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Pongo will air on ABC radio Brisbane from 10.30 tomorrow (30/10/09)!! An interview in English, so I am much more likely to be making sense in this one!! Have a listen and call in and say hi!!!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:11 PM, ,

From Akita to Yamagata and another deadly bath!

On a scale of importance from one to ten, baths rank the highest at ten, with a nice green tent site close behind at nine. Finding one or the other is usually enough to make our day a great one, but finding both, is the thing of dreams. So rarely does such an occurrence happen that it becomes an event that is forever cherished, like a wedding or the birth of your first child. Unfortunately for me however, hitting the jackpot came with a rude reminder of just how closely sweet can often be followed by bitter; the culprit once again, the Japanese bathhouse.

We arrived at Nikaho much earlier than expected and stumbled across one of the nicest parks we had seen. Despite differences in layout and appearance, the parks we had come across up till now could generally be classified into two broad categories; parks plonked down haphazardly in response to an official need to satisfy a town’s requirement for a park, or parks that had obviously been made to enhance the lives of the residents around it, designed with the care and attention that made them such an important part of a town. Luckily for us the park at Nikaho was of the latter kind, situated thoughtfully next to the rolling swells of the ocean and filled with green spaces, play spaces and walk spaces for everyone to enjoy. It was a perfect place to spend a night.

The location had an added bonus. Situated right next door was a hot spring that, we were told, contained water of the blackest ilk, filled with healing minerals perfect for relieving the kinds of aches and pains brought on from days on hard stilts. We had never been in a hot spring with black water before, nor had we been in one whose healing properties were designed specifically to remedy stilt induced aches and pains. As such we wasted no time in gathering our gear and heading over to what would be, at this early hour of the day, a granny free bath.

Entering through rickety sliding glass doors, we were confronted by a bath house that time had forgotten. A small resting area adorned with a brown leather couch of the kind that you always found when visiting grandad’s hairdresser, lay between ourselves and the front desk. Behind it sat the owner, a frail woman who looked as old and as weary as the peeling paint on the walls. With sad droopy eyes surrounded by two big purplish bags, she was the human incarnation of Fred Basset. Our cheerful greeting failed to bring any cheer to her day and as she took our money, she lapsed in to a frightful fit of coughing that looked certain to cut short our stay. As such, we decided to hustle and make the most of the black water’s healing properties before the paramedics arrived to take her away.

As I entered the bathing area, I could still hear her splutters through the ‘bandai’ or viewing window that linked each bath with the front desk. Common in many older style baths, the Bandai was like Foucalt’s panopticon in the way it allowed the owner to see all and fix all from their perch out the front. Now, as she spat the contents of her coughing fit into her handkerchief, I wondered if this bath’s bandai was more for her benefit than ours.

Because of the early hour, the bath was empty leaving me free to try all of its offerings. Having learnt my lesson about the effect of electricity and water in Aomori, I decided to give the electric bath here a miss and decided instead to focus on the other option, ‘the Turbo Jet’ bath. While most hot springs have some form of jet enhanced bath, it was the first time I had seen one advertised with a Turbo and wasted little time jumping in to see just what it could do. Despite the black water, it was possible to make out the shape of an enormous bubbler mounted to the end of the bath and for all I knew, the other side of an F-18 fighter engine. It was obviously from a time before health and safety standards had banished such installments to the ‘too risky’ category. While common sense would normally prevail in such situations, there are times when it is overshadowed by a stronger sense; that childhood sense that teaches boys to press any button within arm’s reach regardless of the consequences. And so it was, with the press of a button, that I discovered what it is like to receive a full frontal blast of water from an F-18 jet engine propelled bubbler. Those few seconds from when I was thrust back against the bath wall to when I edged my way back toward the button, taught me what life might have been like had I come out into this world minus an appendage. As it was, I was still having trouble finding where it had gone when my search was interrupted by a fellow bather who, by the expression on his face, seemed to know exactly what I was going through. As we traded sympathetic nods on my way out, I noticed the water from the black bath still streaming over its edges, pooling on the floor beside him. His ability to turn a blind eye to what was obviously my gaffe was more than could be said for the elderly owner who, having recovered somewhat from her earlier convulsions was now peering in through her window at me with disapproving, but still droopy eyes. I was on another walk of shame that was taking me once again from the suds and bubbles of Japanese hot spring land back to the study table where I might once and for all learn my lesson that nudity and stupidity should never be mixed in public.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:36 PM, ,

Akita’s hidden surprises – Part 2

We awoke with the sun, and under blue skies, set off through countryside that was brimming with reminders of an ancient past. More than a millennium ago, Japan’s first people existed here in small organized communities that, while not nomadic, hunted and gathered from fertile surrounds. Their reliance on nature brought with it an understanding of the seasons and of how to survive year after year, for thousands of years often in the same area. Named after the rope patterned earthenware that was always found amongst their settlements, the Jomon were a group that were, by all accounts, ahead of their time. With each prefecture we passed, locals told of Jomon sites that had been uncovered ‘just down the road’, each one unveiling a new chapter in an already long history. The stories had filled our imaginations with adventure and the thought that our every step might be hovering over some yet to be discovered Jomon village made each river or roadside grove an exploration waiting to happen.

Today, our own adventure was about to begin. After stopping in a local petrol station, we got chatting to the owner whose walls were adorned with Jomon artifact after Jomon artifact. The only other place we had seen so many had been in the museum at Aomori’s Sannai Maruyama site, the largest Jomon excavation to date. In front of us however stood a life time’s collection, all of which he informed us, had come not from a museum, but from the river that ran parallel to the next village. It was the most exciting news I had heard since we began and with some vague directions to his site, we were off to find our very own Jomon relics!

As we crossed a bridge spanning a running stream at the bottom of an overgrown gorge, we could almost feel the presence of Jomon hunters chasing their prey below. Somewhere underneath was the stream of my dreams. The only challenge now, was to find out how to get to it. Before us stood a shear drop, 30 metres long with an impenetrable forest guarding its banks. The only way in seemed to be around, a trek of a few kilometers through rice paddies to one of the stream’s branches and our door to the past.

Leaving our stilts and bags on the highway above, we skipped down, well I skipped down in anticipation of what lay ahead, while Miki followed shaking her head at the thought of me crawling through snake infested forest. As we followed a tractor path beside rice fields, we stumbled across a monument stating that this was an area of some significance. To be here, tucked away off the tourist trail, completely unknown to all but the people living beside it made its discovery significant in itself, however, whatever it was on top of that warranted the placement of such a plaque, was lost to me in my search for something more historic, something more exciting. As such, even as I look back over the photos, I have no idea what it was that had made that such a place of importance, for a few metres behind it lay a small, still stream, and the threshold to what I was hoping was the remains of my Jomon village. As Miki stood back, happy to support from the safety of the gravel track, I ventured forth over scraggly rock and through a thick layer of scrub to the stream, eyes alert to anything out of the ordinary. While it wasn’t the stream we had crossed, it was still hidden enough to provide a potential bounty for the trained, or at least enthusiastic speculator.

As I began digging up the bank of the river, my thoughts became lost in the excitement of the moment, and with each hole I made, I disappeared further into the brush and into nature. Now up to my knees in soft sand, and with a small army of angry mosquitoes biting at my exposed parts, my concentration was suddenly broken by the sound of a movement in the grass off to my left. Snakes had been a part of our daily existence on stilts, but from our perches above, posed little threat. Here however, up to my knees in wilderness, the situation was much different. Stories of the deadly ‘mamushi’, a snake more likely to bite first, then sit back and watch its victim die a slow death next, flooded my thoughts as I scanned the ground around for scaly intruders. It was the first time that I noticed where I was. The bush had now become so wild that I was beginning to hope that I wouldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. Just as I was about to go back to my search for a little piece of history, Miki’s voice pierced the silence of the stream.
“Snake Mick!!” My legs moved like they hadn’t moved for years. In three leaps, I had escaped the stream, hurdled the thickets and was back on the track faster than Usain Bolt’s legs had carried him to his world record the week before, holding my heart as it threatened to beat out of my chest. As I turned to ask how big it had been, there was Miki, doubled over in fits of laughter in front of me. It never helps to have a wife whose sense of humour has developed around your own insecurities. The laughter continued as we returned to our bags, my hope of finding my Jomon stash, dashed along with my nerve at the bottom of the stream.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:45 AM, ,

Akita’s hidden surprises – Part 1

As we travelled further south, we realized again, that the time had come to embark on a search for a new set of tires. All previous contributions from enthusiastic bike shop owners happy to be rid their rubbish had ended disastrously. The ‘big boys’ we had received in Hokkaido, while certainly fulfilling their moniker in appearance (they were the tread from a wheelbarrow), lacked the stuff that would take us the distance, usually disintegrating after the second day. Our next offerings from Aomori, ‘the red duds as we referred to them, were even worse, disappearing literally before our disbelieving eyes. They had carried us this far, but after changing them as often as we changed our underwear, enough was enough, and we were now after some more, and desperately as we were on our last pair.

