Week 39


This is what the north coast of Hokkaido looks like at 3 o'clock in the morning. We have left Hamatonbetsu and everything is black, including my white car.

For some reason there is no longer any such thing as legitimate objects -- everything is broken down to forms. Signs are rectangles and symbols, trees are furry shadows, and the sea is a black line cutting two black planes in half. The sky is somewhat lighter than the sea, but seeing either one on it's own a person might employ some serious black-panther-dark-alley-covered-in-tar-type analogies.

At one point we come across a big wind turbine. Like almost everything shaped by the wind, it is beautiful and clean and employs amazing geometry, irresistible geometry, like the haunches of a Jaguar E-Type, or the curves of a beautiful woman’s body. Sorry, ladies, I don’t know what man-curves turn you on, but just imagine that and you’ll get the general picture of a wind turbine.

I don't know why, but the notion that wind turbines still spin at night, that they still move with their big silent sweeping arms even though nothing else is moving, is deeply unsettling. I’ve never really considered before that nature doesn’t turn off at night, like we do — the wind still blows and the ocean still roars and the empty branches of the trees still bump up against each other like lazy moths. Monolithic in the night, the wind turbine looks like an alien, something alive, something with intent and feeling, something bigger than humans, transcendent, almost, like a sentinel. Like a big robot. Like something disemburdened of all of our human shittiness, just standing, generating power, pulling energy out of thin air. Literally. There are bright red lights on its stem and hub, and when the arms swing by they briefly pass through this red glow, breathing into it and then breathing back out. We leave it behind but I get the sense that it's still aware of us in our little buzzing car, five, ten kilometers down the road. In the mirrors I can't see it but it can probably see me, shifty eyes in the darkness.

When we're twenty minutes out, Jon says, "I can still see the lights from Hamatonbetsu behind us. It's weird that it's emitting anything at all." It pretty accurately sums up what night is like up here. What night is like in Hokkaido, in general.

As we close on Wakkanai, on Soya Misaki, the northernmost part of all Japan, of Dai-Nippon, we come across a long series of rolling, rocky hills. I'm told it looks like Northern England but at the moment it just looks black. Off in the distance are more windmills but the arms are not visible. They make their presence known only by the pulsing red lights on their tall stems (which by the way is that the right term for them?). It looks like some big alien garden, or a beast with like thirty eyes all blinking out of sync, blinking right at us. Maybe a battalion of benign soldiers, of anti-soldiers, not destroying but creating, generating, pulling the energy right out of nature so we can break it down, entropize, spit it back out on the other end as useless ambient heat.

The wind is powerful and loud, and the forest groans and whirrs and bends, and the plants by the side of the road spasm and sway. They look like deer when they poke their frondy heads up and out of the ditch on the side of the road. Of course there are deer as well, so we have to drive pretty slow because we're not sure what movement is deer and what is wind and what is frond. Everything out there, at sufficient speed, could probably do some serious hit points to Penelope.

When we finally arrive at Soya, we're maybe half an hour early. The sky is blue like the blue of a pristine day, but it is very dim, and I am strongly aware of the power of shade rather than just hue. We sit in Penelope and set up a time lapse camera. I write this with my iPad on the dashboard, a hot coffee between my legs. Bad for my sperm count but hey I'm young. Tony points out the seagulls on the other side of the window: they are hovering in midair: the wind is generating enough lift over their wings for flight without real forward motion. I'm just impressed that their circulatory system can keep them warm in the wind and the rain like this. You'd think nature would carry off a lot of their heat, looking in an infrared camera like the trail a comet leaves behind.


Since yesterday morning I have seen more things than I can remember to write. I wish that I could have been both driving and also taking notes, steering wheel in one hand and notebook/pen in the other. As if that's possible.

During the daytime we roam from Wakkanai down to Rumoi. The weather is lightly raining. Everything is very very gray, as if the air itself holds deep dirty-water-grayness to make manifest. On the left, the inland side, are long, wide, rolling fields of yellowish bush-weed; only later do I remember that Sting song 'Fields of Gold' and realize that it's really appropriate. Beyond the fields are low hills, more like big edged-off rocks, glacial deposits, covered with moss and dirt and a little vegetation that you could probably call scrub. Off on the right is the ocean. It's gray with a little blue and a little green. Mostly gray, though, with white wave-heads that roll up on the shore in armies -- and indeed the whole tide looks like the Battle at Minas Tirith or something, the ocean fighting against the dark burnt brown of the sand, of the lonely, worn-color remains of garbage that has washed up, of the wet dark driftwood, all stripped of bark, delicately moist, looking for all the world like the forgotten brother of those bone-white tree trunks on the side of Shari, bleached by the sun's light, soft, penetrated and subdued by unfeeling, unbiological nature.

From Rumoi on to Sapporo we climb to the top of big black cliffs and ride the road through tunnels clinging right to the edge. It's a harrowing experience, a little bit; at some points you look over the edge of the road and on down two hundred, maybe three hundred feet into the whipped seas below, the waves from this high resembling uncannily the 'soft peaks' of so many cake/merangue/whatever recipes. Whip until cream makes soft peaks. Check. Humans have carved their fingerprints into the stone of the earth, here. Riding it is legitimately frightening, in a distant, I-know-I'm-supposed-to-be-frightened kind of way. And all the way the rain is driving down in big sheets, like as if God was peeling big sticky notes's worth of water from his pad, as if he could hurl them at the road like frisbees, spinning out of control before expiring in soggy slashes across the windshield. It isn’t hard to lose a lot of the other senses -- hearing, feeling, &c. -- and get lost in the visual, get lost in the weird sense you get of your own place in space, w/r/t the other things around you, w/r/t your environment, as if everything else has stopped and all that's left is you, a single point of experience in space, and the universe moving around you. Everything relative.

In the evening we eat in Sapporo with Amy and Laura. We go to this like Cajun restaurant or something like that, something vaguely Southern, I guess, with big influences from jazz and just like all-American Cool Guy, maybe a little Americana from the early 20th century, that sort of thing. All over the place but it comes together. The food was also good but this is not a food review.

We hit the road again at about 9:30 or 10 o'clock. We pass Yoichi at something like 11 and forge into the broad wilderness of the peninsula's northwestern coast. I don't know if there's a name for it or what. Beyond Yoichi I sleep for an hour; waking up to strange alternative hip hop and Jon teeth-bitingly skittish about the dark woods. He claims that he hasn't seen anyone since I fell asleep. Which makes sense, because when I take the reins back around 1 o'clock in the morning, after a one-hour nap again (some Michi no Eki somewhere), I don't see anyone else until maybe about 3 o'clock, when I am passed by a beat-up old Toyota; and after that the road is people-less again until a dim Lawson combini in a town called Yakumo at around 4, when the sky turns aggressively blue with pre-dawn.

Between midnight and 4 in the morning, the coast is very dark. I doubt, somehow, that even in daylight it can really be called bright. A couple of cars line the sidewalks, no parking space. I learn that to protect against seaspray, many residents eruct driftwood palisades in front of their houses. Everything is deathly still. I see the moon's glow refracted through clouds at one point, and the reflection of this silvery glow on the black sea looks like a million little hundred-yen coins floating on the surface. It is tremendously, heartbreakingly beautiful, and I remember in the moment wanting nothing more than to park Penelope on the shore to watch it sparkle and dance. I remember realizing that no number of English words will ever collect the skittish light on black sea, that no expensive DSLR could ever capture this light, the ricocheted photons from the sun off both the moon and the sea, these little pseudo-particles touching so much so far from us silly earthbound humans, to leave their tiny footprints on my retinas.

After a little while the sky goes totally black. The sea goes blacker still. Turns out dark seas are dark seas no matter where you are, Hamatonbetsu or Yakumo, north or south. Here and there the horizon is punctuated by big black hulks very near the road; though parallax works to determine their position I can't determine what they are and have to assume they are tall, egg-shaped rocks, some of which we see in the morning. Though at this point I would also accept aliens or fantastic creatures or the Jewish golem (like in the original sense, ‘my unshaped form’) or something. I don't know.

Penelope moves swiftly through the countryside. She uses the whole of the road: no one else has been seen for probably a hundred kilometers behind us. The world is a blur. This is a trope that is used many times to indicate great speed, though here I am not going that fast; it seems that the whole world around me must be revolving, must be somehow moving though I am not moving through it. I am simply moving in it, the names on the signs changing minutely, the facades of the houses recycled just seldom enough that I don't notice it. I'm sure that had I been paying attention I would have noticed one of the subtle tricks my very own Truman Show's producers were playing on me: the license plates were the same, or that the same silver kei truck showed up in Setana but also in Shimamaki and also in Suttsu but for the first time in Iwanai, back in the early hours of my shift. I feel as though someone has removed me from the real world and placed me instead in some post-apocalyptic set. I feel as though I have been put on a big warping treadmill with long backdrops on either side, and in my fatigue I can't notice that everything around me is fake.

By and by, the sun comes up, the sky grows blue against the black shadow-lee sides of the rocks, I sip my ko-hi gyunyuu (which by the way is there a more elegant translation to English than ‘coffee & milk?’) in the quiet parking lot of that Lawson combini. Clouds sit off to the right, hanging ominously over the sea, as if a reminder of the kind of weather we've just been through; but the rising sun climbs into a pristine sky. As we roll around capes and corners we move from the blue-saturated shadows, from the brown trails in the hillsides into the big gold clarity of sunshine, for the first time in three days. You don't understand how much the eye can crave certain color until it's been totally deprived for a while.

I wake up in the parking lot of a different Lawson combini but I’m not totally sure how I got there, which is disconcerting because I’m in the driver’s seat. We buy gasoline and make a beeline for Hakodate. Shoreline be damned -- Hakodate would be another four hours around the coast. We make Hakodate by a little bit before 10 o'clock.

