Monday, July 20, 2009

Day 22: Industrial Sludge

Thursday, July 16, 2009
     After a breakfast of grilled salmon, miso soup and rice in Smile Hotel with Sho, we loaded our gear on the bikes and made our way to the ferry pier 5 miles away.  Sho asked to stop at 3 convenience stores along the way, searching in vain for a particular deck of Pokemon cards to replace one that had been ruined on a rainy ride a few days earlier.
     We arrived at the terminal where we had said goodbye to Saito-san the day before, only to learn that our ferry was run by a different company out of another terminal a mile back the way we'd come.
     Our ferry left Hakodate at 11:35am and arrived in Aomori at 3:20pm.  A sturdy, if aging, 1,777 ton craft built in 1995, it's name "Hayabusa" was painted proudly in large blue characters on its weathered stern.  A line of trucks, including one carrying a group of docile cows, waited in front, along with a handful of cars, and I got the impression that this was not going to be a pleasure cruise with a bunch of tourists.  Several fastidious workers led us into the yawning entrance to the ferry's belly ahead of the vehicles, securing our bikes along the wall with old rope and covering them with heavy dirty blankets.
     While rolling the bikes into the ferry, I inadvertently stepped in a mound of green industrial sludge, rolling the bike wheels through it as well.  The fluorescent green sticky stuff looked like quick-dry concrete designed to fill broken speed bumps, and I tried frantically to get it out of my bike shoe cleats before it lodged as a permanent concrete anchor.  The goo was sticky and hard to wash off.  As chunks of the fluorescent green lodged under my finger nails, I imagined the product label declaring, "Do not allow to come in contact with skin.  Not to be used in the vicinity of carbon-based organisms."  For the rest of the trip, the wheels on our bikes and the bottom of one of my shoes would host the glowing, green remains of this industrial sludge.
     The ferry ride offered a dramatic departure for our 3 weeks of riding through Hokkaido, the massive boat spewing white foam as it cut through the ocean waves, a powerful breeze chasing away the boat's exhaust fumes, the bustling city and Mount Hakodate Yama fading away in the mist.  Sho and I took pictures of the dramatic scenery, and he laughed through the wind gusts and salty spray.  Soon, we could see only rolling waves and deep turquoise ocean waters stretching all around us.
     In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote that traveling with kids or a dog was the best way to meet others on your journey.  They were usually the cause for an apology of some sort, which opened up an opportunity for a conversation.  This maxim held true, as Sho and I bumped into Kenji and Naoko Aoyagi while Sho was testing his strength against the wind on the ferry deck.  Kenji is a photographer, and the two were traveling around Japan in a minivan with their dog, Vino.   Starting from their home in Saitama, near  Tokyo, they had covered northern Honshu and all of Hokkaido.  They were driving back home for a brief pause before continuing south.  Kenji commented that most campgrounds in Japan do not allow dogs (presumably because they don't want to deal with the dog poop), so the couple and their dog usually slept in their van.  
     Kenji, who looked to be in his late 40's, spent 9 months in Paris during his last year of college, waiting tables and hanging out in a bookstore.  It was there he came across a book of photography by a Japanese man, published in France, and realized that might be a viable career option.  He commenced traveling the world with his camera, and was in China during the summer of 1989, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre.  His photos were published in a Japanese magazine, and he has been coming up with ideas for photo travelogues ever since. Having been bitten by a dog as a boy, he never liked them, but his wife Naoko convinced him to get Vino, and he said, "well, Vino is one dog I like."  The couple had both read Travels with Charley, and cited it as inspiration for this journey.
     Sho dragged Kenji and Naoko into endless sessions of card games.  I had to stop after 45 minutes, because the rocking motion of the ferry and a group of gritty passengers puffing away on cigarettes were making me seasick.  Sho has always been impervious to motion sickness, and I left the three of them to play, while I got some fresh air on the deck.  The strong, cool wind made me feel better immediately, and I spent the next 1/2 hour watching the Tsugaru Peninsula take shape on the horizon.  Aomori finally came into view, a pleasant town  with distinctive features: a large, modern triangular city center building dominating the downtown waterfront and a double bridge along the ocean that Sho dubbed "super cool."  After waiting for the vehicles to drive off the ferry, we met Naoko, Kenji and Vino in the parking lot, and they helped us remove some of the remaining, now hardened, green sludge from the bike wheels.  I was flustered by the frightening goo and forgot to take Vino's picture, a sweet medium-sized dog sitting patiently in the front seat, observing our clean-up.
     After saying farewell to our friends from the ferry, Sho and I biked 20 minutes into downtown Aomori, where we found a comfortable business hotel with a single room for $50.  Sho, who has developed a sharp nose for game rooms, found one nearby and waited impatiently for me to savor a delicious dinner of hotate don rice bowl with scallops, before we were immersed in the cacophany of 100 yen-sucking machines, featuring battling dinosaurs, taiko drums and frustratingly flimsy claws grabbing for candy.
     We fell asleep at 9pm after looking through old pictures of Eiko and Saya on my camera, feeling the vast distance between us and missing home.  


  1. Sho-kun and Charlie, welcome to the mainland honshu! I really enjoy seeing the pictures. Please post as many as you can! It's amazing how Sho-kun is looking more and more manly compared to the picture of the father and the son on the connected bike at the beginning!
    Keep on going! Gambare!! Saga-chan

  2. Thanks Saga! We're doing great and looking forward to biking with you and Oko from Aug 21 - 23. We'll probably be in Shikoku then. Let's stay in touch and make plans as the dates get closer.
    - Charlie