26 July, 2009: Following a sound sleep, it was by eight-fifteen that I headed down the winding road and back up on to Route 232 once again. On the way I stopped in at a Seven-Eleven convenience store to settle a breakfast issue with my stomach. It felt good to be finally free of the aches, and pains, and to some extent the blisters, too, that plagued me nonstop during the early days of my coastal roads mission. Still, for some reason I felt a bit on the sluggish side at best. Pulling my old bike-watch from my pocket, I was able to calculate that it had been a slow ten kilometers. But at last I reached the small city of Rumoi; designated a city on the first of October 1947. According to 2008 records, Rumoi had a population of a little more than 26, 000. On entering Rumoi from the north, two things struck me: its large size, and its ugliness. Not long after entering the town I stopped in at a Seicomart convenience store to pickup some ice cream to help cool down my inners a bit. Even from where I set down to rest for a while, I could not help but see that the town was one hell of a hole of an ugly place. A number of small factories of one kind or another greeted me head on as I entered.
The Japanese film-composer, Masuro Sato was born in 1928 in Rumoi, one year before the Great Depression and the second year of Showa (1926-89). Also, the folk musician and singer, Morio Agata was born there in 1948. It was also at the entrance of this city that I parted company with my old friend, Route 232. Here the road turned and headed inland towards Fakagawa, a vibrant little city best known for its abundance of rice fields, as well as its apple and cherry orchards in the surrounding township. It was easy enough to see, as I picked myself to my feet again and re-shouldered my backpack, that it was on the seaside road where my mission laid. The first steps involved a seventeen-kilometer tramp towards the town of Mashike
For a while when I left Rumoi from the south did my ambivalence about the peaceful coastline disappear. It was as if just then I had tramped through the wardrobe and into another world. All around me could be seen hordes of people, families and groups of friends of all ages enjoying their time together over. There were many barbeques with groups of people around. The smell of food sizzling away on the fires and carried in the breeze did not help any. Along a well-kept coastline, groups of children were having the time of their lives splashing about in the gentle surf that hit the shore. As I continued my tramp further south I could see young men racing up and down at great speeds on their powered sea crafts. Like young Indian braves, each one wild and carefree, their manliness was to be shown. Others nearby preferred to win their feathers less dangerously with a game of beach volleyball.
Mashike was a small, but charming little town with a population of 5,590. The town’s main distinction was a sake brewery called Kunimare, which I learnt was well known throughout Hokkaido if not beyond. There were several fruit farms, too, where visitors could buy the fruit directly from the farmers themselves. When their fruit was in season the farmers would be doubly busy. For the winter lovers, of which I was not, Mashike had a small ski resort, which had two lifts. Still, it was the biggest ski resort in the Rumoi District. Further inland could be found the Shokanbetsu-Teuri-Yagishiri Quasi-National Park and Mount Shokanbetsu, which stood some 1,491 meters tall. There were quite a few camping facilities for overnight stay available in the national park area. Also, there were many hiking trails that led into the forest, but all this meant little to me since I needed to follow the coastline. When I got deeper into the place its appearance took on a more affluent look. The houses and business buildings looked near and tidy as though people cared, and many of them with will-attended gardens. The abundance of different species of flowers and the layout of the gardens gave a more European influence than Japanese.
The first road sign I passed along Route 231 told me that Hamamatsu was fifty-five kilometers further on. There still remained thirteen kilometers to go to Mashike, my destination. There was a touch of sluggishness in my movements, which told me that this final stretch would not be a piece of cake. Perhaps because of the weight of my backpack, which felt heavier with the passing hours, my movements were stiff and jerky that had I an old umbrella and proper hat on my head, I might have looked like Charlie Chaplin carrying a backpack. Although my mind remained focused, my body was unwilling to respond in upping a gear. Focused as I was, I had also become ambivalent to the trucks, tour coaches, cars and motorcycles on the road. I was even unwilling to acknowledge the odd smile or wave directed my way. I was not sure of the reason why I had become so disconnected to people and things around me, or if I was tired or depressed. I would be well advised to do the opposite, to keep my wits sharp, for there was no room on the road for hesitation and uncertainty. Still, my mind was clear enough to know that something was not right, which I guess was half the cure. “How was it that I’d arise from my sleep in the morning with a greater confidence?” I wondered. “And then, as the kilometers and the passing hours fell away, I’d feel like shite.” Then I thought it might have been because I was not eating properly, or enough.
I was happy to be away from the hassle of life in Tokyo, and happiest when I was by the sea. It seemed natural to me that I came to love and respect it. The disappearance of the sea when the roads wound away from the beach and turned inland always brought with it a sense of loss. During those times my feelings would take a bit of a dip, too, and would often stay that way until I drew close to the sea once more. Not just that, but the best view of the sunset was from the beach. With a campfire going and a cup of red wine in my hand, there was a feeling of luxury and laziness every time I camped on a deserted beach somewhere. But just as I was beginning to enjoy the moment, all too soon the sun was gone, and the mellow thoughts in my head would be replaced with new thoughts about the road tomorrow. And about the rivers to be crossed, and the mountains passed, and for how long would I be parted from the sea?