What have we done here? We rode a streetcar, went to a very 'genuine'-type bathhouse (sento or onsen?), ate hamburgers, and got a hotel room. I am sitting on the floor of this hotel room right now. The floor is carpeted in squares. It is hard and I can feel the concrete beneath on the knobbly bone on the outside of my ankle. Every now and again I lose my sense of balance and of self-within-by-body and it makes me worried about my ability to drive Penelope, but I blame it on lack of sleep and food. Since I left Monbetsu I have slept for eight hours. I left Monbetsu on April 27 at 11 o'clock, and now it is April 29 at 4 o'clock. It has been 53 hours.

I am going to take a nap.


We are in a town called Mitsuishi. There are three stones here, somewhere, I assume, but we haven't seen them yet.

I am writing to hold on to the things that we have seen.

Before we reached Tomakomai, on like I guess the outskirts, we saw a tall bridge shining in the dark. It was covered in lights that looked more like stars, brighter and clearer than human technology should be able to manufacture. Below the bridge, the lights climbed down onto some dark, shadowy superstructure, but they weren't bright enough to illuminate the quote-unquote Bigger Picture. The whole thing was like looking at some huge piece of human machinery through a swiss-cheesed piece of black construction paper.

Part of this complex was an enormous tower, split in three at the bottom but merging into one tall tower at the top. It was not lit up and my eyes couldn't really resolve the detail in the dark. I saw a shape, vaguely striped. It looked like Thunderbird 3, but that reference might be lost on anyone reading this. We rounded a long bend and it was gone.

On the way out of Tomakomai we saw a big empty field and unending rows of leafless trees. We also saw what looked at the gate like a military base but inside like some sort of hydrocarbon processing plant. There were big low cylinders with no markings other than a code of sorts, something like H-114-82. Tony commented that we were now in the domain of the greater-than-humans. I commented that it would probably look cool from space.

We saw a highway that stretched out further than we could see on the left and right, and we saw a service road that followed alongside for a while but peeled off after maybe a kilometer or two.

We saw long cliffs over brown waves, and as we climbed these cliffs we flew through a deep fog. On the other side we couldn't find a sign that didn't have a horse on it.

We saw a Cessna 172 and a couple of what appeared to be decommissioned missiles sitting in a field alongside a rusted swingset and jungle gym. It looked like it was meant to be either a playground or some sort of graveyard for metal, like a scrap heap with too much order. And then Penelope passed on, and us with her.

At the onsen in Mitsuishi I found a toilet that made an artificial flushing sound without actually flushing. It was pretty obviously fake, real lo-fi, distorted, like the sound a toilet would make if a toilet could use the kazoo. I tried to think of a reason that would make this a useful feature. And then I did. And then I tried to think of the strange negative capability it would take to use a product manufactured by a company that didn't want to admit that it knew what you didn't want to admit you thought. It was the second-most confused I have ever been on a toilet.

I think that I have seen more horses & more representations of horses in the past couple of hours than I have in my whole life up to these past couple of hours.


I wake up in a town called Akkeshi. I am lying on a futon and someone has put a blanket over me. I vaguely remember pulling another futon on top of me, but maybe it was put on top of me by someone else. It’s tremendously dark in the apartment; Tony is standing over me packing his sleeping bag. Jon, across the room, makes a small noise.

It’s 3 in the morning before we get back on the road. Walking out to Penelope from Cory’s apartment we hear weird noises in the dark sky, like bats speaking through megaphones or something. The night is clear and sharp like ice, and almost as cold.

We make it to Cape Nosappu just after sunrise. I urinate in the ocean within view of Russia. Back in Penelope I voice some stupid, halfhearted lamentation that Cape Nosappu can’t advertise itself as the easternmost point in Japan because that would admit that the Kuril Islands aren’t part of Japan, which though it’s for all intents and purposes true, the Japanese government would probably take affront to that.

We head up the coast through the morning. I get closer and closer to that acme of fatigue where I stop looking at things and just sort of point my eyes towards Yubetsu and grit my teeth until I see something familiar. I’m not even seeing the stuff we pass anymore — I don’t see the statue of three old ladies yelling across the ocean to give Japan its Kuril Islands back; I don’t see the out-of-place signs claiming Shibetsu is one of the most beautiful towns in Japan (spoiler alert: it’s not); I don’t see the ‘Shiretoko Pass is closed’ signs, so I’m really confused when, at the foot of Shiretoko Pass, an old man in a jumpsuit tells us we can’t go up there.

I am thoroughly tired.

I don’t remember the last maybe hundred kilometers between Abashiri and Yubetsu. I recall being denied lunch, I recall a boarded-up pink building called Marine Land, I recall goading Jon into buying a can of deer curry. I recall getting home and sitting in my desk chair and pretending desperately that I was lucid, that I was aware of what was going on. I remember watching videos that we took during our trip, I remember laughing at them, but the following day, Friday, today, they all look new to me. I slept very well last night, but I don’t think I’m through. Gonna take a nap now.


I would have put a picture in for MAY 2, but I guess I was too tired at the time to bother clicking the couple of buttons on my iPhone or Nikon to do that sort of thing. Sorry.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 40

Oliver let me tag along on an excursion to see what was left of the rail line that used to run through Yubetsu.


Week 36

Tooling around Maruseppu in Penelope the AZ-Wagon.