and needless to say, it was a gift of food, which I was more than glad to receive. He told me with a shy smile that his wife had prepared the little food parcel especially for me. I thought as much since the package was still warm! Out on the roads all day long was hard, so kindness like that and from someone who did not know me from Larry, kind of dug deep into my heart.

Unexpected as the little food gift was, it was one of the many heart felt actions of generously that I had experienced with strangers on the roads. A kindness that outpaced anything I had experienced from anyone in Tokyo. After the man drove away, for the second time, I set down by my tent to cut my dirty nails with the nail clipper. I could see an elderly fellow some fifty meters away cutting brambles at the edges of a field. Our eyes met and before I knew it he was standing by my tent talking to me as eagerly as he had cut into the brambles. Although my brain was tired and I had to admit, not many of his words registered either. He told me that he had come across anyone like myself on the roads before, and was keen to take a little peek inside my tent to see how a tramper of the roads lived, which I was more than obliged to let him do.

The man’s eyes widened with surprised at the tiny size of the tent. Perhaps because of the tents tiny size everything inside looked as thought it was in disorder. One perplexing outcome that I always had was never being able to find what I needed or wanted at a particular time, which I was happy to enlighten the elderly fellow about. Unlike other people I stopped to chat with who asked the same old gauntlet of questions, I was asked about how things faired with the tent in bad weather. "Ooame no ato no shuppatsu wa tokuni taihen data.” (”Decamping after a night of heavy rain, in particular, was a real bummer, you know, hardest of all."). I continued! "Tento ya nebukuro wa amide kata zukeru no ga taihen data. Mizuwo fukunde umaku tatamenakatta.” (”My tent, and sleeping bag were usually rolled up into neat little bundles, but when they became damp, it was hard to do that, and often tended to exceed their normal size, if not weight, kind of awkward like."). It was growing dark and with this I was again wished all the best, and the elderly fellow turned around and made his way back over to where he had been cutting the brambles. The work must have tired him out, as he picked up his tools and headed towards his tiny lorry that was parked up on the road. He was an interesting old fellow, and appeared more interested in my tent than in me, which suited me just fine. It did not take the elderly fellow long to gather up his hoe and scythe and drive off in the direction of his home.

There was no need to tell him everything, like, once everything was finally crammed into the correct place in my backpack, my final chore each morning was to cast an eye over the camp area for any articles I may have overlooked, especially tent pegs. This was something that I never quite perfected, for only to often would I discover when evening came that something was missing. It was pointless to grumble or feel depressed about the loss, I would just shake my head decidedly and tell myself to be more careful next time. Loosing stuff somehow defeated the purpose, as the loss could be seen in terms of money, time and effort to obtain the thing in the first place. This was a common occurrence among all explorers and adventurers. On his great expeditions to the Antarctic more than a hundred years ago, the Irishman Ernest Shackleton was no stranger to this annoying problem: “We do know for certain that the only case of beer lies to this day under the ice, and it was not until a few days before our final departure that one of the scientists of the expedition dug out some volumes of the Challenger reports, which had been intended to provide us with useful reading during the winter nights. A question often debated during the long, dark days was which of these stray sheep, the Challenger reports or the case of beer, any particular individual would dig for if the time and opportunity were available.” Fortunately, they also had also taken some bottles of wine with them!

A strong urge to take a leak (urinate) at a public toilet nearby quenched any lingering thoughts about the short meeting with the elderly fellow, which kept creeping in and out of my mind. However, my visit to the toilet could not have been more mistimed. Some cleaners were busy at work when I entered. Fortunately, there was no problem in using the toilet, one of the elderly male cleaners reassured me. “Dozo! Dozo!” The man said with a smile, as he stopped what he was doing and dropped the cleaning things into a bucket. Unfortunately, I did not quite see it that way myself. Since my childhood, going to the toilet to perform my duties, so to speak, was a very private thing. Therefore, with the toilet cleaners puttering about outside the tiny cubical somehow took the satisfaction out of taking a badly needed dump (defecate), too. After giving my hands a good soapy going over at one of the sinks, I turned and headed for the entrance and where I dropped my backpack. Another elderly cleaner stood and watched me make my way past the sinks and outside. Even as I headed back over the road to the spot where I had camped last night, I could sense the man’s eyes fixed on me.

