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Bye Bye Hokkaido. Hello Aomori and a festival to remember!

The truth was, we would have no idea whether our slip up, sorry, my slip up, would reach the screen until we saw it that day. Nakano-san had promised to do all he could to erase it or ‘edit it nicely’, but as he said, all executive decisions were left up to the head editor not him. So all we could do was wait and see for ourselves. That was of course, if we could make it in time to Tomakomai and a TV screen. The story was to air at 5.17. All we had to do was walk the 21kms that stood between us and our final cut! The only problem was that despite all our good intentions, we had managed to oversleep horribly and with the sun now beating down strongly on the bitumen around us, we began to feel the heat from more than just above.

Our luck at having had a footpath for most of the way was about to change as we neared Tomakomai and its busy port. Trucks rumbled past alarmingly close to where we were walking and as the shoulder of the road narrowed, so too did their margins for error. Up till now, many of the truck drivers that we had met had been courteous to a fault when driving past, taking good care to leave us plenty of room. Unfortunately for us on our last day, many of the drivers who roared past were young ruffians more alert to the messages on their mobiles than to the pair of us hugging the roadside in front. Our nerves were being smashed with each close call, but as it was our last day, we were determined to try to walk the last few kilometers on stilts. However, as we walked, we became aware of an ever growing number of roadside signs marking points in the road where fatalities had occurred before. We hadn’t come this far to fall victims to reckless drivers at the last hurdle so we reluctantly stepped down for the first time of the trip to walk to the next ruffian free section of road.

As the afternoon grew long, we realized that we had grossly underestimated our final calculations to town. At the pace we were walking, we wouldn’t make it in time to see our TV debut and whether that debut included that cock-up! Our walk soon turned in to a brisk walk, which soon turned in to a jog as we entered the 60minute countdown to the premiere. We chose the first place that came by and after quickly handling the formalities, settled down in nervous anticipation of what was to come.

As always, it is never as bad as one thinks, and our ‘debut’ turned in to a very informative piece about the current plight of the orangutans and how we could all help. Having taken the fancy of the chief editor, our 2 1/2 minute fluff piece ballooned into a 7 minute feature. Watching the final edit, it was easy to see that the thanks lay more with Nakano san’s ability to weave a catching story in with the footage he got than it was to either of our own performances. Overall our bits amounted to little more than a few minutes of the total, which were, luckily for me, sans cock-up! To have such a powerful medium delivering such an important message in the professional manner in which Nakano-san had handled it was more than we could ever have asked for, especially as the orangutans made a much more powerful impression than either Miki or I ever could.

After 400kms, a 5 day crossing of a plain with absolutely nothing, a bear chase, a sea urchin feast, a party with Jesus himself, and uncountable meetings with some unforgettable characters, our Hokkaido leg was finally over. 4 weeks earlier, as we stood on the tip of its most northerly promontory, we did not imagine then reaching the point we were standing at now. There were too many unknowns, too many question marks that we could not answer. The whole trip was a big question mark and we hadn’t even begun. But after putting one foot in front of the other each day, for 31 days, we had done it. Our Pongo Hogo Hogo Challenge was now really alive. As we stood on the deck of the ferry that would take us to Aomori, we looked at each other with big grins and hugged. It was a sweet moment that we wouldn’t forget for a while to come.

Our arrival in Aomori was timely. The city was abuzz with final preparations for its famous Nebuta festival, which was renowned, quite deservedly, as one of Japan’s top three. Every year, the city is inundated with 3 million extra visitors who flock to see the famous Nebuta or lit up floats that are paraded through the city’s streets each night during the first week of August. This time, we would be lucky enough to be a part of it. We had met a motorcyclist on the ferry, Hana-san, who told us about a yearly tradition involving all of the motorcyclists who gathered from afar. All 300 or so of them would flock each night to an area between the Nebuta, and partake in a 2 and a half hour frenzy of bell ringing dancing and chanting that would leave the untrained voice of a novice in tatters for days. Ours as it would turn out. To be a part of the party, all we needed was our own festival yukata complete with a fistful of bells so as not to be outdone by whoever was next to us.

