Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Terrorists can't have kittens

As I am to embark on the armored bus I am quickly taken away to a small room. People keep talking to me in Japanese and I have no idea what's going on. This is the day I learn that Bengoshi means lawyer. Everything is done according to protocol, my handcuffs are off and I am left alone in that empty booth; even the guard goes out.
Some time later, a man comes in. He seems to have come here in a hurry and seems more worried than me. I wonder, once more weather my case is what it seems to be.
I tell him my story and about the potential life sentence that I have just received but it turns out that my lawyer speaks English just a little better than I speak Japanese. So much for discussing conspiracy theories. So I tell him the most important thing: to contact the outside word and tell them that I am alive. They should be quite worried by now and I have been denied all contact in case I asked them "to hide evidence".
I tell the lawyer that, under no circumstances, he should tell anyone that I am in jail and that I refuse to contact any embassy.
I give him the e-mail address of Orianne, my ex-girlfriend which is probably looking for me already. Of course I ask the lawyer to stay as vague as possible and under no circumstance write that I am in jail or that he is a lawyer.

In my mind, they will be reassured and when I do get out everything will get back to normal and nobody will know that I was in jail, ever. It will keep everyone from being paranoid each and every time I put myself in danger because let's face it: it happens often. And yes I do hope to get out, I am able to accept many things but I am not accepting a life sentence and nor should anyone who has any sanity left.

Unfortunately nothing goes according to plan. First, they take me to the police station again and request my permission to send a copy of my passport to my embassy. Since my perceived life sentence I decided to cease any cooperation and good will I might have shown throughout my detention process. I tell the cops to go fuck themselves and if they so much as talk to my embassy I'll make it my life mission to sue them to the ground.
One thing I have to give the cops though is, they do play by the rules.
I was beginning to realize what this meant: somebody found me. Somebody had found out that I was in jail, the French embassy was aware of this and was pushing for more information and we all know how annoying french bureaucracy is. Consider it payback for giving me life in jail, assholes!
Some might argue that dealing with french embassies is much worse than eternity in a box and I wouldn't necessarily disagree but I was pissed off.

That night, I feel a true desperation. Not only am I locked in a box but my friends and relatives are losing it! I have often wondered, when watching series like Prison Break what kind of inmate I would be. Would I be picked on? Would I be one that successfully tries to avoid conflict? I never imagined that I could be a violent one but tonight, I would just beat one of my inmates senseless if they gave me half a reason to.
Or I could commit suicide, that would be very annoying. To be honest, it wasn't the first time I thought about it, lack of stimulation of the mind does this to you. Despite the engineering efforts to render the box suicide-proof, nothing is ever suicide-proof.
I find two ways to do this, the more realistic one inspired by the British series Bad Girls. The cell has a toilet space and toilet paper is kept there overnight. It should be possible to make small squares of that paper and deposit them down the throat, one on the top of the other, maybe making some of the pieces wet to prevent the air gaps. It would be suicide by asphyxiation, not the most comfortable one buit quite efficient.
As I am weighting the pros and cons, I realize that there is one annoying side effect to suicide that I am not ready to embrace: death. Despite death, it is perfect, it annoys the police, the guards, maybe even makes some of them lose their job. But it will annoy my friends and family more and Janela already had suicide history in her boyfriend circle.
You can't commit suicide if you truly don't want to die, just to annoy people. For a while, I sit there, philosophizing inside my head why does death need to be such an essential part of suicide.

The next day, I am asked to the visitation room.
"Who is it?" I ask the guard
"I don't know."
"Investigation? Or Lawyer?"
"Who's that?"
"I don't know."
"You speak Japanese only," says the guard
"Fuck you!" My reason to say this was mostly because prisoners always say this in Hollywood movies and since this situation makes no sense, I might very well be in a movie.
"Japanese only." But I bet he understood fuck you, that's international but acted as if nothing happened.

So I am sitting there with the Japanese guard looking as puzzled as I am, waiting to see what comes through that door. I think about refusing the visit and just going back but if people are trying to help me, I should at least give them a chance. Plus, I am curious.
I meet a thin woman with short hair who doesn't look too Japanese. I sure never saw her in my life but if I didn't know any better she looks a little bit like my parent's neighbor Barbora who lives in the south of France. And there she speaks Japanese.
"Hello, my name is Catherine, I am Barbora's sister. Do you speak Japanese?"
This much I can understand but I explain to her that she just used 75% of my Japanese vocabulary in one sentence.
She switches to french.
"Japanese only!," says the guard who also used 75% of his English vocabulary in that sentence.
Catherine, who turns out to be a Japanese-French translator talks to me in French followed by the same sentence in Japanese.
"I want to tell you that your parents know where you are and are thinking about you a lot."
I know this was reassuring but my worst fears have come true. My parents know I am in jail and actually, they know everything.
How did they find out? Did the police give in under to pressure from the French annoying embassy despite the fact that they legally have no right to share any information regarding my case with them unless I authorize it?

It was later that I found out what was going on defied my craziest dreams or should I say nightmares.
Orianne, my ex-girlfriend with whom I maintain a great relationship organized a search party remotely operated from her apartment in Rennes, France.
They were tracking down my all my known movements and last known locations.
They have retraced my exact itinerary in Tokyo, up to the university of arts and they even managed to contact the last person I spoke to, a university of arts student who had invited me to his place.
Several people in Tokyo were contacted and were looking from me, from my parents side, my facebook followers and exchanging information on several reddit threads.
My cousin had contacted the Czech embassy but they didn't really care, another stupid Czech tourist in trouble, if they've got a dime each time that happened...
My parents contacted the French Embassy who find out what was happening to me and the french embassy managed to confirm that I was in prison. My father used his academic connections to contact some university professor in Japan who managed to find out where I was independently.
They also scanned my tablet's online activity to pinpoint whatever information they could and I could go on forever, the document is here.

Ironically, what my friends, followers and family found out was pretty much what the Arakawa police was looking for during my investigation but unfortunately, they weren't so lucky.
The head detective also wanted to extract information from my tablet but since it has a dockable keyboard, he didn't understand that it was a tablet and thought it was a very confusing laptop. He accidentally dropped the weird piece of technology and the touch screen broke.
The broken touchscreen generated a series of parasite clicks which opened random applications all over the place. At the end, it opened weibo, the Chinese version of twitter and the detective asked me why I had a Chinese operating system. I told him I had no such thing and from that moment, my tablet was filed as just too confusing for the Arakawa police force and therefore, a word of advice:
Orianne, coordinator of the investigation about me... the one that worked.
If you followed the Japanese manga/anime series Death Note, they've got one thing right: L is a much needed asset but he is dead.

Once my friends found me, they started to pressure the police station and that's when I was called to sign the documents to disclose my personal information at least to the French embassy which I refused. I had kind of assumed, when I saw their concerned faces, that they were accusing me of something ludacris like mass murder of Mars aliens but maybe they were just dealing with all the people trying to get me out.

On Catherine's advice, my mother compiled a set of pictures from my Facebook photos where I appeared friendly and appealing to the Japanese people. It was mostly me with Japanese children or cute kittens which conveyed the message that I don't mean any harm.
Last but not least, Catherine took custody over me which invalidated the main one of my three accusation claims: the defendant has no fixed address in Japan.
My lawyer printed those pictures and my new Japanese address and brought them to the prosecutor. I don't exactly know what happened that day in that room but I know that all charges were dropped and I was to be released the next day.

The prosecutor told me: "You may not have a good opinion of Japan right now but I wish you luck with the rest of your trip. I hope you will meet more kind people who will paint a better picture of Japan"

Seriously how could I judge Japan from this? Everything what happened in the last few days was so far beyond my understanding and even further beyond my judgement.

My cellmates congratulated me, they were genuinely happy. It was an emotional moment, I said I'd write to Toshi when he gets out but I must confess, I didn't.

As the police gave me my things back, I noticed that most of my souvenirs were missing, including the giant shells I got as a gift on Kyushu island.
I really liked these shells...

I don't know why the hell would the police steal sea shells that can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan but as I said, I don't really understand the Japanese justice system. I also recovered my tablet which had survived to everything until now but had now a broken touchscreen.
I pointed out to the police that there were a lot of things missing and they were very embarrassed and polite and gave me toothbrush. Go figure.

