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The International Writers Magazine - Our 17th Year: Japan Hitching
From Our Archives

Roughing it in Japan
Paul Haire

I decided to treat myself this morning to a nice breakfast after roughing it for the previous few days. I found a little café where you could get toast, a fried egg, salad and coffee for 500 yen, around £3 which was as cheap as I’d seen.

So I walked into the dark interior where an old woman with a big beehive was serving coffee to a man at the bar. A fog of blue smoke hung above their heads. A juke box in the corner was playing rockabilly and old records and photographs from the 50's lined the walls. The lady greeted me with a big smile and motioned for me to sit down. The cafe was quite small and only two or three other customer were here, all men, who sat smoking,drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. The soft seat was heaven after the cold, damp night I’d had sleeping outside.

I ordered the set breakfast, which arrived about ten minutes later. The coffee, as with all the coffee I’d tried in Japan, was delicious and the toast was made with lovely thick slices of white bread.

I ate slowly, enjoying the relative luxury of my surroundings whilst I checked my guidebook to see if there was anything I could do in Kyoto for free. It soon became apparent, no. The thought of another day wandering around made me depressed and the seat and breakfast seem all the more special, so I lingered, like the haze of blue smoke hanging in the air.

Eventually I paid for breakfast and reluctantly made my way out into the early morning rush. I spent the morning window shopping and visiting the entrances of temples.

The Old Tomb
I clambered up the steep hillside heading away from the city centre until the path came to a sudden stop. Heavy forest flanked me on either side making the place feel cramped.
I had only seen one potential sleeping space, a small piece of what I had taken to be wasteground, down the hill. However, since it was getting dark and I was tired it seemed I had no other option.
Unfortunately it turned out to be a tomb, two gravestones backed against the hill side. I warily placed my rucksack on the ground and went back to the path to see if it was visible.

I decided to bow to the tombs as a way of paying my respects to any malfeasant lurking spirits and this done I cautiously settled down to what would mildly be called an uncomfortable night.
Firstly, I found that due to tree roots it was almost impossible to find a comfortable sleeping position unless I lay motionless on my back. Secondly using my plastic poncho as a sort of blanket made it very hot, and as a result I sweated profusely. And thirdly I soon found out that this place was teeming with mosquitoes.
I tied my bandanna over my face to prevent the mosquitoes or any other creepy crawlies biting it. And very much hoped that nobody would find me as they would get the fright of their life as a faceless zombie rose up from the grave and stumbled about drowsily.
It was only 7.30.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that Japan might have poisonous snakes or spiders and that this patch of scrubby wasteground would be the perfect place for them to be. (I made a mental note to check wikipedia when I got back home)
I spent the next 5 or 6 hours until 2 am trying to get to sleep.
So it was with huge relief that I greeted dawn the next day, which came around 5am.
I packed away my poncho vowing never, ever to come back to this spot and dashed back onto the path before anyone could come and shout at me for sleeping on their grandparents graves.
I found a public toilet where I washed myself counting that I had 23 mosquito bites on my legs.
Then I sat down sleepily in a small park beside the toilet as I waited for Kyoto to wake up.

Osaka

I waited for 50 minutes as car after car of devout Buddhists and monks went past without stopping. So much for helping your fellow being! Finally a small car with a huge guy squeezed in the front and what I assumed to be his mother squashed in the rear, reversed back. He was the size of an American football player and offered me a lift with a big smile.

Mu spoke good English which and was easy to talk to so soon we were chatting away, it turned out his mum had been the reason they’d stopped, she’d felt sorry for me. They came from Osaka and offered to drive me all the way there which was great as I’d only been expecting to go to the next town.

We chatted almost all the way, he was a very friendly guy, who liked motorbikes and baseball and worked as a civil engineer. He was was quick to laugh and kept saying ‘honto’ with a big expression of faux disbelief on his face when I said something (honto means really in Japanese).

The scenery around about us was unremarkable after we had descended from the beautiful craggy mountains. Small towns populated the flat, fertile plains and railway tracks and telegraph wires criss-crossed the road creating an unappealing tangled mess which was made worse by the ugly box-like houses.

Mu offered to take me to try some traditional Osakan food when we arrived in Osaka, and so it was that I found myself eating octopus balls (not literally) in a non-descript side street and sipping beer from a can in the, still hot, but fading early evening sun. The dough balls were scaldingly hot inside with cubes of chewy octopus in the middle and were covered in sweet soy sauce on the outside.

We then headed through small suburban streets, Mu keeping our destination a secret and me swaying slightly after necking two big cans in about twenty minutes.

We arrived at what turned out to be Mu’s local izakaya or pub. Inside there was an open kitchen at the front with a bar around it and a few chairs and tables on the floor. There was no-one else there at the moment apart from the owner, who was a friendly 60 year old man. Photographs of the local baseball team who the owner sponsored lined the wall, Mu’s face beaming goofily in one of them.

The owner then proceeded to cook all the local specialities, sashimi, okonomoyaki and a big bowl of yakisoba noodles all accompanied by many bottles of beer.

It was hearty, simple and delicious and all paid for by Mu. I reflected on how I probably wouldn’t have been having this experience if I’d just gotten the bus. Hitching had immediately immersed me in the local culture and at the same time shown the kindness of people.

After eating to bursting point and drinking about 5 big bottles each we headed out into Osaka city centre where I eventually had to find somewhere quiet and hidden to sleep (I had no money), but that’s another story.

© Paul Haire March 2009
paulhaire at hotmail.com

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