Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sleeping in the Gutters #3 - The Gas Man

This is the third installment of "Sleeping in the Gutters" by Muff Richardson. Sleeping in the Gutters will appear around once a month in this space. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." To read about how I met Muff, click on this link. Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views.

The Gas Man

By Muff Richardson

Some buck-toothed bald clown from my prefecture's Jap gas company turned up on my doorstep about 2 weeks ago, claiming, in Japanese, that I'd telephoned his HQ that morning and asked for an engineer to come and check my gas bathroom fittings as something was amiss.

I told the daft c*nt that I had made no such phone call and, furthermore, I didn't have any "gas fittings" in my f*cking bathroom, as it's all electric water heaters in my joint. He looked baffled. He asked if I was sure it wasn't me who'd telephoned, and I assured him that I was sure of that fact. He did not look satisfied, his face rather wearing the expression of a man who has lost a pound and found a shilling.

I asked him to show me the wee logbook he was holding so I could check the name and address of the cat whose cage he was meant to be rattling. He showed me the book and, true enough, it was my pad's address, but - aha! - the handle of the character who'd called the gas lads was Furuta, written in kanji next to my address. I told him I wasn't Furuta, that there were no Furutas in my apartment and none in the building according to the nameplates on the mailboxes downstairs. All of this intercourse was conducted in unbroken Japanese, took about 5 minutes.

He seemed to think I was perhaps fibbing or concealing the truth: a reasonable assumption since it was a nice early spring day and I clearly had nothing better to do than stand in my doorway and chat with a stranger whose rancid halitosis would have floored lesser men than me at 5 paces. Accordingly, he asked if he might come in to check my bathroom anyway, "just in case". I told him cordially to piss off. He sighed and continued to look somewhat down in the mouth and started sucking air loudly through his teeth. As if his very life depended on the answer, he then asked, again, if or not I had rung the gas company. I answered, again, that I most certainly had not.

Still perplexed, and smelling a rat, realising he was dealing with a fresh-off-the-banana-boat gaijin who couldn't understand Japanese, even though we had been conversing without hitch in that language for over 5 minutes, he put down his log book on the ground. He then very helpfully and very grandly extended his pinkie and thumb whilst clenching the other 3 digits of his right hand. He held this telephone receiver-aping hand gesture up to his right ear and waggled it about a bit whilst trilling in badly enunciated English "Telephone... telephone...". He then helpfully raised his left hand and pointed his forefinger at my chest, modifying his chant now to "Telephone... you...telephone... no?" in a tone of voice clearly interrogative in texture.

At this, I immediately realised what he was saying, and apologisingly admitted that, oh yes, I had in fact telephoned his company earlier that day, claimning that my name was Furuta and requesting that a dentally-challenged workman be hastily dispatched to my residence to investigate a faulty gas connection in my all-electric bath and shower room.

Well, I didn't really. I simply guffawed with laughter, shook my head and slammed the door in his face.

It makes you think.


.........Sleeping in the Gutters will appear around twice a month in this space. You can contact the author at All comments and queries are welcome, but he especially hopes to hear from "any birds that's not too particular like." Finally, please remember that any opinions and vulgarities in "Sleeping in the Gutters" do not necessarily reflect my own views...........

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Stranded in China (The Horror, The Horror)

Many Americans are afraid to venture out into the world, a problem that's often exacerbated by fear-mongering in the media. Reading this article in USA Today about an American businessman who mistakenly found himself in Taiyuan instead of Taiwan, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. China is a perfectly safe place, but the poor man seems to think he was lucky to make it home in one piece, and the hysterical tone of the article only justifies his irrational panic. Travel is about getting out of one's comfort zone and embracing the unexpected. Arriving without an itinerary in a place like Taiyuan can be a good thing, but stories like this make it sound like a crazy idea. Pity the college student planning a trip across China whose parents come across this irresponsible piece of journalism, pity the good people of Taiyuan who did nothing to deserve this reputation and pity the readers of USA Today who believe what they see in print and will never take a vacation abroad. Maybe USA Today has a kick-back deal going with the cruise ship companies?

Taiyuan, Shanxi Province
Originally uploaded by AlexLiu.

I originally found this story on World Hum, one of the best independent travel sites on the web. Here's what they had to say:

Business Traveler on Chinese Brothel: I Had to "Damn Near Fight My Way Out"

No, this is not from the pages of the Onion. It’s from an AP story about an American business traveler in China who wound up flying into the wrong city—Taiyuan, a place with 1.5 million residents—and seemed to nearly fear for his life. We’re not sure what’s more shocking: the business traveler’s level of anxiety over a situation backpackers experience more or less daily, or the AP’s breathless account, which doesn’t begin to question the traveler’s response. (How does any city with 1.5 million people qualify as “remote”?)