We came across a grocery store owner, who informed us that there had been a bicycle store in the town once, but that the owner had died some years ago, leaving his wife to close up what was left of it. She was sure however, that if we went and asked, there might be some old tires leftover somewhere in the garage. While harassing old widows for their husband’s older tires has never been one of our favourite things to do, the condition of our rubber had left us no choice and so, reluctantly, we went and wrapped on the door of what we were hoping was the right house.

After a few minutes, a kindly looking older woman emerged from behind a sliding screen door, looking over us a little suspiciously. Who would blame her? We were sweaty and dirty from a day on the stilts and more than likely, a little too desperate looking considering she was our only hope in a town with nothing much else. As always, Miki’s tender manner convinced her of our intentions, however to no avail. Having discarded all the old tires after her husband’s death, we were out of luck. With no tires now to cover the base of our bamboo footings, our challenge had come to an abrupt halt, in the middle of nowhere, and our faces seemed to show the gravity of our predicament.

“Well, there might be some somewhere out the back,” she offered having seen our expressions drop.
As we stood expectantly outside her front door, she embarked on a tour of her garden, acting on a hunch that there may be some buried under her tomato bushes out the back. Sure enough, ten minutes later, she returned victorious, a smile covering her face, holding aloft a tire covered in dirt. While its age and state probably placed it somewhere below our red duds in the durability department, we didn’t want to risk dashing the smile from her face and so we graciously accepted, knowing full well we’d be on another search in a few days time.

The Michi no Eki, or driver rest stop, was an oasis in an otherwise barren coastline, complete with its own beachside restaurant (which we made full use of), and one of the most accommodating managers we had found. Having seen us on the news, he took a keen interest in our stilts and our plans for the evening, which we tried hard to keep from him on account of the fact that they involved a plan to camp out the back of his establishment. However, there was a reason he was the manager of a place frequented by travelers stowing away in his building’s recesses. He knew precisely the type of person likely to do so. As such he had cottoned on to our intentions even before they had left our mouths, but it didn’t seem to matter. He had taken a liking to us and to our challenge and from that moment on, made it his responsibility to ensure our stay there was as comfortable as he could make it. After storing all of our gear in his office, he showed us where we could rest and then, once it closed, where we would be safe to sleep. Under his capable charge, we were able to relax as well as we had done all trip, enjoying all that the rest stop had to offer.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 5:29 AM, ,

Donations - Thank you!!

Since we last had reception, we have received a few more generous donations from some people we know and some we don't. Thank you to Ella (puddles) Thornton, my teaching buddy for two years and to her mother who, although we have never met, had inspired us with stories of peak grabbing all over the world, for your donations.
To Martha - a student of mine who is on her way to a bright future. We were touched by your generosity at a time when you should be thinking about saving for university. Thank you so much.

And lastly to an anonymous donor who just blew us away. Thank you so much for giving so much.

To all of you, as we walk along, you really do help us put one foot in front of the other! They are getting heavier as we go so when we get to the end, you will all have played a big part in helping us get there! Thank you thank you thank you!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 1:07 AM, ,

From Akita to a plate full of hormones!

The 26kms we needed to travel in order to reach Akita city had taken their toll on feet and minds alike, so we decided to take a day to catch up on all the things that needed catching up on. Wash dirty clothes, fix stilts, shop for wire for stilts, look for yet more rubber tires for stilts, shop for food for empty bellies that get us in trouble - the list ran longer than the looks on our faces when we realized that our day off was now taken up by all the little things that need doing to keep such a challenge alive. Such is the case with most of our days off. Before starting the challenge, we had planned to do most of the daily chores as we walked, meaning that rest days could be just that, days to recharge worn bodies and fill tired heads with anything but talk of walks on stilts. However, the daily grind proved to be much different in reality. With 10 hour days the norm, there was often little time left for the all the odd jobs that needed doing, with sleep taking us over soon after the last of the washing had been packed away. As such, there was always a weight that built up in the backs of our minds with each day on the stilts; this needs to be done, that needs to be written. Finding the balance was proving more difficult that we had first thought.

