by Paul Atienza
If you are a gaijin (foreigner) who wants to be exposed to real Japanese culture, then hitchhike the archipelago with Will Ferguson in Hitching Rides with Buddha.
The Sakura Zensen or the “Cherry Blossom Front” is a whirlwind of flower petals that travels throughout Japan from south to north. It has been said to mark the culmination of winter as well as the commencement of spring. This phenomenon is often observed through joyous celebrations at parties with friends or deep reflections of life at cemeteries. At one fateful cherry blossom party or hanami, Will Ferguson, Canadian writer and English teacher who was drunker than in previous years, proclaimed to his colleagues of his plans to follow the Cherry Blossom Front. Three years later he set out on his journey from his residence on the remote Amakusa Islands all the way to the northern end of Japan, Hokkaido. Despite others’ suggestions of taking the train to reach his destination, Ferguson decided to hitchhike in order to travel with the Japanese instead of viewing from afar, being the first ever to do so. In the course of four hundred pages, Ferguson encounters an assorted bunch of characters ranging from a university professor to a mafia man to sailors. In addition, Ferguson visits various locations and landmarks including shrines to the many gods of Shinto, castles from the Warring States Era, an island with the “Wisest Monkeys in Japan,” and even a museum devoted to sex. To add to the places he visits, he includes brief and informative histories of Shintoism, of different eras, folklore, and as well as famous people in the past and present such as sumo wrestler “The Wolf” (Chiyonofuji). All in all, he begins to understand Japan as much as a foreigner possibly could. Through his humor and recurring racial stereotypes, Ferguson determines the role of a foreigner in Japan which is a paradoxical one where the person is and is not part of the country.
Due to Ferguson’s spontaneous mindset, most of the events in Hitching Rides with Buddha come off as humorous, differentiating his book from other travelogues. Most writings about travels would probably talk about the dry history in a poetic or romanticized fashion or just have the entire journey comedic. However, Ferguson has an informative while fun experience in Japan accentuated with the hitchhiking aspect and the addition of interesting historical information and folklore. His interactions with various people make Ferguson’s humor apparent. For example, Ferguson met a man who pestered him by practicing his English with a barrage of pointless as well as prejudiced questions. It is through these encounters that Ferguson’s voice is heard in the form of his stream of consciousness writing style. He basically comments on the situations mostly suggesting that the Japanese are still strange and foreign to him despite living in Japan for a considerable amount of time. It is through his writing style that he comes off as funny by the way he presents these encounters. Also, Ferguson’s spontaneity adds to his humor in addition to hitchhiking. He does not really have a detailed itinerary of everything he will do on his journey, but instead Ferguson makes spur-of-the-moment decisions that frequently put him in life threatening yet hilarious states i.e. his traumatic snake incident on the island with the “Wisest Monkeys in Japan.” Such impulsive actions add to the unpredictability of his work, making it interesting. Seeing all of these events and places makes Ferguson feel like an outsider of Japan because of their novelty. Through hitchhiking, Ferguson illustrates that the act of going on an adventure in itself is enjoyable, which is made apparent in his humor with his entire journey.
Also through these diverse encounters, prevalent themes of racial stereotypes reveal themselves such as the constant mistaken references of Ferguson as an American despite of the fact that he is a Canadian. That example theme parallels the Western, Orientalist stereotype of all Asians being the same despite originating from different countries such as China or Korea. The Japanese pride in their technology as “number one” presents another theme that parallels the West. In the past around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Westerners had pride in themselves too in which they believed that they were a dominant and superior influence in the world through their imperialistic efforts. These themes provide a glimpse of the similarities between the Japanese and the Westerners despite aesthetic and geographic differences.
Overall, Ferguson is able to show a reality of a travel in Japan for Westerners, establishing the place of foreigners in Japan where they are seen as part of the country, while at the same time not. The Westerners are part of Japan in the similarities of both reflected in the racial stereotype themes of pride and mistaking other races’ identities. Ferguson’s humor that comes with his descriptions of the multitude of meetings he has with the Japanese reflects a Western view of Japan, that the people are novel, strange, and odd. Through that mindset of Japan, Ferguson is still just an outsider despite having lived in Japan for a considerable amount of time. Therefore, Hitching Rides with Buddha truly exemplifies a realistic trip for a foreigner in Japan.