Fooly Cooly

My brain’s the weak heart and my heart’s the long stair.
—Modest Mouse

Ten other people slept in my room on the ferry, a room with no windows or bunks, only a tatami mat floor and a few foam palettes on which passengers might get comfortable enough to doze. A cabinet was filled with simple blankets of a size ideal to travel—so much so that I traded my teddy bear blanket from the foreigner’s market for one, though I neglected to ask about the trade beforehand, and conducted it by slinking back into the room once the other passengers had departed to wait in line by the ramp. Those who stayed in the plebeian cabins had to wait for almost an hour while the wealthier Nipponese and Korean businessmen disembarked with their well-dressed families before shuffling off the ship and down the steps onto the asphalt of the wharf of Fukuoka.

This is the largest city and port on the island of Kyūshū, southernmost of the Japanese archipelago’s four main islands. Immediately to the north, across the narrow Kanmon Straits that divide the tips of the two by the slimmest space, is the large island of Honshū, always the center of Japanese culture. Honshū nestles on its southeastern bend the sacred island of Shikoku, with its eighty-eight Buddhist Temples, and is in turn protected from the typhoons of the open Pacific. The bay of Tokyo is only halfway up Honshū, which from tip to tip is greater than the distance between Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, or New York City and Jacksonville, Florida. But Japan is mostly mountains, and despite the country’s great size the thousands of islands in the archipelago wear most of the one hundred and thirty million inhabitants in densely packed cities along the coast.

I was fascinated with Japan, with its solitary path through history, its aesthetic of sublime restraint, and the longevity and uniqueness of its culture. Chinese civilization began over four thousand years before the Japanese progressed from the stone age, but that tower of culture, stacked slowly by generations of artists and intellects, had cracked and toppled during the popular seizures of Maoist communism and Cultural Revolution, will have to be rebuilt from the fragments lodged in pop culture and the isolated countryside. Korea suffered a more brutal castration under the Japanese during two decades of occupation, when only Japanese was taught in schools, and every effort was made to excise from Korea anything that would distinguish it from the conquering power. Compared to these long infections, in which generations went silently necrotic, the carpet bombing and the twin nuclear strikes that punctuated Japan’s Second World War were brief traumas: painful, but pain is never remembered.

What I fear worse, in considering Japan, was the cancer of Westernism, implanted during the American reconstruction of the Marshall Plan years, and never entirely removed. Japan’s heritage had always proved resilient in the face of cultural intrusions by the long and pudgy fingers of imperial China and the colonial powers of Europe—not only resilient, but stimulated by foreign exposure: absorbing and learning in a fever, as the body does a dose of a harmful virus given as a vaccine. It was my first goal, on landing in Japan, to see how far the country had changed from the simple beauty, subtle art, and love of nature of its past masters.

It was a Saturday and the sun made bright promises between the warehouses, and then the office buildings and colorful billboards as I walked into the stirring city. I knew where I could find a map of the country, but the store did not open for a few hours. So I bought three onigiri snacks, egg-sized balls of rice in triangles of seaweed dried to a crisp, and a bottle of milk tea from a shop and had my breakfast in the urban valley of a park. The trees had begun to yellow, and the air was crisp and sun-warmed, as clouds swirled to patterns overhead. Some Japanese slept on the grass or walked their dogs or their young daughters around the field. I sat there with this fantastic sense of uncompromised liberty—self-assured, self-dependent, and self-sustaining, carrying all I required on my back, with nowhere to be, no taxes to pay or projects to finish, no appointments or demands, and nothing to shop for but a little food. I might sleep anywhere I chose to lay my head, so I did not have to find a place nor did I feel inclined to check if my Couchsurfing requests had been granted; and when I did check my email, and had received no news, I was overjoyed. I wanted to head north and see how far I could get.

“Perhaps to Honshū,” I thought,—“perhaps only to Kokura, to sleep in the castle. Imagine it!”

I would sleep in a park or a shrine, which was legal and entirely safe to do: Japan is a country where one might leave a wallet or even a pile of bills on a picnic table in the morning and go to retrieve the treasure from the same spot at night.