“Winds blow south, or
Winds blow north,
Day come white, or night
Come black, home,
Or rivers and mountains
Singing all time,
Minding no time,
While we two keep together.” (Walt Whitman).
Up ahead I could see what looked like a restaurant. As I drew nearer to the building I could see a sign above the door, which read 'Happy'. It was a name that could not be further away from my feelings. Perhaps it was the miserable weather that had fallen over the area recently. "Perhaps a bowl of hot ramen (noodles) would help me feel better", I thought to myself. It felt good to take the weight of my feet, or sling-backs, to use my Australian friend's terminology. A most friendly bunch of middle-aged waitresses, smiled at me from ear to ear as I entered. The warm atmosphere in the place told me that a nice cool bottle of Sapporo beer, together with a bowl of shoo ramen, would fuel me nicely for the road outside.Ramen was a Japanese noodle dish that consisted of Chinese-style wheat noodles usually served in a meat-based broth. Though sometimes a fish-based broth was used. The bowl of ramin was flavored with soy sauce or miso, with sliced pork, dried seaweed called nori, kamaboko, green onions, and sometimes corn. Almost every locality in Japan had its own variation of ramen, from the tonkotsu, a pork bone broth ramen of Kyushu to
Settling down at a table by a window, outside I could see a break in the gray clouds above. The sun now began to shine though the gap in the clouds. The sunray pierced through the window and across the table and into my eyes. This I took to be a good omen and a good chance to put the final touches to a third set of postcards to family, friends, and associates:
"I have already left Teshio. It rained so much this last number of days. In fact, the weather has been so bad since I arrived in Hokkaido. I left Enbetsu after camping there on 23 July. The journey took me through Shosenbetsu where I stopped to eat tonkatsu teshoku. Nice! I am heading towards Chikubetsu, but I don't think I could reach there by tonight. (24 July) I am now stopping in Tomemae. Tired! It looks like it will rain. Besides, I can hear thunder in the distance. Oh no! It has just begun raining, again. My body no longer feels the pains from walking long distances. Perhaps my body has become immune. Ha! (25 July) I walked for more than 30km and am now at Obira. Tired! I am currently in my tent sipping a cup of red wine and the rain is pounding down. (26 July) All day I have felt miserable. But now, rejuvenated by the shio ramin and a Sapporo beer, and a rest I am about to hit the road again and cover 15km more to Mitsuke before calling it a day. I think the distance will be no problem. In all honesty, I want not to just tramp the coastal roads around Japan, but to really enjoy it. After all, it was a once in a lifetime experience."
Along the way I passed a number of bus huts. Many travelers considered the bus huts an excellent refuge from the heavy rain, sleet and snow, or just to stop by at to rest for a while. In this I would agree! Unfortunately for me, the bus stop huts were not always around when I got caught up in a heavy downpour. More often than not, they were nonexistent on whole stretches of road I tramped along. The condition that the bus huts were in when I did stop at one, was very much potluck. Some looked as thought they had been used for more than places to wait for the local bus at. At some, yellowy stains down the walls showed that someone had taken a leek (urinated). Or to use an old vulgar term, ‘pissburnt’, which meant, ‘stained with urine’.
Other huts had cigarette butts scattered about already dirty floors, not to mention the empty sort drink cans under benches or sitting on a windowsill. At a number of places, local residents had cared for some bus stop huts beautifully. Each one with its own little homely look about it, a framed pictures on a wall. A calendar or a mirror or both appropriately hung for all to see as they entered. Often, too, a vase with flowers sticking out of it, neatly placed by a tiny windows. One bus stop hut that I took shelter in at a couple of hours back, from a burst of rain, was not only damp and dirty, but smelly, too. There the comfort was eased somewhat by spreading out a small blanket on the wooden bench to lie down on. And soon the sound of the rain beating against the tiny window sent me to sleep. When I awoke an hour or so later the rain had stopped.
The weather remained that way, raining on and off, until I was just three kilometers from Mishiko, where I thought it best to make camp. When it did rain, it splattered onto the asphalt like there was no tomorrow. Fortunately for me I was able to duck into a rather interesting looking cafe called 'Polku'. Polku stood on a hill that overlooked the main coastal road I was on. The rain was still falling, but had let up somewhat as I turned off the main road and made my way up the hillside road towards the cafe. Once inside, I sat myself down at one of the heavy wooden tables, with my backpack leaning against it. At last, a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce was placed in front of me. A bottle of beer was ample enough, I thought, to wash it down with. Though, I was disappointed to see that when the Asahi “Dry” beer I ordered did arrive, it was a small bottle. A clock on the wall read four-thirty, which told me that I might as well get my mind ready for hitting the trail again, rain or no rain.
