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Book Review – Hokkaido Highway Blues

Hokkaido Highway Blues book cover

Hokkaido Highway Blues book cover

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson is a laugh-out-loud funny travel book about his adventures while hitchhiking the 3000+km length of Japan. Ferguson sneaks funny little subversive comments into his scintillating prose and laughter was ripped out of me. One poor passenger on a long international flight turned around in alarm to see what I was laughing about and another passenger used my laughter as an entree into an interesting conversation about expat life in Kuwait. More than funny though it’s very well written, captivating and I learnt from it too.

Every spring a wave of cherry blossoms (sakura) sweeps across Japan. The advance of the blossoms northwards is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march (or in Australia for the arrival of refugees). Progress reports with elaborate maps are presented nightly on the news. Sakura season coincides with the start of the school year, closing of business cycle, end of winter and peak of death by overwork (karoshi). Crowds congregate beneath the blossoms, sake flows in parties called hanami. For the few days of the peak of the Sakura they represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty.

In addition to cherry blossom viewing, you have moon viewing, snow viewing, wildflower viewing, autumn leaf viewing, and summer stargazing. All are formally engaged in, and all follow set procedures and seasons.

It was at a hanami party that Ferguson announced to his colleagues that he would follow the Sakura front from the southern to northern most tip of Japan (almost 3,000 km) by hitchhiking (illegal in Japan). Hokkaido Highway Blues is his account of this journey. He starts on a semi-tropical archipelago (Cape Sata) and ends up a couple of months later in a blizzard (Rishiri Island near Cape Soto). In the interim, he is amazed by the generosity of Japanese strangers; he’s persistently mistaken for an American (he’s Canadian); is given a lift by a man who yells ‘Cowsex!’ at him over and over again (he’s an artificial insemination technician); encounters Japanese gangsters, Godzilla, Love hotels, Capsule hotels and underwear vending-machines; is arrested but ends up ‘hitching a ride’ in the patrol car; drinks with a lot of strangers, and generally gets to know Japan about as well as a gaijin (foreigner) could hope to.

His reason for hitchhiking rather than taking the bullet-train is to see Japan ‘not as a spectator, but as a participant’. The car, he explains, ‘is an extension of the home but without any of the prescribed formalities that plague Japan. Bumming rides became its own reward, the journey its own destination.’ He relates vignettes from interactions with his generous hosts but it wasn’t always easy:

Ferguson’s First Law of Hitchhiking vis-a-vis the Japanese: a stranger standing by the side of the road in the rain with his thumb thrust out does not look sad or forlorn; he looks deranged. Cars sped up when they saw me and drivers’ eyes watched me recede in their rear view mirrors just to make sure I hadn’t leapt onto the bumper.

Ferguson is extroverted and has a good grasp of the Japanese language so he easily falls into conversation with his hosts. Several of his hosts drive him much further than intended, in one awkward case more than 2 hours by a driver who intended to simply drive from one suburb to another to meet friends for a drink but Ferguson was very grumpy about being ignored for over an hour in the rain and ranted, to the driver who finally stopped, about how terrible are the people of that town. One vivacious woman takes a ‘sick’ day to drive him (even though mutual responsibility is emphasised in Japan and a person will rarely call in sick because it means that co-workers will have to compensate by working harder and longer). Other drivers go to work quite late because they become drawn into his journey and drive him further than they need to go. These encounters (who knows how true they are – at times I wondered if we were reading some of Ferguson’s fantasies rather than actual occurrences) are sprinkled into the story and show the depth of Ferguson’s understanding of Japanese history, culture and psyche.

He begins the trip very buoyant but as he overtakes the Sakura front, and re-enters winter, he becomes increasingly travel weary, and faces insolvency, loss of job and visa if he doesn’t finish his trip and return to his job immediately. The book ends in ennui with Ferguson trapped in a blizzard on Rishiri Island. Interestingly he ignored the Ryuku Islands to the south but after reaching the northern most tip of Hokkaido he realises that Rishiri Island is slightly more northerly. So rather than end the book at the obvious point on Hokkaido he continues the journey and in doing so ends it on a very low point. I suppose this is a deliberate literary tool and points to the Blues in the title.