And here are some comments from people posting to the JET message board Big Daikon:

"I've been to Taiyuan. It's not all that remote. You can get trains to Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai and other places without many problems (I paid about $25 US to get from Taiyuan to Xi'an when I was there). It sucks that he had no money, and I can understand being upset and panicky, but it's hardly rural Siberia or something. He should have been able to get a flight to Beijing for under $100 US.

I'm sure it wasn't enjoyable, but his life was hardly in danger. The way he was talking (and the article was written), you'd have thought there were armed, roving gangs running around or something. And this would be a good lesson in why it's smart to travel with some cash, no matter where you think you're going. How the guy allowed himself to wind up in a brothel, I can't begin to figure out. There are hotels and stuff right by the train station!"

"well, at least it sounds better than 'Man stupidly takes wrong plane; locals, man kind of frightened'"

"So just to get this straight, he went to China on the "wrong flight", went straight to a brothel then stayed for four days while his wife sent him money........ "

"You know, this article was picked up by dozens of major news outlets in America, not just USA Today. The headline sounded familiar, and sure enough, I found the exact same story in the Post.
What is the hidden message in this?
Clearly China is a land of savage barbarians, dangerous and unpredictable.
Why would major news outlets want this story?
Anything China relates is selling like hotcakes right now with Hu visiting the US.
What is the effect this crap will have on Sinai-American relations?
Tourism drop, investment drop, rising antipathy towards immigrants.

Its like the papers WANT America to villify someone. It sells, right? You might say, "no one will read this frickin' article and actually avoid China" but thats just want many Americans will do. They read it and it becomes gospel. "

Contribute to the conversation here.

UPDATE - Swing on over to Shanghai List for a great take on the debacle.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Blazing Beach Fire

This photo from our camping trip to Cape Erimo is currently the Photo of the Week at Idioimagers. Click on the link to read Ryan's comments and browse his collection of similarly stunning shots!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Destination IRAQ

It's often a struggle for me to avoid politics in my writing, but I want to keep Sleeping in the Mountains from slipping into the great blogosphere muck-heap of fetid, bubbling rants and "this-world-is-going-straight-to-hell" cynicism. Part of the reason I love running along ridgelines, sleeping in cabins and cooking on a camp-stove is that the world shrinks down in the backcountry as hard reality squeezes out the shades of spin that define the political game. Experience and emotion are boiled down to their essential core and a single cloud can become the most important thing in the world. The same thing happens when traveling, especially in out of the way places, where something as simple as a tree or a bowl of noodles can overwhelm one's senses simply because it's something different and new. It'll be a sad day when a quote from Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken shows up here. As Jack Johnson sings, "I wanna be where the talk of the town is about last night when the sun went down."

But there are places where politics are so critical that they creep over the highest mountain peaks and suffocate the river valleys. In areas where tension is ratcheted to the max by the horrors of war, even the people who live there can become so caught up in the insanity and consumed by hate that they forget to notice the color of the clouds. Likewise, when the only foreigners in the region are there to blow things up and kill people, it's no wonder that xenophobic neuroses and extremism flourish, feeding into the vicious cycle. To my mind, these are exactly the kinds of places it's most important for travelers to visit, arriving as ambassadors from their culture with no agenda beyond a search for beauty in a ravaged land.

Of course, there are places where travel is simply not feasible, but these are actually few and far between. I'm looking forward to seeing Kashmir and Nepal (where war has climbed into the highest Himalayas.) Iran is another destination I've been eagerly waiting to visit since taking a class in contemporary Iranian society back in college. Beautiful mountains, hospitable people and few travelers with whom to share the trails - what's not to like? It's a terribly sad thing when people make the mistake of confusing a nation with its government - and that goes for Persians and Americans alike.

Iraq is one place even the most intrepid wayfarer should think twice about adding to an itinerary, but I'm encouraged to note that the first faint glimmers of interest are emerging from the traveler community. Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, recently took a trip through Iraqi Kurdistan, and posted reports from that journey along with a some practical tips for travel to Iraq on his blog, which you can find here.. Wheeler makes the important point that going to Northern Iraq is a far different proposition from travel in the rest of the country. Iraqi Kurdistan has been relatively safe since the Gulf War, when it became independent from Iraq in everything but name.

