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Forty-five kilometers. Loose pants. No belt.

July 22, 2009

(Originally Published 30/09/2007)

Facts about the Yodogawa (Yodo River):
The Yodogawa begins when three rivers (Uji, Katsura, and Kizu) converge just north of Yawata at a town called, mysteriously enough, Yodo.  It flows past Hirakata and all the way to Osaka Bay.  According to Wikipedia, the Yodo River is seventy-five kilometers long.  I walked forty-five of those.More...

Yep, this is another story of a long walk.  Walking is my passion.  To be more specific, I walked thirty kilometers of the river and fifteen kilometers around Osaka.  I didn’t intend for this to become another epic adventure, it just sort of happened.  It all started in downtown Hirakata-shi on Saturday night.  I was hanging out with Willy, Abby, and Darrin and we were sitting by the river just talking and watching little fish leap out of the water as they attempted to climb some stairs.  The group was supposed to go meet someone at 6:00 for karaoke but I didn’t really want to go and I’m really glad I didn’t because I was able to find something that will allow me to experience Hirakata my way.

One thing that has really been bugging me here is the lack of river paths.  Eugene has a beautiful path along the Willamette, Portland has a beautiful path along a different fork of the Willamette, and I really missed walking along rivers.  Well, Hirakata has a riverside park too!  I sat by the river for awhile watching the fishermen on the bank.  Fish of substantial size were leaping into the air like mad but I didn’t see anyone catching anything.  Every now and then there were signs embedded in the path or placed near water features or the river saying “Nomanai de!” (Don’t drink!)  I wonder what kind of person would think this water was okay to drink.  It certainly didn’t look or smell very good and I know that there are lots of factories upriver from Hirakata.

There are large, open grassy areas around the park as well as fountains with rock features and areas roped off for various activities (although for what, I’m not sure…).  There is a large amphitheater dug out of one of the grassy knolls and the huge stage has an intricate recreation of the manhole covers of Hirakata-shi.  For those who don’t know, Japanese manhole covers aren’t just ordinary round pieces of metal.  They have fancy designs on them and each city has a different pattern.  Hirakata’s pattern looks like some men on a fishing boat pulling into a wharfside market.  Anyway, there’s a huge version of this in the amphitheater and it’s done in color!  Nearby there is a large pointy wand thing, similar to a skewer with a large round shish-ka-bob near the top, sticking up into the air with an electronic news ticker spinning around it.  It looked like it was mostly advertisements but I had a good time watching it go around and around.  Time and temperature would sure have been nice.  The battery recently gave out in my watch and I haven’t replaced it yet so I have been wandering around the last several days without knowing what time it is.

Anyway, I decided to walk a little ways down the river and see how far the park went and figured I’d double back and walk by Hirakata Park (yes, Hirakata has a theme park!) because I’ve never been in that neighborhood either.  There is a railing near the river that is supposed to keep people back and it warns, “It’s dangerous!  Please don’t go any further!”  Just about everywhere there was a sign there was a fisherman resting on the other side of it.  I continued on down river and found myself walking next to thick, dark jungles!  I found a small, dirt path leading off into the thicket but decided it was best to keep out of Mirkwood during my first trip there in the dark because who knows what might be in there.  There were all sorts of forts hidden away deep in the bushes close to the water but I couldn’t tell if there was anyone inside or not.  It was very peaceful walking along the path because the city was mostly hidden by the steep embankments on either side of the river.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone.  Just me and the crickets.  However, now and then I did indeed pass some people out for evening strolls and as I passed one group of high school girls they said, “Hi!”  “Hi,” I answered, chuckling a little, and looked back in surprise when I heard one of the girls turn around and begin chasing me.  She quickly stopped and spun around to return to her friends, giggling and looking rather sheepish that I’d caught on to her little game.

