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On the go tab - Where we are now!

We had no idea the pickle our temperamental internet connection was putting us in until a phone call to my uncle in Singapore. 'Hokkaido sounds lovely', he said as I sat talking to him 1000 kms away in Niigata! Obviously mobile internet has a long way to come when you are walking through some parts of Japan! So in order to give you a more up to date idea of where we are and what we are doing, we've gone all techy and have created an instant link to our phones. You will now be able to follow us as we go! The stories and diaries will continue, but as always, they will come a little bit later as you already know! The brain doesn't work so well after the 20km mark!

The instant messaging is linked only on the Japanese site, but there will be English posts too.
Step 1 - Click on the Japanese Tab. This will take you, well, to the Japanese page :-)

Step 2 - Click on the 今どこ? tab and there you will be, able to see where we are and what we are doing as it all happens!!
ENJOY!!! And the blogs are coming soon! I promise!!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:41 PM, ,

Route Map

Our route map has just been updated. You will now be able to see where we are throughout the month of September! Check it out!

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

New Pictures

We've just uploaded some new photos (well old photos now!) to the photos page! One of these days when we have a decent connection, we promise to upload all of them! Have a look!

7 more days in Niigata! And today - it looks like a typhoon!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:49 PM, ,

From Aomori to Akita

Memories of accusing gas stand attendants faded quickly from our minds as our days filled with the postcard images of a sparkling blue sea lapping at the foot of a ruggedly dramatic rocky coastline. Our moods often seemed tied to the scenery that surrounded us, with our happiest days emerging when walking with the rolling swells of the Japan Sea. Having chosen the road less traveled, all of the towns that we were now passing through were the kind that seemed more fitting of a Japan hundreds of years ago. Wooden paneled homes, weathered by the strong winter winds lined our way, each hosting their own organized rows of trellaced bean, tomato, or corn plants. The supermarket that so many of us take for granted in our everyday lives, seemed an unimaginable luxury for such people whose existence depended so much on their daily toil. The more these sights filled our days, the more we began to question our own reliance on the packaged breads and bottled drinks that we had been subsisting on. Everything about growing your own food for your own needs seemed to make so much more sense – until that is you come back down from the clouds with a thud to your own reality, which for us were these infernal stilts.

Our weekly routine, now firmly established, involved quite a lot of tuning and repairing certain parts of our bamboo legs. If it wasn’t the wire that held our footrests to the stilts that needed replacing, then it was the rubber tires that we used to cover the feet. Of the two, it was the latter that was now causing our headaches. The rubber we used came courtesy of the old tires from the shopping bicycles that abound here. Having used up all our supplies except for two cut to size pieces, the time had come to go on a search for a bicycle store willing to donate any of their throwaways for our cause. Once we have successfully assured the shop owner of our intentions and the doors open, the feeling that overcomes us is certainly akin to that of a kid in a candy store. It was this overwhelming assortment of free rubber that was to be the cause of our current predicament. We opted for a fancy red set of mountain bike slicks, our theory being that if cheap rubber tires lasted us 80kms, then fancy expensive looking rubber mountain biking tires would last us twice as long. They certainly looked good on the end of our stilts. But looks are not everything as we were about to find out.

As Aomori’s coast weaved its way ever closer toward Akita’s coast, we began to find that our progress was slowing with each day. The cause, our new red tires. Where the others had lasted us the best part of a week, we now found that we were changing these new treads almost as often as we had to eat. While not a particularly difficult task, done over and over again it was one that began to take the shine off each day. To add to our new dilemma, we also found that our new red slicks, had been very appropriately named! After two months of walking on every type of road imaginable, we were now becoming experts on what was a good and what was a bad road. Yes there is a big difference. The best were a rarity, found only in those towns with a bit of money and a local government willing to spend that money on its town. They were the ones made of the recycled rubber from car tires and made walking a pleasure. Our first experience, which has been our only experience, saw us spend a good 5 minutes just balancing from foot to foot in order to enjoy the sensation of this soft surface. The sight of us looking more like dancing ostriches than normal people must have brought a smile to more faces than just our own. On the other end of the scale, the worst were those that were covered with a thin layer of moss, barely visible from our perches, but with the potential to make us fall far from grace. It was on this kind of danger that we were now walking, with the added bonus of doing so on our slicks! The steps that took us between Aomori prefecture and Akita were slow and required all our concentration. As such, it was no surprise that when we reached Akita, we were both drained and in need of a good rest, not to mention some more tires for our stilts.

