Irishman Walking is about my walking the coastal roads of Japan through a series of summer, winter, spring, and autumn stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. Last summer (2012), Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks later. Stage 9 started at Fukuoka and ended in Hiroshima City on the island of Honshu. The stage lasted for three weeks. Stage 10 is planned to start from Hiroshima this coming spring and will end in the city of Okayama in late-March 2013. The stage is planned to last for two weeks.

18 March, 2010: Most people paid little attention to background music, whilst some hated it. Whenever I sat down to study I liked to have some kind of background noise about me, like soft music from the radio, or even at a Starbucks coffee shop and the sound of customers conversing with one another. It was the same when I went to sleep in the evenings. How well I remembered my father who liked to bed down for the night with the radio next to the bed always turned on. The BBC Five Live station on the Internet was still blearing away when I awoke around eight o’clock in the morning. There was something on about universities getting less money from the government, and hundreds of job losses expected. Nissan Motors was to open up a new car plant in Sunderland, England to produce its new electrical powered car, 'Leaf', with thousands of jobs secured, and which of course must have suited everyone concerned, including the British government.

For me it was never easy to think positively when I thought about any government. And whenever a government targeted education, then all must surely be lost. Since the end of the Bubble Economy in Japan government cuts on education and on teachers wages had been a constant thorn in the side of even foreign teachers, or ALTs, as they had degradingly become known. More than the Japanese teachers who had wage cuts too, the foreign English teachers were even allocated fewer working hours. All of these changes were done at the stroke of a pen at the Ministry of Education, or those on the various prefectural and municipal boards where government appointed, not elected. All of these changes were implemented as if the foreigner teachers did not have families to look after. In fact, the foreign teachers never really had a leg to stand on in the form of a strong union to turn to. Most of the Japanese regular teachers at elementary, junior and secondary schools belonged the Japan Teachers Union or Nikkyoso, for whatever it was worth. Not that it proved to be any great help either, since the war the body those who made up the union leant somewhat to the left. "Mmm!" This was strange to me as I felt that most of the Japanese lent to the right.

The news had just finished when the phone rang. It was from my ex-wife. We were divorced for many years, but still remained friends, which allowed me to keep in touch with our daughter, Anna, a medical student at the Nichidai University of Medicine in Tokyo. "You really must stop by and visit the Jion-ji and Risshaku-ji Temples, and don’t forget to walk through Yamagata City”, she told me. “Write the names down so you won’t forget." “Mmm! What the hell was she talking about, and at this time in the morning when my mind was still not a wake?” Actually, the winter stage of my tramp down along the coastal roads took me to Nezugaseki in the very south of Yamagata, so I felt that the places she was talking about were anywhere near my route. “Well!” I said, “If the temples were in my path, then I was sure to stop and visit them.” In reality, I often passed by temples without even noticing them. The only thing I loved about them was the quality tree that adorned their grounds, and which were great places to stop under for a while on those hot summer days.

My ex-wife told me on the phone that she and our daughter Anna visited the Risshaku-ji Temple on a trip to Yamagata a while back and that it was quite breathe taking. My brain was too tired to ask her to be more specific about anything. All that I was certain of was that Anna would soon begin her fourth year of studying medicine at her university, and that that cost of the privilege was far from cheap. I still felt sleepy and could not bother to pull myself from my warm futon to find a pencil and paper to write the names down like Kikuyo told me to do. When I did eventually pull myself away from the comforts of sleep it was around nine o’clock. Then, for some reason I wracked my brain trying to recall the names of the temples. I had never been a temple or shrine sort of person, like many foreigners, who just loved visiting places like Kyoto for that very purpose.

The Risshaku-ji Temple in particular was one of the prominent temples in the Tohoku region, and boasted a history of more than a thousand years founded around the year 860. A study of my maps told me that it was not near as the temple was located in the northeastern mountainous part of Yamagata City. Likewise, the city of Yamagata was located away in the center of Yamagata Prefecture. A castle town in its distant past, the name had been around since the middle of the 15th century. Therefore, because of the city’s location I had no plans whatsoever to go there this time around. The Ka-jo Castle Park in Yamagata, frequented by tourists for its breathtaking cherry blossoms, would have been nice to look at. There were a number of Meiji and Taisho period buildings that I would have loved to visit had the chance presented itself. For example, the British Renaissance-style Bunsho Kan Hall, and other early western-style brick buildings. Of course, not to forget the Yamagata Kyoiku Shiryo Kan or Yamagata Educational Museum, which in recent times had been designated an important cultural property.

Yamagata City was host to many seasonal events. In the summer there was the Hanagasa Matsuri Festival. The Flower-Adorned Hat Festival, as it was called in English was said to be one of the four greatest festivals in the Tohoku region. Another worthy festivals to go to were the Nihon Ichino Imoni Kai Festival or Japan's No.1 Taro and Beef Stew Party Festival, which was held in the autumn. Tendo City, adjacent to Yamagata City, produced 95 percent of the total production Japanese chess pieces, called ‘shogi’ in Japan. Interested tourists could be shown how the shogi pieces were made, and even try their hand at making their own as souvenirs. One interesting event held during a cherry blossom festival included shogi chess matches, where people played the roles of the chess pieces. This was called, "Ningen Shogi" (human chess) in Japanese. The playing of chess or shogi games in this manner was said to have added a rather poetic charm to the spring season.

Last winter Stage 2 of my mission, which was mainly along the coastal roads, ended in the town of Nezugaseki in southern Yamagata Prefecture. Therefore, it was there that Stage 3 was set to begin in not so many hours time. The bus was scheduled to stop at rest stops along the highway every three hours or so. The passengers would be happy to get off to stretch their legs, have a smoke, get a quick bite to eat, or run to the toilet, which I was sure would be the main thing on my agenda. It would be during these stops that I should be able to get an idea of the kind of weather I might face when I did get on the road. “Mmm! How colder would it become each time we stopped?” I wondered.

Around seven in the morning when the bus at last pulled up outside of Tsuruoka JR Station in weather that could not have been better for me, a low bright sun in a pale blue sky. The station was not overly busy with commuters where I made my way over towards the ticket window. There I bought a ticket for the southbound local train for Nezugaseki, which cost ¥650 yen. The notice board on a wall told me that two trains were leaving for Nezugaseki, the first at seven forty-five and the other at eight thirty-one. While stepping down from the bus I noticed a Mister Donuts just across the way from the station. What better way to begin a fresh sunny morning than with a hot cup of coffee and a donut? Deciding on the later train I made my way over towards the donut place.

Besides, it would give me a chance to make a few little adjustments to my load.
At eight-thirteen sharp the train stopped at Platform 1 and a load of high school students got off. The two-car train was now near empty when I got on and dumped my backpack on one of the long seats and set down next to it. As soon as the train pulled away from the platform at Tsuruoka a guard came along to check my ticket. He was a young fellow supporting a friendly smile. The sun shinning in through the windows of the train made his full set of teeth sparkle all the more. “Mmm!” If only I could get my own teeth to look like that when I brushed them, I thought. A full set of teeth for an adults meant having thirty-two teeth to look after, such as brush and floss to help keep them free of tartar and plaque, and the cavities caused by a lack of care. Each tooth even had its own different job: for grabbing we used our canines, for biting the incisors, and for chewing the molars.

Somehow I just knew that this was going to be a good day. There were a fair number of stops before I got to Nezugaseki: Uzen Oyama, Uzen Mizusawa, Sanzen, Kotato, Iragawa, Atsumi Onsen, and Koiwagawa stations. Broken patches of snow could be seen across the paddy fields as the train made its click-clack sound along the tracks. The slated roofs on many of the houses, old and new, showed a similar absence of snowfall. The television news and weather forecast days earlier spoke of nothing, but heavy snowfall. The snow had not arrived yet, which I was pleased to see and hoped that it would stay that way.

Soon after the train had rolled out from Uzen Misuzawa station the snow had almost disappeared, and then everything was out of sight when we entered into a long tunnel. When the train emerged from the tunnel the snowfall on the ground had greatly lessened even more, which made me feel even better. Soon after Kobato station a second long tunnel came into view, which was entered and exited in no time at all. At Iragawa station the snow was almost non-existent, which I scribbled down in my notebook, with the added words, “Success assured!” As usual before I was about to embark on a trip of any length, I tended to be filled with anxiousness and apprehension. Soon the train would arrive at the starting point!

Then there was the view of the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) again, which looked just as lovely as ever. It was my first sighting of sea since back in early January where I wrapped up Stage 2 of my mission. Long since then, when the strong wind and rain had plagued me no ends, now it was not to be seen or felt at all. Good! Back then the wind blew had been responsible for stopping most of the trains, and kept me stuck at Nezugaseki JR Station for hours, with not even a bus in sight. Now the train I was on sped along the tracks as of it could not get me to my starting point fast enough. And so, I was rearing to get started!

Soon after leaving Koiwagawa station the train entered into yet another tunnel of a considerable length, eventually pulling into Nezugaseki station where I got off. The first thing on my mind then, besides getting my butt out of Nezugaseki altogether and never to return, was to pay a visit to the outhouse (toilet). Being held up in Nezugaseki last January was still very fresh on my unforgiving mind. A middle-aged cleaning woman directed me to the toilet. The toilet was clean, as most local train station toilets were, I supposed. Once there I was dismayed to see that there was nothing in the form of a toilet roll. Fortunately for me, my Boy Scout intuition had taught me to be prepared. Just as well I had got into the habit of keeping a supply of pocket tissues handy. The tissues were often handed to pedestrians on the streets of Tokyo. Of course, nothing was for nothing in Japan as they always came with one advertisement or another on the wrappers. Each time on the eve of the different stages of my mission, I would raid the drawer I kept them in at my apartment. Then I would stuff a load of the tissues into a side pocket on my backpack.

As I finally made my way from the station along Route 7, which followed the sea, the outskirts of the town took on another appearance. It was like a magic wand had just transformed it into a beautiful town. A well-kept park appeared as I turned on to the main drag and left the station road behind me. A little ways along a number of yachts set moored side by side in a tiny harbor, kind of like something out of a storybook. The homes looked neat and tidy, and I surmised they where homes to the more prosperous inhabitants unaffected by the recession.

19 March, 2010: By morning the weather had turned favorable, at least there was no rain or signs of snow in the sky. It would have been nice to sit in a hot bath for a while, which was just the sort of thing the Japanese people loved to do. Not far from a chicken coup, or within hearing distance to the cluck, cluck, cluck sound that came from the coup, I stopped to take a leak (urinate). In Japan people noticed everything, even if they usually pretended not to. Even in a secluded environment they also had a great ability of showing up when they were least expected. A car passed my by slowly and then stopped. A fat man got out and waited beside the car. I zipped up my fly and started along my way as if nothing had happened. The man called over to me as I got near. The road was busy with the morning’s rush hour traffic, and difficult to crossover to where the man waited. "Good morning", he said in Japanese with a broad smile. Likewise, I greeted the man with a smile.

My first impression was that he did not look very healthy for his age, which I took to be close to my own age. A fat reddish face, a blotted body, a smile of yellowy teeth, and the sweat oozed through his white shirt before my very eyes. As with other people I had stopped to chat with, I felt sure that a host of questions were about to follow, or he was going to be offered a lift, or both. However, I was wrong on all accounts. Instead I was given a small packet that contained tofu. "Japanese tofu!" The man said with a smile. “It will give you energy.” "Oh!” I said! “Thank you so much."

It was a rather strange gift as gifts that I had received on the road thus far went. Sometimes it was onigiri (rice balls) that someone had made especially for me, then there had been a few people who even drove up and stopped and handed me a bottle or two of sports, or some other soft drink. Or even plain bottled water, which on a hot day were the most welcomed of all gifts regardless of what they were. Personally, I would never have walked into a shop and buy a rice ball, but when you were hungry those little gifts did well to quell the hunger pings. Similarly, I did my best to stay away from the vending machines the best I could, since discovering the high sugar content that was in the soft drinks.

Being on the roads usually lacked the luxury of choice, therefore, those little gifts of food, no matter what, were most welcomed indeed. The hungry pings had already begun to needle me, and the tofu was better than nothing. Even though our little meeting happened so out of the blue, I still had the feeling that the man wanted to know the what, when, where, and whys of my trip. Therefore, I quickly produced a copy of the newspaper article and handed it to him to read. I had taken the article with me from my place in Tokyo as I felt it would be a useful tool to have at the ready. There was the usual surprised look on the man’s face as his eyes looked over the article. It was a look that I had seen so many times on countless faces before. Like the others I had stopped to chat with, the man wished me wall on my long journey and soon he was gone.