Maps were posted at regular intervals around the well-organized city, and I followed them and my compass north and east. I passed through a long commercial arcade that opened onto a cobblestone courtyard between tiled slopes, that would have felt anachronistic if it were not so crowded. There were many people at the Kushida Shrine, young and old, that Saturday morning, to clap their hands and ring the clacking bells by the great ropes, light incense and ask the gods of Japan for good fortune. As atheist as Japan has become in the modern era, people still follow the old customs, at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, excluding neither, more for the sane sake of tradition than actual belief. A young woman I glimpsed, at the other end of a corridor of wooden arches between the trees, prayed solemnly with her hands pressed together, then rang the great bell and took an oracular proclamation from a box of them. I passed her as she strolled out through the gateways and I did the same as her, though I could not read my oracle, and did not take nearly as long about it. We both tied them onto a rack of rope, next to other proclamations, at the same time, and I left through a different courtyard. I bought two rice cakes filled with bean paste and ate them on the steps, then strolled on to Hakata Station.

I planned to take the subway out near the edge of town, where I could find a highway heading northeast to Shimonoseki and hold a thumb out, but the subway was as expensive as everything else. I took it out to the two hundred yen point and emerged from underground into a park between some government buildings. There were bronze statues of Kameyama-Joko and Nichiren Shonin, a monument for the defeat of the Mongols, and a temple that echoed with chanting and bell-ringing. I walked on north, following the rail lines and passing at length a number of stations. I saw places of worship as well: the Hakozaki Shrine, hidden away in a thick grove of urban forest, and the small Yineichimanu Pagoda: Shinkansen bullet trains rushing overhead like focused typhoons, and firemen practicing their ladder climbs nearby, clapping at successes. (Yineichimanu was a legendary samurai, and when his lord coveted his beautiful wife, he ran, making it as far as this suburb of Fukuoka, where he killed himself.)

Japan’s reverence is hidden from view, behind shopping malls and glass towers, beneath webs of power lines and elevated railways: in those secret spaces are concealed the small pagodas and wooden temples, the cultivated gardens and beautiful old trees, nuanced testaments to the Japanese reverence for nature. If it were not for these minutiae, the care with which they are tended noticeable only with great patience, every Japanese city would look entirely the same.

From Yineichimanu’s shrine, I turned away from the main road, which narrowed as it passed under an expressway, and walked through the campus of the Agricultural College. All the trees were labeled, and the late sun turned them to emerald. The swirling clouds that I had seen in the park were gone; only a few wisps of white remained. Four men rode by on bicycles with hot grills balanced on the handlebars and rear carriers, and one yowled as his bike was jostled and his hand singed. I passed some lively tennis courts, followed another railway, and crossed the Tataragawa River on a lion-guarded bridge, then turned straight north, for I had seen a much busier bridge in that direction and assumed it was a highway.

I passed through a park where old people strolled in track suits and boys played baseball and came to a busy road beneath the elevated highway. I could see the northbound onramp, where any hitchhiking would be attempted, and I also saw a sign pointing to the ruins of Najima Castle, not far away. With a shrug, I crossed the road. Around a bend a beach looked westward onto a bay, with warehouses on the southern shore, apartments and shipyards to the north, and the sun setting red over a long bridge. A Shinto gateway opened behind onto some steps up a hill, and in a grove on the slope there was a wooden shrine with a steep tile roof and a stone basin of water with bamboo ladles for washing. Stairs led further up to the citadel’s remnants—half a square of stones, where a corner watchtower once stood, was all that remained of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s sixteenth century fortress, by which he controlled all Kyūshū—and next to them a hundred red archways, each marked with the passages of some heathen scripture, led back beneath the bower on a winding trail to a smaller red shrine, clean and neat, with an altar for offerings and a stand for candles. It had been moved down from the peak to accommodate the rising fortress and weathered the storms that ruined the same. War is temporary, but this endures, a little lower and a little quieter than before.

I came back to the main shrine beneath the castle stair and saw a sort of platform ringing the wooden building, just covered overhead by the slanting eaves, which would be a fine, albeit narrow, place to sleep. I had been picking out sleeping spots the whole way there, in happy preparation for the coming darkness: the more romantic the better, and this one was best. Somehow the shrine made me feel that it was more secure. And, as it was already half past five, I decided to remain, and spend the night in the ruins of Najima Castle.