Actually, I had stopped caring about what people thought about me a long time ago. However, there were a number of times 0n the road when I would amuse myself with the thoughts. After all, I believed that people stopped to chat with me, because they had some gut feeling, or ‘haragei’ in Japanese, that I was an all right guy. In other words, not dangerous, or might sponge off them for something! I also believed that when they left, a seed had been planted in their mind or hearts. A sense of obligation existed, which was called ‘giri’, which was something very much refined in the Japanese culture. Hence, the little gifts of food that I had gladly received on a good few occasions thus far on my mission; and would undoubtedly experience again and again on the proceeding stages, too. Well, perhaps true from those in a better position to reciprocate this cultural bind that pervaded their everyday existence.

It had often been said that when the Japanese talked to one another they tended to keep a greater distance apart than people did in my neck of the woods, in Western Europe. This was not noticeably so whenever they stopped on the road to chat with me for a while. Likewise, it was also said that they seldom made eye contact, or felt it best to avoid making eye contact. This might have been true with young students who where often shy, or unsure of themselves, anyway. However, this could not have been further from the truth with the people I came into contact with. They were not shy at all, and often the first to stop and talk.

Just as I shouldered my backpack the rain began to make its usual untimely appearance. The rain stopped and started for much of my tramping along Route 101 bound for the city of Noshiro, located in Akita Prefecture. Noshiro was to be my final destination on this first stage of my mission. Not that it mattered much to me, Noshiro was known for the basketball team of Noshiro Technical High School. Yuta Tabuse, the professional basketball player graduated for this high school where he led the team to three national championships in the years he was there. Tabuse became the first Japanese born professional basketball player to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in America, where he made four appearances for the Phoenix Suns between 2004 and 2005. Noshiro was also the birthplace of the actor, Shiro Osaka who appeared in a long line of movies in a career that covered almost five decades. He was especially known for Tokyo Story (1953) and Pigs and Battleships (1961). Another tour coach with Konan printed on its side passed me by. I was the second Konan tour coach that passed me in as many days. Of course, it was by no means the only tour company coach that sped along the roads. Although the sky looked the same as it had this morning, barely a patch of blue to be seen here or there, I felt good. A fresh breeze caressed my face, and cooled the sweat across my chest. Now with every step I made, a clear sense of pride andachievement was slowly replacing all the other feelings that came part and parcel with being on the roads. The countless muscle pains in my legs and else where that plagued me umpteen times previously had now vanished. “God! Was it all in the mind?” I momentarily pondered as I made my way along road.

A road sign up ahead that I stopped to look at read, “Noshiro 87km”. In three days it would all be over! The city of Fukaura lay just twenty-three kilometers down the road, with Lake Juniko a little beyond there. “Mmm!” It would be hard to shake off this sense of completion, which I was enjoying. “Why should I? I had earned it.” I told myself, as I turned and left the road sign behind me. Some railroad tracks ran near to the road. I could not recall the tracks being so near before, but there was something comforting about their appearance. Of course, I had still not decided how I would return to Tokyo or rather, which way was best way to make that journey when the time came. “That would just have to wait until I got to Noshiro.” I told myself.Soon I came to a sign that read, “Welcome to Fukaura 20km”. With a population of close to 10,000, Fukaura was a pleasant little place located in the Nishitsugaru district of Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan. Away to the right a seawater swimming pool looked empty and much less inviting than the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). Yukiaizaki Campground, which I decided to head for, was eighteen kilometers away. At least hoped to get way past there before my day was up. A good bit further along the road another road sign told me that Noshiro eighty-three kilometers. Both Lake Juniko and Iwasaki Town were no more than a day away. “Mmm!” I wondered if I would be able to keep up the steady pace that I had been enjoying in order to get Noshiro City down to sixty kilometers by sunset, or when it came to make camp. Just as I was toying with this a train rumbled past in the opposite direction. There was something wonderfully majestic about the sound of local trains passing by in this part of the country that I could not quite equate with the noisy racket the rolling stock in Tokyo made.

Yet another road sign told me that there was a rest area up ahead and not far from my destination, Fukaura, which was just two kilometers. The rest area was pretty much like many of the other ones I stopped at along my way. It had toilets, handicapped facilities, a place to get food, and a shop to buy gifts at. The road sign also told me that Cape Yukiaizaki was thirteen kilometers further along. The food to be had was mainly fish based, a bit on the pricey side, and geared towards tourists. The Japanese loved all kinds of seafood, which I would prefer not to see; King crabs, shrimps, squid, as well as, mussels, and oyster that were popular in my own country, too. Fish was the staple food, next to rice, and provided as much as fifty percent of the protein intake. Not with me! The tiny fishing boats that I had seen throughout my long tramp down along the coastline caught a lot of the seafood that people enjoyed eating in Japan.