Having been taken under the wings of some veteran ‘riders’, we made our way to the rendezvous, filled with a warm glow from the festive atmosphere that was oozing out of everyone’s pores. The traditional pre-performance booze up may also have been a factor. As performing members of one of Japan’s top three festivals, but having not yet received any of the promised training, we stood wondering what it was we should do when the time came.
“Jush doo wot da fella beshide you doesssh”, answered a fellow reveler whose chances at even making it to the start looked slimmer with each gulp of his canned beer.
Before we could gather any details, a lone firework signaled the start of the parade and we found ourselves being carried along in the throng, the chants of “Rasharai Rasharai – Rasha Rasha Rasharai ringing loud into the evening sky. The excitement of being a part of this first day was as contagious as the new strain of flu that was spreading across the rest of the country, only our medicine came through the beat of the drums and their infectious influence on our senses. For two and half hours, we danced at the heart of the rider group, a hundred people jumping as one to the beats of the drums that lead our procession. Our own voices had long drowned out any sense of the world around us. Our only clue that all the other Nebuta had come to a halt came from the faint glow of the fireworks above. While the other groups began to disperse, ours stood around, still beaming from the experience of having been a part of the Nebuta Festival’s first night. People who had been complete strangers only hours before, were now embracing in celebration of being there, together, as one. As Miki and I stood, arms entwined with our newfound friends, a familiar face peered in through the congestion of sweaty yukatas, glasses fogged over from the exertion of the night. As our hands clasped together, Hana-san beamed a smile as bright as the full moon above and said, “Good luck on the stilts tomorrow.”

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:45 AM, ,

Pongo's TV Debut!

The weather remained temperamental for the few days following our phone call, delaying our meeting with Hokkaido TV and our first taste of life in the spotlight. Not that it was an anticipated event. While Miki remained her usual composed self throughout, fear began to spring from the depths of my subconscious, most of which revolved around my Japanese and how it would cope with a camera that was going to immortalize, for good or bad, every pidgeonized word that would potentially trip, stumble or crash horribly out of my mouth. While my Japanese has progressed from the awkward mumbles that accompanied purchases in the local convenience store to awkward sentences that help me now at least find the toilet, to say it was ready for an on camera onslaught would be an embarrassing misrepresentation of the truth. Over the past few weeks, it has been known to jumble word order of its own accord, resulting in some rather mortifying constructs such as "Etchi no Miki" or "my salacious Miki" in place of the Michi no Eki s or roadhouses that we have been frequenting. "So what is your goal today?" "My goal is a salacious Miki!" I would often reply with a grin from ear to ear. Such mistakes, while terrible for poor Miki, pose no long term threat when confined to one or 5 people that we will now surely never meet again, however, the potential for such a slip to reach a wider audience was now playing on my mind, producing the kind of nerves that could quite easily result in an on screen disaster.

On the morning of our second last day in Hokkaido, we received the call.
"The weather's fine. We're on our way. We'll come find you in about an hour."
As I had had a few days to settle the nerves and to banish some of those fears to the deeper parts of the brain, the news of their imminent arrival did not have the effect that I had been so anxiously anticipating. In fact, as we continued on our way, we laughed and joked, becoming lost in the euphoria of nice weather and the knowledge that we were in spitting distance of our first major goal.

At 9.30, a van pulled over to the side of the road and a young man in a dress shirt and pants stepped out. " Hi, I'm Nakano. Sorry we're late." Together with his young crew comprising a camera woman and sound technician, they went about their jobs of preparing the scenes that they would need for our story while we watched mesmerized at the efficiency with which a TV news story was planned. Our story was to be a 2 1/2 minute piece detailing our last month and the reasons behind such a crazy challenge. The youth of each member made for a friendly atmosphere where work and a relaxed banter mixed freely making everything flow much more smoothly than they had anticipated. Before we knew it, they were ready and we were about to find out what life in front of the camera was like.

"Do this. Walk like this. Can you do this on stilts? No, what about this? Walk faster. Walk slower. Walk together. Line up this way." The directions came thick and fast as they tried to gather as many shots as they could to tell our story in their own way. We walked while they filmed and before we knew it, 2 hours and about 7kms had passed beneath all of our feet. For the first time since the first day, we had managed to string together a walk without breaks for longer than an hour and a half. And our feet were telling us so. As such we were relieved when Nakano-san asked us to stop ahead so that they could begin the interview part of the story.

