Hokkaido: Flight from the White North-East
April Fool’s Day had seemed like a good joke when I chose it as my starting date back in Tokyo. Plus, I really couldn’t wait anymore.
The problem was one of legality — Chris & I had gone to Japan on one-year visas, the first few months of which were chewed up by university teaching gigs. Legality is a drag. We did a few months after that of private teaching, waiting impatiently for warmer weather. Finally, he bailed for sunny Okinawa and a nice walk north. Soon after, with six months of my visa left, I followed — but went north-east to Japan’s easternmost point, Cape Nosappu.
The bus driver wakes me with a single word: wai-pa. He’s out there in the howling wind and snow, thumping ice from the glass, wrestling with a busted wiper, a cellphone and a miraculously functional cigarette. Finally, with a lusty Hai! Wakarimashita! he surrenders the cigarette to the wind, gets back in, the door hisses closed, and we’re mobile again, the driver focusing through his single patch of unfrosted glass. I wipe my window and get my first view of the Nemuro peninsula, the dismal white, the dark smear of forest beyond.
I pride myself on being a connoisseur of roadsides, and this one doesn’t look good: unwalkably narrow and icy, the verge beyond buried under snow. I feel queasy, possibly hunger after my all-night journey from Sapporo. We stop a couple of times; unkempt-looking passengers in ugly full-length padded coats get on and crawl under their complimentary blankets. We rattle through a shabby assortment of houses and creak to a halt before a concrete bunker half-buried under snow. Nemuro bus terminal.
The wind howls, snow stings our eyes as we collect our bags. I lug my great hulking brute of a pack, bulging with heavy cold-weather gear, out of the belly of the bus and into the sanctuary of the terminal. A cheerless place, like bus terminals the world over, but minus the unsavoury tang of imminent crime that you find in western versions. Small mercies.
In the restroom, a guy I ask about local buses to the peninsula tip — easternmost point of mainland Japan — sucks air through his teeth and proclaims it muzukashii – difficult. This is the worst word you can possibly encounter in Japan, where “difficult” usually means “impossible”. Exit, dejected. The guy behind the counter flinches as I approached. After some mime, gesturing, my infantile attempts at Japanese and much air-sucking, I ascertain that there will be no more buses in this lethal weather, and I slump to the cold, hard bench that will be home for the foreseeable future.
A group of retirees sits stoically, their dreams of a flight from Kushiro to Kyoto for the cherry blossoms of O-Hanami (cherry blossom season) in jeopardy. I callMika down in balmy Nagoya, have her talk to one of the nice old ladies and then relay the news to me in English. It isn’t good news. I keep hearing the word yama (mountain) — mountains of snow? — and Mika tells me, gravely, that I have lucked into an unexpected bofusetsu that had even featured on the Nagoya news. A 30km walk to the tip would surely be like Death March on Mount Hakkoda.
“What does bofusetsu mean?” I ask, though I’ve half-guessed.
“Mmm…rough wind and snow.”
“Ah, a blizzard. Cheers.”
Things are looking grim. The Kyoto bunch got out of here long ago leaving me to an uncertain fate. I attempted to walk to a nearby business hotel but was forced back to the bus station by the ferocious winds and deep banks of snow — got back with my face burning after only a couple of minutes’ exposure to the hellish elements. Now I’m really screwed. The staff here seem very dubious about a bus to Nosappu even tomorrow. In that case I would have to walk there, and then back to Nemuro, unless I fluked a lift off some insane motorist. And I would have to pay ¥6,000+ for a hotel for tonight, as there’s no way I would survive if I set out today… ~ Journal entry
The weather must have cleared in Kushiro; the retirees wish me luck and get back on their bus to the airport. We sit, comfortably spaced, staff doing their best to pretend I’m not there, a few forlorn-looking locals, and the humming vending machines. Occasionally the door slides open to admit some wind-hammered wretch, snow flies in and with it the shrieks and howls of an enraged wind. My dejection is slumping towards depression. Months of preparation, the worst teaching job ever, debt, and it’s all coming apart before it even starts. Unless…
My phone rings — Mika, her lunch break ruined, calling to offer the terms of a dignified surrender. Or maybe not a surrender — a retreat. She’s made some calls, and if I can get to the train station…
“Back to Sapporo? Yes! I’ve done some thinking, and if I start out from Sapporo and walk towards the middle of Hokkaido, by the time I get up here again the weather’s had a few weeks to clear. Then I hitch or whatever down to Sapporo and walk south to Hakodate and Honshu from there…”.
The following night, sitting in a park waiting for the sun to set so I can sneak under a bridge for the night, I write:
I retreated from Nemuro via two trains, the first a single-car contraption completely encrusted with ice that shook and shuddered in that hellacious wind all the way to Kushiro…
..The locals didn’t seem too bothered, though they all looked a mess when they boarded. The second was a more conventional affair…
..but it was a long trip back and all the way I was worrying about the night’s lodgings and whether I’d be able to access any money. Turned out that both were easily managed: another hit on the credit card at 7-11, then a “mat room” in a swanky internet palace where I caught up on my websites, booted the Monkey [my Osprey pack] out to give me room enough — just — to sleep, and caught short sporadic snatches of sleep throughout the night, kept awake by the lights and the noise of the other mysterious patrons. But I got up feeling reasonable at 5:00, loaded up on free drinks and hit the road only ¥2,000 poorer…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote