Sunday, March 30, 2014

Return of the surfer

Her name is Nobuko, she is forty something years old. Nobuko owns a house in the neighbourhood of the city of Kaiyo. If there is a place furthest away from any japanese urban area, it is Nobuko's house. This is Japanese countryside. The space around here is mostly used for rice fields. Large square fields filled with muddy water. In some squares, rice has already been planted, some are still riceless and waiting.
Nobuko lives in the middle of rice fields

Nobuko doesn't have a rice field, she just had a small garden with some salad and oranges. She is not from here, she used to live in Osaka and she was a surfer. She used to be badass, super tough. Everyday, she went to the sea with her surfboard. In Australia, in Indonesia, in Hawai, here in Shikoku as well. Everything went into that passion, no money for food either, she was up for a meal per day. Malnurished but it doesn't matter as long as she can surf all day long, the energy will have to come from the mind.
And she became famous. She went to competitions. She had people who love her and hate her. Doesn't meet she got money from it though. Unfortunately Nabuko didn't like the fame as much as the surfing. She ceased competition from one day to the next. She continued surfing, just for herself.
As many japanese people, Nabuko became lost in her life. She didn't have a steady job, no husband either to her mother's despair who wished but one thing, that her daughter became normal as defined by japanese traditional society.
She established herself in the countryside, doing everything by herself. House repairs, gardening, cooking, she can even ride a tractor. No space to play princess as many japanese girls like to do.
That is around the time when I met with Nobuko. We are riding in her ridiculously japanese car that is the exact opposite of what a european person would buy. It's basically a paralellepipedic rectangle on wheels with a slightly kawaii look. I have no idea where we are going, I have the impression she wants to show me around. That's nice. After a while, we drive through rice fields and stop in front of what appears to be her house.
A house in the area

Rice fields

"This is your bed," she points at a comfy bed in the corner of the living room. It has curtains for privacy. Here in Japan, nobody would dream of letting you sleep in contact with seven different people in the same room, privacy has its foremost importance. I am also glad I am at last in a country where I can sleep at a single woman's house without it being a big deal. "A boy can't sleep at an unmarried girl's place" that is officially the most stupid tradition I encountered all countries included and I count the bridenapping tradition in the mix. Bonus points to Japan for blowing it to smithereens.
Judging by the rural area, I don't expect warm water, even less a shower. I am hoping for running water since I am in Japan, one of the most civilized countries in the world. My surprise is whole when the place has toilet, hot water and a shower. I can take a shower! That's the thing I needed the most, I didn't care for a shelter so much by comparison.
Nabuko cooks dinner and turns out she is a professional level cook too. Seriously, the food is deliscious and the presentation of it is restaurant style. The only thing that it lacks is quantity. Nobuko is on a really tight budget.

Dinner at Nobuko's, Sanshimi and cooked fish

She loves the countryside but she can't make much money there so she works one week at a department store which should give her 3 weeks to survive here. And after being used to eat a meal per day for a competition level physical activity, she really doesn't need much to survive. That's not my case, I am a big eater but I am on zero budget so I won't buy anything else, I'll eat Nobuko's style. It would be extremly ungrateful to ask for more.
The first night I sleep like a baby. I haven't had such a comfortable mattress for a long time.

I am supposed to leave the next day but Nobuko decides to show me around. Cherry trees are blossoming everywhere and offer a stunning sight. Then we go to the nearby temple where I meet Koya, a buddhist monk and friend of Nobuko. Koya is 34 and head of his temple which makes him the youngest head of temple of all of his Zazen order worldwide. He and Nobuko decided to organise yoga classes with some super good teacher who has come from india. She asks me if I can set up a system on the internet so that users can subscribe for yoga classes online. I manage to do that but I end up staying another day.
Koya comes in the evening to have dinner with us and I hear his story, how he bacame a buddhist monk. He was a student in one of the biggest universities of Tokyo but he was fascinated with temples since he was 10 so after graduating, he just went to a temple and decided to be a monk until the end of his days, just like that.
I also learn that all the beautiful temples in Japan rely only on donations to make their living. There is no help from the government nor are there any wealthy investors. The life of a temple relies only on what will the local people give in a radius of only a few kilometers. The donators ae usually simple people, villagers who struggle to make their living and don't have too much money to spare. Turns out that most monks live in poverty most of their lives and their budget isn't much higher than mine. The free meal I am enjoying is as important to this monk as it is for me.
Koya, the Buddhist monk came for dinner

The next day, Nobuko shows me around, she drives me in the mountains, teaches me more japanese (I am getting better now) and cooks us deliscious food. I learn that japanese men are afraid of her because she is too direct and has too much of an athletic body which is seen as a manly characteristic and isn't considered as womenly attractive in Japan. We go to see a waterfall which looks very nice and it's part of a small schrine. In the Japanese mountains, thee are schrines everywhere.

Some other tree blossoming

The next day we decide to get up at 5 in the morning (actually we have decided it several times but never succeded) to attend a buddhist morning ceremony led by Koya. It starts at 5:20, we all go to a dimly lighted room where we sit in the meditating positions with legs crossed and start meditation. At least they do, my legs and ancles start hurting after ten minutes so I can't concentrate on anything except that my ancles are hurting. Nobuko is motionless next to me and so is Koya, probably freeing their mind of all unrest and wondering places that only buddhist monks can get to. After meditation, blood starts flowing back into the lower part of my legs. The monks (Koya and two apprentices of his) put some religious symbols all around the altar and bow everytime they take the thing. Then Koya sounds the gong and we all watch him perform the ritual. We are now sitting on our ancles and knees in the same position as when people salute in Judo or other martial arts. It's more bearable that the meditation position but still becomes hell after a while. The ceremony is really interesting and Koya makes it accessible to everyone, even complete ignorants like me with no sensitivity whatsoever. However, with my legs and ancles hurting so much, I stop caring about the ceremony about halfway through.
I wonder how do the other people feel but chances are they've got quite a lot of training from previous sessions so they are alright.
We proceed to chant some lines written with very complicated chinese characters. The characters are so complex that even Nobuko hasn't encountered some of them before.
After the ceremony, we are going to breakfast

When the morning ceremony finishes, I can't feel my legs again. The monks have gone to the kitchen to finish preparing breakfast and then we proceed to the meditation hall again.
Everyone has three bowls piled one in another and everything is wrapped in a handkerchief. There is also a spoon and chopsticks. Koya leaves to get the food, then comes again. Each of us bow down before we recieve rice porrige. Everything is done is silence, a hand turned upside down means "I've had enough." We are supposed to eat very slowly, tasting the food is considered to be part of a meditation.
Koya says that out bodies are not owned by us, they are a tool we should use and respect, therefore we should be extra careful when insterting something such as food into them. I guess we should try to give them back in the best condition that we can manage as you would do with anything you've borrowed from someone else.

It is really healthy food. Not the tastiest I have tasted but enough to give you energy for the day and a step of health towards the rest of your life.
I wanted to leave in the afternoon but turns out waves are good and Nobuko can go surfing. I can't miss that. It's the first time this year that she will feel the waves. Each year she wonders weather she can still stand on the board, weather she is not getting too old for that.
We drive to the beach, there already are some people with surfing boards int he water.
There already are some people with surfing boards

 Nobuko's suit is not so good so she gets another one. It takes her forever to find a good wave, she doesn't want to waste any energy. Then she takes it, stands on the board and surfs to the beach. I have never been interested in surfing but I can't deny than in the water, she has some style.
They take quite long so I go for a walk on the beach. This 5:20 morning ceremony has left me quite tired and I need to sleep and prepare to leave tomorrow.
The beach has a cute little fishing harbour
The next day we leave just after lunch, deliscious deer cutlets with rice and vegatables served on restaurant-type dishes, god knows where Nobuko has found them. She also writes me a bunch of useful sentences in Japanese, especially one to ask for a free place to stay in a hotel. She drives me a long way out of the city towards a parking lot where I can easily get a ride. Easy is quite an understatement, the first car stops. It is a spors car that will drive me to cape Moruto. It is a great place to see the sunset but tonight, I am expecting heavy rain. But I have a plan for that. There is a luxury beach resort on the beach and Nobuko's free-hotel letter will came in handy.
I take a look inside my bag, there is still a lot of food, maybe two days worth of provisions. And I still haven't spent a dime, so I have my 1200 yen of donation money ready to be used if things get really bad.
In a few days, I should be in Kyushu.
Me and Nobuko

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The weather strikes back

I walk through the small roads and trails towards the main road. On my way, I pass lanes of cherry trees blossoming into white and pink wonders. There are also bamboo forests and mandarines and oranges from time to time. I pass small villages built in the difficult mountain terrain. Yet the roads leading to them are as comfortable as a highway except they are about ten times smaller.
If it were in Kyrgyzstan, these houses would be lucky to have electricity, forget about running water but here they probably have internet.
The narrow road goes between villages



Cherry blossom again

On the road I cross the path of many pilgrims. They are dressed in light white fabric with a pointy hat, like the rice workers in Vien-Nam. On the main road I get a ride to the intersection just before Kamiyama. It's a university professor and his family who speak english. It's a joyful ride with their children in the back. At the intersection they give me some shrimp chips, some rice food, then I meet the grandmother who gives me a can of juice, presents just pour from everywhere, I think I won't be hungry for a while.
Classic hitchhiking photo in Japan

Behind the shop where they leave me is a trash bag full of electronics. I really have to check it out and surprise surprise, I find a perfectly functioning PSP game console. It's an obsolete item alright but it has a 16 gigabytes memory card in it, a wifi antenna and it can at least serve as a portable mp3 and video player. And since I am travelling alone, I do need an mp3 player.
You find all kinds of things in the trash in Japan

At this intersection, an old farmer gets out of his way to bring me in the direction of Naka. I get coffee. Looks like nobody is going my direction and I can't blame them since the road gets more perilous by the meter.
A jeep stops, inside two young guys and two girls. Everyone is really shy but willing to communicate, and one of them, Yuna is really sweet. We talk for a while and I forget to watch the direction and soon I end up in the middle of small mountain roads. We stop to meet some of their friends who are all shy but really cool. Except Yuna (another one) who looks like a stunningly beautiful princess-class bitch which would scare me to death if I were in high school but now she was really fun to talk to and a really nice person. I could tell that japanese boys were quite impressed by her, they much preferred the type that you can step on easily.

We stop in the middle of cherry blossom trees

In japan it is so fast to make friends


We get back into the car and talk more and I forget to watch the direction again. After a while I notice that we are passing Kamiyama and we are now heading back to Tokushima! Oh no! I get out at a parking lot and Yuna buys me a bottle of tea; I really get something from every ride.

Getting back to the intersection is not a problem and someone even finds me a truck to drive me 2 kilometers in the right direction. Afterwards however, really nobody goes there. Civilisation is getting sparse, the road is still good but very steep. I get a few rides but they definitly stop after I reach the top of the mountain.
Night starts to fall, rain too and the wind is getting stronger. It's so strong that it breaks my wonderful umbrella. I just can't seem to reach any civilisation and the few cars going through that road all head the opposite direction. I don't want to camp outside in this wind, it wouldn't be comfortable even with a tent so I must reach some civilisation and sleep under some roof. Unfortunately, there is nothing, who would have thought that you can be in Japan and still feel in the middle of nowhere.
Fallen rocks on the road prove that the warning sign is not just paranoia as I always tend to assume (especially in east asia).

The night is pretty thick when I stumble upon a wooden cabin. It was left here by some construction workers, it's built on a small cliff just over the river. It stands on sticks but it seems to hold on against the wind quite well altough I just can't shake the thought of the cabin falling down the cliff during the night. I don't sleep that well as a result but this of course was sheer paranoia; the cabin has been there for weeks, why would it fall apart now?