Miki and I had talked about what they might ask and how we might respond. After 8years together, Miki had become quite adept at knowing precisely when to jump in to help finish a sentence or to help clarify some of the blabber that had on occasion found its way out of my mouth in public. However, there was something about having a camera fixed firmly on our faces that blighted any such cerebral connection between us. When the camera was on us, we spoke, and the when the camera panned away to the other, we sat locked in a state of alarm, pondering whether what we had just said was at all comrehensible. As such, I became acutely aware of the solitary nature that my TV 'debut' would take and at that moment, the fears bubbled back up the the surface of my brain like a boiling pot.

On account of my being non-Japanese, the reporter had wanted to include a question in English, with my response in Japanese. While initially relieved, it was this seemingly innocuous dialogue that would cause my downfall!

"So, how do you think Hokkaido?" asked the reporter in typically erroneous Japlish.
I had toyed with two responses to this most unchallenging of questions. One could talk about not wanting to leave 'Hokkaido' where we were, the other could opposingly talk about not wanting to go to the next place on our route, 'Honshu'. Either one would have been a perfectly safe, appropriate response to his simple question. Either one was easy to utter, even in my pidgeon Japanese. But it was such confidence in this simplicity that caused a horrible lapse, an unconscious merge that resulted in stifled laughter from the crew, and a look of shock from the reporter that will remain with me for many years to come.

What came out of my mouth that day was the spoken equivalent of the middle finger to the people of this big island. Under the pressure of the camera, the words flowed together out of my mouth and before I could reign them back in I realized I had just told the people of Hokkaido that due to our experiences so far, I never wanted to come back to their prefecture again! (Ima made no omoide de, kore kara, zettai Hokkaido ni ikitakunai!)

My first foray in front of the camera was memorable for one horrible slip of the tongue. Now the waiting game would be played out once more. Would this be a slip that would come back to haunt us? More importantly, would Miki ever be able to forgive me for my stupidity.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 3:07 AM, ,

Bye Bye Hokkaido – Hello 6 Oclock News!

The 19kms from our 3000yen guest house to the city of Iwamizwa seemed to float past under feather light feet and the energy that comes from a free feast. While the imminent separation from a loyal travelling partner might normally draw a tear or two for the road wearied traveler, for us, our separation from koitsu was to harbor no such emotions. We could hardly contain our glee as the roads split, leaving koitsu to carry the same sour faced drivers to wherever it was they were sadly heading to. We, on the other hand, had a date with a ferry that was heading to Honshu. All we had to do was to make it in time. 80kms in 5 days? That wouldn’t be that difficult, would it?

Our first impression of Iwamizawa was provided courtesy of one of the town’s living relics, complete with tinted blue hair (why must all women over the age of 80 demand such a shocking do?) on an equally ancient tricycle designed for grown-ups going to the shops. Her witch like cackle would have been enough to frighten us off our perches had we not heard it coming from 50 metres away along the highway.
“Ooo Haa Ooo Haa!! Where do you think you’re going on those things!” she cackled as she pedaled up behind us, like a dwarf on a circus trike.
“Kagoshima.” Our reply set off another cacophony of cackles.
“Ooo Haa Ooo Haa!! Where did you come from?” she asked us in between breaths and cackling fits.
“Cape Soya.” Her second round of laughter was even more vigorous than the first, the stabilizing third wheel of the tricycle a savior that no doubt kept her from a disastrous fate had she been riding such a fully loaded regular bicycle.
As she pedaled away, still laughing at the thought of such an inconceivable idea, we were left as dumbfounded as when she had arrived, wondering just which of us was crazier?

We spent the night in our first rider’s house, although to call it a house would be overstating what was there; a basic room barely big enough for the both of us that looked like it had been slapped down as quickly as the old woman had left us earlier. On the upside we were lucky to have the place to ourselves and as we settled in, our attentions were drawn to the happy chatter and splashing sounds of people, women, close by. Opening the blinds we were confronted by a sight that would scar a man for life. The position of the rider’s house, either by pure luck or by some mischievous forward planning on the part of the builders, looked out directly on to the women’s outdoor bathing area of the hot spring complex in the adjoining building. Unfortunately for us, our timing coincided with what looked to be the bathing time of the tricycle rider’s knitting circle. A valiant attempt to avert my gaze in time to save me from the horror scene that was, only resulted in more naked blue tinted knitters who were completely oblivious to the damage they were causing in the rider’s house above. For Miki, such a scene was a normal as the pack was now to her back, but for the untrained foreign male eye, it was enough to put one off staying in a rider’s house for the rest of their life.