Not too far into the walk it began to rain lightly.  It was a good thing I brought my backpack with me to school because I had my rain jacket in it.  Anyway, I was happy to have the rain because it was very gentle and reminded me of Oregon.  I passed an apartment building with a giant picture on the side of a bear wearing a hardhat.  Hmm, it’s hard to fix that sentence so there isn’t a dangling modifier…  Oh well, on we go!  This was the way I could bring a feeling of home to Japan – my little piece of the country.  I passed some large, open grassy areas that said “Golf” and then had the kanji for forbidden and stopping.  I guess this means that you shouldn’t walk around on the grass because you might get hit by golf balls.  Walking under a bridge, I looked up to see traffic backed up in both directions across the entire length of the bridge as people patiently (or not) waited to get home.  I passed a group of kids playing basketball in the dark and found a little park with a bunch of sculptures in the sandbox.  It was quite an assortment of things to climb on or trip over: a shinkansen (bullet train), a zebra, a kangaroo, a panda, a koala, a bear, a tiger, a lion (oh my), a cheetah, an elephant, a hippo, a bridge (one of the bridges that crosses over the river a little further on), a steam train, a crocodile barely sticking up out of the sand, and a couple of spaceships.  I walked along in the dark between neat rows of red and yellow flowers.

Soon, I passed a putter golf (mini-golf) and gateball (croquet) course.  I moved up to the higher path along the embankment and looking to my left I could see the city, to my right and directly in front was the river and the park, and to my far right was another part of the city way across the river.  I passed a dojo where a guy was getting appreciative “Ooh!”s and “Aah!”s from his fellow students as he kicked a pad a guy was holding.  Far off in the distance I could see the lights of some city way up high in the mountains.  I think those mountains are on the far side of Osaka Bay.  Perhaps it was Kobe I was looking at, I don’t know.  Whenever I crossed under a bridge (and there were many, many opportunities) I had to wade carefully through garbage and sleeping homeless people.  Every now and then something would grab my attention in the city, such as a giant set of McDonald’s golden arches or a building covered with crazy flashing strobe lights (it had to have been a pachinko parlour).  Apartment complexes sprang up at odd angles all over the place and they set themselves apart from their neighbors by slightly changing the graphics drawn on the side of the building: the box would move in relation to the lines or change its angle.  With every apartment building I passed I could hear some squealing children inside.  Apartments are called “mansions” in Japanese.  Don’t let the name mislead you, they are smaller than most apartments you will find in America.

More cars rumbled across each new bridge and I reached a bridge where trains were crossing back and forth and the reflections in the river were really cool.  Every now and then an airplane would descend loudly overhead and I could watch them landing not too far away at Kansai International Airport.  Underneath a nearby expressway, a lumpy octopus slide sat motionless and forboding in the shadows.  I have never been in a place in Japan where it gets dark.  There are always too many city lights nearby.  Suddenly I found myself at a sign that presented an interesting dilemma.  “17.2 km to Osaka Bay.”  Aha!  So the park goes all the way to the bay!  I had already gone over 10 km and it seemed like a good idea to keep going instead of turning around.  I passed under the Kinki Expressway and, lo and behold, there was a boathouse down amongst the houses below the embankment and there was what can only have been a young Japanese rowing crew sitting on the floor doing stretches surrounded by at least a dozen racing shells!  Whee!  I was really excited but I didn’t go down and talk to them.  I need to learn some rowing vocabulary before I attempt something like that.  I have no idea how they get their boats to the water.  I assume they practice on the Yodogawa but to do that it looks like they’d have to carry it up the side of the embankment and then down the other side and then really far across open marshy wetlands until they reach the river and I didn’t see any good locations for launching.  Hmm, perhaps they do something else.  They might practice on Lake Biwa (the largest inland lake in Japan and the official headwaters of the Yodogawa) but that’s really far to the north (even further north than Kyoto).