I loosely repair my umbrella with pieces of bamboo and I continue downwards, to the south of the island. I get a few rides and I also walk a lot. My key ride is Shoko, a woman in her fourties who looks really hot, you can easily cut off ten to fifteen years from every japanese woman. She is a massage therapist who also makes some kind of traditional jam. She has a friend who owns a hostel and tries to get me stay there for free but it's fully booked beause of a festival.
She is going to Kobe which is only a little while in the same direction as me. But she deviates towards Mugi and I have the bad feeling that she is going out of her way out of politeness.
We stop in front of a phone shop she introduces me to a friend who speaks decent english. We talk to a while and then her friend says that Shoko has to go, I should wait a few moments and then get into her car. I don't really know why she wants me in her car and what she intends to do but I have nothing better to do and I am open to all opportunities. So I get in.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A new hope

I am walking the streets of Osaka still wondering weather someone is going to pick me up and also what and how am I going to eat. The prices for food are not that high, you can buy bread for about 200 yen and it'll last for the day. However 200 yen that's almost my two euros, I have no margin. Plus, since french taxes wrecked havoc in my bank account I should spend rather less than more.
Japan is a rich country, what about dumpster diving? I have never tried it, not having a tent makes me feel like a homeless bum already, eating from dumpsters would seal the picture completly. The only thing that would distinguish me from a real homeless person is my tablet and it starts to look a bit homeless too. Long gone are the days where people stared at it with envy in china. But after all, supermarket are rumoured to throw away perfectly good food, a lot of respectable people in europe dumpster dive, so I decide to give it a try.
I have a look behind a few shops, there is just regular garbage, I guess Japanese people don't like to waste. Scrach that; not long afterwards I sneak a peak behind a family-mart food shop. There are three separate garbage bags. The first two are filled with disgusting garbage and the third one, much cleaner contains packed products. There are prepared microwaved dishes sealed under plastic, bread, sweets, everything that you would buy in a shop in the same exact packaging except for how it is disposed. Instead of being on the shelves, it is in a garbage bag and the expiration date is set to yesterday which is seven hours ago. Considering the japanese high standards for food, this stuff is in better condition than what I would buy in a supermarket in Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan and it is way better than what I used to eat as a student.
Following this conclusion I start taking as much stuff as I can from that garbage bag. There are strawberry pastries, I am like a kid in a sweet shop and everything is free. There is a garbage truck just behind me politely waiting until I finish my quest so it can destroy these deliscious things in  the black hole of organic waste.
I can't carry everything but I think I have enough for three days. I took 2 microwavable dishes, a lot of sweet buns, some sandwiches and some special pastries from france.

I have a lot of food!
I have food, I have alright weather, now I just need a ride and internet because I always need internet. I enter this cafe and tell the waitress that I need anything. She is super-smily and bows in all directions to make everything feel ping and kawaiiiiii and gives me the wifi password. After a while I also get breakfast paid by a middle-aged couple sitting nearby. Appearently not eating breakfast at breakfast hour is a tragedy and these good-hearted people must save me so I had my second breakfast in that cafe: bread and butter, egg and coffee.
The waitress was super nice and super-kawaii and she bowed down so much that I really was afraid that she'll spill that coffee on herself but she didn't.
second breakfast

What was weird that the couple was too shy to talk to me, yet they insisted on buying me breakfast. From my uninformed understanding they really didn’t get anything out of it. Anyway, my garbage prize will have to wait for another rainy day.
Another thing worries me though; I still didn’t manage to get a ride. If hitchhiking doesn’t work in Japan, I’ll just have to get to Hokkaido on foot.
I don’t want to use the signboard saying “Japanese can!” used by many hitchhikers to trick people into stopping. According to the legend, the main worry of Japanese people is to know whether the hitchhiker can communicate and behave properly in accordance to the Japanese culture. If he or she can’t the embarrassment resulting from frequent awkward situations would be so unbearable that they prefer not to stop.
Most people use the Japanese can sign even though they don’t speak Japanese. However, Japanese culture is quite popular in Europe and in France especially so most people have a very elementary understanding of Japanese and they are more eligible to the “Japanese can!” sign than me. Because if there is a country in the world for which I expressed no curiosity at all during my life, it would be Japan. I think I just know how to say “konichiwa” because I watched American Pie and “Arigato” because my father used to come home from Japanese conferences in mathematics and told me that word at home.
So I walk and walk through Osaka, seldom stopping at lights and trying to hitchhike. At last, a car stops. Not any car, a BMW convertible sports car. The guy speaks English, he is a bike shop owner and he thinks my trip is very cool.

I got my first ride with a sportscar

He goes all the way to Wakayama which is a city on the seaside of the main island with a ferry connection to Shikoku island, my next destination. There is a highway connecting the main island to Shikoku but it is on the other side of Osaka so hitching a ferry is more comfortable. I don’t remember having hitched a ferry for comfort when there was a land alternative present but I decided to give it a try.
But now, we are still driving in the sports car and Hiro, that is the driver’s name decides to invite me to the restaurant. He spends some time searching for that place, according to what he says it’s supposed to be pretty good. There are some guys in suits waiting outside, I am starting to feel quite underdress and under-Japanese for the situation. I am afraid that in front of us will appear a white table with seven hundred kinds of forks and chopsticks and you have to juggle through them using a perfect Japanese etiquette.
But there is nothing of the sort! The owner is a hyperactive guy who literally screams at us an laughs all over the place. He juggles with knifes and chopsticks while frying fish on a dirty pan which catches on fire every now and then.
In this chaos he goes serving the very noble businessman next to us and everyone seems to enjoy themselves in a very loud and complex-less way.
We get raw fish with miso soup and some other dishes. It’s really good food and I can keep my garbage diving lunch for a moment longer. Japanese raw fish is actually pretty good and so far there was not a single dish on this trip which grossed me out. It will come later when I was given raw eggs to eat on Shikoku; that was too much, even for me.
I am invited to a Japanese restaurant to eat raw fish

Hiro has 3 children, two daughters and a son. The daughters are called Yuka and Yuna and I’ll later discover that almost every Japanese girl is named Yuka or Yuna, especially Yuka.

After lunch, he lets me off at the ferry terminal. I hesitate between hitching for a ticked payed for by someone else, going back and asking for a free ride. They are Japanese, I very much doubt the free ticket as a result of too much rule-following but since my Japanese is still nil, I can’t even write a sign saying “buy me a ticket” so I try to ask for the ride.
The counter lady calls the manager which in turn calls the manager and a few moments later the person considers my case and gives me a free pass! He walks me through the tunnel leading to the fairy and tells to the person who checks the tickets to let me through for free. I don’t even get a ticket!

