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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,

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