For about a week I lived at Catherine's place. She was incredible at switching between French and English and her knowledge of the Japanese language down to its deeply mysterious mechanics was amazing. She lived with her husband who was Korean-Japanese and really nice.

Catherine and her husband provided me a safe haven after my release
After a week of being as active as an average potato, I decided to move my ass and hitchhike north, towards Hokkaido.

In conclusion, I was not released because I was innocent, I was released because kittens are cute.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The trial


That was a long wait. My friends and family must be worried already. Thanks goodness I'll see the proper authorities and be released. I find it really difficult to spend time here, staring at the clock, doing nothing. It is strange because the other people seem to manage it. They suffer alright but they don't complain, they manage it. I don't consider myself a weak person, I should be able to withstand at least what others people can bear. But everybody is different, different people are resistant to different things and maybe I am just not too resistant to jail. That's alright because I should be released today or so they tell me. Being released is such a big deal that people actually don't care what time of the day they'll be released but I do care. I am feeling every hour so I hope it will be in the morning.
My box-mates are less optimistic.
"Maybe you'll get 10 days." They mean well, they seem to think that ten days is not much, they seem to say it to comfort me so I knod.
"Yeah, maybe"
But what if they are right? I am not a special person, if japanese people get ten days for almost no reason why not me? From the other hand I have a hard time believing that because what I did is really close to nothing... I can't imagine getting 10 days for that. But Japan is strict, I could get time, maybe three more days. I think about how much more time I could take in this place. Three more days sounds about right.
I thought that I couldn't take a day more but maybe that's not true. If I organize my time, find things too do... somehow... then I could manage to wait 3 days.

In the morning, I am allowed to get a shower. Or maybe I have to I don't know. I haven't showered in quite some time so it's something I welcome. I can't believe my eyes. They actually let me into the shower room alone with hot water and some time to wash. False alarm, no they don't. About ten seconds later two other naked people enter the room and start washing. We are our own suicide watch.
Thanks goodness I had time to get used to public showers and baths starting from Kyrgyzstan then China, Korea and the Japenese Onsen. Otherwise this would be a very difficult moment.
Besides the zero privacy, the shower facilities are quite comfortable.
After showering and dressing again (there is always someone watching even when you are naked) the guard guides me to a room where I can shave. He gives me an electric razor that absolutely doesn't work. I mean it shakes and makes a sound indicating that there is a motor spinning but besides that it does very little. The sharp razor bits that are supposed to cut your facial hair are very far behind a metal grid. You can't do much, just press the razor to your skin and wait for it to do something but it does nothing. It just hurts my skin.
"This doesn't work, do you have a normal razor?"
They just have the anti-suicide razors. When you think about it, an anti-suicide razor is kind of an oxymoron. It's basically trying to make a knife that cuts and doesn't cut at the same time. I give up, I can't shave with this. There is no need to torture myself just to look civilized for my friends in a box.

Many of the inmates try to look their best for the prosecutor or for the judge. They dress up fancy (or as fancy as prison-provided clothes can dress you), brush their hair in the senseless hope that looking nice will make the judge more lenient. Looks do bring you a long way in Japan but I doubt it makes any difference to the judge. As for me, I am not going to make a clown out of myself for the amusement of a Judge who will process me like cattle on a slaughtering line. I am a prisoner in a box, I can't do much but one of the things over which I still have control is my dignity.

So I decide go in front of the prosecutor dressed and shaved like a caveman.

The courthouse

The armoured bus takes us to the courthouse. There is a whole protocol for the transfer. First we are searched multiple times and put into handcuffs. Once handcuffed, all the transferred prisoners, me included are linked to one another by a rope. This way, if you managed somehow to escape, you would have to run through Tokyo as a funny line of handcuffed convicts, one behind the other.
The handcuffs are checked several times, as I enter or exit the bus. I gave up feeling like a normal person, trying to delude myself that I am not like the others. I am in the box, it is much safer to assume that I am much like the other packaged cereal bars.
However, besides all the checks I notice that it is possible for me to take at least one hand out of the handcuffs. It may not be very comfortable but it is doable without breaking any bones. Not sure why I am looking into this, maybe just for peace of mind, perhaps exploratory research for a plan B in case Japanese justice turns out to be too crazy.

At the courthouse we are counted again. We are put with other boxes, a bit smaller, with more people, with other clocks but for a shorter time. There are about 10 people per box. Nobody talks. People wait in silence. For what? They don't seem to know, they just wait. They are old, young, seem to be from different backgrounds. And they are all fighting boredom, deep inside their mind. We don't talk to each other.
Sometime in the afternoon, someone calls me. I am taken through several corridors and elevators to another floor, and I appear in front of the public prosecutor. She is a pretty lady in her thirties with a very hard look in her eyes. Another woman is there, she says that she is my translator. She speaks English as well as French. I choose English for two reasons.
Firstly, I won't express myself in a language of a country that treats my girlfriend like dirt. And secondly I have no reason to overload this poor translator's brain by resorting to a language that is overly complicated. Don't get me wrong, I like French, it is a great choice to get laid but English is just better to get things done.

The trial

The prosecutor tells me that she's a prosecutor and asks weather or not I want a lawyer. I don't believe that my "crime" would be worth anyone's time so I refuse. She goes over my accusation with all the "allegedly" precautions which make the sentences even longer. It is such a relief to be out of isolation that I am actually happy for every ounce of communication I can get. But on the other hand, this kind of behavior is pitiful and that woman is not my penpal so I tell her to get to the point.
She seems surprised that I don't want a lawyer but I just want all this over quick. She says that she will push for maximum penalty.
"Because it is my job."
"Wait... it is your job to push for maximum penalty regardless of the commited crime?"
"That is why you should take a lawyer."
"Could I have the reasons which makes you think that my case requires to push for maximum penalty?"
"It is not important what I think. I am just doing my job."
Yeah I got that the public prosecutor is not my friend, I do hope to avoid the stockholm syndrome but this just not make sense. Does that mean that the prosecutor's job is to push the punishment as far as possible independently of what the prisoner has done? Because if that is the case, it means that in case of no defence the defendent gets prison to life or whatever the maximum penalty under japanese law is? This seems a little too far-fetched but I can't seem to get other type of answer, although what she says is always very Japanese vague and full of countless apologies and politeness formulas.
My translator translates the output to French as well as English but the result is the same: the prosecutor will be pushing endlessly through increasingly  harsh penalties until she hits a wall. And that wall is supposed to be my lawyer.
"Do you want a lawyer?," she asks again. She seems worried, like someone who is about to do something bad but feels that has no choice.
"I will handle my own defense if need be."

The prosecutor lets me go with a worried look and I do not pity her because when you take a job like this, you should be prepared to bear the consequences of the harm you do to people, that should be your rightful cross to bear.

When I return back to the box, my friends ask me whether I am going out. When I say no, they truly welcome me amongst them. I am officially a prisoner now, I am part of the family.

The next day I am to see the judge. I am more curious than afraid about the whole thing, how the Japanese justice system works. I arrive in a small room, a woman is there, on the other side of the table. There is another person, taking notes.

"I am the judge," says the woman, "can you state your name and date of birth for the court?"
I have learned in jail that we are in year 26 and I proudly state that.
"Do you have a permanent address in Japan?"
"So your name is Filip Novotny, you're born on 17. June of the year 26 and you do not have a permanent address in Japan. Is that correct?"
"Thank you, I do not need anything else."
"Where is the prosecutor?"
"There is no need for a prosecutor, I have all the information I need." says the judge. Strange.
I guess if there is not any public prosecutor to accuse me of anything then I don't have to bother with my defense. I have a feeling that I really don't understand what is going on here or maybe I just watch too many movies. I just sit there, looking at the judge and she looks at me.
"So... is there or will there be a verdict?"
"I can't say."
"Really? But forgive me for asking but you're the judge, right? Isn't it like... your job to listen to accusation and defence and then decide of a verdict?"
"No. I think you have misinterpreted what a judge does in Japan."
"Clearly so."
"We are incredibly sorry."

