On Saturday I went to a Halloween Party, belated a week and a half or so, dressed as a painting from 1930. I was manning a 'pin-the-nose-on-the-jack'o'lantern' booth, which somehow, over the course of the two or three hours that I was there, turned into 'pin-the-nose-on-Charles-who-is-wearing-a-bandanna-over-his-face-oh-no-please-little-child-don't-cry-see-I'm-a-real-human-being,' which probably wouldn't have fit on the label marking the name of the game, if you think about it.
After the party, we proceeded to put various substances into our bodies, e.g. sweet-n-sour shrimp, dumplings, beer, and the spiciest tofu that I think I have ever eaten, though not necessarily in that order. We got ourselves hoarse over karaoke, screaming out lyrics not in the right key or at the right time or, on occasion, to the right song; we scratched our heads at the quick sequence of five or six songs sung exclusively in Chinese, and then scratched our heads at the lack of good English songs, eventually succumbing, as many nights at karaoke inevitably must, to a heavy rotation of AKB48's "Heavy Rotation," which for everyone not in Japan who is reading this, is at the moment the Japanese equivalent of whatever hyperproduced piece by Jay-Beebz/Nicki Minaj/insert-flavor-of-the-month-pop-star here is playing four times every hour on your Top-40 radio station of choice. I'm still stricken by how accurate the name of the song is, it being like a Western pop idol calling one of their songs, "On Va Jouer Ce Chanson Ad Nauseam," which is French for "We're Gonna Play This Song Ad Nauseam;" and you just know it would be calculatedly catchy and vapid and no one would actually know what the title means but I mean come on I can really relate to that song about partying, because I party.
So in the morning we took about two hours to properly wake ourselves up and move out into the bright new day, blinking through sunglasses at the open sky, and made the brilliant executive decision to continue to put unhealthy substances into our bodies, and promptly made our way to the nearest McDonald's where I ate not one but two sausage McGriddles, and they were both more delicious than I remembered them and put together with an exacting degree of care that you just don't see stateside; and in fact now that I think about it I am almost sure that there must have been a man with a ruler or a protractor or an astrolabe or something measuring out the proper alignment of individual McGriddles. That's something that might happen in this country.
And then we dove, or rather drove, back out into the countryside, making our slow way back to Yubetsu.
There is, between Yubetsu, our little corner of Hokkaido, and the more relatively urban sprawl of Asahikawa, a reasonably new highway that parallels the Old Routes 273 & 333, (which themselves parallel the old railway line) but which (the highway, that is) features higher speed limits and cuts through mountains rather than over them. It is by all accounts the sort of highway that has no business being in such a good condition in such harsh meteorological territory, the sort of highway that would be a pleasure at any time of the year to drive if only your car could actually maintain the adquate speed, which Penelope cannot, generally speaking, unless I really push the engine. For this reason, whenever it's practical I like to take the Old Routes 273 & 333, which almost no one takes anymore and which wind over a mountain pass the other side of which is tremendously fun to barrel down with the car in neutral gear.
So we pulled off the main road and charged ahead. Route 273 isn't well-traveled by any means but it still maintains a decent flow of traffic (enough, anyway, to warrant a Seicomart) meandering through satellite towns, little roughshod collections of houses and farms that, with maybe another twenty people could theoretically be called a community. But Route 333, a cut-off of 273 that cuts westward where 273 branches off north, has been rendered totally useless by the construction of the highway, and surmounts a whole mountain pass where the highway carves through a tunnel, and the switchbacks and incline up into the pass add another half hour to the drive as well -- to say nothing of the generally lower speed limit, being a narrow country road weaving through forest and dancing, as it were, with the old train tracks (if you time it just right you can actually speed right alongside the creaking old Okhotsk Express, come all the way up from Sapporo, for like 20 kilometers before you lose it at a station). Besides all of which, Route 333 is closed for some six months of the year, being now determined too dangerous to travel in the winter.
The look of the forest at this time of year, I think, is somewhat, I don't know, symbolic, almost, of the general condition of Hokkaido as a whole. The leaves are gone from the trees but the snow hasn't yet fallen, and the hillsides are thick and brown with the bare fingers of the forests. The rain had come a week and a half ago and hadn't let up until Saturday morning, so more than a few hillsides had collapsed, the roots of the trees no longer strong enough to hold the mountains together (think about that for a second), the result being that we crossed paths with a number of mountains out of which huge landslide gashes had been cut. Besides which, the general disrepair of Route 333 — the abandoned shacks by the side of the road, the farms that hadn't been inhabited for probably nigh on a decade, the factories that had collapsed under the weight of the snow and then never really cleaned up -- all seemed like the 'big-picture' Hokkaido that no one really wants to acknowledge in a significant way: a Hokkaido people are leaving in droves, a Hokkaido growing more and more abandoned by the year, a Hokkaido whose human populations have been in steady decline for a good while.
We stopped for a moment on the side of the road to look at one of these old abandoned shacks. We made our way inside the place, not entirely sure what it had been — maybe a house, maybe just a storage shed? It had been mostly gutted and everything had a pretty thick layer of dust on it, but there was a kitchen, ducting for a heater, a closet full of firewood, what could have been a living room or bedroom, decked with diplomas or degrees or decrees all over the walls (we couldn't read them), a pile of pillows in a corner and a cabinet full of drinking glasses. What could have persuaded someone to just leave, thinking, "Eh, I don't need those glasses, I don't need this shack," and just walk away? There were still slippers in the genkan and glass bottles of Sapporo beer sitting by the door, as if ready to be brought out for recycling. There was an old shrine engraved to a spirit of the earth, if I read the characters right. It was such a beacon of human existence by the side of the road cutting through the otherwise generally uninhabited woods. But there was nothing else there, so we drove on.
It was singular, though, traveling up the switchbacks into the pass, watching the ascent up past the snow line. One switchback was autumn as usual. The next, some snow dusted the ground. The next, there was some in the trees. The next, it was full-blown Christmas. We took some pictures up at the top.
The highlight of the drive back, though, wasn't the abandoned shacks or the first snow of the season. The highlight was rolling down the switchbacks of the other side of the pass and coming round a corner to find a naked Japanese man in the road, standing by his SUV, and leaping in when he saw us round the corner. God knows what he was actually doing naked in the hum of those 5 or 6 degrees Celsius, up on a mountainside near the snow line. Conditioning his skin? Communing with nature? He must have been listening for a car coming, but being in neutral, Penelope's engine wasn't engaged: the only sound we made was the whooshing of the wind as we raced by. We didn't stop to ask if the man was alright, nor to question what he was doing, but some hundred meters down the road both Nicole and I looked back and then at each other, wondering aloud, "Was that a naked guy?"