Saturday, September 15, 2012

Last step is the ebook cover

At first when I realized that Kindle was going to be the only realistic

Friday, November 14, 2008


Barefoot through Japan
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: walk bicycle)
I once read that everyone is like a loaf of bread: you just need to discover what temperature you bake best at.

This blog is about my continuing education—the three R’s: Running, ’Riting, and Relationship. It describes the background to, and then the consequences of trying to achieve fame as the first person to walk the length of Japan barefoot.

It was the right thing to do at the time (in that oven and at that temperature) and was fun while it lasted. But it’s not what I’ll always do. Don’t expect me to remain in that box for the rest of my life.

This blog offers a preview of Wannabe Hobbit (or Hadashi no Tabi), a travelogue jam-packed with car accidents, wedding parties, freaks, elephant graveyards, the Tokyo Olympics and crime. The paparazzi hounds my wife and me. We appear live on TV. I attempt to solve a mystery but am suspected of being a terrorist. At one point I face the death penalty—no wonder that I suffer a nervous breakdown. We sleep in toilets and $500-a-day hotels. We undress before total strangers, bathe at a construction site, and even have fun with a sex toy. Do we take up a pimp’s offer to view a dead mummy? And does Mami recover after ingesting ‘ear shit’?

All Japan before me, all Japan behind me

These legs are made for walking

19 April 2005

Yesterday we only broke ourselves in, covering between six and seven kilometres. We camped beside the road before reaching even the first settlement. It was only 5 p.m. so our friends were surprised. What? Stopping so soon, and with so far to travel? But living in the open involves following the lead of the sun.

It was the first site we took a look at, wasn’t it? But the TV crew expected to see us going-hard-at-it. In Japan they like to see a spirit of ‘isshoukenmei’ and ‘ganbari’. Not for us, though, no way. We knew that it was better to stop early. It’s critical on such a long journey not to lose motivation and drive by overdoing it.

With enough footage for an episode or two our friends left so that they wouldn’t get locked in (a little further there were gates that get bolted shut at night). I didn’t envy them their long drive back to Kumamoto—ironic considering the task that lay ahead of us.

Our sleep was uninterrupted by traffic, but at an early hour a hooter echoed around the hills. This blast is followed by an equally loud public broadcast. By then we’re already stirring, so it doesn’t disturb us, but I pity night-shift workers, or parents with babies.

In rural areas it’s common for hooters to sound and for messages to be broadcast. Uto city has the same system. I like it; it makes me nostalgic for the old days. The announcements are quite hard to make out because they are loud and distorted. They’re usually about elderly people who have gone missing. This is nothing to worry about; it’s very common for oldies to go walkabout. Because everyone in the village knows each other, the missing person is soon found.

(“Loud and distorted” makes me think of my old collection of LPs. I like the crackle and pop as they play—it’s cosy like a campfire. It’s a pain, though, when the needle jumps or gets stuck.)

Our first night camping out was not a success. In our tent we were cramped rather than cosy, and especially Mami felt the cold. From now on she must wear a hat or nightcap, and we’ll try sleeping head-to-toe. We tried zipping the bags together, but it was a real chore. Worse, it was ineffective.

At 6.30 a.m. I set off leaving Mami to finish the packing. I adjust my water bottle and the straps of my pack so that nothing rubs or bounces. Great, I’m already down to the second hole of my belt. I hope to be using the third or fourth before too long.

Oh yes, the packing. I eventually became an expert at it, but on that first morning you wanted to try a different system to mine, and I was secretly annoyed. I felt as if you were invading my territory. Many women are possessive of their kitchens, and since I couldn’t bring my kitchen along, the trailer bag became a substitute. I’m glad that after a while you left me to it.

(Sorry, what was that? Did you just mention the kitchen sink? Actually, we’d prepared very well, not like a previous expedition when we’d had to cull kilos of unnecessary gear. But seriously, I had no idea that by offering suggestions I was treading on your toes. From now on, I’ll always leave the packing up to you, and gladly.)

The gates at the end of the road are still locked, but we easily clamber over. The bicycle and trailer unclip and reconnect in a jiffy, and in minutes we regain our momentum.

On the main road there’s still very little traffic. That makes sense—where would they be headed? It’s hilly though, and several times I help Mami push. We pass through tunnels many of which, according to the inscriptions, were built after I first came to Japan—so if I’d tried this walk then I would’ve had to put in much more work. The modifications have eliminated many of the curves and much of the climbing.

We’ve done fifteen kilometres by the time that we pass under a large sign. It states that our goal, Soyamisaki, lies 2700 kilometres off. I can’t even begin to imagine such a distance, so I refuse to try. Let’s just say that there’s a long way to go and leave it at that.

The scenery hereabouts is like New Zealand’s, but gradually the landscape turns Japanese. I slow alongside my first rice field for a good look. Hawks soar above me in the sky.

I’m often asked what I think about all those hours as I tramp. To be honest, my mind is usually switched off. Thinking is not conducive to physical activity; it gets in the way and tries to convince you that you’re tired. Negative self-talk is risky. It’s best not to engage in arguing the pros and cons of what you are doing—you’ll only use up energy. So act, don’t think. Or even better, be.

A car with a megaphone attached drives repetitively up and down. “My name is Hashimoto. Thank you very much. My name is Hashimoto. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu . . .” If there’s a campaign on, there’s not much substance to this candidate’s electioneering. The man is simply going through the motions—not much different from my own credo of ‘acting without thinking’.

Upon a ridge, six gigantic wind turbines turn—one, slow, swan-like swoop every three seconds. It’s hot now, but a headwind keeps whipping the cap off my head. Mile after mile, I walk beside the sea until I can’t stand it any longer. Summer has not officially been declared, and the beaches are not properly ‘open’—whatever that involves—but I decide to swim anyway. The weather is perfect, the water is cool and clean, and I have the beach all to myself. What bliss! The waves refresh and revive me. Five minutes I allow myself, and then another five on the sand. There, that will do. Back to work, Boyo.

cool wind
ripples rice
ripples water

I walk my shorts dry. Their thin nylon is good for the heat, yet the material is also windproof. If it gets cold, I have the extra bits to extend them into trousers. They’ll prove themselves hardwearing and will last until the end of the trip. Six months later, back in New Zealand (a few days ago as I write) I’ll find an identical pair to replace them, and from the same op shop.

At a roadside stand I pause to consider. From my pocket I dig out 200 yen for two bags of produce: potatoes and oranges. Perhaps I should also have bought a bag of biwa (loquats); never again will I see them for sale at such a low price. But there’s just so much I’m prepared to carry. I limit my daypack to just a couple of kilos. Dutifully, I note the amount. Mami is tracking our finances, a habit she’ll maintain until the last few weeks after she’s sure we won’t go broke. Our budget is 5000 yen per day for food, accommodation, entertainment, and travel (the occasional ferry).