The ride is quite long between Wakayama and Tokushima and I find it quite funny that my second hitch in Japan is actually something different than a car.

On the ferry I meet Anna, a girl from France who speaks English better than normal French people and she is also less annoying that what French people usually are so I am quite grateful about that and happy to talk to her.
She is starting a trip by bike from Japan in the west direction. She has a similar way of travelling as me, also sleeping in a tent in random places. We part ways in Tokushima harbor, she goes on bike and me on foot.
That day, I do a very important thing. I go from hotel to hotel until I find someone who speaks both Japanese and English. I ask him to write a kind of introduction about me and my trip which explains where I come from and how I came to Japan. I hope that this magic letter will help me in the process of getting free ferries even if the people there don’t speak English.
It is getting late already; I need to find a place to sleep. I haven’t been so lucky with home invitations, I can’t remember the last time I showered but right now I mostly need a place where I can sleep quietly without people waking me up at five in the morning.
There is a hill in Tokushima called Mt. Bizan, it’s uninhabited so I go there. The path is steep and there really is no one. I come across an abandoned place which still looks less messy than my room back in France.
At the top of the hill there is a temple and a number of radio towers. I sleep there, it’s a bit cold but quite alright.
The next day, I decide to get out of cities as far into the countryside as I can. Shikoku is not supposed to be the most interesting island but it is the one with the most countryside and countryside can mean invitations and maybe showers. And a shower is more interesting to me now than anything else.
The second car that picks me up is… also a sports car. A stylish black convertible driven by a beautiful young girl. She looks cool and sharp but doesn’t speak English and is shy as an autumn leave in the wind.
I try to explain to her that I am going in this direction, to leave me when our ways part, to not go out of her way. But she doesn’t understand and gets japanese-emnbarassed at every little thing that she doesn’t understand. So I just say “anywhere”, hoping she goes in the direction of Kamiyama, a small town in the mountains. Anyway, I don’t mind riding with a cute girl in a sports car.
She is 22, studies psychology and is overly japanese-kawaii-emotional. However, she quickly deviates from my dream course through small roads and back towards Tokushima. Getting back to Tokushima, that’s a bad perspective and even a cute girl with a sports car doesn’t make up for that. I tell her to stop at a gas station, that I’ll get another car which confuses her a lot, wondering what is wront, what did she do wrong, what don’t I like about how she behaves and a lot of useless questions baked by japanese overthinking.
I tell her that everything is alright but she is still embarrassed and confused, I bet she will never take a hitchhiker again. I guess I should have let her take me out of her way to Kamiyama, it would save both of us a lot of trouble.

Me, Yuna/Yuka and her black sportscar

The next ride I get are two very young girls, sixteen and nineteen who drive me exactly where I need to, to a gas station at the intersection which leads to Kamiyama. They are incredibly sorry that they don’t have time to drive me to the bus station which is the most hated spot of all hitchhikers. I am really happy they can’t but they insist on giving me money to compensate the trouble. I manage to refuse at least half of it and I buy ice-cream with the rest.
I am still on zero-budget and now have an extra 300 yen of donations.
The way to Kamiyama is marked as almost a highway but is in face a really tiny and steep mountain road. However, it is in perfect condition. Nobody goes in that direction. At last a middle-aged woman stops. This is crazy, in Japan, I get more rides with women than men! She says that is is only going home but that she’ll be back. I don’t really know what for but after a while, her husband drives back with a bigger car. He tells me that Kamiyama is too far but he can drive me to a temple about two-thirds of the way. First we drive to his home which is two steps away, he gives me two super-yummy pastries and two cans of yoghurt for the road. His wife hops in too and we drive into the mountains.
I am surprised about how harsh the roads are. They are in perfect condition alright but so tiny and going through cliffs and serpentines that it gets me nauseous which really doesn’t happen that often. The couple seems to be enjoying the ride quite a bit even though we get lost in the mountain roads and it is getting dark.

“Maybe he thinks that we are driving to a dark place and rob him,” I understand from their conversation. I think they have no idea how safe I feel in Japan.

We pass cherry trees blossoming, it’s really beautiful.
“Sakura,” they say.
After getting lost a couple of times, we arrive in front of the temple. It is big and impressive. There are 88 great temples on Shikoku island and pilgrims often make a tour around the island, stopping at each of the temples.
Some cherry blossoms

“Here is for 5 days,” the husband says and hands me a 1000 yen note. He refers to my 200\/day policy. Since I am on zero-budget, that might cover even more time.
I sleep on a bench near a wooden shed a bit aside from the main monastery. In the morning, I am woken up by pilgrims but nobody bothers me. I just get a lesson from the head monk of the temple who doesn’t like that I leave my computer in public to charge.
temple entrance



“In Japan forbidden! Not possible! Thieves everywhere!”
I guess every position of authority can create assholes and Buddhist monks are not exempt from it.

That morning, I pack my things and prepare to walk out of this maze of mountain roads and at least get to the mountain town of Naka.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The last unknown

Japan will be my last leap into the unknown. Weather or not I make it to Kamchatka, I have experienced the russian culture before either directly or indirectly while going through the old soviet republics.
But Japan is one cultural shock that I don't want to have. I knew I would enter the unknown in China but I was interested in the culture, in the language, I wanted to see the country. Same for Korea, I was ready to face any cultural differences because my curiosity was burning for the country. But Japan? I can't say I have ever been curious about Japan. I have always looked at it as an over-civilised country with people so shy and naive that it overlapped with stupidity, crazily strict laws, no nature, ugly manga comics and weird pornography.
No, I never wanted to discover Japan, it was just on the way, I just wanted to be done with it. So I have never put too much thought about what to do when I get there because the perspective wasn't one that I cherished the most.
Plus, for some reason, Janela had a really bad feeling about Japan, that didn't add to my good expectations.
I am leaving lee shouse

