28 July, 2009: The massive length of the tunnels was annoying to say the least. The sounds and silences of nature were gone when you entered them. Unlike the little tunnels that blended in nicely with the surroundings, these monster jobs lacked character in all its meanings. Perhaps they were necessary evils, each with tiny iron plague fixed at both ends that showed the tunnel names, dates, and length; even the names of the main people involved in the construction of them. The Tanpake Tunnel, just one of the many tunnels that seemed to pop up out of nowhere along Route 231, was opened on November 1981, and ran for only three hundred and forty meters. Once out of Tanpake Tunnel, however, I was faced with the massive Kamata Tunnel (February, 1981), all 2,060 meters of it. Only a short beautiful glimpse of the sea off to the right was enjoyed before entering into almost two and a half kilometers of sheer boredom. "Fuck! It was too early in the morning to think about the rights or wrongs of the infrastructure", I mumbled to myself, as I quickened my pace to get through the damn thing as quickly as my legs could carry me.
For whatever the reasons, the tiny metal plagues on the dead or closed and abandoned tunnels that once showed dates, length and other information about them, were removed or covered over. In some instances, the names above their mouths or entrances remained, thought often even this was removed. The tiny metal plagues on a number of the older tunnels that I tramped through were missing. The Chiyoshibetsu Tunnel, which ran for 454 meters, was one of these. Something told me that it was doomed, like so many of the dead tunnels I passed along my way. Just after the tiny Chiyosjibetsu Bridge that followed after the tunnel of the similar name, two more tunnels came into view. Both stood side-by-side and, from where I stood, they looked like they ran in the same direction. The only contributing factor worth mentioning was that the Futatsuiwa Tunnel was open, whilst the older Tsubameiwa Tunnel was blocked up. The newer of the two tunnels, according to its tiny metal plate, took almost three years to complete (July, 1999 to March, 2002).
The tunnel ran for one god almighty length of 1,793 meters, to be precise. Like the previous dead tunnels I stopped by to take some snapshots, I felt my heart sink when I thought that I had cycled through the old Tsubameiwa Tunnel on my way around Hokkaido two and a half decades earlier. Somehow I wished I could have said that the massive tunnels, and even the smaller ones were godsends. Kind of like a shelter from the heavy rains and strong sunshine, as I made progress along the roads on my mission, but I could not. Less than a minute after emerging from the boringly long Futatsuiwa Tunnel and a series of sub-tunnels, a blue and white road sign greeted m. The tunnel was constructed from March of 1999 to 2002, and ran for 1,793m. The old tunnel of the same name stood closed and alone away to the right.
It was the first time that I came across a road sign on Route 231 of any size, shape or color all day long. It told me that Sapporo was eighty-five kilometers south, and that Atsuta was thirty-nine kilometers straight on. I hoped to pass through Atsuta by tomorrow, or perhaps even camp there. It all depended on timing! Two hundred meters up ahead of me a noodle restaurant came into view. It was a good place to stop by at to rest up a while, and to refuel my tank in more ways than one. The tiny Daisantokotan Bridge first had to be crossed to get the restaurant called 'Uminoyado.'
When I entered, two women were hard at work, one elderly, the other perhaps in her forties. Something about their faces told me that this was a mother and daughter run restaurant. After sitting down at one of the tables I ordered a curry and rice, and a glass of Sapporo beer. “Hmm! Sisters?” As I waited for my order I wondered if the two women were sisters? The older was perhaps not old enough to be the other’s mother. It was not easy to place an age on many Asian women. A couple of customers were already seated when I entered, and hungrily tucked into their bowls of noodle lunches. Slurping all the while! They stopped momentarily to say a few words, which I could not quite catch, for their mouths were still full of noodles. The rice curry arrived, but to my dismay, it was a seafood curry. It was never in my nature to complain, besides, it was my own fault to assume that all curry dishes contained meat or chicken. Besides, I should have known better, for Hokkaido fish was often preferred over meat. Then again, I as no longer sure about that either, for the island was famous of its cattle farms and dairy products.
