A few months ago I read Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan (also under the title Hitching Rides With Buddha) by Will Ferguson and it’s recently been on my mind. Between Japan being hit with an earthquake and tsunami, the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) passing the country and my current week-long trip to Vancouver where I’m attending a Cherry Blossom event, it feels very applicable today. While it didn’t completely enthrall me like a really good book would, it was still a book I couldn’t put down because I knew it was teaching me really interesting and culturally important stuff.
Will Ferguson is an English language teacher in Japan and convinces his supervisor to allow him some time off. He decides to travel from the very south part of the island to the very north. But only by hitchhiking! He chooses to follow the cherry blossom front which begins blooming at the south of the island in early springtime and works its way north. Along the way, he is picked up by a variety of people, visits unique cities (not always by choice) and attends various sakura festivals and parties (always a highlight).
The Japanese are very proud of their cherry blossoms. They track the cherry blossom front on the news just like you would follow a major storm headed your way. Once the trees are in bloom, the alcohol and food (and then more alcohol) is brought out and friends, coworkers and families have sakura parties under the trees. Ferguson is great at describing the events and pointing out cultural differences with his Canadian perspective.
Hitchhiking is illegal in Japan, but he seems to always have some sort of luck and people are friendly and eager to help him. This resonates with what I’ve seen on the news recently with how the Japanese are reacting to the disasters in their country. They don’t seem to be overreacting. They are put with something they aren’t used to dealing with (and they shouldn’t have to deal with), but they take it in stride. They make sure they have enough, but not selfishly, and they watch out for their neighbors. Even though Ferguson is picked up by some people who don’t really have the time to take a hitchhiker, they go out of their way, by their own choice, not by Ferguson’s force, to bring him somewhere safe.
There are many Japanese people in Vancouver. The city holds cherry blossom-related events most days from 26 March to 22 April. If you’ll be in the city, you can find the events on the very pink Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Website. I’m attending one of the Cherry Blossom Walk & Talks in Westend & Downtown, but there are a lot of other things going on. If you are interested in cherry blossom textiles, cherry blossom tea or haikus, there is something for you at Vancouver’s month-long festival!
Hokkaido Highway Blues was a great way to learn about the Japanese mindset, cherry blossom activities and traveler’s adventures. It also gave me inspiration to travel to a country I honestly didn’t know much about (besides war and electronics). I now know that Japan is more than manga and Buddhism.
If you want more reading recommendations, check out Travel Fiction and Memoirs.