It was not easy to find the Riverside complex north of the town of Mashike. I had heard that there was a campsite there, which I hoped to find before the drizzle turned into something heavier. There were few signposts to be seen anywhere to help me. My first stop of call was at a little roadside shop that sold various kinds of quality cherries. It was cherry picking season in Hokkaido, and cherry stalls selling them were dotted about the road. Cars were routinely stopping at them. I was sure that people had eaten so many cherries that they were coming out of their ears. The prices for a small hand-sized finger deep plastic carton of cherries ranged from one thousand yen to one thousand and five hundred yen. Prices, I felt, that were not to be laughed at.
My initial purpose for popping into the shop was not to buy cherries, or anything, but to ask where the campsite, or 'camp jo' as it was called in Japanese, could be found. There were three people around the counter in the little shop, whom, rightly or wrongly, I took to be related. An elderly man and woman, whom I took to be married, stood behind the counter. A young man, perhaps in his teens, was standing nearby. Perhaps he was their grandson. All of them smiled at me as I entered, and almost immediately their kindness and generosity soon became evident. The son offered to drive me directly to the campsite, which I politely declined to accept since I needed to stay true to my mission and walk there. “Thank you!” I answered in Japanese, returning the smile, “But really, I must to walk there". Of course, some explanation was necessary to explain why I needed to walk. It was also raining!
On such a hot and humid day anyone else would have accepted a ride. I told them that I had tramped all the way down the coastal roads from as far away as Cape Soya, and that I was on a mission to walk around the entire country. At first they seemed a little surprised, but soon they seemed to understand. The determined look on my face was not so much that I had to walk around the country, but for finding a place to camp tonight. Their sunburned faces no longer looked surprised, but once again gentle and helpful. Usually, an element of surprise was the reaction I got from the Japanese people when I told them of my mission.
The young man set about drawing me a detailed map on a piece of paper that he tore from a notebook that lay on the counter. While this was being done, some cherries were offered to me, which I gladly took and ate right there and then. They tasted so delicious to this tired tramper of the roads, which I thought I should buy some before leaving. "What the hell!” I said under my breath, as I forked out the money. I bought one of the least expensive cartons of cherries to eat later on. “A campfire in the evening would have been nice had it not been for the horrible rain”.
No sooner had I produced the money to pay for the cherries, when all three of them declared in chorus and a waving of hands that money was not an issue. “The carton of cherries were our gift to you”, the elderly woman said, as she put them into a little plastic bag. Kindness to a stranger was indeed a most beautiful act. I was simply lost for words! I remembered how hooked I had become on the elderly woman's eyes. Not to forget her captivating smile, too. Both her eyes, if not the smile, appeared so youthful for her years. Our waving hands must have wagged like dog tails a hundred times and more as I made my way back up onto Route 231, bowing as I went. And it was not an easy task to do, with the heavy backpack in place. I turned off the main drag in Mashike and headed out towards the red bridge that I had been directed to. The bridge crossed over a fast flowing river and down onto the ‘Riverside Campground’ where I immediately set about erecting my tent in the rain.
That was not the end of it! As I turned at the corner of the street that led me to the bridge, a rather attractive middle-aged lady riding a bicycle stopped and talked to me. She could see that I was carefully trying to carry the cherries, and a load of other nick-knacks, that I had taken out of my backpack for no particular reason. "Oh! You like cherries! Here, these are for you", she said, handing me a larger carton than the one I had. This time the carton was full of smaller cherries of lesser quality than the large ripe ones I was given at the shop some twenty or thirty minutes further back.
The day had been long with a well-earned thirty kilometers well behind me. My body was beat to say the least, and the cognitive functioning of my brain was not much better. "Thank you very much!” I said in Japanese with a tired smile, which I hoped she would not notice. Never in all my life had I owned so many cherries, I told her. Tomorrow would be time enough to know what to do with them, I thought to myself. "Do you see that Seven-Eleven convenience store?" she asked me as she pointed to it. "Yes!" "Well! I live in the house just opposite, over there”, now pointing across the road. “Look! The house with the brown door." "Yes! I can see it,” I answered, trying to hold onto my smile. "Why don't you stop by for a cup of coffee?" "That's very kind of you. Yes! Why not? But first I need to find the campsite and get things in order there". “Besides, I heard that there was a shower room, and I really needed to get out of these rags. Would it be all right if I visited your house within the hour” I said, hoping that it would. A nice cup of hot coffee and a chat would be a nice way to end my day. "That’s fine! I'll be expecting you!"