On the roads I had also come to expect and experience all sorts of things, like bridges and tunnels. There were a good few times, too, when I stood on a high bridge that passed over a set of railway tracks. The many times when I paused at the mouth of a train tunnel and watched the trains as they carried the voiceless passengers into a tunnel. Of course, none of the tunnels that I faced could be compared with the long monsters that I experienced on the Hokkaido stage of my mission. How could I forget them, when on one day I had to tramp through four 3,000-meter long tunnels almost one after another? Some of the tunnels that I passed through this time ran for more than 600-meters. Which I guess constituted a realistic size for a big tunnel, perhaps I should be grateful that none of them were like those forsaken monsters.

It was just as I emerged from one such tunnel that the little town of Sanpoku appeared. Located right on the outskirts of the town set a restaurant called 'Seiryu'. It was around lunchtime, which was perhaps not the best of times to enter an eating-place in Japan. The smoking ban under discussion for public and private areas has not yet been heard in this part of the country. The best I could do, beyond hitting the road again, was to place my tired butt on a stool at the counter, and hope that no one else would sit there next to me and light up a fag. With close to thirty years of social observation under my belt, sitting close to the average Joe Public at a restaurant in Tokyo went something like this: they dropped a box of fags on the table, picked up the menu, ordered something to eat, lit up a fag, which they smoked until their order arrived, and when the food was finished they usually lit up again.

That filthy habit, smoking, was once a rage back in England around the late-1600s, not to mention in the Americans where the tobacco came from. Then again, I was much too poke a finger at anyone, especially as I was not exactly a puritan in a host of other things, namely beer. Lager had been a gift to America, and according to my research, the mass production of it had irrevocably changed the drinking habits of the population during the nations early years. There was a lot of almost tasteless junk lager about, some of it rather famous, too. Just about all of the famous and not so famous brewers boasted of having a secret recipe for their flagship beer. The taste and piss-like color of lager told me that they must have stumbled on the same secret recipe. Even Adolphus Bush who commented on the most famous of his beers, ‘Budweiser’, said that he chose its name as it was simply pronounced that way be English-speaking people. It also became the brand by which his company became known.

During my aborted college days in America, a can of ‘Bud’ as many Americans affectionately called it, was the cheapest beer that the students could spend their money on at the bars in those days. For me, a Bud was a tasteless drink that kept me running to the toilet big time. “The beer was sold across nearly the entire United States, and its high quality made it a popular choices at many of the country’s finer restaurants” (Gregg Smith).

Even though I did not know any Tom, Dick, or Harry in the murky world of business, or how the industry worked, I did not think that the ‘popularity’ of Budweiser beer was the result of some technological or pasteurizing genius. Why the stuff had gained such an enormous share in the world market today was beyond me. You could buy a can of Bud just about anywhere in the world these days. For me, however, it was way down my list of choices, unless it was a gift, and in the right kind of season, like, summer. In a fight to secure a proper trademark for the famous brand (which included buying off a brewer in German who used the same name), Anhenser Busch were restricted from using the Budweiser name in Europe, which did not help any under the social pressures of Prohibition in America.

“Whoever called in near beer was a poor judge of distance” (Anonymous). One lager-like drink that I absolutely avoided at all costs in Japan was called ‘happoshu’. This “near-beer”, whereby when the spirits was removed during fermentation, was a product that grew out of the religious fervor and Prohibition years in America. It was also a result of the brewer’s aggressive way to survive those dark years, not to mention the looming Great Depression and the fear of war. “We ended up the biggest bootlegging supply house in the United States…”

Most of the brewers in America were of German descent, and when the War to end all was unfolded, Prohibitionists, as well as the temperance and progressive movements all turned nationalistic against all things German. Near beer was universally scorned from the outset. To keep their heads above the water, the big American brewers tried hard to improve the image of these so-called beers through cleaver advertisements, and soon they appeared on the shelves with trendy names, like, Vino, Pablo, and Lux-O, and so on. The beer in Japan, or what I took to be a misconception of beer, was no different to other countries in the world today. "Mmm!" On sad reality, I felt, was the boxes, bottles, and cans of near-beer now took up more floor and shelf space in the shops and stores than the real beers did.

Still, I had to admit that good lager was a deliciously great summertime drink that could be consumed in large quantity. Some Japanese lager was not so bad! And on the road as time went on I some things felt more and more satisfied myself with my efforts on the road, for the lager I stopped to enjoy. On an added note, Shackleton wrote that they had wine with them, which they kept stored on the roof of the darkroom with the photographic gear. However, this was only drawn upon for specially occasions, perhaps Christmas and the New Year, or someone’s birthday. “Mmm!” I wondered if it was red wine?
Even during the winter stages of my mission I was known to stop and flavor a bottle or two of Sapporo, or Kirin, or one of my favorite Japanese lagers, Yebesu. Or whatever I could get my hands on. “What the hell!” I was not the only adventurer to indulge in a swig or two.

To quote from the writings of the great Antarctic explorer and Irishman, Earnest Shackleton, we did “know for certain that our only case of beer lies to this day [1920s] under the ice.” He was referring to the Challenger expedition of 1907-09. The beer had been lost along with a set of Challenger reports. Shackleton wondered which of the two loses was missed the most by the expedition members, the reports or the case of beer? Soon I found myself feeling hungry, as I too wondered which of the two I would have missed the most, for a good book or something to read was as good a friend as something to drink. On the menu yakiniku teshoku caught my eye, which I ordered. The only beer on tap was Asahi 'Dry', and as the saying went, 'beggars could not really be choosers', so I ordered a jug of the stuff before I changed my mind.

As I waited for the food to come, I pulled out my maps to study them. It was soon clear to me that I had taken the wrong turning somewhere back along the way. Instead of getting on to Route 345 at Sanpoku, which would have suited me more, I continued at my usual slow pace straight along Route 7 in the hope a favorable turning would pop up. This did not happen! Even acceptance of the blame for the mistake did not seem to ease my frustration any. Whenever I did stop at some place to eat and rest for a while I usually made the point of spreading out my map on the table, as well as to confirm with someone handy where exactly I was at such and such a time. Clearly my failure to do this when I stopped by the restaurant, Seiryu, had cost me dearly in terms of time and effort. I could still remember the friendly and attractive young waitress at that restaurant. She was very busy with the lunchtime crowd, but would have been more than happy to put me right had I asked her to.

Then I remembered, too, that there had been a slight inkling in my mind that I overshot the appropriate turning, but something stubborn in me refused to believe it. “Mmm! How could such a thing happen to such an experienced adventurer?” I remembered telling myself, as I tramped along the gray asphalt road trying to get my mind to think about something else, like the nice weather that had accompanied for much of the day. There was the warm sun gentle upon my face, bathed in a most beautiful spring day, and as if nothing was amiss. Well, nothing was amiss at that time, for I was hard headed, and my eyes were wide opened for any road sign that would tell me something good. The road signs never came! On and on I went, deeper and deeper along the road that took me around and around the winding paths of one mountainous path after another. And which took me further and further away from my old friend the sea. There was, of course, a hint in my mind that told me certain things were not looking good.

In due course even my hard headedness had to accept the fact that something bad was very wrong. By then I had already given up of finding some telltale signs that might help me correct my blunder, but there was nothing. The road just wound on and on and on. What was there to do but to accept my fate and just see where the road would take me? "Mmm! Mistakes happened to everyone!” I told myself, again trying to put a positive spin on things. But again, I did not feel any better for it. At the same time, there was little point in moaning about it! “Say and do something positive that will help the situation; it doesn’t take any brains to complain” (Robert A. Cook).

Clearly, positive thinking was what I needed to do, still, I did not feel good. Perhaps I was feeling tired! After some hours of hard tramping I at last came to a tiny sign in Japanese, which pointed to the right for Sasagawa-Nagane, and where Route 345 was to be found. Now I turned onto this tiny out of the way road that looked like it might cut deep into the mountains, which had separated me from the sea for too long. My brain was not as tired as my body, and with a quick look over my maps; I was ready for any detour that offered hope. In addition, the little mountain road was free of traffic, therefore less dangerous, so why not take it?

The first two kilometers of so could not have been better with the birds singing, the sound of the river from way below the mountain pass followed me as I went. The going was rather peaceful surrounded on all sides by pine trees. The place was real nature paradises for those die hearted outdoor enthusiasts. The kind of place schools should make mandatory for their student’s school outings. Even the patches of snow that now began to appear in places here and there about the pass enhanced this beautiful experience that I found myself enjoying. “Mmm!” The snow must have fallen a couple of days earlier, I thought. It created little obstacle to a keen outdoor fellow like myself. And certainly what there was of the snow proved nothing to write home about. Still, the adrenaline was bubbling up inside of me, as I felt almost certain that the road would eventually lead me to the sea again. Even though I was tired from my long day under the sun, not to mention from heading in the wrong direction, too, I began to feel on top of the world again.

Then suddenly it happened! As if the side effects of a drug that had worn off, my feelings came crashing down. Not that I was actually speaking from experience since the only drugs I had consumed to date had been caffeine and alcohol, and whatever pollution there was in the air. “Oh no! So much snow!” The sun had beat down for quite a time, but the long shadow cast out by the mountain and the tall pine trees had slowed down the melting process. In no time at all I was tramping up to my knees through snow, which must have fallen on the area a couple of days earlier. The sun had done a good job on much of the mountain pass, but not here.

When there was snow about on the road, it was so loosely packed that even the snowshoes, which I left back at my place in Tokyo as a waste of time, would not have been much use here either. The snow carpeted pass was not, I soon discovered, a continuous mess to slow me down. Rather, the snow covered stretches lasted a couple of hundred meters at various points along the way. Completely dry segments wound appear, which made me feel as if I was walking in and out of two time periods, or seasons. “Mmm!” A mountain pass could be a lonely place at anytime, for hairs on the back of my neck stood up at the thought. As with the snow-covered segments along the pass, the snow-free parts did not last for long. Unfortunately for me, too, there were fewer of them. “Mmm!” The heat from the sun and the way nature at large worked in mysterious ways, I thought.

Then there were a few times when I emerged from the snow-covered segments of the pass and into things completely unexpected. Landslides and fallen trees! Giant pinewood trees that had more than likely been blown down by the strong winds last night now lay across the pass blocking my way. The broken branches scattered all about the place told me that the trees had come down in one hell of a hurry. A tree blocking your way was not something to be simply stepped over. Rather, an element of careful stepping was requited to climb over the trunk and weave through the branches that had not been snapped off by the fall. Then there was the twisting and turning needed so as the straps of my backpack did not get caught up on the confused state of things. Clambering over fallen trees was usually something an adventurer like myself could deal with, without too much of a problem. Certainly it was not as difficult as making my way though the knee-deep snow had been. Most of all, I needed to keep my eyes and ears open for other sounds like falling rocks, since the land about appeared rather unstable.

As to the state of the mountain pass at large, I counted myself lucky that I was not driving a car or riding my motorbike, or even a bicycle. I would never have gotten through if I had. At different points along the way I needed to clamber over, or scurry around no less than four fallen pinewood trees, all within about three kilometers. The knee-deep snow, and fallen trees were not the only hurdles the pass had in surprise for me. Especially when I got over what was to be the last of the fallen trees, fallen rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes could be seen everywhere. In fact, there were so many of them scattered across the pass at various points that I became a little worried. That keeping my ears and eyes open for some unexpected happening was being to make me think that perhaps taking the mountain pass was not such a good idea after all.

It was not much further along that I twice stopped momentarily just to look at some landslides. At times the rubble was scattered across the pass by a good two-thirds of its width. I would not have cared to be part of the public workers sent out to clear the rubble. Certainly it was not a job for the faint hearted. There was once a time when all of the able bodied men in the area would have participated in such undertakings. Now the appropriate engineers and laborers would be assigned to do the work. When the workmen would arrive they had their work cut out for them, rumble to bulldoze out of the way, and fallen trees to chop up into manageable stumps.

Then there were the boulders that poked out high over the pass I tramped along. And not far away from the landslides, too! “Mmm!” How firm the soil was, or what remained of it, that held those massive rocks in place? I wondered, as I made my way along, each step as careful as the last. Surely clambering over fallen trees, some that had been completely uprooted, was nothing compared to tramping through the snow? The difficulty of keeping your balance while carting about a heavy backpack in knee-deep snow was challenge enough. And with the fear of further landslides that remained with me until I reached the sea. Was it any wonder that a level of grouchiness burned inside me? Having to navigate my steps carefully past whatever obstacles about the pass added to my woes. It had been said that near where the water levels were low, there were few landslides. The frightful reality in this narrow valley I now made my way though kind of told a different story. Along the mountain pass, I came to a good number of landslides, which told me that they had occurred repeatedly. The stream far below the pass I stood on was rapid; it by no means overflowed or burst its banks.

The rain for its part remained unstable, from a heavy downpour to a mere drizzle, or like now nothing at all. In all, I must have made my way around, or climbed over, no less than eight landslides that had spilled down across this asphalt covered pass. Even astride a mountain bike ones balancing skills would surely have been tested to the limits. Much of the pass, which wound through the valley, and which I still hoped would lead to the sea, was by now in one hell of a bad state. I could not wait for it to end! Then again, I relished the thought of having to retrace my steps should the pass come to an abrupt and impassible end.

Away below the mountain pass the sound of the stream could be heard more clearly now. “Mmm! Hopefully we were both at the tail end of our course, the sea.” I mumbled under my breath. There was a pause for a moment to look down upon the fast flowing stream. How I marveled at its power! It appeared so far away from where I stood on the pass, and yet a great whooshing noise came rushing up from it. Gradually, the distance between the stream and the path had begun to widen even more, which caused me to think that it could not have contributed to some landslides that I passed a little ways back. I had read in a book somewhere about the bursting of newly formed ponds higher up the mountain as being likely contributing factors to landslides. The land was already unstable in its natural state that I wondered what effect an earth tremor might have on the surroundings.

Perhaps the people living in the area were no longer apprehensive like their ancestors were in the past. Such natural calamities, such as the collapsing of ponds and lakes that caused landslides and floods, where often brought about by heavy downpours. This led to cultivated farmland being destroyed, or even simply disappearing altogether. There were instances in recent Japanese history whereby entire villages located in the valleys, the birthplace of most of the inhabitants, had to be completely uprooted. For many of the people in those days it meant emigration to Hokkaido. The whole emigration thing meant transforming their lives completely, in a different environment, different jobs, and different livelihood, etc.

About four kilometers from the end of the tiny mountain pass I came across two workmen analyzing the surrounding damage, and the work to be undertaken to clear away a fallen trees and landslide rubble. Some large diggers could be seen parked further down the pass. The two workmen turned their heads in my direction. Their faces looked surprised when they saw me emerge from around a bend in the pass. "Did you come all the way from Route 7?" One of the men asked me in a strange sounding Japanese accent that I could just about make out. “Yes and no!” I answered, smiling from ear to ear like a Cheshire cat. It was good to see someone at last, and who might be able to give me some information on directions. "Where you fishing in the stream?"

The same man asked, whilst the other had turned to analyzing the damage on the mountain pass. It was a strange question, I felt since I was clearly not in a position fish, nor dressed for the occasion. “How did the pass look as you came along it?” He asked. "There were a good few landslides here and there and fallen trees, too.” I replied. “I could pass along alright, but the snow made it pretty hard going at times." Soaked and splattered with mud, the saturated state of my boots and trousers from the knee downwards, needed no explanation. Our short and unexpected encounter was performed almost without stopping in one place, as I made my way past the two men. And as the man told me, soon I would be at the sea once again, and that was all that really mattered to me.

As I had said earlier, I wanted to get to the end of the pass as soon as my legs would carry me, so I was in no mood for stopping to chat or going over the usual gauntlet of questions. Besides, what cold I told the men about my mission without feeling embarrassed? In short, I was supposed to be tramping around the costal roads of their country, but had got my sad butt lost. And now I was kind of sidetracking my weary butt way back through the mountain pass in the hope that it would get me back on course again. Of course, there was a polite bow from all sides as I passed the two men, which was a cultural thing I liked about the Japanese, even in a chance meeting in way out of the way places.

It was a polite form of greeting and parting, which was certainly all the more deeply, felt when they truly meant it. A little ways further on I came upon a couple of middle-aged women busy at work cutting away the branches from a fallen trees that lay across the road. Both of the ladies seemed happy at their work, as I greeted them on my way past. The snapshots were taken without stopping. When the mountain pass did finally join onto Route 345, I was physically and mentally exhausted. A glance at my maps told me that the coastal road ran beside the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea) all the way to Nakajyo. However, the only thing I was fit enough to do now was to erect my tent not far short of a place called Sasagawa-Nagare.

20 March, 2010: At a convenience store I bought a 500-milliliter can of Sapporo beer and set outside in the cold air drinking it. An elderly fellow who had just driven into the parking lot on his way to buy something got out and sauntered over to where I was sitting. "Hichi-haiku?" he asked, a friendly smile on his face. "Hitch-hiking?" No! Not at all! I am walking." I answered him in Japanese, also with a smile. I just knew that he was going to ask me a hold host of questions that I had avoided yesterday on the mountain pass. Anticipating that possibility, as quick as a gunslinger I reached for my side pouch and pulled out a copy of the newspaper article and gave it to him. "Here! Read this." And like other Japanese people had done before, he stood in front of me reading it. "No, not now! You can keep it. Read it later when you had the time." I said again in Japanese. "Oh, thank you!" he answered. "Where do you sleep?" he wanted to know. To me it seemed a rather silly question considering some rather expensive camping gear hung from my old battered backpack for the whole world to see. Then again, perhaps in my younger days such a question would not have been so out of place at all.

There was once a time when I used to appear rather lost, than a traveler of some means. During those early years I would have taken such a question as an indirect invitation to stop at his or her place. Back then I used to answer such questions with phrases as: 'Oh! Please don't remind me,' or ‘I as just thinking about that’, and so forth. At the same time I would always be praying that they would offer me a place to stop the night at. More often than not I would end up with a warm place to lay my head down for the night. This of course always included a nice hot bath, and a hot dinner with the host family. Not to mention a couple of glasses of beer, or sake. In the morning there would be a nice hot Japanese breakfast to prepare me for hitting the road once more.