I settled on treating myself to one of the less expensive dishes, shio ramen (noodles), ¥600 yen, and needless to say, a glass of cool beer to help wash it down with, for ¥450 yen. As I waited for the bowl of noodles to arrive I counted fifteen elementary school children and a couple of adults, whom I took to be their teachers, through one of the windows. They were very much similar to the young children back in Tokyo, and looked to me like they were in the sixth and final year at school, not at I was a good judge of age in this country. Perhaps the children were on one of those little school trips before their final graduation. Then again, it was nearly the end of August, and most schools held their graduation ceremonies in March at the end of the school year.

“Mmm!” I could feel my mind working overtime as I waited for the bowl of noodles to arrive. Perhaps they attended a rural school, as their numbers where few, or perhaps they were part of a larger body of students, schools often did that, divided their students into little groups on school outings or trips. Even with the collapse of lifetime employment policy, Japan remained very much a groupist culture, where groups within groups helped cement the communal greater good. There were also a good number of college age kids about the place, too. “Where they there because they wanted to be, or were they there because of peer pressure?” All of them had bicycles loaded up with camping gear.

Most of the universities and colleges followed a semester system. It was not exactly clear to me when the kids started back at school at the end of their summer break, though I knew that it was near at hand. The summer school break in Japan commonly lasted for six weeks, whilst the elementary, junior, and senior high schools in Hokkaido (and Nagano Prefecture) had a shorter summer break. In Japan, almost all the schools followed the trimester system each school year. The first term began at the first of April to late-July. The second term lasted from early-September to late-December, with a two-week break that lasted to the first week of the New Year. The third term began from early-January to late-March, with a weeklong spring break.

All of the students appeared to be well behaved, or not too loud, which was nice to see. Back in Tokyo, college students could usually be heard before they were seen whenever they got together. Whether it was bad manners on my part, I decided to polish off the remainder of the watermelon that I had carried for much of the day, before leaving the café to hit the road again. The way I saw it, it was one less item to carry with me on the road. Soon after leaving the café and shouldering my backpack it began to rain. Some people sought shelter under the eaves of a roof, and waited for the downpour to pass. The elementary school children darted towards their school bus, with their teachers close behind. Just as they clambered on board the bus, a beautiful shiny red BMW car pulled in to the rest area and stopped. A rather fat and somewhat ugly young man got out. An attractive young female stepped out from the passenger side. Both of them made for the touristy shop, but not before the fat guy gave me a cold stare as we passed. Perhaps he took offence to me looking at the beautiful girl who followed close behind.

Less than five kilometers away from the rest stop area I stopped to boil some water for a cup of tea. This was more a result of my cultural upbringing than any sudden attack of laziness or need to rest. Not ten minutes had passed since the water boiled and still enjoying the tea and a few broken biscuits when a Japanese chap sauntered by. Not a word passed between us! This at first suited me just fine, but soon I kind of regretted it. It was not the first time that our paths had crossed. It was back at the rest stop area when I saw him in the tourist shop, although no one else seemed to notice him, or pretended not to notice him. The Japanese people at large were masters at that! Even then I could not help but wonder what he was all about, where he had come from and where he was headed. Those old gauntlets of questions that I had been leveled at me time and time again where now on my mind about him. I had noticed the way the man was dressed, the tattered clothes, and the dirty cloth-bag strapped around his shoulders. The ragged appearance made the man standout among the other shoppers, groups of well-dressed tourists about to rejoin their coach that waited outside. Perhaps looking about the souvenir shop reminded him of better days.

Unlike the other people around him, he was must certainly not on holiday. There was something calm and gentle about the man’s rugged, unshaved, weather-beaten face. Perhaps life out under the stars was not so bad after all. Many of the Japanese I spoke to in Tokyo were under the view that the homeless were homeless because they wanted it that way. Speaking from experience, the man’s lifestyle had no doubt hardened him somewhat, for it had in some way taken a toll on me. “Did he choose to live in this carefree manner?” I wondered to myself, as I packed away my little burner. “Did he live that way because of circumstances?” Often things were not the way they seemed. Even though my own situation was by no means secure either, I was on the roads by choice. And in the next day or two when this stage of my mission ended, it was back to the office to make ends-meet, so to speak. “Mmm!” For a while I wondered if the man observed the people he saw here and there, like, I tended to do. Did he think about the kind of lives they lived, or the jobs they did; or where they were going to, or coming from? Or did he close his eyes to them and pretend that they were not there, like, many Japanese did? Did he do what I did, like, bathe in the salty seawater, wash his clothes in a river, or under a cold water tap in some park somewhere; or at the sink of some public toilet somewhere? I even wondered what kind of questions the man might have asked me had we struck up a conversation.