As bad luck would have it, a heavy rain began to fall just as I was crossing over the red bridge. To make matters worse, I soon discovered that there was no shower room at all about the campsite. Arrangements had to me made! Under the cover of a flimsy roof, and with the rain still pelting down, I striped off to the waist, or to my underwear to be precise. With my trusty little face flannel and sand-caked bar of soap in hand, I gave myself a good scrubbing down under a cold water tap. Even in the best of conditions, it never took me very long to wash. At my apartment back in Tokyo I would only be under the shower for two or three minutes, if that. My Japanese friends and colleagues were always surprised when I told them that I absolutely hated the sento (public baths). The same went for the many hot springs or spas I passed by on the coastal roads. Baring a quick shower, even the bath in my apartment went unused. The Japanese just loved to sit in the bath, which was often hot enough to boil a lobster in. My thing was the sea, and how a splash about in it worked wonders on my aches and pains. Around a hundred years ago, sea bathing in Japan was deemed to be a non-Japanese thing. To take a plunge into the foamy waters was thought to be rather decadent that few people did it prior to the first Sino-Japanese War years (1 August 1894 – 17 April 1895). Of course, that was a time of more important issues, like, loyalty, patriotism, and obedience to the national policy. In short, it was a period of non-questioning.
An umpteen number of scholars had touched on the way Westerner visitors in the nineteenth-century were shocked and scandalized at how open the Japanese were to exposing themselves in public. And at how in today's world the Japanese people could be considered somewhat prudish about nakedness outside the home. There were (and still are) many facile stereotypical views held about the Japanese, particularly that of being a shy people. Comparatively speaking, I felt that they were far from that way, and that I was the only shy bather present in the public bathhouses and resort spas I visited here and there on previous journeys across the country.
With my body finally washed, dried and dressed, I made my way back across the red bridge and retraced my tracks towards the woman's house with a brown door. Across from the house stood a Seven-Eleven convenience store. There I thought it a good idea to stop in at and buy a tiny gift of some sort. It was customary in Japan to give a gift to the host whenever you visited their house for the first time. Picking up a gift at a convenience store was not recommended, but it was the only place around at such short notice. I felt a packet of Japanese green tea would not go far wrong.
The lady possessed, what I would call, one of those permanent youthful smiles. It was one of those smiles that borders somewhere between 'pure' and 'innocence'. For me, a woman with a lovely smile on her face would always win me over. Hence, there I stood at her door waiting for it to open. The lady was clearly 'a giver' not 'a taker', which was another positive aspect about her that intrigued me. She stopped and talked to me when she did not have to, for the drizzle. She kindly directed me in an easy to understand direction to where the campsite was, she gave me a plastic carrier buy half full of cherries, which she had picked a little while earlier. Last but not least, she had invited me into her home, which was just about unheard of in Tokyo these days, where I had lived for nearly three decades.
As I stood at the brown door, which had little windows in it, I could see some faint lights at the rear of the house. Perhaps she was doing something in the kitchen, like boiling water for the coffee, I thought. For a few seconds kinky thoughts ran through my mind. "What if she made a pass at me? Hidden under all of the niceties, was she one of those promiscuous women in need of some sexual encounter" For my part, I found her rather attractive! Inside I heard the shuffling of feet drawing nearer to the door. “God forbidden! How could I think of such things?" I mumbled under my breath. The door was opened and the same smiling face greeted me.
Whatever thoughts hung about in the back of my head soon evaporated as the lady's husband rose to his feet to greet me. He was sitting on the sofa in the front room of the house, I heard the television blaring way when the front door was opened, but now it was off, and all about the room seemed uncomfortably silent. He was a shy man, and as I soon discover, spoke few words, none of them English. The long tramp down over the coastal roads had brought my into contact with all sorts of people, mostly good and kind in their own little ways. My own Japanese language ability, which was rusty before I set off on this mission, had now moved up a notch.
In the course of the two hours I spent in their home, I came to like the husband. He was, I guess, a mixture of many positive things, introvert in a polite sort of way, a 'Jack-of-all-trades' who spent much of his free time delving in making quant and intricate little wooden models mainly of various species of birds. All hand-made by himself! The living room was full of shelves load of all sorts of tiny, and not so tiny, handmade wooden things. Some of his works were of Kabuki masks and of miniature buildings of the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. Clearly this was his hobby and under it all, he was a man of great talent. Just for a split second, thoughts of my Uncle Vic and his two sons, Gordon and Norman in London, whose home I visited many times in the 1970s, shot through my mind. They, too, were very talented and could make all sorts of stuff made out of wood. Like the husband, my uncle and cousins possessed a great element of patience, which clearly was what was needed for such time consuming work. One thing that set them apart from the husband was that their work was more practical, quality writing desks, tables, chairs, cupboards, etc.
