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Kintaro walks Japan
japan mapKintaro Walks Japan
By Tyler MacNiven

I recently returned home after having walked the 2000 miles length of Japan. ‘Why?’ you ask. Well, there are a few reasons.

My first trip to Japan in 2002 led me on a fairytale-like escapade through the rolling Japanese countryside. My new friend Kobo The Clown dubbed me Kintaro, which means ‘golden boy’ because of my crazy blond Californian locks. Kintaro is a legendary boy who was known to have great strength, wrestle bears, and befriend all the animals of the forest. Kobo took me to his clown commune where I spent two days balancing on the tight rope, learning to toss Japanese clowns, and drifting off to sleep to the sound of clattering juggling pins. Japan and I were instant friends, and I had to go back.

Also I thought that it would be a good chance to find my Father’s birthplace in Japan’s northern most island, Hokkaido. His parents had been Presbyterian missionaries in Hokkaido for two years, giving birth to the Big Cheese there. Soon after returning to the U.S., Grandpa died and all the information of my father’s birthplace slowly evaporated. All except one sketch Grandma drew of a distinct coastal scene near where they were living. With sketch in hand, I thought, surely I could find the location.

And of course, like all good stories, there is… a girl. Let’s take a quick trip back in time to 1978 in the southern most tip of Argentina, where George Meegan and his Japanese fiancé Yoshiko Matsumoto began what would be the longest unbroken walk in recorded history, spanning 19,019 miles, taking nearly 7 years, and eventually ending in northern Alaska. It was on this epic journey that Ayumi Meegan was conceived.

Her first name literally means ‘walk.’ A couple decades later, I met Ayumi (who lives in Japan), and within an instant, my life changed.

With all these elements converging, did I really have a choice?

Kintara and Ayumi go Green
Kintaro and Ayumi go green
I graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz, saved up money as a waiter at Buck’s, and off I went to Cape Sata, the southern most point of Kyushu, Japan. Ayumi and I were side by side as we scaled down the steep crumbling cliff to the crashing waves below. We couldn’t help but think of her parents at the beginning of their big adventure, our same age, not so very long ago. We reached our hands into the water and let it lap rhythmically over our palms. I was terrified, not only because of the violent sea and bursting blow of the cape wind, but because this was the start. I’ve never done anything like this before, my fitness training consisted of running plates around the restaurant, I speak 10 words of Japanese (all are numbers), I am so small,  the world is so big, ahhh! Ayumi giggled and gave me a wacking pat on the back, nearly knocking me into the sea.  I just needed to be reminded of my purpose.

The next day we packed up our coffin sized tent and started marching. Now, Ayumi is a professional singer and walking with her is like walking with my favorite CD always playing. I had decided ahead of time not to bring headphones because I wanted to stay fully open to everything around me. It was a good decision, and this first hour of walking was a great example why.

We wove our way up a  mountain pass and walked through a narrow tunnel opening to a wide expanse of cascading rice patties, small wooden homes, and thick green tropical forestry. We stopped by the side of the road to take our first break. I collapsed with my head rested on her lap as she peeled a tangerine and slipped every other slice into my mouth. “This might just be the best moment of my life,” she said. “You read my mind,” I replied. The next day Ayumi had to get back to work so she squeezed me goodbye and left me in the dust of her bus.

I suspected ahead of time that I would receive all sorts of help on the way so I decided to bring a gift to give of my own. I had 5000 postcards printed out with my picture on the front, overlapped on the famous Hokksai print of an enormous tsunami crashing over a few thin canoes with Mt. Fuji in the distance. In English and Japanese is written, “Kintaro Walks Japan.” On the reverse is a map of Japan where I would mark the path I had walked up until the moment of giving the card. I would X my goal, sign and date it, and hand the card over, using the custom “two hands and a bow” technique. “Kintaro Kards,” as I would call them, became in a sense “Kintaro Kurrency.” The exchange rate varied from person to person, ranging from a cute giggle, to a glowing smile, to a piece of lunchbox candy, to dinner or a place to stay, and even, as in one case, $150, (which to a money-tight traveler amounts to about 15,000 normal life dollars).

The second island to cross was Shikoku and unless I wanted to swim 15 miles I had to take a ferry to get there. That was when the cherry trees began to bloom and scatter the hillsides with little pink firework-like flowers. The “Blossom Front” as it is referred to, sweeps from south to north and lasts about a week in each place. During that week the parks in the area fill with crowds of picnickers who sprawl out after work to drink potato wine and sake under the flowering trees. My original intent was to follow the ‘front’ as it moved up the country, but unless I had motorcycle wheels for legs it wasn’t going to happen. Ayumi flew down to be with me during this special time and we walked park to park, enjoying the festivities in each little town. If you are wondering where to travel next March/April, go to Japan and follow the cherry blossoms. You will meet hundreds of amazing people who will be delighted to share with you their BBQ, booze, and blanket space. I was sad when the flowers started falling, until I realized that they were replaced with brilliant green leaves that are just as beautiful.

Until Shikoku I had slept in all sorts of places: parks, shrines, bus stops, beaches, even an old karaoke room. It wasn’t long though until I discovered the magic of ‘the homestay.’ There is an old tradition of peace walkers wandering through ancient Japan who were often put up for the night by a local. Although the tradition is not as widely practiced today, the sentiment continues. I was walking next to a river when a man with his dog asked where I was headed. My Japanese was getting a bit better and I was able to explain to him my purpose. I handed him a Kintaro Kard, he enthusiastically handed me $10, and I continued on my way. Later that night I was writing in my journal by the river when I heard my name being yelled in the night wind. “Going crazy already, are yah ol’ Kintaro?” I muttered. But I heard it again, looked up, and there was the man with his dog, and the rest of his family, searching the area by flashlight. His son spoke a little English and explained that they had been looking for me for over two hours. They urged me to stay at their house, which I happily did. Mr. Nakagawa’s wife brought out the sushi and a bottle of sake that looked like it had been waiting for a special occasion. I was not keen to drink while on the road, but it would have been rude not to. Mr. Nakagawa stared at me and smiled as we ate. Our conversation consisted mostly of looking at each other and giggling in wonder. Mrs. Nakagawa prepared my futon in the guest room, which also housed the grandparent’s ashes. Two black and white portraits of the grandparents hung above, tilted down, making it seem as though they were leering at me. The golden shrine was lit with candles that flickered as I closed my eyes. I would spend many more nights in rooms like this, and this was just the beginning.

May I supersize that for you
“May I supersize that for you?”
Six thirty a.m. wake up, rice with raw egg for breakfast, sweet goodbye, and back on the road. Tired from the previous night’s celebrations, I looked forward to the rewards of an early night. Not so soon Kintaro. Mr. Suzuki had read about me in the local paper, pulled over and insisted I come to his house and stay with his family. “Chou tanoshi!” I yelled, and the celebrations continued. Mr. Suzuki lived with his aging parents, which is common for grown men in Japan, and I had the opportunity to meet Ojichan (grandfather) and Obaachan (grandmother). Ojichan grew up in Nagasaki and was six when the atom bomb hit. He gestured the shape of the mushroom cloud and mimicked a face of terror. Later I gave Obaachan a light massage on her fragile shoulders. “Times have changed,” I thought.

Six thirty a.m. wake up, rice, raw egg, road. Twenty-two miles of walking and I was beat. Bed time? Not quite. This time it was Mrs. Endo who picked me up. The next day it was Mr. Endo. This went on for six nights before out of complete exhaustion I had to pitch my tent early in a park and catch up. The trip had already soared beyond my grandest expectations. Eventually the most changing part of the trip would be breaking through an exhaustion spell that lasted two weeks. After 46 days of walking I hadn’t taken a single rest day.

I had been a consistent newspaper story throughout the walk but somewhere up north the TV stations got a hold of me. It went from 1 out of 10 people recognizing me to 9 out of 10. One night I had hidden myself in the woods and in the morning a camera crew had found me. On several occasions I was paid to eat at restaurants. What had my solo spiritual quest become? A whole lot of fun, that’s for sure.

Kinatro whips 97 year-old lady 2 out of 3
Kinatro whips 97 year-old lady 2 out of 3
I’d shown Grandmother’s sketch to nearly everyone I had sat down with but it wasn’t until Hokkaido that people began recognizing the place. The sketch was of Candle Rock off the coast of the Shakotan Peninsula, only a couple hundred miles away. Hokkaido was different from the rest of the country. I walked past cows, barns, cisterns and hay bails. I had to start packing my meals for the long days between small towns. When I reached the peninsula I came across one of the most heavily tunneled regions in the world. Some tunnels stretched over three miles and took nearly an hour to walk through, time enough to internalize the great roar of the rushing semi-truck. Then one overcast day, when the seas were dark blue and spraying white, I came into view of Candle Rock. It towered out of the restless sea like a 50-foot pointing finger and stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly had the realization that I had covered a great distance on foot. I located the exact place where my Grandparents had sat 55 years earlier. 

Ayumi and I were side by side for the final two-week sprint to the tip. One morning, at 7:00 am, we were peacefully asleep in the tent when a shattering “Kintaro desuka?” (Are you Kintaro?) jolted us awake. I leaped up to see an 8 foot bear standing on its hind legs ready for battle. I shot out of the tent, knowing that this was my big moment. I was Kintaro, more then ever, and I had a bear-wresting legacy to fulfill. I crouched, and slowly approached the formidable beast. I lunged! Twist, spin, swirl, grunt! The bear let out a moan as it folded under my power and collapsed beneath my weight. As it struck the ground its giant head rolled off revealing the two sweaty faces of my great friends Bill and David. We paused, quiet… you could hear my blinking eyes echo across the canyon, I was trying to make sense of it all, and then we burst into a cheerful roar. These two swell guys had helped me live up to my name as Kintaro, the golden boy who sumo wrestles bears in the woods, then befriends them afterwards.

Bill and David hiked with us for four magical days of octopus jerky and live sea urchin breakfasts before having to head back. The next day a hunter found Ayumi and I and fed us bear meat stew for dinner. I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty when I bit into the thick chunks of meat, thinking of the bear as my comrade.

Candle Rock
Candle Rock
On July 28th, 2004 I was wearing the same pair of thinning boots as 145 days earlier, but this time I was at the opposite end of the country. My Father, as well as Ayumi’s parents, George and Yoshiko, joined us for the last steps. Ayumi and I held hands and jumped into the sea. We looked at each other, “This is just the beginning” we said. It was an honor to be with these historic people as I added my little part to whimsical history. After the walk we drove back down the coast to Candle Rock so Dad could see where he was born.

Spring gave way to summer and it was time to ship my tired bones back to the land of single lattes, double cheeseburgers, and triple bypasses. Now I’m editing my video footage  for Japanese TV and make a ton of money to buy my next pair of boots. Geez, I sound like my Father.

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