All I could think of, sitting on the rocks to watch the sun’s final plummet into the Sea of Japan, was the Black Knight of Ivanhoe, “reduced to the usual expedient of knights-errant, who, on such occasions, turned their horses to graze, and laid themselves down to meditate on their lady-mistress, with an oak-tree for a canopy.”


I woke with a start to the Sunday drumming of the priest inside the shrine. He began to chant in a deep, earthy voice, tones swelling like waves, as I climbed down from my perch with all my kit, and with a great noise that he surely heard, though he would not interrupt his devotions to investigate. I rushed up the stairs to the ruins at the top of the hill, where it was only six in the morning and quiet as fog, and nested in my blanket on a cold stone to watch the sun rise. I broke my fast at 7-11 on noodle soup and sandwiches, then marched north, many more miles, through the suburbs and through a forest, before finding a good spot on Highway 3. Hitchhiking is easy in Japan, where the custom of hospitality overrules an absence of a local tradition of hichuhaiku, and it is the best way to avoid the prohibitively expensive local transportation.

(I broke every rule on hitchhiking in Japan to appear on the WikiTravel Web site, which says to make a sign with kanji characters and emoji smiling faces, and to look harmless and friendly: “This is not the place for a mop of unruly hair, ripped jeans and sunglasses—foreigners are by default scary, and you need to do your best to look like you stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Neat trousers, clean shirt, a hat to protect you from the sun instead of sunglasses. If you have a huge rucksack, put it off to the side and make sure it's clean and that there are no things sticking out.” Use the inversion of this, Reader, to conjure an image of me hitchhiking, though I never had to wait long at it in Japan.)

I did not have to wait long for a woman driving alone to pick me up: an elementary school teacher a year younger than me, with a plain face and a good grasp of English. It was the last time I thought it remarkable that a woman picked me up, which before arriving in Japan had happened only once, with a chain-smoking woman on the island of Crete, but on this island would become the norm. The teacher took me past Koga, her hometown, to the Max Mart, and an older woman with no English brought me from there to Moji in her older husband’s high-tech smart car, with a GPS screen and doors that opened robotically. I walked a long way down an esplanade in this city of fisheries to the pier of Kitakyūshū at the tip of the island and took an expensive ferry across the Kanmon Straits to the great port of Shimonoseki on the southern point of Honshū, because I could not find a way of crossing the high span of the Kanmon-Kaikyô Bridge before nightfall. I sat on a wooden bench on the pier next to an old man who looked wearily out to sea and sunset, and I checked my map and my surroundings.

Japanese girls have a reputation for being adorably desirable—kawaii in the vernacular—a reputation they pursue with their doll-like makeup and fashions. I brought this up a year ago with Jean of Paris, who was then on his way to Japan, as was I, and I wondered if he was going to Japan with the intention of marrying a local, as many foreign workers do.

“No way, man. Japanese girls are not cute. They have faces like horses and tiny teeth like . . . like sharks, and they’re all bowlegged so they walk like this . . .”

In Jean’s defense, his own mother is Japanese, yet he insisted in his violent refutation of their beauty. Sometimes a severely negative preface can affect the way we view what is new. A spectator might have thought thought such-and-such a film was good, had not a friend pointed out the mistake in the third scene, and thus spoiled the whole perception. In the same way I could not help but check out the Japanese girls on the Shimonoseki pier and think, “They really are bowlegged.” I would make a girl laugh and think to myself, “Look at those shark teeth.” It could not all be the influence of prejudice; there must be some truth to the Parisian’s observations. I concluded sadly that Japanese girls were not very cute.

Something happened later that night, after it was dark, to change my judgment. I had wandered down to a street near the train station, with my eyes fixed skyward to search the neon signs for anything like “Internet.” I saw a girl out of the lower corner of my eye, a slim girl in a kimono standing in front of a seafood restaurant with a sign in her hands, and I stopped in front of her. She had scattered hair, wide cheekbones and a rounded chin, but what distinguished her most, made her more than lovely, were her big brown eyes, liquid pits contained in slits like almonds that they seemed to fill entirely with color, and with adorable activity. I forgot every thread that I had been ruminating on, and nearly forgot what I had approached her for. I stalled by saying good evening.

