LATE MARCH, 2008. I was up on the hill among the crumpled ramparts of Sendai Castle, looking down on the city, the languid river, in my rabbit-fur hat and lugging my monkey. The Monkey: my big, new, brutally heavy pack. We were getting in a spot of sight-seeing before I departed for Hokkaido that night. I wasn’t taking it easy on my last free day, though — I’d hiked up there from a friend’s apartment downtown. Raising a sweat hauling that beast through the City of Trees and up to this mossy 17th-century pile of rock had felt real.
Two young tourists in fashionable denim and leather and heels obliged when I asked them to take my photo .
“Where are you…? Eh, nani? Go? Go-ing?”
“Un!” Her friend. “Where are you going?”
“Hokkaido tomorrow. And then walking.”
“Walking, un!” A glance at my pack.
“Ehhhhh?! KYUSHU? By walking?! But Kyushu is very far place!”
The ferry was a mini-ocean liner, with several floors, an abundance of cabins, restaurants, a stage with a piano, and vast pastures of lush, rich carpet. Most importantly, it departed Sendai punctually; I had a train to meet in Tomakomai. I found my cabin with the tatami-mat floor I would be sharing with a dozen or more strangers. Cheapest berths on the ship. I squeezed in next to a sullen-looking pair already sharing a bottle, and marked my turf with hiker gear.
I bought a beer and toured the floating world that would be my digs for the next 14 hours. I was the only obvious gaijin on the ship, and I was just about the youngest passenger. Most of the others, settling sociably into comfortable seats with their drinks and views of the Pacific twilight, looked more like native Hokkaidoans heading home than tourists en route to the outdoor playground of the north. The piano went unplayed all evening.
We started gliding north. I had the decks to myself, and the beer and the cold and the thud-thud of the engines worked their way through me till my heart was keeping time with the engines. I called Mika and thanked her for her help; pretty soon me and that Monkey would be pounding tracks across the famed open spaces of Japan’s second-largest island, among the bubbling craters and potato farms and lavender fields of the deep north. Be careful, she said. Hokkaido is very big. But the people, she added, the people are kind. They will help you.
It got dark. The lights of Honshu flickered on the left as we slipped north; flickered and faded and died. A few persistent stars pierced the cloud. I went back to my cabin, which had filled with passengers and their luggage; in Japanese style each slipped comfortably and with a minimum of fuss into their designated space. The sullen pair on my left turned their backs, hunched over their bottle and exchanged disquieting grunts.
It was a long night. The soothing pulse of ocean and engine through the mats did not have the soporific effect I’d hoped for, and pangs of excitement would lurch me awake at regular intervals. Some of those pangs grew horns and fangs of unease, and there was no hiding from them in sleep.
Finally, around 5:00am, I got up, negotiated the snoring corpses to the door and made my way to the bathroom. A single passenger, fat and content, bobbed in the massive tub. Each of us pretended the other wasn’t there as I shaved my stubble and my skull and joined him in the bath. Dawn was flooding the Pacific and leaking through the bathroom’s foggy portholes. We lay in the scalding water, transfixed by the blue infinity through the glass, sloshing about, water lapping over the rim, within a vessel itself sloshing about in the waves — Japan has a way of rendering the improbable real.
Other bathers drifted in. The boat was coming once more to life. I dressed and returned to my bed to pack, passengers wishing me Ohayo gozaimasu as we passed. Breakfast was prolonged and social; I chewed in silence. Then jogging up the steps again, I wrenched open the door into the pummelling wind, and surveyed the horizon. There she was, a hazy strip of grey speckled with white, a low roof of cloud, a hint of higher, white-tipped mountains beyond: 北海道.
Within an hour the speckles had taken more solid form:
Another queasy surge of excitement. So much land, so much space. Somewhere thousands of kilometres south my partner in this unfeasible expedition was already trudging northward — or I hoped he was. Hokkaido, if he made it this far, would be his closing chapter. His view of those shores would be markedly different from my own. If he made it this far, he’d be a few short weeks from the finish line.
I went back to The Monkey, fussed with the straps, the buckles, the pockets and cords. Hokkaido would be cold, sparsely peopled. The Monkey’s gut bulged with stuff to keep me warm and dry and fed. I hauled her onto my back and joined the buzzing throng at the gangway already reconstituting into orderly lines.
Outside, Hokkaido waited.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote