Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan (4 page)

BOOK: Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan
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“Do you know how tanuki make music?” I asked them.

“Sure!” they yelled. “They use their stomachs like a drum!” Hidenori then proceeded to show me how by punching himself repeatedly in the stomach. “Very good,” I said, but he kept on going.

“Ah, that’s fine,” I said. “You can stop any time.” He continued pummeling himself in the stomach even as his eyes watered. “Come on,” I said, and then, slipping into English,
“I get the picture, kid.”

His eyes widened with an audible
. “English! You speak English! Say something, say something in English.”

“Wayne Newton is the Antichrist.”

“Wow! What does that mean?”

“It’s a poem. Kind of a haiku.”

When we reached the coastal highway, Mr. Migita pulled over and told me to wait in the car. (You could tell he was a real Papa; he talked to me the same way he addressed his five-year-old.) He made a call from a pay phone and when he returned he said, “I told my wife we’d be late. We’re going to Sata.”

The kids cheered and the three of us in the back did the Wave. Mr. Migita then told his daughter to change seats and he moved me up front. I had been promoted.

The highway twisted from one hairpin to another and there I was, sitting right up front like a big person. I swung my feet and watched the palm trees and villages spin by. There are no roads in Sata, just corners joined together. The corners kept coming and coming, and I began to get queasy. I could feel my stomach percolating—never a pleasant sensation—and soon I was threatening to erupt, volcanolike, across Mr. Migita’s dashboard. Even in my stupor I realized that throwing up on your host was a bad way to start a relationship, and I fought hard to keep my lunch (pork and rice with a raw egg) from making an unexpected encore. We came to the parking lot just in time, and I bolted from the car and bent over, gulping down fresh air and trying not to faint. The littlest boy came up and punched me in the stomach. “You’re not a tanuki!” he said.

“I’ll kill you, you little shit.”

“Hey,” he called to his dad, “he’s talking poetry again!”

When my inner ear had stopped spinning like a gyroscope and my stomach had ceased its amusing Spasm Dance, I joined the others at the tunnel. Mr. Migita had paid my entrance fee and there was no way I could talk him out of it.

“You are my guest,” he said.

No, I am a freeloader hitching a ride. “Thank you,” I said, as I accepted his generosity.

I did manage to decline the squid, however, even though Migita’s daughter offered me her last tentacle. Standing at the top of the observation deck overlooking Cape Sata, I told her and her brothers about the mythical, faraway land of Ka-Na-Da, where children didn’t have to go to school on Saturday or wear uniforms or even actually learn anything, and they sighed with understandable envy.

“Do you have a gun?” the youngest asked, and his older brother, Toshiya, immediately chimed in, “Yes, did you ever shoot anybody?”

“No,” I said. “Only evil Americans shoot people. In Ka-Na-Da everyone lives in peace and harmony.”

It sure is great being a Canadian. You get to share the material benefits of living next door to the United States, yet at the same time you get to act smug and haughty and morally superior. You just can’t beat that kind of irresponsibility.

“Tell us more about Ka-Na-Da,” said the children, and I obliged.

It was almost dusk when we left Sata. The sun was throwing long shadows across the road, and Mr. Migita had decided that I should come back to Kanoya City and have supper with him and his family. He pulled over to stock up on beer, and while he was gone his daughter leaned up and whispered in my ear, in English so soft I almost missed it, “My name is Kayoko. I am fine. And you?”

She then leaned back in her seat, obviously pleased with herself. Her brothers were dying to know what she had said. “Tell us, tell us!” they demanded, but she held her head high and proud and didn’t say a word.


lived on the outskirts of Kanoya City, in a two-storey apartment block that faced an open field. Mr. Migita’s wife welcomed me without batting an eye and, like a conjurer, she produced a full-course meal out of thin air. We nudged our way in around their low dining-room table and the food never stopped coming: raw fish with sinus-clearing horseradish, fried vegetables, noodles, more fish, salad, seaweed, soup, mini-sausages. It became a challenge to see if they could ever fill me up. Mr. Migita kept topping my glass with beer and encouraging my gluttony until finally, bloated to the brink of bursting, I conceded defeat. Mrs. Migita cleared the table of the wreckage and debris, and her husband and I settled back, sucking on toothpicks like a pair of feudal lords. This may sound sexist and insensitive and politically incorrect—and it is—but I had long since learned that had I offered to wash the dishes, or worse, had I
, I would only have humiliated Mrs. Migita. And anyway, I’m a lazy git and I was weighed down with forty pounds of excess food at the time.