He clearly loathes the thought of returning to the drudgery of daily work:

We live our lives in motion, trailing former selves behind us like the images in a strobe-light photograph. The philosopher Heraclitus defined the very universe in terms of motion. “We never step into the same river twice. All is in flux.” We are in flux as well, and the same person never steps into the river twice either. The Inuit make a key distinction between objects at rest and objects in motion. When in motion the traveller extends across a landscape. When the traveller stops moving he ceases to exist.

Ferguson makes fun of himself and the Japanese and the funniest sections retell interactions that mock his hosts. There were several encounters that made me cringe as he made oafish remarks that clearly offended his hosts but he gave the reader no sign of remorse or having attempted to make amends. Towards the end he says:

Before I came to Japan, I had tremendous respect for the Japanese, but I didn’t really like them very much. Now after five years in the aggravating, eccentric nation… I found I did not respect the Japanese as much as I used to, but I liked them a whole lot more.

The Japanese approach to language is relentlessly deconstructionist. Everything is reduced to the bare elements and then reconstructed. This works great with cars, cameras and clocks but is less effective with something as organic as language.

This comment on museums is an example of one of Ferguson’s attempts (or perhaps he truly is this way) to appear uncultured but it made me smile:

People say they like museums, but they are lying. What they are really thinking is, What’s for dinner? and When will this be over?

Having started reading this book while in the Middle East staying in a large, contemporary hotel, this made me smile:

You know the kind… lit up at night as though they were the Parthenon itself and not simply a large filing cabinet for humans… decorated according to standard middle class notions of upper class decor: glass chandeliers, leather couches, superfluous lamps, and lots of brass and mirrors.

We will soon be visiting Japan so I’m reading on a Japan theme now. I picked up this book in a 2nd hand book fair before we even considered visiting Japan and I’m very glad that I finally read it. If you have any interest in Japan I suggest that you read it!

More sites:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/aug/27/travel.travelbooks

http://smilinginaforeignland.com/2011/04/08/book-review-hokkaido-highway-blues-hitchhiking-japan-by-will-ferguson/

http://mooncountry.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/book-review-the-roads-to-sata-by-alan-booth/

http://weilongwang.wordpress.com/2009/05/01/book-review/

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5 comments on “Book Review – Hokkaido Highway Blues

  1. Pingback: Book Review – A Short History of Japan | strivetoengage

  2. ecclemon
    April 15, 2014

    “Ferguson makes fun of himself and the Japanese and the funniest sections retell interactions that mock his hosts. There were several encounters that made me cringe as he made oafish remarks that clearly offended his hosts but he gave the reader no sign of remorse or having attempted to make amends.”

    I started reading this book but stopped due to these cringe-inducing moments, it felt like he was trying too hard to be funny.

    • strivetoengage
      April 15, 2014

      Yes you are probably right. However after a while I began to wonder if it was all deliberately done as a literary technique. Do you think that’s possible or is he really that callous?
      I read an interesting review that suggested it was written like Don Quixote and if that’s true perhaps it was deliberate.

      • ecclemon
        April 17, 2014

        I suppose it could be picaresque style (although I admit it has been many years since I read this book), but it still seems a bit of a low blow; cashing in on the ‘weird Japan’ vibe to sell books. In a similar book written about a more well-known culture that style choice would be obvious and would work better?

      • strivetoengage
        April 17, 2014

        Yes I agree that he was setting out to make money from his intimate knowledge of Japanese language and customs. Hitchhiking must have given him unique insights but he’d already been living and working in Japan and spoke the language which, make his observations even more treacherous to his hosts. I suppose that he was sick of eternally being treated as gaijin and was striking back and I agree that it’s a low blow. Every person that gave him a lift was generous and kind to him and he repaid the with satire and mocking.

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This entry was posted on April 4, 2014 by in Books & Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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