Even the staid old New York Times recently published an article about tourist attractions in the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon. The piece focuses on potential, and clearly no tourists are visiting what remains of the Hanging Gardens these days. But some day the bombings will taper off, talk radio will find something else to yammer about - and that's the day when I hope to start writing about Iraq.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Step out on the planet..."

Read about Lew Welch here. He's sleeping in the mountains to this day...

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Life is Easy"

The following essay is by a Thai farmer named Jon Jandai. Jandai is the co-founder of Pun Pun, "an organic farm, seed-saving operation, and sustainable living and learning center" in Northern Thailand. He created Pun Pun in 2003 with his wife, a Coloradan named Peggy Reents. Since then, the community has grown into a small village of adobe houses populated by an eclectic mix of individuals committed to putting ideas about self-sufficency and sustainability into action.

Mr. Jandai's "Life is Easy" article reminds me of that great part in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, when the character Japhy Ryder (based on Gary Snyder) goes off on the wanton materialism that governs the lives of most Americans. "See the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers," says Ryder (Snyder), "Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume."

Home for Dharma Bums would look a lot like Pun Pun.

“Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?”

by Jon Jandai

To be given life is the ultimate gift. When we are first born we have the right to cry or laugh. When we grow up we have the freedom to choose the way we want to be. Humans were born with rights equal to every other living thing but because of our unlimited desire human life is often of less quality than most other animals.

A small bird wakes up early in the morning singing a song waking the other birds, merrily looking for food, spending a short time to get all the bugs and grain she needs to fill her small stomach, then spending the rest of her time playing, singing, and courting. She spends a few days to build her beautiful nest. She doesn’t work too much to get the food she needs everyday. Her life is easy. She has a lot of time to play and enjoy living together with the other birds.

Humans have small stomachs as birds do. Just to have enough to eat we too do not have to work a lot in one day. If we want to build a house, we can build one in a few weeks. We can then have a lot of free-time in our life to play and enjoy life together as well. Now days people choose to work very hard, at least 8 hours per day. They work like machines just to have some food to eat even though the food they eat is not good quality. They eat the old plants and animals that have been dead many months in a can or in frozen packages. They have to live in a crowded house like a termite. If they want their own house they have to spend at least one half of their life or maybe all of their life to work for that house. Life is busy and hectic all the time.

We can see only complications with no space for beauty and freedom. We create suffering for ourselves because we don’t know the purpose of life. We are blinded and our soul turns to darkness. We can’t see beauty. We can’t enjoy living. We have only fear growing in our minds everyday. We begin to distrust other people. We cannot be friends with others around us, even relatives or family members. Our lives are lonely, even though the world is full of people. Even though we have a lot of material goods and wealth we still feel like it’s not enough. Even thought other people give us love, we still don’t trust them. We are even disturbed by the rooster’s morning call and we’re proud to say in the middle of this confusion and suffering that this is development and we are civilized.

Why do humans choose to live their life in a difficult and complicated life like this? What do we receive from our hard work all our life? Why is the simple and peaceful way not attractive to people? Life is easy, why do we make it hard?

If we think we are the most clever animal in the world, why do we make our life full of bitterness and suffering more than any other animal? Why do we have to work harder than other animals? Why do we make our lives so boring? Why don’t we have time for our kids and family or even time for ourselves? These are the instincts of all life. In 24 hours we spend more than 10 hours struggling with what we call work or said nicely, “making a living”. We spend on average less than hours sleeping and 2.5 hours a day eating, maybe .5-1 hour bathing/dressing. This leaves 3 hours left for ourselves and our family in our day. Mostly we spend this time intoxicating ourselves with entertainment such as drinking, going to parties, shopping, watching movies or watching TV. Even on our day off we love to spend the time on entertainment. We don’t see the importance of spending time with family or ourselves because we think we don’t have time. So we are not different from machines or robots because we have lost our heart and soul.

Our kids are like our pets. We take care of them enough to feed them and keep them safe but we neglect to think about their mind and soul. Kids want to be loved and cared for and to feel close to their parents but we think it’s a burden so we push them away by sending them to pre-school. Then we appease ourselves by telling ourselves we’ve done the best by them by giving them good food and expensive schooling so we can have more time to give to working and we can tell ourselves that we work for our kids. But we don’t know if the kids want what we give them or not. We assume we have given the best to them. If the kids know how to compare, they must be jealous of other animals like ducks seeing their whole family playing and looking for food together. But to be born as a human kid is so lonely. They become orphaned even though they have parents. They spend more time with strangers than their parents.