A police car quietly patrolled the paths down below me, its blue light spinning around and around as the car searched for evildoers or people in need.  I tried to look very inconspicuous as I walked high up on the embankment, silhouetted against the bright city lights.  A little further on, I spotted fireworks on the far bank.  Several more times on the journey I would spot more kids having little parties and shooting off fireworks.  Fireworks are a big deal in Japan and they’re much more elaborate then the fireworks everyone buys in the United States for the Fourth of July and New Years.  I wonder if they’re cheaper here because I sure see a lot of people using them.

Some stray dogs rustled about in the tall grass beneath me and one raced up the hill to bark at me and then ran away again.  I passed a collection of apartment complexes named after plants: “Elm,” “Freesia,” “Begonia,” “Cedar,” “Gingko,” and “Dahlia.”  Other than the names they were exactly the same.  In Taishibashi I passed my first “Designated Safety Area” where a sign warned that an earthquake could strike at any moment and that we must be prepared to gather in case of widespread fires sweeping through the city.  There were a lot more of these signs with every new location I entered in the Osaka region.  I passed a school and the sounds of kids playing basketball in the gymnasium floated up to me from below.  On the roof of the school, two boys were practicing archery by the light of outdoor floodlamps.  The rain had become rather more intense by now and I was no longer quite so pleased with it because I was getting quite wet and cold.  I saw my first freight train crossing a bridge.  Freight trains in Japan are much less interesting than freight trains in the US.  They’re really quite dull; all the cars look the same and there are no special colors or logos.  I almost stepped on a couple of stray cats lying in the middle of the path and they bolted upright and shot off into the grass, only to stop and look back at me indignantly.  The smell of barbeque became very strong and I did indeed pass several barbeque parties where Japanese people were celebrating and calling out boisterously to each other.  Several red lights bobbed up and down on the path ahead of me and it took me awhile before I realized it was three glowing red LED hearts on the top of the collars of three dogs being walked by a woman.  They looked up at me and waggled their ears back and forth, causing the hearts to bounce all over the place.

I had to drop down into a neighborhood for awhile to go underneath some road and train bridges passing overhead and there was again more garbage and more homeless people.  One bridge had a clearance of 1.9m and I cringed slightly as I expected to feel the top of my head brush the bridge.  I was actually able to pass under with a few centimeters to spare.  Snoopy and Woodstock lay on their backs on the top of someone’s mailbox as I wove through the narrow streets trying to find a path back up to the river embankment.  Back on the path, a sign warned of the dangers of carrying your fishing pole underneath the nearby electrical transmission lines.  It had a cute, happy picture of a clueless man walking along and getting electrocuted by the wires when his pole struck.  Even warning signs with dire messages are cute in Japan.  A dog barked at me as I passed through another shanty town and I expected a bunch of zombies to rise from the piles of debris and strike me down.  Another police car passed by on the road below and appeared to be chasing a motorcycle (although very slowly).  The motorcycle just kept on going even though the car had its red lights flashing.  Police cars and ambulances don’t really get paid a lot of attention here in Japan.

I reached an area where there were large buildings all around me and many train tracks criss-crossing the river.  It wasn’t until I saw the Umeda Sky Building that the full realization hit me about what I had just done.  I walked to Osaka.  Man, I suddenly felt really crazy.  Walking along, I wondered why this part of the city suddenly smelled so horrible.  Glancing around, I noticed a sewage treatment plant with a sign proclaiming “Osaka Sewerage Science Museum.”  I think I’ll pass on the tour of that one.  After Umeda, I still had over 7 km to go until I reached Osaka Bay.  The rain kept falling and falling, the road kept going on and on, and I kept walking and walking.  By now my feet and legs were really starting to hurt but luck was with me this time.  I wore different shoes this time so I’m happy to say I didn’t get any blisters from this adventure.  The road after Umeda was really quite bleak and I just kept passing factories and concrete reinforced banks on both sides of the river.  It was not very pretty but I wanted to make it to the end.  I passed what seemed to be an endless string of chasing red rope lights looped over barriers where there was evidence of men working (doing something indistinguishable but no doubt important).  I was surprised by the number of abandoned bikes along this stretch of the road and wondered if they had all been stolen and then left there.  There is not much crime in Japan but of that crime bicycle theft is a growing trend.  I ended up out in the middle of nowhere at a private yacht harbor where there were posters advertising some sort of performance of “Papa Hemingway.”  The road went no further and there didn’t appear to be any roads going anywhere else so I had to backtrack a little ways.