Akita city seemed to lack the spark that I had been expecting of it brought on by sign after roadside sign that proudly proclaimed it as the home of the Akita Bijin - or of the beautiful porcelain skinned woman. Obviously these visions of beauty didn't do their washing in the local coin laundry, which was a travesty as it seemed to be the only place that I was able to really get to for most of the day. With such disappointment clouding Akita's aura we decided to move on with first light the next day, back to the coast and to our path along it. Our moods seemed to have suffered at the hands of a day of chores and stifled both our concentration and our momentum throughout the day, leaving us baffled as to why there was nothing around us when we stopped late in the afternoon. With stomachs grumbling, we stumbled in to a local eatery that we would never have found had it not been for the kind directions of a local who sensed our predicament.

The olderly owner looked incapable of carrying his frail frame from behind the counter, let alone dishing up something for us to eat. However, as we ordered from his sparse menu, we noticed the life come back to his eyes at the mention of what must have been his love, and as such his restaurant's specialty - 'hormones' or boiled offal. For some in Japan, hormone is as good as an accompaniment to beer as nuts are, and as such fill the pages of menus in many drinking establishments. For us though, the site of a steaming plate of greyish noodly gizzards, was enough to put us off food for the night, even with a head full of beer. As such, we ordered what seemed to be the only other things left on a menu that brimmed with hormones of every imaginable kind. However, it seemed our frail owner had ears only for his beloved steaming gizzards.

"Could I have a rice and chicken set please?"
"Hormone?" he asked as if it had come from my own lips.
"Um, no the rice and chicken please," I said with smile that tried to ease that pain that I was obviously causing his heart by ignoring his specialty.
"Just 1?" he asked sadly as I confimed the order. "Would you like hormone too?" he asked again, the spark returning to his eye.
"No thanks, " I said as the spark began to fade. "Just the chicken and rice thanks." My words extinguishing it once and for all.

As he wonder away back in to the kitchen, shoulders slumped a little more than they had before, we both breathed a sigh of relief, Miki especially after having once had a feverish nightmare about them during a bout of flu. Just as we settled down to watch the high school baseball competition that was filling televisions around the country, our dinner was served.

"Here you are," he beamed as he placed our meals down before us.
"And try this! I've just finished making it." he said as he placed a plate of steaming offal, bigger that our own orders at the centre of our table. At that moment something in our eyes must have betrayed the grateful expressions we were trying hard to maintain because no sooner had the gruesome sight of gizzards registered in our brains than his reassuring voice added,
"Don't worry. It's on the house."
The words that had always meant so much, now seemed to matter little as we both sat wondering how we were going to get through this mountain before us.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 7:39 PM, ,

My Japanese disaster – Part 2

Walking in to Akita city, we were approached by a man who had just gotten off a bus and was walking beside us on his way home from a day at the factory. His inquisitive nature resulted in question after question about our challenge and our stilts and the monkey that was on our backs. With so much being fired at us, we decided to hop down and have a rest so we could chat more easily with our new friend. Besides, our feet were telling our brains that enough was enough.

As we sat together eating some Japanese sweets that we had been given earlier, our conversation turned from our challenge goal to his, and as he talked more deeply about it, his demeanor took on a seriousness reflecting the weight of a revelation that he was about to share with us.

As Miki gave his announcement the attention that it deserved, my mind was still lost somewhere between the pain in my feet and the empty hole that our sweets weren’t filling in my stomach. While my attention to his utterance may have seemed solid on the surface, the effect that pain and hunger have on my concentration in a foreign language was about to become apparent.

“Ore mo, yumei wo motteirundesuyo (I have a dream as well), he confided as he started to lean in closer.
“Demo, chotto iizuraindesukedo (but it’s a little difficult for me to talk about), he said as his voice bordered on a whisper.
“Ore wa, shiteki shogai wo motteiru node…….

