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Bad impressions and bad impressionists!

It’s funny how people judge others on their appearance, and I knew that I was being judged as I sat waiting for Miki in Isetan’s foyer. The marble floors that seemed to sparkle under my soiled sneakers and sweat stained backpack should have warned me of the potential social pickle that I was walking into. But after 22kms of steaming Niigata bitumen, I floated dreamlike in the air-conditioned elegance of Japan’s finest department store, oblivious of the stress I was causing one of its patrons as she hesitated to sit in the only empty seat beside me. My first inkling that something was amiss came from sound of someone blowing something beside me. Turning to my left, I was confronted by the horrific sight of an emaciated fox’s face, as it looked at me wearily from the shoulders of an over groomed old woman whose shocking tint and jeweled spectacles left me wondering which of the two sights was more frightening. Then I realized what she was doing. The lifeless fox swung back and forth from her neck as she scrubbed down the seat, blowing away the grime that I had obviously brought with me. As we sat in an uncomfortable silence, she began to read our fundraising sign that was hanging from Pongo’s neck. When she had finished she looked me up and down with a frown crinkling her forehead and asked shortly, “What do you mean by ‘donation’?” After a quick explanation of the challenge, she stood up, shook her head, and with a snort of disapproval turned her back on me and my dirt. As she exited from one set of doors, Miki emerged from the other, triumphant in her search for goodies for her cousins.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as she saw the look of bewilderment on my face. But the moment had passed and it wasn’t worth reliving again. “Looks like you found the cake shop”, I said as the smile returned to my face at the thought of spending our first night with Miki’s cousins.

We whiled away the evening with good food, good laughs and round after round of the kind of shenanigans that can only ever be thought up in the company of kids under 10. It was the one thing that our challenge had been lacking and as the weeks began turning into months, we both realized how much we were missing the company of family and friends. Both of Miki’s cousins had moved to Niigata to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and the decision looked like it was paying off. Both families seemed to live with a joie de vivre that we had seen in many who called this side of Japan home. Life was there to be lived, not swallowed up in the pressures of working the crazy hours that many did back in the big city. It was one of the reasons we had chosen to leave so much behind, and our search was starting to teach us some important lessons.

Our appearance on Niigata FM was short, but interesting and gave us both the chance to express to listeners the reasons for doing such a crazy sounding walk. With my Japanese getting better with each day, I was able to say a little more than the polished greetings that had dazzled Hokkaido’s public. Hopefully the listeners here would connect with our message because the amount needed for Pongo’s forest was still much more than what was sitting in our donation kitty.

After two very comfortable days with Miki’s family, it was little surprise that our legs felt heavy and our stilts slow on the day we started headed off from Niigata’s central station. So heavy in fact that we called it a day at the 8km mark, barely 2kms from where we had stayed the night before. Had we become a little softened by the company and the comfort of normal life? Our choice to forgo our usual campsite for a karaoke box seemed to tell us that we had. At $15 for all we could drink and sing for the night, it was a carrot too big to ignore. Unlike karaoke in other countries where individuals fuelled by the bravado of 20 pints are dared onstage by equally pissed up mates, karaoke here is an experience where one’s face is somewhat saved by the segregation of singing groups into their own themed singing booths. Lined with couches and an array of every hand held instrumental accompaniment available, Japanese karaoke with its affordable, all you can drink alcoholic menus is an enjoyable social affair that a first timer rarely forgets, or remembers the next day. For us, it was a comfortable reprieve from our stilting reality for just one more night. That was, until, the businessmen arrived. At the stroke of midnight, we were startled awake by a horrible racket that sounded like a thousand fighting cats struggling with tune of Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on a Prayer.’ The alcohol that was running through their veins was having a profound effect on their vocal chords and their ability to read the words on the screen.
“She says we gotta hole on ...to god… It dada dada dada dada mm mm mm mm not!”
“..got ea.. other… and that’s a rot of rub”
“Yeahhhh!!!!!!”
When the battle to read at pace got too much for the slurring singer, the words were replaced by the vocal impersonation of Richie Sambora’s guitar solo. As we struggled to find things thick enough to protect our ears from the aural onslaught, the sound of a crashing table suddenly cut short the businessman’s performance, leaving the real Jon Bon Jovi singing softly in the background. As we both listened expectantly for the wail of approaching ambulances, a soft groan echoed out through the microphone, obviously still in the grip of the now crippled singer.

