Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dominoes in place

To understand what is happening we will have to rewind a lot in time and in space. In time almost four month ago and in space to Incheon, west Korea. I am at Yongjin's place talking about Japan. I don't know Yongjin that well but I already know that he has been a guide in Japan.
"I don't think there is anything going to the Kuril islands from Hokkaido but there is a ferry to Sakhalin"
"So you can cross the border legally..."
As further information emerges, turns out that a more realistic route to Kamchatka goes through Sakhalin. So getting there is not a bad idea anyway. Plus, a russian visa for european people is 30 days unless you have a magic wand in your back pocket. That is one of the reasons why I couldn't hitchhike trought siberia in the first place. It wouldn't even reach Vladivostok before my visa expires.
At the time, I thought that if I would fail to reach Kamchatka through the Kuril islands I could try trough Sakhalin.

Yongjin was the first domino piece.
I was looking at the internet. The only connection to Sakhalinm or Karafuto as the Japanese call it is a company called 'Heart Land Ferry' which operates the ferries between the Japanese islands of Rishiri and Rebun as well as the 150 kilometer ride from Wakkanai to Sakhalin. In China, I had several options. Now, there is one. I have to get on that ferry and cross that sea for free. At that time, I was in Korea, I didn't even make it to Japan and all this was mere speculation.

The second domino piece was the ferry to Hokkaido. Once in Japan I realized that the head office of the Heart Land company is not in Tokyo but in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. So I have to find a free ferry to Hokkaido in order to just talk to them. Such a hard task just to have a small chance. A small chance that comes at a heavy price. If I get engaged to Hokkaido then getting back home by conventional means becomes very expensive. So expensive that my current financial resources could not be able to take it.
I haven't had any expenses but french taxes are like the tsunami and my bank account like the east coast of Honshu. Getting erased for no reason.
Many french independent travellers tend to lean towards the french political left. I guess this won't be happening to me. I will proudly stay apolitical.

I do have enough money to return but I would have to choose between returning to Kyrgyzstan and see my girlfriend and returning home and see my family. Departing from Tokyo, I have money to do both but from Sapporo, I just don't have enough money for two planes. But if I get free ticket to Sakhalin then everything solves itself. I can see Janela in Russia and we can return home together.

This is a very important question. Will I finish my trip in Tokyo or will I take the risk? Will I accept a reasonable something or will I try to have everything at the risk of being left with nothing? But if you read my blog up to here you already know the answer. I decide to get the ferry, I decide to try. I make this decision not long after being released from jail.

But the ferry to Hokkaido is a tough challenge. It takes more time than expected, I get refused everywhere. That's because I need an intermediate piece of domino, the support messages. I have that idea at the festival after meeting Keith who goes around the camp and asks for stories about the tsunami.

That's four pieces in the game already and I don't even have a clue how to get that ticket to Russia. This is all too much of a long shot, maybe I am starting to mistake my delusions for reality. I am that kind of person, I have a vivid imagination and I expect reality to follow and not the other way around. I have paid for this personality trait dearly in earlier stages of my life.
How can I get that ticket for free? What am I good at? Talking, yes but how far will I go with English. I was extremly lucky to get an english speaking person when I was hitchhiking the ferry to China, it will not happen again. Besides, what I am really best at is not talking, it's writing. I will write an open letter to the president of the company and I will bring it to the headquarters. I must put everything into that letter, content as well as appearence. If the appearence is not nice enough, if the paragraphs don't make it look like it is fast and easy to read then nobody would read it, no matter what the content is. Same as when writing a cover letter for a job interview.

The letter reads as follows.

Mr. Tsutai Takanori,

My name is Filip Novotny and I have travelled for nearly a year and 25,000 kilometers from the Czech Republic to the city of Wakkanai to talk to you.
I am writing this letter in case I don’t manage to get to you directly through the hierarchy of your staff. I only ask you to read it carefully, nothing more.
Everything that I have worked on until now depends on it.
I will accept any decision you make based on that letter, provided you, Mr. Tsutai read it personally.

I am writing this letter because with your permission, I want to hitchhike your company’s ferry from Wakkanai to Sakhalin.


On May 25, 2013 I began a journey that has never been tried before. I reached Hokkaido from the Czech Republic by hitchhiking and hitchhiking only.

My journey has to show an important thing: Focus on kindness. Show that people are kind for the most part, that kindness is the general rule and evil the exception.

I decided to travel by hitchhiking almost without money to a beautiful but remote place on the other side of the world. Initially, I wanted to arrive to Kamchatka but Hokkaido or Sakhalin is enough of a challenge.
When I say hitchhiking almost without money, I mean it. Only hitchhiking, no conventional transport. In fact, I have 3 rules:
Never pay for transport
That means across the sea too. Even from island to island, I must find a way to travel for free!
Never pay for accommodation
That means no hotels, no hostels. Never. Not once in a year.
Live on a budget of 200 Yen/day.
The visa fees are not included in this but everything else is.
Today, I have reached Wakkanai and I have not broken any of my rules. My itinerary is very diverse, I hitchhiked through 17 different countries and look for kindness in every culture.

From Europe, I hitchhiked south through Turkey and Iran. I have then gone up north through the steppes of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan. In winter I have crossed China and reached Mongolia. Then, I managed to get a free ticket on the ferry to Korea and another free airplane from Korea to Japan. 

I have seen democracies, dictatorships, states of different religions. I have been held at gunpoint, arrested, in prison even, shot at, in extreme heat (August in Iran, +40°C) and cold (January in Mongolia, -40°C).  But most of the time, I have received more help and warm welcomes that I could have hoped for.

I am in Japan now. I had the chance to arrive there because I got a free airplane ticket from Busan to Osaka and arrived right when the cherry trees started to blossom. What a coincidence! I have travelled a long time in your country, on Shikoku, Kyushu, Honshu.
Japanese people are amazing, they made this journey possible. I don’t even remember how many people supported my project, how many times companies let me on their boats for free so I could continue my trip, step by step.

Eventually, the media started taking interest in my journey and they couldn’t believe that such a travelling experience was possible in Japan. But it is and I am proud to show it!

I have almost reached my goal now. I have reached Hokkaido, now I need to return. I will go fast through Russia, to my girlfriend (in Novosibirsk) and finally to my family in europe. Then, I am hoping to write a book about my adventure. I have one last difficult hitchhike to make: I need to cross the Japanese-Russian border, I need to reach Sakhalin.

You are the president of the Heartland ferry company, you have the power to make an exception. I am asking you to go on your company’s ferry for free. I know that it is not your company’s policy but I am not looking for policy. I am just looking for kindness if there is room for it.

If you approve my request, my life’s dream will be complete. I will be able to hitchhike back to my girlfriend with an incredible story and write about it.
If not, I still thank you very much for reading this letter. I trust that you are a very busy man and reading this took your time. I am grateful that you took the time and I wish you the best of success.

Last but not least, if you consider helping me, you might want to verify that my story is genuine. As a small proof, I am attaching my passport to this letter. That way, you can at least verify my itinerary. Please do not lose it, it is my only travel document. Moreover, I have a blog and a facebook but they are in English.

Thank you for your time!

Filip Novotny

Nice try here, now this is in english and I am experienced enough to know that english doesn't get you very far in this country. So I need a translator. More people into the game. The three people who contribute to translate this long letter into Japanese are Mami, a japanese woman who I hitchhiked with, Catherine and most importantly Ayuko, Nobuko's friend.
I never knew Ayuko. I never met her. But for some reason she helped me. And before I reached Hokkaido, I had on my computer that letter in Japanese.

But I could not go much further without help from home. Orianne, you know her from my past posts for various contributions to my trip. As soon as I posted this message on the company's facebook, she rallied all electronic support she could. My message wasn't too visible, I could only post it as a comment on the page but Orianne made it visible.
Visible enough for the company to notice? Maybe.
An excerpt of supporting comments on the Heart Land ferry page

There is just one thing to do, that is, go to that building and ask for a free ticket to Russia.

I prepare myself to be greeted with suspiscion, contempt even. I prepare myself to be rejected by the staff repeatadly, I have to fight to get up in the hierarchy ladders to finally talk to the manager which I expect to say no but at least I would have tried.
I have therefore prepared some sentences in Japanese to intrigue the shy staff. They range from the usual "can I speak to the manager?" to the almost deranged "I have travelled half the world to speak with your boss. I am prepared to wait a week in this office before he comes.".

That is not the only thing that I have prepared. I have found, translated and learned the management of the company. The president, the board of directors, the major shareholders, whoever could be of influence.

Armed with my online support, google translate and pre-translated sentences I enter the business building where Heart Land Ferry resides. It is a usual business building, quite tall by my standarts but not so much by japanese ones. Less than 20 stories.
"Come in." says the reception lady. "The president will be here shortly."

A bit taken aback, I stuff my japanese sentences into my pocket. There will be no need to fight because there is no enemy.
The president of Heart Land Ferry is a serious man but he doesn't have the ruthless aura that I felt with the Chinese manager months ago.
He doesn't speak english but he has read my letter and he guides me into one of the offices.
"This is T. he can discuss with you."
I don't know this T., he is neither on my list of shareholders nor on any of my list of influential people. But I know from my experience in big and small companies that official management diagrams displayed to the public have nothing to do with reality.

So I follow that man to the conference room. The reception lady brings us coffee as if it was a business meeting. Since I do not fit any category she might as well treat me as a business partner who didn't shower for the last five days.

"I have read your letter," says T. (he speaks english), "and I am really impressed. 200 yen per day. Really?"
He also says that they are not a charity organisation, that the other passengers pay so why shouldn't I?
"The other passengers didn't cross half the world and risked their life just to get to Hokkaido."

T. looks amused. "If it was up to me, I would give you that ticket. But it is not. The person responsible for this is H. and he is Tokyo. I will consult with him when he returns from Tokyo."

Me and T. discussing my free ticket to Sakhalin

He wants to know when I want to board for Sakhalin, I tell him as soon as possible. The first ride is on June 2. He asks if I have a russian visa which is compulsory for the ticket. I do not. I did not ask yet. I do it this afternoon. He scans my passport and takes a map of my journey. I shall hear from him in a week.

It seems fair. And it doesn't look bad. I say farewell and I hope for a miracle.
I leave the ferry office with almost only good feelings but I have no time to rest. If I am to reach russia in 20 days, I might as well hurry.

I have my passport, my invitation letter and identity photo. Should I make medical insurence too? Waste of time and money. Plus, finding internet and a printer in Japan is extremply hard so I rather take another risk. Insurance is compulsory for european citizen as a reciprcity measure to our overly strict immigration policy towards russian citizen (And I do understand the russian point of view in this because the french consulate did de-facto call my russian-residing girlfriend a prostitute.). But I will ask for it without insurance anyway and see what happens.

All dominoes are in place now.  Let's see how they fall...