Somehow I felt that his questions would have been very different to the usual gauntlet of questions that I had been had asked on the roads so far. One question that some people had been put to me from time to time was: “Why did you embark on such an almighty venture?” Of course, I was never quite sure of how to phrase my reply for why I was tramping around Japan. Even George Leigh Mallory’s reply to a similar question on climbing Mount Everest, “because it is there”, did not seem to fit. At least I never for the life of me ever thought I would set out on such a thing that would later become a burning ambition, or rather, my mission in life, as I came to call it.

It was not an easy question to answer, especially in the early stages anyway. It was not like, climb the mountain thing at all, but far from it. Of course, people took great effort to expend their energy in different ways, like, Mallory climbing up mountains, or others walking through forests, or traveling across vast deserts and so on. My answers lay on the roads that were clear. And I knew myself well enough to see that I would never be contented unless I had walked them thoroughly. To me this so called long distance walking thing, or tramping as I preferred to call it, was better than anything else I had ever done previously, even sex. And all the wine, women and drink put together, down through the years for that matter. It made me think deeply, and unselfishly, about myself, which made it all the more frightening it an enticing sort of way. So, too, I came to learn things about myself that I could not learn when sitting at my computer in Tokyo surfing the Internet, or reading the many books that I would have felt depressed had I not read. All of this was now very clear to me, even after the many days of blister after blister and toe nails hanging off by the thread, made normal walking one excruciating hell of a trail.

I sat on a wooden bench sipping the last drops of my tea. Below the majestic coastline, with the calm, yet powerful sea made its way over some rocks. It was a wonderful sight to look down over the sea from the high altitude I was at, and to see where I was headedstretching away to the south. Down the road I could still make out the tiny figure of the man, but soon like the rocks in the sea, my fellow tramper had disappeared from view. Just then I recalled a passage in Allan Booths book, ‘The Roads to Sata’ of a similar encounter. Of course, the age of the chap who passed a little while ago, told me that it was not the same person. Or had I just seen a ghost? Of course not!

Along my way I passed many beautiful flowerbeds and flower boxes that flanked both sides of the road. Each time when I tramped past the flowers the muscle pain in my body literally disappeared, which caused me to wonder if such problems were more a figment of my imagination than not. On a downside, it was also during those times that I learned just how ignorant I really was about nature. The flowers were of many kinds and colors, a few I knew the names of, but many I did not. This ignorance was usually hammered into be for a good while, as the beautiful and colorful rows stretched for kilometer after kilometer. No sooner had I passed the last of them, for a while anyway, did wildflowers growing by the side of the road takeover where the potted plants ended.

A young boy ran along the narrow pavement with a football tucked under his arm. As we drew near to each other, I motioned him to be careful, for fear of losing his balance and falling in front of a speeding car. A road sign told me that Noshiro was now seventy-three kilometers away, and that if I continued to keep good time and pace, getting it down to sixty was now very much within my grasp. Also, the sign told me that both ‘Lake Juniko 27km’ and ‘Wasaki 23km’ were a day away, perhaps tomorrow.

A 500 milliliter can of Coca Cola at a vending machine I set down next to drink cost me ¥100 yen. The other soft drinks in the vending machine were around the same price, ¥100 yen. At another vending machine by a different company had the cans of soft drinks at the same cost. Clearly there was some kind of price war going on between the two stores outside which the vending machines stood. As I set enjoying the can of Cola, whom do you think should saunter up to near where I was sitting? It was none other that my fellow tramper of the roads, the Japanese guy I had seen twice previously today. I must have overtaken him somewhere back on the road without noticing it. Perhaps he had stopped to take a nap somewhere, just as I liked to do when the moment suited me. As before, not a word was exchanged between us, which I found myself now beginning to regret. How was it that I could easily stop and chat with any Tom, Dick or Harry, yet, found myself felling shy in the presence of this man? Also like before, I set and watched him disappear down the road until he was well out of sight.