But all of that was a very different time and when I was a lot more daring than I considered myself now. I looked a lot younger than my age then, too, and as such, the Japanese tended to feel responsible for evoking the conversation in the first place. Perhaps it had something to do with that cultural thing called, ‘giri’ in Japanese. In English the word roughly corresponded to a sense of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’. That said there appeared to be a diminishing influence on the value of this word, especially among younger folk in recent years. Now, I was no longer as daring as I used to be during my early travels in my 20s. All these years later I felt that I had even slipped back into my childish shy ways. On visits to my own part of the world, for example, I no longer felt comfortable about stopping at a friend’s home, or even at a close relative’s for that matter, let alone at a complete strangers place.

Even the beer seemed a waste of money. This was not because of some interruption in my drinking it by the unexpected encounter with the inquisitive elderly fellow. No not at all! He was rather kind and polite, not arrogant like some middle-aged men I ran into back in Tokyo from time to time. In fact, I rather enjoyed our short chat. The fellow even offered me a lift to the other side of the large bridge that spanned the great river on the edge of town. Though I was certainly not in the market of accepting a lift of any kind or distance from anyone, in a strange sort of way it did cross my mind that it was such a short life, from one end of the bridge to the other. As to the beer, the wind was just too damn strong and cold to relax for very long in one spot for any purpose, let alone to sip a beer while I pondered my future. Then again, was it because of the strong wind that the fellow felt it safer to drive me across the bridge?

It was not long after the man was gone that I left the parking lot and continued my tramp south along Route 113. The wind was picking up with every passing minute, and which I could now feel the full force of. Not until I reached the long bridge did I realize the elderly fellow's concern for my safety. The traffic that sped across the bridge at that time was literally nonstop. To make matters worse, there were no pavements on either side of the bridge to walk on. "What on earth were the designers of this bridge thinking of when they submitted their plans for construction?" I thought to myself, as I made my way onto the bridge whilst sticking as close as possible to the rails. If it was not for holding on to the side rails for all I was worth I honestly believe the wind wound have blow me out in front of an oncoming vehicle. Just as I was crossing over to the other side, one hell of a crosswind picked up again and continued to do its best to do me harm. For the motorists, I just had to take my hat of to them in an act of gratitude, for the decrease in speed as they drove near. They clearly must have felt the difficulty that I had staying on my feet as I made my away across the bridge.

In such windy conditions my old army cape flapped madly about my boney body, like a flag on a flagpole. To make progress I had to lean my body a good forty-five degrees into the force of the wind to keep to my feet as I went along slowly. The wind hammered into me like there was no tomorrow. For if it was not for their careful driving skills and awareness of me on the bridge, there might well been no tomorrow. For the pinewood trees, at times it was not easy to get a clear view of the sea when I tramped along this segment of Route 113. Then again, it was just as well that I had some shelter since the wind was still out for blood. The pinewood forests that ran along much of the coastline had a long history with the winds, and which the angle at which they came out of the ground was testament to. Similarly, the power of the winds could even be seen on the tiny posts that marked out the perimeter of a roadside rest stop that I just passed. Whatever the purpose of the wind was to nature, it certainly had worn my strength down considerably.

A glance at my new pocket watch told me that it was time to start keeping an eye out for a place to rest my head for the night. The road remained frightfully busy with traffic for quite a time. Finding a place to make camp was not as easy as I had hoped. The tight cluster of bushes and brambles that grew along the foot of the pinewood forest that straddled the road continued for quite a distance. Besides, the wind around there would surely be just too much for my poor little tent to stand against. “Mmm!” At times a strong crosswind cut right through the trees, which caused me to wonder just how effective the idea of using them as a buffer was? But such thoughts did not remain long on my tired mind as I had more important things to think about.

At last my tired eyes settled on an old wooden structure some ways into a nature reserve that I came to. As to be expected, it had no windowpanes, though the roof and walls appeared sturdy, which would do just dandy to block out the force of the wind that had remained with me for much of the day. A glance up at the darkening sky told me that rain looked like it to was about to make an appearance. On entering the structure, I could see it was clearly designed for nature lovers from which to observe the surrounding wildlife, the rich sound of which came from all directions.

There were no less that five national parks: Bandai-Asahi National Park, Chubu-Sangaku National Park, Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Nikko National Park, and Oze National Park. The parks bordered Niigata and the surrounding prefectures and regions of Yamagata, Fukushima, Toyama, Nagano, Gunma, Gifu, Kanto and Chubu Regions. They were great places for just about any outdoor activity you could think of: camping, rock climbing, skiing and boating, or hiking along a nature or mountain trail, and more. They were also homes to an abundance of plants and wildlife: Black Bear, Snow Monkey, Macaque, Japanese Dormouse, Japanese Serow, Golden Eagle, Mountain Hawk-eagle, Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Green Pheasant, Honshu Copper Pheasant, Finch, Blue Flycatcher, Japanese Robin, Grey Bunting, Ruddy Kingfisher, White Throated Needle-tailed Swift, Weasel, Squirrel, Deer, Red Fox, and Flying Squirrel, among others.

I could also see, with some sadness, that vandals had recently visited the wooden structure. A campfire of sorts had clearly been lit near the center or the wooden planked floor. Some missing planks from the porch that surrounded the building may well have gone to fuel the fire. Somehow I doubted that the planks were sympathetically removed because they obstructed some young bamboo shoots that now grew there. Also, wood from two of the interior walls might well have been torn down and used for the same purpose. Either way, the missing planks and interior wall coverings were nowhere to be seen, not even the burnt remains. A number of unsightly stains told me that the interior had been used for other personal purposes beyond viewing the birds outside, and which needed little further explanation.

The footpath that led to the wooden structure had become overgrown with bushes, brambles. A number of the picture-signs explaining about the kind of wildlife that were found at the nature park had an unkempt look about them. In fact, the place appeared forgotten, or no longer served its purpose. Even the water tap outside by the main steps of the wooden structure did not work. Of course, none of this concerned me much at the time, with the night fast falling, as I readied a place to sleep.