The kids were doing their homework in front of the television. Which is to say, they were
doing their homework, they were watching television. It was clear that my presence had caused a lapse of household rules, and whenever their father absentmindedly looked over at them, they began to scribble away with feigned studiousness. A sci-fi animation show was moving stiffly across the screen. Everyone in it had huge blue eyes and ridiculous yellow hair and all the fluidity of a comic book being flipped through—slowly. Man, I hate Japanese animation. Give me some good live-action drama any day: Ultraman or Godzilla or Mothra.
Oh no! A giant
Those were the classics. But you tell that to kids today and they just don’t listen.

This isn’t true, of course. Godzilla and Ultraman are still superstars with Japanese children, and with adults as well. You know how Godzilla is always turning up to stomp on Tokyo? The filmmakers churn those movies out like clockwork, and Tokyo Tower has been destroyed so many times you’d think they’d have given up by now.
Rebuild it? What’s the point? Godzilla will just come and knock it over again

Sometimes, Godzilla destroys other major metropolii, like Osaka or Nagoya, just for a change of pace, but mainly he sticks to Tokyo. The smaller cities in Japan have complained about this. They’re jealous. The citizens of Fukuoka City even went so far as to circulate a petition asking—nay,
—the producers of the Godzilla movies to destroy their fair city instead. Thousands of people signed these petitions and after years of pressure the producers relented and said, “All right, we’ll destroy Fukuoka. Quit whining.” Everyone in Fukuoka was delighted to hear this. Newspaper headlines boasted
, and when it was later revealed that Godzilla would in fact rampage over all of Kyushu, the entire island was simply delirious with joy. So don’t tell me the Japanese aren’t a weird bunch of people.

Mr. Migita eventually did notice what his kids were up to, and they had that immortal parent-child conversation, one so innate I believe it is embedded right in the DNA. It goes something like this: Hey you kids, turn off the TV, it’s bedtime. Just a few minutes more, please, Dad, please. No, you have school tomorrow. But the good part is coming, please, Dad, please. No! I said no, and when I say no I mean no, so the answer is no.

As usual, the children won. The animated characters blew up the planet and everyone was very happy, and the three kids filed off to bed. Mr. Migita and I, meanwhile, were on our sixth bottle of Yebisu Beer. He cleared a space on the table and began spreading out maps like a general planning a campaign.

“You can do it,” he said. “But we must chart your way with great care.”

We sat up late into the night, he and I, tracing highways with red pens, and with me making copious notes.

Eventually we came up with a complex course that zigzagged brilliantly across Japan and that made complete sense to us at the time. But the next day and miles away, when I unrolled Mr. Migita’s maps, the routes we had marked and the cryptic asides I had jotted down with such conviction were now completely incomprehensible: “Good here, but not overland—highway changes to new one, must check to always see—Do
(and here I had underlined the word
forcibly several times) cross highway—wait at other places—West instead?—Check as I go.”

It was two in the morning by the time Mr. Migita and I finished our cunning plan. We congratulated ourselves heartily and opened another bottle of Yebisu. By this point, he and I were blood brothers and we vowed eternal loyalty and friendship. He rolled up the maps with that careful deliberation people get when they have consumed too much alcohol, and we shook hands. Again. We did that a lot, often in lieu of coherent conversation.

Mr. Migita straightened himself up and said, with sudden determination, “You are my friend. You do not need to hitchhike. I will give you the money for a train ticket.”

I was taken aback. “I’m not hitchhiking because I can’t afford a train ticket.” Had he offered me food and shelter because he thought I was broke? He was equally puzzled. If I wasn’t short of funds, why was I hitchhiking? Why did I want to go all the way to Hokkaido in the company of strangers?