Later, after trying out my Japanese on some schoolchildren—they laugh whatever I say—I meet Mami as arranged. We plan to take lunch at the restaurant where, on the trip down, we’d enjoyed a most excellent ‘final supper’, but there’s a sign on the door: yasumi–day of rest. It’s every Tuesday that they close.

All of us had enjoyed such a great lunch at that michinoeki the previous day. You had tendon and I had sakanano aradaki (fish cooked in sauce). I tell you, those are two of the best meals you can have. That’s why I had really been looking forward to a ‘second helping’. When I saw the Closed sign on the door, I was horrified. My disappointment was beyond words. When you’re on the road all day, food becomes your focal point. I sat there dazed, wondering how I should break the sad news.

(I was amazed at your disappointment. I was too, a little, but I took it in my stride. On a journey you never know what will happen, so I try not to count on things turning out as I wish. And besides, it’s only food.)

I think nothing of
spitting out pips
but what of the peel?

I saw you in the distance, surrounded by a group of school children, and when you came up you looked so content. I hadn’t the heart to ruin your day, but you weren’t upset in the slightest! On the contrary, you wanted to have a swim. I had neither the inclination nor the energy, so I just sat on the beach watching. Just as I recovered and started to enjoy being there, your cap rolled away in the wind. I had to chase it for quite a distance. Did you say “No rest for the wicked” under your breath? I’m sure I heard you.

(Yes, I remember having that second swim. I remember, too, struggling to find anything tasty at a supermarket later on, despite my “it’s only food” attitude. And I also remember my feet starting to smart by the thirty-kilometre mark. But most of all, I remember suffering a nervous breakdown.)

My fault, I think. I still feel bad about my insensitivity. I just presumed that during your previous stays in Japan you’d become accustomed to our wonderful hot baths.

I’ve taken a dip in the sea twice today already, but after having walked 37 kilometres Mami’s idea of visiting an onsen sounds heavenly. As we approach it, however, the building’s imposing exterior brings on palpitations.

In Japan gifts are always perfectly wrapped, clothing is superbly styled, and the food is made to appear exquisite. Nippon is big on presentation—too much so, in my opinion. I remember a soba restaurant that I used to avoid because it looked as though it catered to the rich and famous only. I didn’t realise that the chain actually provides family dining at a reasonable price.

When I walk through the door of the onsen it’s as if I’ve entered the emperor’s forbidden palace. I’m struck dumb by the elaborate decor. The staff at their stations stand stiffly in place. Obviously they don’t do menial work. At the counter there’s a self-service machine that issues tickets. But how does it operate? How does one select from all the options?

I’m lost in a maze of rules and regulations. There are cubby-holes for your shoes and slippers for your feet. But what does a barefooted person do? Mind! These slippers take you only part of the way inside. Not into the toilet, where there’s a plastic pair waiting just inside the door. Beware here; take care there—it’s all too confusing.

Mami breezes through as if it’s all ‘old hat’—which for her, of course, it is. With a by-your-leave she ducks beneath the women’s curtain, shoving me gently in the direction of the men’s. I stand there gibbering. Where exactly do I go, and what will I find there? Where do I put my stuff? How do I keep my valuables safe, the soap clean and my towel dry? Are these baskets for my clothes? And, oh God, I’ve come out of the toilet in the wrong slippers!

I make it as far as the shower cubicles just short of the communal bath, but then I bolt. Suddenly it’s all too much. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to puzzle over the plumbing. And mostly, least of all, am I prepared to have anything to do with those dark, unsmiling, naked men. They have such suspicious eyes—all the better to what-me-with?

When I saw and smelled that onsen, I was in Nirvana. My light-headedness must have distorted my perceptions; to me your pale, panicky face seemed happy—if a little tired. I was shocked afterwards to hear of your traumatic experience, and felt very sorry. I wanted to slap myself in the face.

(Slap your face? It was me who needed a swift kick in the pants. I can’t believe how utterly I fell to pieces, and on only our first full day! I now realise that my panic attack wasn’t just because I was unfamiliar with onsen protocol; it arose from an accumulation of stresses: travelling to Japan and reuniting with you after a long separation, fitting in with your family, putting on a brave face before the camera, worrying about our schedule of forty kilometres a day, and being several kilograms overweight. That onsen was simply the last straw.)

In the tatami waiting area I vow that I’ll never again use any onsen. I’m happy for Mami to do so, but I prefer just to shower, or even wash at a sink. The price of admission is wasted on me. I don’t see hot water as anything special. It’s nothing to get excited about or rhapsodise over.

Gradually, I simmer down. Later, after we’ve talked and chuckled over events, on our way over to the public park where we’ll camp, I glance back at the scene of my ignominy. There, bright lights spell out the name: ‘Happy You Onsen’.

Toilet humour

1 May 2005

Many a truth is spoken in jest. The previous evening I had joked about bedding down in the wheelchair toilet. Today, we’ll need to. But this morning we use those facilities only for what they’re intended.

We limber up along the main street through town. It’s 6 a.m. and we have the waterfront to ourselves. From a cruising car comes the strains of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. The driver grins at me in collusion.

This will be our first day in Shikoku, which I’ve only experienced through reading Craig McLachlan’s Tales of a Summer Henryo. The author took part in an 88-temple pilgrimage around the island. He also walked the length of the country when I happened to be in Japan for the first time.

Mami’s photocopies for this region are 1:60,000 instead of the usual 1:250,000 and that should help. We climb from near the harbour into a dull sky, but the view from on high is elevating. We find a tunnel constructed for only pedestrians and cyclists, and there’s a shrine at the entrance, maybe a memorial for a worker who was killed. Or was it to prevent accidents?

We cut under the ridge and pass through. On the other side, the tunnel continues as a cycleway so I release Mami like a falcon—watch her fly. I mosey along beside a stream behind a row of houses, peering over the fence into their backyards. But then I’m confronted by a Y-intersection. Do I turn right and join the main road, or do I stay with the stream? Which way would Mami have headed (and why didn’t she wait)?

It was a really nice ride, coasting downhill. I was in high spirits, in my highest gear, and I don’t even recall seeing that intersection. On a cycle you just let yourself go.

My intuition tells me to stay with the cycleway. It looks more inviting, and that’s the way I would have gone. A couple of kilometres further on, the cycleway merges with the road. Good—now there’s no danger of missing Mami. Whichever way she took, we must now be back on track—the same track as each other, that is. Or are we? Because, when I look at the map to check, it seems that the main road has also forked—back on the far side of that row of houses—which means that Mami might have gone in an entirely new direction.

I return with alacrity, but there’s no sign of the indicated road fork. Hell’s bells, I’m almost back at the tunnel. This is so confusing. Mami must definitely be starting to panic. Retracing my steps, I look out for a public phone. It starts to rain and I open up my umbrella—thankfully I’d had it on me. Is my luck about to change?

Minutes later I find a phone booth, but it is out of order; it spits out my one and only card. Gaargh! Imagining Mami’s anxiety throws me into that state myself. Stressing, I spin the umbrella one way then the other . . . and then the top snaps off. Then, finally, not much further from where I turned back, I spot Mami contentedly reading. No, she’s not worried—why should she be? She hadn’t realised I’d taken longer than I should have. She asks me why, as I collapse in a damp and steaming heap, I look so frazzled.

It was drizzling slightly, so I found myself a shelter and took out my book. A few drops leaked through the roof, but I wasn’t bothered. I was deeply immersed in the story and had no idea what was going on. After hearing about your frustrations with the map, the phone and the umbrella, I wondered that you also didn’t develop a bald spot.

Give me time—I’ve years on you.)

On the map—the map that should have prevented our mix-up—two tunnels close together are shown. The approach to the first doesn’t look too bad; it’s new, well lit, and there’s a walkway. The rain by now is teeming so I’m pleased to get ‘indoors’ even though there’s a wind blowing through.

The rain began falling heavily, and I started to worry about our safety and well being. We were travelling in an isolated area with no sign of a shop, cafe, restaurant, or even one of those ubiquitous convenience stores.

Sometimes the weather on either side of a tunnel is different, and today that’s true. When I emerge from the other end it’s . . . raining even harder! I’ve long since put on all of my clothes, and my raincoat keeps me reasonably dry.

Nonetheless, I start to worry about hypothermia. Then, I catch sight of Mami’s bike parked against a building. On the wall above, there’s a small, hand-painted sign: Coffee House. Well spotted, Mami. But how strange to find one here; there’s no other house in the vicinity. Also, the sign is so small that motorists would easily overlook it. There must be a story behind this.

When I finally saw the words ‘Coffee House’ I nearly shouted for joy. But hang on a minute . . . it looked dark inside with no sign of life. There seemed to be a sort of studio attached to the café, and there I could see a light showing through the window. I leaned closer and saw a couple of people, the owners.

This narrative is like a fairy tale—Hansel and Gretel or The Three Musicians from Bremen. Be careful, Mami. Don’t nibble from that Gingerbread House.)

When I caught their attention, they immediately urged me inside, even though I was drenched. Then, when you arrived, they treated us to coffee, lunch, and even a hot bath! I regard them as our saviours.

Our hosts have it made. They live full lives in accordance with their dreams. The husband runs the cafe, but only as a hobby. It’s just a bit of fun for him, a lark, and he operates his ‘business’ just when he feels like it. How intriguing. In Japan, people don’t commonly put an emphasis on leisure and lifestyle. The wife is a textile artist of repute who designs quilts and her work has featured in international embroidery magazines. A team of helpers gives a hand—several hands—with the stitching. Once a week they gather, and on those days the husband plays golf. The two have another day of the week set aside for assembling kits—Takahashi-san shows me his calluses from cutting cloth. These kits earn the couple their bread-and butter (or rice-and-miso). Regularly the two load up the car and travel to trade fairs around the country. Life is splendid. Their home isn’t as isolated as it used to be. The two tunnels we had passed through have reduced the journey to the next town from fifty to two-and-a-half minutes. That works in our favour too.

By the time that we’ve finished wallowing in the bath, Matsubara-san from RKK has arrived. He plans to film us for the rest of the day. I brace myself. As soon as I start out, the road immediately plunges into another tunnel. It is as cold as before, but the rain has slackened. Exiting, I see a black butterfly struggling not to get sucked into the vortex. It flutters against the airflow but is losing ground, so I spend a minute helping out. Motorists must wonder why a wild-looking foreigner is dancing with his arms in the air.

Here, the road hugs the coast, and the cliffs on my right are sheer. So is the cladding. Hundred-metre lengths of wire netting have been fastened to the side to stop boulders crashing down and crushing passers-by. I crane my neck and speculate. Wouldn’t climbing those chicken-wire slopes make an unusual and exciting hobby? You’d need gloves made to measure, and specially designed shoes that slotted into the holes. The Japanese would certainly buy them; they always dress the part. I could design the gear, market it and make a killing.

The cool conditions and wet surfaces encourage me to trot. For a few kilometres I jog the white line at the edge of the road, and when it ends the top of the sea wall. As far as pedestrianism goes, this is to be the highpoint of my journey. Little do I know it, but today is the last day that I’ll run. This ‘journey runner’ is nearing the end of the road . . .

I skid to a halt. What’s that in the gutter? Disgusting! It’s like a piece of confectionery—jelly-like, bright purple, as thick as my thumb and a foot long—except that it’s alive. When I give it a prod, it responds by wriggling madly and bouncing up and down—boing, boing. Though it’s some sort of worm, it doesn’t feel slimy, and it’s as hard as a bicycle tyre. Does it suffer from high blood pressure?—or the equivalent in another fluid. Pneumatic or not, it will burst if a car runs it over, so I hook a finger underneath and flip it to safety. Doing so gives me the willies, but it’s a fellow creature all the same.

I jog up to where Mami is waiting. The first thing she asks is if I’ll check the odometer; it hasn’t registered any distance since the last stop. Hmm, water must have leaked in and done something to the electrics. Concentrating, I kneel by mistake in a puddle while Matsubara-san films. “Hey you, make yourself useful and pass us a spanner.”

Straightening up, I see we’re near a food stand. They sell jakoten, a snack I’m not familiar with, but which the others recommend. There are a couple of customers inside, and we join them for some tempura that tastes of fish. The husband and wife are on holiday from Kobe. “But we’ll be back by the time that you get there. Why don’t you stay with us?” The woman is a professional singer of Hawaiian songs, and with little encouragement she tunes her ukulele. She strums an old favourite, Pearly Shells, and everyone joins in on the chorus.

Then, it’s time to set aside music for motion. But no sooner do I start up the motor than an oncoming car stops its, and on a blind curve! What does the driver think he’s doing? Ah, it’s Takahashi-san, from the part-time café. He’s been out to do the shopping, and he leans from the window with a bottle of mineral water. “Here, this is for you.” A few cars are held up, but no one seems to mind. Japanese drivers are, as a rule, more patient and tolerant. Today there’s no road rage, just largesse.

We stop for a proper meal by and by. Inside a rustic noodle eatery a television set, circa 1960, belts forth, while several diners puff tobacco. While our meals are being prepared, Matsubara-san explains the logistics of our television appearances. “Every second Wednesday, you’ll appear live. This cell phone has a built-in camera for moving pictures. Let me show how the microphone attaches.” The latter is a huge hunk of equipment. Even the instruction manual is several centimetres thick—it must weigh a kilogram. We’re given both to lug along.

Suspecting that the TV might be a distraction, the mama-san asks Matsubara if he would like her to turn it down. “No, that won’t be necessary,” he replies. How ironic. No one is watching, but it’s the done thing to leave the thing on; it takes pride and precedence. Mami must lean forward to catch the producer’s instructions, but I switch off. To me, technical Japanese is double-Dutch. This is another duty that I’m happy to delegate. My meal has arrived so I’ll concentrate on input of energy, not information.

When our business has been concluded, Mami and I duck around the corner to an onsen. And ‘duck’ is the right word. By the time that we emerge, the rain that had started to fall is by now a deluge. We pause below the onsen awning wondering what to do.

At that moment another cycle tourist, drenched yet longing for a soak, splashes up. The three of us quickly consult and decide to go halves—or thirds—on a room at a minshuku. There’s one right across the road, so Mami nips over. She knocks, but no one answers. She tries again. Same result. There’s a phone number beside the door, so we try ringing . . . no reply. Looks like we’ll need to make other arrangements. The other cyclist decides to camp out beneath a bridge—just as soon as he’s bathed. That idea doesn’t grab us, so we strike off on our own in the direction of the local park.

We find it—or don’t—under ten centimetres of water. There’s no high ground at all—the only shelter is beneath the overhang of the toilet block. Now what? I spot an out-of-order sign. Great, the toilets don’t work either! The card dangles from the handle of the wheelchair access toilet. ‘Not in use’ they say . . . We peek, and there seems to be sufficient room. It takes me only a few minutes to persuade Mami inside.

Before long, we’ve arranged all of our gear. Then, it’s time to brush our teeth and get some shut-eye. However, an automatic sensor turns the light on whenever it senses movement. We’ll need to sleep like logs—logs that don’t roll. Unless . . . After loosely looping our bicycle lock across the door to dissuade intruders, I clamber up and unscrew the bulb. “Sleep well.”

It took me a while to get used to the idea of sleeping in the toilet. But funnily enough, once we got all of our gear inside and spread our mats and sleeping bags, it became a fine space. It was much better than sleeping in wet clothes with wet gear and shivering with cold. Living outside all the time makes you tough and adaptable. Sleeping in a public toilet might cure you if you have a phobia about using them.

Like being taught to swim by being thrown in at the deep end. Sink or swim—I didn’t fancy doing either.)

In the middle of the night, some teenagers turn up. I hear them giggling nervously outside. They’ve seen the sign, and they force the door open a crack. A girl whispers that there seems to be a lot of equipment. And then, perhaps because she senses our presence, she screams and scares everyone off.

Verboten camping

6 May 2005

Should I borrow Mami’s bicycle for the two kilometres back to Route 11? It’s within the rules, since I’d only be going over yesterday’s ground—downhill too, most enjoyable. But that would mean abandoning my companion—albeit briefly—and on such a balmy morning that would be boorish. The trip is about sharing quality time, surely.
So, what to do instead? Is there another route we could take to avoid going over the same old ground? One solution would be to cut corners: create the third side of the triangle, as it were. The greater the angle—remaining parallel to the main road for as long as possible—the less distance we’ll do, and the longer we’ll stay out of heavy traffic. “Here, I’ll draw you a diagram.”

The map backs up my trigonometry. My plan is feasible. According to the map’s wiggles there’s an alternative road down which to descend. On paper it looks do-able, and in reality so it proves. There’s little traffic; there’s a hint of mist; and barking dogs are heard but never seen. This rustic, rural way of life is to my liking. I especially appreciate the climate and the atmosphere. Compared to New Zealand there’s little wind, the seasons behave predictably, and the inhabitants are connected to the land. Yes, I could live on one of these farmsteads. I’d run free-range quail and prune my own fruit trees.

citrus orchards
keeping within cooee
of Route 11

We inch closer to the main thoroughfare. Rural living gives way to an urban sprawl, yet the ‘flavour of the day’ remains. Even where houses are cram wall-to-wall there’s space in concrete corners for miniature gardens. Plants in pots huddle in groups, and
bonsai cluster on shelves. I must learn how that trick is done and replicate it back home.

We slot into the rat-race along a long, straight drag. I try bare-footing, but today’s a no-go. In Nicholas Crane’s
Clear Waters Rising, an account of his 10,000-kilometre walk through the mountains of Europe, he writes that Romans soldiers marched three days on, one off—an approach that Mami and I could have applied, but have not, in Japan. This is our nineteenth day on the road yet we’ve only had one rest day—a no-brainer. In truth, we’ve overdone it.

At a bakery cum chocolate shop I use their space-age toilet. I’ve never been brave enough to try but today—probably because I don’t have a book to keep me occupied—I experiment with jets of water (hot and cold), blasts of air (likewise), and robotic nozzles. The console’s array of buttons is like that of the
Enterprise bridge from Star Trek. ‘Toilet Shower’ indeed! I call it comfort of a damp and ticklish kind. Oh well, I’ve the rest of the day to dry out.

Later on, again to break the monotony, Mami and I call into a second-hand goods warehouse. At the rear they have a three-wheel bicycle for sale for only 5600
yen. Wouldn’t that be ideal for my mum? She loves to cycle but can no longer trust her sense of balance. I wonder how costly such a machine would be to freight over.

Today we’ve ignored the occasional rain shower. But when it next starts to drizzle we take shelter . . . in a noodle shop. Let’s have something to eat. By the time that we’re done it might have stopped. The eatery is a one-man band. The cook who runs the show is not the talkative type. You might even call him taciturn. The place is rundown and grubby. Every surface feels sticky to the touch, and the toilets at the back give off a robust pong. But the food is plentiful, delicious, and when we settle up the proprietor hands us each a complementary lollipop.

Continuing along the road—and the rain
has stopped—I mull over what Mami and I had been talking about during our meal: what we might do in years to come.

One option is to travel to India and visit the school where I’d taught. We could plan it for 2008. That would make it twenty-five years since I was on staff. Another possibility is cycling the Netherlands. On bicycles it would so much easier, and I’d do the interpreting for a change. Since we’d both be in the saddle neither of us would need to spend hours waiting for the other. There’d be less stress; we’d retain more hair. (Mami’s bad spot has dilated to four centimetres!) But no more bare footing. On that, I’m adamant. I feel that I’ve nothing left to prove in that department. No more trips of this nature then, it goes without saying. Our odysseys—2001 through 2005—are at an end. That era is over. It’s time to start living again.

your country
maybe, but it’s
my world

So here I am, strolling along, taking the air and enjoying my constitutional. I’m in an ordinary little town with a narrow main street. Here they take a low-key attitude to trade; you can’t tell whether the shops are open or closed, or even, sometimes, whether it is a shop. This could be somewhere in northern England. Idly, I glance in a window and note that they sell second-hand cycles. I wonder if they have a three-wheeler too . . . No, it doesn’t look like it, but there are a number of regular bicycles, and they seem to be in good condition. I wonder what the market is like. An image of us riding off into the sunset pops into my head. Imagine if I bought one here and now. Just went ahead and obeyed the impulse. What a hoot that would be. What a laugh if I was to flip this journey over. It would be as if we’d slipped into another zone.

