Even at sea level the fog was thick, and it made a pea soup look like a fine consommé at the top of the Rebungé Pass, where I encountered this mysterious figure.
I stopped for lunch at a Seicomart, where another customer was doing his best to supplement the fog with exhaust fumes, a habit that is known in Japan as ‘idling’ – ie. leaving the engine running even when one’s car is stationary.
It is no exaggeration to say that from when they leave the house to whenever they get back again, no Japanese person ever switches their car engine off under any circumstances. In fact, many turn it on in readiness ten or fifteen minutes in advance, and don’t turn it off again until everything and everyone is unloaded and back indoors at the end of their trip. If, therefore, you happen to be a car thief, Japan is very much the place to be, as there is no need to hot-wire the ignition, pick the lock or even break a window, and even top-of-the-range models will be left with the engine ticking over, warmed up and ready to steal.
A reasonable argument for ‘idling’ is that in winter there is a danger that your car might not start again when you get back in. Even with the temperature below freezing and several metres of snow on the ground, though, Japanese cars are still the most efficient in the world, and five minutes in the cold is hardly likely to damage them beyond repair or necessitate being towed to the nearest garage by an AA van. Conversely, in the heat of summer it can be advantageous to have the cooler on in readiness for when one returns to one’s car, but there is rarely a need for this in temperate Hokkaido, and in any case, this particular offender – like so many others I have witnessed – had the windows rolled down.
At another convenience store in another part of Hokkaido on an equally balmy day, I had seen a mother leave her children in the car while she went shopping. One of them – who can’t have been more than six or seven years old – climbed into the driver’s seat and began revving the accellerator, and having noticed this, rather than switch off the engine like any sensible person, she merely opened the door, told him to stop and went back into the store.
One final incident that sticks in my mind was a family who parked their car next to the beach in Minato-machi and spent the entire evening watching the on-board DVD player, all the while with the engine running and the temperature outside warm enough that I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. (Did they have the cooler on, I wondered, or the heating? Or perhaps neither? Or even both? Or was the DVD player so power-hungry that with no idling it would run down the car battery?). If nothing else, this reminded me of my fellow Brits, many of whom are fond of going for a day out at the beach and never once setting foot outside their cars, choosing instead to enjoy the view through a misty windscreen, over a flask of tea and some sandwiches.
At Lake Tohya in the Shikotsu-Tohya National Park, I enjoyed this view unobstructed by a misty windscreen and while eating a box of Choco Pie.
Among other things the Eco Gallery showed how Japan is only 40% calorie self-sufficient, and that partly as a consequence of this, its food miles are the biggest (or should that be the furthest?) in the world – around three times greater than the US and Korea, for example. On average, a house built in Japan remains standing for just thirty years (as opposed to 55 in the US and 77 in the UK), and the Japanese use more than two hundred plastic bags per person per year, making for a total of around thirty billion. They also use around twenty-five billion sets of wari-bashi (割り箸 / disposable chopsticks) annually, which despite the wood and bamboo used to produce them being plentiful in Japan, are almost all imported from China.
At around the time I went on this tour, it was fashionable to carry ‘my hashi’ – ie. ‘my chopsticks’ – for use instead of wari-bashi at restaurants and the like. In the manner of a samurai with his sword, I would un-sheath my my hashi from their special scabbard almost every day, but while even now I still carry a set in my man-bag – and despite China having imposed an eco-friendly tax on the wari-bashi it exports – I am quite possibly the only person left in the entire country who does so.
(A note on Japanese usage for those of you who are interested in that kind of thing: the counter for chopsticks is zen / 膳, so one set is ichi-zen / 一膳, two sets are ni-zen / 二膳, and so on.)
Just as I was about to take a roadside pee on my way into Muroran, the driver of a flash-looking sports car pulled over and introduced himself as Mr Crocodile Field.
‘Of course. I was just, er, taking a quick break. Your English is very good – where did you learn?’
‘I’ve travelled a lot. Europe, India, Vietnam - I spent a year in Thailand and my Thai lessons were in English, which helped.’
Mr Crocodile Field’s own man-bag was in the ‘ethnic’ style, and he told me that he ran a company importing fabrics.
‘I’m thinking of moving into antiques, though,’ he said, 'so I’ve just been to a viewing for an auction. European antiques are too expensive, so I’m going to concentrate on Japanese ones instead.’
Upon finding out that Mr Crocodile Field lived in Muroran, I suggested that we meet up for a drink later, but he told me that it would be difficult as he was driving, so we said our farewells and I cycled on through the suburbs.
‘You took your time!’ he said, and once I had checked in and unpacked, we got into his car and went out for a teetotal evening meal.
Over a succession of exotic seafood dishes, none of which we knew the English translations for, Mr Crocodile Field told me of his fondness for reading Sherlock Holmes, listening to Enya and smoking roll-ups (he imported the Rizlas himself, he said), and of how he modelled his hairstyle on Ewan McGregor’s in The Phantom Menace.
On the way back to the youth hostel we crossed the 1380 metre-long Swan Bridge over Muroran Bay, where the road was almost empty.
To be honest, Mr Crocodile Field’s driving was erratic at best, and even after nearly five weeks of being passed by cars and trucks on narrow roads, in dark tunnels, through high winds and the heavy rain, I can honestly say that I never felt as vulnerable or as concerned for my safety as I did in Mr Crocodile Field’s sports car. And that is the fundamental irony of travel, I thought to myself later: the faster the mode of transport we are using, the more impatient we become. Mr Mountain Mouth, for example, probably never found himself in a hurry during his entire eight-month hike from one end of Japan to the other, but how many of us have sat in an airport departure lounge bemoaning the fact that our flight – which will whisk us away to our destination at several hundred kilometres per hour – has been delayed?