Of course they are. I never was a believer of the justice system but this is starting to look suspicious. I have been thrown in a cell prior to judgement, I have been subject to a DNA test, I have faced a prosecutor who very politly told me she'll stop at nothing to keep me behind bars and now I saw a judge who doesn't give verdicts in a trial where there is no prosecutor. From behind my eyes, this is getting kafkaesque.

Just after I exit the room, I am handed a piece of paper which contains the results of the trial. So there seems to be a verdict after all. Nowhere is there written the real reason of my arrest. The paper is incredibly vague. It translates:
The defendant is sentenced to be in jail for a standard period of time or more for the following reasons:

  • The defendant does not have a fixed address in Japan
  • To prevent the defender of hiding evidence
  • To prevent the defender from escaping
The last one kind of make sense. You lock someone up to prevent them from escaping, that's a direct consequence, hardly a cause for lockup. 
And while it is true that I indeed do not have a fixed Japanese address, forcingly establishing me one in Arakawa prison is hardly the solution I was hoping for. I think I prefer to be homeless thank you very much.
But prevent me from hiding evidence, see, that is strange.
Turns out that in a case like mine there just isn't any evidence to be hidden because there is nothing to hide to begin with. This sentence just doesn't apply to what I did and for the first time, a thought crosses my mind. I always assumed I was accused of something I did but what if I was accused of something I did not do? After all, it wouldn't be the first time something like this would happen. I was accused of being a spy before and that was before I even got to China. Since then, my hitchhiking story has gotten wilder and more incredible. Would it be so unreal to think that the police didn't believe a word of that story?
When I think about it now, the police didn't ask me much about what I did, they were more interested in my nationality, more importantly, my double nationality. They sent my passport for forensic analysis and tried quite hard to figure out what my nationality really was, the true origins of my bloodline.

And... jail for a standard period of time or more, what the hell does that mean? Did I just get a potential life sentence?
I ask to see the judge again and surprisingly enough, they let me.

"What is a standard period of time?" Shit just got real.
"A standard period of time is 10 to 20 days."
"Is my sentence a maximum of 20 days?"
"Your sentence may be more than 20 days."
"Is my sentence more than, say.. a month?"
"It is possible that your sentence is more than a month, that is not up to me."
"Of course, why am I asking, you're only the judge."
No wonder Japan is a safe country, the justice system must drive the few criminals crazy.
"The length of the sentence depends on the time the investigation takes. We are incredibly sorry."

So let me sum this up. I was imprisoned because I don't have an address and I should not be able to escape from the address that I don't have. So says the judge whose job somehow is to not deliver judgement. All this for the time that last the investigation. But the person who has authority over the investigation is the public prosecutor whose job is to keep me behind bars no matter what in order to prevent me to hide more evidence.
So all that the public prosecutor has to do to keep his job is to make the investigation run forever which is very easy since they are apparently looking for evidence that just does not exist and thus will never find.

In short I might just have been handed life in prison in the most polite way you can imagine, courtesy of Japanese manners.

"I think I'll take a lawyer. If only to explain to me how the Japanese justice system works."

Monday, April 21, 2014

Life in a box

I am put in the box in about 8 PM. There are three people there. There is Seventeen, Five and Eighteen.

"Tana-san," says Five, "Kami." He says in a very soft voice, too soft for his size. His voice is like a feather.
The guard brings him paper tissues. It's toilet paper actually. Soft sheets of toilet paper, 25x20 centimeters each. About half a hundred sheets. He takes each sheet and folds it in half. Everytime he folds a tissue, he tries to enjoy that moment with his whole being. He even gives a sigh of pleasure as he folds the soft tissue in two.
As slowly as he can, from the pile of tissue sheets he makes a pile of of tissue sheets folded in half. When it's finished he gives a very quiet sigh of despair.

Five is one of the few people here who has actually done something which would actually be considered as a crime even in Europe. He has arrived to Japan from China and robbed an ATM. He ran away with a little less than a hundred thousand dollars which he hid somewhere which I won't write here for obvious reasons. If or when he is released, he plans to take that sum and send it to his parents. They are quite poor people.
For the time being, he folds tissues in half.
As slowly as he can, from the pile of tissue sheets he makes a pile of of half-tissues. When it's finished he gives a very quiet sigh of despair.

I watch this guy with stupefaction and promise myself never to fall that low. I should be careful with the promises for this box is empty from all objects except desperation.

Five is a foreigner. I have hoped for some English but I get Chinese instead. Still, I am the only one in the detention center who can communicate with him in his native language at least a little bit. He doesn't speak a word of english but can manage some japanese words.
He is a big guy, big for chinese but taller than me too. No danger there though, he is a teddy bear. Plus, life in that box is slowly turning him into a vegetable. It has been three months that he has been in here. His behaviour reminds me of people who have down syndrome. He is to be detained for at least three years.

Seventeen is a skinny japanese guy named Toshi. But I only learn this on my last day in jail. For now, he is Seventeen. He has been here for a month because he was seen drunk in the street at he has at least one more month to wait.

The first night, I manage to sleep. I haven't slept well the last few nights, haven't eaten much and have spent a lot of energy. So I just fall down and sleep, I don't mind the lights on. But I see that my fellow inmates struggeling to keep their eyes closed and I wonder how long until such things start happening to me too.

At 6:30 exactly we wake up. Five minutes later we take the floor matresses on which we slept and take them to another room. Then we return to the box and we wait. The door opens very briefly and a guard throws in a vacuum cleaner, two buckets with water and wet towels. We have to clean the box which is already clean because there is nothing in it for dust to accumulate. The three inmates grab each a towel or the vacuum cleaner and start cleaning. They are happy to do it because from all the things it is possible to do here, cleaning the toilet is one of the most exciting ones. I don't want to do anything to improve the box that is keeping me prisonner. I, unlike everybody else never use the suffix -san (mark of respect) when talking to the other guards. Showing respect to people responsible for your detention feels like losing my dignity; I will not do it. I know that this is just their job and that they didn't put me here but I believe that a person is responsible for his or her actions regardless of him or her acting under authority. I know this goes against what psychology has thought us but it is my opinion.
Actually, I keep the talking with the guards to a minimum. When I want something, my cellmates will ask it for me so I don't owe my captors anything.

The guards are not evil, they try to be as nice as the rules allow them to. Unfortunatelly the rules don't have much room for kindness. After all, how can you be kind and lock people in boxes?
We go brush our teeth. I do it quickly but my fellow inmates take their time. Going out of the box is tasting a bit of freedom even if it's only the narrow hallway.
Then breakfast. The guard slides the green carpet into the box through the narrow hole in the wall and then he slides the food, dish after dish. We are all waiting for food like baby birds for their mother. We feel just as helpless because in the conditions in which we live, if one day food stops coming through the hole; we die. Theoretically. It's Japan however, the rule says that food will keep coming through the hole and food will keep coming through the hole.
The food is good. Rice, some rolls, some friend little things. We get two bottles of soy sauce that we must give back after we put it on our rice. We also get chopsticks that we must give back so we don't kill ourselves with them.
"How do you say soyu in English?," asks Seventeen
"It's soy sauce," I say
"Soy sauce! How funny! Hahahahahha." And he bursts into laughter.
I smile a bit. I am not in a mood to laugh or to do anything. I don't want to socially bind with these people. Not because I despise them, I do not. I am sure they are perfectly find fellows; it's just that binding with them makes no sense. What could we possibly achieve in this place?
I can kill time just as well on my own.

After breakfast we wait. I have three books. I read the first one, about New Zealand in the morning. It takes me about two hours to finish it. It's written for children but what can I do?
"The people who first lived in Australia are called the Aboriginese. The land was very important for the Aboriginese. They like to farm their land." For the first time of my life, I wouldn't be afraid to spend my days reading the very complex Victor Hugo's "les miserables". But I am reading english for beginner's books.
Then comes lunch. I am always hungry for food and the food is good. So I eat lunch. Two pieces of bread with butter and jam. The butter and jam are in small plastic bags. The thing is, for security reasons we can't use a knife or a spoon to put the jam on your bread. I pour the butter on the bread and try to spread it with the small plastic bag but it's not very effective. The others do this too, there is no better solution anyway.

In the afternoon Five gets a pen. He writes on a notepad covered with chinese characters. I still have two other books: O. Henry's short stories simplified to 700 words of vocabulary. Half an hour to read it cover to cover. Simplified super thin version of the road ahead by Bill Gates: 20 minutes to read it cover to cover. And I used to complain about New Zealand.

This is a joke, I'll ask for proper books. I am a very curious person, I can't survive without a heavy information intake. I don't like to ask the guards for stuff but some books, that's a very obvious request.
But the guard completly ignores me. I ask again. This hurts my pride, I don't like to repeat myself to people who have authority over me.
"Can I have different books"
"No," says the guard.
"One day - 3 books."
"But these are books for children! Don't you have bigger books?"
"Tomorrow you take big japanese book."
"But I don't read Japanese"
The guard walks away. I have nothing now. Just the clock. And a damn slow one. It is unbearable to wait just until 5 PM, for dinner. I am bored of my mind. My box mates try to sleep but they are actually just lying on the floor with their eyes out of focus. Thank god I am going out tomorrow. Another day in here would be the end of me. I can't imagine how these people could spend a month in here. I think they didn't. I must have misunderstood.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I am locked inside an empty box, staring at the clock

Warning: if you are my parents or my girlfriend, please do not read this, it might be a bit difficult

Hey Janela, do not read this, seriously, don't!

We are four people in a holding cell in Arakawa police station, Tokyo. The cell has the following dimentions: 7.26 meters long, 3.3 meters wide and 2.2 meters high. The cell has a metal door 1 meter wide. The door is covered with big bars. Between the big bars there are finer bars which are so close to one another that it is barely possible to insert the top of my little finger between them. On the cell floor, there is a yellow carpet. There are no chairs, no table, no bedsm no furniture. For all intends and purposes, the cell is an empty box with humans in it.

In the back of the cell, there is a "window" 1.6 meters wide and 1.7 meters high. The window is tightly covered with bars the same way as the door. The "window" and the door overlooks a hallway illuminated by neon lights. The hallway on the "window" side has three visible windows, all tightly covered with heavy metal bars. It is possible however to have a glimpse of the outside world through the two layers of bars of the cell and hallway windows. We perceive the world through narrow patches of light.

There is a toilet. The toilet is a separate room. It has a windowm 70x50cm on the side and another window in the door. When a person is on the toilet everyone who cares to watch can see his head and upper body. The naked part of the body however, remains hidden. The door of the toilet is a a 70cm by 2 meter heavy piece of steel, it goes all the way from floor to ceiling. The top of the door is not a horizontal line, it forms a 45 degree angle, like this:
The toilet door
The door's pivotal system is extremely close to the wall. It is therefore extremely difficult to insert anything, a rope per say between the door and the wall. And even if such a rope would be inserted, it would be very difficult to to make it hold on the sliding slope (see picture above). Anything even remotely elastic such as clothes would fail to hold to that door. And we are all provided with only very elastic clothes.

A thin metal plate about 5 centimeters wide goes around the cell strongly holding the carpet to the ground, making it extremely difficult to tear the carpet or to hide anything under it. The carpet is just soft enough to provide a soft fall if a person would somehow climb to the ceiling and fall from it. However it is not fluffy enough to make suicide by asphyxiation possible. It is obvious after a while that this place is designed with one goal in mind and one goal only: to be suicide-proof.

The toilet is illuminated by three pairs of neon tubes on the ceiling and one neon lamp in the toilet space. The lights never go out. At night, the toilet neon light remains on and one neon lamp is left on in the cell box. The light from that single neon is enough to brightly illuminate the cell.
With such strong lighting, it is difficult to sleep. Most of us don't really sleep at night. We just rest in a 3/4-awake state. Sometimes we try to cover our eyes with a piece of clothing to achieve a sensation of darkness. However, in order to prevent suicide, all pieces of clothing that we do not wear are taken away from us. It is common practice for us to go to sleep with our jumper on. We later take off that jumper and use a sleeve to cover our eyes. This way, we can sleep. However, the guards patrol at night (suicide watch) and when they notice this, they wake the person up and take away his jumper. The person then has no other choice than to rest in the illuminated room.
There is one allowed option how to reduce the light intake. We are allowed to put our blanked over our head. However the provided blankets are very warm and don't let enough air through. They are unable to suffocate us but they are uncomfortable enough to prevent us from sleeping. However, few of us suffer from sleep deprivation. The reason for this is that we practically never get out of our cells, get no physical exercise and therefore accumulate very little tiredness to be consumed during the night.
We go out of our cells five to ten minutes in the morning to brush our teeth and then five to ten minutes in the evening to brush our teeth. The sinks are in the hallway, a maximum of ten meters from our cells. We also go twice per day, through the hallway to a room about 20 meters from our cell to take our sleeping mattress and put it back in the morning. The journey to the mattress room and back takes less than a minute.

Even though we don't go out from our cell, there are two to three checks a day to ensure everybody is present. The checks are performed in a ridiculous manner which comes straight out of a bad Hollywood movie. The guards shout our numbers (we have numbers, not names) and we have to say "yes!" when our number is called even though the guards see us and recognize us. When the calling is finished the guards scream to one another: "4 men in a cell!" very loudly even though they are 2 meters from each other.

Boredom is on everyone's minds, actions and faces. Everyday, we can choose 3 books from the bookshelf. There are about 150 books to choose from and about half of them are old manga which all tell approximately the same story in different flavors: good cop always catches bad guy and beats his ass. I guess that should teach us a lesson!
Almost all books are in Japanese. There are exactly 4 books in Chinese and 6 books in English. All thin english for beginners books, the kind of simplified English with 700 words of vocabulary that we had in 8th grade.
The most advanced of them is a simplified transcript of the movie love actually in 53 A5 pages. It takes 2 afternoons to read the six books. After that there are no books and it is unthinkable to request other books. I have no other choice but to read the same book over and over again, until I know it by heart, until it becomes the same thing to read and to do nothing.

At certain times, during the day, we can request a pen. Getting a pen is one thing, getting a piece of paper is another. We have to pay to get paper to write on. Even if another inmate gives me a paper that he has paid for, I can't keep it. The guards won't give it to me at the end of my detention. They will throw it away at the end of the day.

The day is organized in 3 parts. 1) Waiting for lunch at exactly 12 AM, 2) Waiting for dinner, 5 PM.
What do we do during the waiting times? Nothing. It is literally hours and days of doing nothing, looking at the clock. Since we do not sleep properly during the night and are not properly awake during the day, we also wait at nights. If your sentence is a day, you will wait 24 hours you will practically see the minute hand on the clock turn around 24 times. If your sentence is a 10 days, you will see it turn around 240 times. If your sentence is a month you will feel every single of the 720 hours. Go into an empty room, put a clock in front of you and wait for an hour to finish. Do nothing, just look at that clock. That is how is waiting in a box.

Some of us try to sleep but it is hard. We are not tired enough, the lights are bright and we do not have blankets during the day. Some of us rest more during the night, some during the day. Either way we are conscious of almost every hour that passes by.
All day long we stay in our box, even during meals. A green carpet comes in our cell through a narrow hole in the wall. The food is good though, better than my former company's canteen. The quantity is just enough for me. Maybe I could eat slightly more. However, it doesn't seem enough for some of the bigger guys.

Almost every morning we go briefly out of our box to a special room where we can shave and cut our nails. The shaving machines are special electric razors designed for anti-suicide purposes. In other words: they don't cut and hurt your skin.

Once every 5 days, we are allowed to have a shower. However, for security reasons we cannot go alone, we go in groups of three people. A guard is watching us through a window. And that is how life goes on a in Japanese detention center. No proper rest, no physical activity, no natural light, always someone watching. Everything is alright as long as no one kills himself.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sakurajima, my little cherry monster

Compared to the magic mushroom guy, the ride was pretty uneventful until I reached the city of Kushima. There, a Japanese girl gets ou of her car with a big smile and perfect english. I tell her that I am going to Sakurajima and she says that it's a good idea but I might just as well spend the night home before I start such a difficult journey.
She explains to me that her husband is British. He is a scientist, a geologist to be exact which is not a bad job description when you live a few kilometers from a volcano. His specialiy is landslides and also river beds and we have interesting conversations about physics. It is very interesting but I notice something strange. This guy sees me as an engineer and that is not what I am anymore. I haven't been for a long time. I don't know what my job should be but I feel much more as a journalist.

He tells me that he has been on TV several times to talk about geology and every-time he is summoned, he is asked questions about a field which is not his and is expected to ramble random stuff. I am not too surprised, media can be fun but I am losing the little trust I had in it's informative power. My experiences on the air corroborate that line of thought and later, when I'll be on TV myself, I'll be convinced of how it is fake.

I have a shower, rest an they are both very nice. The house has two floors and I get the room on second floor. The view is beautiful on the green sunny countryside, I feel I am in the south. Without realizing it, I have reached the southernmost point of my journey, way more south than Tehran and the second southernmost point in my life.

In the evening, we are invited to their friends and we cross the beautiful fields to get there. Monkeys are shyly looking at us through the surrounding branches. These are Snow Monkeys, the most northern of Monkey species, the only ones living in a land that occasionally has snow. That is why they are so fond of hot springs!

The neighbors whom we went to see are very nice. They have prepared great Japanese food, as always and I try to communicate with my Japanese-English which makes everyone laugh. I use the opportunity to question my hosts about the state of Sakurajima.

Fox was right, Sakurajima is acting out. It is a very powerful and explosive volcano. It used to be on an island but in the beginning of the 20th century, it erupted with such a strength that the lava made a bridge to the land and it is now a peninsula.
It is one of the most dangerous and the most monitored volcano in Japan, mainly because a city of half a million inhabitant lies just under it.
Now, access to Sakurajima is restricted because of ongoing activity. My plan to climb it doesn't seem reasonable.
"I am not an expert on Sakurajima but if I could say something close to a professional opinion, I would say you might die there." I carefully note the concern coming from a geologist but I've always preferred giving up on the spot.
The next day the couple gives me an incredible amount of food and a copious breakfast. I can survive a few days without worrying about anything again. They also say they can drive me to Sakurajima because they haven't been there in a while.

We reach the volcano in early afternoon. It is smoking from the caldera but it seems to be of little concern to the Japanese people who are quietly fishing nearby. There is a foot onsen where people relax their feet. We should be a bit more careful to go to onsens when an eruption is near because the temperature can suddenly increase and we might get burned.

There is a sound and a while after that, the volcano gives out a puff of smoke. And then it calms down. And then it releases smoke again. It seems to be periodic.

Sakurajima smoking with UFO
I later notice something strange on the picture on the left. At first, I thought it was a helicopter, then a bird. It's probably a bird but since the story about Aso I like to think that it's a UFO.

They drive me closer, through the magma road just under the volcano base. There is a museum with more information about the chemical composition of different compounds emitted by the volcano and data from seismic sensors and webcams at the top.

Sometimes, the ground shakes just a little bit but maybe I am imagining everything. The couple leaves me with concerned looks on the other side of the volcano where there is a road. It is steep and empty because the warning level has been raised to orange. That's just under red, which means evacuation. Yellow is don't approach the crater and orange means don't approach the volcano which makes my ascension a bit harder.

I climb as high as I can using the paved road until I arrive to the gates. They are similar to those Fox showed me on a picture: with a warning sign and closed. And there is a car which seems to be patrolling nearby. I hide my bag in nearby trees and just take a bottle of water, a banana for the road. I am very stressed because I am going inside an explosive volcano and because of that patrolling car. Potassium has a protective effect on your heartbeat, it slows you down, puts off the stress. At least that is my hope.
For some reason, I am more stressed than I should be.

I am not far from that volcano. No more than 3 kilometers by straight line but the way is very steep. I have found a way which goes as close as possible to the crater by satellite imagery and after it will be a freestyle climb.
I planned my way to the crater
The way to the crater is still paved and empty and silent. When times are quiet, it must be used by workers to build these huge artificial concrete riverbeds to canalize the lava flows.
The weather is beautiful, the air is pure, the volcano is not smoking so much but for some reason I feel more exhausted than I should be. I don't know where this fatigue comes from. I had a good night's sleep, I've eaten enough and I have enough water.
This way must be used by workers to build lava canals
It takes quite a while until I arrive at the end of the road. It opens up on a huge gray flat and quiet are, like soccer field on the moon. The way stop and I step on the fine dust and make my way towards the top. I am very close, 1.6 kilometers from the crater according to my GPS but the terrain is so hard. My steps are tired, sometimes I have a little bit of trouble catching my breath. I don't understand why, it is very strange. I cannot go straight, it's impossible climb on steep sand but to my left is a rocky ridge. I climb on that, and for a while, everything is alright. The view is stunning, I can see the sea and the city of Kagoshima on the other side. There is an observatory for tourists on the other side of the island. I can see them in the distance, I wonder if they noticed me.
The ridge become more irregular and I have to climb. It is very hard for me because everything is falling apart, like at the Aso volcano. But unlike Aso, I feel my concentration diminishing, I lose my bearings and I fall. My tablet also falls on several occasions but luckily, it survives every fall.

From the volcano, I can see the city of Kagoshima
The little vegetation left disappears completely and I am just climbing on bare rock and dust. It is so hard to climb and my head is spinning. I can't understand a thing. I pick some nice rocks along the way. Sometimes, my climbing is a little bit reckless and I tell myself that I hope the earth will not tremble.
After several hours of climbing and nearly falling, I get scared of my own condition. I almost start imagining some irrational explanations for this. The bottom line is, I am smart enough to abandon the hike, a kilometer from the crater. I can see a mist of white smoke. I also notice a lot of strange blue stones with blue and white crystals.
The crater is behind that slope
.The descent is not so easy. My knees feel so weak. I get stuck in-between two small cliffs. I don't know what to do. I end up throwing my bag down and then using a rope to mercifully take down my tablet. After that, I just sit there, thinking how to get down without hurting myself too much. It's at least a 4 meter fall. However, it's not an open fall because there are stony and dusty walls from two sides of the void. I end up jumping between the walls, trying to slow me down as much as I can before I hit the ground.
After that I manage to make it back to the moon soccer field but I couldn't get to the road because there was a car checking it.

So I went through the vegetation which was very difficult and very reckless. Not only were there many holes and cliffs but they were also masked by the thick bushes. I was falling a lot and I got lost. I used my tablet's GPS to find a portion of the road again and I fell on in about mid-way. The car shouldn't be able to see me.

Unfortunately, as I was about 500 meters from the gate, I heared the car behind me. I just had the time to jump between trees and hide. The car stopped for a while and the driver was checking something. Was he looking for me? Anyway, he didn't see me and the car continued its way. I reached the gate and ran around it just seconds before there was another patrolling car passing by. But I was on legal grounds already so what could they say?

I found my bag and drank a lot of water. It was too late in the afternoon for another ascension, especially if I want to reach Yakushima.
I managed to hitchhike some mother and her daughter on the way to the harbor. The next city I have to reach, Kagoshima is just a kilometer away by boat and about 100 kilometers if you have to go by land because you have to cross back to the city of Turamizu through the magma road and then go all the way around the bay which contains the Sakurajima volcano.

Crossing by ferry is very straightforward and it costs about 100 yen, that's about a dollar. They say they can't give me a free ticket but the manager gladly pays my fee from his pocket so I don't break my rules.

On the boat, the hostess congratulates me and gives me a pin's as a souvenir. If my boat hitchhiking lucks keeps steady, I should have no problems getting the connection from Kagoshima to Yakushima.

I feel a little bit sad and a little bit scared when I leave Sakurajima behind because I still can't understand what happened to me there. Because right now, I feel completely fine.