As I tucked into the seafood curry the best I could, my mind began to work overtime, more to take my mind away from the food, than not. I was sure that most people shunned the idea or the opportunity to tramp around the coastal roads in their country, as I was now doing in Japan. I wondered about how many people had used ankle and knee support bands in place of socks? Because of the dry breeze, at times the only dry piece of clothing I possessed were the ones I stood up in. The deplorable weather conditions today, however, made even these clothes damp or saturated in sweat, depending on the time. Believing the break in the bad weather would hold last night, I washed just about everything I had, and which I now carried with me. By morning, a moist air blew in from the sea. Bursts of drizzle soon followed! It was hard not to feel angry with myself, or annoyed at not being able to get anything to dry on this stretch of the road. If it was not raining, then the wind was damp, and even at camp keeping stuff dry was near impossible. Things I guessed could have been worse if it had not been for the clothes dryers on some of the campsites I stopped the night at.
Even the possibility of stumbling upon a sizable clothing store to purchase some inexpensive pairs of socks was difficult to think about. “A clothing store? Mmmm!” The more elderly of the two women who ran the noodle restaurant replied. She told me that Central Hamamatsu was no more than five or six kilometers further down the road. There a “camp jo” (site) could be found. I badly needed to stop somewhere and get my washed and clothes dried, especially dried. "I must dry my clothes! Perhaps this could be done there?" Or so I told her. "Wouldn’t it be great if the campsite had a hot shower, too." I said smiling.
The last few couple of days of tramping down Route 231 had been an experience of long tunnels, short tunnels, sub-tunnels, and bridges big long and short, in no particular order. “Surely it could get any worse than this?” I thought. “Beggars couldn’t be choosers.” On the road you just took what came along! Both ends, and a little in from the entrances, especially at the monster-long tunnels, it seemed to be the last resting place for thousands of moths and butterflies, alike. I could see that some of the new arrivals were still very much alive as they settled down to their dusty fate. Or from dust to dust as the Bible reminded us.
When I finally left the Uminoyado restaurant the sky still looked depressingly low and heavy. Even the local people I stopped to speak to along my way were surprised at the poor weather conditions that befell the area in recent weeks. Just as I was about to hit the road again proper, a seagull landed by the door and started to pace up and down the gravel covered car park. Keenly, the seagull eyed the restaurant premises. I suspected the bird knew something I did not. Perhaps another relationship existed between this beautiful winged creature and the attractive two women inside the restaurant? Just then a Volkswagen Beetle with two occupants in it pulled into the car park and stopped. The seagull took to the air, and flew off as if unwillingly to hide itself in the enigmatical solitude s of the dark and silent trees. Likewise, I turned and headed onto the hard damp road once more, with the thoughts of the seagull and the weather still fresh in my mind.
The gulls were quite uniform in shape, though less so in size and coloration. Seagulls were the acrobats of the sky, making the seemingly impossible antics appear effortless. The wind currents allowed them to float motionless in midair. Besides the crows back in Tokyo, and perhaps strange for to see its own beauty, the seagull was best known as a scavenger, if not a nuisance. They were most noticeable in large, noisy flocks congregating wherever food was available, like near fishing boats out on the sea. Also, they gathered about picnic grounds, parking lots and, like the crows, at garbage dumps. To paraphrase from the Internet research, seagulls tactually performed a very valuable service to society. “They were garbage men (sanitation engineers for the politically correct) with wings” (Bird News Network). They scavenged up great numbers of dead animals, and organic litter, which posed a health threat to humans.
The clouds over my head thickened into a low vault of darkness. “Mmmm! Rain?” I wondered, as I tramped on in the stifling gloom. All day long the air, I felt, was still and inexpressibly oppressive. Still, I had to move on regardless of consequences and conditions. A number of great trees I passed nodded precipitately, for the wind that blew in silently from the somber sea, only the abrupt rustle of the leaves could be heard.
