Wednesday, June 08, 2005


One of the most underappreciated aspects of travel, or life in general for that matter, is pace. Back in 4th grade my class planned a 3 week American roadtrip as a group project. We looked up tourist attractions and landmarks, plotted driving times and distances, and pieced together an itinerary that covered practically the entire continental U.S. I thought we had done a good job, but our teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, gave our project an S minus. (I went to a private elementary school, so we received Hs, Ss and Us rather than normal As, Bs and Cs. That, along with several thousand dollars a year, was probably the extent of the difference between public and private elementary education in Central Connecticut). Mrs. Dickerson's main complaint, which I thought unfair, was that we neglected to budget time AT any of the tourist attractions we listed, averaging over 12 hours a day of driving.

If I had attended elementary school in Japan rather than New England, that 4th grade project would probably have earned an A plus. Due perhaps to a lack of vacation time, cultural emphasis on superficiality and conformity, along with a penchant for exhaustive organization, the Japanese idea of travel is best described as a scavenger hunt:

Step 1: Obtain an officially registered list of top ten tourist attractions in a given area.
Step 2: Prepare a detailed itinerary, or better, plan of attack, designed to cover each attraction on the list in the minimum possible amount of time.
Step 3: Spend an average of 8.2 minutes at each attraction, enough time to snap pictures of each other at designated photo points. Girls flash the peace sign; boys are not allowed to smile.

The more slowly one travels, the more one is exposed to the uncertainty and the little encounters with the unexpected that are at the core of exploration. Additionally, and significantly, slow travel generally equals cheap travel, which in turn enables long travel. I can fly from Sapporo to Asahikawa in a half hour for around $100, take a train in 2 hours for $50, bike for free, although I have to buy the bike, or walk, taking 3 days, sleeping at friend's houses or camping, and spending nothing at all, except for the meals I would eat anyway. And clearly, walking or biking promises more memories than faster and more expensive transportation.

Last week, after taking the train back North from Sapporo ($25) on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I decided to walk the last 15 km home from the station instead of taking the bus. The jar of sake I drank on the platform while changing trains in Iwamizawa certainly influenced my choice and did a good job of keeping my spirits high as I walked past the pachinko parlors of Sunagawa on my way up the valley towards Utashinai.

Once past the highway overpass on the outskirts of town, the exhaust fumes and ramen restaurants gave way to wind blown pollen and rice fields. It had been a long weekend, and as the road rolled on and the sake wore off, my feet grew heavy and knees a bit cranky. Still, the sun was shining like it hadn't shone since September of last year, and the thought that I didn't have anything better to do than walk along a country road in Hokkaido for a few hours was a decidedly happy one. Several of my students passed me, being driven home from Sunagawa or Takikawa by their parents after attending cram school or shopping. They stuck their heads out of the car windows as they whipped by, yelling "Haroo! Haroo!" and waving frantically. Adults were just as surprised to see me, but only gave a slight bow to acknowledge my presence, keeping both hands on the steering wheel.

About half way home, I heard music echoing back and forth across the valley. Rounding a corner, the source of the sound became clear - a shabby one story house with a bright tin roof that would not have been out of place on a poor Caribbean island, sitting slightly lopsided on the edge of a broad rice field. Three cars were parked out front, and the bang of drums, thump of bass and wail of guitar spilled out from the windows, accompanied by some of the most badly pronounced English lyrics I've ever heard. The band was rocking out, no doubt about it, fast, loud and unrestrained. The band finished a song as I drew closer, and I could hear them laughing and talking as they adjusted their instruments.

Needing a rest anyway, I tossed my bag down directly across the road from the house, leaned back and watched four crows harass a hawk overhead. The band started up again, as high energy as before, the music spilling out of the little house into the still air of the empty green fields, providing a marked contrast to the peacefulness of the setting. I stayed there for over an hour, clapping after each song, grooving along to my private concert, until the sun sank behind the valley walls. With the band still rocking out as loud as ever, I pulled on a sweatshirt and continued my march through the golden light, up the road towards home.


Thoreau, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote, "I have traveled a great deal in Concord." His point was that travel depends on one's willingness to seek out the unexpected, or better, to allow themselves to be surprised, a state of mind which, although all the more easily achieved when far from home, is not contingent on geography. To travel is to explore, and one can begin an exploration by taking the long way home, buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok or sucking down a few bong hits and turning over logs at the bottom of last years' woodpile.

Yesterday, I walked up an abandoned, overgrown road that began behind the neighborhood gas station and followed a little stream up into the hills. Five minutes into the walk I surprised a mother partridge, the first I've seen in Japan. She squawked and fluttered in little circles around me, dragging one wing along the ground in a desperate attempt to distract me from her brood, an instinctual response that never fails to fill me with respect for the individual courage and instinctual cunning of mother birds. Standing perfectly still, I watched the tiny chicks, less than a week old, as they peeped aimlessly around my feet, falling over themselves in their blind panic.

Leaving the distressed partridge family behind, I left the path and followed a heavily used deer drail up the ridge, emerging into a vast open area of flooded mining pits, gravel roads and massive piles of black coal. A few abandoned buses were parked here and there, thin chimneys protruding from their roofs. I walked up to one slowly, looking for signs of life, and peered through the rear window. The chimney connected to a small stove, which sat next to a mattress covered with heaps of ratty blankets. Carpet was stapled to the floor around the stove, and a topless Japanese girl smiled down from a calendar tacked up over one of the windows. Cigarette butts overflowed from a plastic ashray next to the mattress. Who lived in this bus, in the middle of such desolation? Were they Japanese, or, as I thought, perhaps an illegal Chinese immigrant? Or a North Korean? Where did they work? Did the stove keep the inside of the bus warm in winter? There I stood, nervously contemplating the unknown in the desolate landscape of a mined-out hillside, less than two kilometers from my house.


Anonymous logjammin said...

right on, timmy, discovering moments that can never be reproduced, but linger as their own memory islands...i.e. instead of cutting and pasting backdrops from magazines and tv.

9:02 PM  

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