Konbanwa. Ah, interunetu kafe wa doko desu ka?”—Where is the Internet café? (The little Japanese I had learned in college was slowly trickling back.)

“Mmm, nai. There is no. Maybe in Sanyouonoda City.”

Her drawn expression of pondering, reflexive and unintended, was so appealingly kawaii that I kept on with the questions.

“Sanyouonoda City. It’s far?”

“Hai. Mmm, haruka. Far.”

“Can I walk?”

“No, take taxi. Interunetu, none here.”

“Your English is very good.”



Flattery works best when it’s over the top, but I had no idea how to call her beautiful—and I wished her English were better!

I said farewell to those pondering brown eyes and wandered off dreamily, even longingly, giving up on the Internet in an instant and returning to the train station, where the cops politely wrote me up for rinsing a T-shirt in the sink and then told me I could not sit on the floor. It did not bother me.

I went to sleep near the wharf where I had earlier landed, in the Akama Shrine. I climbed through the great red and white gate and past the fortress towers to the very top of the stairs and began to set myself up in a sort of concession stand near the principle shrine. I was on a step below, looking for a better place, when a light came on in a side building. I realized with horror that the grounds were occupied, and that I had been heard! I watched from the shadows and, once the light was off, took my things down to a wide wooden bench to the side of the main court, protected by the wind and lit by the green sign of a telephone booth. I lay down under my blanket, my knapsack for a pillow, to “meditate on my lady-mistress”—the brown-eyed seafood waitress I would never see again.


My preoccupation with thrift in Japan was perhaps unwarranted. The Japanese yen was rising in worth as the American dollar of my decreasing horde declined precipitously, which made the country more expensive than ever before, but I reflected in the Akama shrine that this country was not so expensive, when compared with Europe or even Turkey, rather than the countries of China and India where my meter of expense had been thrown into the gutter—it was not so expensive that I had to live like this. I remembered that I once considered forty dollars a day in London or a forty dollar bus ride across Turkey a modest amount, and the cost here in Japan was the same or less.

However it was not the cost that left me sleeping on benches in Japan: “I wanted the adventure of it.” I wanted to test myself to live simply, and earnestly enjoyed the clean and wild freedom of not needing and not possessing. So even though it was within my means to afford to travel Japan in the same style I had traveled Europe, I did not renounce my intention to travel without paying for accommodation or transport. I wonder if that means growth.

I woke at dawn, on my wooden pallet between the telephone booth and the vending machines of Akama Shrine, with the blasts of a ship in the harbor, and I quickly packed my things and slid down the temple steps and through the arch, towards the Karato fish market on the bay. This was a long warehouse full of twenty thousand caught fish and their stench, organized into the stalls of fishmonger families, and famous for fugu, “river pig”—the Japanese word for the poisonous flesh of the pufferfish, which is in Japan a supreme delicacy.

The liver and ovaries are packed with tetrodotoxin, and a small amount of this, if spread through the flesh during catching or carving, is enough to paralyze a man’s every muscle, though leaving him conscious to appreciate his painful asphyxiation. There is no antidote, and the only prevention, other than abstaining from the treat, is the skill of the sushi chefs. The license to serve fugu requires intensive training: seventy per cent of students never pass the final exam. Diners still die, mostly fishermen who cannot restrain themselves from eating the delicacy fresh, but most famously a kabuki performer and national treasure, Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, who demanded an illegally large serving of fufu liver and could not be refused. The danger adds to the flavor and makes fugu a cathartic retreat. As the poet Yosa Buson once wrote:

I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

I walked off my hazardous breakfast by heading north, following the water of the straits up the peninsula and towards the heart of Honshū. The road passed under the great bridge and over the even more impressive tunnel, and went on around hills and promontories to the old castle town of Chōfu. New buildings surround an ancient heart, where each wide lane passes down high stone walls; and at the top of the hill there was an old temple and an old wooden house with a mossy garden in the back, though I smiled more as I passed by the next door school, where the girls were singing.

And I walked on, north along the water, until I reached the Chōfu Station. There was a ramen shop across the street where I had lunch, which was perhaps the Platonic form of a ramen shop, of which all others are shadows: a line of seated customers along the bar, more seated on cushions around wooden tables on a raised dais under the window, and waiters and waitresses in aprons and white hats shout commands in gruff, military Japanese, between the dining floor and the steaming, clattering kitchen, and just as often bow and present the customers with grinning honorifics, prolific in the Japanese tongue. I slurped up noodles and stared around in wonderment at how close the shop was to how I imagined it, and how much more was also there that I never could have imagined.

I took a train to the next station, and from there a bus into the Chugōku hills, to Tawarayama Onsen: too small a place to find by hitchhiking. Old Japanese women occupied every seat on that bus with their dignified and well-dressed presence, because Tawarayama Onsen is famous for its tōji, or curative bathing. The Japanese have long followed this healthy tradition of soaking in hot spas to improve their health, though most of the great onsen hot spring towns are these days converted to gleaming strips of neon karaoke bars and less obvious brothels: hygienic and Japanese variants of Las Vegas, which happen to include hot spring baths.

Tawarayama Onsen is an austere place for serious tōji bathers, who strolled the streets and bridges of the hamlet between the hills in kimonos and pleated hakata, on their way to or from one of the two public baths. There are no private baths in Tawarayama Onsen, there being not much water, but what water there is is rich with therapeutic alkali. I went directly, on arrival, to cheaper of the two, called Machi-no-Yu, stuffed all my things in a locker in the small outer cloister, showered on an upturned bucket—to bathe seated is the Japanese way—before settling into the too hot water of the two connected basins with an easing sigh as relaxed as the trickle of water into the pool. Two old men already soaked away their rheumatism there in the steaming mineral water, stark naked and utterly dignified. Their calcified faces stared unceasingly forward, at the water or the wall. What do the old see, when they stare? The cold, closing arms of death, or maybe some house of memories where they dwell, all the world reminding them of the warmer, livelier life of the past.

The old women who ran the small bathhouse were very kind and gave me water when I came out red and lightheaded and repaired my rusty trousers, which had ripped one way during my Metal Gear infiltration of Najima Castle, and ripped another, far more embarrassing way while climbing over the tiles of a stone wall into a serene garden in Chōfu. I propose that the ninja wore loose pants, and not cheap dress trousers from Bombay, for this reason.

Happily clean and properly dressed, I strolled through the town at sunset and ate some fried bread I had bought in Chōfu below. Hills and forests flanked the town, beyond a buffer of fields, and pierced only by a solitary road that escaped to the highway. There were maybe one hundred homes and businesses, and they were often the same thing, packed into a sloping circle and crowded around the rock-walled canal that intersected the center. A clean sheen of water flowed over fields of pebbles, crossed overhead by pipes and bridges of all shapes. Some ryokan inns rested on the walls over this tranquil scene, but I passed them and crossed an iron bridge, then walked down some steps to a parking lot just under the northern hills, with a public bathroom and a pavilion. I washed under the faucet some clothes that suddenly became very filthy now that I was so clean. While inspecting the vending machines, I found an electrical outlet, and so made the pavilion my home, as it allowed me to watch Seven Samurai.

There were two or three cars in the parking lot that were occupied by the tōji faithful as cheap as I, apparently living off the two vending machines that hummed near my pavilion, though equipped on their car seats with far better dwellings than my wooden bench. Some boys from the country drove in and went to the bathhouse, and a girl, and an elderly couple, and drove off with a wild slant of headlights an hour after arriving; and I was still there, a nose and eyes between a hat and a blanket. I curled up on my side and awoke three or four times with chattering teeth, having thrown off the quilt, and with dreams half-remembered and by morning entirely forgotten.

With my blanket rolled up and lashed to my backpack, I walked south along the canal and took the road west out of town—I adventured to keep from freezing before the stores opened and I could get food and hot water for my bowl of freeze dried noodles. The low blur of mountain fog receded around me, and I took one turn and another, following my compass and the cartoon map I had seen in the parking lot, until I was beyond sight of Tawarayama Onsen, alone on a highway in a valley of Mount Akahi.