So what’s to stop me . . .?

I don’t have the answer to that question ready. It ought to fall right into place . . . but doesn’t. My mental mechanism has jammed, so I call out to Mami, “Would you wait a minute. This might sound strange to you, but . . .” and I tell her what’s on my mind.

“It’s your decision,” she replies (I’ve mentioned that she always supports me), “You do exactly what you want.” And she’s right—no one else is involved. I don’t need to provide an explanation. There’s no gun being held to my head; it is my choice . . . to do anything that I want: walk, bike, drive or fly a carpet.

I sit on the gutter’s edge to mull things over. The ball is in my court. It’s time I did some rapid-fire thinking. It takes less than a minute before I turn to Mami with a grin.

The deal is struck. For less than $100 my transport is arranged. I’m now the proud possessor—only one previous owner: a little old lady who rode it to temple on Sundays—of what in Japan they call a
mamachari. My new steel steed is a powder blue, 27-inch-wheel, upright. It has a sprung saddle and a shopping basket attached to the handlebars. It even has hub gears—four of them. On the test ride I discover that one of the crankshafts is bent—not a problem. It is attended to as we wait. “Will that be all, sir?”

“No, that’s fine. Mami, let’s hit the road.” With the seat raised to the max I stuff my backpack in the basket and . . . awaaaay we go!

It would not be an exaggeration to say that from that moment our journey is instantly and absolutely transformed. With the wind in our ears, shouting back and forth with excitement, we feel like we’re at a carnival, on holiday and on honeymoon all at once. We hurtle downhill and power up the inclines. We grow breathless, yet not out of breath. How exhilarating! The trip’s shifted up by at least a couple of gears.

What a relief and a joy it was after you bought that bicycle. I can’t add anything more to your description—you’ve said it all. From then on, the journey was totally different. We explored back roads at will and made detours whenever there was something interesting to see. We stopped worrying about time and enjoyed the trip fully. A door onto a new range of possibilities had been flung wide open.

For the rest of the afternoon we adjust to a completely new rhythm. The slow march is now more of a tango. Mami is freed from biding her time, and I’m overwhelmed by a flickering profusion of images and sensations. This is motoring!

Leaving town the road tilts upwards, but it’s no big deal to get off and walk for a while. That allows me to settle back to earth. I observe how hard Mami has to work up the hills, so I lend a hand in pushing the heavier cycle-plus-trailer. “Hang on. We can do this in another way.” It’s only a few seconds’ work to adjust the height of the seats (we’ll get into that habit). “You ride mine; I’ll ride yours.” From then on, every half day or so, we’ll swap cycles to vary our posture and to even out the effort.

Before long I find myself at the top of a long, inviting slope . . . with wheels. Here comes the pay off. After ratcheting our way up, we roller-coaster down the other side. What a rush! What a helter-skelter ride! The kilometres I’d have had to pace out, painstakingly, stride-by-stride, whirr by like the wind. I don’t ever want to stop.

We pull over at a supermarket to cool, fuel and idle our engines. There’s another traveller there, our second
ohenryo. The three of us draw together. This time the roles are reversed: the pilgrim is on foot; the walker is on a cycle. Ah yes, I remember those days (already they seem so far in the past). Expertly, I look over the old man’s wagon. Its wheels look a tad flimsy, but he has it well wrapped against the weather. You can tell that it has seen some serious mileage. The three of us swap stories, and I’m amused that of all the people we’ve met he is the only one not to ask us what we’re doing or why. I guess that it takes one (a traveller) to know one.

Ojiisama had set out on his pilgrimage in the New Year. In fact, he has already completed the 88-temple circuit of Shikoku. Not satisfied with that, he wants to do a little extra of his own accord. “These days,” he says, “people don’t have the time or the inclination. They’ll hire a university student for the summer to complete the circuit for them or,” and he shakes his head sadly, “they’ll drive.” He extracts his documentation: a booklet in which each temple’s emblem is rubber-stamped. A complete volume is very valuable, and their trade is a lucrative business. How strange the belief that one can gain merit through proxy or barter.

Now that we were both cyclists even the task finding somewhere to stay became fun. That afternoon we followed our noses around a residential area, and by chance found a side road that led to the sea. The way was narrow, and there still were a good number of cars shooting by, but we couldn’t care less.

(We certainly wouldn’t have discovered that ground if I’d still been walking. When you’re on foot exploring off the beaten track is too time-consuming and wasteful of energy.)

A final, effortless surge body-boards us into an empty park. We’re on a high, aware that the nature of the journey has radically altered. For one thing, the relationship between time and space no longer holds true: the energy I have to expend is no longer equal to my mass multiplied by the surface area of my feet (or whatever). It’s as if the Law of Gravity no longer applies. In this alternate universe we fly. Or time-travel.

With a professional and appreciative eye we overlook the camp’s imperfections. For one thing it’s deserted, though that should probably be regarded as a plus. (Since it’s not summer, no one but we would
dream of erecting a tent.) The grass is uncut, and there’s a good deal of litter in the weeds. A homeless person has taken over the rotunda. Bedding, clothing, utensils and toiletries are neatly arranged on a concrete bench, but of the person there’s no sign. I wander over to the ablutions block. It’s closed up, but when I tug at the roller door it squeaks open. I brush away the spider webs and take a cold—and slightly rusty—shower, and then string up a line to dry my towel. By the time that the nearby factory grinds to a halt Mami has supper ready.

Home for us that night lay behind a huge factory or construction site. They only knocked off at around seven. Eventually that homeless person turned up, and I was initially troubled by his presence. However, he didn’t bother us. I remember you having that shower, and suggesting that I do the same. I passed it up, needless to say. A cold shower . . . Brrr! How on earth could you? And with those creepy-crawlies!

Cycling is the way to go

12 June 2005

Our first objective today is to get to the coast about twenty kilometres distant. To do that, we must pass through a forest. Though we know of no route, there’s bound to be some sort of track. Very well, let’s take the first back road that strikes off in that general direction. And maybe we should leave a trail of breadcrumbs . . .

Our wheels crunch through deep gravel. When we come to a fork, we try the left-hand prong but it peters out at a sports facility. We retrace our tread marks and try the other. That one penetrates deeper and deeper, with the trees crowding closer and closer . . . but it eventually brings us out to where we wish.

However, we’ve run out of biscuits and are cycling on ‘reserve’. Whose tank will empty sooner? Who will the bonk affect first? Conditions are cool and overcast, and there’s a handy tailwind that helps us to reach a Lawson’s without sputtering to a stop. Nevertheless, we go wild on cheesy buns and greasy pastries. They’re no match for our digestion.

