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Week 1- 3 The Characters of Hokkaido

My apologies for the delay in entries. It has been a crazy two weeks filled with travels over oceans, new towns, new friends and even some dancing in one of Japan's biggest summer festivals! But before I get to that, let me go back to the thread of the last blog and fill in some of the events from before.

As you have probably guessed, our journey up till now has not been the solitary affair that we had been preparing ourselves for all those months. Apart from some stray wildlife, we have also had the pleasure of clouds; big grey threatening clouds, low rumbling angry clouds and some very fat cold looking clouds that all have managed to successfully wet every one of our possessions at least once along the way.
If it had not been for some fortunate meetings with the local people of Hokkaido I fear our account of the trip to date would have turned into a boring affair, much of which might not have been publishable on account of the language that went with describing such troublesome travelling companions.

But luckily that has not been the case. After our day of torment at the hands of those cows, we stumbled in with our last ounces of energy to a guest house run by an angel by the name of Kobayashi san. Not that we had been expecting that! Before she emerged silently from an unseen door to our right, both Miki and I had been placing bets as to how many people had died in the grips of a guest house that could easily have doubled as a haunted house in an amusement park. Its dark wood stained walls lined felt billiard green floors that seemed to soak up all of the light, leaving you, quite literally wondering what creepy crawlies lived in the shadowy darkness beyond the lobby. We had been contemplating sneaking back out when we first met Kobayashi san whose smile and welcoming manner seemed to breathe life into the walls much better than the glow of any light bulb could.

At such a late hour our chances of getting a meal were looking slim, but as we had not eaten all day (the rain had made our soggy sandwiches even soggier), we hoped the sight of our downcast faces might be enough to sway this motherly owner in to whipping something up. I tell you, we must have looked like those African children in the Unicef pamphlets, for what came out was enough to feed a whole village of those African children – for a year. Spaghetti, meat sauce, pork, eel, shellfish soup, salad, rice, watermelon, kiwi fruit, pickles. It was more food than we had seen since beginning this trip and all after she had said that she could only cook us something from whatever was leftover in her fridge! I wish our fridge always had leftovers like that. After an hour we had left the dishes spotless, and as we sat warm and content with our full bellies, we couldn’t help but feel touched by the gesture of this woman who had given so much more than we had ever expected. Since the beginning of our trip we had been accumulating experiences that did not fit our image of life as it had been in the big smoke. Here people would happily stop you in the street to chat or to give you something to help you on your way, like a drink or a snack. It was a place where smiles and waves were as common as the road under our feet and served as a refreshing change from the expressionless stares that had greeted us on our training walks back in Tokyo. But what is it that makes such a big change? Is it the simpler life that draws attention to the more important things around us like the people that fill our lives? It was a question that Miki and I had talked about often and one that we would talk about again soon as we moved on once more through coastal towns to our half way point for our Hokkaido section.

A few days walk away from the warmth of Kobayashi san’s guest house, stomachs a little fuller and legs a little fresher, we were greeted by our first major hills of the trip. While not as tall as the mountains that we would face further south, they were enough to bring out a good sweat. A little rain now, would have been the perfect tonic to cool our overheated bodies, but, as sod’s law would have it, the sun had decided to poke its face out from behind the clouds for the very first time since our start. Wouldn’t you believe it! We spent the next few hours battling hills in the swelter, thinking only about the last one, and the soggy sandwiches that were waiting for us at the bottom of it. No sooner had we come to sense the leveling off of the road and the sea breezes on our now sunburnt faces, than the sun decided to go back to its regular hiding place behind what looked like the monster of all clouds. Before we could even stop to put on our waterproof gear, the heavens opened up and caught us in their fury, the sounds of Sod’s Law once again laughing in our ears. As Miki contemplated our unbelievably bad luck in the relative safety of the nearby bus shelter, I wandered to the next road sign to see how far we had left to the next town and hopefully a dry place to stay. It was here that we met a sea worn set of locals that would leave us with our second unforgettable experience.

“What have you done with the other one?” The question rung out behind me as unexpectedly as the rain had come.
Turning around I was confronted by a woman in her 70s, her face weathered with lines from a hard life on the sea, and a younger man whose build showed the results of years on a ‘see food’ diet.
“Has she given up has she?” they asked again as the rain fell around us.
“ You mean Miki? She’s hiding in the bus shelter over there”, I replied as their cheeky grins removed all caution from the conversation.
“ Well, we’ve been waiting for you. If you want to come in the back we’ve got some sea urchins for you,” and without waiting for my reply, they turned and started walking back to their workshop behind a typical seaman’s house.
Sea Urchins? Spiky, poison barbed sea urchins were a delicacy in these parts and also a favourite of Miki’s, but were not exactly the type of thing I was thrilled to be hoiking about on my back. But before I could worry about it for too long, Miki emerged from the shelter, eyes wide with expectation. “Sea Urchins?” she asked as if she had heard every word.

We made our ways to the back of the house where the two were working steadily beside the older woman’s husband, splitting and seeding a bucket filled to the brim with freshly caught, wriggling sea urchins or ‘uni’ as it is known in Japanese. Despite the open door, it was a cosy change from the deluge outside, and as we sat and watched them work, they kept piling uni onto metal ladles for us to sample. While Miki dived in like a kid in a candy store, I eyed the little yellow balls cautiously, remembering not so fond experiences with this expensive fare from past sittings. But to reject such a sincere offering would be bad form, especially considering the vigor with which Miki was devouring hers, and so I put the slippery yellow mass on my hand and sucked it all down, hoping with all my heart that it would stay down. Expecting the worst however is not the best way to face new experiences as I was to discover. The freshly caught uni had a much sweeter taste than the stuff found in shops and was surprisingly easy to eat. With ladels filling up faster than troughs in a pig pen, I took position next to Miki and fell in stride with her efforts to keep up with this buffet from the sea. The three of them seemed to be enjoying our expressions of delight as much as we were now enjoying eating it all. The nicest thing about the experience that didn’t really hit us until later was how natural everything all seemed. Even though we were complete strangers, we were accepted in to their homes as easily as if we were their own, with conversations flowing freely as hands and minds focused on the chore at hand. It was nice to be an insider for a change, and to be given an insight in the real lives of people whose days were determined by the rhythms of the sea.

As the rain continued to fall, so too did our hopes of ever getting to the next town on foot, and as we contemplated a long swim through puddles the size of small pools, we were surprised by their offer to have us stay in their house for the evening. Not wanting to burden these busy people, but also not wanting to swim in the rain, we half heartedly tried to think of reasons to move on, each one soon falling flatly against their warm reassurances. We were treated to their work room, a warm space filled with the glow of burning wood from the ‘maki’ stove at its centre. They left us to rest well, coming only to bring more food from their garden or to tell tales from their life on the sea. Once again, we were falling asleep with stomachs full with prizes from the sea, heads swimming around stories of sharks and walruses and salmon runs and uni fishing, and hearts warmed by the generous gestures of more people who were happy to share with us a little piece of their world.

The rest of the distance to Rumoi, our half way point for Hokkaido, disappeared under the happy thoughts of the past days. Here we would rest for a day before taking on the final challenge; a 200km trek through the centre of Hokkaido, and a road from hell.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 6:45 PM, ,

Week 2 1/2 to 3 - Our rainy reality!

Our decision to start in Hokkaido in July was based on the weatherman's tip. Unlike the rest of Japan, Hokkaido it seemed had no rainy season. If we left in July, we would be able to enjoy the blue skies and cooler temperatures while the rest of the country wallowed in the sticky beginnings of summer, made even worse by the daily deluge of the 'tsuyu'. It appeared like a foolproof plan. After all, the weatherman is never wrong is he?

With the first week under our belt, the reality of the day to day grind had set in, and so it seemed had the rain! It was no longer a matter of if it would rain, but when. We had come ready with our weatherproof gear, but there were some things that no amount of planning could prepare us for. How would our stilts handle the drenchings? How would we handle the drenchings ourselves? Our rule was to walk regardless of the weather. Rest days would be determined more by what we wanted to see or what we wanted to do in a certain place. But as the rain continued to follow us, our resolves started to crumble as did our faith in our weatherman that we had so eagerly wanted to believe.

We knew nothing of the road that we were travelling except that, on the map, it snaked its way from the coast through what looked to be an assortment of dairy farms that stretched as far as tthe computer screen would allow. For the first time we would be off the sea and in, what we hoped, would be the green rolling hills of the Hokkaido that filled our imaginations when planning this trip. After a few kilometers, it was obvious that we had found our dairy farms. The smell of raw, freshly dumped cow manure was overpowering in the soggy surrounds and seemed to invade our every sense. With our hands occupied with the job of maneuvering the stilts, we were left open and at the mercy of the prevailing winds and their frighteningly powerful bovine baggage! The sight of those green rolling hills may have been enough to distract us from our predicament, but with 3 metre tall snow shields lining our way, it was to be a sight that would remain in our imaginations. As we dodged potholes big enough to swallow a cow, our conversations were limited to curses at either the cows and their smells or at the ever worsening weather.

Our stilts were beginning to suffer too under the strain. While bamboo is known for its strength and durability, we were slowly finding out that it was also very good at absorbing the rain. The footrests which are the nuts and bolts of our stilt's construction, were slowly being strangled by the two metres of wire that fastened them to the bamboo poles. In order to take every opportunity to dry them, we took shelter as often as we could in the bus huts that line Hokkaido's country roads. While most were built to be cosy refuges in the harsh throws of the winter months, the ones we had access to along these roads seemed to be the ones everyone had forgotten about, except for the menacing looking spiders that hung from spindly webs across the seats. It is amazing however that when you take away all the comforts of life, the most important things become the simplest of things, like shelter from the rain. As such, we were happy to share space with our beady eyed friends, as long as they were happy to stay in their spindly webs.

From Teshio to Rumoi, a total of 140kms over 1 and a half weeks, we had one week and 3 days of rain, we had to fix our stilts a total of 5 times, we met probably 100 menacing spiders hanging from spindly webs (none of which were tempted to broaden their diets to include us thankfully), we cursed the weather enough times to be barred from heaven for all eternity, and after all of the promise shown by the map beforehand, we saw absolutely no cows!

After the beauty of the week before, our second was a reality check that showed us the other side of the challenge and that taught us the meaning of the Japanese term 'Gaman' or to grin and bare it. There would be more days like these, but they would be outweighed by the people we were to meet along the way!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:06 PM, ,


Having had no reception for the past few weeks, we were completely overwhelmed by the support that has come through via donations here in Japan and through our justgiving site! We have been suffering in this rain which has been making walking really slow going, but knowing that we aren't alone on this challenge gives us the energy to get up each morning and strap on the stilts in the face of whatever is looking us in the face!

THANK YOU for being a part of the Save Pongo Challenge! We will do it together!

Check out the Donations page for more info!

Thank You!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 6:42 PM, ,

Week 2 Photos

New photos from Week 2 are now up - finally! Check them out by clicking on the photos tab!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:31 PM, ,

Week 2 - From nowhere to somewhere!

It is amazing how motivating fear can be! After our previous day's 22km effort in search of the next available toilet, we had vowed never to go over our daily limit of 15km again - ever! Our bear encounter the night before had changed all that. As we tightened the last strap and walked out onto the highway heading south, we were looking down the barrell of what would be our longest walk to date - 26kms of nothing but coastline, birds, and lurking somewhere in the bushes beside us, that bear.

As we walked along, there was something about this wild place that I knew I was going to miss once we began reaching the towns again. Out here where the only thing before you is nothing, you begin to enjoy the anticipation of what you might find over the next hill or around the next corner. With nothing to keep you occupied except for your imagination, the excitement of that unknown is something that is easily lost in the city where our senses are overridden by the gadgetry that has taken up such a big part of our modern lives.

Sitting here in the comfort of my gadgetry filled room however, it's easy to say that! I do recall now that our strongest thoughts at the time revolved more around food, toilets, baths and bears. Ahh the simple things in life! By kilometer 20, our imaginations that had been so happy anticipating what was around the next corner, had obviously failed to make an accurate mental note of the distances between sign posts and as we approached Teshio, we were shocked to discover that we had a few more than the few kilometers we had been dreaming of. With parched throats and a setting sun, all we could think of as we struggled in to Teshio was 'I hope it's around that next bloody corner!!"

We did make it, and the effort called for our first rest day of the trip. After waking Miki from the dead, we revelled in our first day of sun in what has to be one of the prettiest towns we have ever been to. Grass like a well manicured golf green lined every street of this ancient Kofun village. Famous for its Shijimi jiro - or mussel soup, we indulged in as much of the local produce as we could, knowing full well that from tomorrow, we would be back on the soggy sandwiches once again. It was a job made easier by our fortunate meeting with the Mr and Mrs Kuwamura, locals who ran the best restaurant in town, who kindly filled our tummies with the most delicious tonkatsu and our imaginations with the most fantastic tales from adventures past. Contented, we ended our most perfect of days with the sun setting over the sea from a little place that had, in such a short amount of time, managed to steal a little piece of our hearts.

Little did we know, that the going was about to get much tougher!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 3:21 PM, ,

Everyday Stuff Part 1 - Bags

We have stopped for the evening to escape the rain that has been following us like a bad smell, and while I wait for the washing to finish erasing all of my bad smells from the past few days, I thought it would be nice to share a few of the everyday things about this trip that you may not know about.

What's in Pongo's Bag?
One of the main challenges that we faced when planning this trip involved our bags and just how much we could carry to live comfortaby enough over an 8 month period without breaking our stilts on the first day or without breaking ourselves. After many long hours, a few tantrums, and toward the end, a few aspirins we managed to get the weight of our bags down to 13kgs for Miki and 18 kgs for me. Still, this did not take in to account the extra weight that would come with water and food.
So what did these 'essential' items include? (clockwise from bottom)
1. Diary/ Journal
2. Cooking Pot/ Frypan (it is the one thing I always seem to miss when
3. Waterproof Jacket (green and black mesh bag- kindly donated by
4. Inflatable pillow (black bag)
5. 4 season sleeping bag (orange bag)
6. Pongo (how could we forget Pongo!)
7. Sleeping Mat (blue mat under Pongo)
8. Tent (pink bag - has been with me everywhere. Next to Miki. the love
of my life!)
9. Pack cover for rainy days (blue bag next to tent)
10. Food (potatoes, carrots, bananas -for pongo of course!, and rice)
11. Tent Pegs/ Poles (next to Pongo's left arm)
12. Stuff Bag full of 'stuff' - (black bag next to tent)
13. Water (2litres)
14. Computer (grey waterproof bag)
15. Stove (black bag peaking out under the computer bag)
16. Stilt Repair Kit (clear bags full of runner bands, plyers, wire, tyres
and all other essential stilt fixing items)
17. Good Book and cards for rainy days!

All of that, taken on the first day, weighed just over 20kgs. That is why I have no hesitation in devouring everything the first chance I get! Anything to take a few of those kgs off my back.