As far as I could make out, hundreds of adorable little models filled just about every single space on the shelves and other places in that room of the house. And, from what I could make out, at the entrance, and up the along the staircase. Yet, under it all, he never boosted like many people I met here and there in the world did about themselves, ‘I’ve got this, and I’ve got that’, and, ‘I like this, and I like that’, and so on. I felt that he was a man who truly loved to help others. Besides my enjoyment about the fruits of the husband’s passion, strangely however, I was not able to learn what he really worked at for a living. I felt him too young to be retired, though he might well have been, since many of the Japanese I had met on my long tramp down though the country, looked younger than their years. Perhaps his love for making those little wooden things calmed him mentally; his mind free from the stress that the people in Tokyo had to deal with on a daily basis. Come to think of it, my memories of my late uncle recalled him as being very calm, and gentle, and who never lost is temper with others, accept just once with me.
A nice hot cup of coffee was made, and a bulky photo album was produced. A good portion of the time together was spent going over their most recent trips, not overseas, but inside Japan. They told me that on March just gone (2009) they traveled by coach all the way down to Kyushu to view the cherry blossoms. Of course, I felt sure that they did and saw other things, too, while in Kyushu, for to me, it was one hell of a way to go just view the cherry blossoms. The Japanese did that kind of thing, spend lots of time and money to travel very long distances to look at such things, like flowers, or the Aurora (Northern Lights) in Canada, or in Scandinavia, or wherever. (Images of the aurora australis and aurora borealis from around the world, including those with rare blue and red lights). Later that night back in my tent, the rain did not stop falling all through the night, and in the morning it continued, which added to the weight of my back.
27 July: On the road the next morning I faced a number of the dreaded tunnels, one after another. The first tunnel (opened in September of 1992) ran for 1,992 meters, the second one was much more like how I liked tunnels to be, short, though still a little on the long side, 394 meters (opened in October of that same year). Both tunnels were just a hundred or so meters apart. A heavy mist had formed about the ground as I came out of the tunnels. It was nearly impossible to make out the lemon colored sidings of the Korei Bridge that spanned the Makanogawa River that flowed below between the two tunnels.
It was going to be a day of tunnels and bridges, and something told me that there would be little distance between them. Soon I entered into a third tunnel, which ran for 683 meters (December, 1991), and which opened out onto the Keisho Bridge (built in October 1986, in the year of Showa 61). Then there was the Ayumikotan Bridge (built in 1991, in the reign of the current Emperor in the year Heisei 3).
One chap shot across this bridge at great speed on his super scooter called out as he passed me by: "Oh! Aruke?" (Walking?). But was gone before I could call back a reply. How I longed for my own large motorbike now. Baring the mist, these were certainly great roads for a leisurely motorbike ride. The winding road was heading up and up and up with every step. I guessed I was feeling tired, and wondered how the mountain climbers tracked up steep slops loaded up. Soon I was heading across the Yukan Bridge, opened in December 1991, or in the year of Heisei 3. Then came the Koei Bridge that was built a few years earlier in November 1988 in the year of Showa 63, just when the bubble economy was about to burst.
In fact, if it were not for this lingering mist the view from the bridges would have been breathtaking. Far below the Koei Bridge I could still just about make out the nearness of the roaring sea, more by its sound than by sight. There about, I could just about make out the ruins of an old house, lost to rife, wind, and rot as it was. Only the roof seemed intact. "What brave person dared to build their home so near to such a mad sea?” I mumbled as I continued my tramp up the steep road. “Was the occupant of the house some romantic loner lost in his dreams?" What remained of the old house bordered on near collapse? Perhaps there, too, the last occupant must have taken the last breath. Even through the mist I could see that the remains of the structure was a shadow of its past. But to imagine what it was like in the days when it was lived in was impossible. Everything was gone now, only the empty shell of a home remained.
No sooner had I crossed Koei Bridge that I was tramping over a series of other bridges. Boyo Bridge (November 1986, of Showa 61). Then came Tokkei Bridge (August 1992, Heisei 4). With each of the bridges I crossed, tunnels tended to be waiting. Dealing with bridges and tunnels, one after another, would remain a common occurrence for the remainder of the first stage of my mission. At last the road began to slant downwards, which led me closer to sea level. Now my pace was quickened, as if the weight of my backpack was pushing me down. However, that did not mean that everything was going to be hunky-dory. Up ahead, another massive tunnel that ran for some 2,900 meters could be seen; and was thirty minutes of complete boredom. My heart began to sink at the thought of having to tramp through it. Often bridges preceded the tunnels, and this time it was the tiny Isoka Bridge (October, Heisei 16 (2004)) that led me into the monster tunnel. Then came Yudomari Bridge that led me into the Nichiwa Tunnel (December, 1991), and which in turn was followed by the Shiomisaki Tunnel. I came to regard the tunnels one of the black spots of my mission.