Sakurajima, from the ferry

Friday, April 11, 2014

Waiting with Fox

In Nubeoka, it is raining and I have to find a place for me to hide. Luckily, I find an open dressing room, in some empty sports complex. There is a floor and an upper bench. There are some nasty spiders on the floor and for some reason, they look scarier than usual. So I decide to take the upper bench to sleep but it's almost as high as myself and a bit narrow so I hope I won't fall from it during my sleep, that would be quite a bad surprise.
Luckily, I don't, I sleep with my guard up anyway.
In the morning, it is raining even more and I start hitchhiking. I won't make it very far, merely to Miyazaki. My driver is a kind but bitter. He just broke up with his girlfriend and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. He seems to see it as a life-defining tragedy.
I try to make it more relative for him but it's all about point of view. I am a traveler, my mind gets carried a way by every wind. He lives in one place and his loss falls on him everyday.
My first action in Miyazaki is to find a shower. I have my strategy now and I can do it without feeling any stress. I find the most luxurious hotel, find the Onsen floor and jump into the pool of warm water. I wash, I shave, take care of my skin with expensive soaps. I don't even need to use my toothbrush anymore, they are available in a wide range.
After that, I meet some people exposing and selling pears and beautiful stones. I strike a conversation with them and that is when I meet Mami, which will become important for the future as one of the translators of my key hitchhiking letter.

Mami (right) and stones and people
But it is not until evening that I make my next memorable encounter. As the rain starts falling, I don't have any hitchhiking luck. The only ride I get is a nice young couple to Aoshima. Yongjin told me there should be some interesting cliffs but I don't see anything too crazy. It is too dark anyway to see anything. There is a tent and there is a bike and there is a cyclist.
She is a beautiful girl from Taiwan, she reminds me of Theo. She is cycling through Japan alone, she is going to Hokkaido. She is better equipped than me but it is amazing how everything she has been thought trough and has a purpose.
Her English is approximate but she speaks Chinese. I don't. On a trip like this, there are girls to which I feel a special connection and she is one of them since... maybe since that Korean hitchhiker on Jeju.

But this time, this connection will remain unspoken; my brain is too tired to communicate in Japanese and even more so in Mandarin.
Her nickname is Fox so I'll call her that. As determined as she is, she is also very shy. I feel a very rich mind, analyzing things, ideas and people but I have no key to unlock it. She meticulously blogs about her travels, she shows me her blog in Chinese. She tells me about a volcano she has seen. It is called Sakurajima and it is closed for visitors because it is erupting right now. She even shows me the pictures of the locked gates. I tell her that I am going to Yakushima, also a volano, inactive but in the middle of the sea. I think her blog will be the true key to the Fox' mind. My attitude of running towards the road with my cardboard with "Kushima" written on it amazes her in a nonsensical way. I think, for this trained cyclist who planned and prepared for this trip, I am the personification of random stupidity and she likes that I have survived the whole thing. There is a mix of curiosity, amazement and pity in her eyes.
Nobody gives me a ride and we camp. If it were a culturally more liberated person like Nata, I wouldn't mind climbing into that tent instead of sleeping outside on a rainy day. But that would be highly inappropriate. So we set the camp in the next best way. I sleep between under a roof, between the shop's front door and Fox' tent so I just miss 2 walls out of a 6 walls which make a room.

Fox is up at an incredible hour, I would swear she woke up at 5 and her tent is packed before I exited my sleeping bag. She mistakes my European laziness for exhaustion due to a demanding zero-budget trip. So I get coffee in bed and I finally pack my stuff when the shop owner opens his shop at six.
Me and Fox in the morning

It rains, rains and rains and nobody is picking me up. I spend the day with Fox. It is raining so much that we can't go anywhere besides this shop, we might as well swim in the rain. And there is nothing to do. And I am hungry. My food just run out and I won't get anything else because I can't hitchhike. I still have god knows how much in charity gifts but I didn't use money until now and I don't want to start. I try to live on free samples. Turns out that in that shop, there are free samples of biscuits that people can taste and I end up devouring pretty much all of them.
Fox buys sushi for lunch and dinner and generously gives me half. She can save me from hunger but not from boredom. There is literally nothing to do. English is hard for her and Mandarin is hard for me. Thank goodness I had the sense of downloading all episodes of Death Note on my tablet.

But after having witnessed Raito-Kira having killed L and then being in turn discovered by M I have to face the inevitable: rain has more patience than me.
"I will try to hitchhike,"
"You still think it will work?"
Fox actually never saw me get a single ride and is starting to doubt the concept of hitchhiking in its general sense.
"I think boredom will kill us"

And it didn't work and we are in for another night. Fox builds her tent and I lie on my mattress next to it.
In the morning, it rains less. She packs her bike and she leaves. She says that she doesn't need all of her provisions and I get a bunch of noodle soups. I don't really need to rip off travelers but she insists. We say we'll meet again in Tokyo and in Hokkaido but we never will.
We shared boredom together and I liked that time.

My next ride is a happy Japanese guy who asks me if I belong to the community of the free thinkers. I say that yeah because I like the freedom of thought. He understand that I smoke weed. He tells me that he smokes weed too and that it is very hard to connect with other weed-smokers in Japan because there just aren't that much. And it's a shame because there is a lot to share in that matter.

He also asks if I know about magic mushrooms. I want to tell him that I am open to mushrooms but the responsible way to do them is with a sitter (person who doesn't drug themselves and watches over the others). But it's a bit complicated to say in Japanese.
So my driver takes a small detour to mushroom country. There is a peninsula in the south of Kyushu and if you have been following my journey throughout these last few post then you'll have no problems finding it a map.

It is a protected region, home of the best Japanese horses. Next to the seaside, it is covered with green beautiful pastures. Many animals are wandering through them with freedom in their eyes.
Green! Welcome to horse & mushroom country
We stop at several places, those covered with horse shit are the best and we collect a few mushrooms. The landscapes are beautiful, the kind of place you could actually have a beautiful experience from them.
I enjoy the stunning views as we drive through the peninsula. I do fear a little bit that we are going to try the mushrooms. I have to have absolute confidence in the person with whom I am doing drugs with and I have just met this guy.
Fortunately, we stick to weed for the road and the mushrooms will be for his private use.

The relationship to drugs in Japan is interesting. Drugs in Japan are like women in Muslim countries. Either you don't touch them or you marry them and forget all the middle steps.
That is why if you happen to find a Japanese person who smokes weed, chances are he has gone all the way to cocaine. Reciprocally, if that person didn't try cocaine, chances are he or she is a drug virgin.
Moreover, drugs seem to be quite a big deal. It's not just smoking weed, it's being part of a community, of a group of people who understand something the Japanese government doesn't, a group of free thinkers.

In Kushima, I change my mind. I think about Sakurajima, the explosive active volcano Fox has told me about. And I want to go there, Yakushima can wait.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Inside an erupting volcano

There is a reason why the village of Kurukawa is so full of hot springs and mineral water, that is because it is near a volcano. If you zoom out from the town of Aso on the island of Kyushu you'll notice a large circle of mountains. You don't notice the circle when you're there because of its size but if you travel to certain viewpoints, it appears as if a circular mountain chain had emerged. But why would a mountain chain run in circles?
It wouldn't. That is because near the town of Aso there is no mountain chain. It is a giant caldera, one of the largest in the world. In the middle of it stands mount Aso, one of the biggest volcanoes in Japan. It is rather well behaved by volcano standards which, by human standards still makes it terrifying.

I hitchhiked a car a long distance, to the city of Aso. There, I get another at least 1000 yen. At the tourist center I recharge my tablet and they let me borrow a bowl to cook some instant noodles. I prefer to be offered food than money because I decided not to spend anything, not even the donations so it's pretty much useless.

Then, I have a bit less luck, I am waiting in front of that hostel waving at cars and nobody stops. Two guys from the hostel are curious about what I am doing and they wish me good luck. I try to get the wifi password for the hostel because I want to check what kind of gases are coming out of that volcano, mainly the expected concentration of carbon monoxide but they only give it to residents.

It's past 4PM when a girl stops. She is an English teacher so I don't even to scare her with my Japanese. She tells me that Aso, the volcano erupted in 1993 and there was a bunch of lava everywhere burning the grass around. She says the top is sometimes closed depending on the fumes. I put on my American hero act and say: "I hope it is closed. Then nobody will bother me when I descend inside the caldera."
I do realize that if she was a fat ugly police officer, I would have spoken differently but because she is a young English-speaking Japanese beauty, I do feel comfortable playing an American hero. It always sparks such a funny overreaction from Japanese girls.