My intention at this point was to head towards large buildings and see if I could find an internet and comic cafe to crash in for the rest of the night (out of the rain which by now had soaked me to the skin despite my raincoat).  Comic cafes are really popular over here and are a great cheap way to spend the night.  It’s only a few hundred yen per hour (maybe $3 or $4) and most of them even have showers if you so desire.  You can choose a private room or a common room, you can lie on a coach or sit in a chair, you can use the internet, read comics, drink as much coffee and other drinks you want, or just sleep and it’s all included in the price.  This is actually how a lot of homeless people live in Japan.  I also noticed a lot of people sleeping in their cars which they had left idling under bridges or on the side of the road.  In Japan, you can pull over anywhere you want and you’ll be fine as long as you turn on your hazard lights.  Seriously, people just stop all over the place and sit in their cars watching tv or sleeping.

Around 11:30, I found a Family Mart (a convenience store) in Torishima and went in to grab a bite to eat and ask what time it was.  I crouched down in front of the store and ate a Curry Man (steamed Chinese dumpling filled with curry) and an onigiri (a rice ball – this one was filled with some sort of nuts and was all red).  As I stood up to leave, I realized my legs had frozen up.  The next few kilometers were extremely painful walking.  I was ready for the adventure to end but I pressed on because I couldn’t see anything good.  About 1:00, I decided to stop.  I had been walking for about seven hours and I was cold, wet, sore, and tired.  On top of everything, my jeans are so loose because I’ve lost weight from all this walking so I’m constantly having to pull my pants up to keep them from sliding all the way off.  I thought I brought a belt but I can’t find it.  I’ll have to check my suitcases again.  Anyway, I stumbled along and found a small playground underneath the main road I was walking along.  There were already some homeless people sleeping on the benches so I figured it was okay if I slept there too.  I debated whether to sleep on the little mat of Astroturf under the swings but it was sandy and quite pokey.  Also, I didn’t like the way the koala and elephant were looking at me (they were a couple of those toys that children sit on and can rock back and forth).  One of the homeless men kept coughing and it sounded terrible.  I wondered if he had pneumonia or something.  I found a spot under the staircase nearby just out of the rain and sort of in the shadows so I wouldn’t have glaring streetlamps in my face all night and lay down on the cold, hard concrete with my head on my wet backpack.  A wet backpack with two dictionaries, some textbooks, and various sundry items does not make the nicest pillow but it seemed the best thing to do because nobody could get into it without waking me up.  A little while later I began to notice how bad the area smelled.  There was a stain nearby on the concrete that smelled suspiciously of urine.  I decided to move, and crawled over to the acute angle under the stairs where a frame of a foldable bike was lying in the dust.  I swept an area clean of small rocks and curled up with my back to the world and my front protected by a foot of concrete above me.  That was probably the longest, most uncomfortable night of my life and if I slept at all it was for about 30 seconds max.  The weather that day was surprisingly cooler than it has ever been here before and I didn’t bring any extra clothes with me other than my rain jacket.  I should have brought my winter rain jacket but this was my lightweight jacket.  I began to get very cold and shivered uncontrollably, my legs twitching painfully every now and then.  I don’t know if there’s such a thing as negative sleep but I feel like the thirty seconds of sleep I got made the night seem twice as long.  But all in all, even this part of the adventure was a good experience.  I was reminded of a story Maruki-sensei told me once about the days he spent in Kabukicho.  Sometimes he would stay there until after the last train had left and then he would find newspapers and sleep under them.  Apparently the evening newspaper was thicker and therefore warmer than the morning newspaper.  I wish I had some newspapers with me.

