Originally published as Hokkaido Highway Blues, with limited distribution in Canada, Will Ferguson’s classic book about Japan, for all fans of the bestselling Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw.
With the same fervour they have for outlandish game shows and tiny gadgets, the Japanese go nuts each spring when the cherry blossoms sweep from island to island towards the country’s northerly tip. Will Ferguson was celebrating the event in the standard fashion. And after way too much sake he announced he would be the first person in recorded history to follow the blossom’s progress end to end. To make it a challenge worth doing, he’d hitchhike all the way: relying on the kindness of some very weird and wonderful strangers.
Mixing his penchant for biting observation with wicked humour, Ferguson starts at the southernmost tip of Cape Sata and heads north for distant Hokkaido. Whether he is doing the forbidden and not knowing it, or holding "conversations by non sequitur," it is a journey full of misadventures and revelations. The resulting travelogue is one of the funniest and most illuminating books ever written about Japan.
To make matters worse, I decided to hitchhike. Striking a heroic stance, I declared my intention to my Japanese friends to become the first person ever to hitchhike the length of Japan, end-to-end, cape-to-cape, sea-to-sea. This did not impress them as much as I had hoped.
“Why would you want to do that?” they asked, genuinely puzzled. “There is no reason to hitchhike. That’s why we built the Bullet Train.”
Others worried about my safety. “But,” I would argue, “Japan is a very safe country, is it not?”
“Oh, yes. Very safe. Safest in the world.”
“So why shouldn’t I hitchhike?”
“Because Japan is dangerous.”
And so on.
Now, I will admit that mooching rides across Japan is not a major achievement—I mean, it’s not like I paddled up the Amazon or discovered insulin or anything—but I am the first person ever to do this, so allow me my hubris.
When I left my home in Minamata City aboard a southbound train, I felt suitably bold with my backpack and muscular thumb.
“I’m going to hitchhike the length of Japan,” I told the man beside me.
He smiled and nodded.
“I’m going to follow the cherry blossoms.”
“All the way to Russia,” I said.
He smiled again, and soon after changed seats.
—from Hitching Rides with Buddha
About the author
Travel writer and novelist Will Ferguson is the author of several award-winning memoirs, including Beyond Belfast, about a 560-mile walk across Northern Ireland in the rain; Hitching Rides with Buddha, about an end-to-end journey across Japan by thumb; and most recently the humour collection Canadian Pie, which includes his travels from Yukon to PEI.
Ferguson's novels include Happiness™, a satire set in the world of self-help publishing, and Spanish Fly, a coming-of-age tale of con men and call girls set amid the jazz clubs of the Great Depression. His work, which has been published in more than twenty languages around the world, has been nominated for both an IMPAC Dublin Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and he is a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal.
Excerpt: Hitching Rides with Buddha: Travels in Search of Japan (by (author) Will Ferguson)
Note on the Canadian Edition
This book was published in the US and the UK under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues. An abridged British pocketbook version was also released. The full version has been restored for the Canadian edition, along with the title I always wanted: Hitching Rides with Buddha. (That title was nixed by the American publisher on the complaint that it sounded too religious. Sigh.) This is the first time this book has been published in Canada.
The photograph on the front is of a wooden folk toy I brought back with me from northern Japan. It depicts one of the namahage, the red-faced, wild-tempered demons who terrorize children and are placated with saké. It is said that the legends of these namahage originate with shipwrecked Russian sailors who were washed ashore. I can think of no better emblem for long-term Western residents living in Japan. Hitching Rides with Buddha is the tale of one such namahage and his journey across a country that has held him captive for years.
The Devil’s Washboard
Cape Sata is the end of Japan.
When you turn your back to the sea and look northward, all of mainland Japan is balanced, sword-like, above you. It is a long, thin, volcanic country: a nation of islands that approaches – but never quite touches – its neighbours. It is a land that engenders metaphors. It has been likened to an onion: layers and layers surrounding . . . nothing. It has been described as a maze, a fortress, a garden. A prison. A paradise. But for some, Japan is none of these. For some, Japan is a highway. And Cape Sata is where it ends.
A road winds its way in descending squiggles toward the sea. Tattered palm trees and overgrowths of vine crowd the roadside. Villages flit past. The road twists up into the mountains, turns a corner, and ends – abruptly – in a forest of cedar and pine. A tunnel disappears into the mountainside.
From here you proceed on foot, through the unexpected cool damp of the tunnel, past the obligatory souvenir stands, onto a path cut through the trees. Along the way, you come upon a hidden shrine. You ring the bell and rouse the gods and continue deeper into the forest green.
A faded cinderblock building is perched at the edge of a cliff, clinging to the last solid piece of ground. Inside, a tired-looking woman is selling squid that is skewered on sticks and covered with thick, sticky soy sauce. Somehow, you resist the temptation. Instead, you climb the stairs to the observation deck and, through windows streaked with dust and nose-smears, you gaze out at the majesty that is Cape Sata.
A few tourists mill about, uncertain what to do with themselves now that they’ve seen the view. They buy some squid, look through the coin-operated telescopes, and frown thoughtfully. “So this is Sata,” they say. The end of the world.
Sata feels like the end.
Here, the mainland meets the sea. The coast tumbles into boulders. Pine trees lean out over dead-drop cliffs, waves crash and roll – almost soundless in their distance – and jagged rocks and sudden islands rise up like shark fins from the water. There is a perpetual wind at Sata, a wind that comes in from the open ocean and billows up the cliffside.
“Look,” says Mr. Migita, herding his children before him as he comes. “Look over there.”
He points back toward the mountains to a faint pink smudge in among the evergreens.
