HOKKAIDO CYCLETREK 1999
PART FIVE: DOWN AND AROUND THE BEND
DAY FIVE: MONDAY, AUG 16, 1999
By now you are probably as used to the routine as I was: cycle, refuel, cycle, epiphanize,
cycle, refuel, expunge, and sleep. Today would be no different--except that this
was the last official day of Hokkaido's Obon, Japan's combination of Halloween and
Homecoming. Turns out I would be pedalling through areas where lots of spooks come
out to play--and on their favorite day. I would be heading down through an elephant's
THE OUGON DOURO ("The Golden Road")
Get out your maps again and follow me. Once you leave Hiroo-chou, the southernmost town on the Obihiro side of Hokkaido's Hidaka Range, there is nothing but pure precipice plunging down into Pacific spray. Given the fact that there is no stable beach, meaning waves from a major sea current pulverize any unfortified road (as it has the Hidakas), this eastern side of Hokkaido's southern tip remained logistically impassible until WWII.
That was resolved by the Ougon Douro, and it is, despite its translation, no Yellow Brick Road. A 28-km long connected series of caves, it twists into solid rock like woodworm trails in a weathered painting frame or hookworms in podoepidermis. And it has a history not much talked about. The only sign of what happened here is found at the southern entrance, on commemorative monuments and plaques rendered nearly illegible by the corrosive salt air. They are worse than useless--giving meaningless data that ignores the point of the construction itself: i.e. when the road was started, how many times construction stalled due to lack of funds, how much those funds were (in ancient currency units), how many people were involved in construction, the absurdly low number of how many died, et cetera. Web searches I have done have yielded little better. Typical kusai mono ni futa o stuff--defray difficult topics into dulling statistics or food.
In fact, it was precisely because of WWII that this road was completed. Those caves were burrowed out by prisoners of war--i.e. Russian, Korean, and Chinese slaves--taken into custody and Shanghaied into being part of the war effort--activities expressly forbidden under the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs. Thanks to recent legislation in California, permitting survivors to seek damages from private Japanese companies that benefited from wartime indenture, more information may finally come out. Thus the Ougon Douro is the product of a very dark period in Japanese history. History merely paved and passed over.
It was an even darker period for this island I like and bike. I discovered that most of Hokkaido's wartime public-works projects and major road arteries were actually hewn from the wilderness by those slaves, thanks to secure supply lines from POW camps at contemporary pleasuredomes like Tomamu. It, again, is all tacit public knowledge, well-known by even the apolitical Dosanko (like my wife). Maybe ignorance truly is bliss, for this knowledge added a pallid overcast to the hitherto green breeziness of this Cycletrek. A route I could so blithely traverse came through the blood and suffering of thousands of unknown and conveniently-forgotten foreigners, who found themselves in a very different Japan than I did. I was glad there was no time warp.
Obviously cycling this short and winding road could not but affect me and my hoss. Hokkaido even in summertime here was atypically grey, angry, and threatening. Although this eastern side of the Hidakas is leeward and mostly shielded by the wind, the energy of the visible elements more than made up for it. The ocean was quite willing to spray in my face. The waves threw marble-sized pebbles into my eyes and bike spokes. The spume both matted my hair and rusted my chain to an even tan within a day. Only dedicated kelp fisherfamilies (there were a few shacks here and there) wanted to live here (and if they did, it seemed like they wouldn't have to "fish" per se--all they need to do is stand on the embankment and play catch with the brine). Even with all the trappings of Japan's rich society, the Ougon Douro is still for the most part uninhabited; anything not founded on a seibied concrete platform could easily disappear in the next sea storm.
The longer the road grew and the more pebblemarks graced my face, the more in awe I was that people would actually dare to work, or dare to force people to work, in this deathtrap. Sheer cliffs dropping into kelp-covered sawtoothed volcanic guano towers footed by perpetually-shifting pulverized sand does not a toehold permit, and worse yet, this place was developed when the potent cocktail of social policy--where Social Darwinism, Fascism, and War whose vision of glory had not yet caught up with the Industrial Revolution--converted workplaces into carnage machines justified by arbeit-macht-frei ideologies. The Ougon Douro was little more than a longer Bataan Death March with a winter season and more concretely productive results...