There was not even a simple non-committed nod of the head to acknowledge one another. Not even the tiniest comment on the weather, which I knew was a daily concern to us both. Actually, I had lost my watch somewhere on the road days earlier and was thinking about what time it was when my fellow tramper passed me by. How might he have reacted had I asked him for the time? Surprised perhaps! Most Japanese tended to turn a blind eye to many taboos that they sooner did not exist. They were very sensitive to any taboo topic, like, the yakuza, burakumin or outcasts, the Pacific War, as the Second World War was better known in Japan, or even on the pros and cons of holding on to the Royal Family, particularly when they felt culturally justified about them.

Like me, perhaps he did not have a watch now. Under it all, I guess 'time' had a similar meaning for both of us, compared to the busy, hardworking people in the rest of the country. On the road it only really mattered to me at the end of the stage of my mission, the hurry to catch a flight, to check the times of a bus, or a train back to Tokyo; in other words, a routine life-style in Tokyo that I would have to get used to all over again. Of course, he too must be going somewhere in particular. Otherwise, why was he on this road heading in that southwest direction? Then again, being on the road for so long it was easy to lack the concept of time. Then again, night when the sun went down and day when it rose again was all that I really needed to care about. Either way, it was all a matter of looking out for yours truly and to live accordingly.

I stopped to take a leak by some railroad tracks not far from a quaint little JR train station called Hiruto. While I was doing this, I recalled the times years before when I last urinated alongside a section of railroad tracks. That was way back in the mid-1970s when I spent a year as part of a London Transport permanent-way gang. The gang was stationed at South Kensington in London to be precise. A good few times on my way to work some of my work collogues could be found at the station bar at South Kensington downing a couple of pints before heading over to the cabin across the tracks.

In fact, in those days it was rather a frequent occurrence for someone to pop out to relieve himself as we all waited for the last trains to stop running in order to get on the tracks and put right what needed to be put right. Then we could make our way under the stars and down over the tracks to where the job was to be done that evening. Then there was the pounding of hammers, the turning of screws, the shoveling of ballast under the sleepers so as to make everything look proper under the gauge, which was usually placed on the tracks by the ganger. The ballast packed between the sleepers and around the tracks was very important to keep the whole railroad place when the stock rolled by, as well as to facilitate the drainage of water. “Mmm!” I thought London would not be London without its rain!

On bigger jobs different gangs would be brought together. The work usually involved the lifting and replacing of whole segments of track, which had to be done on one single night, and sometimes without stopping for one of our customary tea breaks. Thought that did not seem to stop some of the gang from popping off somewhere along the tracks for a piss (urinate), which I surmised was the result of a couple of pints at the station bar. The surrounding darkness was lit up by our gas lamps, which we placed on a wooden sleeper on which the tracks were placed. Of course the rest of London, the real sleepers slept proper while we hammered away to finish the job before the first train started rolling.

For a moment I wondered if I had a better sense of freedom back in those days than I believed I had now? In those days I did not care about tomorrow, and I think that I was happy were I was at. But since those days, I have been blessed with the opportunity to tramp along some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. With the closing of time, I probably will not have the opportunity to travel like this again. The splendid coastline appeared again and again on the long hard walk down through Hokkaido, and which now continued to show its beautiful face here and there as I made my way down along the Aomori coastline.

Along my way I stopped in at a couple of stores to see if there was something I might need for the road, which I could not quite think of offhand. At one out door goods store, 'Hareyu', I picked up a 740g 'Captain Stag' gas canister, which was just as well since the one I had was about to run out at any minute. The way I drank tea and coffee the 430g canisters finished much too quickly for my liking. “Mmm!” I wondered why people bothered buying the smaller canisters, for even the cost compared to the bigger ones was off-putting. The second store I called in at, 'MaxValu', was a large store-cum supermarket just off to the side of Hareyu. American's, sort of, loved to contract their English words to make them their own, which was a cultural thing I thought. Yet, something in the spelling of this store's name told me that it was more Japanese than it was American English. Then again, it was only a name!

