|Kyushu Charity Hitchhike|
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Take 30 ALTs, from Kagoshima to Wakayama. Add 21 challenges, season with 7 regional food and drink specialties, simmer over a 27degree heat, and allow to cook for 7 days...
Day 1: "Hit The Road, Jack"Edit
After having returned to the apartment where they'd left the tent and sleeping bags, Doron Klemer, (27), and Martin Brix, (25), of Oita City and Taketa respectively cracked out their thumbs to inaugurate this year's charity hitchhiking event. A fortuitous encounter with an old flame meant the first of many challenges, Beppu's Takasakiyama, was even spent in company, and our intrepid anthropologist Martin learned a new monkey maxim; besides not looking them in the eye, never get between them and feeding time either. For a people who seem to catch a fright simply being spoken to sometimes, there were an awful lot of fearless Japanese people poking our little primate partners and, for some reason, trying to stroke them.
A new aspect to this year's competition, the local foods challenges, led to arguably the best meal of the week in a little obaa-chan shack in front of Beppu station, along with the biggest double take of the tour when our bill was subsequently calculated on an abacus. Washing down lunch with a cold beer, (it felt good not to be driving, and enjoying that rarest of pleasures, afternoon alcohol), fortune smiled on us again with one of the week's best rides, the fantastic Fukuda senseis, a pair of Beppu doctors who made you wish you were ill. After hearing of our plan, the Fukudas handed over a charitable donation, which I was shocked to see was not merely a 1,000yen bill, but a 5,000. I nearly went into cardiac arrest when it turned out to be a 10,000yen note!
After a mere 15minute wait, we were whisked from Beppu to the Dazaifu temple complex in Fukuoka by the quiet yet helpful Tashiro, where we basked in the Summer sun for a few hours before trying to figure out how to get to Fukuoka. Having settled on "Pretty Much Anywhere" as our destination, there occurred one of those journey-defining moments: seeing a Nissan Cube zip by, Martin just had time to comment that he'd like to ride in one, when it came back to get us. The poetically named Yuki and Yukio, (do these couples get together on purpose?), escorted us to Hakata Station, and amidst the flashing of mutual photography, we had now been christened "The Cube Riders" and had a new mascot for the trip. Those cars are EVERYwhere.
A mere 10hours into our extraordinary odyssey, we barely had time to complete the ramen challenge, befriend the boss of the Tenjin sports bar, and bump into old friends from both Nagasaki AND Oita in the popular Dark Room nightspot before we were crawling into capsules. The upside to not getting to bed until 5a.m. is the capsules are so much cheaper. The downside is, you have to be up in 5hours...
Day 2: "Road to Nowhere"Edit
After having completed last year's course in a record four and a half days with my ex-partner, Mike 'Hitch Me!' Harris, but having seen very little in the blur, an executive decision was taken to go slower and do more. Today's challenge of seeing a Hawks baseball game was just one of many highlights, (aided by a beer or two, and bumping into fellow hitchers in the beer queue), but the other events of that day belong in a different journal, and with our tents and sleeping bags still yet to see the light of day, Tenjin's finest cybercafe was our home for the night...
Day 3: "The Long and Winding Road"Edit
This was our busiest day hitching, so it was only to be expected that we had some of our most interesting rides this day, starting with a brief lift to the expressway in a Subaru Samba Classic minivan...with tatami in the back. The Hirowatas were friendliness on four wheels, even running after us to give us packets of Milky, and we thought things couldn't get any more interesting until we were whisked into Saga-ken by Mr.Kinoshita, who after 15minutes of polite Japanese small-talk revealed in perfect English that he manages a chain of hotels in Nagasaki, Hawaii and Saipan, and that he lives with his English-speaking family in Hawaii!
With Nagasaki calling to us, it was on Mr.Kinoshita's recommendation that we forfeited any challenge points for Saga, visiting his favourite Onsen in Ureshino rather than the one in Takeo we were aiming for. The beautiful hotel and spa complex was well worth the detour, however, and after two mini hikes later, (one with Yoshi, who couldn't tell us the make of his car because he "wasn't that interested in cars"), we were taken directly to Nagasaki eki by Ryoji, (who didn't look old enough to drive, let alone own his gorgeous Toyota Super Land Cruiser), and his girlfriend.
After bumping into Piotr and Paul, the other Oita duo, and with no greenery in sight, we hatched a plot to bowl all night in the 24-hour bowling alley. Team spirit was strained for the first time when, after I bowled a lifetime high 196, Martin went and bowled a 208, so before blows were thrown, we retired to the 8th floor internet cafe for another night of reclining relaxation...
Day 4: "Movin' On Up"Edit
We decided to finally make a vague effort to complete some of the challenges which the teams had been set, (by me, ironically), so we hopped on the tram, (the most polite form of transport I've ever ridden, the driver constantly warning passengers when he would be turning left or veering right), to the foot of Inasayama Ropeway, giving us an impressive view of all the places we could be seeing in Nagasaki if we hadn't spent our last few hours there getting to the top of Mount Inasayama. Re-fuelling on gen-yoo-wine US buffalo wings and authentic, mayo-free pizza from the excellent Chris' Pizza, (plug, plug), we faced our first hiking dilemma; try to make it all the way to Kagoshima that night, (or more likely, well into the next morning), or cut into Kumamoto City? After being passed from a company boss to his secretary like human batons, we decided to stop for an onsen in Unzen, a place which was named after them, apparently.
