Saturday, March 20, 2004

Title: Hokkaido Highway Blues
Author: Will Ferguson

will ferguson is a canadian writer, with a handful of novels and a previous book on hitch hiking across japan. of those i am only aware of one novel and this travel guide having been published in the UK, both by the edinburgh based canongate. happiness tm covers the idea of what might happen if the ultimate self-help book was published, if people actually all started to become happy. having read that novel lead me to this journey across japan.

ferguson was one of many foreigners who take advantage of corporate sponsorships to put english language teachers into japanese schools. there he took part in the annual sakura celebrations, a big event across japan, which celebrates the coming of spring as marked by the arrival of the cherry blossom. at one of these celebrations, ferguson drunkenly proposes that he will travel across japan one year, following the front of the spreading blossoms. in the morning he has no recollection, but everyone else does, and they think its a great idea.

having put it off for so long he comes to the point where he really has to put his money where his mouth is. but rather than do it the easy way ferguson decides that the real way for him to see japan is to hitch hike. while hitch hiking might not be something particularly common/smart in japan, he insists on doing it, feeling that each journey he takes gets himself into the lives of people. with that part of the experience of this book is the ups and downs of hitch hiking, the trials of trudging along endless roads, the difficulties that sometimes come waiting in the rain.

the japan that is presented is a land of contradictions. on one cape pretty much tropical conditions, the area where americans touched ground. on the opposite cape, the winters are long and hard, more siberian, which at times had been held by the russians. as he travels from cape to cape ferguson mixes in many layers of japanese culture, covering the pop culture of sumo wrestling which he has become a great fan of, through to the temples and the buddhist/shinto traditions that have gone with those. the pages are filled with information, anecdotes, history ferguson picks up about each town he stops in. this is contrasted and enhanced by the mundane, the every day details, the people he meets - families, single people, salary men, old folks, young folks - some who go out of their way to help him on his journey, some who kick him out as quick as possible. through the times where ferguson becomes frustrated, petulant, drunk, or filled with despair, there are enough points where he is touched by the kindness of strangers, propelled by the love/hate of japan, and over all a level of humour, which keeps ferguson going, and keeps him readable.

until this point, most of the travel writing i have read has been more on an article by article basis, rather than a full book. hokkaido highway blues was a good place to start, covering a lot of the kind of ground i find interesting with travel reports, as well as being written to be read, unlike some of the dryer material that is out there.

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