Bullet in the North

My adopted Big Sis in Akita was heading home at the end of August, but before she went back, her sister was visiting for a few weeks. Last year, Big Sis had shown me pictures of a summer festival in which they smashed big wooden boat frames together to see which one would break first, and it sounded so much like something invented by a drunken engineer that I just had to go see it. The plan was that I would head up on Friday the 22nd, watch the boats get smashed on Saturday, and then head back on Monday to show Big Sis Senior the Izu area before she left on Thursday.


I went over to P. Rock on a rainy Thursday afternoon so I could get an early start on the seven-hour northward journey the next morning. Socks was still staying at E and Bugsy’s place, but he was heading to Tokyo on Saturday afternoon to depart Japan for good. Socks had essentially been my best friend for over a year, and this was the last time we would see each other. He even woke up at 7:30 Friday morning to say goodbye.


As it turned out, I should have just taken the bus from The Village. What had begun as an irritatingly rainy day on Thursday had developed into a massive three-day rainstorm that shut down the entire Izu Peninsula by Friday. P. Rock was hit so badly that it warranted mention in the Globe and Mail.


When I arrived at the station on Friday morning, I was told that the train tracks had been washed out, the road north had been blocked by a landslide, and I couldn’t even get back to The Village because that road was out as well. When I later found out that North America’s eastern seaboard had also suffered an enormous power outage, I started to anticipate sightings of four men on pale horses.


I waited around for a few hours to see if anything would change, but in the end all I could do was call Big Sis, tell her I’d come on Saturday, and then head back to E and Bugsy’s apartment to wait for Heavenly Fire to come down and smite the trapped Sinners of P. Rock.


I learned that if you tie your shoes to an electric fan, they can dry completely overnight.


I got going early the next morning and said my second set of final words to Socks, but nothing had changed at the station. I had no choice but to head back, defeated again. We headed out together at 12:30, as per Socks’ original schedule. Just as we arrived, it was announced that there would be two trains heading north at 1:00.


And somewhere in the Middle East, a hairy old guy returned from the mountains with a stone tablet that read, “Eleven: Mike shalt accompany Socks when Socks doth exit the lands of Japan.”




It was 7:00 by the time we got to Atami. The trip normally takes two hours, but we’d had to get off the train and wait for shuttle buses at two different points, each time standing in a line that filled an entire station. We got so tired of playing celebrity name games that we started singing campfire songs, occasionally punctuated by lines from the official group of the day, Rage Against the Machine.


“Bullet in the heeeeeeeead…”


Our mood was actually pretty positive.


I was still too late to catch the last train to Akita, so I called Big Sis to postpone yet again while we extorted accommodation from a friend of a friend in Tokyo.

Northern Demons

By the time I got to Tokyo station at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, I was thinking it would have been faster to have ridden my bike to Akita. Then I met the additional fun of the northbound Shinkansen, which is fixed seating only, and which was sold out until 7:00… unless I bought a ticket for the luxury “Green Car” at a 25% fare hike. So I shelled out over $200 and said to hell with it.


With big seats, lots of leg room, cushy headrests, and free drinks from a girl who politely announced her presence every time she entered, the service was pretty nice. But the girl never seemed to be able to hear anything I said, while I could never make out what she said, so I just felt like an idiot as she continued to assume that the problem was that I didn’t understand Japanese. For the first two hours, I had to listen as the one other gaijin at the back of the car chatted her up, full of resentment that (a) he looked even dorkier than me, and (b) he seemed to be succeeding. I quietly stewed in the sad reality that, even if I meet somebody nice, there isn’t the slightest chance that they will live within four hours of my apartment.

Akita coast
Me on the Akita coast (Photo by Big Sis Senior)

Monday morning we went to the Sea of Japan, the coast of which was quite rocky and scenic. We also visited a Namahage museum, which bears explanation.


Namahage are a kind of Japanese demon typically depicted wearing traditional straw-thatched winter garb. They also carry a knife used for cutting the dead skin off lazy people who do nothing but sit in front of the fire all day. It has become tradition in some parts of Akita for adults to dress up as Namahage on New Year’s Eve, putting on big demon masks before going door to door demanding to see the children of each house.


We saw a video of several such visits. The Namahage burst in with a deep, resonating moan, and proceed to track down the cowering children of the house, who cry, scream, and cling to the furniture or their parents or whatever they can grab onto as the Namahage try to carry them away. Then the Namahage ceremonially stomp a few times, sit down, drink saké the parents have prepared, and ask the terrified kids questions about their behaviour in the year. Then they stomp a few more times and leave.


They even had a demonstration of a Namahage visit in a traditional little house on the compound. They skipped the parts that involved grabbing children.