When the paper boy came by finally on his bicycle I decided it was probably okay to get up and continue on.  I got up, dusted myself off, and continued along down the road, shivering in the darkness.  I had no idea what time it was or even if the sky seemed any lighter because the sky had never become fully dark due to all the city lights.  About half an hour later I found a train station and tramped down into it to find out what time it was.  It was a little before 5:00 so none of the trains were running yet.  I trudged back out of a different exit and became completely turned around, heading off towards Osaka Station.  I actually kind of wanted to head to Umeda and wait for Vie de France to open up in Yodobashi Camera but I had no idea where it was anymore.  I ended up in downtown Osaka and walked around for a bit and finally found myself up further north in Umeda.  About 6:00 I began sneezing and became a little worried that I’d caught something with all the shivering during the night.  I found a little park and collapsed on a bench for awhile, feeling exhausted.  I watched a cat stalking some pigeons and then got up and began walking again.  I passed the YWCA and bought a milk bread at one of the local Daily Yamazakis (a convenience store chain).  By now there was a lot of action downtown and many people were arriving and having breakfast before heading off to work.  There were a couple of very rowdy groups of young Japanese men who appeared to be intoxicated from the previous night.  They were walking right down the middle of the street and whenever a car would honk at them they would run at the car and try to kick it.  Also, I spotted a couple of students from Gaidai.  How crazy is that?  I finally found the Yodobashi Camera building about 7:00 and waited around for half an hour for Vie de France to open up.  I sat out in front, eating my breads (I was suddenly ravenously hungry) and drinking my coffee while reading the new manga I bought the other day.  It’s called Fairy Tail and it’s really cool!  It’s about a guy and his cat who go around having magic adventures and stuff like that.  The fun part is that I can understand 90% of the words in the dialogue without having to check the dictionary.  Also, all the kanji have furigana and that makes reading them a lot easier.

Well, since I was in the Yodobashi Camera building I decided I should wait around for it to open up and take another look at the cameras.  I waited around until 9:30 and then went in but I didn’t really see anything that I wanted.  They’re all really expensive here.  I just want my old camera back.  Stupid Pentax.  I still haven’t heard from them.  Anyway, I was really exhausted so I took the train back home.  It takes at least 25 minutes on the Limited Express train to get back to Hirakata-shi and that’s with making only a couple of short stops along the way.  This helped me realize how far I had really walked.  I should have spent the extra 20 yen and transferred to the train to Makino but I decided to just walk back from Hirakata-shi station to the seminar house.  As I was walking along, I decided to try to take a different path home and see if I could figure out how to get there.  Well, I ended up in Gotenyama, a nearby city where the train stops but not where I wanted to be.  It was really fun to walk around in the tight residential neighborhoods though because I was able to walk along some streams and by some bamboo forests.  I also passed some Japanese people who seemed happy to see a gaijin walking through their neighborhood because I don’t think very many international students make it back that far into the crazy maze.  Residential street systems are crazy and I can’t find any order or reason for them.  Roads go every which direction, double back on each other, end just when they seem like they’re getting going, and don’t connect to other roads that you can see right in front of you but can’t reach because of a fence or a forest or a stream.  I finally found the seminar house but it took four attempts down little roads before I found the right way out.  For five whole minutes I was right next to my dorm but couldn’t figure out how to get there!

Anyway, that’s my story.  Earlier in the day I had come to school to catch up on some ceramics work and I spent the whole morning there.  After that, just as I was finishing up, Willy, Abby, and Derrin came in and we went to lunch together.  Before we could make it to the cafeteria we stumbled upon an Experience Japan event that was happening on campus and there were a bunch of people dressed up in yukatas and dancing.  We snuck in the back and enjoyed watching a few of the traditional dances.  It was all done by older women and they were very graceful and fun to watch.  The music was also very interesting – it was either really happy and like we were at a party or it was mournful and sad.  The happy song was talking about being dumped by your lover in each of the four seasons and the sad song was about the joy of the changing of the seasons.  Oh Japan; how backward, how true.

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