29 July, 2009: If anyone wanted advice on following in my footsteps, god forbid, it would be advisable to have a good kip (sleep) before leaving the town of Hamamatsu. What lay ahead of me was one very long up hill tramp that seemed to go on forever. This up hill slog was followed by one god almighty right-curve in the road that went on and on and on upwards. After Bokai Bridge, opened in the fifty-first year of Showa, some sense of an end, to my long slow up hill tramp, was near at hand. Far below the high bridge that I stood on, a narrow river flowed rapidly to the sea. ”Mmmm!” just then a thought entered my mind, kind of like the river’s end was near at hand, too. “Or perhaps a new journey was about to begin.” Everything could be looked at from different angles, I thought, positive or negative or whatever. “Mmmm!” I thought to myself again. “Surely the worst had happened, surely the road was all down hill from now on?“ The road was hard and gray, but I felt it beckoned me. “Come, one more step.” By the riverside far below a paddy field added to the poetic melancholy thoughts and solitude that ran through me. The sense of 'end' was soon dashed by yet another high sloping segment of the road that soon came into view.
Of all things unexpected, a public phone box also came into view. Somewhere in my bag I had stuffed a number of ancient phone cards, which I planned to use at some point. Here was my chance to give one of my friends back in Tokyo and surprise telephone call. And if no one happened to be at home, then I would call someone else. It was as easy as that! With my backpack off, I pushed open the door and entered. The inside of the telephone box felt like an oven. The air smelt stale and the receiver was dusty. Only God knew when the thing was last used. Much of the phone box interior was covered with cobwebs and dead insects, which reminded me of the mouths of the many long tunnels, the final resting places for thousands of moths and butterflies. Only the telephone books were up to date, 2009.
As I lifted the receiver to my ear I put one of my telephone cards into the slot. Unlike the public telephones that I sometimes used in Tokyo, the card moved ever so slowly into place. Then to my dismay, nothing about the telephone seemed to register or work properly. There was no dialing tone or sound of any kind to be heard. “Fuck it! What a waste of time!” I mumbled to myself. “How could the thing not work?” I felt angry! Usually, it was not easy to stop, even for a simple rest for a while. To stop, for whatever the reason, meant unbuckling straps and carefully removing a heavy backpack to place down on the ground. This was all done very slowly for fear of pulling a muscle. Tramping all day long was hard enough without hurting yourself, when stopped to rest. This stop of sorts to use the telephone had been a complete waste of time and I was not a happy man for it. On top of everything else, re-shouldering my backpack was not as easy as it sounded. In fact, it was usually more difficult that taking it off.
Finally, with everything in place again, I turned to continue my long slow tramp up and up and up the steep winding road. The road bent to the left, then to the right, and then to the left again. "If I was a gambling man", I mumbled to myself, “I would bet that the next curve a hundred meters up ahead was the last." But like all gamblers, I lost. The road continued on its upward slope, and the backpack straps dug into my shoulders. Up ahead in the distance I could see another curve leaning away to the left. I hoped deep in my heart that that curve was the final one heading up, and that the rest of my tramp would be down hill all the way. Mentally and physically I was tired! Like the public telephone box had appeared out of nowhere, a lone cyclist cruised past in the opposite direction. A nod of our heads, but not a word was spoken. “Why should he stop?” I thought, for the road was now his to enjoy. “Perhaps he too was tired out from the climb.” The people who knew me, knew that I was a keen cyclist! The cyclist was soon gone from view, but I knew how hard it must have been peddling up those endless mountain roads.
