Beach to town

Author's note, 07/09/23: This didn't actually happen to me. Or anyone, probably. I cobbled it together as part of an abortive write-what-you-know Nanowrimo from different bits I'd picked up around Hokkaido. The beach is Shosanbetsu.

When I open my eyes, it’s very quiet. Still dark. I can only make out shapes. The dark shape of the ground on my side, below me. The contained empty space above me. The downy fluff of my sleeping bag around my neck. Everything feels geometric, somehow.

My right knee is a little uncomfortable. I roll onto my back and whatever weird torque was being applied is immediately resolved. I flex my toes in the bag, I take a deep breath and then let it all out. There’s a little whistling noise in my nose, from accumulated mucus overnight. It’s barely audible. If there was someone else in the tent with me, they probably wouldn’t even be able to hear it. But I can hear it. This dumb little whistling of my breathing. I sniff, hard, but it doesn’t go away.

I always have a runny nose in the morning. This is one of my body’s quirks. I sniff again but it’s fruitless. Something is jammed in the trombone-ish whorls and cavities of my sinuses. I heave out all the sniffed-in air with a big sigh. My nose whistles. I feel like the sidekick of a villain in a Disney movie from like the 1960s. Specifically, I’m feeling like Peter Pan’s Smee. Does his nose whistle? Is there ever a scene where he’s asleep, his nose whistling, maybe a bubble of snot or something? Does Smee even have nostrils?

These are my waking thoughts.

Up we go, onto my bottom. The inflated pad underneath me redistributes and my ass meets the soft ground through the pad, the tent, the grass. The dirt underneath is soft. My body is full of nerve endings and they can tell that the ground is soft, but not too soft. Hard mud. Caked and kneaded by whose feet I don’t know, into some weird topography necessitating a sleeping pad.

Here are the things that I can hear, right now: 1) a brief wind, like the earth sighing, sways the tall grass. It sounds like sssshh and whhhooooo at the same time. 2) From maybe a hundred meters off to my right, the ocean goes krsshhhh over and over again. It forms a sort of ambient aural foundation on which everything else is layered. Don’t know why it’s number 2 on this list. It’s still dark and I’m awake, though, so maybe that explains it. 3) My nose is still whistling.

I’m just sitting there, awake in my tent in the dark, when 4) a car drives by, somewhere not too far off, and though I can’t tell where it’s coming from I can tell that it’s running on winter tires, by the higher-pitched whirring noise underneath the regular car sound of lots of air getting out of the way.

Then, 5) the zipper on the side of my sleeping bag unzips, I shimmy out. It’s cool but not that cool. The air in the tent is pretty humid. I can’t tell right now, because of all the mucusy debris in my face, but I know that the tent probably smells pretty interesting. By which I mean, not great. But I don’t open up the flap. I’m enjoying the warmth.

I fish in the pocket by my hip for my headlamp. It’s small, white and blue. In my hand it feels like hope. It’s funny how light does that. I know that sounds dumb, a headlamp feels like hope. It’s early in the morning and my metaphor game isn’t on point just yet. When I turn on the headlamp the whole tent just clicks to life, everything resolves instantly. There’s no, like, loading time. I blink, and then blink harder, not because I think that this second, harder blink is going to do anything, but because that’s how people waking up in movies blink.

As I jam my bag into the black nylon sack it came with, I can feel my systems booting up. There’s a terrible taste in my mouth, which it occurs to me isn’t so much a taste inmy mouth as the taste of my mouth. I can tell that my hair is in a terrible way. My right knee is still kind of in pain after all.

But there’s a sort of beauty to waking up, early in the morning, before the sun, booting up by headlamp, in a dim tent — because there’s really not that much to feel, at a time like that. And so as your body comes back online after its long rest, you wind up getting a lot of nil values back from everything: you’re not cold, you’re not in pain, there is no one next to you who is angry with you or expecting something from you. No one is waiting on you, there are no deadlines by which you have to do anything. The time is 5:20 am. I don’t have anywhere to be. And so as I wake up, other than the tweak in my knee and the taste of bacterial growth in my mouth, my body isn’t sending me much information at all. Which is nicer than you’d think.

Once the bag and the pad are away, I put them to the side, put on my jacket, and open up the flaps of the tent. Standing up for the first time of the day is another one of those nicer-than-you-think feelings. As much as sitting or lying down is great — and it is — moments like this, standing up in the before-dawn, is all the proof that I need that the human’s natural form is upright bipedalism. This moment, right here, is what separates us from everything else.

I put on my boots.

Then, I take a whiz, right there, by the tent, and listen. The sea is much louder, now that I’m out of the tent. I must be closer than I thought I was. The wind deflected over the tent tugs at my body. I put up my hair. It’s grown long enough at this point that I have to tie it up with a hairband from 7–11. Then I head in the direction of the ocean.

Another benefit of the early morning bodily tabula rasa: you basically do what your bottom-level programming tells you to do. Take a piss. Move in the direction of the ocean. Life is uncomplicated. This is a sentence which is almost never true, but it’s true here, and I think that’s really beautiful.

The ocean is on the other side of a small rise covered in scrubby, waist-high bamboo. The leaves are long and wax-papery and shredded by the wind. When I move through the bamboo is sounds like its whispering to me. I wind up stepping on a lot of it, and it cracks and snaps under my feet. The stems are the size of drinking straws and offer more or less the same structural integrity.

At the top of the rise is a dusty road, barely a road, and on the other side of the road there’s a little wispy grass growing out of black sand. The grass is like an old person’s hair, there only as a formality, thin and limp. I look down the road but I can’t see much of anything. I should have brought my headlamp.

The wind sings across me, stronger here on the exposed beachhead. The waves are actually pretty loud. They seem aggressive, and somehow it makes me almost frightened. I feel like I share a lot with like a prehistoric guy who might have stood here once, upright and bipedal but still functioning on just the most basic of operating systems. Not that I’m anything remotely like that dude. I’ve got a synthetic down jacket and leather boots and a knit hat on my head and a 140-lumen headlamp and sunglasses in my pocket and a backpack with an elaborate system of straps and harnesses meant to deliver weight and stress precisely to the places on my body that can handle it best: that is to say, I have insulated myself from the experience of the this sunrise, this outdoors. The prehistoric man was an animal on a sand dune, an unalienable part of the outdoors itself, a participant in it, rather than a tourist wandering across its surface, ducking into convenience stores for sports drinks and Snickers bars and cola as often as he can.

I head back up to the tent and I grab the little stove and the ziploc of dry oatmeal from somewhere in my pack, then beat it back down to the beach and head out across the shitty grass and the black sand. There’s a good amount of driftwood, here, too, bleached-out pieces of wood, long and gnarled and totally skinless. They’re impossibly smooth and dry. They don’t even feel like wood. Weird.

There’s also a good amount of garbage, but this is not at all surprising. Empty bottles with Cyrillic characters on them (it becomes very quickly apparent to me how to spell vodka in Russian, a skill which I hope will come in use for me later in life), old plastic containers of bleach or all-purpose cleaner, innumerable plastic bags, a strange number of shoes, all single, shitty, sweatshop-grade brandless things with crumbly outsoles or no outsoles at all. One shoe that I see is a children’s shoe, a little pink one with velcro. I find a huge lightbulb, the size of my head, and plant myself next to it, among everyone’s garbage. I’m momentarily puzzled by the fact that none of this stuff smells even remotely of garbage, but then I realize that between the corrosive salt of the sea and the corrosive presence of the crows up the shore, anything that once smelled even remotely of anything but salt and the sea would have been eroded or hauled away.

I have to fiddle for a while with starting the stove, because of the wind, but I get it eventually. I have to hunch over to break the wind so the spark has the chance to catch. Once it’s going, I realize that I forgot the water, and I say, “Well, jeez,” aloud, and turn the stove off, run up the beachhead back to the tent to get the water, which there isn’t that much left of, and then run back, through the wind, kicking up black sand and getting it in my boots, which is actually really uncomfortable and probably bad for the boots themselves, the sand grinding against the sole and the seams. And so by the time I get the stove lit again and the water at a boil, the sky is already getting pretty light, off down the coast.

