Spirited Away

Things never work out like you think they will, but that's what makes life interesting.
—Haruki Murakami

I hardly slept aboard
the five hour ferry to Takamatsu. The sleeping room on-board was divided into a few sectors of tatami mats on which one might lie, but the lights were bright and there were children chattering in the corner, and I was invigorated by the sense of leaving on an expedition.

Shikoku is an island sacred to Japanese tradition. Kansai and Kyūshū girdle the northern side, creating the mild Inland Sea between, and the south is exposed to the Pacific. Eighty-eight temples ring the wooded coast, and most Japanese wish to see them all one time in their life. The center of the island is mountainous and seamed with valleys cut out by the country’s cleanest rivers.

I was awake when the boat arrived in port, though the sun had not yet risen; and I shouldered my bag, lighter then because of all I had left at Jean’s garret in Osaka, but stuffed full of his arctic weather sleeping bag—and wandered out into the city. I got my bearings and a snack at a convenience store, sat huddled in my fleece sweatshirt beneath the stone turrets of a castle as the sun rose, and walked south to Ritsurin Koen, a marvelous feudal garden sheltered by Mount Shiun. Breakfast I took at an udon stall in Takamatsu, lunch at another in Takamiya, where I took a nap in a field by the river. Shikoku is famous for its sanuki-udon, made from the hearty wheat they grow on the island where it is too dry for rice.

I hitched with a young couple, Kaori and Yoshitsune, to Kotohiro in the foothills. The rounded peak of Kompira-san loomed over, and I climbed the thousand steps, first through a market and then a number of great Shinto gateways. Gray clouds obscured the afternoon light and made the day seem later than it was. The boughs were scarce of leaves over the stone walks, but further up the pines stood eternal about mossy wooden shrines to Amaterasu and another divinity. They hid the town from view, but over the pointed tops the valleys spread out toward the coast.

All the udon stores in Kotohiro closed at four, to my great dismay. I bought sushi, crackers, and an orange and ate them by the canal. It was very cold. I found a covering near the water with a wooden bench, sheltered from the bite of the wind, where I decided to stay, very warm in Jean’s sleeping bag.

I got up at six with all the pilgrims of Shikoku’s eighty-eight temples, easily discerned amid the crowd of other tourists by their loose white shirts and rice paddy hats. To sleep in the open any later than this would be undignified, but it was still very cold at that hour and I found myself wishing for shamelessness.. I was left pacing around for some time before the shops opened to serve udon, and then I sat wallowing in the young sun like a lizard.

I had to hitch eighty miles to get from Kotohira to Matsuyama, on the other corner of the island, but did not have to put my thumb out to stop a first car – one of the squat Asian delivery trucks, which pulled over when the driver saw me walking across a bridge. He drove me to the coastal highway, where a small car soon pulled over and looped back around to suffer taking me, as if it were a privilege or obligation. The driver, a soft-faced young woman in a long skirt and salmon-colored jacket, cleared a great many things off the passenger seat and introduced herself as Michi.  She was going to Kanonji, and I quickly found that she could speak English fluently, having taken lessons for four years.

“If you don’t mind to wait,” she said warmly, “I will stop at an antique kimono shop. Then I can take you further west.”

“I’m in no hurry.”

Michi stopped at a small house in the countryside. The shop called Inishie is only open on the first three days of every month. Within, there was one long room open to visitors, no larger than the living room in an ordinary house, and elegantly decorated. A dozen old women swarmed over the old chest of drawers and the carefully piled kimonos, and over each other, trying on this and that with a cooing commentary. The kimonos came from the eras of Taisho and Showa and were older than most of the women who tried to fit them. Michi looked carefully at a few and then folded them up again and sat with me, Japanese-style, at a low table, for coffee. There was a chest behind her full of old porcelain and lacquer ware, each worth hundreds of dollars.

“Do you like kimonos?” I asked.

“I do. I have a lot of kimonos at home. I could not wear one because my hand is hurt. Too much . . . computer mouse. But there are no kimonos here today that I want,” she added, rather melancholy,—“do you want to look at any?”

“No, I don’t know how to wear them. Ikimasu! How much is the coffee?”