For once, my mental meanderings were not enjoyable, and I hit the brakes to shake off the past and get some lunch. Finding a rare stretch of beach, one where the sea wouldn't crush me against the three-meter-high seibied wall, I realized that even crunching my potato chips was unnerving, as they had accompaniment: the currents kept scraping the beach's ever-shrinking stones together with a hollow raking sound, like my daughter Anna grinding the teeth in her head in her sleep. Afterwards, on another sugar-induced high, I decided to explore some of the original single-lane caves around many corner extrusions (hell, sekkaku kita no ni, and it was easier to stop and park a bike than it would be a car on a later visit), but no joy there either. Most of them were plugged, perhaps due to the fear of collapse, but also I think partly from the fear that many Japanese have for spirits inhabiting caves where people may have died (in this case, DID die). Nowadays they were mostly sheds for boats, but not a few had some signs bearing warnings of one thing or another (including evil spirits--to scare away curious kids).
In sum, everything was eerie. And it was still daytime. It would be worse at night. As I would find out less than twelve hours later.
Despite the level ground, it took me nearly three times as much time to go the distance--mainly because, out of respect, I did not want to glide through the zone like cars using this as a mere shortcut. But I'll be honest--given the Sam-Raimi-Evil-Dead atmosphere, I wanted to be outta here before the sun went down on Ougon Obon.
I felt a clear sense of relief as the first coastal southern hillock lifted me out of the Douro doldrums and onto the flatlands that signal the final act of continental Hokkaido. Here the Hidaka range, which once looked as if it would dominate the skyline forever, would quite simply die--but without the current drama witnessed in the previous dozen miles. Here, with a whimper, it would be overrun by windblown savannah and heath until the Pacific swallowed it up again.
ERIMO MISAKI ("Cape Erimo")--THE SOUTHERN TIP OF HOKKAIDO
Look at your map of Hokkaido again and follow the shape. The entire island strikingly looks like a hooked trout leaping from the water, with upper and lower fins, a tail, and a mouth trying to reswallow the worm-shaped Russian-occupied islands to the east. Although Erimo is not the southernmost part of Hokkaido (the tail-shaped peninsula containing Hakodate just a couple dozen kilometers from Honshu actually is), Erimo Misaki is in effect the fin-polar opposite of that other outpost, Souya Misaki, near Japan's northernmost city, Wakkanai.
Both capes, as major capes around the world go, are pretty turbulent places--name one, besides Cape Town, South Africa, that does not suffer from pretty icky weather from the mix of currents, the barrage of winds on at least two sides, and the lighthouse mentality that says, "This is the end of our world, so watch out that you don't run aground on its remains." Erimo has its share of shipwrecks, as its nearby beach, Hyakuninhama, is where 100 people apparently died of exposure and starvation after hitting the beaches. Even today it is a place of blaring horns, barking seals, and beying gulls. And also the cloudiest place in Hokkaido--over one third of its days are shrouded in mist and blinded by brine.
But by now I was taking no notice. As I cycled the remaining thirteen kms in a newfound headwind and a stinging drizzle to the very fintip, I knew that rain, wind, even gloom would not despirit me. When I met up with the full parking lot at the Misaki tourist trap, with some Erimo enka song on endless loop and the drivers-seat-ridden tourists loading up on cholesterol, I was again vulcanized. None of them knew what had gone on with me this week and probably none of them ever would: That the goal I had originally set out to achieve all the way back in Furano--that of watching either the Hidakas or me give up the ghost--had been accomplished.
I proudly walked my bike to the highest promontory, gazed upon the embers and eddies of the last remaining southern sawtooth sills and dykes, and said to myself in blind euphoria, "Let no-one tell you that you do not follow through on your aspirations. You can accomplish anything--anything!--you want if you deem it important enough."