All down the coast the waves break on the land. The beach rises up out of the water pretty sharply, actually, but levels off across grassy fields. Further along, where I can’t make out much detail, short, round hills seem to drop right off into the sea.

The sky gets first gray, then a little grayish-pink. Sitting here with my oatmeal and the waves, I remember some old… something I read describing the sunrise as gray and dumb and sort of unassuming and lame. A real far cry from the paint-worthy glory of sunset. Whoever wrote that must have been out on a bad morning, though, because this sunrise is just terrific. The dark, high overhead, starts to give way to a sort of far-off blue, the sort of blue that only Rayleigh scattering can yield. Clouds migrate across the blue, grayish at first but then white rimmed with a pinkish color. High in the east, Venus and Mars are hanging out basically side-by-side, which is incredible to see but only if you know what you’re looking at. Jupiter is hanging out a little further up and to the right, like a babysitter, the gas giant over the rocky kids. I haven’t had a lot of clear mornings lately so seeing it this morning fills me with a childish, Christmas-ey excitement, even though Christmas is still a little while off. As the planets fade in the growing light, the sky leads into lavenders and bright peachey oranges, and when the sun finally crests over some clouds far out at sea, it feels, I don’t know, like a perfect swell in music, like a bass drop or whatever it’s called. It feels complete, and I find myself heaving big sighs without meaning to, still sitting there in the wind even though my cup is empty of oats, even after the stove has been put away, and my fingers are going a little chilly and I’ve had to pull the hood up over my head. I sit in the morning’s first direct light and everything is just right.

I take the tent down and look at the rectangular shape it’s made in the short grass. I pack it up with the stove, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, the headlamp, the map, the Soy Joy fruit bars I bought yesterday, the Ziploc of oatmeal, a pair of thermal tights, a toque, a pair of gloves, a water bottle, a notebook and pen, and my Kindle. I scarf a Snickers bar. I just finished Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Bryson’s admitted love for Snickers bars while he’s hiking has confirmed my own suspicion that Snickers are the ultimate energy food.

The sun is maybe two or three fingers above the horizon at this point. I’m standing in a field by the sea, and at my feet is a backpack with everything that I need. It’s morning and I have nowhere to be, so I haul the pack onto my shoulders and I start walking.

I walk back from the field out to the dirt road, and follow the dirt road out the way I came in last night. In the early light I can see a lot better than I did in the dark — I walk by a big pile of brown sand, fine-grained and clayish, at the top of which, like some kind of trophy, is a yellow backhoe, empty, but not abandoned-looking, which is a nice change. I pass a row of tall evergreens, maybe Sakhalin firs, through whose trunks I can see, down in like a ditch, the remnants of… something, some kind of barn, maybe. The road gradually turns from dirt into gravel, and I pass another remnants-type building, windows in four walls made of cinderblock, but no roofing to speak of. The shitty bamboo from the beachhead has invaded this building and taken up residence. It looks like some weird yellow-green crowd, down in the ditch.

Eventually the gravel ends and blacktop begins. The road curves and follows the line of the coast in the direction that I’m headed. The row of evergreens also ends, and I find myself amid fields. There are a couple of farm buildings in the distance, low, angular, geographically typical buildings. I hear the far-off groan of a tractor. I’m looking for the source of the noise but the early morning is hazy and everything looks sort of blurred out. The light feels watery, dilute. My shadow is like 30 feet long and real inhuman-looking, with the backpack on and my arms sort of splayed in front of me in the way that backpack-wearers’ arms do. I’m walking into the sun. I have sunglasses in a side pocket somewhere but I’ve only had the pack on for like twenty minutes so far and I don’t want to take it off to figure out where my glasses are. You don’t think about it but momentum is a real thing, when you’re walking with a pack.

I walk along the side of the road. There’s a town coming up in three or four kilometers — I saw it on the map. Long and narrow, jutting inland from the ocean. It looks like it’s wedged on this like little shelf between steep hills on one side and a river on the other. This is my goal for the morning.

I don’t see any cars on my road, but I hear a good number of them on a road further inland, which is I think where National Route 238 runs. Or something. Maybe it’s 278. Or 283? I keep hearing the high-pitched moaning sound of big rig trucks going by, but at this distance, the moan doesn’t doppler itself in and out the way that it does when you’re right there, being buzzed by the trucks as they pass. From across the fields, you hear the trucks’ wail for 30, 40 seconds before they fade out into the hazy morning light.

The road is pretty deeply grooved in by wheels, which is a feature of most roads up here, I’ve noticed. I wonder if the roads are badly poured, or if concrete has a different structure in this country, if it’s softer or something; or maybe the road is just very, very old. The grooves are actually like bi-grooved themselves, worn in and down by, I assume, big-rig trucks with the dual-wheeled rear hubs. At intersections, you can tell which road is the more trafficked by the depth of the grooves, and when cars blow through green lights perpendicular to the grooves’ orientation, the suspension shudders audibly. Bigger trucks, forced to cross grooves in this orientation, will slow down dramatically, like as slow as fifteen or twenty kph, and take the grooves at an angle, like a smaller boat crossing a bigger boat’s wake. Any drivers behind one of these trucks will adopt the Japanese expression of annoyance, which is characterized by rapid blinking and a tendency to like look down and away from whatever they’re annoyed with, sometimes accompanied by a silent, or very quiet, scoff. In standard life this comes across as a really passive-aggressive diss and has more or less the effect that it’s intended to; but behind the wheel of a vehicle, and a vehicle approaching an intersection at that, I always feel like that’s maybe a little bit dangerous, and I stop and stand off to the side, waiting for an imminent collision. This has yet to play out.

Of course, a number of intrepid drivers take the grooves with elan and gusto. Usually a good rule is: the lighter the vehicle, the more likely the driver is to ramp off the grooves. Bonus points if the car is at all rusted, or if the driver is wearing a flat-brim snapback with some sort of nonsense-English on it, like,





OKLAHOMA. Riding a horse at farmland.

or something like that. Double bonus points if the driver actually speeds up over the grooves, which is not uncommon. The gold standard for checking off these boxes (viz. rust/snapback/acceleration) is the rural Farmer in a Miniature Pickup (for example, cf. Daihatsu Hijet or Suzuki Sambar, etc), who, crossing a grooved intersection like this, will nine times out of ten actually get a little bit of air, especially if his pickup is unloaded.

Which isn’t to say that some brave big-rig drivers don’t display some spirited prowess on the grooves either; but the titanic sound of whatever’s in the back pulling an inadvertent ollie, as well as the rapid deceleration post-interesection, has led me to believe that more often than not, this is an accident, a miscalculation of the depths of the grooves, which come on, if you’re a big-rig driver you should be pretty good at judging pavement.

At one intersection the grooves cross-hatch, though at this time of morning I don’t see any cars in any direction. There’s one of those lights above that flashes red in one direction and yellow in another, and I can hear it clicking very faintly. It jumps a little bit in the wind off the coast. In the ditch below me, to my left, lies some old farm equipment, but it’s half-overtaken by scrub bamboo and half-overtaken by rust, so if I’m honest I couldn’t actually tell you that it really is farm equipment, but what else would it be, out here? There’s a little concrete canal at the bottom of the ditch, and the trickle of liquid that runs down it is glossy and marbled, like gasoline. It conjures weird images from videos in AP Environmental History, back in high school, videos of runoff and algal blooms and tractors coughing black smoke. This probably just runs off into the sea, this shiny stuff at the bottom of the canal. The sides of the canal are patched with moss and also something black and matte that I don’t know what it is.

I guess I’ve never really looked down in these ditches before, though I’ve been walking along them long enough. I’ve seen more and more varied tractors than I care to count, I’ve seen busloads of elderly people bent in half over potatoes or onions, and I guess I’ve spent a lot of this time sort of assuming that this is what rural, personal industry looks like. I’ve never made the connection between these farms and the sort of chemical ailments that teenagers get taught about in suburban Orlando APEH. The whole line of thinking actually makes me feel uncomfortable, so I just keep walking and avoid looking into the ditches anymore. The discomfort lives in me like a rock in my shoe as I keep walking.

