Friday, June 17, 2005

The Kindness of Strangers

It is a lonely feeling to arrive tired, hungry and sweat-stained in a strange town after dark, with no place to go and no idea where to sleep. The last few kilometers of the ride felt just as long as the first twenty, and probably took as long too, because even in first gear my legs could barely propel me to the crest of gentle hills. The sun was gone and the light quickly fading when I finally rounded the last corner and saw the lights of Furano laid out in a bright line along the Sorachi River.

Furano straddles the geographical center of Hokkaido, shadowed by the white peaks of the Daisetuzan Mountains. Walk into any Tokyo travel agency, and chances are good that the poster advertising Hokkaido package tours is of a Furano landscape. Only half an hour from Asahikawa by train, with an excellent ski hill, clean rivers, stunning mountain views and fields and fields of lavender, Furano is well positioned to outlive the sad coal mining towns on the other side of the hills.

I'd stopped for dinner in Furano twice before. Last November, after spending a day struggling through chest-deep snow on Ashibetsu-dake, two friends and I arrived in Furano desperate for a hot bath and good meal. We stopped at a hotel near the ski hill with a sign advertising its hot spring, and were promptly ripped off to the tune of $12 each for an uninspiring, badly lit bath and cramped sauna. After receiving glowing recommendations for a local curry restaurant, we drove back downtown, hoping to make up for the disappointment with a memorable dinner.

The smell of curry filled the air as we piled out of the car, hair wet from the bath and bellies empty after a day in the mountains. Drooling, stomachs rumbling, we walked around the corner to where the curry restaurant must be...but there was nothing - only a wooden shack at the edge of a vacant lot. We continued up the street...and the smell evaporated. Circumnavigating the block, we found ourselves back at the car, where the scent was as overpowering as before - an array of spices, sizzling vegetables and meat - it had to be right here! Setting off in the opposite direction, we didn't get ten feet from the car when the smell vanished a second time.

We took another turn around the block, and once again found ourselves standing in front of the vacant lot. I was on the verge of tears. Just then, a couple emerged from the ramshackle shed, patting their stomachs and smiling. The three of us looked at each other, laughed and went inside.

It's no wonder that we didn't recognize the place as a restaurant. There's no sign, no parking lot and the whole place really does look like it could topple over in a strong breeze. There are two stories, with the second floor build in and around the branches of a big pine tree and the first hanging over the concrete bank of a small stream. An old, ratty sofa marks the entrance, where people can sit while they wait for a table.

Inside, the master, a thick man with a silver beard and his assistant, a massive, quiet guy with long hair like Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" dish out huge portions of homemade sausage or mushroom curry with rice and golden potato chunks on the side, served in big white bowls and eaten with one of the large steel spoons kept in coffee cans on the tables. Menus are scrawled in black marker on pieces of cardboard and thousands of business cards cover the flimsy wooden walls, propped up at the corners with birch trunks. An old fashioned stereo system blasts the master's favorite records - Dylan, Merle Haggard, Alabama, Aerosmith and the Chieftans. If you're lucky, there will be some homemade beer available - dark and flavorful, with only a hint of carbonation.

These thoughts were all that kept me from laying out my bag under a bridge 10 km back, and the lonely feeling vanished as soon as I caught the first smell of curry. The place was packed, but the master cleared me a space at the heavy wooden bar and without asking slid an overflowing bowl of sausage curry in front of me.

"Where from?" he asked, in English.
"Utashinai," I replied between mouthfuls. "I biked here for the curry."
He laughed, showing silver teeth. "Where you stay tonight?"
"Camp, I guess," I said. "I have a sleeping bag."
"You'll stay at my place," he said, switching to Japanese. "My name's Toshi."

The Japanese word "uti" has no equivalent in the English language. It can refer to one's home, family, self or office - any space or institution with which the speaker identifies. In a society divided among "in-groups" and "out-groups," uti marks the boundary between public and private, between the face one presents to the world and the personal life maintained behind rice paper screens. When Toshi invited me to stay at his home, he wasn't just giving me a place to crash. He was extending the purest form of hospitality in Japanese culture; he was inviting me inside.

"I'm sorry," I said, accepting his offer. "Thank you."

Toshi topped off my curry bowl and gave me a big plate of fresh salad greens. "From my garden," he said, smiling, and went back to work.

Toshi refilled my bowl twice more that night, teaching me Hokkaido dialect and telling stories about growing up in Furano, telemark ski trips in Daisetuzan, the high-school rugby team he coaches and the curry restaurant, where he'd been dishing out extra helpings for over 30 years. As the crowds thinned, Toshi beckoned me behind the counter, where I ineptly peeled potatoes and joined the welcoming chorus of "Irrashaimase!" when late costumers tentatively peeked into the entrance. When the last traveler was fed and his assistant began cashing out, Toshi asked me why I came to Hokkaido instead of Tokyo.

"I was placed here," I said. "I didn't decide." "It worked out for the best though - I love the mountains, and the fresh air. People are more friendly in the countryside."

"Sore wa soo da nee," he said. "That's the truth. Why do we have these cities? Why do people want to live there? They work all day, go out drinking and screwing. There are always wires overhead, cars going by. If they look up at night they don't see stars. When they go to sleep there is no sound of river, or wind. Neighbors are strangers. And yet the kids on my rugby team can't wait to graduate and move to Sapporo. I don't understand it. Never have."

We left the restaurant at 11 in Toshi's old truck, folding up my bike and putting it in the back. The road took us out of town, into the foothills of the mountains, where it turned to dirt and began following a small stream deep into Daisetuzan. "Trout," he said, pointing at the creek and grinning.

The road dead-ended in Toshi's front yard. "Aiiii," he exclaimed. "My grandkids left the lights on again."

A pack of dogs surrounded the truck, barking happily, then warily when they caught my scent. "It's OK, It's OK," he said to them. "I've brought a friend."

The house was a large post and beam design Toshi had built himself, with a big wood burning stove at its center. The front rooms were done in the Japanese style, with rice paper screens and tatami mats. One of the mats pulled away to reveal a space for heating water during the tea ceremony. My host opened one screen and pointed at the sky. The moon shone through, warm and white against the perfect blackness.

Toshi showed me to the bath, a steaming wooden tub big enough for three, with windows looking out to the forest. After soaking, I found him in the kitchen, taking a brown jug from the refrigerator.

"Can you stay up a little longer?" asked Toshi. "I keep some beer at home."

He poured us each a glass and we sat at his broad kitchen table.

"Tsukareta," he sighed. "You know, I'm on the Board of Selectmen here in Furano. We had meetings all morning. I think the library should be open past 5 in the summer, don't you? So many meetings..."

He drained the last of his beer.

"Come upstairs," he said. "No need for the sleeping bag, but be quiet, because my son and his wife and their kids are sleeping."

Toshi showed me the bathroom, featuring an industrial sized metal sink with six taps. The house was built to hold a number of grandchildren. I brushed my teeth, and let him usher me into a bedroom, where I collapsed under clean white sheets and a heavy wool blanket, too tired and full to lie awake listening to the sound of the stream outside or the wind blowing through the trees.


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