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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,

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