That spirit lingers in me today whenever I set out to do what seems to be impossible on the social-movements frontier. Erimo to me that day was more than an epiphany-inducer. It was lifetime proof that, even in a society that, in the face of the unprecedented, presses on the brakes far more than the gas, I can lower my head and press forward, an undaunted unquitter. Erimo was my Cape of Good Hope.
NORTH BEYOND ERIMO
I had accomplished my day's goals. I had gone around the bend. So now it was time to find a place for the night. There were campsites around, as this neck of the island has many nice ocean-view mini-mountains with cute names (Apoi-dake being the most famous). But all of them were uphill and I wasn't in the mood. Once I escaped the unpacific Pacific I was sure I would find a nice inlet good for tent-setting. It was just a matter of finding a place where I could Kazinsky myself with no people.
That would not be difficult around here. The only place for quite a while, the town of Erimo, clung to the flat windward side of the diamond and was only accessible by car or infrequent bus or bicycle. I breezed through it, wondering how with the lack of a deepwater port or a train connection people here were making their living. Tourists and fishing, I guess. I stuck to the only road going anywhere, Route 336, which clung to the coast for dear lifeline, and watched the only traffic accompanying me was from convenience-store trucks and tourists wondering where they too were going to sleep that night.
Sunset would be due in couple of hours, so I thought it would be nice to set up my tent in the light for a change. I went fifteen kms beyond Erimo, leaving the windblown flatlands and entering the Hidakas again, when I saw from the road a rather nice looking riverbed just off a kelp-drying and boat-landing area. It was in a place called Satsuman, whose inlet was sandy, level, and tucked in from the sea. It was shielded to the north by a sheer cliff that Route 336 punched its way through, with a river running through it becalmed by a sand bar levy. The site, across the river from the cliff, would thus afford me a sunset view and the sound of the sea--without the threat of being swamped by the tides. Best of all, it had enough driftwood--stacked like a pale just waiting for a match-- that I could set the whole beach alight if I got in a Boy Scout mood. Rubbing my hands together and looking around, I spied a Satsuman community convenience store on the right side of the road full of beer and potato chips. There would be so many extracurricular activities tonight that I wondered if I would find time to sleep!
But it was after buying my beer, setting up my tent, and watching my hungry campfire become the major source of light that I noticed things were just slightly awry. The thing that should have tipped me off from the start was this here three-meter tall standing golden Buddha across the river, flush to the cliff, on a plateau a couple of meters above the water. It was well maintained--uniformly painted and ornate, with an unrusted falling-rock screen built all around it. What was bugging me was not the prospect of two-ton Furubira debris squashing me in the middle of the night; should the earth move Buddha would buy it and I would be no more than splashed by Satsuman River freshwater. What nagged was why Buddha was erected there in the first place. You don't spend that kind of money to erect and shield a religious figure on a narrow shelf where you can't also build a collection zone staffed by siphoners of the faithful's money. Unless you have a special reason.
"It's the caves. The caves have ghosts."
I whirled around to see a whithered old man standing close to my campfire. He was well into his eighties with the agility of a person who has worked all his life without even thinking about it. I could barely see him in the dark--his raiment only revealed his hands and his face. His fingertips were swollen from generations of net handling. And his face, oh his face.
He had one eye which bore no sight and refused to track with the other one. From the nontracker came shockwave furrows radiating out from the cornea cornice and raking across his forehead. It was as though his eye had exploded and shrapnel had plowed the barren scrub brush that was now his withered pate.
Says he: "I'm surprised you're camping out here tonight. It's the last night of Obon. The spirits will be quite lively tonight, coming from those caves. The Buddha there makes sure they get up to no mischief."
He sat down next to the fire with me and, after ascertaining that I was an American, began talking about how his 86 years of past related to that. How Doug MacArthur came up to these parts some time after War's end and convinced him that the Americans had their heads screwed on properly. How there were once bears in this area and how shooting one was a rite of passage. How there was one really smart bear which caught him unawares.
"And you see these marks across my forehead? They go all the way back to the base of my neck, here, look." He bowed compliantly. "I got clawed by that bear. That's how I lost my eye."
