Review Post 16 – The Road Less Travelled

Tanabata, who hosts the monthly themed posting challenge Hello Japan, decided that this month would see everyone (appropriately) post around the topic of Cherry Blossom, or Sakura. For those of you unaware of its importance in Japanese life, the Cherry Blossoms bloom across Japan every (Northern) spring, travelling from Okinawa in the south right across the country before falling into the sea off the northern expanses of Hokkaido. The beautiful, but temporary, blossoms embody the concept of mono no aware, the fleetingness of things, symbolising the ephemeral nature of existence. A time to stop and reflect on the brevity of life (or sing loudly and drink bucketloads of sake in local parks – your call).

Will Ferguson, a Canadian working in Japan as an English teacher (which does not necessarily mean that he has any qualification – or aptitude – for teaching), got drunk one night and declared that he would follow the Sakura Zensen (Cherry Blossom front) across the country from south to north, adding that he would make it even harder by hitchhiking. Remarkably, he actually did it too. His story is related in Hokkaido Highway Blues (later renamed – shudder – Hitchhiking with Buddha), a wonderful travel book which anyone who has lived in Japan, or just likes sushi, would enjoy.

Like any good travel book, this one has the right mixture of well-constructed humorous tales, a wide cast of supporting characters, some helpful, some not so, and the odd serious and (at times) poignant moment. Ferguson’s reason for hitchhiking the journey was not only to save money (although one suspects that this was more true than he’s prepared to let on), but also to experience the country and the people in a different way. He theorises that cars are part of people’s personal spaces and that by letting him into their car, the people who pick him up are actually accepting him into their lives, if only for a short time.

At the start, Ferguson is full of bravado and good humour, and his quest seems heroic, if somewhat quixotic. However, the further he follows the elusive blossoms up the country, the more he, and the reader, starts to question his motives. Just why is he hell-bent on making it to the northern tip of Hokkaido? What will happen after that? More importantly, is his quest to prolong what is meant to be a brief moment of perfection actually perverse and doomed to failure?

Whether his journey is magnificent or mad, I, like many westerners who have lived in Japan, envy Ferguson a little. Just setting sail and letting the momentum carry you onwards, town by town, car by car – it’s a seductive idea. But what happens when the momentum stops? How do you get yourself started again? Ferguson describes a moment near the end of his journey where he gets stuck, unable to move on: momentum has deserted him. I remember experiencing the same sensation myself when I travelled around Europe during my university days. One day, I got to Rotterdam and walked, as usual, around the town, seeing what there was to see (which, in Rotterdam, was not a lot). All of a sudden, I stopped walking; my legs, literally, decided to give up. A month of constant pounding the streets of European cities had finally caught up with me and the momentum had disappeared. I never really got it back…

The cover of my edition has praise by Bill Bryson (which, in the world of travel writing, is about as good as it gets). Like Bryson, Ferguson manages to present the best and worst of a country, exposing the warts without ruining the overall picture. Like Bryson, Ferguson is actually writing a last love letter to a country which is a part of him but of which he is not a part. The whole journey is a metaphor for his experiences in the far-east, written in the knowledge that the time to go home may be just around the corner. Mono no Aware indeed…

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4 thoughts on “Review Post 16 – The Road Less Travelled

  1. I certainly love the subject matter- traveling across Japan, and sounds like a great travelogue. Thanks for sharing. I don't think I would have picked this up on my own, but your review whetted my appetite.

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  2. Wonderful review, Tony! I completely agree with you on the title. Will supposedly prefers 'Hitching Rides with Buddha' but I much prefer 'Hokkaido Highway Blues'. Ah well. What do we know? 😉

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