Whatever became of our Japanese Bon Jovi we never knew, but as we walked away toward the border of Toyama, big bags hanging low under our eyes, we both vowed never to stay in a karaoke box again.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 2:52 AM, ,




Niigata and the battle that lay ahead


Crossing in to Niigata, our 5th prefecture on our 64th day, we came face to face with our demons. Since the start, we had been walking each step with an assurance that came from having a mental plan, albeit a simple one, for each prefecture. However, with the scale of what we were about to do too large to fully take in at the time, our mental plans never seemed to get past Niigata, which had always looked so long and so daunting on our maps. The unknown quality of Hokkaido’s leg made the distances disappear in the excitement of each new challenge. In Aomori we coasted along on the euphoria of completing Japan’s biggest island. Akita and Yamagata were where we settled in to the daily routine of travelling together through small towns on the back of our bamboo horses. In the unfolding curve of Niigata’s vast coastline however, we faced for the first time the reality of the challenge that still lay in front of us; the physical reality of walking a half marathon a day on our tiptoes as well as the mental reality of keeping positive amongst the tensions that come from doing something so different in a country where people strive to be so similar. For everyone we had told, ours was the impossible challenge, the fanciful idea that could never be achieved. It was just too difficult. Why would we want to leave our good jobs and our nice house for a year of walking on stilts? Why would we want to do something so crazy? Now, as we stood on the border looking down far along Niigata’s coast, we both began to wonder if everyone else had been right. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Had we made a mistake leaving our jobs and our house and our life behind? Were we really capable of pulling off a challenge that no one had dared try before? As we meandered along Niigata’s rocky coastline, the doubts that filled our minds became our daily companions despite the fine weather and the beautiful scenes around us.

But Japan is a land of contrasts where moods can change with the rising and setting of the sun and so it was to be with ours. As we passed each roadside sign marking the kilometers left to the capital, we began to see the progress we were making. The impenetrable length that had greeted us at the border slowly began to crumble before our eyes, replacing the doubts with an energy that grew the closer we got to Niigata station. With that energy came chance meetings of the kind that rarely happen when your mind is troubled by doubts and your eyes closed to the world around you. We received a bagful of salt and a lesson in life from a salt maker who had sold his company to make soul healing salts from the blue waters that lapped at the foot of his factory. A little further on, we were treated to free drinks from the office vending machine of a pine factory whose boss wanted only to fill our bellies with dried salmon steaks dipped in sake, the local delicacy. As the coastal scenery changed from rocky outcrops pocked with caves, to sandy beaches blessed with perfectly curling waves, to pine tree lined forests that exuded a golden brown hew from the littering of cones and needles underneath, so too did our moods and our pace on the stilts. By the time the smoke stacks from Niigata’s port factories came in to view, we were buzzing with the excitement of reaching another milestone, our biggest city, and our first contact with family since the start, Miki’s cousins.

As we tottered along busy roads leading in to Niigata’s station, all eyes seemed to be on us. People in cars gawked, some honked, most waved as we wandered past, coming to grips with this sudden, somewhat unnerving public attention. Even a priest who rode past on a spluttering moped with a cigarette hanging loosely from his toothless mouth seemed somehow to have known about us even before he hollered a cheery ‘Gambatte’ as the light changed green. It wasn’t until we were stopped by a heavyset, smiling man on the street that we found out the reason for everyone’s interest. It seemed that the local FM radio had been following our progress ever since we had entered the city, encouraging listeners to call in with information about us and the reasons we were struggling along on our stilts. By the time we had reached the lights leading down to Niigata’s main station, our story was out, and the donations started coming in. A man here gave $10, a woman there gave $5. It was the most overwhelming response to our story since we had begun and on chancing upon the radio’s building on the way to the station, we decided to pop in to say a big thank you for their support. They invited us back in to the studio the next day to answer questions and to chat longer. For us, it was a welcome break from the daily grind and so we happily agreed, looking forward to a day of rest, comfortable coffee shop chairs, and our first studio appearance.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 2:40 AM, ,




Where we are!

After 3 long weeks of walking through city after city on the Pacific coast of Japan, we finally bid farewell to the smoke stacks and the factories that line the coast here and make our way down towards the island of Shikoku and its many temples...and mountains. From there we will be catching a ferry across to our final test, Kysushu and even bigger mountains. They are all that stand between us and the finish in Cape Sata.

