Wrong Way Round – Day 15

Wrong Way Round – Day 15

Lake Kussharo – On-neyu (屈斜路湖 – 温根湯) – 111km

At the Wakoto campsite the temperature fell to single figures, and during the course of the night I put on pretty much every item of clothing I had, including long trousers and a raincoat with the hood up. In the tent next to mine was a scooter-riding university student from Yamagata Prefecture who was at Lake Kussharo for the fly fishing. As it turned out he had been the second-to-last customer at Mrs Bamboo Child’s ramen restaurant the previous evening, and like me had been regaled with her life story. By eating the last one of the day, he had also inadvertently deprived me of the opportunity to sample Mrs Bamboo Child’s homemade dango_ (団子), although even at eight in the morning a dango stall next to the campsite was open for business.

Elsewhere in Japan, dango are rice flour dumplings, steamed or boiled and served three or four at a time on wooden kebab sticks. In Hokkaido they can also be – as the stallholder explained – big, burger-shaped patties made from potato and cornflour, deep fried, frozen, re-fried and served with a sticky, sweet variation on soy sauce. Whatever was in them and however they were made, my breakfast dango possessed outstanding powers of nutrition, and I positively flew to the top of the Bihoro Pass, from which the view of Kussharo is justifiably renowned.
The Pass even has its own song, which echoed out across the mountains from a set of all-weather speakers next to its very own commemorative stone plaque.
Originally perfomed by a woman called Hibari Misora, Bihoro Pass has quite possibly the most depressing lyrics I’ve heard this side of the last Joy Division album:

It was a holiday I went on to forget you, but
My heart lost its way in the fog
Standing at the pass where I couldn’t see a thing
At least my hatred began to fade
Oh, Bihoro Pass. Here at the ends of the Earth the fog came down

The next day at Lake Saroma – or was it Lake Mashu?
The drizzly sky was heartbreaking
The shadow of a retreating figure, a man pointing at Wakoto Town

Somehow reminded me of you
Oh, Bihoro Pass. Here at the ends of the Earth the wind is howling

These hands that once held me close to your heart
Are now crying tears of sleet
The ice like lotus leaves
reminds me of love’s fragility
And begins to blur as it sinks into the lake
Oh, Bihoro Pass. Here at the ends of the Earth the snow is dancing

In Kitami City I called in at an old-style kissaten (喫茶店 / coffee shop) called El Paso (‘since 1978’, the sign said), and got talking to the only other customer, an eccentric old man in a hand-graffitied t-shirt who carried with him a portfolio full of paintings. There were still lifes of a turnip, a tape measure and a money box, and views of a church, a lighthouse and various tourist spots in Tokyo, and despite being reminiscent of the kind of thing serial killers paint while they’re on death row (the proper critical term is ‘naive’), the pictures had a charm all of their own and a child-like disregard for the laws of perspective.

Not for nothing does Kitami’s official mascot have an onion for a head, as the surrounding countryside is so full of onion fields that on this mid-August evening the air even smelled of them: a mouthwatering aroma that made it feel as if I was cycling past a long line of hot dog stands.

0 thoughts on “Wrong Way Round – Day 15

  1. “A woman called Hibari Misora”?!! Superstar of Japanese popular music for decades, still loved many years after her death, have some respect!
    Apart from this, love your blog. You remind me of Alan Booth – you did this trip so I don’t have to. I’ll catch the train.

    1. John, your knowledge of old-school J-pop is almost a match for my father-in-law’s!
      As you correctly guessed, I know no more about Hibari Misora than what I found while Googling for the lyrics to Bihoro Pass, although I have since been told by one of my students that another of her famous songs (her most famous?) is about the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori, which given the remoteness of the location is, I assume, similarly bleak and depressing.
      Thank you very much for reading and for mentioning me in the same breath as the great Mr Booth, and in case you don’t already happen to be aware of it, the Seishun 18 Kippu is probably your best bet for a cheap, exercise-free tour of Japan!

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