As we munch, I look idly around. The realisation hits that we’ll probably never—not in this lifetime—return here. This is it; this is the one and only time we’ll see this view or maybe speak with the locals. And the same goes for every point of the journey. It strikes me that life is merely, mainly, a series of short-term and essentially shallow interactions with people and places. (It’s amazing the effect fast food has on you. Or I might have come down with Philosophical Bonk.)

So this is the real Hokkaido. I can’t say that I’m impressed. The place appears pretty much uninhabited, even dreary. In an isolated café it’s no surprise to find ourselves the only customers—perhaps the only ones all day. You see this sort of thing a lot in Japan: people playing at running a business. Whereas in New Zealand Bed & Breakfasts are the rage, in Japan people are more likely to convert their home into a teahouse—though perhaps ‘Dolls House’ would be more apt. With such teeny servings of cake and drink, I feel as if I’m at a child’s make-believe party. Or is that quibbling? Should I crook my little finger and take greater pleasure in ethereal aesthetics rather than substance and sustenance? Oughtn’t atmosphere be the quality that counts? Perhaps. But I need to consume calories, and by the hundred, not dozen.

We pass through hamlet after hamlet. One distinguishes itself from the rest with its many garden beds—red and yellow flowers alternate. Another town specialises in cherry trees that still wear some blossoms on their branches. In the south at the start of April most of the petals were already on the ground, so for three months time seems to have frozen. For the second time today, I lapse into philosophical reverie. How briefly things exist to attract a person’s attention.

A flash of colour pricks my eye. I execute a quick U-turn and score a plastic figure: a football idol. And then immediately—“Isn’t that another?” I turn around again to check . . . but this time it’s a false alarm. Whoops, I’d better catch up with Mami. She’s disappeared around the next bend.

I put on a spurt, but immediately arrive at a road fork. One way veers to the left, a slight climb. The other follows the coast more closely—and to stay next to the sea was our plan. The trouble is—I can’t see her. She should be there—or here, rather; our standing rule is to wait for the other wherever any confusion could arise. It can only have been a minute, so I rush ahead to the left just far enough to confirm that there’s no cyclist in the distance. Good, she can’t have gone that way. Very well, back to that road fork. I peer the other way and this time, far off, see Mami’s red jacket. Off I race.

But when I reach her, it’s another woman wearing a similar outfit. Damn! Should I ask her if she’s seen . . . No, most like I’d get caught up in trying to explain. I’ll just push on to gain lost ground.

I race by ramshackle buildings, tethered dogs, and fishermen mending their nets. This would have been a great place for sightseeing—what a waste. After a couple of kilometres the smaller road dips beneath the main road, and then swoops up and around to rejoin it at the mouth of a tunnel. Now what? Surely Mami won’t have tackled that by herself. In my mad dash down the coast I must have overtaken her. She must have realised that I was missing, and returned.

In a lather of sweat I arrive back at the fork . . . still no Mami. There’s a bus shelter nearby where I could wait, but I’m too flustered. This is insane! What to do? I know—I’ll call her on her cell phone, but that means I’ll need to borrow one . . . or use a public phone. I’d seen one outside the
konbini where we’d last stopped—another mile in the wrong direction.

With concern, frustration, and not a small amount of panic, I finally get through on the phone—I’d had to persuade the shop staff to loan me theirs, as the payphone outside was out of order. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I yell.

“YOU STAY THERE!” you shouted.

Now see here: You missed the road sign that clearly showed the main road curving to the left. That’s the way I went. Then, as soon as I realised you were missing, I went back and took that coastal route too, calling, “William! William! William!” all the way. I passed through that horrible tunnel, and then I didn’t want to return. Besides, I expected that you would call, and I didn’t want to be out of satellite range.

I power up to and into that tunnel. Inside, it’s so dark that I almost need to feel my way . . . or use a sixth sense. On blind instinct, I manage to avoid the worst ruts—or are those rails? It’s difficult to keep my balance. The traffic that hurtles past is dire and deadly. By the time that I burst though I’m at my breaking point. But instead giving the adrenaline time to settle, I leap with both feet into the ‘whys and wherefores of our situation. Mami counters, defending her actions with a diagram she’d drawn. I interject, she responds . . . Before we know it, we’re having the first full-blown fight of our six-year relationship.

You wouldn’t admit it, but it was not entirely my fault. You didn’t read the road sign, and you stopped and took your time (which I only learned later). I got really mad when you complained that on the mamachari you couldn’t keep up with my speed. What an excuse! It wasn’t that I went too far ahead; you stayed too far back.

are very fit, you know. I wasn’t making excuses. I haven’t been able to beat you over a half-marathon for years.)

“You never listen to what I have to say!” yells Mami. “You’re always right—it isn’t fair!” I’m dumbfounded. Not so much by her accusations, because I’m certain—well, 99 percent—that they aren’t true, but at how accurately, accent and all, she has slipped into the vernacular of an American sitcom. But that makes sense. She couldn’t have picked up that sort of prose from our day to day living; we never argue. Her clichés had to have been cribbed from the TV, and hasn’t she done well? Her body language mirrors a teenager having a tantrum. Go Britney!

But disharmony is a stranger in our relationship, and we quickly return to normal, literally within minutes. A mile or two of riding side-by-side, and we’re roaring with laughter. Today’s experience will become a favourite to retell: our one and only falling out in three months of cheek-to-cheek living. The next
michinoeki is famous for its fish, so I treat Mami to “the best ikameshi (squid) in all of Japan”.

I don’t know about “returning to normal within minutes”. In my diary I wrote: “I’m so sick of this. My hair loss is all because of him. I want this trip to be over as soon as possible and get back home. I’ll explain my point of view, and if he doesn’t listen or understand . . . This is the limit. I’ll never again do such a trip.” I’d thought that a fiasco like this couldn’t have happened once we were both on bicycles. We should have had a cell phone each.

In the evening we doss down at a ginja next to a school. I think back to our time with SuperMariano. Thanks to him we’re brave enough to bed down in a place like this. By the last light of day, I note down our day’s tally: 71 kilometres, not including the ten or more I spent searching for my better half. Should I point that out and boast about it? “Nyah, nyah! Today, I beat you; I cycled further.”

A little voice tells me that this would NOT be a good idea.

just one more line
. . . I’ve lost!
my one companion

Hard day's walk over

30 June 2005

Though it’s the middle of summer, it feels more like winter. This far north, temperatures plummet during the night, and last night had been one of the coldest of our trip. It’s hard to recall now the semi-tropical south. Cherry blossoms cling. Rice seedlings have shrunk. Spring seems stuck in a time warp. Tantalising signs of summer have sometimes approached . . . only to recede—like the tides on a beach never declared open.

Yesterday we’d crossed the 45th line of latitude. We’ve done well. At the start of our trip, after leaving the 31st line, a sign with a map of the country made me laugh at our audacity. Three thousand kilometres! Now I smile—the longest journey ends with a single step.