Any suggestions on making it lighter - I am all ears!! :-)

Miki's Bag
1. Cables for camera, portable HDD and I Pod (cream case with green
palm leaf- Miki has much nice bags than I do as you can see)
2. Food (Miki usually carries what we will be eating that day - mine is
usually the heavier stuff that we can use again)
3. Medicine and vitamin bag (clear bag next to bread)
4. Important item bag - because Miki is better than me with important
items (clear waterproof bag behind bread)
5. Waterproof pants (black and grey bag)
6. Pack cover (orange bag)
7. Sleeping bag 4 seasons (black bag next to pack)
8. Sleeping mat (brown mat next to pack)
9. Route map (clear file in front of bag)
10. Thermo bag for cold food storage (brown bag in front of route map)
11. Dirty washing bag - actually very handy and explains why she
smells better than me most days! (white bag with bikini).
12. Mobile phone and Pongo child
13. Sunglasses case
14. Stove (which I said was in mine but was lying! I have the fuel
15. Miki's toiletry bag (Pink Stripey)
16. Miki's stuff bag for all her 'stuff' (black and blue bag)

My couldn't do without items (Mick) - sleeping bag and rain jacket. Both have been
brilliant. Sunscreen. My thongs (beach sandals for
all of you not up with the lingo!:-))- after a long day
walking, I don't want to see my shoes!
My couldn't do without items (Miki) - beach sandals, fleece, sleeping bag.

My like thing, that I probably didn't need after all (Mick) -
inflatable pillow (never use it) and my board shorts - no swimming up here unless you are a seal!
My like thing that I probably didn't need after all (Miki) - shorts, passport! (Thought Hokkaido was overseas :-))

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:58 AM, ,

We're Back!! The story of Week 1 and of our BEAR!

We are back in the land of the living after what feels a lot longer than just two weeks. Today has turned in to a rest day after the bad weather that has been plaguing us along the way finally caught up, so we are making the most of a basic bear proof cabin on the outskirts of a small town called Obira while the wind blows everything else away outside.

Bear proof?? For all of the stories we had heard before we left, in our hearts we really didn't think (or hope?) we would have any real encounters and while the signs were along the roadside, the only hairy beasts we were meeting were the reflections of my face in the mirrors at each of our toilet stops along the way. Why does a beard grow so fast when you aren't looking? Despite some horrible weather that greeted our first week, we were enjoying the days and were happy to be finally walking these roads from Cape Soya. Our initial plan was to walk 15kms each section, but as we discovered, not much really exists up here between the towns, so in order to enjoy a bit of porcelain luxury at the end of the day, we decided it was worth a bit more pain along the way and so after the first day, we began averaging distances between 20 - 25 kms over periods of up to 10hours! Our bodies were not prepared for the pain that comes after a 20km walk on stilts - rather than the muscular pain you feel after a workout, this hits you in the bones and as walking on stilts is like tiptoeing your way along a 3inch gang plank for 10hours, it was our feet that have been suffering a pain that just doesn't seem to go away. If any bears were to find us, I think our only option would have been to hit them with the stilts or repel them with our smells as running away was now looking as unlikely as finding a decent shower or bath. But bears, up to now, had only appeared in our imaginations as we walked along the highways heading south.

Our days were being filled with much more interesting things. An appearance in the Hokkaido newspapers which had been organized by BOS Japan, meant that many people knew of our challenge and those that lived along our route all seemed to be waiting at their windows for our passage through their town in order to hand over a bag of sweets here or a bottle of tea there. The hospitality was a warm welcome from the cold weather that we had been getting and a nice reminder that, despite what you come to believe from watching too much news, the hearts of people everywhere are genuinely good and that friends are easy to find if only your eyes are open to what is going on around you.

While the first 2 weeks were always going to be the crux of this Hokkaido section, for me, they were also shaping to be the most exciting, with landscapes as wild as we would find anywhere along this trip. Wildflowers that have adapted to these frigid conditions were making the most of the respite from an 8 month winter up here, and dotted the green landscape with speckles of yellows, reds, purples and whites. If you did happen to get tired of that sight, a glance up in to the skies above revealed a moving grey stage with a million types of birds the actors in an ever evolving play about life on this broad plain. Sarobetsu Genya is one of the world's great gathering places for migratory birds on their way from the frozen north and here we were, lucky to be right in the middle of their transit lounge.