But now I am almost there. I am making my way towards the toll gate, it is 9 in the morning, hoping that some good soul is going to pick me up. I have to check in at the airport less than 6 hours from Busan which is 2 hours away.
I get to the tollgate at 10 which leaves me 3 hours maximum to wait. Daegu-Busan, that's a classic route, I am really not worried about getting a ride. I should be. Nobody stops. After one hour, I start feeling desperate. After two hours I consider taking a bus cursing myself that I have been so stupid. I got the luck of getting a free airplane and I am going to miss it? When you get an airplane for free, you should get to the airport two days before and sleep there until you fly away, that's how much you should secure your flight back!
But no, I tried to have everything at once, I decided to spend one more day in Daegu to edit my video on Lee's computer and now I am stuck in Daegu with my time running out.
In two hours, still no car and I am really worried now. I don't even know weather or not I would have the time to go to a bus station or if it's too late for that as well.
At last, a truck stops. He is going all the way to Busan and drops me not far from the airport. I am saved, I really am. I thank him from the bottom of my heart and I continue to the airport. It is a relief, I almost don't have to do anything fancy there. I don't have to shake heaven and earth to get a ticket, I don't have to go through depressing refusals or weird stares. I just have to hand in my passport like everybody else and everything is taken care of... as if I were a regular passenger.
I say almost because there is a glitch: I did get the free flight but only for myself, not for my luggage. I only have hand luggage allowed and my bag doesn't really fit the qota. It's about twice as heavy as the maximum allowed weight for hand luggage and twice as big too. That's not all, it cointains items that I just can't bring into the plane cabin like a knife or my tent with aluminum sticks.

The second problem was earlier solved by Yongjin who accepted to take the sensitive things to Japan. By coincidence, Yongjin is also going to Japan and only 3 days before I do. He can leave my things in Tokyo at a friend of his and I'll take them when I can. Until I get to Tokyo however, I'll have a rougher time. My tent really gives me the options to sleep anywhere.

But even with Yongjin's help, my bag is still too huge. My winter things are voluminous and heavy and I want to take them all. So I go to the toilet with my bag, and wear all the clothes I can. I really manage to reduce my luggage size twofold and I look like an obese homer simpson.
I am wearing three pairs of pants including the warm ski pants Janela has bought me, 2 t-shirts and 2 jackets, one of which is Tumur's police uniform. My bag passes the volume and weight test and I make it through the scanners. I am sweating like mad in my winter clothing, only wishing to take everything off.
After having passed the checks that is exactly what I do. I reassamble my bag into its original size and I get into the plane. The hostesses look at me with great surprise, not understanding how the hell did their airline let me bring that huge thing onboard but they are Japanese and way to polite to ask me such an incovenient question.
In the plane, with all my luggage

After an hour of flight I set foot in Osaka. I don't want to get out, I spend the night at the airport. I tried to sleep just outside, hidden by an artificial hill but it started raining and I didn't have a tent to protect me. At the airport, I didn't have the best sleep but I managed to get some rest. The next morning, I talked with an australian lady who was waiting for her next flight. She was cool, listened to my story and wanted to give me money for support. I did try to refuse it but ended up taking half of it, 1000 yen which is about 10 dollars. It's a lot but in Japan, it'll be spent really fast.
First thing I do is to up my spirits by going to McDonalds. I don't care about being french and respectful about food. I always liked McDonalds and I don't care if they put radioactive bolds in their food, it takes alright to me. I can go to McDonalds and still be on zero-budget, that's cool. It's not money most effectivly spent but it's an investment into my psychology.

After that, I go out, at last. It is raining outside but I found an umbrella in the trash. It's a perfectly good umbrealla but people have throwed it away just before going through the airport scans because it's an item which is not allowed on the plane. There were about 10 umbrellas in that trash, actually, there were nothing but umbrellas.