While Miki had grasped the full meaning of his words and was paying it the respect that it was due with understanding nods of the head and reassuring looks in his direction, it had unfortunately come during a lull in my concentration brought on by the realization that we had no more snacks to quell my angry stomach. As such I had only managed to hear the first part in full and pieces from what had come after. For it wasn’t the words ‘shiteki shogai’ or ‘I have a mental disability’ that my ears had picked up during his most personal of revelations. Remembering that his had started as a conversation about dreams, in my weakened state I was sure that I heard him say the words ‘suteki shobai’ or ‘ I want to have a great business.’ Knowing this, I could be forgiven for reacting the way that I had at that moment.

That’s brilliant’, I responded enthusiastically, hoping that my burst of energy would bring back the spark that our conversation had seemed to lose during one of my lapses in concentration.

However, as both Miki and the poor man’s expressions conveyed, it was a connection that was only clear in my own mind. As Miki was left to pick up my pieces, I realized that, for the sake of our challenge, it was time to start working seriously on my Japanese.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 12:55 AM, ,

Akita City – The city of rice and helicopters!

The trek from Noshiro to Akita city took us alongside rice paddy fields that stretched as far as the eye could see. Our sea of blue was replaced by a sea of green that was kept that way by a fleet of remote controlled helicopters directed by the steady hands of elderly farmers. It seemed technology was catching on in the country. It was an amusing contrast to see farmers of a generation mostly forgotten by technology, happily fingering the controls of these bicycle sized pest controllers. With harvest a few short weeks away, the playful image masked what really was an important process in ensuring a successful crop in one of Akita’s biggest and most famous industries, rice. With food taking on more of an importance as the kilograms fell away it was something that we were looking forward to indulging in.

A large part of our challenge involved raising awareness and funds for the orangutans and their situation in the face of massive deforestation that is rife in both Indonesia and Malaysia. As such, the media was always going to be an important part of our challenge in getting that message out. However, as we had our hands full with the job of simply walking on these bamboo legs of ours it was not something that we could actively pursue ourselves. Before the challenge started we had attempted, unsuccessfully, to approach some media agencies, but as we soon found out, news requires more than simply an idea. So we decided that the best option was to just start walking and see what happened as a result. That meant that we never knew what was waiting around the next corner and it was an exciting way to live each day. As we entered Akita’s city, we were about to find out that there was more waiting for us than simply its rice.

“Mitsuketa! I’ve found you,” came the husky voice of woman running up behind us.
A short athletic woman with the brown glow that only comes from years spent chasing the perfect wave, was standing behind us, holding up her business card for us to see. Sasaki san, as it turned out was a roving reporter for Akita’s main FM radio station who had come out in search for us on the request of a number of listeners who had spotted us. If the card hadn’t said as much, the blue and white mobile radio station that was parked a few metres behind her would have given it away sooner or later. Finding us was not a difficult feat. For the first time, Miki and I were sporting identical outfits, both choosing to wear our yellow challenge T-shirts over long blue tracksuit pants. It was the thing that many listeners had been attracted to first, well next to the fact that we were on stilts of course. She wanted us to be a part of her live broadcast which would start in 15 minutes. We were happy for the break and settled down with Sasaki san and her other reporter as they readied their equipment for the transmission. Their easy going manner made for relaxing conversation and within minutes we were all chatting and laughing like we had known each other for years. The nice thing was that for once, it wasn’t about our stilts. While Miki had done a radio broadcast in Hokkaido, it was to be my first time in front of the microphone that would beam live all that we said to all who were listening. Thoughts of my Hokkaido TV cock-up came flooding back, however the girls, sensing something amiss, did a brilliant job reinforcing the relaxed atmosphere. As the broadcast began, our conversations continued just as they had in the moments before, making for a fun piece both to do, and judging from the honks and cheers of passing motorists, to listen to as well. We walked our last kilometers into Akita city to the accompanying shouts of ‘Ganbatte’ from well wishers who had been listening.

Like a wildfire, the spark that came from a simple appearance on a morning radio show, erupted in to a media fireball that lasted the next two days. Both TV and print called for stories about a husband and a wife and furry red orangutan called Pongo who always sat happily on the bag of one of them. For us it was a welcome diversion from 10 hour days in the sun, but for Pongo, it was the chance to let people know his story, and what the rest of his family is facing each day in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra.

Asahi Newspaper Journalist - Yajima san (Aka Matt Damon)
The article went national.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 12:34 AM, ,