Crossing into Akita

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:49 PM, ,

Belated News.

A quick note to apologize for the delay in my posts. My last post about those charming gas attendants happened more than a month ago in Aomori! We have since traversed 2 prefectures and are now sitting very close to our half way point in Niigata City. Lack of reception makes a nice official sounding reason for the delay, but I must take some of the blame also. The days have been long and the inspiration lacking at times! But I will endevour to get these up to speed within the next week or so as there are more stories happening with each day!

Thank you for reading and also for all the support we are getting. We have raised almost 4000 dollars in total and still a long road ahead. News came today that BOS, our charity, successfully released 46 orangutans back to the wild after securing land in the middle of Borneo. With more than 600 more waiting for release they are looking for more areas and hopefully at the end of this, our money, and your money, will go to help secure other much needed areas.

Anyway, back to the stories soon!
Hope you are all well!

Mick and Miki

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:12 AM, ,

Do I look like I have a problem with that kind of thing?

We awoke to discover that we had made a slight miscalculation to the next town. We would now have to walk a total of 23kms under clear skies and the looming silhouette of Aomori’s Mt. Fuji. Iwaki-san. Apart from a lingering memory of the previous night’s ordeal, my buttocks seemed fine and ready to tackle the distance.

Unfortunately for us, it was our stamina, not our behinds that were suffering after an unusually late night. All day we couldn’t seem to get out of first gear, requiring more breaks than we had had to date. Unfortunately, stilting was not proving to be like other sports in the way your body adapts to the physical demands. Each day was as tedious as the one before, bringing with it the same levels of pain in the same areas. Our performance often seemed more influenced by our mental rather than our physical conditions. It was to be another day of just putting one foot in front of the other until we reached our goal.

Ajigasawa was our first coastal town since Rumoi, and while its position on Aomori’s beautiful coast was spectacular, about the only thing going for it was a over preened white Akita dog called Wasao (who had the day earlier been made a citizen of the town!). The rest of the town was charmless, with its people even more so. Help seemed hard to come by as people went about their daily business, uninterested in these two strangers looking lost on their streets. While Miki, whose charm and looks were more likely to elicit the helpful responses we were after, went about the important job of asking directions to baths and to campsites, I was left the relatively easy job of filling our fuel bottle for tonight’s meal. Up till now, I had never had a problem with gas stand attendants we were happy to fill me up for the pittance that it cost to do so. Then again, up till now, we had never been to Ajigasawa.

“Sore wa dame desuyo” (No I can’t do that.) said the attendant warily as I handed over my opened fuel bottle.
“Why not? I’ve never had a problem before?” I replied reassuringly, adding my best smile to convince him of my integrity.
“Iiya, dame desuyo!!” (No I can’t do that!)
“What are you talking about?” I said unbelievably, as my chances of having my bottle filled quickly disappeared.
Sensing the alarm in my voice, attendant number 1 called over attendant number 2 to add some finality to his decision. After conferring with each other, number 2, who was older but obviously not wiser, strode over to give me his opinion too.
“You shouldn’t be doing that!” he scolded as if I were the naughty child and he, my teacher.
“Doing what?!! What are you talking about??!!” I asked half shocked and now completely bewildered by where our conversation was going.
“We’re not going to sell it to you if you’re going to drink it!” he said as he shook his head disapprovingly.

It took about 2 minutes for the shock to subside enough for me to be able to say something.

“I want fuel for my bloody camp stove not for my bloody self!” I replied, the disbelief dripping of every syllable.
“Oh, in that case, no problems.” Attendant number 2 said cheerfully, as if the conversation earlier had been all in his imagination.
But I’d had enough and after telling them in my most gracious voice thanks, but no thanks, I wandered back down the road, past a bemused looking Miki, to a home centre that we had passed 20 minutes earlier.

It was a long day, and as we settled down for the evening on a bird crap littered car park after being told we could not camp in the park and that there was no campsite here, dreamed of a new day in a new town far away from here.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:02 AM, ,

The Electric Bath!

The camping life meant our body clocks were becoming accustomed to nature’s rhythms again. We awoke with the sun coming up over the hill behind us and had everything packed and ready to go by 7am. Starting early gave us a slight reprieve from the heat later in the day and we were able to walk a good number of kilometers before it got too hot.

As we came into town we were called over to the business of a man who had himself ridden around Japan during his younger years. “Come in for a drink,” he called. Even though we were making good progress, the offer was timely as the heat was just starting to get going.

We were happy to share our stories over drinks at the conference table, the breeze through the window and the friendly chat making leaving a trying proposition. After telling how he had spent his summers during school pedaling his way around Japan, he reached in to his pocket and retrieved two 1000yen notes.

“When I was travelling, I met a man who also stopped me and gave me vouchers for food and drink that probably would have amounted to 2000yen at the time. In return, all he asked was that when the time came, I too should do the same for others who are chasing a dream. So this is for you. Buy some lunch or some drinks. Remember, it’s not about money, it’s about the gesture to look after others.”

In taking his kind offering, we too were acknowledging our responsibility as members of this special kind of traveler’s fraternity. When the time came, we would strive to do our best to look after those who were chasing their dreams. It was a nice responsibility to receive, and one that made us realize that we were not alone. In the end, our successes perhaps wouldn’t be measured by the amount of money that we raised but rather by the number of people that we were able to involve in some way, small or large.

Goshogawara, was a pretty town, big enough to have everything, but small enough to retain some charm. It had made the national news a day earlier for having the second highest university acceptance rate amongst high school leavers in the country. A staggering 85% of high school students successfully went on to further study, revealing a standard of education that seems to be disappearing in the bigger cities of most countries.

After eating and catching up on some much needed washing, we began a frustrating search for phantom hot springs that while clearly written on our maps, were nowhere to be found. Eventually we were directed back toward the direction from which we’d come, a 3km turnaround that seemed much longer on tired legs.

We stumbled in to a bathhouse packed with tourists and locals who had arrived on mass after celebrating the town’s own Nebuta festival. Entering the bathing area, about the only bath that was free from screaming kids or hairless old men was one that was ominously named “Denki Buro” or “the Electric Bath”. Everyone was obviously giving this bubbling pool a wide berth. The logic seemed clear – electricity and water do not mix well. After once surviving a near death experience in an outdoor hot-spring whose wiring became ‘live’ when exposed to the rain, I should have been the one least likely to even consider a bath with such a name. However for some reason, call it exhaustion or stupidity, I felt like throwing caution to the wind. I felt like a bath and if it was going to come complete with timed electric shocks to my buttocks, then so be it. I eased in to the stares of a dozen bemused onlookers, each expecting the worst for this sunburnt, naked foreigner in their midst. As I settled down into position between the electrodes, I was just beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about when my right buttock began twitching uncontrollably. While not painful, it was definitely not a sensation one would call pleasant either, however, as I was caught in a performance before an audience of curious onlookers, I battled hard to maintain my composure in the face of ever strengthening shocks. The twitching had extended across to my other buttock, each one now beating in rhythmic time to an unheard beat. It was at this moment that I noticed a warning list that stretched halfway across the wall in front of me. Perhaps my curious audience, with a stronger grasp of the written language than me, knew something that I didn’t. After what seemed like an eternity I decided I had more than done enough to gain the respect of those around. Besides, my twitching had now reached a tempo that was embarrassing. As I stood slowly from the bath, towel covering my modesty, I half expected a round of applause for my efforts. What I got instead was a row of amused faces, each trying hard not to lose control in front of me. It seemed my muscles were still reacting to their static treatment, however, now they were in plain view for all to see. The ten metres to the change room seemed to take forever as I walked gingerly past all, not knowing which part to cover more with my towel.

It took a good five minutes for the twitching to stop, revealing two bright red patches where the current had entered. It was enough excitement for one day and I fell asleep wondering just what effect it might all have on my stilting style tomorrow.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:05 PM, ,

Generosity is a man called Ootaku-san!