At MaxValu I picked up a bottle of inexpensive red wine to tie me over for the next couple of evenings. The wine kind of took the boredom out of the long nights, I felt. Like the powerful Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) in the day, a cup or two of red wine in the evenings had been a good comforting friend. In the situation I was in, lonely under the elements day and night, it was usually easy to find the time to indulge myself in one kind of alcoholic drink or another. ON those days when I was able to notch up 35 plus kilometers, then it was a little reward for a job well done! In the case of the inexpensive red wine in particular that I would pick up at a store along my way, all were first time brands for me, with no favorites among them. It made it more interesting that way! On the label of the quarter full bottle of wine, which was stuffed deep into my backpack for a couple of days already, read, 'Santa Helena, Gran Vino, Cabernet Sauvignon 2008'. The red wines from Chili had not disappointed me as yet, when it came to buying a bottle.

The sun had baked down on me relentlessly! Earlier on in the day, and with no letup in the sun high overhead, I hoped to stop and relax under a shade somewhere, of course, with the cold bottle of Yebisu beer that I had just picked up then. So hot was the sun I recalled how the beer warmed with every passing second. More often than not, finding a good place to rest was not as easy as one might thing out on the road. There were a lot of road works and the racket caused by work being carried out on a bridge behind me, meant any inkling to rest for a spell kind of evaporated outright. The work and noise of the power drills was so relentless that I could have sworn I felt the bridge shake long after I had passed across it. Even after some kilometers further down the road, I could still hear a faint sound of the work on the road and bridge going on. When I finally did sit down somewhere to rest, the beer that I had picked up to cool me down had become loop warm.

For sure, my list of useless notebook on Japanese workmen, as well as on other unwanted noisy visitors, who seemed to appear out of nowhere when least expected, was full up that I soon gave up the notion of making any further entries. Then again, perhaps I was just annoyed at things not doing smoothly enough as I stuffed the notebook back into the pouch I carried on my hip like a cowboy might carry his gun and holster. During those times when things did not go according to plan, bouts ofdepression would set in, and I would find all kinds of useless thoughts occupying my mind. To my left I could see Fukaura JR Station, a rather lonely looking place, and where a train waited, almost empty of passengers. When I thought more about it, I could not recall seeing a train full to the brim pass me by. Perhaps the train in question was waiting for the signals to change so as to continue its journey south, where I too was headed. Just as I was tramping past the entrance of the train station, a local orange colored train that was headed north pulled into the station and stopped. Unlike the older and sluggish looking local train that had just pulled in, this one that had been waiting was rather beautiful in appearance; its shinny white carriages, each with an orange and white line printed on the sides. Soon after the local train had come to a stop, the train that had been waiting patiently pulled slowly out from the station on its journey south. A little further along my way, the railway tracks joined the road, but such was my absent mindedness at times that I could not recall seeing another train pass by.

Nearby the train station stood an empty kaiten (revolving counter) sushi restaurant, where the lunchtime crowd would soon appear. Outside the restaurant where pictures of various sushi dishes that were mostly priced at ¥105 yen per plate. As I said, there were no customers inside the place yet, but I felt that that would soon change, which was one of the reasons I did not bother to enter. One of the things my students back in Tokyo would ask me was what my favorite Japanese food was. Each time I would reply, almost without thinking: “Sushi of course!” Unfortunately, I did not feel the urge to stop this time around, as I was in no mood for crowds or rest. Besides, I was tramping along the road with a good steady pace, or as the saying went, ‘Why stop when the going was good?’ One town after another fell away like tenpins, and in no time at all I reached the outskirts of Fukaura, a most attractive little seaside town. Every February the town of Fukaura was famous for holding a local salmon cuisine event. Among other things, the event was accompanied by local performing arts for the many visitors to enjoy. It was also the birthplace of the numerous Sumo wrestlers (e.g., Aminishiki Ryuji, Asofuji Seiya, Kaiho Ryoji, and Masatsukasa Koshin in particular who was forced to quit in April 2011 after being found guilty of match-fixing).

If only the rest of the seaside towns were as beautiful as Fukaura, then I would most certainly have not covered as much ground as I did, but hang around a while to enjoy the towns more. Perhaps, something might have been made for another list, this time of towns, the most beautiful among them highlighted for future reference. For its scenicbeauty, I felt that Fukaura was quite on par with the seaside towns in my own native land, Ireland, which were quite beautiful to say the least. As I made my way past the quaint little houses and shops, a middle-aged man was hurrying to deliver newspapers. For a while our pace was such that it appeared we were shoulder-to-shoulder, if not together as we went along. Just then a shopkeeper standing at the entrance called out to him in a friendly manner, “Tsukarete imasuka?” (Are you tired?) And to which the newspaper deliveryman called back in the affirmative.