We woke after a fitful sleep filled with cackles and tricycles and baths and leather bags. Our aim was to make an early start in order to put as many kilometers between ourselves and the memory of last night as we could. Our walk was soon interrupted however by a phone call from a TV station who had heard about our challenge and who wanted to run a story about us for the nightly news. We arranged to meet as soon as the weather improved and so began the countdown to Pongo’s television debut and perhaps the biggest cock-up of my life!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:01 AM, ,

Bye Bye Koitsu!

Returning to Route 12, or koitsu as we had been calling it, required some adjustments after our pampering at the hands of Otojiro san and his family and friends. The joy of sleeping in a warm bed made the thought of camping again a difficult one. As such, a compromise was needed and we decided that to draw a little more from the budget to stay the night in a guest house would be a necessary sacrifice in order to maintain morale and momentum down to the ferry at Tomakomai. The only problem was finding one. Each town we walked through seemed to be missing the one sign that we were keeping our eyes opened for. Why is it that you can never find the thing you want most when you are actually looking for it? The more we walked, the more hopeless our situations appeared to grow, until that was we happened across a bristly haired police officer by the name of Arakawa san.

A small town ‘koban’ or police box was an unlikely place to find one of Hokkaido’s highest ranked homicide detectives, but it was precisely that change of pace, in addition to a little prompting from his local wife, that resulted in Arakawa san’s decision to relocate to the quieter side of the force. While his generous offerings of sweets and coffee may have masked a determined attempt to keep him company while nothing unlawful continued to happen around, the friendly banter that accompanied the feast more than made up for lost time on the stilts. Eventually our conversation turned to where we intended to stay the night, and as if posing the question opened the floodgates of fear that had been creeping in with each unsuccessful search, we both began pouring our problem out onto Arakawa san’s table. His understanding nods here and grunts of agreement there seemed to confirm our predicament. Koitsu’s reputation had obviously affected the tourist industry badly with not a guest house this side of cooee to be found. But there was a possibility, he offered suddenly. A small guest house that catered mainly to construction workers was just a few kilometers away in the next town. He knew the man and offered to call on our behalf.

“I’ve got two stilt walkers here looking for a place for the night. You could spare a place for them tonight couldn’t you?” he said with an air of authority that seemed more like a statement than the question it was.
“5500 yen?” he repeated as he looked over for confirmation.
Our downcast faces immediately suggested a price out of our range so cupping the phone so as not to let the guest house owner in on our conversation asked,
“What can you afford?”
3000yen was what we had been paying for places much nicer than what we thought anything along koitsu could offer, so we tentatively made that our starting price.
Arakawa san’s nod of confirmation sent him back down the phone on our behalf.
“What about 3000yen. How’s that? Can you do it for that?
The guest house owner was throwing up smokescreens however. The price was obviously not to his liking.
“It’s a bit noisy with workers at this time of year you say”, repeated Arakawa san, letting us in on the conversation as it went.
Our nods, smiles and waving of hands to convey that such noise was definitely not a problem was taken in stride and without missing a beat Arakawa san went for the jugular.,
“That won’t be a problem for them. So I’ll send them over to you now OK. For 3000yen Ok,” his thumbs up confirming our reservation.
But Arakawa san, obviously one with an eye for an opportunity finished with what was for us, the icing on the cake.
“And that 3000 yen will include dinner and breakfast won’t it.”
The guest house owner’s will was gone. How could he possibly try to haggle one of Hokkaido’s highest ranking homicide detectives out of a few thousand yen. It was a futile battle with the now happy stiltwalkers, the victors.

