Sake and sakura can be a dangerous combination. Drunk on both, English teacher Will Ferguson made a bet that he could hitchhike the length of Japan, from the southernmost tip in Cape Sata to the northernmost in Cape Soya, while following the cherry blossom as it burst into life in each part of the country. And then he wrote this book about it.

Hokkaido Highway Blues, by Will Ferguson.
Canongate Books, Nonfiction.

“Hokkaido Highway Blues” will teach you things about Japan that other books won’t. Ferguson, a Canadian, has a wicked sense of humor and an eye for fascinating detail, matched only by his boundless love of adventure. Tokyo does not feature on his journey; instead he relishes the road less traveled, and his descriptions of it and of the people he meets driving along it show both sympathetic and critical views of Japan. He finds much to loathe and much to love, from a run-in with a sad elderly war veteran and the unique discomfort of sleeping at a capsule hotel to the joys of free samples at a beer factory and the devastating power of beauty, which can make a person do mad things.

Most satisfying of all is that the Japanese, so often characterized as private and shy individuals, go out of their way to aid Ferguson in his ludicrous task, embracing his outstretched thumb as a challenge all of their own. Without the hospitality of his hosts, Ferguson would not have a hope in hell of completing his quest, and the bonds he forges in this book give an insight into a side of Japan that no guidebook or academic cultural tome will ever truly convey. Plus you get to laugh at the bits about penis museums and love hotels.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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