Sakura and Saké: Hitchhiking for Foreigners

Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan by Will Ferguson 448 pp. Canongate $22.95

by Greg Kirwin

Will Ferguson begins his journey through Japan in Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan with a drunken promise to hitchhike from the southern to the northern tips of Japan, following the cherry blossoms in the spring. The following extensive trip encompassing both the heavily populated urban centers of Japan and the small villages in between is enthralling and descriptive. What makes the difference for Ferguson is his mode of travel. Hitchhiking allows Ferguson to interact with the Japanese people in a very intimate and unique fashion, giving him glimpses of their culture and language, though he often reverts to generalizations when attempting to understand the heart of the nation.

Ferguson enjoys the adventure inherent in relying on others to get one to a destination. Though the Japanese are very polite with, if not afraid of, foreigners, he has little trouble finding a ride for a significant portion of the book. Near the middle of his journey, he remarks that he had already been able to hitchhike with 27 drivers (Ferguson 254). Taking this number into consideration, Ferguson had close to 50 unique drivers during the course of his adventure, with “[fifty] cars. [Fifty] ‘Hellos.’ [Fifty] ‘What is your names?’” (254). Needless to say, this method of travel provides personal insight into the lives of the many different people Ferguson travels with: fishermen, businessmen, mothers, fathers, families, retirees, other teachers, and womanizers. Each driver’s unique perspective adds to the idea of a vastly different Japan.

Having already lived in Japan for a number of years, Ferguson is familiar with the people, the language, and the culture, to a certain extent. His repertoire of Japanese is fairly limited. He enjoys many parts of the Japanese culture and tradition, but often relegates it to grand generalizations that fail to capture the finer aspects of whatever he is writing about. For example, he compresses Japanese celebrations to the following: “Cherry blossoms: drunk on saké; wildflowers: drunk on saké; harvest moon: drunk on saké…” (6). Not much cultural information can be gleaned from such a reduction. In fact, Ferguson uses every possible “teachable” moment to generalize the Japanese culture. There are many factoids like “[i]n Japan, male bonding generally involves a lot of drunken laughter” (91) that do nothing with the information that could have been gathered from the book. Perhaps he wanted to take individuals and relate them together, but when he has only spoken to twenty people in the city, it is difficult to believe his assumptions are correct. In fact, Ferguson encounters this problem when kind citizens are accused of indifference to the hitchhiker on a particularly rainy day. Ferguson has the ability to share profound thoughts, but tries too hard to make them universal for the Japanese.

One of the most important aspects of Hokkaido Highway Blues is the personal insight obtained from Ferguson’s existence as a foreigner in Japan. Just as it has been throughout history, Ferguson finds that Japan is closed off to outsiders, reluctant to include them in its traditions. At several points in the book, the author feels he is unable to connect to any of those around him: “The Japanese are not a coldhearted people… The problem is… [y]ou are welcome as an outsider… The door is open but the chain is on” (115). Ferguson is thus twice removed, from his family in Canada, and his friends from his workplace in Kyushu. Out in the rest of Japan, he is more feared and treated as a curio, especially in the smaller villages he visits on his way to Hokkaido. Ferguson ends his travels with more personal discoveries than about the people he meets along the way, like his own feelings towards the Japanese, and about his capacity to rely completely on others’ charitability for transportation.

Even through all of the interactions with hundreds of people in the space of a couple months, Ferguson is still ultimately a foreigner, reduced to observance of culture, rather than submersion in it. This being said, there is still a very intimate level of engagement on the author’s part when he is, for example, talking to other Japanese travelers, or discussing dialects and cultural boundaries with innkeepers (231, 369). Several times, Ferguson is made to consider his purpose in the country, and whether or not he should give up on his journey, because he cannot connect to others the way he would like. However, more often than not, a kind soul aids him with whatever problems he may have, speaking to the politeness and manners of the Japanese. Oddly enough, Ferguson fails to draw this conclusion. The author thus misses his own purpose by turning the focus of his writing inwards where it may serve a better purpose outwards.

While Hokkaido Highway Blues may be an entertaining and contemporary travelogue through Japan, it falters where the author simply stays on the surface level of interaction and insight. Ferguson chooses to focus his book on himself, allowing him to form generalizations instead of finding the “heart of Japan” while chasing the sakura. By the end, it is obvious to the reader that the important aspect of the book is not the cherry blossoms, but the people in each niche of Japanese life. The true center of Japan eludes Ferguson in writing, though it seems he may have already found it in the people he meets in getting to Hokkaido.