21 March, 2010: A phone call from a friend in Tokyo told me that it most likely would rain and snow in the Niigata area. However, I was not overly concerned since previous reports of rain or snow quite often did not materialize. And if it did, nothing surprised me much anymore. Good as the weather could get in Niigata, its humid subtropical climate, there was often no escape from the strong winds that blew in from the Japan Sea. In the summertime, the southerly winds as well as typhoons often made the temperatures hotter than in other parts of the country. Like my own country, Ireland, Niigata had its fair share of rainfall with around 269 days of precipitation in a year. Most of the rain fell in July during the rainy season, and then again during the winter months of November and December. Unlike Ireland, much of Niigata Prefecture could be blanketed by heavy snow in winter. Although the city itself was usually spared such conditions due to its low-lying elevation and thanks of the location of Sado Island, which acted as a buffer.

Originally, I had planned to reach Niigata City proper by the twenty-third of March. I had also planned to head straight over to Sato Island as soon as I reached the city, but I also thought that perhaps it was a good idea to check into a hotel to have a good scrubbing down and a proper rest to help recharge my internal batteries before starting my big tramp around that beautiful little island. Besides, I also needed to recharge the batteries in the new digital camera, not to forget the pocket phone that a friend had kindly lent to me, more for its camera functions than to call anyone. I was also happy to learn from my friend that my favorite team, Liverpool FC, did well to progress to the last eight of the Europa League. It was not so strange how little bits of good news acted positively on the mind. And I somehow felt that my time on the island of Sado was going to be a nice experience, or one that I would not soon forget. Other than the phone call from my friend the day had been quite uneventful.

Niigata was such a large and enlightened prefecture that stretched to around 240 km along my old friend, the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). It was a vast coastal plain that ran between the mountains and the Japan Sea, with Sado Island that poked out on the horizon, and where I was headed. The mouth of the great Shinano River, which was the longest river in Japan, was located in Niigata Prefecture. The Sea of Japan that the Shinano River ran into and the Sado Island poked out from was a marginal sea that lay between the Pacific Ocean to the West, the Asian mainland to the Northwest, and the Japanese archipelago and Sakhalin in the North. For most countries in the world their borders were quite random in that they were not centered on any geographical, linguistic, or scientific theory. Examples of this would be the borders that separated Great Britain, Scotland, Wales, and England.

Then there was the invisible border, which divided both America and Canada, at the 49th parallel, and ran for more that 2,000-kilometers. Many other similar arbitrary examples could be found among the EU, ASEAN, and NAFTA countries, too. Even the different borders that made up the different states in America where very much a part of the American psyche. Personally, I do not thank that there will be a time when borders as we know them would be done away with altogether, since humans needed a sense of law and order in their lives. With Japan, apart from the distinctive or main islands that made up the country, namely, Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu, each could very well become independent countries in their own right. Or one day in the future to fall under the control of any one of her neighbors, and given a new name like, East Korea, or East China, or East Russia, for that matter. Why not? Thanks to immigration the world was fast becoming more heterogeneous than ever. Through immigration the world was shrinking in more ways than one. And, most of the countries today were no longer ethnically or even linguistically homogeneous as they once were.

A number of friendly and not so friendly countries bordered Japan, namely, South Korea, Russia and North Korea. Shipping across the sea was moderate, because of political issues, but continued to increase for the growth of East Asian economies. Fishing remained the dominant economic activity in this region of Japan. Because of its almost complete enclosure from the mighty Pacific, and like the Mediterranean Sea, the Japan Sea had very few tides, and therefore was home to fewer fauna species than could be found in the ocean. Apart from Sado Island, there were no large islands to be visited, or even large bays or capes. Besides the long Shinano River, not many other rivers emptied into the Japan Sea either. One controversy concerned the actual name of the sea. In South Korea, for example, ‘East Sea’ was the preferred name.

In the world of education, there were a good few fine colleges and universities in and around the city and across the prefecture, such as, Niigata University, the International University of Japan, and others that taught various areas of medicine. Niigata prefecture the birthplace of many notable, if not legendary people, from manga artists, authors, writers, actors, singers, musicians, composers, athletes, and architects. The most famous living name on Sato Island was the American Charles Robert Jenkins, the former United States Army soldier who spend many years (1965 to 2004) in North Korea, after he left his unit and crossed over the Korean demilitarized zone at the 38th Parallel. “God Jenkins had balls!” I mumbled under my breath, as I thought about him.

Although Jenkins did not enter Japan by sea, Niigata City was once the terminus of the Mangyongbong-92 ferry, though long since stopped, it was a direct connection between Japan and North Korea. East Japan Railway Company serviced a good number of stations in the Niigata urban area, with Niigata JR Station being the largest, used by close to 40,000 passengers daily. Niigata JR Station was also located in the Bandai area, which was one of the two main shopping districts downtown. Of course, a city would not be much of a city in Japan if the bullet train did not stop there. Niigata was the last stop for the Joetsu Shinkansen, and which ran daily services to Tokyo. The Shinetsu Line, Hakushin Line, Echigo Line, Uetsu Line, and Banetsu West Line are also used Niigata JR Station.

Niigata was also the hub for other lines that served a host of other cities and prefectures, namely, Aomori, Akita, and Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima, Kanazawa, Toyama, and Sakata in Yamagata. Niigata Airport was located just six kilometers to the north of downtown Niigata. There were a few international destinations, such as, daily flights to Seoul, twice a week to Guam, twice a week to Vladivostok, and to Khabarovsk in Russia, three a week to Shanghai, and four a week to Harbin in China. Of course, there were many domestic flights, like, Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka, and Okinawa, Nagoya and to Sado Island. "Mmm!” I wondered. “Didn't that fabulous British singer Sandie Shaw sing something about trains and boats and planes?" As turned and made my way along the road thinking about how best to get over to Sado Island. For me, the plan was to get my weary butt on a ferry across to the island that I had heard so much about in recent months.

In someway there was no hurry either, and it might be a good idea to look about the city if I could do so, now rather than when I returned. Like in most important cities there were a lot of places to see and visit in Niigata. The City History Museum where I could maybe enlighten myself on the history of this port city, which would give me something to add to my road-notes. The port was one of five that open to foreign ships and trade. There was also the former Niigata Customs House that was built in 1898 during the Meiji period, and around when the port opened. Then there was the Shirone Giant Kite History Museum, which had a wide collection of rare kites from all over the world on display.

