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.
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.