As we climb to the top following the sinuous road, I am discovering what is a volcano for the first time. A volcano is different from a mountain. It is plowed up with steep furrows full of crumbling stones and dust. It is obvious lava used to flow there. The ground is dead.
A volcanic landscape around Mt. Aso

My American hero act is a little bit shaken. We arrive at the end of the road. There is a tourist station, with a big supermarket. There are some tourists but not too many. There are many more Japanese vending machines. The volcano's top is closed because there is an unusual amount of smoke so she asks if I want a ride back to the city. I say because I am a hero.

There is only one road going to the top and some people are guarding it. That is why the most reasonable thing to do is try to go around that temple and climb through one of the lava canyons as far from the base as I can and then continue on my own. I don't want any official or non-official Japanese people rescuing me from looking into the volcano.
There is smoke, yes but it doesn't seem that bad. Nobody seems to care about me as I continue through my volcanic valley. Sometimes, the edges are steep, sometimes they are slowly climbing.

The ground is very dry, stony and dusty. The particularity of a volcano is how everything crumbles on the slightest touch. I can't climb a tenth of anything that I could climb on a normal mountain. Everything falls and disappears under my hand and feet. Thus, I must not underestimate the terrain so as not to get stuck.
There is a slight smell of sulfur but not much more than at the shop and it is not even an inconvenience. It is even possible that I am imagining it. As I ascend, the air is as pure as before. There is a bit of yellow dust which prevents me from seeing the horizon through the otherwise blue sky but that's not the volcano, that's Shanghai's fault.
The only thing that changes is that giant cylinder of smoke going up, high, so high in the sky. I don't know if it is becoming more massive because I am getting closer or because the volcano is becoming alive.

As I reach the top, even the wobbly rocks disappear and I am walking on very fine volcanic ash. It's very inefficient, I am sliding with every step. The smoke is giant, even the sound has been turned on a little bit. But it is only when I step at the border of the crater and take a direct look straight into the volcano that everything changes. The volcano roars! A enormous cloud of smoke rages towards the sky. I see lakes of sulfur evaporating in a deafening racket and I stare at the spectacle with an open mouth, unsure of even what I feel. The sulfur lakes are boiling, they are green and yellow and white and they hiss. I feel they hate me. I feel they hate everyone and with reason, because this is hell.
I used to have a smirk on my face when hearing about people believing in hell in ancient times. Heaven, I can understand, there was no knowledge of what is above us. But I couldn't understand who could come up and believe in the ridiculous idea that when you die, you can go underground and burn in eternal fire.
Now, when I look at those boiling sulfur lake who hate me, who hypnotize me, who call me with their horrid voices; when I feel their attraction, an eerie force seizes me and I am drawn to them, now I understand how people could believe in underground hell. In fact, if you were in the middle ages and you would be sitting here with me looking into the Aso crater, you would have to be either a scientific genius or a complete moron if you wouldn't believe in hell. I, for one, would.
A bang echoes in that mist of white vapor and an even greater cloud rushes to the sky. The sky is now white, white with smoke. It used to be blue, now it is white.
The sky used to be blue, now it is white

I step closer. I go around the crater. The smoke turns with the feeble wind. It is facing towards the other side but it is slowly turning towards me. If it goes there, will I be able to breathe?
I have no idea.
The most scary thing is that I am not scared; or not as much as I should be provided I know nothing about volcanoes and I am here alone looking into one. That is because I am hypnotized. I can't put my eyes off it. I have another constraint, the sun is approaching that mountain range and will soon set.
Should I go inside? The walls of the caldera are made of volcanic sand. And they are almost vertical and ready to fall. I continue to circle the volcano, trying to find a less steep spot. The hissing is so loud, my senses are out of touch with reality.
And then I see it. The volcano is breathing fire. One of the sulfur ponds have evaporated and now there are dry black holes in the ground and those dry black holes are spitting fire.
I realize this is nothing compared to what a real volcanic eruption could be but it is enough for me. I run away from that hell. I don't know what will happen there and frankly I don't need to know. But as I descend, the smoke doesn't get smaller as I would expect. In fact, it thickens. And the sun already set and light is coming out.

I get stuck in a few of these furrows for lava but I make my way safely to the middle camp. Everybody is gone and everything is closed and I have no tent. For psychological reasons, I don't feel comfortable sleeping all alone under open skies. That volcanoes that hates me could come and drag me to hell.
The only open thing in the area are toilets. Sleeping in toilets is hitting a new low, now I really am becoming homeless. On the other hand, I met a girl on the ferry in Wakayama who was told me she did this and she was much more civilized than me. Plus, any Japanese public toilets are much cleaner than any room or apartment I have lived in... ever.

With that in mind, I carefully make walls out of all my stuff between me and anything the rest of the stuff and I go to sleep.
I have a strange night. I hear the volcano hiss in the distance. And at one point, the ground shakes a bit and then everything goes quiet.
I wake up at 4AM, first sunlight and I am a hero again. The smoke is way smaller than yesterday, seems like the angry volcano shouted its fire. I am going to climb it again and this time, I am going into the crater, come what may.

It is too early for the security to man the posts at the roadblock so I pass through them undisturbed. But I am not the first. There is some Japanese couple leaving hastily in a red car and a white cabriolet is still parked there.

Much faster, in under an hour, I am at the top. Shit, there is someone. Some guy is leaning against the wooden fence. Here go my plans about descending into the crater undisturbed.

"Konichiwa, genki-deska?" (Hello, how are you, at least to my knowledge)
"Hi! How're you doing man?"
American accent and his name is Josh. He lives not too far from here, an expatriate on Kyushu and is a mine of information about Japan. He fell in love with one of the beautiful Japanese girls which is not hard to imagine and they live here since.
But that's not all of the interesting stuff Josh has to say. When he arrived at first lights, he saw something extremely unusual. Passing no judgement, this is the story as he recounted it to me. I have seen nothing of that sort, I was inside the public toilets at the time, the only element I could add is that the timing could or could not coincide with the ground slightly shaking for a short while. I could also confirm the red car leaving.

When I have arrived there was a cylindrical red object, like a giant toilet paper roll, hovering above the Aso volcanic crater. It was slowly advancing towards the center. There, it stopped and several smaller objects detached from it and descended into the crater. They fell slowly, not as if they were dropped. I tried to capture it with my phone but I couldn't get a clear picture.
There were two more witnesses, the other Japanese couple. They had a professional camera but they also couldn't get a picture. When they pressed the shutter, the object suddenly dissipated. The couple got very scared and left. 

But that's still not all, Josh has a quadcopter drone with a gopro camera mounted on it. And he is going inside the crater with it. He is a bit stressed about sending the poor machine into hell, god knows how it can behave, what turbulence lies in the sulfuric smoke.
According to his words, if the machine breaks, chances are his wife is going to kill him so in a way he can as well go there himself.
Josh says he has been here about a hundred times, taking footage of the scene.
"You've been here a hundred times and you haven't climbed in?"
"Nope." Seems that guy is a lot smarter than I am.
I ask him he has any objections of me descending into the crater and Josh decides to leave his drone behind and go with me. If I can find some extraterrestrial objects, that would be super-cool and maybe I could hitchhike a UFO to Kamchatka and that would be a first, for sure.
Josh and his drone, as sun rizes above mount Aso

The terrain is rough, there is ash, smoke and falling stones. You can't descend slowly, you would just slide uncontrollably. The sand slips under your shoes, and any part of your body and before you know it, you roll on the ground. Just like ABS brakes, the only way to come to a stop on this terrain is to maintain contact with the slippery surface and decrease your speed slowly until the terrain allows you to stop.

We descend to about two-thirds of the whole crater when I hear Josh scream in surprise. He stepped into boiling mud and he had a lot of it on his shoe. We are quite close to the hotbed now, that's the kind of stuff that can happen, I forgot to mention. The air is full of sulfur, it is hard to breathe.
"I am going up!" Says Josh.
Ma and Josh descend into the crater...
Since I still didn't step into boiling mud, I still feel like a hero and I continue climbing lower. The sulfur is getting really annoying now, I have to breathe through my t-shirt and I am not sure if that helps either. I feel it in my eyes. The sound is hellish as it was yesterday. And in this, I have to climb. I try to forget about Josh stepping in that mud and concentrate on my climbing holds.