I assured him that the reason was not financial. Then I told him about Amakusa. For my first two years in Japan I lived in the most beautiful place on earth: the islands of Amakusa, south of Nagasaki. I taught in fishing villages lost in time, in misty coves with weathered temples and unexpected church spires. Amakusa is where the Jesuits of Portugal first landed in Japan, and it was in Amakusa that I first discovered the Power of the Thumb.

It was a discovery born of necessity. My work involved commuting between fishing villages without a car in an area where the buses apparently ran only on odd-numbered vernal equinoxes. Buses in Amakusa were like UFOs; I heard a lot about them but I never actually saw one. So I began hitching rides from school to school across the islands, much to the consternation of my supervisor. What began as a necessity soon became something else. It became a way
The car is an extension of the home, but without any of the prescribed formalities that plague Japan. The hitchhiker in Japan slips in under the defenses, as both a guest and a travel companion. Bumming rides became its own reward, the journey its own destination.

In this spirit, I had set out for Hokkaido.

Arduous solo travel has a long history in Japan, and I was following in a proud tradition. The mendicant poet Matsuo Bashō wandered the highways of the deep north in the late fifteenth century and wrote a classic travel narrative about it. Three hundred years later an Englishwoman named Lesley Downer retraced his footsteps, and in 1980, Alan Booth
the entire length of Japan, north to south, and wrote a travel narrative of his own. But these are solitary ways to see the country. I didn’t want to travel among the Japanese, I wanted to travel with them. I didn’t want to walk Japan, as Alan Booth had done, precisely because it is such a lonely, aloof way to travel. Also, it would have involved a lot of walking. Personally, I preferred zipping along in an air-conditioned car. Tromping down a highway all day often put Booth in a sour mood; but when you are constantly prevailing upon the kindness of strangers—as a hitchhiker must—it keeps you in a positive frame of mind. Call it Zen and the Art of Hitchhiking. The Way of the Lift. The Chrysanthemum and the Thumb. Heady on beer and the sound of my own voice, the aphorisms spilled out unchecked.

Mr. Migita had nodded off. The beer glass was empty, and it was time for me to crawl into one of those enormous cumulus futons that are always on hand for unexpected guests and other such freeloaders.


, where the Migitas made their home, was one of the main departure points for kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. I tried not to think about the implications of this as I prepared for my own departure. One thing that did intrigue me was the imagery used to describe the pilots. Most of the kamikaze were mere boys, many were under sixteen, and they were honoured not as tigers or dragons or defenders of the faith—but as sakura, the cherry blossom flowers that fall in their prime. Spring cut short. The kamikaze, it is said, did not die yelling “Long Live the Emperor.” They died crying out instead for their mothers. The last word from their lips, as their planes plunged into fiery death, was

Kanoya City has its own kamikaze museum—more accurately known as the Special Attack Force Museum. The nickname
comes from “wind of the gods,” and refers to the typhoons that twice scattered Kublai Khan’s Mongol invasion force in the thirteenth century. Just as the typhoons had saved Japan at the last possible moment, so too would the suicide flights of young pilots save Japan from an American invasion in 1945. When you establish military strategy on myth and religion, this is where it leads you: mass insanity, wasted lives.

Ironically, the kamikaze did save Japan—from an
—and led instead to the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Americans waded through blood and shrapnel to take the tiny islands of Okinawa. Faced with mainland Japan, a nation capable of producing kamikaze and an army that would rather be burnt out of caves than surrender, the U.S. High Command wanted to avoid a full-scale invasion at all costs. And so it was, a single plane appeared
over the skies of Hiroshima. Bodies melted. Shadows were seared into the sidewalks. Three days later, another plane appeared over Nagasaki. When sakura fall from the branch, the shock waves can shatter entire cities.

The kamikaze departed with only enough fuel for a one-way trip. Mr. Migita, thankfully, made sure we had a full tank of gas before we left.

BOOK: Hitching Rides with Buddha: A Journey Across Japan
10.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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