We are losing our instincts. We are destroying the system of life which our ancestors developed and lived successfully with for many thousands of years. Now we become the only animals that work this hard. Even in the past people didn’t work as hard or long as they do now except slaves and prisoners. What made people see slavery as progress or development? What is the reason people choose to live like this? Life is easy, why do we choose to make it so hard and complicated? What makes us think life has no choice when in fact we have a lot of choice?

Click on the link to Pun Pun in the "Lifestyle" section of my link section to learn more about this unique community.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

From "Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout"

by Gary Snyder

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cape Erimo Campfire

Below the bluffs and out of the wind, a protected cove with four fishing boats drawn up on the sand, piles of driftwood dry-as-a-bone: you pitch the tent and I’ll get a fire going.

Through the dark back to the van, getting a feel for this beach, white bits of shell and a little stream cutting a channel by the concrete boat launch. Cold fingers, switch on the dome light, rummage around the pile of packs, bottles and grocery bags, a cardboard box, fill that up, matches in my pocket, some moonlight coming through the clouds.

This box will be our stove, wedge it down into the sand and pile some rocks around, rip open the package of fire-starters, break off two dense, pitchy bricks and place them side by side, now a nest of twigs and bark, some dry seaweed; it’ll burn.

Strike the match down low, PhoOOM those starters light right up, bright, the kindling already catching, add some more, quick, bigger ones, thick as my wrist, lay them over the top, now get down, eyes closed and blow, whoosh, turn breathe and blow, whoosh, starting to crackle, it’s going, warm up those hands, camp’s alive.

A school-lunch milk carton, the kind with a straw taped to one side, pull it open, pour in Kahlua, take a drink to make room, then fill to the brim with vodka. Jim Beam and two liters of coke leaning against this log; we’ve got plenty of wood, pile it on.

Cheddar cheese, hot miso soup, bananas and dark chocolate candy bars. Salmon in the pan, globs of bubbling fat frying, flakes of pink meat and crispy skin, eat it with your fingers.

The pipe’s going around and it feels good to stretch after that long drive. Sparks sailing high, smoke chasing us around the fire. The wind shifts and I get a faceful, cough and gasp, eyes clenched shut, flinching, swearing, then coming back rueful and wary, until I forget and it gets me again.

Past midnight, walk down to the water, an arc of hot piss spilling into the dark cold immensity, neck craned back and clouds scudding by, silently revealing and concealing stars. Zip up, return to the fire, to the familiar warmth of insults among friends.

At dawn a toothless old fisherman was delighted to find us asleep on the sand. “Aren’t you cold?” he said. The sea was flat and there was a circle of pale grey ash where the fire had been.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hokkaido Mountain Huts

The cliffs at the bottom of the gorge were steeper than I thought, and it was touch and go for about an hour, punching holes in the snow-pack and hanging on to any shrub I could find, hoping the whole face wasn’t about to slip-slide away into the stream below, dog-tired, and the sun way past gone down over the jagged tri-peaks of Mt. Ashibetsu. Meanwhile, farther up the ridge, Ryan was slogging through waist-high powder only a stones throw from the cabin where we hoped to spend the night, but it wasn't until he descended into the ravine to find me, resigned to a teeth-chattering night in a snow-cave, that he stumbled upon a few feet of shiny stove-pipe protruding from a wind-blown drift.

But it all worked out in the end, as these things nearly always do, and it’s almost warm in here now. Ryan and I are lying in our sleeping bags, slurping down spaghetti, making noises like bears, faces buried down in the pot. We’ve got a fire going in the rusty tin-can stove, plenty of hot food and enough candlelight to write by. This is a big cabin, with heavy charcoal-black beams, thick stone walls and two-stories of sleeping bunks – but it’s totally buried in snow. Ryan had to shovel for 20 minutes before he could crawl through an upstairs window and lower himself down to the floor.

Welcome to springtime in Hokkaido.

Everything is soaking wet, but we’re going to sleep well tonight. The pasta is finished, and there was homemade chili before that, with fat kidney beans and mounds of parmesan cheese. We’ve left the window open for ventilation, and can see three shivering stars in a patch of dark blue sky, the sound of the stream coming through too, like ten-thousand splintering icicles. I’ve got a bottle full of that stream water right next to my bag, water so cold it burns the whole way down.