We have some tentative dates for a finish to this crazy, but life changing challenge. If all goes to plan, we will be in Kyushu on the 5th of December. We have an appointment with some schools on the 10th in Shimonoseki, some 200kms away from our arrival port, for which we will head to before starting our final run down to the finish. We have no idea about how many or how big these mountains are that we have been hearing so much about, but if we can keep up th epace we have been going, we should be standing at the most southerly point of mainland Japan around New Year's Day!

Our donations for Pongo's forest have been going steadily. We are around 7000 dollars, all of which has come from the generous support of individuals. Without corporate support we have rounded our goal down to 10 000 dollars, which will be an amazing help for the reforestation projct we are supporting. With only 6 weeks to go, please tell your friends about us and help us get there! We can do it together!

Wish us luck! The days are shorter and colder but we are still going strong!

Thanks everyone!

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 4:05 PM, ,




New Photos!!

Our takeuma'ing has come to an abrupt halt with the collapse of Miki's stilts! All along we had thought mine would have been the first to break down on account of the fact that I am the fatter of the pairing, however yesterday as we were coming in to the town of Ako, a small cracking sound signalled the end of Miki's left stilt! All is not lost however, the spares are on the way as we speak and a few twists of the screws and we should be back on the go tomorrow. In the meantime, the delay has made it possible to finally get all the photos up to date - well as far as Osaka anyway. Have a look if you get the chance.

Our route to Kyushu is being uploaded as we speak so that too should be up by the day's end.

We are about a day out from the city of Okayama. The bottom is getting closer, not mine but Japan's so stay tuned! We will try to let you know the finish date as soon as we get the last of our map routes done today or tomorrow!!

Thanks for all the messages!!

Mick and Miki

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 10:26 PM, ,




Pongo Goes National.



It was a short stroll from our $19 hot spring hotel to the town of Sakata where we rented cycles and pedaled our way around sights made famous by the Acadamy Award winning movie Departures. Our tour took us to the two buildings featured in much of the movie and after paying the $2 entry fee for the privilege of walking the same hallways as the actors had, we had seen all there was to see by the time the opening credits from the introductory DVD playing in the lobby had finished. That such an ordinary place in such an ordinary town came to be such a prominent feature of such an acclaimed movie is truly testament to the savvy of its location crew. Had it been me in charge of that important detail, there is every chance Departures would have gone straight to DVD.

We left Sakata for a campground perched on a hill next to Yamagata’s airport where we became reacquainted with cooking for ourselves and living the simple life. Only our simple life was soon complicated by strengthening winds from an incoming typhoon, the first of our season, and the noisy clamberings of a dozen families and an army of their kids all squeezing in one last weekend in the great outdoors before the camping season officially finished the next day. In Japan there is no camping or swimming after August 31. Don’t ask why, it just is. That night as the first of the typhoon winds threatened to whip our tent with us in it off the top of the hill we both figured that the rule might have had something to do with ensuring camper safety. As everyone else knows, typhoon season officially begins from September 1. Their presence from now on would add a new twist to our daily existence.

As August rolled into September, and the beaches and the campgrounds officially closed for another year, we found ourselves walking under the bluest of skies next to inviting surf beaches all completely empty except for the odd scattering of flotsam brought from Korea and China on the Tsushima current. Not a surfer or swimmer was present in what would have been a bustling scene anywhere else. With the change of months came also a change in my level of Japanese. With each day I was learning how descriptive the Japanese language could be, with a seemingly infinite variety of onomatopoeic phrases to match the infinite variety of moods we were experiencing on stilts. As we tokotoko’d (hobbled) our way further south through mushi mushi (humid) days that made us heto heto (exhausted) or peko peko (hungry) or both, we found that our stilts were becoming boro boro (falling apart), our bodies were now gari gari (skinny), our muscles were always katchi katchi (tight) and that everyone who drove past us, judging from their contorted expressions must have thought we were more than a bit kuru kuru pa(crazy) to be doing such a, well, silly thing. The more phrases I learnt, the more my chances of conversing with the local children improved. Whether the same phrases would work in front of a live radio audience filled me with less confidence however, but it was a theory that would be soon put to the test as we were due to broadcast live on national FM radio from 11 am the next day. Having picked up our story after our Akita broadcast, the national station had now arranged for our interview to air throughout each of the prefectures we would be passing all the way down to Osaka. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to spread Pongo’s message, the only trouble was whether Miki’s phone would have a connection as the mountains of Yamagata’s southern coastline wrapped around us.