“It is from the store. I bought a kimono here once.”

We returned to the car and drove off, heading west. Michi asked me, “Why do you go to Dogo Onsen?”

Chen-to-Chihiro,”—better known in the West as Spirited Away, under which title it won an Academy Award in 2002. Creator Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are the Walt and Disney of Japan. This, perhaps his most acclaimed film, is set in a bathhouse said to be based on the onsen in Matsuyama.

Michi put her hand over her mouth and laughed at my interest, and I laughed as well.

“You like Ghibli? Which is your favorite?”


“Really? Mine as well. I had seen other animated movies before that, but Nausicaa was the first movie I saw where I realized animation could be beautiful."

We talked and talked, and as we passed through Kawanoe I asked Michi, “Where are you heading today?”

“I have no appointments.”

I thought to myself, “Is she just driving me? I’d better find a way to let her pull over so she can go home,” and I said, in my best imitation of the circuitous subtlety of the Japanese, “There are a lot of trucks here. Maybe one is going to Matsuyama,” meaning, “You can pull over anytime, and I’ll ride with one of them.”

”Maybe,” she said.

I tried to find a good place to hitchhike, but Michi gave reasons why none of them would ever work. At length, and in the flustered manner of a Nihonjin forced to admit what they really mean to someone who does not understand the game of gestures, she said, “I can drive you, but . . . practice . . . listening lesson. You tell stories . . . tell good stories, and I practice listening . . . okay?”

I was at least kind enough not to insist—and when you consider that the Japanese commonly pay four thousand yen to tutoring companies for unqualified gaijin to instruct them by simple chatter, I seem like less of a thief of goodwill than otherwise. “Good stories, huh? What can I tell . . .”

In truth, Michi’s tale was far better. She worked for a small but tasteful soy sauce company in Kagawara, traveling to udon restaurants and marketing her ware, but her home and her friends and family were in neighboring Kochi. Sometimes when she called them she would suddenly cry. Kochi is the eastern prefecture of Shikoku, on the Ocean. The mild Inland Sea had no waves, and Michi missed as much as anything the rhythmic roar of the Pacific surf against the rocks. In the village of her birth, there were five hundred people with three last names, all wedged between the mountains and the water. Great typhoons lashed at the gray coast every year. Michi loved the typhoons. All the power lines would be cast down in a broken tangle, and in each house burned a candle. Michi and her family—her father and mother and two older sisters, old enough to be motherly as well—ringed the teardrop flame with warm company, with talk and telling, and made shadow puppets on the walls of her home.

The Dogo Onsen was as magic as I expected, because I had expected to be underwhelmed, and therefore braced my inner eye to see past the small building with the beautifully carved eaves and tile roof, that Miyazaki had extrapolated into a grand fantasy in his film, to see instead its legend and aura. I conditioned myself to wonder, because I had been around enough to know that adventure is what you make of it.

The archaic bathhouse was juxtaposed with gleaming modern towers that penned it in on three sides, but behind it rose a steep hill capped by a temple. On the other side there was a tunnel of shops, and I ignored all the delicacies there in preference for some cheap ramen in a dingier alley.

I stayed at the cheap guesthouse recommended by Gekkou-sou, who had given me a flier with a map that was all in Japanese. I could only find the place by counting streets on the way from the onsen, and it was only because I could read the Japanese syllabaries that I knew it was called Fujiya. I would not have recognized it for an inn at all had the proprietor not arrived as I wondered down the street looking lost and foreign. It was a one-story house in a residential neighborhood of identical houses, with a dormitory for men and one for women, and a living room with a low table called a kotatsu, straddled by a heavy blanket, and with an electric heater mounted on the underside. A hellish glow escaped whenever anyone lifted the blanket to put their feet or knees underneath, but it was too appealing to pull away.

There were three other lodgers there: a sullen and silent boy who did chores in exchange for a bed and spent his free time playing old RPGs on a Super Famicom from the comfort of the kotatsu, a charming girl who spoke no English and was out to visit all of the city’s bathhouses, and a young adventurer who spoke enough to explain that he had ridden his bike all around most of Japan’s islands over the last seven months. His course, penned out on a road atlas he had, essentially showed all the country’s coastlines except for the last stretch between Osaka and Tokyo, where he would finish and get back to work.