On some days, the distance passed by like a flash, but then there were those that seemed to last forever and ever. With signs marking the distances at 1km intervals, you always had an idea how far you had come, but knowing how far was left was always a surprise that wasn't revealed until you came within 2 kms of the next parking or rest stop. With the hours ticking and the sun decending faster and faster, these were the times that you wished you had chosen a bicycle to do this challenge on, like ever other sane person up here. It was on one such day, when the kilometers had taken their toll, that we had our first ever close encounter with Hokkaido's wildest life!

After walking a total of 25kms, we were relieved to get to a parking area at a place called Wakkasakanai, right at the heart of the Sarobetwu Genya. We had asked the locals about bears and had been told that there were none around this area, so after a few days walk, we had all but lost the fear, even deciding to leave the bear bell that I had been kindly lent by a teacher at school, in the dark recesses of the pack. And so on this day, with tired legs and sore feet, all we were interested in was retiring to the warmth of our sleeping bags for an early night and a well deserved rest. No sooner had I closed my eyes, or so it seemed, that we were awoken by the sound of a rustling outside. The thing I that I had always loved about camping was that feeling of being 'in' nature, the thin walls of the tent amlifying the sounds around you, especially at night. Now, with the sound of rustling no more than a few feet from my head, I had completely forgotten about that notion as I fumbled around for a light and for Pongo, our orangutan mascot that we had brought along with us. If anything was there, perhaps he would prove the more effective option in repelling whatever was looking for a quick snack. No sooner had I found the torch, than a light came on through the door and in peered the faces of two young police officers on duty, it seemed, in a place where the only thing to do while on duty was to wake weary stilt walkers.

"Good evening. We're sorry to bother you....."
"What time is it?", I asked through sleep crusted eyes.
"It's midnight. Once again we're sorry to bother you but we thought you might want to know that there is a bear in the area".
"Yes. We saw a bear just a while ago not far from here crossing the road."
"What?!! How far is not far?", suddenly much more awake than I had been a second ago.
"A few hundred metres away. Just over that hill."
" You're joking aren't you."
"No. We don't get them here often so it was quite a surprise. If you haven't been cooking anything and you just turn on your radio to make some noise, I'm sure he won't be any trouble, " he replied without the slightest hint of concern in his voice.
"Oh. Oh dear."
"What should we do? Can we sleep in that shop entrance over there", pointing to the cafe next to the parking.
"No. I'm afraid that is private property so you can't do that. If you just make some noise, I'm sure you will be fine. Bears don't often come here anyway. Anyway, once again, we are sorry to bother you. Have a good night and just keep an eye out for us OK."

And with that, our very polite but completely unhelpful local law enforcers disappeared back into the blackness that they had so unexpectedly emerged from, leaving us with a bit of a dilemma.

What on earth were we going to do at midnight with no radio and no place to stay in order to escape our marauding surprise visitor?!
A quick glance at Miki was all that was needed and without a word being uttered, we had the tent down and all of our belongings in that coffee shop entrance before we could say "Yogi bugger off!" We slept fitfully for the rest of the night wrapped in a cocoon of every noise making possession we had. It was not the ideal rest after such a long day.

We woke sore and exhausted from the ordeal and despite a thorough search of the surrounds, the only thing we managed to find were a pair of my underpants that must have fallen out in our haste to get inside the night before. Perhaps it was the sight of these, more than the crackling sound of a radio, that were what had spared us from the hungry jaws of our unexpected visitor. Either way, we were not hanging around to ask, and after a quick wash and pack, we were off, looking down the barrell of another 20km day that would take us to the edge of the park and back towards civilization.


posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:28 PM, ,

Week 1 Photos!

Taking photos is not always the easiest thing to do when you are a metre off the ground and your hands are controlling your feet but after the first week we have managed to take a few and, even more amazingly, have been able to put them onto this site with our snail like connection, so if you have the time, have a look at them under the Photos section of the blog!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 9:04 AM, ,