Up ahead a road sign told me that Atsuta was twenty kilometers further on down the road. Another public telephone box urged me on. "Should I stop?” I thought as I drew near to it. “Will it work?" What really mattered was that I hated wasting time. On the road, good time keeping went hand-in-hand with achieving goals. Every evening when I went over my maps and every morning when I went over them again, my goals were set for the day. Nothing beyond a broken leg could stop me from reaching my goals. So wasting for me was stupid to say the least. And if I did waste time somewhere on the road, bouts of depression would set in for the rest of the day.
The noise of workmen could be heard around the bend up ahead! I had passed many workmen on the road since leaving Mashike. “If I did stop to place a call or two, would the noise be a hindrance?” If that were my only problem then life on the roads would be a piece of cake. I burst into a short joyous laugh. “Fuck it!” I mumbled to myself trying to see the funny side of life. “Yes! Regardless of the consequences.” I added with some gravity. “I only had myself to blame.” Soon my backpack rested against the outside of the telephone box, and like the last one, it looked unused. This time the public phone did work. I was able, with much difficulty, to contact a friend in Tokyo. We had planned to meet up in the historic city of Otaru on Saturday coming. It would also give me a good chance to rest and wash myself properly for a few days. Since leaving Cape Soya I did not want to stop anywhere, but to keep walking, with the odd splash about in the sea for keep fresh. “A hot bath would be nice!” was one of the things I told my friend before hanging up the phone.
Of all the things I least wanted to see, another massive tunnel appeared out of nowhere. The Somo Tunnel was one thousand and one hundred meters long. It was opened in November of 1977, a date that I could still recall like it was yesterday. It was in that year when my brother Paul died of injuries after a motorbike crash. A year shy of that, I was myself discharged from a London hospital after a motorbike crash. After one year in hospital and thirteen operations, I was still attending the hospital as an outpatient when Paul died. In a Belfast pub some years ago I remembered telling some old friends that I had been in a coma after the accident. “When are you coming out of it?” one of them said to a burst of laughter at my expense. It was also in December of 1977 when I boarded a Laker Airways DC 10 “no-thrills” flight to New York, where I stayed for one year. Sir Freddy Laker was one of the first airline magnets to adopt a no-frills airline business model. The return air ticket cost me just £50 pounds, and to save money, I ate only the brown rice that I brought on the flight with me. On hindsight it felt a bit strange how a little date on an iron nameplate sparked my brain, like, something to ponder over on my way through the dreary tunnel.
When I came out of the tunnels and into the strong sunlight at the southern end, it felt like I had walked into a different world. Heavy sky at one end and sunshine at the other! Regardless of the weather, it felt good to emerge from the dusty dark hole, for it was the busiest of tunnels that I had tramped through so far. Not to mention the most dangerous into the bargain. All the cars raced at great speed. Like always, I too wanted to get out of there as quickly as my legs could carry me, but in one piece. When I entered the tunnel there was not a car in sight. It was as if the drivers were hidden somewhere waiting in their cars for me to enter, before suddenly pushing their feet down on the paddles like they were going to some place of great importance before the world ended.
Again I had to put it all down to bad timing, which was something I was getting quite good at. The curb inside the tunnel was just big enough for one person to walk on, or in single file if accompanied by friends. However, when a backpack was involved, you needed to keep your wets about you for fear of hitting against the wall and losing balance. There was no way the traffic could avoid your or stop if you did slip or fall. A sumo wrestler or anyone over weight would have to sprint through the damn thing at great speed to stand any chance of survival. To my surprise, there were times when even the tunnel-curb became non-existent.
My long tramp took me across the Shiomi Bridge, constructed at the same time as the Bokai Bridge in the year of Showa 51. Far below a very tiny river flowed steadily towards the open sea. Unlike Bakai Bridge, which I crossed over earlier, there were no paddy fields beside the Somogawa River, much of which was hidden by a cluster of trees. Earlier this morning, too, I saw a rusty old refrigerator wedged between two of the many trees on a slope some fifty meters below. Up on the road I stopped to take a snapshot of a discarded medical syringe, with its rusty needle still attached. Just inches from my feet, I almost stepped on it. I could see some workmen up ahead. Soon I was passing by an arm or diggers with Komatsu printed on the sides.