Hitchhiking in the rain on the entrance of the highway is not the most effective way to get rides in Japan. Nobody stopped but I spotted a guy staring at me which such a surprised look that he really ressembled to the manga characters which giant eyes and exagerated emotions. This guy looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. His eyes were wide open and turned to the side, he completly forgot about the road.
I would have wished to start hitchhiking in an easier place but I had no choice because of how the airport is situated. Osaka airport is actually on an island. It is an artificial island 2 or 3 kilometers into the sea, only liked to the mainland by a highway and a train.
So here I am hitchhiking in the rain near the highway, hoping for some more unconventional japanese to stop. I was just about to give up and cover the 3 kilometers on the highway on foot when someone called the police on me. They yelled at me "stop" like in American movies when the bank robber is escaping with all the cash.
I didn't really know what to expect from the Japanese police. I knew the chinese cops quite well, nothing to be afraid of, if they were a level nicer, they could play in disney stories. Korean police was a bit tougher but nothing to be alarmed and what about the japs? Rumour has it that the Japanese are the most shy people in the world. Following that logic, the police should give me candy. Wait, that already happened, in China. So they should... I don't know, dress up as disney characters and dance on this nanyang cat song that went viral on youtube.
However, there is one more thing to consider when it comes to police. In a country with zero criminality, police ends up having too much time on their hands and they desperatly seek action the same way a child is imagining an adventure with his spiderman figurine. Except police are grown men and have real guns.
They searched me as if I was arrested for smuggling drungs. Pockets, bags, everything. Everytime I did a faster gesture the policeman was on his guard to grab his weapon, or any means of neutralizing me. It was hilarious. I was obviously just hitchhiking and this guy was really playing an american movie, actor, playwright and director altogether. I let him do this thing for as long as he found it amusing. For the whole time he looked incredibly serious and I barely controlled myself not to burst into laughter.
"In Japan hitchhiking forbidden! Understand? Understand?" he was yelling the last two words, trying to look scary. Unfortunately, he looked absolutly hilarious. But you just can't laugh in these situations. I tried to act as if I was impressed by his performance but I think I just managed not to laugh. Maybe, if this was before my trip began, his yelling could have an effect on me but today I just see a cowboy with low self esteem, low education and hungry for recognition.
"Yes, I understand."
I tried to communicate before but he obviously just wanted to hear this.
"I understand officer." That seemed to calm the cowboy down enough that I could talk some sense (or nonsense) into him.
"I understand that hitchhiking is forbidden but how can I get to the other side."
"Go by train!"
"I have no money for the train"
"You have no money? Go back to your country! Go back to Korea!" He said this with some kind of contempt, I guess he didn't like Korea very much.
"Can't you get me to the other side!"
The policeman opened his mouth in surprise at such request. I was supposed to be too scared of him to ask him for anything, he couldn't believe I would dare negociate with such authority.
"No No No! Not possible! Understand? Understand?"
"Yes of course officer I understand" (wait till he calms down), "So how can I get to the other side?"
I made my speech to him that I have a dream, that I can't break it. His face twisted each time I said dream, he seemed to have that word blacklisted. Dreams are for parasites who don't work, honest people work all day long and don't have time for them.
Eventually, he tired down, they all do and accepted to get me to the other side with his car. He was still watching my every movement as if I were to produce a gun every minute.
After a while of driving, he asks me:
"Are you comultary?"
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
"I don't know what is that."
"You don't know?" His voice is defiant. Maybe he means commentary, or documentary, japanese english has a pretty awful reputation.
"Documentary about my trip? The media?"
"No! Comultary! Russia, North Korea, China! Comultary!"
"You mean communist?"
He does mean communist but he is too much self-important to admit that he makes mistakes in english.
"No I am not comultary. We don't like comultary in Czech Republic."
"We are searching for comultary. All comultary go away from Japan. Comultary no freedom. Japan freedom."
That makes sense. Everybody is free but some citizens are more free than others? That sounds a lot like "Animal Farm", that sounds like "comultary talk" to me. I guess the KGB would like your spirit, officer, but they wouldn't hire you because you're still too much of a pussy to scare anyone.
Enough of this police episode, I am now on the mainland, on the border of Osaka but still about 16 kilometers to go until I get to a hitchable place. I won't get there before dark, so I better find a place to sleep. It is raining outside, I'd better find a roof. I try a hotel but they are really sorry, they cannot help me. China all over again but with more sorries.
Near the hotel there is a building with a lot of studio appartments. The front door is locked with a magnetic card. A guy is having a pizza delivered, he opens the door to the delivery guy and I sneak in. Inside, there is a front desk with nobody there. On the right, a common room and a bit further is a gym. There is a single camera pointed on the fitness machines. I carefully make my bed just under the security camera in what might be a dead angle. I can't be sure though, it depends on the lens and these types of cameras usually have very wide lenses.
I hope nobody sees me and I go to sleep. I even get some weak internet so I chat with Orianne and Janela from under the security camera.
I am woken up at about 5:30 AM by two old ladies, probably thoses whose job is to make sure nobody is sleeping under cameras in gyms.
They were really embarassed and surprised that somebody came to sleep in that place. They were also really sorry to wake me up but made me understand that they can't have me here. I am the proof that they didn't do their job right and that would be even more embarassing that waking me up.
As a means of apology, they brought me coffee and some sweet bread for breakfast. That's a really nice gesture and I guess I can call it a alright-slept night, I did get at least 6 hours of rest.
I tried to reassure the two old ladies that everything is alright, that I don't think any less of them and that they don't have to be sorry, in fact it is me who is tresspassing.
I have mixed feelings about all this, still don't know what to think about Japan. What is kindness and what is a means of reduce guilt? Since yesterday, I didn't manage to hitchhike a single car. And things are really expensive here, how will I get food? I still have 300 yen that I can spend freely without counting them into my budget. But what happens after that?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Experiments in Korea

8 hours. That's the average hitchhiking time in Korea... to get a free plane or a ship.
4, that's a number of nights that I have spent in a tent, that's an average of 2 nights per months.
I can't count the number of times I have been ofered food by people or restaurants. Lost count of english speakers.

Korea is easy, Korea is so easy that it gets boring. People are so kind and law enforcement is so harmless that I end up breaking the law just for sport.
Such nationwide exagerated support of my little self raises the question: how far can Korean hospitality and kindness go? I'll try to put some institutions to the test.
But before that, let's rewind to where we last left. I just hitchhiked the ferry from Jeju-si to Mokpo and I am about to make my way to Seoul. My radio interview is waiting for me, scheduled for next week.

First, I get to Daegu where I try to find my ASUS charger. Nobody has heared of ASUS in Daegu despite me visiting the biggest electronic center there. Some guy takes me to his atelier where we try to repair my data cable but it still doesn't work. Some people are telling me that I can't find an ASUS charger in all of Korea. This sounds unbeliavable but I am ready to believe it.

From there I head to Seoul. It takes longer than usual, I am lost in a myriad of little streets about a hundered kilometers before the capital. I am not short on food which I could be because I am relying merely on invitations now. In fact recently, I have gotten way over-budget and if I am to respect my 2 euros/day average then I must stop spending money right now. From now on, I decide not to spend anything, zero-budget. It's not the first time I am doing that, I did it once in China where I put all my money into telephone to call Janela so I relied on people inviting me to restaurants. While in china it was pretty random (it still worked though), in Korea, there is a method for this. There are service areas everywhere on highways and each service area has pretty much every facility needed. There are fast food shops, gift shops, restaurants, toilets, coffee machines. If a car drives by a service area between noon and 2PM, it is a sure thing the driver will stop and buy himself and you lunch. Same goes for dinner and breakfast.
Today I got breakfast in Mokpo, lunch from Mr. Han's provisions and dinner from my late night driver. He didn't speak a word of english so the conversation was pretty much non-existant but he insisted on finding me a place to stay. He drove me to his office where I could check the internet a bit because there was a computer. Next day he got ma a bag full of donuts and put me on my way. I couldn't dream a better breakfast than a bag full of doughnuts.
The office where I sleep is full of wigs

Some bus driver gave me 3000 won (about 3 dollats) to take a bus out of this maze of roads because he didn't believe I would hitchhike out of it. I did nevertheless with a group of military. Then I got a ride to Seoul, to the electronics market where I am supposed to find the charger.
And I did find it! With the help of a complete stranger who took it upon himself to ride his bike throughout all the neighbourhood and bringing me a new data cable.
Now my tablet can charge itself and I don't have to twist the data cable in all directions before the charging light turns orange.
I stay at Yongjin's house again. I tried couchsurfing but no one replied. Couchsurfing is too organised anyway, it's not suited for independent travelling.
At yongjin's, I had all the rest and care that I could dream of. My own room, great food. I also went to my first wedding ever. I never thought that the first wedding I'll ever see would be a korean one. Everything was very neat and clean, there even was a lady who adjusted the bride's dress everytime it folded in an unwanted direction.
Janela got her visa refused the day before I was supposed to give an interview with TBS, a korean radio. I worked hard so as not to be affected by this but the fact that the french consulate considers my girlfriend to be a prostitute based on her ethnicity is quite a drag. It's discrimination plain and simple but consulates live way above the law for the simple reason that no law applies to them: they can officially do whatever they want.

Janela was a great support, she showed herself less shaken than myself and the interview went as well as it could.
I arrived in front of the building. I thought that it was a small radio station but this was a huge building with national television, radio stations, you name it.

TBS building where I will be giving my interview

The studio was divided in two parts. In the first part, I was welcomed by Jamie, the girl who has been communicating with me by email some time. She and her friends walked be trough the questions that Ahn will ask me. They asked me the questions in a casual conversation, I could barely tell they were having me rehearse. Very tactful professionalism.
A week before the interview, I had recieved an email from jamie with all the questions that will be asked. Not so much is left to chance, it's Korea, isn't it? However, when I read the questions I sensed real commitment. These people actually read my blog, they were informed about my trip, they asked almost all the interesting questions. If I were to interview myself, I would not have prepared a better interview.
Me and Jamie at the radio station

They asked about Nata, about the key countries, about the philosophy, the before, the after. The interviewer was carefully watching the time, guiding my answer through the clock (we had 20 minutes for 20 questions) but she managed this without being intrusive. I was stressed but it was a great experience.
Everything is going so well in Korea, really. I still have a week before I have to be in Busan but no stress, it's Korea, I'll get there in time. First, I want to visit Seorok mountain and the east coast. That's when I started to experiment. I arrived to the Kensington hotel, just below the mountain. A giant construction with a stunning view.
I'ts 3PM, too late to start the ascention and the weather sucks too. It might rain tonight. I don't have a tent anymore so that's a slightly bigger problem than before. However, there are lots of abandonned cabins or shelters in the area so my night is not really in danger. It's more about my curiosity.
In the interview I say that I don't ask for accomodation. That is only partially true. I sometimes do ask for it but always institutions that make a business of it, never individuals. I ask a hotel to give me a place to stay for free the same way I ask an airline for a free plane ticket.
I describe my situation to the reception lady. She has perfect english. She goes to find her boss and after a while, they find me a place to sleep in a double-decker bus in front of the hotel. It serves as an exposition item brought back from London. It's really confortable on one of the front seats and I spend my evening watching TV series while eating some food Yongjin has given me for the road.
My magic bus

When you start watching TV series on a hitchhiking trip, it means that the country you are in is too boring and you have to seek adventure elsewhere as many people do in the civilised world.
The next day, I sneak into the national park. There is an entrance fee so I have to go around over the hill. It's not an easy climb, especially in the dark at 6AM.
At 6AM there is nobody in front of this very touristic Buddha statue, just under Soroksan

The path to Sorok montain is closed but I ignore the warning and climb anyway. I soon fall in deep snow until the waist. My shoes are soaking wet and I have to climb through stones and stone walls until I get to the a ridge. There the trail continues but the snow is too deep, giving up the ascention is the wise thing to do. I spend a while looking for a way down, cursing myself for not having giving up earlier. It is a small mountain but it feels like a huge one. Size really doesn't matter, mountain-wise.
Here I got kind of stuck

View from a cave monastary in the mountains

Three times I try to go down and thee times I go back: the way is too hard. At last I find a path suitable for descent and I make it back to my magic bus. From there, I hitch to the east coast, to a place called Ganeug. It used to be an old olympic village which rhymes with abandonned places. I spend a good part of the days sneaking into various places in hotels, abandonned or not.
I am a bit hungry these few days. I don't hitchhike a lot which means nobody offers me food and since I am on zero-budget now, it just means I don't eat.
My last meal was the driver who drove me to the toll station and invited me to dinner there. He then bought me a big bow of chololate cookies which are my rations until someone gives me something else.
Finding places to sleep is a bit more difficult too since I don't have a tent anymore. I have noticed a cool watchtower right on the beach. It protects me from the heavy winds so I can spend the night there. I have checked it beforehand, it was empty and it even had a room with a door and electricity still running.
I download the Hobbit - desolation of smaug to watch before I go to sleep and I slowly make my way to the tower.
"Hey!" I hear from up there. A soldier is pointing his gun at me but in a very polite way, it is clear that he is very sorry to do this and soon, he is helping me find my way back apologizing that I can't sleep in his watchtower because it belongs to the Korean military.
Even Korean military are really kind.
The watchtower I tried to sleep in

During my whole stay in Korea I never got the chance to stay in Churches. When I was in China, I thought Korean churches would be my main means of accomodation but I never got to try them, everytime a better solution came up. Either people or double decker buses or offices, whatever else.
With my military watchtower out of the picture, I decided to test god's sheltear. If Koreans are so kind, so hospitable, if even hotels whose business is to take your money for housing let you stay for free, a church will probably cover you in love, food and blankets.
Actually, not really.
"I can't help you," says the lady in the Church, "my boss is not here, I can't make that decision."
I naivly thought that her boss is God and god approves hospitality or so the Bible says but appearently, in Korea churches are a business and God is just a guest in his own home. I did get a yoghourt though.
Just to be fair for comparison I went to a hotel a few meters from that church, asked for a free place to stay and got a free room with a double bed, kitchen and shower. I guess God had gone into exile since churches are not a safe haven for him any more, he is just everywhere else.

The next day I make it to Daegu and meet with Tumur again. He lives in an apparment with 3 people per room. Not much privacy and comfort but he's here for the work and money so I guess that will do. I stay with a friend of his who lives in his parents house. He is also from Alcoholics Anonymous and his story is similar to his Mongolian friends. I guess alcohol screws everyone in the same way, no matter which culture you are from.

Lee is very kind to me, he lends me his computer to make a promotional video for my trip. I wanted to make this video for a long time but I never had the chance to do it because it requires a real computer, my tablet is just not powerful enough, I barely could make Janela's video and it took ages.
I won't reveal why I made this video... yet but you should know that it serves a higher purpose, it's more than just a video about my journey, it has a goal. I don't know if this goal will succeed or fail, everything depends on my uninformed image of the upcoming japanese culture.

On March 25th, I leave Lee's house in the direction of the toll station. Today, if everything goes well, I will be flying to Japan.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hitchhiking with a safety net

First I need to make a hitchhiking sign. It has to be big, it must be appealing, it must impress. I need to hitchhike a plane, I was lucky a first (Jeju) and second (Japan) time, I might not get the third.
That's the rational me speaking. The adventurous me says: fuck that, let's hitchhike private jets and helicopters!
One day I was drunk with Jamie and Leah. I ended up coming back with a korean flag and a giant paper box. The paper box is big enough for me to standin it.
With big black characters I write: Please support my dream, buy me a ticket because that's what will most likely happen.
My hitchhiking sign, drawing courtesy of Lindsey

When I think about it, it is never the companies who have helped me, they always got stuck in some kind of administrative nonsense. They have always followed the rules with surgical precision. And the rules say: don't give free tickets to people.

It is always the people who have made the exception, smaller and less wealthy than the company but more humane. As a principle I always try the companies first however before moving to the individuals. Then I check, if only superficially if the person has the means to help me. Because unfortunately it is people with the smallest wallets who have the biggest hearts.

I have a problem however; my tabler is almost out of battery and the charger is dead for good. It has had a slow agony which started in Naryn, in Kyrgyzstan and I fear that no electricity flowing through it no matter what I do. For the last weeks I have dismanteled the cable and reconnected it at various places. It did work for some time.

You would think that it's fairly easy to buy a data cable for an Asus tablet. Then you have never been to Korea. There is no such thing on whole Jeju island, I checked whatever I could. People stared at my transformer tablet as it was a piece of whichcraft.
"Noooo!", they signaled me to go away as if my tablet had the power to contaminate their samsung phone. Unless you have either Samsung, LG or i-Crap, you are basically dead in the water.
I can understand for Samsung and LG but why do they have so many iPhone chargers? It's their main competition.

With less than 15% of my primary battery left and the secondary one depleted, I don't use the map very often. So I don't find the helicopters, I go to the private jets. However first, I say hello to my adoptive family.

I hitchhike there, one of my memorable rides in Seojin, korean girl alone in a car which looked more soviet than korean. She spoke great english, she was interesting and joyful and drove me way out of her way.
I didn't want to fold my giant sign so it acted as a sail in the heavy wind which was blowing me away.

I arrived at the restaurant of my adoptive family where I was greeted with warmth and kindness. 
They were all overly moved to see me, no idea why so much emotion. I had a great lunch and I was off to go.
"To go where?"
"Hitchhiking private jets."
"Private jets?" my adoptive jeju mother gave me a concerned look. "There will be no such things."
"But how am I supposed to get out of this island?"
"You take that money. No hitchhiking!"
"I don't want money!"
She started to get really angry at me: Take! It is not a good practice to argue with the elderly in Korea.
Anyway, I can do whatever I want, if I want to hitchhike, I'll hitchhike. But my adoptive family walks me to a bus stop.
"There will be no more hitchhiking."

They put me on a bus which goes to Jeju-si. At my destination waits Mr. Han, a Vietnam war veteran and my adoptive mother's husband. He is supposed to take me home and make sure that I behave in a proper manner and don't take any reckless risks.
However I miss my stop and meet a nice girl who is about to perform a show of traditional korean dance and drums in the arts center of Jeju city.
I get an invitation for the spectacle, free of charge, because you are special, so she says. She seems to be the lead of the show so nobody contradicts her, not even the organiser who throws me a weird look.

I meet Mr. Han an hour later than planned and he takes me home. He lives in an appartment on the fourth floor just a few steps from the beach. I can almost feel the sea from his window. I get the guest room with my own bathroom.
The beach is just out of the window
I take Mr. Han to the show; he is delighted and slightly taken aback that it is a foreigner who takes him to a traditional korean event.
"I wish you were my son," he says in a bitter tone which makes me feel kind of weird. Plus, I don't think he could possibly stand me as a child.
He seemed to be a bit dissapointed by his children.

My newfound friend performing
The show is quite strange and kind of fun. We end up dancing all together a strange type of farandole. Mr Han and me agree on a compromise. He will buy me a ticket, however I have one hour to hitchhike a boat.
"I don't believe you can do it," says Mr. Han, "but if you succeed then I stop eating for a week."
I stress to Mr. Han that he should be careful with these type of remarks because there is quite a big chance of success. But nothing seems to shake Mr. Han's conviction.
"You can try but I think maybe it's impossible"
The next day I hitchhike to Hallim Park to which I enter climbing over the fence only to discover that the entry is actually free. However I return home too late to catch the ship to Busan.
In korea, places where it is good to take a picture are labeled as such.
Here, however, the uniformity is at its paroxism: not only the picture spot is suggested but also the position of the people. Individuality died here.

The next day, Mr. Han gives me half of his food for the week just in case I died on hunger on the ferry and drive me to the ferry terminal.
There is nobody there because we are at the wrong terminal but we didn't know it. Seeing no one to show the sign to, even the counters were empty, I go to the company's office.
I explain my situation to the people there and when I attempt to prove my story by showing them the map on my dirty cardboard which has now been through half of Jeju, the lady just says:
"Passport please"
 And they print me a free ticket. Simple. No bullshit about having to contact a supervisor who must, in turn contact his superviser and so on all the way until they reach god.
I guess some companies are more flexible than others, I guess I was wrong humanity is everywhere, even in companies sometimes.
The company even drives me to the correct passenger terminal and Mr. Han follows in his car.
Mr. Han can't believe it, he finds it cool that I hitched the boat and gives me goodbye dinner.

The ride is quite pleasent though windy. Jeju island slowly dissapears in the white mist, courtesy of Shanghai pollution.
About halfway we pass a series of small island which looks like mountains in the water, in the middle of nowhere. Really nice.

The ferry takes about four hours and docks at the harbour of Mokpo.

There, Mr Han dispathed his cousin to wait for me and take me home since it is already quite late.