In the west Belfast that I knew in my younger days, friendly banter was common! And just like Ireland, Japan was an ancient land with its own precious customs and traditions that had remained the test of time. Yet, perhaps more so than any other country, Japan was a country of continuous change. Everywhere I looked, for example, old was being replaced by new. On roads and landscape had changed with countless buildings coming down and others going up. In the cities at least, old customs were replaced by more modern ways. Already this had been seen in dress and fashion, as well as in the homes and in education. Nothing went untouched by the claws of change. It could be noted in the language people spoke and in the laws and politics they looked towards. Quite unlike Ireland, change could also be imposed on the people by natural calamities. Of course, earthquakes, or the very water that surrounded the country in the form of a tsunami. Japan was also a country that boasted having more than fifty active nuclear reactors, so even such accidents were not to be sniggered at. Especially when a large earthquake in 2007 forced the Kashiwasaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant to shut down for twenty-one months.

It was nice to see that a sense of place or community was still very strong among the people living in the rural areas, which had pretty much died Tokyo; or replaced by a form of social policing and a strong sense of peer pressure. In many of the small places I passed through, local communities established familiar ties in their way of life and participated in everyday affairs along with everyone else. In his book, ‘The Forgotten Japanese’, (wonderfully translated by Jeffrey S. Irish), the Japanese folklorist once spoke of life in tiny villages, as being so small that communal living was claustrophobic. At one time when the cities were young, where people lived in close proximity with each other, they felt a strong attachment to their local communities.

In Tokyo, on the other hand, this sense of place or community aspect was quite scattered, if not altogether lost. In some ways, this was true with me, too, with respects to my own hometown community connections. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since I left Ireland proper to travel around the world and to experience live and work in foreign lands. Even though some old Irish friends remained back in my old hometown of Belfast, or made their living and family life close to their roots to be precise, in my heart I envied them. The long absence from my own roots meant that I had become kind of outside of my old community, like a hermit with his eyes always open for some place to call home. You could only feel like a tourist among the strong knitted communities, at least I did every time I traveled back to Belfast to see family members and friends. In the early days of my travels, not being part of something never really bothered me, like it did now. Aging did that to you! That said it somehow seemed different when I realized that I had lost my cultural identity. Was it any wonder that ex-patriots held onto whatever connections were left to remain them of their identity, their roots?

Soon most of the newspapers were delivered, and with the lighter load to carry the man’s pace quickened, and soon I was left behind. A sign pointed in the direction of Yuhi Park, but when I turned my eyes in that direction to take a look all that I could see was my old friend the sea. The road (Route 101) for Noshiro led me nearer to my destination, whilst another road for Fukaura Port branched to the right. Soon I tramped past a statue of a naked man, the hand held aloft, in it a plant of some kind. “Mmm! A laurel leaf?” For some reason what was in the hand stuck in my mind for a while. I had seen many similar statues in Europe. Just about every road in Tokyo was home to a statue that felt them a complete waste of money. I had also heard here in Japan that there were more statues than anywhere else. So empty were most of the pocket parks I passed, that I wondered what was the point of having them. Nothing surprised me anymore!

The hands on a clock in the pocket park read 4:55. “Mmm!” I thought, feeling my mind about to work overtime! “Wouldn’t the time seem the same if the hands on clock turned the other way, anti-clock?” It was something silly to occupy my mind with for a while, or to drown out the tiredness I could feel creeping into my body as I tramped along the road. “Surely all that needed to be done was to reverse the numbers, not to forget the clock motor, too.” Things were the way they were because of history. In the northern hemisphere anyway, he shadows on sundials rotated in a ‘clockwise’ manner. History had also taught us that it was in the countries in northern hemisphere that industry, wealth, and science won out over the countries in the southern hemisphere. If it had of been the other way around, then we might all be seeing the time differently. Regardless of how the time looked, the angle of the sun in the sky told me that it was time to increase my pace, or to kick up some dirt as I went, so to speak. Soon the pocket park was behind me and well out of sight. A bridge spanned a tiny inlet from the sea and to me appeared to be more of design than of purpose. It seemed to stand by itself that I wondered it its construction was a total waste of time, money, and effort. But then again, what did I know?

A public toilet appeared up ahead, where I stopped for a moment to shake hands with the unemployed (penis, urinate). Just as I was dumping my backpack onto the ground a car pulled in and stopped. But also most immediately, the engine started up again, the car turned back onto the road and drove away. Something told me that the young couple in the car was afraid to stop, for fear that I might ask them for a lift. Of course, that could not have been further from the truth. A road sign over the road from the toilet told me that I was on target for reaching my goal in good time, “Noshiro 64km”. I stopped momentarily to take a peek through the window of a Japanese pub, which being near to the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea), was appropriately named ‘Anchor’. The interior was too dark to make out anything of interest, but for the reflection of a local bus pulling away from a bus stop behind me. It was easy to see without looking directly at the bus, the words, ‘Kanon Bus’ where printed on the side. Soon the bus was gone up the road, with its passengers all heading in a northerly direction. “Mmm!” I wondered if that local bus belonged to the same Kanon Company, or tourist coach that passed me by earlier on in the day.

My walking pace by now had become much slower than when I set out on the road this morning, and which had remained quite constant, baring the odd burst of speed, which lasted right up until only thirty minutes ago. I was tired! Now both my mind and body were no longer united on the same thing, or goal. The fatigue and feelings to push on were no longer producing worthy results. At least, I was failing to notice any great progress, like the falling away of villages, towns, landmarks Surely some kind of a compromise between my mind and body, if at all possible, was in the offing. “Perhaps if I stopped and rested a while I might see things differently?” I told myself.

As luck would have it, I found myself at a quaint little roadside place called ‘Gyoin’, a café-cum restaurant, or so the sign above the entrance led me to believe. I shuffled my tired body inside the premises where two middle-aged staff, the cook and the waitress greeted me. The waitress directed me to a table by a window that offered a pleasant view of the sea. The background music was also pleasant and nice and light on the mind, which suited me down to a tee. It was a mixture of theme music from old movies, and some pop songs of an earlier day. Some of the tunes I knew well and some others I did not. From the menu I selected one of my usual dishes on the road, katsu teishoku, and a cool bottle of Kirin lager beer to wash it down with. The food turned out to be excellent! The food was so delicious and the service so friendly that I thought it might be nice to come again. If only that was possible! If I ever returned to this area again on my motorbike, I would most certainly stop by at the café again for a bite to eat, but perhaps not a beer since I would be riding.

As to the importance of food, we all needed to eat if we wanted to be fit and healthy. Good food intake was also related to staying warm, and for the energy that kept the body working, or in my case, walking. For the young and active among us, the proteins in the different foods helped repair the body against injuries. Though for me, I liked to think that my little swims in the salty waters of my old friend, the Japan Sea, was just as good against the aches and pains I suffered almost daily on the roads. Much of the protein we put into our bodies came from my favorite foods, like, beans, nuts, meat, and to some extent, eggs. It also came from my least favorite, like, fish. Dairy foods such as milk, which I just loved to drink in the summer months, were rich in protein, too. Energy was the bottom line, or something the body continuously burned off all the time. I read somewhere that one banana, for example, supplied enough energy to bicycle about half an hour, which in Tokyo for me meant about ten to twelve kilometers. Much of the same could be argued for carbohydrates, such as sugar and starch, or all those sweet foods, like, jam and cakes, etc. Carbohydrates were rich in the cereals, bread, and potatoes, which I tended to eat on a regular basis, especially oatmeal and milk for breakfast at my place in Tokyo. Even the fatty foods, most of which I tried to avoid the best I could, like, cheese, chocolate, and margarine, were loaded up with energy. On the road, however, all kinds of food and drink had to be treated with respect, for the times I had gone without either.

As was often the case, the campsite was just about empty of tents and campers when I arrived. Perhaps Key-san whom I spent sometime with at a campsite in Ofuyu was right after all, the camping boom, as he told me, never really happened. However, there were two attractive young female cyclists camping nearby. Later on when we shared one of the few picnic tables to prepare our evening meals at, not that I had much to prepare, one of them told me that they were in the fashion business. She also told me that she was a professional photographer, and that her colleague, and the more attractive of the two, was a professional model. They were on location or assignment to get a series of outdoor snaps for some fashion magazine. Of course, the theme for the photographs had to do with cycling, camping, and nature. The photographer was quite up to the challenge, her young colleague, the model, she told me absolutely loathed the outdoor assignment, and could not wait to get it over with. While I was at the campsite the young model spent much of the time resting in her tent complaining of some illness. She showed her face only once that evening to nibble on some of the food, which the photographer had prepared for her, only to return to retreat to the confines of her tent soon afterwards.

 


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