Having secured a room in the only ryokan that was still open now that summer had officially finished, we sat by the phone as the seconds ticked closer to the hour, waiting nervously for the call from national FM. I say we, but in reality I was the only one sweating exposing my newfound Japanese to such a large crowd. Miki was the picture of composure that she always is, handling each situation as it comes no matter its size or weight. With two minutes to go before we were to air, the phone rang and a voice, barely audible down the crackle of a bad connection instructed “Ready for a sound check in 3. Count to 20. Ready. Go.” As Miki counted into the phone, I kept an eye on the second hand of the clock wondering whether the sound checker was either really confident in his abilities or really disorganized to have left such a task to the last minute. With the failure of the test and the sudden panic of his reaction, it seemed the latter was true.
“Tell me the number of your hotel and we’ll call you.” No sooner had he hung up than the phone downstairs was brought up by the owner, now intrigued about why such an hysterical voice was calling for her guests upstairs. Precisely at the moment the phone was handed over, the transfer was made to the studio and Miki found herself asking the DJ whether her new connection was OK. Apart from that glitch the rest of the interview went smoothly with the radio crew even encouraging listeners to donate to the cause. It was the first time that any had gone that far to promote that aspect of our challenge and as we continued walking toward the Niigata border, we realized how powerful such help could be. Having had no responses at all since crossing in to Yamagata 9 days earlier, we were suddenly overwhelmed with honks and waves and even the occasional donation as listeners drove past on their way. It was a trend that was to increase as we said our goodbyes to Yamagata and crossed the border into Niigata, and the longest stretch of coast we would encounter.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 7:02 AM, ,




News!!

After 4 days of eating and relaxing at Miki's sister's Osaka apartment, we now find ourselves looking down the barrel of what we hope will be our last run toward our goal at Cape Sata in Kagoshima. From here we walk through the friendly city of Kobe, the castle town of Himeji, Okayama and Hiroshima before taking a new and exciting turn on to a walker's bridge that we have been told will take us to Shikoku. From there a few hundred kilometers along the coast will bring us to the ferry to Kyushu and our final 400kms to the end at Cape Sata.

But the weather is getting colder and the days shorter. With our final run, the challenge will take on a new dimension as we figure out how best to get through the colder days without getting weak or sick or worse, without getting hemmed in by the snows that are waiting for us in the mountains down south.

Our blog has been updated. The photos tab now has all the best photos from Akita, Yamagata, Niigata and some from Toyama - a task that took a total of 15hours on our snail like connection! So if you get the chance, please have a look and make those hours all worthwhile!!

Blogs are on the way! I always say it, but they are coming with lots of tales about trecherous roads in Niigata, horrible tunnels between borders, friendly locals in Toyama, and amazing sights in Ishikawa and Fukui.

Send us your messages! They make our day! Cheer us to the end!

Mick and Miki

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 12:42 AM, ,




Yamagata and the ‘eco’ hotel.


Our planning for this challenge had been somewhat compromised by busy schedules and a last minute mad rush to say goodbyes, shop for forgotten items and host one hell of a wine party at our house. As such, we had planned Hokkaido’s leg thoroughly, looked at Aomori closely, thought about Akita deeply and that was where it had stopped, for during that final hour of madness, both of us were plagued by serious doubts about whether we would even make it past the first day. As such, little was known about the prefecture called Yamagata other than its name and the fact that it came somewhere after Akita.

On our fifty seventh day, as we walked under blue skies and the shadow of Mt Chokai, the Mt Fuji of Akita, Yamagata’s border sign appeared out of nowhere like a mirage on the horizon, leaving us scratching our heads and doubting the progress that we were making. Had we really walked this far?

In 1689, Basho Matsuo, perhaps Japan’s most famous Haiku poet, ventured through here on an epic 2400km journey that took him to the remote heart of the north. The beauty he encountered inspired his most famous work, the Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Interior which has since inspired the likes of many to follow in his steps in search of the same beauty that his poems captured so clearly. For us, stumbling upon his route was a significant moment, for the Oku no Hosomichi was a path that had also been walked by the only other person to have travelled as far on a pair of stilts – our mentor Iizuka san. At 73, his 2000km walk had taken him almost 4 years to complete, with the aid of a campervan and his equally gutsy wife who faithfully walked alongside for much of his journey. That we were now following in his steps was strangely comforting, for we knew that the road that lay ahead was not the impossible stretch that it seemed on our photocopied maps.