In the wilds of Japan, the forests are dense and old but as well pathwayed as a museum, and no voyager can go long without seeing a house, shrine, or vending machine under the bower. The Japanese revere nature for its temperate, delicate, and ephemeral beauty, and rather than fearing the uncontrollable forces that the heathens in the dark and barbarous forests of Europe warded off by sacrifice and careful observance, the Japanese worshiped God in the symmetry of a tree’s branches or the subtle curves that wind or water gave to a rock, erecting shrines before objects of exceptionally divine construction. A God of trees, transcending flesh, and immanent in the grace of forests and the strength of mountains, and in the cataclysm of a storm, the death of leaves, and the promise of a first snowfall. Theirs was the oldest argument for religion—how can you see the world and disbelieve in the Creator?—but said with a sly whisper and a knowing laugh rather than a zealous, proselytizing cry. The term “God-fearing” is utterly foreign to this country.

There were houses here and there amid the trees, with short statues of the cosmic savior Jizō in front, wearing red knit hats and aprons. Six of these stood in a line in front of the Mara Kanon shrine, one of the last fertility shrines in Japan, two miles down the road from Tawarayama Onsen. Stairs led up from the road into a grove of trees and a phallic statuary to the small wooden shrine. Through the dragon-watched gateway with its hall there was a recessed altar, with a stone spirit house containing a stone penis of a tremendous size, with several smaller variants to either side, as well as a statue of a woman, presumably the goddess of this anatomy. There was a vase of flowers and a bowl of incense, and on the left a shelf was filled with ceramic phalli, perhaps a hundred in all, each marked with writing. A small shed to the side of the shrine contained a thousand more, arrayed in ranks on four shelves and on the floor and piled on the top shelf in disorder, up to the very ceiling.


I wondered at the fertile scene, took pictures, and went out to the road to look out across the forested hills and valley plains full of houses, roads, canals, and gardens, far easier to appreciate. I walked back to town and had breakfast outside a wooden shop, where I bought some cakes and asked for hot water for my bowl of noodles. The women insisted on showing me how to stir together the instant food. A man arrived who spoke some English, and he showed me on a map how to get to Highway 2, heading south to the rebuilt city of Hiroshima, a few hours away. I then went to the onsen for another bath, soaked in the water until I was lightheaded and too relaxed to be capable of much more than finding a nice spot to read for an hour and more.

Finally, in the early afternoon, with the anxiety of this worst time of the procrastinator's day, too late to accomplish everything and too early to quit entirely—I walked along the eastern road, and a woman picked me up who made me a sign and told me which way would lead to a main highway. I walked a long time on a back road that wound through a scarcely peopled valley, though I did not mind, since the scenery was very beautiful. Dirt roads led straight off the highway through small hamlets ringed with fields and ended at the red gate and stone stair of a shrine within the forest. I hitched with a therapist from Nagano through hilly vales of old houses, painted shrines, and late blooming flowers, until my road turned south and his went north; and then a cooking teacher from Ube took me south through ramshackle industrial and mining towns with fading signs. She dropped me off at a convenience store near Ube on the coastal Highway 2 that shot north to Hiroshima, and I stopped inside for some food.

Picture me, Reader, with rolled up sleeves of blue plaid, sitting in the Turkish fashion on the curb of a 7-11 just off the highway: arms bent, noodles slurping up into my mouth from a cup, through well-managed chopsticks. My knapsack sits against my side, the strap always across my shoulder like a bandolier, and my modest, road-stained haversack is propped up to the right; and that’s all there is of me.

Well I found a good spot, lots of room for an interested car to pull over, and assumed the position: a smile and a thumb. Dusk was descendant, but I had time for one last ride: a man who worked insurance stopped for me and took me on towards Hiroshima, though he was only going so far.

He saw a truck with Hiroshima plates at a red light, and I got out to ask the driver if he might take me. The man behind the glass made an X with his forearms.

“He said no,” I told the businessman, climbing back into his car.

“He is afraid.”

“Yeah. I think maybe the truck companies here won’t let them take hitchhikers. Only kuruma. Are you afraid?”

“No. When I am younger, forty years ago, I hitchhike to Tokyo.”

“Do many Japanese still hitchhike?”

The man hesitated in his reply, with many noises of linguistic pondering, and I said one of my favorite Japanese words: “Tokidoki?”




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