When it was dark I attended the onsen for a hot soak to relax my body and clear my head. I bought a ticket and left my shoes in the entrance. In the dressing room, the walls lined with lockers and the floor scattered with benches, men in various states of nakedness stared straight ahead. The small towel which is the only accessory a bather takes with him to the pool is not very modest, especially as it is usually worn folded on the head when in the water, though when they walk men carry it as close to their groin as they can without covering anything, as if that would be an admission of shame. Through the sliding doors and into the baths, each a waist-high pool of hot water, rimmed by stone benches for a score of men, and with waist-high showers, stools, and mirrors along the walls for the same number—there were wooden buckets scattered everywhere, and everyone stared straight ahead. I looked around just enough to see that I was the only gaijin in the water. (I do not know what goes on in the female wing of the bathhouse, though I would have given a lot for a little look.)

When my blood was boiling I retreated to drink a saucer of green tea in the waiting room, very contented. I made supper at the guesthouse and spent the whole night reading lazily, glad to be out of the cold for a little while, and so happy I decided to stay another night.

I went the next day to the top of the hill behind Dogo Onsen. Beyond the temple I had seen from the bottom, a road wound up further, past some tennis courts and long high buildings with small windows, and into an unexpected forest. It lowered between rising hills of trees, which concealed strange statues and old signs and opened suddenly on the left to a steep graveyard. The pilgrim path crossed the road near there, and I wandered up on that narrow trail until it came out at a little shrine at the top of a hill, looking down on the autumn patchwork of hills.

I had gone back to the road and was strolling down the asphalt when I saw on the right-hand side a cave entrance, recessed behind a rock of strange, bulbous formation, like a melted candle, with a statue perched on top. A peek inside revealed a long tunnel with a few stranded lights here and there along its straight, slanted course: blue, orange, gold, red, and violet lights. I entered grinning from ear to ear, possessed by adventure. The meager beam of my pen light found a few niches ranked with statues, all cloaked and wearing hats of damp and rotting wool. I ignored these and discerned a troop of figures coming up from the tunnel below. “Are they cultists?” I thought to myself, “or perhaps Christians. I should be ready for a fight!” But it was just some old pilgrims, to whom I addressed a friendly hello.

The tunnel emerged from under a statue in the rocky base of a green hill. Shrines and trees obscured the view, but I saw I was in some secret vale, and I smelled incense smoke and heard a gong and shuffling feet (and a car’s roar and the hum of the nearby granary, but that ruins the exaggeration). A soft wind rustled the leaves and clattered together the wooden invocations that hung from lattices before the shrine’s inner cloisters. It swung the red lanterns on the eaves of the shrines and the three-tiered pagoda at the center of the valley, which looked as light and airy as a pine bower. A man in a tunic arranged flowerpots around one of the great stone lanterns in the courtyard, and the pilgrims in white looked over their unfolded maps in silence.

That night after another trip to the bathhouse, I returned to my lodgings to find it inundated with the smell of cooking pig: wild boar really, that the innkeeper’s father had hunted and slain. He cooked it in a big pot of nabe, adding Matsuyama udon and plates of vegetables and herbs from the garden. I had never had such a feast!

I left Matsuyama and hitched along the mountain roads to Kochi prefecture on the coast, with a crazy young woman—“Do you drink alcohol? You should not. It is bad for you.”—a kind enough man, and a jittery one who had his mother in the back seat. The people of Kochi are called Tosas, for the old name of their city, and are notoriously crazy. They have a reputation as the biggest drinkers in Japan.

WikiTravel explains, in a rare moment of lucid brilliance:
The women in Kochi are particularly renowned for their affinity and ability to drink. They are referred to as Hachikin, literally meaning ‘eight testicles,’ since it is said that one Tosa woman can drink like four ordinary men. Kochi offers an abundance of locally made sake and shochu, and the friendly locals will surely approach you for a fun interaction at Kochi’s numerous bars. Seventeen sake breweries in Kochi make Tosa Space Sake (Tosa uchūshu), prepared with yeast that was taken into space for ten days and back aboard a Soyuz rocket in 2005. Alternatively, try to track down some space yoghurt (Uchū wo tabi shita yōguruto, literally ‘the yogurt that traveled in space’).
The place was also famous for a dish called katsuo-no-tataki, and I looked around the market and the more charming back alleys for a nice place to find it for dinner, settling in at the bar of a warm and empty place run by two kind women.