After a relaxing time spent in a quaint local hot-spring, we were suddenly faced with the depressing prospect of finding a place to stay in the middle of nowhere with the sun now beginning to disappear behind the mountains. At that moment, we received a phone call from Ootaku-san, the Elvis look alike who had caught us in our earlier trough, offering to take us to another of Aomori’s famous Nebuta festivals, this time in a town called Goshogawara. With all other options looking quite dire, it was not difficult to say yes and soon we were being treated to the charming conversations of a man whose outlook on life was about to teach us a thing or two about ours.
Over a much anticipated dinner of handmade noodles and tempura, we listened to Ootaku san’s story of how a serious illness from overwork had caused him to reassess what was important in life, resulting in him quitting his job and chasing his dream in construction. He was now his own boss, working for the love of his job, doing something that he valued and his face showed every bit of it. It was a simple message that so few ever really heed. Why do something if you don’t love it? Why do something if you don’t want to do it? The result of following a head full of dreams and a heart full of desire was a man who had found the true meaning of life in the routine of everyday. When you wake up excited about what’s for breakfast, you know that things must be going Ok in your life.

Our next stop was an unexpected treat. While we had spent the week before enjoying the Nebuta’s of Aomori city, little did we know that Aomori hosted three such festivals, each as big as the other, simultaneously in three different cities. Goshogawara as we were about to find, was the host of the ‘tachi nebuta’ or standing floats. The name however does little to convey the true scale of these creations. Made of paper and weighing up to 3 tonnes, these tachi nebuta on first glimpse leave you grasping for the right adjective to describe them. Perhaps Miki’s first words, in some ways, captured best the essence of what we saw.
“ I think I just saw Godzilla with a wig walking behind that building.”
But it was true, for when the tachi nebuta came in to full view, we all stood speechless. What was even more amazing was the fact that some of these things had been put together completely by the local high school students. When I recall the struggles I had trying to put squiggly clay hair on my clay face sculpture in grade 9 art class, it becomes obvious that my path doesn’t lie in the same direction as these kids. When we couldn’t imagine them getting any bigger, another would creep its way around the building, more massive and more impressive than the last until finally, we were faced with the big daddy of them all – a 27 metre tall monster than defied words. Otaku –san stood by with a smile, happy in the knowledge that it was going to be a night we would never forget. For in his mind, it was still not finished. There was one more trip to make and it was to be the best one yet.

Aware that the time was now quite late, Ootaku-san suggested staying at his house. It was closer, we could relax and sleep in, and in the morning he could take us back to our starting point. To him it seemed like the perfect solution, and to us, it seemed again like the better option. In fact, as we hadn’t secured any place to stay, it was really our only option. He smiled a big smile and headed in the direction of his house which, after passing through rice fields and weaving between forests of towering pines, ended up being right on the beach with the perfect view of the squidding boats, illuminating the horizon far out to sea. The smell of the sea air immediately breathed some life back in our weary bones and as we put our bags in the doorway, Ootaku-san said the words that I will never forget.
“Right. My wife is waiting so I’m off. I’ll be back in the morning to pick you up. You can rest here; get your legs back. Feel free to use everything that’s here. Oh and one last thing, look in the back room. There is a surprise.” And with one final grin, he was off, leaving us, two relative strangers, the keys to his beach house for the night. While Miki seemed to have cottoned on to the suggestion earlier, I was completely taken back by this most generous of offers. My inability once again to pick up some of the essential details, left me standing with my mouth wide, wondering if there was a catch.
We wondered to the back room and opened the door. A smile came over our faces as we now knew what he had meant by his surprise. Earlier in the evening when Miki and Ootaku-san had reminisced about their sporting backgrounds, they discovered that they had both competed in table tennis at the prefectural level, with talk of a matchup between the two soon bouncing back and forth between all of us. Now that matchup was etched in our near future. Before us stood an immaculate table tennis table with Miki’s name on it. Sleep was definitely going to take a back seat tonight. In twelve short hours Ootaku-san would be back to pick us up. Miki, with her title on the line, had some practicing to catch up on.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 6:58 AM, ,

My first experience with the infamous Aomori dialect!

It was a difficult walk away from the rider’s camp that we had called home for three days. It wasn’t just because of the bonds that we had formed either. Hana-san was right! Our legs didn’t seem to want to work for us anymore. The 2 hours of dancing had taken their toll and as we took our first tentative steps away from our new, leather clad group of friends, we were struck with the horrible feeling that it was going to be a long day ahead.