There are a lot of huts like this one in Hokkaido, tucked away in valleys and perched on ridges throughout some of the most gorgeous mountains in East Asia. A few of the more popular and accessible cabins charge for bunk space, but most are built and maintained by volunteers, left open year-round to anyone in need of a dry place to hang their socks and lay out a sleeping bag. Some shelters are downright luxurious, with tatami mat floors, magazines, stacks of blankets and well-stocked wood piles, while others are little more than flimsy lean-tos, but even the most humble hut is a welcome sight at the end of a long day on the trail.

Over a dozen shelters are scattered about Daisetuzan (Big Snow Mountains) National Park, a massive wilderness area in central Hokkaido. Some of the more comfortable cabins are conveniently positioned at remote trailheads, allowing weekend hikers to drive into the mountains on Friday afternoon and get an early start Saturday morning. Others boast natural hot spring pools a few steps from the front door, the perfect medicine for clammy skin and tired muscles. One of the most spectacular hikes in Hokkaido is a traverse of volcanic 2,000 meter peaks along the spine of Daisetuzan, a trek that can take a week to complete. Apart from a remote 25 km section of trail between Hisago Marsh and Mt. Biei-Fuji, shelters are available at most camping spots along the traverse, a welcome sight to backpackers eager to duck out of the wind and get a good nights sleep. Brewing tea from melted snow-water at daybreak on the porch of one of these cabins, watching steam boiling out of the river valleys far below, makes for mornings beautiful enough to break your heart - and heal it back again with each mist-cloud breath.

Many cabins designed to accommodate large groups of hikers receive only a few visitors each season. Hokkaido, like much of rural Japan, is in the midst of economic doldrums so severe that several towns are being forced to merge with their neighbors in order to keep vital services up and running. Amid the belt-tightening, funds for access roads to the mountains are often the first to evaporate. When a landslide washes out a section of road (as happened recently on the Uryu side of Mt. Shokanbetsu and at Mt. Yubari) few weekend hikers bother to walk all the way to the trailhead, leaving the cabins there relatively unused. Anyone willing to extend their trip by a day to allow for the extra hike in and out along the access road will probably have the place to themselves – perfect for a large group of friends!

Sharing a cabin with strangers can also be a rewarding experience. The Japanese people I’ve met in the mountains have overwhelmed me with generosity more times than I can remember. If you’re friendly and considerate, or just look a bit bedraggled, don’t be surprised to receive rice-balls, hot tea, sips of whiskey and pale pink processed fish sausage from Japanese hikers delighted to come across foreigners in the backcountry.

This being Japan, even the most heavily used cabins are kept clean and well-maintained, with little conveniences laid out for hikers in advance. Dry kindling arranged in the stove is a beautiful thing to see when arriving at a shelter cold and wet. It’s important to respect the cooperative spirit that these cabins represent, so make sure to leave them in even better condition than when you arrived. Take special care to pack out all food scraps. Even a candy bar wrapper can attract animals – including brown bears!

The hut we’re in now is sturdier than most, a good thing given the sheer amount of snow pressed against the walls. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic location for a cabin, perched on a tiny patch of level ground at the top of a gorge and surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs rising hundreds of meters to craggy peaks. In the summer, the trail up the gorge is passable – barely - but most hikers choose the safer route up the new trail, which follows a ridgeline and comes nowhere near this cabin. Clearly, April Fool's Day is a little too early to be here – if Ryan hadn’t happened to notice the stove pipe, we would be huddled in a snow-cave right now, and I’d be writing a very different story. Mountaineering season in Hokkaido doesn’t really start until June, and only experienced hikers should be on the trails in October, when winter storms can hit suddenly and hard. Even in high summer, it’s important to have warm clothes and a tarp, just in case Murphy’s Law asserts itself.

Ryan’s asleep, the candles are sputtering and new stars have moved into the window. Tomorrow we’ll have a long slog up to the ridgeline, then back down to the conveniences of the valley. Right now, all I need is my down sleeping bag and a dry bunk in this universe of snow.


I will lead a 2-week travel program in Hokkaido in September, 2011, through Sterling College. More details here: Hokkaido Field Study.

Mt. Ashibetsu and the Daisetuzan traverse are described in the Lonely Planet’s guide to Hiking in Japan . If planning a trip to a remote cabin, it's a good idea to stop by an outdoor store or tourist information office to make sure that the trails are open and the cabin is still standing. Anyone with specific questions is welcome to contact me!

All the photos in this post were taken by Ryan Libre. You can see more of his work at