Once clear of these monstrosities, my eyes feel upon the first signs of human life in the form of houses, and road signs. I had not seen a single house all day. It was a tiny village that bordered frightfully close to the sea front. Clearly the bridges and tunnels were not done with me yet. They were not always so clearly marked out on my maps. Before I could pass by the village I had first to cross the tiny Mumei Bridge that carried into the Iwao Tunnel (October, 1967). Away below Seagulls inhabited the rocks that rose out of the sea. The tiny Akaiwa Bridge led on towards the Buko Tunnel (October, 1968) and then came the Yutou Tunnel (November, 1976).
I have never seen so many bridges and tunnels in my entire life. Well, perhaps not since I belonged to a Permanent Way gang on the London Underground in the 1970s. It was very true how tramping across and through the bridges and tunnels triggered the memories. The Permanent Way gang was stationed at West Kensington and old Jim Woolly, who was then not far from retirement, was our ganger, may he rest in peace. Unlike the last town Eyao that I passed through, where life was literally non-exist, ruin after ruin, and shack after shack, signs of recession in the air. So too, the only restaurant in town was closed today (Monday) for business. Even the streets were devoid of all forms of life. Ofuyu was different!
The hours on the dusty sun beat road literally exhausted me by the time I tramped into the town of Ofuyu. There was a lot more life about the town than I was used to since I left Tokyo. Workmen were working on the new port, an elderly couple stood in their garden talking about something important only to themselves. Although there was a good bit of life about, my mind was resigned to finding nothing in the shape of food, like, a restaurant or convenience store. Not a single calorie had passed my teeth since the nuts I had this morning. It was strange that I did not feel so hungry, or so I thought to myself. It must have been the hot dry weather. I knew that without food, the remainder of my tramp towards Hammamatsu would not be easy. Reaching Hammamatsu by sunset was out of the question anyway. Besides, my mind was already made up about finding a place to make camp.
Route 231 from Mashike was busy. Various parts of the road were under construction perhaps because of this the traffic in both directions was more than what I had got used to in recent days, slow moving and busy. I suppose the road would have even been much busier had the weather been behaving itself. Already, it was holiday time throughout the country, schools were closed and people were on the move. In Tokyo, the crowded roads, and pavements, too, for that matter, could be maddening when you were in a hurry. Of course, none of that mattered much to me now, for I was well away from there, for a while anyway. If all went well for me on the road, I should be back in Tokyo by early September to start work again.
At last and in this tiny out of the way seaside town, I stumbled, quite by chance I was sure, into a large but empty restaurant. The only sound to hit me as I opened the door to enter was from the television, which was tuned up to full volume. Below the television stood a large empty vending machine that once sold cigarettes. On the side of the machine was the word, ‘CABIN’ printed in large white capital letters on a red background; the trademark name with gold and white trimmings above and below. The waitress soon came and I ordered tonkatsu teshoku and a 'Jogi' (jug) of Kirin beer. The beer was soon drunk and another one was ordered.
My tramp along the road was not as long as the previous days, but it was just as hard and thirsty. First of all, my backpack felt heavier than on other days, even though its contents were basically unchanged. The aftermath of frequent downpours only dampened much of my stuff and which added to the weight on my back. It was true that I continued to loose the odd this and the odd that, which must have fallen off somewhere back, including parts of myself. Since leaving Cape Soya I had lost much body fat and therefore was not as strong as I was when I first set off. One reason for this, I thought, I had not been eating so well since leaving Tokyo.
My right ankle had gradually become swollen for much of my time on the coastal roads down through Hokkaido. To add to my problems, this last couple of days my ankle felt annoyingly painful, which made it difficult for me to get up a good pace. On the road, there was the endless assortment of up hills and down hills, and of the bridges and the tunnels, all of which were beginning to play heavily on my spirits, too. Then again, in someway I had grown used to the evil necessity of having to tramp through those monster tunnels. If I did not see one I felt something was strange. They were there and that was that, so there was nothing I could do, but deal with them. One way I did this was to try and focus my mind on places I visited in the past, to try and picture the faces of old friends, and ex-lovers, or who, when and where ever. During the many twenty or thirty or more minute tramps through the long tunnels I would try and call a name to mind; Arimi K, or Sayoko O, or Toshiko H, or Sabina K, or Yoko S and so forth. Then I would do my best to think as much stuff about the person as I could before I reached the other end of the tunnel that I was heading through at the time. For example, what had become of you, Arimi-san? Did you ever settle down? Did you ever marry? Did you have children? What were you doing now?
Once there was an impulse of love between us. Perhaps a youthful one at that, in destructive as we saw it, but love it was. How childish then we were, and how I missed those days with you. In pleading sadness, I longed to return to my past, but suddenly, a slight shiver at the approaching exit of the tunnel recalled me to the present. It did no good to be possessed by the exaltation of my memories, for the depression that always seemed to follow. Why should I feel hurt by old faces of friends and memories all long since gone? There were even times when I would be talking to myself, kind of like the person I was thinking about was right there with me in the tunnel. “Can you remember that time we took a ship to Oshima Island and when we could not buy food anywhere and spent our time there on that windy little island cold and hungry?” Of course, there were no answers, but soon as I was about to think of something else to say the entrance to the tunnel would be there. Sometimes I would continue to focus my mind on the same old friend or lover if the next monster tunnel came soon, but more often than not, I would focus on another face and place.
