Crashing Japan
On the Road for Golden Week

by Jonathan Tarbox, May 4th 2006
On the Road for Golden Week

I pulled the elastic net down over my bag and fastened the hooks to the frame of my bike. The gas tank was full, the chain was greased, the mirrors clean. I had pulled the plug on the TV and turned on the answering machine. Everything was ready. It was the beginning of Golden Week, and I did not have to be back to the Ministry of Education prison for six days. I headed for the mountains of Wakayama, to the Rindo, the lumber roads, for another rendezvous with adventure.

Golden Week

Golden Week is a cluster of national holidays in the springtime. Because it is one of the few times Japanese workers have extended holidays, it is one of the busiest times of year (along with Obon and New Years) for transportation and hotels in Japan. Travel to and inside the country at this time should be avoided at all costs.

The days are:
April 29: Midorino-hi (Greenery Day—originally emperor Hirohito's birthday)
May 3: Kenpou-kinen-bi (Constitution Memorial Day)
May 4: Kokumin-no-syukujitsu (National Holiday)
May 5: Kodomono-hi (Children's Day)

Many companies close down from April 30 to May 2, and even if they don't, most workers take vacation on those days.

I had changed a bit since I came to Japan. I was making more money than I ever had. I even had a certain amount of respect. I was undeniably the best “speaker of English” in my school. Consequently, I had the opportunity and the confidence to fulfill one of the adventurous dreams I had always had, such as buying a motorcycle and hitting the road.
It has always been one of the American romantic ideals to pack a few belongings and hit the road in search of freedom, from the pilgrims arriving on the shores of New England to the mountain men pushing further west, to the hobos jumping the freight trains, to Easy Rider. It is a bit ironic that I had to come to Japan to live the American Dream.
Freedom is an ambiguous thing. Part of my definition is an escape from the materialism and drudgery that I find a large part of modern-day life, especially in Japan.

The things I dislike about this country can be summed up in the word “salaryman,” the epitome of modern Japan. These poor buggers have sold themselves to be a small part of a large thing. This would not be so bad in itself, except that the big thing is a nasty, polluting, destructive corporate structure which treats these men no better than robots. So they slave their lives away, swallowing their pride and their frustration. As the stress, the lack of exercise, the lost sleep, the tobacco, the alcohol and the cup-noodles take their toll, these men watch themselves grow older and uglier every day. This syndrome applies not only to company workers but to many businessmen and teachers as well.

So, to escape that world, I head for the mountains. But when I hit the highway, I realized that the escape to freedom wouldn't be easy. First, I had to drive through Golden Week traffic down the expressway to Kobe in order to catch the ferry. After eating smog for an hour, I met my riding partner Toru, and we headed for the port. In front of us in line for the boat was a Japanese motorcycle club. Their name “Freedom” is painted on the back of their jackets. It seems that the American ideal exist here, too. I've seen their type before. They are too old and their bikes too quiet and expensive to be a real gang. These are salarymen and office ladies who on the weekend become bosozoku. They ride like maniacs on the highway, racing each other to pass cars. When they camp, they have an enkai, keeping all the other campers awake. The next day, they leave their campsite a mess. They have been repressed so long that their concept of freedom is releasing their inner demons to wreak havoc. Toru and I stay away from these types. These are the people we are supposed to be on vacation from.

Bosozoku
Japanese motorcycle/hot rod gangs.
The literal meaning of the name is "reckless / running / clan." Their main focus is street racing, and they're known for screaming through the streets and highways late at night on deliberately noisy vehicles. They are also linked to violent crime, and act as feeder groups for recruiting yakuza. The lawlessness of the bosozoku stands in counterpoint to the strict orderliness of mainstream Japanese
society.

Enkai
A company party, usually around holidays like New Years or the end of the school year, it is also an important function for releasing pent-up stress. After the repression and grind of the work environment, coworkers get extremely drunk, eat too much, sing karaoke badly, and tell their boss everything they ever hated about him. When returning to the work environment the next day, all behavior at these events is ignored at though it never happened.


I expected that I could finally relax on the ferry, but it was Golden Week, and the boat was packed. There were more than a few tour groups, bunches of people jammed together carrying bento, blankets and cameras. To escape the noise, the crowds and the garbage of the city, they go in noisy, garbage-making crowds out in the countryside.

When the ferry finally hit shore, Toru and I were the first out. It was late afternoon, and we had to find a campsite. When we got there, we found people in huge tents, unloading boxes of stuff from their cars. It's amazing what people will bring camping. With the lawn chairs, the portable TV, and the electric generator, why do they bother to leave home? Just one more case of people trying to “get away from it all” by bringing “it all” with them.

I was beginning to get depressed. We had planned to come to Wakayama to get away from pollution and consumerism. Where was the unspoiled beauty?

The next morning we set out. Our goal was to find a rindo, dirt roads cut into the mountains used only by lumber companies and off-road bikers. Toru had ridden them before. The scenery is beautiful, the air clean, no cars, no pollution, no cops. As we drew closer to the mountains, the traffic got thinner so it was easier and safer to drive. When we finally hit the mountains, the real vacation started. The mountains of Wakayma really are beautiful. The trees were thick with new leaves, and the spring flowers were in bloom. When we stopped to camp, there were the same materialistic campers. But there were also some nice guys who had come on bikes. They were sincerely friendly, and we had dinner with them.

We had trouble finding the rindo we were looking for. Most weren't on the map and some of them had been paved. But our efforts finally paid off, as we drove up a small dirt road going off the main road. It was glorious! No signs of civilization, apart from the isolated wooden huts beside some small rice paddies. Hundreds of birds sang in the trees. Snakes and rabbits ran across the road as we passed. For the first time since I'd come to Japan, I felt like I was in nature. It was worth all the trouble we had gone through to get here. For the next few days, we toured the mountains.

When it was time to go home, we decided to drive instead of taking the ferry. As we drove the huge super expressway through Osaka-Kobe, it rained fiercely. Wet, surrounded by trucks and cars full of tired families, it was no scenic drive home. I realized that almost everything I dislike about Japan are all things from the post-war era: the concrete, the buildings, the overcrowding, the garbage. And here I was driving right back into it. All I could think about was how long it was until the next Golden Week holidays!

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