As we walked however, we both began to feel the shadow of anticipation that greets every new adventure. Apart from the Nebuta festival, we knew little else about our surroundings and what lay ahead. Our goal was a hot-spring marked on our maps at about 12kms from our starting point. Up until this point, all of our route maps had consisted of copies from the pages of whichever road maps we could lay our hands on in local libraries. That often meant that we were relying on data from ten years ago which had on more than one occasion left us scratching our heads as to the location of a park or a campsite that while clearly marked on our guides, had long since become the victim of time. While we had taken such hiccups in our stride at first, we soon tired of those last minute searches for a place to stay after a long day on the stilts. Today, however, it seemed our destination was solid, for we had been told so from the mouth of a local herself. She had also given us directions for a short cut that would get us there much faster than the road we were currently on. As we walked however, further and further down what looked to be turning into a major highway, we started to doubt her words. With the sun beating down more strongly than it had for the last month, we reluctantly pulled up stilts and began a long walk back to where we had first met her, hoping to show her a good deal more than the creases she had left on both of our foreheads. The three kilometers seemed to take forever wiping all smiles from our faces and leaving us walking in silence toward a goal we did not know. At that moment, a truck pulled up in the clearway next to us and out popped a well dressed man, with jet black hair that reminded us of a younger Elvis. Our dour moods did little to dampen his spirits as he clicked off a few photos on his mobile phone. Ootaku-san, as he introduced himself lavished us with words of encouragement but before his enthusiasm could do any more, he had slipped away back into the flow of traffic from which he had emerged. Little did we know how big an impact he would have on us over the days and weeks ahead.

On the advice of another, more trustworthy looking local, we altered our course for another hot-spring a little further out of our way, hidden between the pine trees and family farms of a more rural Aomori. We were immediately happy with the decision. As the traffic thinned out, time slowed to the pace of those around, who seemed happily content with the simplicity of daily chores under a blanket of blue. We soon picked up a tagalong, a young boy of about 12 who seemed relieved to have the company of someone other than his grandmother whom he had come to spend summer with. Ryuto’s quick wit and cheeky way made him quite an easy companion to walk with. He spoke with an innocent cockiness that comes from too much time listening to yourself, but we enjoyed all he had to say about the ups and downs of being a 12year old in the middle of nowhere. For us, his brash way proved a nice diversion from our troubled day, but we were soon to see how it could also get him into strife.

As we rounded the corner, a farmer’s mini truck came careening across the road and screeched to a spluttering halt inches from the edge of the road and certain doom. Down came the window and out popped the head of a toothless farmer whose well wrinkled smile showed no hint of concern for the fact that he had just parked diagonally across the road, blocking the path of any oncoming traffic. I guess parking where one wishes becomes the reward for reaching such an age. As to what came from his mouth next, I can only surmise as no amount of training in the Japanese language could have helped me to decipher the thick Aomori dialect that was flowing from his toothless grinning mouth. Only occasionally could I make out a familiar word that gave some idea about what he was talking about.
“La di da di do di dum America!”
“La di do di da di dum Iraq!”
“La di da di do did um Takeuma!”
“La di Takeuma di do di dum Hokkaido to Kagoshima!”
Despite the gruff manner in which he spoke, his offer of a bag of tomatoes from his garden conveyed his feelings clearly. Just as I was about to say thanks, Ryuto, who had been listening up until this point, grabbed the bag and handed them back to the old man. His cheekiness was about to get checked.
“You can’t give them these. They’ve got spots on them. Haven’t you got any others? They’re walking on stilts you know!”
Before Ryuto could react, the old farmer’s hand had let go of the wheel and swung out of the window in a lightning fast arc that connected with the boy’s baseball crew cut. Such speed was quite impressive for a man who looked likely to drive himself off the road no less than 5 minutes ago.
“You learn to keep your mouth shut about things you don’t know about – you can’t buy them like that!” replied the farmer, possibly, for we all were still in shock, more about the fact that he could do it, rather than the fact that he did do it.

As Ryuto rubbed his head, the old man bid his farewells through his open window, yelling encouragement through his toothless mouth as he chugged off ungracefully up the hill in what sounded like third gear. Our first experience with Aomori’s infamous dialect had proven a memorable one, more so for our travelling companion than for us.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 6:41 AM, ,