The air does not get better but the view does. I am face to face with the sulfuric lake and god it is beautiful. This is the heart of the volcano and it has its own landscape. It is a volcano inside a volcano, there is a part which goes a little up, if only a meter, and then abruptly down, as if the whole thing was some kind of hellish fractal.
A miniature stream of hot liquid flows from the sulfuric lake and everything screams like crazy. My eyes start to hurt and my breath is not at its best. I need enough energy to climb back.
I am face to face with a sulfuric lake
It was a good thing I backtracked at this point because I barely made it. Climbing up is hard in that smoke and I can't catch my breath as much as I would. Every now and then I slip and slide. And the more I climb, the steeper it is. It didn't seem so steep when I went in.

Josh signals it to hide, there is a new guy, law-abiding Japanese this time. I am incredibly tired and I hardly care about this but I somehow manage to climb using another route. The law-abiding Japanese person looks at me as I emerge, his look saying: "stupid young gaijin..."

After flying the drone several times over the crater we are on our way back. Josh tells me many stories about interacting with exasperatingly law-abiding Japanese such as that guy who cleans the toilets and who discovered a charger charging Josh's drone battery.
He unplugs it because a battery charging in toilets is strange.
Josh plugs it in and after a while it's unplugged again because toilets are not for charging batteries.
The third time he is about to unplug it, he finds Josh it that toilets are not for charging batteries.
"I'm very sorry sir but in the current state of charge, the battery is very unstable and if unplugged, it could explode and destroy the toilets." And that it how the battery charged.

My last ride to Aso is in Josh's Ferrari which actually isn't a Ferrari but seems to be the Japanese expression for cabriolet.
Where now? Yakushima hopefully, if fate agrees.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Yet another free ferry

I easily get a ride to Sukomo, on a small pickup truck driven by a fisherman who takes me on his boat to the nearby rocks. It's an old fishing boat, yet it has the latest japanese technology. It is often the case here, even old stuff has the latest technology inside.
We eat sushi together with a stunning view at the seacoast.
Eating sushi
He drops me at Sukumo but the ticket counter doesn't open until in three hours. So I go wandering around to find other boats but as I have witnessed before in this part of Asia, not many leisure boats, that's just not a thing there.
When the ticket counter opens, I set the camera to film; I want to have at least one of my boat hitches recored. I am in line after one of the normal paying customers. No one speaks english, this is a very small ferry terminal and I am lucky to have my introduction letter which usually brings the reader into a "WTF?" state.
"Wait there, " says the counter lady after a while, "we will get you on board for free. But it's a secret."
I sit on the neraby bench as she said, the security guards tell me to wait while other passengers board the ferry. There, I meet Kai and his girlfriend who are returning to Beppu, a city on Kyushu island by the same ferry. Kai tells me I can stay at his house which is convenient because it might rain through the night. He doesn't understand why I am not going on the ferry with the other passengers, I just tell him not to worry and go.
Matsumoto doing Origami

When all the passengers have gone on the ferry, one of the guards shows me that I can now go. The other secutiry guards turn away from me as I walk towards the entrance so as not to see that I am there. Soon I am aboard the ferry. Of all the ferries from Shikoku to Kyushu, this is the longest ride: 3 hours. If that one failed, there were two other ferries from other terminals, one of which was a very short ride. My last option was to transit through the main island using land bridges but that's quite a big detour.
Sunset on the ferry

We arrive at Kai's home during at night but first we go to eat sushis in a restaurant.

Kai's father is a silent Japanese man who looks at me with amusement. He is a huge guy who inspires respect, knows it and takes no bullshit from anyone. He tries to throw me off balance by some sarcastic comments.
"I cut my hair with a samurai sword." He says, pointing at the weapon on the wall. He also points to his gun.
It's not a real one, the bullets have no primary detonation charge and the barrel is obstructed in mid-way.
I point it out to him and it makes him smile.
I get to eat a japanese version of Manti, it's pretty good. I have seen a lot of what-the-fuck pictures from Japan back when I was at home so how cool it would be if I made one of my own?
I didn't have to ask for it, Kai's father obviously thought that a photograph of me having a samurai sword with a gun to my head was a funny thing to do.
wtf picture

The next day, I help Kai's family in the garden a little bit. It is a fisherman family and they also work the fields. They are all a bit strange but kind in their heart. The relationship between Kai and his girlfriend is also a bit strange. She is now home on the other side of Beppo but I'd like to write about them a little bit more before I go on.
Kai and his girlfriend hardly touch. They talk but the conversation seldom gets deeper than any casual talk. I don't sense any connection between them but there is something holding them together and I hae no idea what it is. It's like they were not real people, as if they were too stressed out by trying to figure out what to do to actually try to feel what they want to do. I also felt that there were some strange rules in Kai's family, something that I could not understand and that Kai's girlfriend had to follow to some extent. But it is difficult to put names on it so basically I am not saying anything of value here.

After helping in the garden they ask me if I want to go to see the university.
"Lots of foreign students who speak english, you'll have people to talk to."
That's not a bad idea actually, so we go. In the university, I meet A., a japanese student in international relations who speaks good english and shows me around. I hitchhike back to Kai's house for dinner.
The very cool Beppu university

I will be heading towards Yufu and Kai has a friend there. From what I understand I can stay at his place. His friends speaks good english, he was in hungary a few years ago.
Kai gives some money to his friend, I don't understand why, is it such a burden having me over that you have to pay someone off?
His friend refuses the money which calms me down but I get a surprise again when he drives me to a hostel. Turns out the place where his friend lives doesn't accept guests and Kai's friend automatically booked me a spot at the local hostel.
He is happy to help, says there is an Onsen and leaves me there. There is a lot of friendly foreigners, we talk until quite late. Turns out this hostel is woofing based if you want; you can work there and stay for free so Kai's friend didn't really have to pay anything, I didn't mind helping a bit. Plus, all the foreigners in this hostel are here for free and working isntead.
Only japanese people are enjoying a paid and relaxing stay... and me too. In the evening I watch a movie while in the warm bath from the hot spring in the hostel basement. All hotels and hostels have an onsen which is basically a small swimming pool full of hot water with a pleasent scenary.

In the morning I get breakfast served by the foreigners who had to get up earlier to prepare it. It feels weird but the breakfast is great. I talk to one of the japanese people who says that he is going towards Kurokawa and can drop me there. Kurokawa is a place famous for its onsens - the japanese hot spring pools.
So he drops me there still before noon. It is a touristic place, not such a good spot for people without money such as me. For instance, all onsens are for a fee, that's because they are not natural pools but really beautiful spots built and maintained inside an amazing scenary.
For example there is a hot water pool underground, inside caves and another one with a stunning view on a mountain river.
I got a free onsen pass!

I am tired because I surfed too much on the internet the day before so I go take a rest in a nearby relaxing room (they have a lot of those around since the whole place is built to relax). A japanese couple with a small child goes there too and after they hear my story they give me their "onsen pass". I don't really know what that is at first but it turns out that I can go to any onsen in Kurkawa, three times per pass. They have already used one of the onsens so I just have two but it's wonderful that I can even go there given my moneyless way of travelling.
I choose the cave onsen for today and the onsen with a view on the river for the next morning.

The view from the latter one is quite stunning. However, I have to get going. There is a slight problem, food is starting to get scarce. I have eaten the crab sticks, the buiscuits and the rice cakes from Kamiyama have rotten and are unusable. I now only have my instant noodle soups left. That's still alright for a while until I have to open my finances which would still be ok because they would not be my real finances but the donation money. But still, I don't want to touch that money yet, who knows what will happen, I might recieve something. Meanwhile, instant noodle soups are a perfectly good alternative to starving.
I just ask for hot water and chopsticks and I get an mini-pizza with my soup. That's nice. I should be going now, I must get to Yakushima, the lonely mountain, volcano in the middle of the ocean and that is way south. I have one place to visit, some crater around mount aso, doesn't seem that interesting, Yongjin wasn't too impressed with it. So I'll just skip it, ride right through the place. I am now heading south.