In step with the real Japan

Seeing the country from top to bottom

We both confess to complete and utter madness, but we’ve been having a whale of a time — and not only down in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, where the International Whaling Commission had its recent roughhouse, and where we completely pigged out on kujira no niku (whale meat) before heading on to Kyushu.

Mary and I have now been on Japan’s roads just over a year, the two of us waddling along in the most ridiculous attire, dragging cumbersome luggage trolleys behind us. Many people mistake us for garbage collectors or think we’re painting lines on the roads, and when we explain about our Japan on Foot project and our footslog from Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Hokkaido, to the undersea ruins of what may be the legendary Land of Mu at Japan’s southernmost extremity, our listeners invariably raise a terrified eyebrow or two and ask if we’re from some sort of cult.

Our zigzag plod kicked off on May 9 last year, and within three weeks Mary feared we wouldn’t even make it to Nayoro in Hokkaido’s north.

We were like two tiny ants crawling along a never-ending road leading up and over huge, bear-infested mountains, but we traipsed on through Japan’s wild northern island all the same, covering almost 2,000 km on foot before sailing from Hakodate to Honshu. And now we are so far south, in Kyushu, that people presume we must have started from Cape Sata, this island’s southernmost point, and are heading for Honshu and Hokkaido’s north.

Japan on Foot was planned to be a one-year project, but we have constantly extended our route and continue to do so as we hear of new things that tickle our fancy. We are even considering slogging back to Tokyo from Okinawa.

It’s been both an exhausting and exhilarating year on the road, with Mary suffering most from the physical rigors. But the wonderful thing is that anyone can do it, and, indeed, we’ve met other long-distance walkers on the way.

Japan’s most famous footslogger, however, must be cartographer Ino Tadataka (1745-1818) who, 200 years ago, trekked 43,700 km around the main islands while mapping his nation. Though Ino is credited with covering a distance that exceeds the circumference of the Earth, we sometimes wonder if he truly walked the whole way, as we are often asked if we are “walking by car” or “walking by shinkansen” — a concept that baffles us both. Perhaps Japan’s famed mapmaker covered some of his journey “walking by horse” or “walking by palaquin.”

Bittersweet emotions

However, Ino never made it to the Ryukyus, as in his day what are now known as the Okinawa Islands weren’t part of Japan. The Ryukyus first came under the thumb of China and the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima in Kyushu) back in 1609 and then, in 1879, the Meiji government crushed the Ryukyu Kingdom and the islands came under mainland control.

At the end of World War II, Okinawa fell under U.S. control. This year, Okinawan people mark their islands’ 30th anniversary of reversion to Japan with a mix of bittersweet emotions toward both the Japanese mainland and the U.S. military that remains on their land.

But back to the main islands, and to Shikoku, where we met with many henro (pilgrims) following the mandala-circuit of 88 temples of the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi. In Matsuyama City, I celebrated my 38th birthday with Toji Goto, the man who helped launch the Reaching Home project of Hyoichi Kono, the adventurer who set off from the North Pole last year to walk 15,000 km to his boyhood home in Seto, Ehime Prefecture. Sadly, tragedy befell the 43-year-old father of two just a couple of months after he set off from the top of the world.

Mary and I had barely set off on our own walk when we heard TV reports of how Kono’s body had been found trapped under ice not far from Ward Hunt Island, in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut. Over an Italian dinner and earlier at his home, Goto — who had headed Kono’s support-group office — opened his heart to us, revealing his pain at losing his best friend.

Many adventuresses, too, inspired us to embark on our walk. Among them is Ffyona Campbell, who the “Guinness Book of World Records” names as the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe on foot. We certainly won’t be breaking any world records (though it’s possible we may set one), but regardless, we feel our walk has already been a success. We have used Japan on Foot to raise funds and awareness for HELP, a Tokyo-based charity for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. And, during the course of our walk, both men and women have made the effort to seek us out on some of the remotest of roads to hear more about HELP’s shelter and its counseling services.

We have trudged through some of the worst elements, slept in bus shelters, railway stations and even slept with the dead at Kawakura Sai-no-Kawara Jizoson cemetery, on the outskirts of Kanagi in Aomori Prefecture.

An illogical world

Little old ladies have taken us under their wing, offering us meals and futons in their homes. After one wild night of Mary’s karaoke singing with a cross-dressing izakaya owner out in Kyoden hamlet, Toyama Prefecture, we were granted tatami space on his floor, and the following morning his neighbors served us breakfast before we hit the road again.

Ultimately, we are heading for Yonaguni Island, the most southwesterly in the Okinawan chain. It is the isle where my grandmother was born and where my mother was raised. I haven’t been there since early childhood, but it’s definitely changed — apparently, it now has its first set of traffic lights. Once there, we plan to dive out to what some claim are the ruins of Asia’s equivalent of Atlantis, the now-submerged Land of Mu. But Mu still feels like a lifetime away and, with the temperature now starting to soar, Japan’s southern summer is sure to take its toll as we pound the asphalt over the next few months.

Already our pedometers have registered more than 6,400 km, and once again we are squabbling over our route. Our maps look like a 3-year-old has been let loose with a red felt-tip pen, and people are constantly laughing at us and telling us our route is ridiculous. But, who cares? After all, as the English playwright Joe Orton so succinctly put it back in the 1960s: “It’s illogical to be logical in an illogical world.”

Along our illogical way, we’ve loved walking over mountain passes amid the autumn tints of Yamagata Prefecture, and the cascades of cherry blossoms in Okayama Prefecture are etched on our minds forever. We have also reveled in some of Japan’s quirkiest delights — from one man’s idea of Buddhist “hell caves” he’s crammed with kitsch figures out in Ishikawa Prefecture, to firewalking with yamabushi (mountain ascetics) at Sabadaishi Temple in Shikoku.

We have heard bizarre tales: that King Solomon’s treasures and Noah’s Ark are buried in Shikoku, that kamikaze pilots have put a curse on the Imperial Household and that’s why only girls have been born into the youngest generation of the Imperial line, as well as a variety of scandalous rumors about haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94), from him being a spy to alleged sexual dalliances with male companions.

Any shock we felt at such suggestions, though, paled in comparison to that of the terrorist attacks in America last September. Afterward, we both felt the heat on the road in Aomori Prefecture, when a detective interrogated us as part of his “terrorism-preventative measures.” Toshiharu Sugimura of Gonohe Police Station questioned us at our pension in Shingo, a village that curiously boasts of having Christ’s tomb, pyramids older than those of Egypt, as well as links with the Lost Tribes of Israel.

“We have to check out all foreigners living in Japan,” he explained, demanding to see Mary’s alien card. “We need to check Japanese, too, if they raise suspicions. A Japanese walking with a foreigner stands out, especially in this part of Japan,” he intoned before asking for my address and contact details.

I told him that, as a Japanese, I have a perfect right to walk through my own country — and that I don’t give my personal details to strange men. Sugimura said that the police would most likely keep tabs on us as we passed through each prefecture en route to Okinawa. However, since then we have made great friends with many police, particularly in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Although we were more amused by Sugimura’s questioning than anything else, it really does seem — even in this day and age — that a Japanese walking with a foreigner is still considered rather odd by many Japanese. I, too, am often mistaken for a foreigner, and Japanese tend to compliment me — even more than Mary — with that well-worn refrain: “Nihongo wa jozu desu, ne? (Your Japanese is good, isn’t it?)”

Despite such complications and surprises, for me, the reasons for undertaking this walk were simple. I wanted to experience my country in an unconventional way and I wished to work with Mary on book projects and other writing and photographic assignments. It’s been a very busy walk, with both of us working long hours.

Mary wanted to walk through Japan for as many reasons as my country has gods and people. She has long been intrigued by the myths and legends of Japan, and how superstition holds such powerful sway over the Japanese mind. Japan has fascinated her since her childhood in England, and together, step by step, this nation has revealed to both of us its great diversity.

Japan often wishes to portray itself — both to its own people and the world — as a homogenous country. It is not. It may be less cosmopolitan than some European countries, but the Japanese are a mongrel breed like most others on Earth, with Korean, Chinese, Ainu, Okinawan, Mongolian and other peoples’ blood running through their veins.

Mary and I were mesmerized by the startling green eyes of an old man we met as we boarded a boat for Oki Island in the Sea of Japan; the Japanese have many kinds of faces. Out in the wilds of Yamaguchi Prefecture we saw a woman who we and a Japanese friend thought must be Polish. When Mary asked where she was from, the woman replied, “Nagasaki. I’m originally from the Hirado Islands.” The Hirado islands are just one place where the Tokugawa Shogunate exiled Christians and Japanese of mixed blood.

Now, in Kyushu, we are starting to hear a lot about the painful history of torture and death that was the lot of Japan’s kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians), both after the religion was outlawed in the 17th century, as well as at the beginning of the Meiji Era, after Japan had opened its doors to trade with the West.

Two women have joined us so far on the road, although many men and women have contacted us to say they want to walk with us to the Land of Mu. In fact, one little old lady kept us company for 10 km up in Fukui Prefecture, and Megumi, a good Tokyo friend of ours, joined us for three days on the road during Golden Week, traipsing through torrential rain from Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture to Hofu City in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

We have many fond memories, but most are of the kindness and warmth of people we’ve met on our travels. Truck drivers have been some of our biggest supporters, tooting their horns and stopping to give us genki (health) drinks. They’ve also been one of our biggest dangers, too.

Pavlovian effect

Japan’s drivers have little respect for pedestrians, and unleashed dogs have been another threat. Mary’s roadside toilet habits have also caused a few tiffs between us. She insists on squatting not too far away from the roadside as she is scared of snakes, but since a yamabushi caught her in the act in Shikoku, she has, thankfully, become a little more discreet.

We met bears twice on the roads of Hokkaido, and were warned by locals in Utoro that ringing bear bells (that are supposed to frighten them off) can have the opposite Pavlovian effect on Hokkaido’s most feared animal. Sure enough, one followed us up part of the Shiretoko Mountain Pass, and in Rausu, we spoke with a woman who has had a bear enter her house and raid her fridge. Apparently, bears have a soft spot for sake and apple juice — but are not so fond of oolong tea. We also heard in Hokkaido that some bears have a taste for human innards, particularly those of pregnant women.

On Honshu, we’ll always remember talking to little old ladies and farmers we met along the way, and seeing the seasonal changes of the paddy fields. Many people have opened up to us on the road, from women keen to know more about HELP to men and youths grappling with their own personal devils, these ranging from their struggle with alcoholism to fears of being made redundant, to not loving their wives and children anymore and wanting to divorce.

We have been privy to many angry and sorrowful stories; of bullying in both the home and workplace, of child abuse and poverty, as well as having anger and frustration vented on us about the government. While many Japanese in the countryside appear indifferent to politics, and just seem to want to get on with their day-to-day lives, there are also others who believe that the events of Sept. 11 have caused Japan to take a turn for the worse. Many people have expressed fears that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is “trampling” on the Constitution and heading the country toward war.

Certainly, all Japanese are not treated as equals — I know that as both an Okinawan and as a woman. There are also others — Koreans and Chinese, to name just two groups who have long made their homes here — who are not treated equally either. In Hokkaido, we talked to a number of Ainu, including Shigeru Kayano, a former Upper House member who described his ongoing fight for the rights of his people, the indigenous people of Japan. But the most moving experience so far for us both was joining a group of people from the former buraku (outcast) class to learn more about their Harukoma song and dance and their continual struggle for acceptance as equals in Japanese society.

Myriad experiences

Since hitting Shiga Prefecture and heading down to Wakayama Prefecture, from where we sailed to Shikoku and walked through its four prefectures, we have constantly seen signs that cry out “Stop the Prejudice!” and “Burakumin are equal.” Usually these are in or near former buraku areas, some of which are incredibly beautiful. This is because many buraku people were traditionally pushed away toward the mountains, where modern-day development and business has likewise chosen to ignore them. Certainly, if all things were equal for today’s former buraku people, who invariably live in what are called dowa (literally, “equal-Japanese”) areas, then the signs would not have to line so many roads.

With more than 6,400 km and myriad experiences behind us, if we had to put in a nutshell our impressions of Japan and its people so far, we could only vouchsafe in a sub-Wildean way that Japan is mad, it makes us mad — and for that we are glad.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) himself never graced these shores, where he had hoped to come and lecture on the contemporary Aesthetic Movement in Europe that was influenced enormously by Japonisme. But after studying some of Japan’s history and literature, he drew the conclusion that: “In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people. . . . The Japanese people are . . . simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.” We totally agree. Much of Japan’s history is, indeed, nothing more than myth; in fact, a lot of it is simply lies.


The “Japan on Foot” journey is far from over, but there are already countless organizations and people to thank for helping us with our walk. Among them are JAL, The Body Shop, Tanya Clark, president of International Women in Communications, as well as Upper House and Democratic Party of Japan member Yoko Komiyama. Mary would like to thank zashiki warashi, a little boy spirit that is reputed to haunt a ryokan in Tohoku; Betsy in Kichijoji, Tokyo; Hiroaki who called her while we were plodding the roads; as well as an American Buddhist monk who revealed to her some of the follies of her ways. Japan on Foot aims to raise awareness and donations for HELP, a Tokyo-based shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. For more information on HELP, call (03) 3368-8855 or visit Donations to HELP should be sent by postal transfer to account number 00110-5-188775 in the name of the organization, Kyofukai Josei no ie HELP.

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