This could be the last day that I crawl from my sleeping bag. ‘Single-season,’ it says on the label, ‘comfortable down to 15°C.’ Well, it’s certainly not that warm now. Moving quickly and carefully, so as not to bash Mami with an elbow or knee, I dress. Within the tent’s sardine shell the only way to heat up is by generating your own. You rub together the sticks of your body.

Within minutes Mami and I strike camp. Like synchronised swimmers, our choreography is by now well-rehearsed. “Ohayou,” beams the photographer as he checks out the light. He hands us each a tub of yoghurt and a name card, “One for you . . . one for you.” The cards feature photos of different wild flowers. “I took them nearby.”

We trundle onto the tarmac just as someone hurries by on a mini-cycle. He may not have the time to spare, but we do. We mosey along at a leisurely pace determined to savour the day. Doesn’t he know that there are flowers and such to see?

But what about afterwards?

After all, there has to be an ‘after’. It’s no good pushing on to the end . . . and then nothing. You can’t leave yourself dangling. It’s important to prepare before you arrive at any conclusion, otherwise you risk falling flat on your face. You run out of steam, and pathetically fizzle. You arrive at a loose end.

We need to brace ourselves for what is essentially the end of the road. Very well, then. First, let’s concentrate on getting back. Having reached Soyamisaki, we’ll need to return to Wakkanai—which we’ll pass through today at midday. Okay, that will require an extra half-day of effort. From there, we’ll catch the train. Beforehand, therefore, we’ll need to locate a freight firm and send off most of our belongings. So in essence, then, we need to keep in mind a 25-kilometre coda in terms of cycling. An encore for the Fat Lady.

Great, that’s today and the next sorted . . . and that will do. It would be a mistake to spend the whole morning planning. Just as it is important to see beyond the endpoint, it’s equally important not to lose sight of the present. You can’t occupy the future at the expense of ‘now’.

On our last day we see our first wild deer (those we saw before were probably tame). A group of about five trots across grasslands and into the woods. Apart from fields and forests, there’s also swampland. We cross bridges across streams where the earth bleeds—the red rust iron being leached from the ground. The water is acidic, undrinkable. Our photographer friend had told us that the name Wakkanai originates from ‘Yanuwakkanai’, or ‘stream of cold water’. The language is Ainu, not Japanese (‘Wakkanai’ in Japanese would be ‘I don’t know’, too peculiar a name to lend a city).

We stop at a lagoon for our first break of the day. It is a reserve (unpolluted by iron) and has a lodge (with a vending machine). A path winds around some ponds with signs to identify the various flowers. When a bunch of tourists intrudes, we shy away to the nearby beach. Bleached ocean-going ropes lie trapped and tangled. They seem to spring directly from the sand, and they’ve wormed their way tightly between boulders. Some are thicker than my arm.

At a small fishing village, the road makes a sharp right-hand turn. On cue, a man steps out just as Mami suggests our having a bite to eat. I don’t know if he heard her, but he invites us into his road house.

Inside, we feast our eyes . . . and then our ears. Our host runs a cross between a café, bar and restaurant. But that’s not all, he has music. Old LPs are stacked on shelves, none of your CDs or MDs. “Please feel free to browse. Go ahead and select something to play.” As Mami tucks into the mayonnaise octopus special, I crank up Bloomfield, Kooper, and Still’s Super Session.

“You’re not the first to make this trip, you know” we’re told. “Last year, an American called in.” The owner backs up his claim by showing us the card—or postcard, rather—that the traveller had left. On it, with a marker pen, he had marked his route—it’s virtually identical to ours. ‘Kintaro’—after the hero of a Japanese folk tale—has written more about his mission in the visitors’ book.

“I am walking,” he wrote, “to discover the birthplace of my father.” His grandparents worked as missionaries in Hokkaido years ago, but where exactly no one knows. The only clue to where they’d been based is a picture of the coastline with a distinctively-shaped land form that the wife has sketched. I wonder if this is why we’ve never attracted media attention at the national level. Perhaps they are satiated. Kintaro’s quest was widely broadcast.

(His story is certainly intriguing. The American walked alone as much as 70 kilometres per day carrying a rucksack. He also managed—how I don’t know—to put together a documentary. I discovered it online months later after Googling his name. I wrote Kintaro an email, and a few weeks later he sent me a hard copy of the DVD—it has been very useful for giving family and friends a taste of the Japanese experience. Another reason for Kintaro’s walk was to prove his sincerity to the father—no, I don’t believe he had eloped—of his half-Japanese girlfriend, a man the Guinness Book of Records credits with the longest continuous walk in the world—over 19,000 miles, the length of the Americas. But wait, there’s more! Recently Kintaro and a friend competed on the reality TV show The Greatest Race. They came first and won a million dollars! Well, compared to that, our trip is just old hat.)

The café owner treats our bruised egos gently. “The world is full of interesting people, ne?” Suddenly he slaps his hand on the counter. His tone becomes matter-of-fact. “You know about Rider Houses, don’t you? Well, there’s one at Soyamisaki, and I’ve heard that they charge only 500 yen.”

The final climb of any significance takes us across the isthmus at the tip of the country. Up on the ridge we farewell Rishiri Island, and our camera goes into overdrive. Overhead a jet cruises by and we wave. Akira-san and her boss will be on board.

We reach Wakkanai before they do, and find a place that serves food. Many Russians roam the streets—I count a dozen in as many minutes. I probably appear as much out of place, but I feel more at home. I do belong. After having practically completed a traverse of the country . . . (pause for a deep breath) . . . I feel that the land is as much mine as anyone’s. The trip has exacted a great deal in terms of time, effort and money. It hasn’t all been toil and trouble, of course, but along the way we’ve spilt sweat, blood and tears (and hair, yes Mami). This country is a part of us, as we are of it. We’ve earned our place.

We pay for our food at the counter and stagger outside. Up rushes an exuberant Akira-san who almost hugs us to death. (Ahem, we’d been warned there are bears in Hokkaido.) She and the omnipresent Matsubara-san stick close to us over the final 25 kilometres. The realisation starts to sink in that we’re almost there, so Mami and I ham it up for the remainder of the afternoon.

We stop to admire a windswept beach, but that moment of reflection degenerates into a sumo contest. Countless shells lie on the sand. Akira picks up a pair and asks me a question I can’t quite catch. Something about “how far”. It must be a test or athletic challenge, so I separate the two halves and fling them out to sea. Dusting off my hands, I grin. I must have impressed her, for Akira-san looks quite stunned.

I couldn’t stop laughing. Later I explained the significance of what you had done. The incident was also shown on TV. It rivalled the “Mami stop kissing me” scene from our first day.

Back on the road, we run into our first ohenryo—the last we’ll see. We haven’t met any for weeks. The woman has just completed her pilgrimage to the Cape and is now returning. She presents us with some calligraphy, so we give her some spare bananas—a fair exchange.

Looking back, we encountered some interesting animals—human and otherwise. On our last day, we get close up and personal with a couple of the latter. Mami, in a rare display of public affection, hugs a miniature pony around the neck. I stalk a wild deer through the bush down to the water and snap some pictures it as it drinks.

I wrote the word ‘bear’ in my notebook instead of ‘deer’, which confused you. No, I didn’t mean Akira-san. The fact is that I’m confused by the spelling of the words ‘bear’, ‘boar’ and ‘deer’.

(Just follow this simple rule: The only word you need to use around me is ‘dear’. Don’t confuse me with any other animal, hear?)

Spying an old bit of rope, I tie it to Mami’s handlebars. I’ll tow her as if she’s ‘at the end of her tether’—a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moment for the camera. Just as we ride into shot, the rope tangles up in her wheel and Mami goes flying. Help! What a stupid thing (for me) to have done—I deserve a good slap. Mami’s injuries are minor, but our mamachari is on its last legs; the wheel is wedged fast against the mudguard that requires some tender brute force.

The crew rush up, concerned . . . and perhaps a little miffed. They’d failed to capture the mishap on film, and they can’t very well ask us to repeat it. Matsubara-san bites his tongue—there’ll be no ‘take two’. However, he does make one request: “Would you be able to walk the last five kilometres of your journey on foot?”

Well now . . . why not?

That is originally how I’d started out, and not just on this trip. I’ve been at it for years, even before Mami and I became an item. I can’t deny that ‘knocking the bugger off’ with my feet has a certain poetic appeal. Completing that circle will free me to get on with the rest of my life. As the Americans would say, ‘I need it to get closure’.

“All right then. You’re on.”

But not so fast . . . ‘Mission control, we have a problem’.

The issue this time is not my legs or feet; they’re in tip-top shape. It’s our cycle—our Miyata, not our battered mamachari. After having faithfully done the donkeywork for more than 3000 kilometres, our mountain bike has suffered its first flat. Mami spots it first: “William, there’s a hole!” True enough, it’s a whopper. You could poke your finger through. This calls for a bit of minor surgery. (Actually, since we’re going to complete this trip with only Mami riding, we could leave it behind to repair later. But that would have reflected poorly on our sponsor. That won’t do. Something must be done.)

From somewhere I grab a bit of rubber to sandwich between the tube and the tyre. Then I glue on a patch. The camera homes in for a tight shot as my admirers ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’. Here’s a man who knows a wrench from a spanner.

“There, I’m all done.”

The only question now is where to leave the other bike. From an aesthetic point of view, it would spoil things if I simply were to push the mamachari along. This time the RKK duo hasn’t hired a van, so I’ll just have to leave the machine down a bank. Hopefully no one will notice.

My agreeing to walk this last stage of the tour will add an hour to the trip. This allows the mini-cyclist we’d seen in the morning to zip past again—where had he been hiding? He’s in as much of hurry as before, and he continues to avert his eyes. “Where to, Grindstone man?”

Over the last mile I ponder Akira-san’s final question. She has saved the toughest for last. “Where would your life have led if you hadn’t met Mami?” I literally can’t—and don’t want to—imagine. Not to Soyamiaski. The bone worries me a kilometre or two. You know, this isn’t the only positive outcome I’ve Mami to thank for. This isn’t even the greatest of a whole host of major lifestyle decisions for the better that we’ve collaborated on. But how do I get all of that across in Japanese?

Ah, saved by the bell!

Around the next bend I glimpse a familiar triangular landmark. This is the end . . . or is it? Rumour has it that, strictly speaking, this is not the northernmost point of the country. Do we get out the map and look for a compass? This is the sort of quibbling that resulted in my running two millennium marathons. Haven’t I learned anything since then? Blow it! If this endpoint is good enough for others, then it’s good enough for us. Mami and I stride up to the monument and embrace. The journey is officially over.

Then, someone points out Sakhalin on the horizon. “Do you intend to continue your travels there?” For a lark, I strip down to my shorts and leap into the sea. I’ll always go the extra mile.

You are crazy! I only just managed to stop you from stripping to your underwear. How could you? We were on television—or would be. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going on in your mind. It was a romantic moment—or it should have been. But you could not contain yourself. I felt abandoned. But as I stood there talking with Akira, I slowly recovered. After hearing the contents of that final interview I realised how fortunate I am to be with you.

(You explained to me about the incident on the beach about the two shells. When you told a friend in New Zealand the story, she cracked up and nearly wet herself. How does it go again?)

Akira-san had especially chosen a pair of shells that were linked. “To think,” she remarked, “that these two are the only two on the whole beach, or even in the universe, that go together. They suit each other perfectly—just like you and William-san, don’t you agree?”

“Oh . . . I don’t know that I’d go so far,” I replied modestly.

“How far would you go?” she said, turning in your direction.

In reply, you reached over and took the shells from her hands. Then you yanked them apart and hurled them in different directions. No wonder that she was shocked, you baring your teeth like a madman.

Mami is not amused, but this time not by anything I’ve done or neglected to—neither the ‘shell-shock’ nor my threatening to leap naked into the sea. After all this time together—six years, not just the past few months—she is used to my antics. No, I speak of earlier, when she rang up the Rider House for a room. The person at the end of the receiver had asked, “Exactly when do you mean to arrive?” Mami explained that she couldn’t say, because we were travelling by bicycle. That was not deemed to be a good enough reason. At her snootiness Mami got snotty. Stuff her! We’d find somewhere else.

Fairly anticlimactic too is the manner in which we’re left to fend for ourselves. As soon as they have filmed what they need, the others hoof it back to their Wakkanai hotel. Is that it, then? No debriefing? But then, they’ve had a long day too. They must be equally as keen to get changed, warm up, and enjoy a hot meal.

They do at least give me a lift back to the mamachari. Mami and I will need it tomorrow to return to Wakkanai. An electronic billboard shows that the temperature is a mere 12°C, and that there’s a brisk four metres-per-second wind. It had been blowing into our faces. Cycling back, the physical effort helps to dry my clothes; they were still damp from the ocean. During our interview I’d had to clench my teeth to stop them chattering.

When I arrive back at the Cape—that’s twice now in the space of an hour—Mami is in a better mood. Our accommodation is arranged. What a woman! She’d had to negotiate a deal with the owner of a ryokan as we didn’t have a chance to visit a bank and were down to our last 10,000-yen note. I splashed; Mami splurges.

Maslow’s basic hierarchy of basic needs met, we luxuriate in a long, hot soak in the ryokan ofuro. This is bliss to the nth degree (41°C as I recall). Later, dressed in matching bathrobes, we tackle the fish of the day. As we pick apart the flesh with chopsticks, the ryokan owner and his wife regale us with tales of seas frozen solid and husky-drawn sleighs. The thought of such a winter gives us ‘bump of chicken’.

Treasures of the road