Hitchhiking never crossed my mind as a way to travel in the UK. Too dangerous, I told myself. Too much chance of meeting a pub bore who would pick you up only in order to secure a captive audience for his fascinating stories about the anomalies of European farm subsidies or the gauge specifications of Welsh model railways.
In Japan, though, these worries seem less pressing; hitchhiking is a good way to meet people, and pub bores can be easily put off by pretending a total ignorance of the Japanese language. This, combined with the astronomical cost of Japanese train travel renders hitchhiking a good idea again. Add to that the presence of ninety-six sake breweries clustered on the other side of the prefectural border in Niigata, and suddenly a plan formed in my mind about how best to spend the three day weekend. Go to a big road, hold out a sign for Niigata, and try to get to as many breweries as possible, spending the weekend in a light and pleasant alcoholic fug. Recruiting Toyama`s best dressed man, Ally Lomas, to join me in the endeavour, we set out from Uozu City on a cloudy but mercifully dry Saturday morning.
We stood at the side of Route 8, pasted our biggest smiles to our faces, and held out our sign, its clumsy characters daubed with a fat red marker pen.
Our first ride came in the shape of Oshida san’s (below) pick up truck, which he invited us to ride in the back of.
This is illegal, but he was a snowboarder type and didn’t seem to mind. If you’ve ever wondered what the view from the back of a pick up truck driving along the road to Itoigawa is like, well, you’re in luck. It looks a lot like this
We passed the towns of Oyashirazu and Koshirazu, which mean `unknowing parent` and `unknowing child` respectively. These unusual names illustrate a heart rending tale. In the past, this was the point at which the cliffs rising from the sea were so sheer that the coast road disappeared into the sea. The only way to pass the area was to wade in the sea, nipping from cove to cove with the outgoing waves and tides, and hoping you reached the next one before being swallowed up by the crashing waves. In this race against the elements, parents and children often got separated; parents would have no idea whether their children survived the treacherous route, and vice versa. This is commemorated in both the names of the towns, and in a poignant lone statue depicting a child desperately holding on to his mother`s leg as they struggle against the pounding surf.
Oshida san took us as far as Itoigawa, where our first sake brewery called.
History buffs may be interested to know that the Kaganoi brewery is the oldest in all of Niigata, dating from 1653, and that it was founded by Toshitsune Maeda, the man responsible for most of the early development of my own town, Takaoka city in Toyama. Non history buffs may not give two figs. The taciturn brewery master intoned these facts to us as he showed us round his little empire like a priest reciting sutras, before starting off on what was evidently a well practiced spiel about the youth of today not drinking enough sake. It is a shame; sake in Japan seems to occupy a similar role to local real ale breweries in the UK, by providing drinkers with a local connection to their favoured tipples, strengthening the links between individual and community and supporting the local economy. So it was all the more reason for us to pick up a bottle of the Kaganoi before moving on toward Joetsu.
The main road in these parts is virtually on top of the sea, but hulking rows of tetrapods, looking like so many enormous malevolent insects climbing over each other in a B-movie style land invasion, were unpleasant enough to quash any thoughts of resting on the beach. Still, our walk passed some pleasingly ramshackle buildings (below), and the unseasonal warmth kept our spirits high.
Before long we had secured our third lift from Sato-san (below), a jolly businessman and fisherman.
Enquiries as to his profession were met with interestingly guarded responses; he told us he was a businessman and he had just set up a new import business with some friends in Kyoto, but beyond that he was reluctant to go into detail so I can only suppose he was importing something terribly embarrassing, like enema syringes or Sheffield Wednesday shirts. He sped us past tiny fishing villages clinging to the edge of the land, telling us that come summer these narrow roads get packed with surfers, filling local minshuku (Japanese style bed and breakfast) to capacity. It was this same beach from which some Japanese citizens were plucked by North Korean forces in the 1970s, an incident which still provides an insurmountable obstacle to any thaw in relations between the two countries. When he told us of this, even Sato-san`s apparently permanent jaunty smile slipped momentarily; what for the rest of us is merely one of many abstract diplomatic stumbling blocks is for many in this area a concrete and unimaginably painful tragedy.
Sato-san`s good humour soon returned, however, and he was kind enough to go well past his intended bookshop destination and take us to the tiny Takeda brewery.
They had, alas, finished their season`s brewing, but the young owner was happy to give us a quick tasting of their product, which was smooth, dry and delicious enough to persuade us to relieve him of one bottle and two `one cups` (single sake servings in a glass jar, as depicted in the picture above held by grinning buffoon) of `Katabune` sake for the journey.
Wandering back to the main road took us past a bakery, notable for both its delicious confectionery and an owner who was as camp as a row of tents. Refuelling on choux pastries (the snack of choice for the hardy hitchhiker), we were reminded of the need to press on to a bigger town before nightfall by the low golden disc of the sun. Almost immediately, a car pulled up, inhabited by Yuji the student.
Yuji had come home for the holidays, and it was him who took us to Kashiwazaki, chiefly famous for a massive nuclear power plant that, if you believe some news outlets, came close to meltdown in the Chuetsu earthquake three years ago. It didn`t, though, and its incomprehensible fissile workings continue to provide power for most of those who live on the west side of the Japan Alps. Yuji being a student, it seemed likely he might be more clued up than us as to the strength of Niigata nightlife, so we interrogated him thoroughly on the subject. He assured us that while Kashiwazaki was pretty dull, Nagaoka, the next city, was zettai tanoshii (definitely fun). Based entirely on this thoroughly promising recommendation we decided to cut our losses and take a train there. As it turns out, the misconception under which Yuji was labouring was about the size of Canterbury Cathedral. Nagaoka looked duller than a ten watt bulb, and further reconnaissance did little to improve our opinions; it felt eerily like we were Jehovah`s witnesses and the whole city was collectively pretending not to be in. Interestingly, though, the first three hotels we tried for a room were all full, despite the streets being empty. It might be considered a bad sign that the most vibrant nightlife was evidently in the upper floor rooms of a Dormy Inn.
All was not lost, though, and tramping round and round the city streets brought us dinner, and a bar which served organic local ale, pumpkin cheesecake and live jazz played by a group of locals exhibiting obscene amounts of both musical talent and inebriation; most memorable was the guitarist, who could quite possibly have been arrested on charges of wearing a purple velour waistcoat without due care and attention. Wedged into a couple of corner seats, the pleasantness of the beer, music and sustenance led us to wonder if maybe Nagaoka wasn’t so bad after all.
Next morning was rainy, cold, and viciously windy, and we swiftly regained our original thoughts about the town. After failing signally to find any sake breweries, being dismissed with uncustomary haughtiness by an octogenarian in the Tourist Information Centre, and seeing Nagaoka`s sole attraction of a war damage memorial museum, it was time to cut and run. Holding out our Niigata sign, fingers numbing and water blowing through our waterproofs, we must have cut a sorry enough sight for Mr. and Mrs. Yamazaki and their Maltese, Kojiro (below), to pick us up and get us towards the more hospitable environs of Niigata City.