Big Sis Senior and I decided to head down to The Village on Tuesday, hoping to use her universal Japan Rail pass to scam me a free ticket. Unfortunately, the automatic gate spat my ticket back out right as she was trying to get on the train with her pass, so I got nailed. The ticket guy took me aside and politely explained that, while it might be different in other countries, I should understand that in Japan they were really quite strict about this sort of thing. So Big Sis Senior got on the train at 11:30, while in the fifteen minutes it took me to get back to the front of the line, everything had been sold out until 2:00. Then I had to ask the ticket guy to do me a favour and let me run down to tell Big Sis Senior I’d be two hours late.


I probably should’ve just gotten on that train and claimed ignorance.


I thought it took 3½ hours to get to Tokyo, but as it turned out, it was really 4¼, so I arrived too late for us to catch the last bus to The Village. I had just lined up a place to stay in Shizuoka when I realized it would still take three hours to get home from there, and if Big Sis Senior were leaving on Thursday, there would be little point in heading to The Village at all. So, as I’d pretty much had it with all things related to travel, we just took the train to P. Rock and I paid ¥7000 ($80) for the 30-minute cab ride to my apartment.


My travel itinerary would have looked something like this:


Time in Transit:                3 days

Time at Destination:         2 days

Total Time:                      5 days

Total Cost:                      $500

Bitching License:             Priceless


At least I managed to score us free tickets for the boat ride through the caves in Dogashima. Looks like my adult English classes hadn’t been a waste after all.


One night as I was just about to go to bed, I looked over and saw that my backpack was being used as a big cushy chair by a spider the size of my fist. I chased him into my closet, from whence I could literally hear the tapping of his feet while I proceeded to remove every single item he might use for cover. When I lost sight of him, I determined that the best course of action was to shut the closet doors and refuse to open them again.


Two days later, I decided I would go in and find the spider and give the closet a proper cleaning while I was at it. So I opened up the cabinet under the sink and was immediately met by the Mega-Spider, who flew directly at me. Did I mention that as Japanese spiders get bigger, they get exponentially faster? I herded the thing toward the door as it pulled Matrix-style leaping and dangling manoeuvres before finally taking refuge in my shoe, which, after a moment’s painful deliberation, I hurled outside. He vacated, I retrieved my footwear, and then I shut the door as fast as I could. If he comes back, I charge him rent.


Bugsy in P. Rock likes mega-spiders. He says they eat the cockroaches.

Battle Scars

P. Rock is roughly 25 km from The Village, and about a quarter of that is uphill. This didn’t matter to me until I started riding my bike there and back a few weeks ago. The key point is the tunnel in the middle, after which it’s 16k of nearly uninterrupted downhill.


On Sunday last week I was trying to break my best time of 1:10, and once past the brutal ascent to the tunnel I just let the bike roll along at 30 km/h or so and started singing to myself like an idiot as usual. I decided to swing over into the bus stop area on a hairpin curve to let the cars behind me pass, but I’d forgotten that the bus area didn’t really merge back into the road so much as it ended abruptly in a wall and an open drain. I tried to ease away from the rapidly approaching half-metre-wide, half-metre-deep concrete trough in front of me, but as it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it I pulled on the rear brake and swerved a little to the right, with the result that my rear wheel skidded out from under me and I took a 20-foot pavement slide straight toward the drain. I stopped moving the instant my backside landed in the trough. I was still clinging to the underside of my bike, more than a little amazed that I wasn’t dead.


I came out of it with a stiff neck, some scratches on my back, bruises on my right knee and hip, cuts on my left arm and road rash on my right, and a dime-sized chunk of skin missing from my right hand. My head, the only place where I was wearing any sort of protection, never even came close to the ground.


I dusted off, put the chain back on my bike, and arrived in P. Rock within 1:05.


There’s something satisfying about going to the convenience store and paying for band-aids with a hand that’s goopy with blood—especially when the clerk doesn’t ask if you want a bag because it’s obvious you’re going to use them right away.


As I ascended the hill to E and Bugsy’s apartment, my rear derailer fell off.




Then I had to get Bugsy to give me a lift all the way home the next day because they wouldn’t let me on the bus with my bike. When I asked what other option I had, the bus people said I should use a shipping service.


So now my bike is in the shop and I’m getting about very slowly while trying to figure out what to do next year.


I’m thinking I should stop fooling around pretending I’m a teacher. It was fun, but it’s really beginning to lose its appeal, and sadly, even my kids can’t quite bring me out of the drudgery of the day-to-day. I’ve got to figure out what I want to do and what I need to do to get there.


I managed to get a 3-year visa, which is essentially a free ticket to do anything I want in Japan. I’m considering language school, but it’s expensive, and I don’t even know if that would qualify me to do anything I’d really want to do. I sometimes consider just moving to Tokyo and hanging out there doing odd jobs until my cash runs out.


Of course, none of this happens until April, but I have to decide soon.


Next >

October 2003