Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson

3.5 out of 5 stars

Spring in Japan is all about the cherry blossom. It is a national obsession and like with their thing about wacky games shows, they take it very seriously indeed. The season sweeps from Okinawa in the most southerly island up across the two main islands of Shikokuan and Honshu and onto the most northerly island of Hokkaido. It is called the Sakura Zensen and its progress is tracked daily on the news with elaborate maps and statistics on the amount of blossom available in any particular area on a given day.

Ferguson had been teaching in Japan for two years. He liked the job and the substantial salary that came with it and got along really well with the other teachers. One of the highlights of their year was the cherry blossom viewing that they did. They would admire the blossom and drink fairly large quantities of beer. The hangover and realising just how much he had spent the following day were less welcome though.

One year after possibly one too many sake’s he announced that he would like to follow the Cherry Blossom Front from Cape Sata rich up to the northern island. The following morning he couldn’t remember it at all, it was only when people, reminded him of what he has said that it dawned on him that they expected him to actually do it. His supervisor thought it was a good idea and suggested a rail pass. Ferguson thought about it and decided that he would hitchhike there. It would be another three years before he would start his journey.

He did feel slightly daft sticking his thumb out to grab a lift and did wonder if he would have anyone stop to pick him up. He had shaved off his beard and even had gone as far as putting on a tie to try and make himself look a presentable westerner. It is not long before a car pulls over. As he was expecting, it was a white Honda Civic. The passenger door swings open and a young Japanese woman looks out smiling. American she says. He knows it is not a question…

She cannot take him all the way to Cape Sata but drops him in the middle of a town before carrying on. After his first journey, he is already lost. He wandered around hopelessly before managing to grab a second lift. It is a big black saloon car and full of children, one who cannot hide her astonishment about the new passenger in their car. The driver advises him that he was going in the wrong direction and said he would drop him on the coast highway. He pulls over makes a call from a payphone (remember them?). He has told his wife he is going to be late and is going to take him all the way to Cape Sata.

This is just the start of his journey heading northwest across Japan. All the way along the roads he is hitchhiking from he finds drivers who are prepared to go that little bit further for him. Turns out the Japanese people are as warm as they are strange. He is the recipient of countless generous moments from buying drinks to one guy paying for a meal and then the hotel room. He has lots of conversations with the people in what they normally consider part of their private space, their cars.

Each of these transitory meetings with the people of each island of Japan are full of warmth. He has a slightly embarrassing visit to a sex museum and winces at the main object of the Taga shrine. Not all of his travelling in cars, he sometimes has to take a streetcar and mises the odd ferry occasionally, gets spectacularly wet even whilst wearing a plastic poncho and squeezes into a capsule hotel.

I quite liked this book. Ferguson is not a bad writer overall. He doesn’t spend much time in the cities that he passes through so you get more of a flavour about the Japan that most people never see, the rural and coastal places that still support a way of life that has changed very little in some ways. There are some funny parts with some genuine laugh out loud moments, but I felt that the humour felt a bit forced at times. It might not be for everyone, but I have found that reading four books on one country from very different perspectives has given me a range of insights and perspectives on the place and I would love to visit it one day.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    At last! I read this pre-blog, it seems, as I can’t find a review (I did review his book on Canada in 2007). I remember it with fondness and still have it (and Mr Liz read it too, I recall) so I will go back to it at some stage for sure. A good time of the year to read it, too!

    • Paul

      I do get to them eventually… I just wish I could read much quicker. I have requested Alan Booth’s book from the library and it has just arrived according to an email that I have had.

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