Our second encounter with Hokkaido’s police had left us in a much better state than our first. With only a few kilometers to go before we bade koitsu a much anticipated farewell, our run to the finish was now starting to look much brighter than the guest house owner’s mood.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:46 AM, ,

The Long Way Down - Horrible Highway 12

Our first two weeks had been filled with visions from a wildlife documentary. There was always something to fill our imaginations as we walked along the coasts or through the hills that rang high above them. We had been spoilt, for no sooner had we turned to head away from the coast, than the roads began to fill up with traffic jams and the streets with tacky fast food shops. The beauty of the sights before however was replaced by an amusing myriad of bewildered faces peering from the windows of passing cars. We became quite good at reading lips with comments ranging from ‘Su~goi~’ or ‘Look at that will you!’ to ‘Baka da ne’ or ‘Look at those crazy bastards will you!’ Sometimes people said nothing, as they drove, mouths agape toward the very edge of disaster before recovering their composure and, fortunately for them and sometimes us, their direction. Almost every person that passed however mouthed the word ‘takeuma’ or stilts, as if seeing them brought back some recollection from their youth. For many adults, takeuma were as much a part of their childhoods as school was, with most holding some dear memory of a time spent playing on these simple objects of fun. While their origins may have stemmed from China initially, takeuma had now become as Japanese as sumo, and it was one of the reasons why we had chosen them to do such a challenge. Walking down the length of Japan on something not traditionally Japanese seemed wrong, and as we watched lips after lips mouthing the same familiar word, we silently congratulated the decision to use something so central to everyone’s past.

Route 12 was to be the highway that would take us down through the middle of Hokkaido and to Iwamizawa, our last major town before we took a left turn onto our final road to the ferry terminal to Honshu. We had chosen it for no other reason than it seemed the fastest and shortest route to take us where we were headed. Fast and short, however, could just as easily have been interpreted as dirty and boring, for Route 12 turned out to be one of those horrible roads whose only purpose seemed to join together the kinds of satellite factory towns that gather so hideously on the outskirts of major cities. With nothing endearing to capture our attentions, we walked at a steady pace, counting the steps left to the goal at each day’s end. Even the people passing in the cars revealed expressions that matched the dreary surrounds, stealing the fun from our lip reading practice sessions. As days passed along this smoggy choked arterial, it began to act less like the inanimate object that it was and more like a living thorn in the side of our motivation, so we decided to give Route 12 a name that more clearly captured its true personality. ‘Koitsu’ or ‘ You Son of a B….’ as it was now unaffectionately known became our new travelling companion and the brunt of many a frustrated outburst as we struggled slowly along. Days that had disappeared in a flash before, we taking forever now, as we trudged slowly south.

For some horribly sadistic reason, every campsite that we found at the end of the day tended to be perched at the end of the road of the town’s highest hill. It was enough to make us change tactics and begin searching for local parks to bunk down in instead, always with the blessing of the locals. Just as people are delighted when rare species spontaneously appear on their beaches or in their towns, so too were the locals intrigued when they woke to the sight of strange stilt walking creatures in their midst. At times we felt like caged animals, as locals disrupted their morning walks to peer in to our tent and observe the still sleeping creatures up close. It was an unnerving feeling to wake to a row of curious faces lined up at the tent window, smiling with each roll or yawn. Luckily for us we were saved by a phone call from a man who had first seen us on our first day. Otojiro san had contacted us wondering whether we were interested in visiting his house for the night to share stories and relax with his family and friends. Any chance to escape the morning viewing sessions was a blessing, and so with after a quick call to confirm a time, we were of like Free Willy to Otojiro san’s house and a night that we would never forget.

We walked in to a party that was in full throng, with people sharing stories in one corner, or telling jokes in the other. We were welcomed in and at once relaxed in the comfortable atmosphere of what really felt like a home with people who were happy to just be. As the food and wine flowed, we were treated to a musical bonanza that even included a performance by Miki, who was most relieved to find that she still had full use of her fingers, despite the thrashing they had been getting at the hands of the stilts. We sang, we laughed, we talked, we drank and as I look through the photos now, it seems there was a point where we even acted something out. Don’t ask me what, there must have been a reason I erased that memory from my imagination! The time flew by and before we knew it, the dawn of the new day signaled our bed time. There would be no stilt walking today. It was time to catch up on some sleep and to soak in the family atmosphere that we had been missing so much. I lay down and as I flicked through the pages of children’s book detailing everything anyone could ever want to know about poo, I realized that tomorrow (or today) would be another one of those days where we would have to say one of those inevitable goodbyes that just don’t want to leave your mouth.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 2:39 AM, ,