The kilometers passed by as quickly as the pine trees that lined much of the coast. As we moved in land on our way toward Sakata, the towns began taking on a ghostly appearance, many the victims of ambitious dreams that had suffered with the collapse of Japan’s economy at the end of the bubble. Restaurants lined the roads, their once polished entrance ways now overgrown with weeds. As we walked past, we could see that the tables were still adorned with cutlery and sauces, as if ready for another day of service. The overturned chairs that lay strewn across the floors were the only things that told the real story. It is a strange feeling to walk past so many lifeless shells in what might otherwise have been a very pretty part of the world, but in Japan, it has become a common scene, with many owners preferring to leave their failed businesses to the elements rather than part with the money needed to clear them from the more valuable land on which they stand. For us, it was always a shock to find a town that had obviously been flourishing at the time of our map’s printing, in such a lonely state. To see so many dreams crumbling before our eyes had a powerful influence on our own motivations and as the doubts began to creep in about whether we would be able to make the remaining 10kms to Sakata, we were confronted by a sign before us, so unexpected amongst the decaying surrounds, so unbelievable against the experiences of our last 2 months, that we at first walked past it. But the thought of a double room in a hot spring hotel for 19 measly dollars was too big a chance to miss. After hopping down from our stilts, we returned and as we stood outside the 4 storey, marble tiled front foyer, we scanned the sign for any catches in the fine print. ‘Is it really 19 dollars?’ we asked the groundsman as he walked by. Despite his apparent lack of Japanese, his confused nod was enough for us to pack up our stilts and skip inside to see what lay ahead for the price of two meals.

As we handed over our money to the receptionist, another man who seemed not to grasp the meaning behind some of our other questions, we rushed to throw our bags in to our room and make use of everything before someone realized their mistake. I entered to the bath and immediately noticed how dark everything seemed. The lights were off, but considering the early hour of the day, I guessed they weren’t really needed until later, and had just begun washing myself when I was interrupted by the slam of a door to my right. ‘Is this some sort of a joke?’ cried the only other bather as he emerged from the sauna, clearly upset by the lack of any steam. His blood pressure rose with each button he found to flick, and when each failed to elicit any change from within, he stormed out to confront the manager with only his towel and his frown for company.

After wallowing in the warm bath for what seemed like an hour, I bumped in to Miki in the corridor outside of our room, reading a note that had been posted on the wall.
“You are staying in an environmentally conscious hotel. In order for us to maintain our high environmental standards, we request your cooperation in using all electrical items responsibly. Thank you.”
Having not discovered what had become of the frowning naked man and his earlier pickle, I presumed he too had come across this poster somewhere downstairs or had at least been explained its purpose by the staff at the reception. Maybe they only turned on the sauna’s electricity when it got busier?

As we walked down a long winding hall to our room, we noticed too that all the lights were off, and that the deeper we went, the darker the hotel seemed to get. Once inside our room, both of us fumbled around for the switch to the lights, first on the left side of the door, then on the right. High and low we ran our hands along the walls, starting at first from the door, then expanding in an ever widening circle that covered the whole room. There was not one switch to be found anywhere. In our panic, we retrieved our torches from our bags and lit up our surrounds. It was Miki who first discovered the reason for its absence. Looking up we both received our first taste of what an environmentally friendly night in a Yamagata hotel was to be like. Apart from a tiny, candle sized study lamp tucked away in the desk, the rest of our room it seemed, was without any kind of illumination whatsoever. In their desire to be green, they had neglected to put in any lights in any of the rooms along the entire wing of the hotel. Not only that, but as night fell, each room in the deserted building was a black void, lifeless apart from the soft green flicker from the emergency exit signs above the stairwells. As the only two guests in the place, it was a spooky feeling and apart from a quick bite to eat and two quick dashes to the toilets at the other ends of the floor, we were happy to confine ourselves to our rooms away from whatever may have been lurking outside.

A day later, as we ate noodles in a nearby restaurant, we were able to discover the answer to some of the mystery surrounding our ‘eco’ hotel. The eco tag was nothing more than a ploy to hide the thriftiness of the North Korean owner, the hotel’s fourth in 2 years. As the noodle shop owner remarked, “No he’s not eco. He’s just a tight bastard.” Thanks to that tight bastard however, we were able to enjoy our first stay in a real hot spring hotel, even if we weren’t able to see what most of it actually looked like.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 12:26 AM, ,