In the history of lighter than air, aircrafts, the balloon was the first in 1783, and the first successful powered aircraft to take to the air was produced by the Wright brothers in 1903. All of these, however, were really quite recent if compared to the age of kite flying. Although the exact date and origin of the kite was unknown, it was believed to have originated in China. Already China was known for a wide range of inventions, advancements, and trade. It was generally believed that the first kites were developed there about 2,800 years ago. Back then there was an abundance of silk fabric and bamboo for making kite frames, available in China. During a strong wind, as one legend had it, a Chinese farmer tied a string to his hat to keep it from blowing away, thus the first kite was born.

No doubt Japan was rich for its myths and legends too, as was my own country, or any country for that matter. Still, there were a good number of stories passed about during my own childhood days in Belfast. “Mmm!” Yet, when I thought about it, my own childhood had no recollections of ever flying a kite. “Sad!” History has shown that flying kites was not only a thing for children to experience and enjoy. The earliest written account of a kite being flown was around 200 BC during the Han Dynasty. Then the Chinese General Han Hsin used a kite to measure how far a tunnel needed to be dug under a walled city that he was attacking. Needless to say, the idea led to victory. Thanks to trade between China and the rest of Asia, the kite made its appearance. The rest was history! Of course, other similar stories on kite flying could be found in many countries today. It was thought that kites first made an appearance in Japan thanks to Buddhist missionaries who travelled between China during the Nara period (649-794 AD). They were thought to have been used in religious and thanks giving ceremonies.

The first recorded Japanese words used for ‘kite’ was ‘Kami Tobi’, from an early Japanese dictionary dated 981 AD. In English Kami Tobi meant ‘paper hawk’, which suggested the early kites in Japan were bird shaped. Today the popular name used for a Japanese kite was ‘Tako’ The Japanese were masters at improving on other peoples’ ideas and making them their own. Over time, much was absorbed of the Chinese culture, of which the development of kite making was one. Once upon a time a kite was used to carry a thief to help him steal the gold from an ornamental dolphin that adorned the roof of Nagoya Castle. The thief was finally caught and executed. It was not until much later in the Edo period when kite flying became a popular pastime among the different social classes. So popular had kite flying become that the government even took measures to discourage it as it took people’s minds away from their work. Then again, kites were flown during the Harvest Festival and were decorated with stalks of rice to thank the gods for a good crop; other kites were sometimes decorated with demonic faces, a kind of talisman against evil. One of the most famous kite festivals in Japan was held at Hamamatsu, where spectators numbered around two million who came to watch the kite teams battle against each other.

Although kite flying was not only for children, traditionally they were flown on boy's day May 5th, and also at religious festivals, public holidays and at New Years Day. Congratulation kites were also offered to first-born sons. Also specially decorated kites of gods or a mythical hero were believed to protect the newborn into adulthood. The most popular design used on kites in Japan was that of Kinorta, a small boy who had been abandoned in a mountain forest by his parents and left to die. Kinorta did not fall to his fate, but rather was raised by bears. To cut a long story short, the boy grew up to be a wise and very strong man. On many kites, Kinorta was painted next to a carp, which was another symbol of strength and bravery in Japan. Like the Kinorta painted kites, the carp was another symbol used for Boy’s Day, since the Japanese wanted them to grow up strong like the carp, which swam up river to lay their eggs, and often against strong currents.

Besides visiting the Shirone Giant Kite History Museum, there were a host of other places to consider, too. One was the Northern Culture Museum, which was once the home of Ito, a wealthy landowning family who lived there during the Edo period. "Mmm!" Being a lover of modern history, I thought that it might be interesting to take a look at how the Ito family lived during those early days. Another early residence worth considering was the Sasagawa Historical Residence, where the village headman, Sasagawa-sama, in feudal Japan once lived. For the outdoor buff like myself, the Fukushimagata Wetlands, also located in the eastern part of the city, might be interesting to visit. The wetlands were a natural treasure that was home to more than 220 varieties of wild birds and more than 450 varieties of plants. Of course, there were the usual hot springs about the city, including Iwamuro Hot Spring located in Iwamuro, and according to my research, had prospered as an outpost town since the Edo period.

Author's Bio: 

I am a somewhat disorganized yet, coherent, tidy, clean, healthy and happy Irishman with few regrets. I have lived my life somewhat backwards (e.g. travelled, worked, educated, born, and reborn, etc, etc, etc). In general, my views and outlooks on life are quite open minded and liberal. I have a very good sense of humor and love the company of similar minded people. I am also a lover of hiking, long distance cycling, camping and large (American style) motorbikes, to name a few of my interests. These are all the more worthwhile when done with someone you are comfortable with. Right? When I have free time I just love getting away from Tokyo (on my bicycle or on my motorbike) to some relaxing and interesting place.

If that is not possible, then I love to talk to friends. I honestly don't know what friends say about me. I am sure they say so much, or at least they think about me, I hope so as I think about them. Ha! Or like Oscar Wilde once said: "The only thing worse in the world than being talked about is not being talked about". So true! On the whole, I think better of those people who talk directly to my face than behind my back.

What makes me happy is a sense of achievement in all things I set out to accomplish. I wonder if this also includes that thing we call 'love'? What makes me Upset or Frustrated? Stupid people -- racists, bigots, and warmongers, or even the blood and gore in war movies. On the other hand, I have so many favorite movies, or two that come to mind: 'Love is a Many Splendored Thing' (1955), staring Jennifer Jones and William Holden; and 'Roman Holiday' (1953), with the great Audrey Hepburn, not to forget Gregory Peck. Why I like this film so much is that the film is about prejudice and overcoming it regardless of the consequences. Of course, I think, why one likes a film so much is really in the eyes of the beholder.

My favorite music? I like many kinds of music. Perhaps classical is foremost among my favorites as it can be very relaxing and thought provoking. Also, movie theme music really brings memories flowing back to me -- times, people, places, etc. Oh how I long for those yesterdays again! As to my favorite animals, I like all animals, especially dogs. It is said that a man's best friend is his dog, right?