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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,


At December 25, 2009 at 4:57 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Apologies because I havent been reading your musings as much as I should have. However, I was moved to get typing here in order to bring your attention to a small typo in this post. At the start of one paragraph you used the phrase "Japan is a land of contrasts...", but you forgot to use the old inverted commas to show that you use the cliche knowingly. Such a phrase - as you know - can never be used to express a genuine view about this country by a resident, such as yourself. Only TV presenters and journalists may use it in a non-ironic fashion... along with "Japan is a clash of old and new cultures".
That is all.


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