A car passes me from behind, going very fast. As it passes, it drifts into the oncoming lane, to give me a wide berth, and when it crosses the rumble strip dividing the lanes, it makes this unearthly loud noise, which scares the shit out of me, because it is — I look at my watch — not even 7 in the morning yet. The car cruises up a big arched bridge and over the other side.

Before I hit the bridge, a little sidewalk sort of materializes between the ditch and the road. Sidewalks here are different from sidewalks back home — instead of big heavy squares of poured concrete, they’re long black strips of asphalt, like a road for walking on. They’re invariably wavy and topographically irregular, which I can’t help but feel would be terrible for riding a bike on. Not that I wouldn’t mind a bike right about now — walking feels glacial. This is something I’ll have to address at some point, in this, uh, log — like, a breakdown of what it’s like the walk 2500 km around an island. A meditation. But it’s like, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like this, somehow. I could just catch a bus back to Sapporo and be on my way. But at the same time: walking this unruly sidewalk, thinking of a bicycle, wishing for a bicycle. As if riding to the end of the 2500 km would be any better, as if getting there, completing the tour, is the goal. As if life is in fact the destination and not the journey, as so many middle school motivational posters of kids on magenta skateboards and gratuitous pads would have you believe. And yet, I’m wishing for a bike. I worry that I’m not doing this for the the moment, which I guess is what I’ve been telling myself — that this is a piece of one-step-at-a-time training for recognizing the present. I worry that I’m just doing this so that I can roll my shoulders and look down my nose in a bar at some point in the future and say, “Yeah, I walked around a big island in Japan, yeah, 2500 km, it took a little time but I really learned a lot about myself in the process.” It’s funny to worry about the way that you’ll feel in the future, to worry that you don’t have control over that sort of thing. And then to worry that maybe people do have control over it, and it’s just me who can’t. And then to think of an old article from Buzzfeed that confirms, like, yeah, everyone else does have the same neurotic perspectives as me, so that’s reassuring; but to remind myself that the point of modern life is to alienate everyone from everyone else’s pain — and before I know it I’m at the top of the bridge and out of conjunctions and sort of bummed out, but at least my right knee doesn’t feel all tweaked anymore, and I press on one side of my nose and blow out the other and a thick cottony wad dislodges from somewhere deep in my skull and I feel, somehow, a lot better.

From the top of the bridge I can see a good deal. The town ahead, which is called Fuppubetsu, comes suddenly into view, a long row of low buildings and some two-storey public housing right up against a wide empty field, on the other side of the river. The river is bordered on both sides by a pretty wide floodplain and a tall overflow berm, but it doesn’t look like either of those get used very often: the river itself is pretty shallow and sort of, I guess you would say it was babbling more than actually running. It doesn’t look more than a few inches deep in most places and I’d say probably only a foot or two at its deepest, and runs over a huge bed of big, soft, pillowish rocks. I stand on the bridge above the river and look down at it. In the shadow of the grassy berm and the tall evergreens that grow on the floodplain, the water looks black and glossy. It sounds like the Platonic form of a river. Where the sun hits the opposite berm, half-dried morning dew is glittering a little bit. The whole thing is very picturesque. The sun feels really nice on my face. As I’m standing, a Daihatsu Hijet drives by. The engine sounds like it’s redlining. The driver is refusing to change gears, and the engine is making noises like a person at the end of their breath. The driver is an old lady in a headwrap; she looks like a babushka. Her eyes don’t appear even to reach the top of the steering wheel and it occurs to me that how can she even see out the front? I see the top of her wrapped head swivel towards me, but I don’t think I can actually see her eyes, and I get the sense that she must be using some sort of ESP to read my soul or something.

I head down the other side of the bridge and I find myself in town.

Hills and Letters Japan JET Programme


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