The dish was served—thick slices of bonito tuna, seared brown and hot around the rim and still deep red within, with some bean sprouts, chopped garlic, and vinegar. The fish had a buttery texture and was rich in taste, and the seared edge kept each slice firm and made a warm contrast. After this I had a bowl of udon, and the two women gave me gifts as well: a plate of fruit, a container of rice balls for breakfast, and a poster of an unkempt, poorly dressed, and rather plain looking samurai, though clearly one of tremendous character and drive, and though I could not understand the words I knew they were asking me if I knew about Sakamoto Ryoma.

With regards to the behavior of foreigners, very little can offend the Japanese sensibility. Other Japanese are expected to follow an implicit doctrine of rigid standards and social customs, from which gaijin are entirely exempt. It is a polite and good-humored way of saying, “How can we expect the barbarians to know any better?” Yet the Japanese, especially the Tosas of the Pacific half of Shikoku, cannot stand that foreigners do not know this name. Sakamoto Ryoma is a messianic, heroic, and entirely fantastic figure who was once a samurai who staged a stillborn revolution against the Shogun in the eighteenth century. His grandly conceived reforms succeeded only after his dramatic death, making him the Che Guevara, the Martin Luther King, the Jesus of Nazareth of Japan.

Anyone who has visited Japan is likely acquainted with him, though perhaps not by name: his heroic trinity can be seen on many posted advertisements, in cartoon form. It’s Ryoma in the middle, looking very astute with his trademark Smith & Wesson revolver and slicked back hair, his loving wife O-Ryo to one side in a kimono and his burly bodyguard, Shinzo Miyoshi of the Choshu clan, waving a trident on the other. Together they waged a noisy revolution, which ended with Ryoma’s assassination. A drunk in Kyoto told me that Ryoma died at the hands of a hundred warriors, “Because not even the greatest swordsman in the world, not even Musashi, could defeat a hundred samurai at once,” but if the Reader seeks the truth, turn to the Ryoma historical drama currently airing in Japan. It is wildly popular: a handsome pop star plays Ryoma, Japan’s favorite historical figure, who was not nearly so dashing in real life, if his sole remaining picture is to be believed—though sometimes charm is greater than looks.

At least, that is what I tell myself.

I spent the night on the grounds of the Kochi Castle, one of the country’s few forts still in its original casting and not rebuilt as an homage. It was the castle of a hero named Katsutoyo, who somehow navigated the troubled waters of war during the era of Oda, Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa and emerged a favorite of all three, with Kochi province in his grip. He could hardly have succeeded without the succor of his wife Chiyo, the archetypal woman of Japan, who wore rags so her husband could ride a war horse and managed his house while he campaigned. Such ideals live on: men these days call their wives as terms of endearment tsuma, meaning “garnish,” and okusan, or “background.”

Kochi Castle occupied a peerless position atop an Acropolis-like bluff, overlooking the city from its center. The ascent winds between walls and turrets, and by statues of the founder and his wife. At the top was the white wooden citadel on a stone base, with arrow slits and a roof of dark tile. I avoided the guard, set off some alarm, and in the end slept on a wooden bench on a terrace halfway up: thank God for Jean’s sleeping bag, and God curse sunrise joggers!

A strange thing happened on the way back to Osaka. I was a half an hour at the gate to the expressway back north, with a sign for Okayama, before a silver Porsche pulled over, a CEO of a consultant business at the helm, but the scruffy Silicon Valley type. Anyone wise enough to make a living off information is also wise enough not to need a suit or a haircut. Thus the driver was friendly with me, though he spoke no English and I was unworthy of sitting on his German leather seat. I got the impression that he was in Kochi to visit some mistress.

