Did the snow bury your thumbtack?

Occasionally – most recently, swiveling down a whimsical trail in Hiroshima where snow fell softly from the heavens – I like to take more than a few moments to stare up at the sky and imagine myself on a map of the world. I like to think of a thumbtack being placed exactly where I am at that very instant, followed by a snapshot to capture the allure and composure of the passing pattern of time. As each snowflake deflects off my goggles and dances on my face, my thoughts meander off-trail to a place neither here nor there. It is so quiet I can almost hear the snowflakes whisper stories to each other as they accumulate one-by-one on the trees, creating a staggering beauty that is nearly impossible to process, yet is as easy on the eyes as anything Monet conceived.

Simple beauty, the best kind.

Thumbtacks may represent places we have been, or places we want to go, but it seems a bit silly to think these tacks are anything but plastic, simply marking a place and space in time. Our experiences and memories are what we truly take home. And sharing, experiencing, and reminiscing in them is what makes all this globetrotting so comfortingly endearing.

A Mountain in Hiroshima:

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It is 4:45am on the first day of 2011 and I am about to catch a train, a ferry, another train, and finally a bus to make it to my final destination: Kochi!

Total Travel Time: 7.5 hours. One Way.
Distance: Unknown.

The morning is Japan cold – moisture in the air soaks into my bones and refuses to let go until I enter the comforting familiarity of JR’s efficient Sanyo Line. Okay, that was a bit dramatic! It really is not THAT cold, especially after braving five straight Canadian winters. However, the cold kind of lingers here, always pecking at your shoulder like that annoying younger sibling when you are in the middle of trying to defeat Super Mario Bros.

Enough griping! I am on holidays, about to undertake a journey into much unfamiliar territory on Japan’s Shikoku Island. The last thing I should be doing is complaining about the weather. I am quite hungry, though, maybe I should complain about that instead? No, no, that seems ridiculous as well. I am positive I can find a convenience store once I port into Matsuyama. I do have about 45 minutes to kill until the train, which will take me to the bus, which will take me to Kochi.

Food Purchased: Bread. And Orange Juice.
Cost: Minimal.

I find the bus stop after an uneventful train ride, board the bus, and nestle into my window seat, roughly ten rows back on the passenger side. I throw on my headphones, or rather insert my earbuds (throwing on headphones sounds much cooler) and settle into Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” as I am coaxed into a light sleep, one where you can kind of control your dreams, although I have zero recollection of what I was dreaming about. The record finishes, waking me up after a cool 40-some minutes and my direct vision is greeted by blankets of snow. Oh it is so refreshing to see snow – thank you, altitude!

Bus Name: Whale Express.
Rating: 8.3 out of 10.

I arrive in Kochi just after the lunch rush and Sae, my friend from Edmonton who is originally from Kochi, is there to greet me at the station.

Afternoon Activities: Italian Lunch, Temple, Castle, Mister Donut, Airport.
Airport Activities: Pick up the road-weary, but doing-his-best-to-remain-genki-as-he-has-to-meet-Sae’s-parents-for-the-first-time, Rocky.
Welcome: To Japan!

We drive to Sae’s parent’s house and consume some delicious New Year’s food: a colourful display of raw and cooked fish, rice, vegetables, maki, and soups. The conversation warms the room faster than the space heaters. Rocky comments on the vividness of Japanese television programs.

Self-introductions: Four.
Languages Spoken: Three.

I decide against the ham and egg breakfast the next morning and order a traditional Japanese breakfast instead: rice, miso soup, a dish full of lord-knows-what, tea, and coffee. It is a good decision! Rocky sorts the same and Sae agrees on the Western style breakfast. I finish my coffee quickly, find out there is no such thing as refills at this restaurant, but Rocky offers me his – coffee fix.

Breakfast Conversation: Pleasant.
Smoking or Non: Non.

The afternoon finds the three of us on a Kochi city bus winding its way through a mountain pass – destination: a beach on the Pacific Ocean, overlooked by Sakamoto Ryoma. The 30 or so minute bus ride is picturesque enough for a few snapshots as the sun proves itself strong over the calming waters. I start to think of bus rides back in Edmonton with Rocky and Sae – dissimilar destinations, similar conversations; push the button to signal for a stop, pull the chord to request a stop.

Pre-Lunch Snack: BBQ’d Squid on a Stick.
Photos Taken: Yes.

We play on the beach like ten year olds for a good hour, skipping stones, testing the tide, climbing rocks, taking photos. I stare out at the Pacific Ocean and think of all the explorers who must have gazed out at the ocean with similar thoughts: “What is beyond that horizon? More land? A waterfall to your death?” I think that if I could swim to Hawaii, I would.

Japanese Practice: Rocky successfully gets our picture taken twice.
Seasonal Disillusionment: Is it really Winter?

The 5:10 bus back to downtown Kochi is spot on time. We have a 7pm dinner reservation at one of Kochi’s finest Chinese restaurants and to be fashionably late is anything but. We arrive on time. Sae’s family is there to greet us and we pile into a private dining room complete with a giant lazy susan, 7 cushions for chairs, and a telephone for which to order the food.

Dinner Conversation: Korean, Japanese, Western Differences.
Number of Red Faces from the Kirin: Two.

We part ways with Sae’s parents after thanking them for a wonderful dinner and the five of us – Sae’s sister Keiko and her husband Nabe-san are with us now – walk through the just-right-amount-of-people filled streets of Kochi to a Big Echo Karaoke Box. We trade off singing Korean, Japanese and English songs for our allotted time of 90 minutes.

Everyone Sings: “Imagine,” “Heal the World,” and the “Na na na na na na na na na na’s” of “Hey Jude.”
Nabe-san Sings: A Romantic Japanese Song.
Closing Song: “Wonderwall.”

The semi-jet lagged Rocky and I make our way back to our business hotel – two single beds in about as much room – and drift off to sleep. Morning comes soon enough and we meet Sae for round two of Mister Donut and more Tim Horton’s comparisons.

Coffee Refills: One.
Tim Horton’s v. Mister Donut: 2 to 1.

15:30 is fast approaching and I must start thinking about saying goodbye to Rocky and Sae. We share in a Hiroshima and Osaka-style Okonomiyaki lunch and make our way to Kochi Station for a brief souvenir purchase, a quick bus schedule check, a slight bloody nose on my part (random! Maybe it was “goodbye” anxiety induced?) before our farewell. I board the bus for another 7.5-hour journey through a few prefectures and a couple islands. I turn to wave goodbye as I board the bus; Rocky and Sae wave back, smiling.

The Last Time We Said Goodbye: Kennedy Towers – Edmonton.
The Last Time We Said Hello: Kochi.

As the bus grumbles to life, I thumb through photos of the weekend – each one a golden memory, a source of light. I do not feel the usual sense of sadness that comes with goodbyes, rather a sense of calm, maybe even peace. Thanks for the weekend, guys. Let’s do it again soon.