Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen: The Deep North

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

“The months and days are eternal travelers, so too, the passing years. Those who spend their years upon the briny deep or grow old leading horses across the land are lifelong wanderers. Many were the ancients who died while on the road. I, too, for how long, I do not know, have been seduced by the cloud-driving wind to a life of wandering.”

When the poet Matsuo Basho left old Edo, and set out upon his pilgrimage in the spring of 1689, he was forty-six years old. He was headed north, to Echigo, in search of poetic inspiration. His journal of the trip, “The Narrow Road To The Deep North,” is one of the most magnificent works in classical Japanese literature. He was on the road for 156 days, almost entirely on foot. Even today Basho is revered in Japan for having the courage to forsake the material comforts of the temporal life in favor of the spiritual rewards of a life unfettered by possessions.

Basho walked; I took a YS-11 turboprop. Unlike the big jets that fly over most of the weather, the YS-11’s props need the viscous air of lower altitudes. Bouncing along between the towering cumulus congestus in the thinning light of late afternoon, I got my first tantalizing glimpses of northern Japan. It is a broken landscape of crumpled mountains interspersed with small farming communities sheltered in deep valleys. Even from an altitude of 20,000 feet, it looks lonely.

In minutes, we cover the ground that Basho needed months to travel. Also on board are Nakada, my boss from the ad agency; Ikeda, the art director; our photographer Koh (a.k.a. Mr. Cool); and Tanaka, a mid-level executive from Yamaha’s PR division. The bikes (an RZ500, FZ750, XJ900, XT600, and XT350) left three days previously from Kobe by ferry, along with the photo van and Koh’s assistants. We’ll all hook up at the hotel tonight.

We are traveling not only much faster than Basho, but much farther north, as well. Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Until recently inhabited only by the Ainu, Japan’s native people, Hokkaido is a frontier land of wide-open spaces, long cold winters, and warm-hearted women. As we break out of the clouds and enter the pattern over Asahikawa, wide rivers reach for the horizon and rolling wheat fields carpet the landscape – Japan’s wild west.

“Ohaiyo gozaimasu! (Good morning!)” We’re just checking in at the run-down hotel at 6:00 p.m. when the camera crew comes bouncing in. After two days spent loafing on a ferry, they’re full of energy and ready to party. Regardless of the time of day, ‘Good morning!’ is the standard greeting in Japan’s film industry. Language is just one of the many ways groups in Japan reinforce their sense of separateness from other groups. There are, for example, words and ways of speaking that only women use (women’s language) just as there are words and phrases used only by men. Thus, the differences between the sexes are reinforced, rather than blurred – differences we can explore in more detail in a later chapter.

After a quick pit stop in our rooms, we rendezvous in the lobby, then head out on the town. It turns out that Koh, our camera guy, is a native of Asahikawa. This would be just the first of many shoots we would work on together, and we struck up a subtle friendship that has continued to this day. Koh personifies “the Japanese cameraman.” His long hair, sunglasses, and casual, yet expensive, clothing set him apart from his fellow Japanese, as does his calm, unhurried manner. But, what truly distinguishes him from his ever-serious countrymen was what the Sicilians call menefreghismo–a finely cultivated air of not giving a s@#t. It is all an elaborate act, of course. It soon became clear that Koh worked just as hard and worried just as much as everyone else.

Following Koh’s lead, we are soon traipsing through a warren of narrow back streets that take us to a cozy sushi bar just outside the main entertainment district. The restaurant is about half the size of a one-car garage. The wall behind the counter is covered with vertical blocks of wood hanging on pegs. Each has the Japanese characters for the foods and dishes available this evening. No need to look at a menu, it’s right there on the wall.

“Welcome, Koh-san,” says the chef with a smile. “Long time, no see.” Koh introduces us, and soon we are all elbow to elbow toasting the coming job with slender glasses of chilled beer. There is only room for us tonight, and though most of us have never met before, the enforced intimacy soon has us chatting away like old friends.

Running the length of the bar is a huge slab of hand-planed hinoki, white cedar.
“Beautiful piece of wood,” I say to Koh.
“Should be, it cost about 5K.”
“How much?”

Koh and the chef share a laugh at my naivete. Only later did I learn that white cedar is used for its natural anti-bacterial resins – ideal when one is serving raw foods.

The chef is a typical specimen of the sushi shokunin (sushi master chef). Tough but friendly, they demand respect or you can take your business elsewhere. As for prices, he charges what he thinks you can pay. Like most shokunin, he spent years as an apprentice, years of learning how to boil rice properly (no, you don’t just add water and boil), how to sharpen the knives – years of learning his craft from his master.

Deshi is the word for apprentice. The deshi is the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. He does whatever he is told without question. And if he wants to learn anything, he better keep his eyes open and his wits about him, because there will be little in the way of verbal instruction.

An apprentice who asks too many questions is sent home in disgrace. “Don’t speak logic!” his master will yell, rapping him on top of the head with his knuckles. As with everything else to be learned in Japan, there is no instant gratification, no sudden enlightenment. The most important lesson a deshi learns is to be humble amidst the vast body of knowledge before him.

When learning the traditional arts of Japan, there is no teaching in the conventional sense of the word, at least not as Westerners think of it. Rather, the apprentice must learn by carefully watching his master. He must absorb the skills with his body, not with his mind. Gi o nusumu, is the Japanese phrase. It means, “to steal the skill of the master.”

Appetizers of marinated squid and steamed and salted soybeans are followed by hot sake and paper-thin slices of North Pacific salmon. Then come meaty blocks of roast tofu, strips of gobo root wrapped in dried seaweed and fatty chunks of raw, melt-in-your-mouth tuna.
Our chef’s wife, a porcelain beauty from this land of snows, shuttles back and forth from the tiny kitchen, filling our glasses, removing empty dishes, catering to our every wish. Smiling warmly, like the mothers in our dreams, she makes us all feel that we are among family, that our presence is appreciated, and that here at least, if nowhere else, we will always be welcome. Aside from Koh, none of us has ever been here before, and we will probably never return. In another hour or so, we will be saying our goodbyes and departing into the cold night. Already, I feel lonely.

Sure enough, bellies full, we are soon outside in the chilly night air. Whatever loneliness anyone may be feeling is well-masked by all that sake. A powwow is held.

“Where next,” says Nakada.
“Come on Nick-san,” says Koh. There are some ladies just down the street who want to meet you.”
“Hey, I gotta ride tomorrow. You don’t want me crashing one of those pretty bikes, do you?”
Protest proves futile. A short walk through a maze of neon-lit streets and up two flights of rickety stairs brings us to Snack Misty.

“It’s Koh-san!” Cries of girlish delight tinkle like snowflakes from the doorway. Before my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I feel a soft, feminine presence by my side. Taking my arm, the sweet-smelling feline guides me gently to a plush sofa. Pupils dilated, I notice that there is a girl doting on each of us. Koh is holding court, introducing his clients from the big city, showing off his foreign friend, and basking in the attention from the ladies.

Mizuwari (whiskey and water) is the drink of choice in the hostess clubs, a nasty concoction I’ve never liked. Sipping girlishly on a gin and tonic, I wait until everyone is too plastered to notice, then say goodbye to the honey and return alone to the hotel.

We all get a few good opportunities in life. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is being able to recognize an opportunity when it comes along and then make the most of it. And I’m not about to blow this golden opportunity by getting drunk and doing something stupid, like binning a bike, on my first modeling assignment.

So, of course, the next day I crash the first bike I ride. And not a minor tip-over, either. Oh, no, not me. When I crash, I do it right! This is a full-on high-side, ending with me face down in the dirt, the bike upside down and a suddenly very quiet group of people wondering if they’ve just wasted a huge amount of money setting up a shoot for some guy who can’t ride, after all.

“Nick-san! You hurt?” says Nakada.
“Only my pride.”

The day had started out innocently enough. We left the hotel that morning at 4:00 a.m. and drove out into the milky dawn, headed towards Furano. Our first stop was a freshly plowed field next to a dirt road. Out comes the XT600 Paris-Dakar Replica. Ikeda, the art director, has decided that the pretty forest in the background will make a great catalog shot for Europe. “Just like the Black Forest,” he says. Yeah, right. Not being a motorcycle rider, it has never occurred to him that this deep, loamy soil might not be the best terrain on which to ride a top-heavy pig like an XT600 Paris-Dakar model. The shot list calls for a low-speed, tight-turning maneuver. Throwing a leg over the high-seated beast, I immediately notice that some diligent Munchkin back in Hamamatsu has filled the large-capacity fuel tank to the brim. Great, there’s an added ten or fifteen pounds sitting on top of a bike that even Basketball Jones would have a hard time swinging a leg over.

Anyway, I start making passes for the camera. With the narrow front tire plowing into the loose soil, it takes all my strength to make the cow follow directions. After a few passes, Ikeda – he of the potbelly and squishy handshake – comes over and says. “Nick-san, your elbows are kind of sticking out. Can you hold them in closer to your body?” Being new to the world of motorcycle modeling and eager to please, I had yet to learn to not take riding instructions from foppish art directors who don’t even know which end of a screwdriver to pound on.

Sure enough, without leverage on the bars, on my next pass, the beast tucks the front wheel, comes to a sudden stop and spits me off like a rodeo rider wannabe. I hit the dirt face down and ass up, just as the shutter drops.

I still have the photo. It serves as a humbling reminder that pride goeth before a high-side.

Fortunately, the rest of the day goes splendidly. Koh gets racy shots of me sliding around on the XT350, and we take a series of artsy photos of the FZ750 and RZ500 zooming along flower-lined country roads. This was a rare opportunity to ride two very different bikes on the same day across the same stretch of road. Surprisingly, the FZ was much more flickable than the RZ and had much nicer power. Only on the brakes was the RZ better. Still, I couldn’t help fantasizing about what that RZ would be like with a set of chambers, a millimeter whacked off each head, and a bit of porting. The day ends with another fantastic meal in a homey restaurant where we are, again, made to feel like part of the family. Three days later I’m back in Tokyo.

Hokkaido and its people have left a deep impression on me. I find myself wondering: Can one be homesick for a place that was never one’s home?

Departing spring;
Birds cry,
Fishes weep.

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