He was following the car of a friend, a meager Honda that the Porsche strutted behind like a buff older brother, on their way back to Matsuyama, but drove me to a rest stop on the northern coast, where the highway veered towards the bridges back to the mainland. There his friend helped me make a better hitchhiking sign for Kyoto, marking out the kanji characters as we huddled around the trunk of his Honda, and Mr. CEO came up with a business card and a small envelope and said, “Thank you card.” I thanked them without thinking much of it and went towards the exit.

Two men at the gas station there shouted, “Where are you going?” and I told them, “Okayama,” the closest city on the mainland. They indicated that this was unfortunate and said they would drive to Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo—“Well if that’s the case . . .”

In the back of their van, wedged under some scaffolding, I opened my thank you note and found inside a folded note for ten thousand yen, worth perhaps a hundred and twenty dollars. My first thought was that it must be a mistake, and I should email the CEO as soon as I could and tell him that he gave me the wrong envelope. Then I realized slowly that it must have been intentional. I would have refused this gift, if he had given it openly.

The bridges between Shikoku and Kobe first cross to a rocky island, then cross the whirlpools of the Naruto Strait, with the longest central span of any bridge in the world. We unloaded some things at a bar in the port, then drove on, and the drivers left me at a rest stop between Osaka and Kyoto. I escaped over a fence into the suburbs and found a train station to take me into Osaka.

I met Jean in the street in Taisho, both of us early to the rendezvous. The lukewarm day had turned cold and dark, much colder than a week before, and we were anxious to get somewhere. Jean told me about a party to which he had been invited, at the office of a school that might be looking to hire, and though it would be free for him I would have to pitch in two thousand yen, which he might split with me if I wanted to go. I told him not to worry and that it was on me.

“Well come on man, it’s a lot of money.” I told him how profitable my hitchhiking had been, and he could not believe it—“I worked today, and I only made seven thousand. What the fuck.”

But I felt gregarious with my unexpected gains, and repaid Jean for the help he had given me, as only seemed right: pitching in extra for beers on the way to a party of French ex-pats, which was a hilarious time. We bought more beer and packaged food from convenience stores on the return journey, and the next morning felt suitably awful as we crept out into the ealry afternoon light, with furious heads and sour frowns, and looked around for that curry restaurant where worked a girl we had met at yesterday’s party. Failing that, we had takomiyaki covered in mayonnaise and kimchi and were satisfied. We retreated inside and later made a last sortie to the lit-up supermarket for tomorrow’s breakfast.

Japan is hard on the French, who appreciate more than others and almost as much as is often stereotyped the value of good produce, bread, butter, cheese, and wine: simple things done with care. By comparison with the good wine, grains, fruits and vegetables of France, Japan’s raw material is less than unsatisfactory.

Along with fish and soybean, Japan’s staple crop, and the thing that grows best in most of the rainy and mountainous country, is rice, though the farmers force other things on the wild soil. These farms are family-owned and inherited affairs with an average size of less than five acres, compared with about five hundred acres in the United States. The government protects them from competition with foreign imports from more productive countries by wielding prohibitive tariffs. For rice the tax is a symbolic 777.7 per cent, and less than this on other foodstuffs, though enough to dissuade China, Russia, and America from making any inroads on that front (though with the potential expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, these are under review). Such measures ensure that the only produce in stores come from small Japanese farms, and that they are of poor quality and exceptional price. Jean said that this was why so many French people bought farms in the Japanese countryside, to ensure personally a supply of good, fresh produce.

“In Paris there is cheese at the store,” Jean went on, nostalgic and jealous and contemptuous all at once,—“but if you want real cheese you go to the fromagerie. It is a store just for cheese. They also have butter—real butter. The best, most expensive butter here in Japan, the kind they make in Hokkaido, would be on the bottom shelf in France. Maybe that’s why the Japanese love France so much.”

“The butter?”

“That, and all the food. Fresh tomatoes, apples. Sometimes you just want an apple, something simple, but the apples here, we would feed them to our pigs. I’m serious! They eat healthy food here, rice and fish and a little vegetable, and I like Japanese food. But sometimes I just want something greasy.”


  1. I was having trouble walking so I made my way into the foyer, just outside of the ceremony room, and lay down with my thoughts.

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