I’m currently in a Doutor in the (supposedly famous) Ichiban-cho shopping arcade of Sendai, slightly sunburned and listening to October. This is the first time I’ve been in a Doutor in probably about a year, ever since they stopped selling my anytime meal staple, the bagel chicken sandwich. The only reason I’m back now is because a similarly-named (but inherently different) model is back on the menu, with another ten yen price hike. [Incidentally, I estimate the cost of living increase via the rising price of commodities such as this and bottled tea sold at convenience stores.] It’s more or less the same, however the chicken is shredded and mixed in with the mayonnaise, a la chicken salad.
Why am I sunburned? Well October was my soundtrack for making runs up Routes 50 and 15 from South Riding/Chantilly to Frederick when I used to work at DSR and live with Karen. It’s a summer album for a sexy 80s Honda Accord at 65 mph with the windows down. So ideally, this should be listened to in the car but I couldn’t do that out of courtesy to my benefactors. The truth is I hitchhiked the 350 or so kilometers from Tokyo to Sendai. Originally I was thinking of going to Aomori (twice the distance) and if the wind was at my back, Hokkaido, but my first attempt at actual hitchhiking as a means of transport didn’t start off quite as swimmingly as the Wikitravel guide made it sound. In actuality, I stood grinning like a goon at the Hasuda service area for two hours in the 32 degree sun before I got a ride. The first mistake I think I made was listening my destination as too far away. Though I wrote “IN THE DIRECTION OF AOMORI”, most people probably interpreted that as I was expecting a ride all the way there, and of course not many people were going to make that drive (it’s probably about San Diego to San Francisco). So after about forty minutes I took out a new sheet of paper and wrote “IN THE DIRECTION OF SENDAI” with my Sharpie, compromising on halfway. Still, this didn’t pay off anytime soon. I only got one offer for Utsunomiya, which was about an hour away, and half a dozen waves or passing words of encouragement. I was about at my limit and ready to concede defeat, preparing to again shift my plans, this time to camping in Saitama. However, for benefit of the doubt I decided that I would wait for the next 30 cars that passed (my birthday is on the 30th), and after that retire. Fortunately car number eight surprised the hell out of me and I got my first ride with a couple in a rental Toyota full of carsick dachshunds.
The couple’s names were Koji and Ai, and they were on their way to Nasu (which though a homophone for the word meaning “eggplant”, had an entirely different purpose in this context), for a weekend at a hot springs resort. They live in Koenji, which is a hip place west of Nakano that I took an early liking to when I was still looking for jobs before graduation. They were quite nice, and probably about the best kind of people you could hope to start hitchhiking with, given a dearth of previous experience and rapidly waning patience. I even got a rice ball and something to drink. Their two dogs had on little floral jackets, and both looked completely exhausted. I suppose the backseat wasn’t their idea of heaven. Serendipitously, the ELO song “Twilight” came on the radio [theme of the television version of Densha Otoko] and my spirits were buoyed after coming so close to being heartbroken with rejection.
Since Koji and Ai’s plans to get off the Tohoku Expressway were far ahead of mine, I was politely dropped off at the Nasukougen service area (far less impressive in scale than Hasuda, but bustling nonetheless with a popular soft cream kiosk). At first I was a little worried, because now I was really far away from home, and once you’re on the expressway, you’re pretty much on until someone drives you off. Walking anywhere on the road, ramps, or tollbooth areas themselves is apparently a surefire way to either get killed or picked up by the highway patrol. However, fortunately my earlier success seemed to stake my luck and charisma, as after about ten minutes of grinning I got a ride from a solemn middle aged man in a beat little Civic. I never learned his name, as after introducing myself as David (it took three slow pronunciations), he didn’t say anything in response. I think he was a little hard of hearing; we didn’t talk much. Maybe he had a lot on his mind, but for the most part we just rode the hundred or so kilometers to Kunimi in silence, with the occasional pepperings of dead-end conversation.
(for sake of typing, all translated to English)
Me: Are you from Kunimi?
Me: Do you live in Kunimi?
Me: Is your house in Kunimi?
Man: Aa, no.
Me: Are you going to see friends or family?
Me: What are you doing?
Man: I work in Yokohama.
Man: You can’t see the mountains because of the clouds.
Me: Yeah. It’s kind of overcast.
And that was pretty much about it. Seriously though, I was a really happy to have a ride, even if I was on edge for most of the ride wondering what he was thinking.
At the Kunimi service area I looked at the leaden sky and started wondering how far I’d get before I got stuck in the rain. It was already about two o’clock at this point and it was looking less and less likely that I would make it to Aomori that day. At Kunimi there were even fewer people than there were at Nasukougen, and most of them were from tour buses, which are of absolutely no help whatsoever. I heard trucks are the best chance for a long stretch, but I didn’t feel experienced enough to directly solicit rides from the lonely drivers.
Fortunately, I got lucky again and within fifteen minutes made an agreement with a guy that reminded me of Yamamoto-san for a ride into Sendai itself. Getting off the expressway is difficult enough, and I’d never been there, so it sounded like a good deal to me. What I ended up getting far exceeded my expectations, as it turned out I wound up with the polar opposite of Mr. Blue Civic. This guy’s name was something to the effect of Yoshihara, I hadn’t heard it before, but he was quite affable. On the way to Sendai, he virtually never stopped talking. When I responded to his question of what I did, he bust out with a laugh so hearty and amused it was almost scary. He told me about his two sons that live in Tokyo, what he used to do in Roppongi thirty years ago, how he hates the big city now, how to form good relationships with Japanese people, and how he loves history and culture. It’s amazing how many things a person can talk about in detail over the course of two hours if you give them the chance. It was like a never-ending graduation commencement, or a guest speaker in one of those 101 classes you take as a freshman. I’m not begrudging it at all, I learned all about iced cream (as opposed to ice cream) pastries [which I was given one of] from Koriyama, how he worked for what I think is the census bureau, how he likes onsens and local festivals, and the houses of old politicians from ages gone by. On top of all this I probably got the most intense Japanese listening exercise I’ve ever received.
When we got to Sendai he asked me where I wanted to go, and I really didn’t have any idea, or specific destination. Of course this is bad, people don’t feel right when you just say “drop me anywhere”. There needs to be some sort of resolution, so they can get a sense that you’ll be okay. So when he asked again what I hoped to see in Sendai I mentioned Sendai castle because it was the only thing I could remember hearing about Sendai. So he drove me there [It’s actually not there, like most Japanese castles, because it was burned to the ground X number of times. Now it’s only a rock foundation to a flat grassy area.], but instead of just letting me off, he took me all around the north half of the city, telling me about the history, and the universities. Apparently Tohoku Daigaku (monster that it is with tons of campuses spread around the city), is like the number three school in the country, behind Tokyo and Kyoto universities at 1 and 2, respectively. He knew quite a bit about the place, and we drove around outside of all the departments, him pointing out where the cafeteria was, or how in this particular building the high intensity diode was invented, which is now used in all car taillights (as opposed to the old way of mounting glass bulbs behind cheap, red, translucent plastic). Interestingly, the incredibly well-selling Nintendo Kahashima Ryuuta Kyouju no Nouo Kitaeru Otona DS Training [this is the short name] game is based on the work of some famous professor here.
After the college tour, he drove me downtown and advised against my plans of sleeping outdoors for risk of getting in trouble with the authorities. In the end, he pulled over on the side of one of Aoba-dori and talked for about another forty-five minutes until it got late enough that he had to get back home to his wife. So I set out on foot once again, sunburned and lumbering along with my ridiculously corpulent pack, and a handful of tour guides and maps from my final driver. What a trip, three hundred and fifty-one kilometers. But it only cost 850 yen to get to Hasuda station! Now if only I can find a place to sleep…