Back to Japan this time, folks — back to that endless, awful, spectacularly beautiful road snaking into the centre of silent, eerie Hokkaido…
My snow camp above the Ashibetsu River ended after a cold night with the patter of snowflakes on the tent roof. Suddenly I was up, much too early, hurriedly breaking camp before my gear got too wet.
The stuff-sacks filled with snow I’d used instead of tent stakes were now encased in rock-hard ice; at last I busted them free with a stick, regretting the offering of my ice axe to the road gods. Fingers frozen and aching, I lowered my food bag, stuffed everything into my pack and was road-walking up 135 again at 7:35:
The snow abated; a drizzly, grey chill lingered. A pair of huge deer bolted down the embankment, skittered across the road, changed their minds and retreated back into the trees, just beating the oncoming cars. I felt great! The pain had gone! Oh, please, please, I begged the road gods. Let it stay gone.
“Furano: 23 KM”, the sign said. I began to envisage a warm bed, hot food, a bath. The sirens at road’s end. But 90 minutes in, the pain was back, and it had brought company. I saw it as a dull drill boring into the gears of my knee.
At a tunnel mouth, another locked-up utilities building; semi-sheltered from the drizzle, I cooked a meal on a concrete platform: pasta, then soup, then a double helping of oatmeal. Still hungry, I wolfed down my last third of a jar of peanut butter, straight from the jar. The gloom enveloping me wasn’t mere weather — I saw the end of my walk, soon, if things didn’t improve.
While I ate, while I ruminated, a motorist pulled in. Not noticing me, he stood keenly observing his young son taking a shit by the roadside. I shuffled onward.
That awful tunnel, one of a dozen I’ve walked in Japan, was 2,730 painful metres long, the bowels of hell, a curving, concrete intestine riven by the bestial screech of oncoming vehicles while I hugged the wall on my pitifully narrow walkway.
Emerging, I dumped the pack and obeyed the call of my own intestines in the snow, swallowed two more ibuprofen almost dry, and began the final 13km to my destination, dreaming of coffee, donuts, sugar in any form whatsoever.
A kilometre on, I dumped some more gear by the roadside, this time the “Stabilicers”, heavy, lugged crampon-like attachments for walking on slippery surfaces — more dead, expensive, un-used weight.
Misery hung close all afternoon, as the road continued its gradual descent from the icy mountains to the milder climes and bare fields of the Furano plain. Lavender country, though none to be seen so soon after the snow. It was all beautiful, had been for days, but so what? Beauty was as useless to me as that discarded gear.
Furano. A big town, or a small city? In a store at last, I asked about internet cafes. Of course not. A Starbucks (dreaming here)? Not likely. A Mister Donut (desperate now)? The teenage staff conferred and disputed its location without meeting my eyes.
Somehow I tracked it down, felt my strangeness and smelled my odour anew in the clean, plastic interior. I sat there a long while, stealth-charging my phone, then left, recrossed the Sorachi River, and spent a dispiriting eternity searching among the weeds and trash of its bank for a campsite.
I couldn’t do it. Not again. Finally I climbed a short path lined with stone Buddhas and moss-dappled deities to the top of a forested hill, with a good view of the city below. I called Mika that evening, asked her to track down a bed for me in town. Feeling lonelier than ever, I set up my tent behind a shed, dodged a man walking a dog, and spent a comfortable night, woken now and then by motorists pulling in to take in the city lights.
Next morning, I tracked down the pension Mika had found…
..a cheap place on the expensive Kita no Mine (“North Peaks”) side of the river where upmarket digs abutted the ski slopes scarring the face of the towering mountains.
The manager spoke decent English despite his denials. I had a room, a small but heavenly room — with a bed, blankets, and a nearby bath.
That evening I shuffled back to my piece of heaven with a 7-11 dinner and two cans of beer. Instantly drunk, I had a brief email exchange with an Australian friend which I was too wasted to maintain. Crawling into my sweet, soft bed — carefully, since the slightest twist of the knee meant agony — I already knew that fucking road could wait.
I was staying one more night, at least…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote