(Canadian Edition, 2006)

Will Fugu-san Fergussons travelogue

Will "Fugu-san" Ferguson's travelogue

In the midst of packing and getting my Japanese work permit in order, I managed to fit in some good procrastination time at the bookstore. I originally went looking for Kate Williamson’s A Year in Japan, (they didn’t have it) but was happy to leave instead with a copy of Will Ferguson’s travelogue, Hitching Rides with Buddha—an enthusiastic recommendation from a clerk who had spent three years in Japan through on the JET program.

I haven’t read Ferguson’s other books, but since the phrase “Katima-victim” became part of the average teenaged Canadian lexicon,* I knew about his talent of slithering into and influencing our national identity and was generally curious about his take on Japan.

(* for those of you not from Canada.. Katimavik is an exchange-type program to encourage some healthy nationalism in a geographically and culturally vast country. Anglos learn French and vice-versa. You all live in a big house together and do some kind of volunteer work. Ferguson wrote the book I was a Teenaged Katima-victim about his experiences during the program.)

The basic premise Hitchhiking Rides with Buddha is, yes, a hitchhiking trip — from the southern tip of Japan’s Kyushu Island to the Northern tip of Hokkaido — following the “cherry blossom front,” the progression of sakura blossoms as spring sweeps through Japan. Ferguson had been in the country for several years, spoke pretty good Japanese and had been to countless cherry blossom viewing parties during his stay. The idea for the trip, he writes, came up drunkenly at one particularly raucous blossom-viewing party. This surprises me, but Ferguson claims to be the first person to follow the cherry blossom front, and also the first to hitchhike the length of Japan.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but hitchhiking is a perfectly reasonable way to see the country, especially if you want to talk to locals (in Quebec my boyfriend would occasionally hitchhike to rural towns just to practice his French). As Ferguson suspects, it is also a perfectly reasonable way to get around in Japan, though almost everyone tells him is will be impossible. Apparently the Japanese underestimate their own hospitality and willingness to go out of their way for complete strangers.

From passenger seat and roadside, Ferguson collects anecdotes and characters. He also revisits memories of previous Japanese experiences and throws in a healthy helping of history and guidebook pointers. The book has many a laugh-out-loud moment. Much of the humour comes from contradictions. Japan is a very safe country, his friends and colleagues say, but you can’t hitchhike – it’s not safe! One flustered business-woman, has second thoughts after she pulls over and actually asks Ferguson if he is dangerous. He graciously assures her he is not and the ride turns into lunch. There are the usual regional biases (I don’t like Hokkaido, one driver says, you know what they say about people from a cold climate. I love Hokkaido, say another, you know what they say about people from a cold climate).

It’s amazing what opportunities come your way when you are open to possibility. Whenever possible, Ferguson say “yes,” to suggestions from those he meets (a good lesson for any traveller). It’s a habit that takes him to some pretty interesting places. On one such side trip he ends up on an island with a snooty professor who studies monkeys. Apparently these monkeys wash their potatoes before eating them and are believed to be highly sophisticated. Ferguson didn’t see any potato washing, but did observe the monkeys picking gunk from their bums and flicking it at each other—extreme sophistication, indeed. Of course, his tendency to ride the wave also lands him in more than one bar, getting totally wasted on sake and beer with salary men, with painful consequences the morning after.

The book isn’t all one-liners. Ferguson does stumble into serious territory from time to time, and does so with respect, whether it’s a World War II POW who tells him his life’s story or a wife and mother who has put her dreams on hold for her family.

The thing I liked most about this book was Ferguson’s honesty. I almost feel clichéd in saying that (this is consistently what reviewers have said), but it’s true. I suspect many travelogues have a bad case of selective memory, as the writer (and simultaneously the protagonist) tries to portray him or herself as worldly and well adjusted. Bad experiences appear only when they make a good joke. Ferguson, however, is not afraid to tell you when he’s having a bad day. And while I felt more than a hint of bitterness beneath his dry humour, at least his writing was true to his feelings. While you can find descriptions of temples and markets in any Lonely Planet guidebook, aren’t the highs and lows of travelling an equal part of the experience? Hitching Rides with Buddha gives the reader both.

I took Ferguson’s sometimes negative impressions and stereotypes about Japanese people and culture with a grain of salt. Like the lover who snores, idiosyncrasies can be either endearing or infuriating, depending on how enamored you are with the relationship. Ferguson was clearly getting ready to leave the country.

Jam-packed with facts, history and personal anecdote, this book gave me a pretty good overview of life in Japan, a country I knew very little about before coming here. Ferguson’s wisdom has come to my rescue several times in the past month, most recently when one of my students asked me if we have “Biking” restaurants in Canada. (Biking being the Japanese pronunciation of Viking, referring to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Apparently the Vikings ate a lot…?).