“Sakura,” he says. And the heart quickens.
The cherry blossoms have arrived. Now the journey has begun, now the race has started, now the challenge met. “Sakura! Do you really think so?”
He looks again. “Maybe not. You want some squid?”
Every spring, a wave of flowers sweeps across Japan. It begins in Okinawa and rolls from island to island to mainland. It hits at Cape Sata and moves north, cresting as it goes, to the very tip of distant Hokkaido, where it scatters and falls into a northern sea.
They call it Sakura Zensen – the “Cherry Blossom Front” – and its advance is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march. Progress reports are given nightly on the news and elaborate maps are prepared to show the front lines, the back lines, and the percentage of blossoms in any one area. “In Shimabara today they reported thirty-seven percent full blossoms.”
Nowhere on earth does spring arrive as dramatically as it does in Japan. When the cherry blossoms hit, they hit like a hurricane. Gnarled cherry trees, ignored for most of the year, burst into bloom like fountains turned suddenly on.
The coming of the sakura marks the end of winter. It also marks the start of the school year and the closing of the business cycle. It is a hectic time, a time of final exams and productivity reports. Budgets have to be finalized, accounts settled, work finished. Karo-shi (death by overwork) peaks in March. Deadlines, school graduations, government transfers – and then, riding in on April winds, come the cherry blossoms. And in one of those extreme shifts that seem to mark Japanese life, the nation swings from intense work to intense play. Crowds congregate beneath the flowers, saké flows, neckties are loosened, and wild spontaneous haiku are composed and recited.
These cherry blossom parties, called hanami, are a time for looking back and looking ahead, for drowning one’s sorrows or celebrating another successful year. Toasts are made to colleagues, absent friends, distant relatives, and to the sakura themselves. Then, as quickly as they arrive, the cherry blossoms scatter. They fall like confetti, and in their passing they leave the dark green shimmering heat of summer, the wet misery of the rainy season, the typhoons of late August. At their peak – at full blossom and full beauty – the sakura last only a few days.
During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of saké and sing raucous songs until you topple over backward. It is all very fleeting and beautiful.
It is also oddly formalized. In what other nation would you find a memo posted on a company’s cafeteria notice board that reads: keep this area clean. final reports are due friday. and don’t forget, we are going cherry blossom viewing after work today.
In addition to the usual public parks and castle grounds, cemeteries are sometimes chosen as suitable spots for cherry blossom parties – as a counterpoint to the celebrations, and as a reminder that this beauty, this joy, like all things will pass. We live in a world of impermanence, a world of flux and illusion, a world brimming with sadness – so we might as well get pissed and enjoy ourselves. (Or at least, that's how I read the underlying Buddhist theology.)
In addition to Cherry Blossom Viewing, you have Moon Viewing, Snow Viewing, Wildflower Viewing, Autumn Leaf Viewing, and Summer Stargazing. All are formally engaged in, and all follow set procedures and seasons. As a service to readers, I have prepared a handy chart listing each phenomenon, the season in which it appears, and the correct manner in which to observe it:
Phenomenon/Season/Proper way to view
Cherry blossoms/Spring/Drunk on saké
Wildflowers/Summer/Drunk on saké
Harvest moon/Autumn/Drunk on saké
Autumn leaves/Autumn/Drunk on saké
Snow on ancient temples/Winter/Drunk on saké
In the late nineteenth century, a British scholar noted that if one could just reconcile the lofty heights of Japanese ideals with the earthy limitations of its people, one would truly understand the essence of this beguiling nation. Not surprisingly, he left Japan a bitter and frustrated man. Me, I don’t even begin to understand the countless contradictions of Japan, but when the cherry blossoms come every spring I am swept away nonetheless.
Praise for Hitching Rides with Buddha:
“‘I laughed out loud,’ is what book lovers tell each other when they are lucky enough to stumble on an author with a gift for the absurd. Will Ferguson is just such an author. . . In his new book, Hitching Rides with Buddha, Ferguson continues to display a talent for wry self-deprecation and a giddy ability to see the ludicrous in, well, the ludicrous.”
“Throughout his on-the-road adventures he dishes up huge but juicily presented quantities of Japanese religion, history and sociology. He’s also a wickedly witty travel guide, with a knack for dropping absurdist, out-of-left-field remarks that raise a smile or a belly laugh. . . . Hitching Rides with Buddha brims with acerbic humour, informed observations and lively stories. Ferguson is one fine Land of the Rising Sun tour guide.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“The road book of the year. . . . A warm-hearted account with a generous helping of satire.”
—The Daily Telegraph
“A mild stroke of genius. . . . Savagely hilarious.”
“You trust both his humour and his insights. . . . An admirable pair of eyes through which to see contemporary Japan.”
“I enjoyed Hitching Rides with Buddha immensely. Will Ferguson is a very gifted writer.”
Praise for Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw:
“Ferguson’s strength does not lie in whether he writes funny or not. His strength is that he writes so well.”
—Times Colonist (Victoria)
“Yet another masterfully entertaining examination of Canuckishness penned by the Calgary author. . . . Ferguson’s fascination with Canadiana is infectious.”
“Full of surprises . . . and idiosyncratic charms. . . . Travel writers don’t always get to climb Everest or visit the Taj Mahal, and they can be judged best by what they come up with on a slow day. Ferguson is good when he’s sipping a handful of icy water out of Hudson Bay; he’s better eating pancakes in a Finnish restaurant in Thunder Bay.”
“Lively storytelling . . . . Artful descriptions of the Canadian landscape.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Will Ferguson is a talent. He writes refreshingly, provocatively and eloquently. . . . He looks for the essence and his search brings out some smashingly insightful stuff.”