He brushed the sand off his hands, then popped his eye out with a swift and oft-employed pinch of the fingers to show me the replacement. It wasn't even a Sandy Duncan or a Sammy Davis--it was only a plastic cap of a half-eyeball, which he popped into his mouth to clean. Sucking on it through gums that had long forgotten they had ever teethed, he brushed his fingers off again and dug around in the yawning eyesocket, which like his lips had nothing to blink or purse around. He removed a bit of funk that had crusted itself around the edges as diffidently as one would pick their nose. He smiled, brought the remaining eye up to mine, and continued narrating another story unfazed.
He was the only one. I was glad I was well into my second can of beer. This was encouraging my thirst better than pretzels. Just when I was beginning to wonder if this man was one of the very ghosts he was cautioning me against, up came another bunch of phantoms in the night.
"Gramps, what are you doing here? You made a new friend?"
"Yeah, I was just telling him about the bear." He grabbed me by the arm and assured me he was flesh.
It was Gramps's family out for the last night of Obon. A small crowd encompassing four generations were carrying square paper lanterns out to the mouth of the Satsuman River, where they would have candles inside them lit and set adrift. I wasn't sure of the particulars of the custom, but it was a closing of sorts and a salute to relatives that just might be hanging around those caves tonight. We exchanged perfunctory greetings, got them to call Gramps off, and watched the lanterns drift off and die once fresh turned into salt water.
"Is it going to be any problem if I camp here?" I asked the father of the family.
"Not at all. You won't be in anyone's way."
"Not even the ghosts'?"
He chuckled. "You been listening to Gramps too much. No, doubt if they'll mind. You might be in the ocean's way, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, all this driftwood you are burning comes in from the ocean, not the river. This sandy area you pitched your tent submerges when the sea has a temper. The forecast isn't for storms tonight and I think the tide is going out, so I doubt you there be any problem, but..."
Japanese speakers often like to end with "but..."s (kedo, ga) like these in conditions of mild uncertainty, and it sounded downright ominous to me that night. Sort of like, "You probably won't die, but... (of course there is that off-chance and I wouldn't want to be the one recklessly declaring a reassuring impossibility if something actually does happen)". It didn't exactly soothe my nerves as the family took Gramps home and left me with the unblinking apertures in the cliff instead. Now the Hills Had Eyes.
That did it. I ducked into the tent. I was ready for bed, but unfortunately the elements were not. The wind picked up and kept blowing embers tentaways, and when I realized the driftwood was more than willing to keep the plasma going I wound up getting up and lugging the coals to the river, in my own bit of impromptu lantern-ceremony, in blind hope that spark sprinkles wouldn't surpise me later. Meanwhile, the sea kept on roaring away some twenty meters and a pale-covered embankment away, and whenever I started nodding off to sleep (you know how things sound louder just before you drop off), I started having nasty eyelid nightmares. Only last week there had been a terrible accident in Kanagawa, where some errant campers had ignored warnings from local authorities and camped on an island within a river. It rained that night and the island became unreachable in the river rush. Finally, an upriver dam unsluiced a torrent that, if I remember correctly, drowned fourteen people. Why that dam was opened with people in the way is beyond me, but the media and police attitude was so "see, I told you so"--like the "but" in Gramp's son's voice. The roar of the sea became the roar of a damburst, and every clatter and crackle of the wind along this River Styx's sticks felt like a reborn blaze ready to consume me in the fires of Hell. Charon's caves would begin to howl and pop eye and drop trou and --
Hell with it. I got up, bailed out of the tent, and dragged it in a doze to higher ground--out of sand and pale and onto the gravel bed of the boat landing/kelp drying area. I adjusted my clothes so that any underback sharp rock hit only cloth, and, focussing all my might on the very act of falling asleep, did eventually drift off.
That day I did 86 kms, and with all the introspection about spooks and such it would cost me the night's sleep I so desperately needed. Enough was enough. I was ready to take the north road towards home and end the Cycletrek.
Pity home was only 200 kilometers away. Another unreachable goal?
NEXT: PART SIX: You'll find out.