A guy entered the restaurant and sat at a table just to the left rear from where I sat. I was not sure if he was more interested in the television news that was blaring away on the television when I entered a couple of minutes earlier, or if he was interested in me. Unknown to the man, I had a good view of his head thanks to the glass front on the vending machine. The television set on a two meter high shelve on the wall, whilst the table I set at was the nearest to the entrance where the vending machine was. As I waited for my food to arrive, I could see the image of his head move from the television towards my direction, and then back to the television again. This was an experience I had many times with Japanese people in Tokyo here and there. That said, perhaps my being continually alone on the road had made me feel somewhat paranoid. I did my best not to think much of the man. There was some news on the television about a forty-year-old Japanese man setting out on a similar tramp to the mission I had marked out for myself. His was over a three thousand kilometer walk from the top of Japan, at Cape Soya, were I started, and to make his was on foot all the way down to the island of Okinawa.
The proprietress of the restaurant, whom I found to be kind, told me that Ofuyu Campsite was just one-minute walk away, which I was very happy to hear. "Good!" I answered her, and ordered another beer almost in the same breath. “There was no need too hurry now.” I thought to myself. My mind was still winding down after my long tedious tramp. The caring kindness of the owners at the restaurant, which I discovered them to be, was immeasurable. Later on, after pitching my tent on the grounds of the campsite that I was directed to, I returned to the restaurant to write out some postcards, my mind now eased by a couple of more jugs of cool Kirin beer. “Was it possible to tramp around the country on beer alone?” I wondered, pausing for a moment between my writing. The first man to walk around Japan supported by only beer somehow did not have the kind of ring about it that I would have hoped.
It was just as I was finishing the first of the two beers that I had ordered on my return when the good lady of the establishment placed a plate of fried meat and vegetables in front of me. "Dozo!" (Please!), she said politely in Japanese. “For you!” Indeed I was already quite full from the hearty meal that I had consumed but one hour earlier. “What the hell!” I thought to myself, while smiling up at the lady, and push the postcards and pens to one side to make space for the food, which she placed on the table in front of me. My mind began to work overtime. “On this kind of long distance walking one could never be sure when, where or how the next meal might come.” So I ate everything without thought or complaint. Besides, it did no good to sit and wait, like the little windmill of plastic bottles I passed a while back, set as if fixed in time. The secret was to keep moving if anything good was to happen. Or, 'nothing came to those who waited', as the saying went.
A sign nearby showed the business hours, or that the restaurant closed at seven o’clock. Still, it felt good to finally get a table to sit down at. The main aim was to get some writing down into my notebook. Of course, it was not only me that loved to write, a countless number of others whom I met down through the years, did so too. Most of them tended to use writing as a mental outlet for self-expression in one form or another. The keeping of personal diaries, the composing of poems, or for whatever the reason, were examples of this.
Writing was most likely, according to my research, a consequence of political expansion in ancient cultures, which needed a reliable means for transmitting information, for the maintaining financial accounts, for the keeping of historical records, and so much more. Somewhat in similar circumstances, it seemed to have just about ended as a consequence of something else. Sadly, with the disappearance of writings for the use of e-mails these days, the art of, what I would call, good writing and penmanship had very much fallen you the wayside in recent years. There was once a time when I would gladly have spent hours writing letters to family and friends anywhere and at anytime. In fact, the only person whom I ever really waited for or I loved to see in the mornings was the postman for what he might have had in the load he carried addressed to me. About six months ago I set myself down and wrote a long letter, which must have taken me ages to write, to a cousin who lived in Birmingham in England. In return, she sent me a short e-mail to thank me for my long and welcomed letter. I guess there was no escape from that thing called ‘progress’.
Apart from reading or sleeping, what else was there to do alone on the road, and at a place of rest? I was, however, somewhat relieved to see an elderly couple enter the restaurant at six-forty, for I was beginning to feel a bit anxious about overstaying my welcome. I thought their sudden appearance would buy me a little more time to finish my writing. Between writing down my mind into my notebook, I was also doing my best to scribble out a few lines onto the third series of postcards to family, friends and acquaintances. Taking the appearance of the elderly couple into selfish consideration, I ordered another beer. That made five beers in total since hitting the road today. To my surprise, the elderly couple devoured every pick of the food they ordered within five minutes of it being placed on the table before them. And after a short chat with the restaurant proprietress about the food and the weather, they vanished as quickly as they had appeared. I had only just started on the beer!
It was ten minutes after seven when I stood by the till to pay the bill. The effects of the beers were gradually beginning to trickle down into my brain. Of kind of like that ‘trickle down economy’ crap during the Thatcher-Reagan years, only more so. My mind was clear enough to tell me that it was time to make my way back over the road again to where my tent waited its tired lodger. For it was there that another world of dreamsawaited. "Do you like onigiri?" The proprietress’s husband asked me, as I turned to make my way towards the door to leave. In all honesty, I was not overly fond of rice balls; in the way the Japanese absolutely adored them. Then again, many foreigners loved the old cheese and ham sandwiches, too. "I sure do!" I answered, sticking my hands out to receive the kind gift. "This was for the road tomorrow,” he said to me in Japanese, holding out the onigiri to me. And not knowing what lay ahead of me tomorrow, I carefully placed the small gift-package into my shoulder bag beside my notes and postcards. "Thank you very much,” I said trying to disguise any signs of drunkenness "It's very kind of you. Thank you!"
The bill came to ¥1,000 yen for the two beers, and with that I turned to head out the door and across the road towards my tent. At the door I stopped to ask the youngest of the three people working at the restaurant, I took to be the son, if there was a postbox nearby. "Yes! I will show you" he replied in Japanese, pushing open the door. Leading the way, I followed the young man for a few minutes up a steep side street to where the local post office stood, and there it was that I was able to unload some of the burden that I had with me for others to read about.
Just as I was pacing the postcards into the tiny slot, I looked at the young man. "This little port town looked as if it was thriving fairly well, economically speaking. Right?" "Honto ni?" (Really?), came his reply, in a shy sort of smile. Which told me that somehow the young fellow did not quite seem to share my views. "Well! The port was being modernized, and most of the houses looked very nice and well cared for, and many of them had lovely gardens about them,” I replied, while at the same time hoping that my face was not noticeably red. We retraced our steps back down steep side road towards Route 231 where we said our goodbyes, and near to where our very different dwelling places where located.
The campsite was very small, and one tent was already pitched when I arrived earlier to look about the place. Under the roof of the washing area a racing bike was chained up. A cyclist shirt and a pair of socks hung on a two-meter long washing line that ran from the bicycle to a railing. Clothes pegs held the socks in place. "That's a good idea" I thought to myself, "I knew I had forgotten to bring something with me when I left Tokyo. "The grass where my tent stood felt damp. “It must have rained while I was at the restaurant,” I thought. Just then a drizzle began to fall, if not work on my nerves, too. Back at the washing area I draped my own washing over some railings that had some element of covering above them. The concrete railings over which my clothes now hung were designed to look like tree logs. A little sad, since the use of wood as a construction material predated written history. Then again, the use of molded concrete was not new either. Ancient Roman builders made used molded concrete to build their complex network of tunnels, aqueducts, culverts, and tunnels.
It was good that the washing area had a roof, which offered the chance the damp clothes I hauled around with me since this morning would dry by the time I set off tomorrow. I was out of clean socks and was already wearing the last of my T-shirts. It was raining in the late evening, and a monstrous wind roared in from the open sea. The raindrops whipped sideways into the canvas of my tent for much of the night. There was something thrilling about being in a tent in such weather, as if nature was at war with itself. When I was not getting wet the sound of the wind and the rain together could be wonderful. However, there was nothing invigorating about the sound of rain puddles forming at the base my tent. How was it possible to fall asleep, knowing that soon I may be called to duty.
The rain belted down, and at times I drifted in and out of sleep, but even though I felt tired, I could not sleep properly. It was around four in the morning when I awoke for the umpteenth time. Then a quick peek out through the tiny covered side vent of the tent told me that my washing had taken a bashing in the night and lay scattered about on the ground. Once more the rain was down graded to a mere drizzle. I made my way in flip-flops over the saturated grass of countless puddles to retrieve my stuff. "If I was to make a push to Hammamatsu early today”, swearing under my breath, "I was going to have one hell of a heavier backpack to shoulder. Fuck it!" I wanted to swear more, but what was the point?
Back in my tent I tried to sleep some more, but, like before, even that was not easy. To make matters worse, the rain soon picked up again, and battered down like all the heavens were pissing down on top of me. I remembered feeling good when some knowledgeable bugger told me that there was no rainy season in Hokkaido. It did not seem tat way to me! There was little else to do but to stay put in the hope it would all blow over in a few hours. Besides, I was in no real hurry, and felt rather pleased with my progress on the road since leaving Cape Soya. Even with the rainy day delays, could not complain. For a while, I found myself thinking about the cyclist camped only a few meters away from me. Yesterday, I had not seen a single cyclist on the road, and now here was one shut up inside his tent. I wondered where he was headed, and how far he peddled each day. We could not see each other, but I was sure he was well aware of my presence as I was of his. "He must be a tall foreign fellow,” I told myself, "judging from the high placement of the bike-saddle."
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