Naturally, we ended up staying the night.
Unzen, on a mountain plateau, is a hot spring village like Beppu or Yufuin only without the hype and hordes of tourists. The onsen we visited was small, hexagonal and ancient, its water milky white and steaming, and we emerged to find a small park the size of an English village green, where we finally managed to pitch our cobweb-covered tent. We polished off a bottle of wine al fresco, before the secretary who had brought us there swung by at 20:30 to take us for champon, (another challenge complete, and bonus points for having it bought for us). Another bottle of wine, mixed with the sounds of tree frogs, the feel of grass beneath us, and the knowledge we were more than halfway through our hitch, led to the best night's sleep I've had in years.
Day 5: "On The Beach"Edit
We awoke, refreshed, and spent a few hours exploring nature, catching lizards and discovering a fertility shrine hidden in the hill, complete with statues of the reproductive organs, (quite literally, situated between a rock and a hard place). We set off again, pondering how lucky we'd been so far, never waiting more than 15minutes for a lift, which was amazing when we considered the confusion which the mere sight of us seemed to instill in most drivers. On our first day, one car had even gone straight through a red light whilst goggling at us, whilst at the other extreme truck-drivers seemed to turn to stone at the sight of a foreigner's thumb, never once even looking at us, (perhaps for fear that they might feel obliged to stop for us, thereby putting them precious seconds behind schedule?).
When waiting starts to drag a little, you find yourself inventing reasons why people aren't stopping: didn't I read once that Japanese is written from right to left? Are all these drivers wondering where the hell Sakinaga and Motokuma are?!? These were the kinds of thoughts you invariably have just before being picked up, although we almost wished we hadn't, our next driver, (in a Mazda Bongo Friendee, winner of the William S. Burroughs award for most random car name), winning the Mr.Grumpy award, showing no emotion at the discovery he and Martin were at college together before driving straight past our destination to drop us at his destination, Shimabara Castle on the east coast of the Nagasaki peninsula. Resisting the temptation to join them, we hitched up the road to the ferry terminal, riding with a Mum who had been persuaded to pick us up by her Jr.High School son...who was then too shy to speak to us.
Always a stickler for the rules, there followed our longest wait, a 25minute search for a driver to take us the 200m. onto the ferry, (we had to hitch between ken, and walking onto the ferry would have counted as using public transport!). Eventually welcomed with open arms by 21year old Yukikazu and his 26 year old girlfriend, Kie, (good work fella!), we then brought our average waiting time down again by being offered a ride all the way to Kagoshima City by Mr.Tsukiashi, who had merely seen us opening our map.
At this point, we realized an interesting point about the Japanese psyche. Despite the outward "Ganbaro!", "You can do it!" spirit, we were always being told that we couldn't do it; hitchhiking was impossible, no-one would stop for us, cars don't travel this road, no-one is going there. In Unzen, we had been warned between inward-sucking sounds that the ride to Kagoshima takes 5hours, and costs around 30,000yen, and that therefore no-one would take us. Either people were convincing themselves of the difficulty of attempting crazy things in order to continue happily with their daily routines, or we were being outrageously lucky; either way, Mr.Tsukiashi had to "go and say 'yoroshiku' to a customer" and get back to Nagasaki City before that night, so 140km/h and 2 hours later, we were deposited in Kagoshima city centre with a 12-pack of Salad Pretz as a present. It's amazing what you can achieve when you don't know you can't do it. The find of the day came when we met Tetsuro Ura, music-lover, pachinko-parlor employee and owner of the most lyrical name of the hitch, who skipped dinner in order to drive us South to Ibusuki, before taking us to the very funky Wave Cafe for food and drinks. He also introduced us to the owner, the 50-year old with the coolest record and CD collection I've ever seen, who proceeded to risk his Toyota Ist by driving us down a forgotten mud track to get us to our home for the night, a mini-park by the sea. And then coming back 2 hours later to give us the torch from his car, as we had told him we were going to read but didn't have any light. Only in Japan...
Day 6: "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do"Edit
It shouldn't really have come as a surprise that Mr. Miyashita showed up the next morning offering to drop us anywhere we liked on his way to golf practice. What did surprise us was the fact that his Toyota had transformed into a brand new Series 5 BMW, as it turns out the reason for his calm the night before when squeezing between narrow walled entrances was that he had been driving his wife's car. We were held up a while at the beautiful michi-no-eki by my favourite singer, Yaiko, blaring from some outdoor speakers, before squeezing into the front seat of wakebaorder Ichiro Yokoyama's tiny minivan. (In fact, it nearly escaped my notice that we've managed to hitch a ride in Ichiro's Suzuki!).