Soon my friend the sea came back into view. "Where were you since I left Hamamatsu?" I called out. It was also the first time in along time that I could feel the power of the sun, which now beat down on my head and shoulders. It always cheered me up to tramp through those quaint little tunnels, which blended in nicely with the surroundings. For me, that was how tunnels ought to look. They were also tiny heavens from the baking sun, for the gust of cool air circling about in them. Then it was across the Shimnae Bridge, and onto the 270-meter long Shininai Bridge. Far below this bridge, different kinds of discarded junk lay about the tree clad slopes. As I stood looking out over the sea a Sagawa delivery truck passed me by heading in the opposite direction. Back in Tokyo it was not unusual for me to spot a good number of Sagawa vans and trucks, and other similar companies, too, for that matter. Once at their destination the Sagawa drivers, of course with parcels in their arms, always seemed to be in a hurry. This was the world we lived in, hurry, hurry, hurry, for there was no place for time wasters.
Then came the Ryujin Bridge, which led me on to a series of steep curves along the road (Route 231). After many of the curves previously on the road, tunnels of one length or another appeared. “Mmm!” How I relished the thought. Then again, only god knew what dotted this segment of the road, and whatever lay ahead there was nothing I could do about it, but push on. The Nochu Tunnel soon came into view, and fortunately it ran for just 275 meters. It looked like it was going to be a competition between bridges and tunnels. The Gokibiru Bridge (Showa 62) preceded the 963 meter long Shiniwa Tunnel, which, according to its metal plate at the entrance, took three years to construct from February, 2005 to March, 2008. The tunnel was not yet blackened by use or age and appeared relatively 'clean', for want of a better word. To the left side of the tunnel as I exited, stood its predecessor, dead and abandoned.
There had been a number of other dead tunnels blocked up and forgotten. Only the sea nearby was alive. Like most of the dead tunnels I passed along my way, the metal plate containing the name, dates, length, and construction information was gone. "Was that the tunnel I cycled through and camped near to a couple of decades earlier?" As I stood looking back at the old tunnel through my camera lenses, I could almost swear that I saw the image of a face looking back at me. "Don't you remember me, Michael?” I heard it say. “For I remember that rainy night long, long ago, Michael, for you slept soundly just off to the side of me!" Those old tunnels never failed to strike a nerve in the back of my neck every time I paused to look back at them.
No sooner was the newer tunnel tramped through that another one awaited me. The unforgiving Hutojimanai Tunnel was constructed from June, 1999 to February, 2002, and ran for 2,454.5 meters of dusty boredom. The acoustics of this massive construction amplified the sounds of the oncoming traffic long before I could see them coming. “As if God had not punished me enough”, I thought, that no sooner was I out off it, when another massive tunnel made its presence known. The Takinosawa Tunnel, which was completed in October, 1971, ran for 1,242 meters. It was half the length of the one I just emerged from, but it was still too long for comfort.
Away off in the distance I could see what resembled steam rising from the kettle in my kitchen in Tokyo. It was the smoke from a distant factory, which looked quite out of place since the beautiful sea lay just to the side. Only too often when I reached the top of a high point on the steep roads the view on the other side proved fruitlessly disappointing. Far below I could see the signs of human life moving about the various little port towns, Mie, Miyagi, Kei, Tada, Yuichi, and Okumura that dotted the Ishikari Wan coastline. In some ways, too, it felt good to have at last reached the end of the Shokanbetsu Teuri Yagishiri Quasi National Park. Beautiful as the landscape was, it had been one hell of a series of long up hill twists and turns of curves, bridges and tunnels, not to forget the reality of having to carry a heavy sweat saturated backpack full of miscellaneous stuff of questionable importance.
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