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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,

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