He was heading for a day riding the waves on Lake Ikeda, precisely our destination, home to Japan's largest eel, (measuring up to TWO METRES!), and supposedly a large, dinosaur-esque monster which was supposed to haunt the waters. (Sounds familiar to any Scottish fans? This creature's name also happens to be Ishii...). This trend of every place you visit in Japanese being famous for something, having the country's largest toilet or the world's first pine tree, led to the wry observation that, whilst our home countries have travel brochures in order to advertise things of interest, Japan seems to invent things of interest in order to create travel brochures.
Waving goodbye to Ichiro and his surf-buddy, (a guy in his seventies, dressed in wet-suit and looking ready to arm-wrestle an alligator, proving along with the Master the night before that Kagoshima keeps you healthy and young looking), we knocked back some noodles and surveyed the impressively large lake, before hitching back to the city centre on our way to the ferry terminal. We were driven by the friendliest ride so far, Mr. Shimonokado, (who had just graduated from APU!), and his adorable little sister who wanted to practice her English, and we were even taken to their grandfather's house and their grandmother's grave.
On the way to the ferry terminal, we hopped on the tram, where we met a crazy happy guy who practiced his English on us, and then started blabbing in schoolboy Italian, before paying for our tram-ride, (leading to a philosophical debate on whether we could count this as having hitched the tram). He was also the week's most pleased recipient of the Oita Trinita bumper stickers which the club shop had provided us to distribute as omiyage, and gave us a warm, fluffy feeling all day. This feeling was enhanced by the beer and imo-jochu, (sweet potato sake), which we were forced to imbibe as one of our Kagoshima challenges, washed down with a full yaki-niku set when we arrived on the shore of Sakurajima. This volcanic 'island', one of Japan's and indeed the world's most active volcanoes, is no longer an island, (having become joined to the mainland after the 1914 eruption), and cherry blossoms are thin on the ground, (that simile doesn't quite work; let's just say there are none), but the scenery is impressive nonetheless. We lucked out again with our last hitch of the day, Yuko, who took us on our longest ride of over three hours all the way to NIchinan, Southern Miyazaki-ken, where it was time to say goodbye to my hitch partner due to prior commitments in the Big City. Not really knowing of any camping sites or even greenery, Yuko dropped me at a beach car park, where I set up tent on a sloppy gravel path, and fell asleep to the pitter patter of sea cockroaches clambering over my tent.
Day 7: "Take the Long Way Home"Edit
I was woken at an ungodly hour known only to surfer dudes, who were using my temporary residence as a car-park and changing room. After a stretch and a stroll of the beach, I was picked up by the Yoshimotos and their two toddlers, again reminded of the wisdom of always flicking the peace sign at kids in cars; this was the second or third time they had persuaded their parents to stop dangerously, and even reverse into oncoming traffic to pick me up. They deposited me happily at Udo Jingu, one of the most famous shrines on Kyushu.
A little touristy, yet nonetheless beautiful, Udo Shrine lies in a cave overlooking the rocky Miyazaki coastline. There are nipple-shapes everywhere, a kind of theme for the shrine, including the shape of the small clay rocks which visitors pay 100yen for the privilege of trying to throw, wrong-handed, into an indentation in the back of a turtle-shaped rock. Being neither religious nor superstitious, I was naturally squealing with delight when my second nipple landed in the shallow pool on the turtle's back, and this may have led to my next stroke of luck: being picked up by the Abe's, (Ma, Pa and Granny), as I was in the process of writing my sign.
This Oita family, all the way down from Kunisaki, were on their way home from a Golden Week holiday to the South, and adopted me for the afternoon. We saw the sights of the coast together, from the Easter Island Moai giant head statues, (a strange site bordering on the pointless), to the Cactus Garden, (closed for good, much to the Abes' disappointment), and all the way to Ao Shima, the tiny island which lies just off the coast of Miyazaki City. This tourist trap is nonetheless well worth a visit, covered in rare trees, boasting a sweet sea-side shrine, (which reminded me in some ways of Southend with its promenade gift stalls), and most important of all for my challenge purposes, home to the start of the 'Oni no Sentaukiwa' the 'Ogre's Washboard'. This 8km stretch of intriguingly formed rocks has evolved over tens of thousands of years into a bizarre formation resembling an old style washing board, and makes for some great photos.
Unfortunately, lonely without a partner, and with threats of rain to come, I decided to call an end to this year's adventure at Miyazaki, getting a train to Nobeoka to return to the civilization of public transport, apartments and showers. Feeling as if I'd earned every penny of the donation money so kindly given by my co-workers and friends, I once more pondered that age-old question: why take trains and buses, when there's hitching to be done? With Oita waiting up the road, and my sense of adventure not quite satiated, I set off for one last hitch, back to reality...
Number of cars ridden: 25
Most common car company: Nissan
Average waiting time: 9.5 minutes
Doron, Martin and 28 others were hitch-hiking to raise money for the Oita AJET Charity Fund, whose goal is to raise 1,200,000yen in order to build a school in Vietnam.
For further details, please visit the Oita Jets website : http://www.oitajets.com/whereto/roomtoread