When Japanese Plasters Don’t Stick to Kiwi Feet
I’m 10 minutes into my hike to Abukuma Caves when I realise I have a slight problem. The last few days of marching on a sightseeing mission around rural Fukushima, Japan, is finally starting to take its toll.
Blisters. A hiker’s worst enemy.
I slip off my sneakers, trading the painful rubbing for the unrelenting roadside gravel.
Ah, the good old barefoot solution, a classic go-to for many Kiwis. I’m not unaware of how strange that will look here though, in a country where shoes are immediately exchanged for slippers upon entering a home.
I’m not surprised when a Japanese couple hiking down the hill cast me with concerned looks.
“Daijoubu desu ka?” they ask — the hell you doin’ with shoes off, stranger?
What does surprise me is when they start digging about in their backpacks, frantic as mother hens. Before I can figure out what’s going on, I’m standing there stunned with a bunch of plasters pressed into my hand.
Well, if my attempt at explaining I have blisters but will manage just fine is going to end in a first aid rescue mission, then there’s only one thing I can conclude: my Japanese still sucks.
“Arigatou gozaimasu. Kore kara daijoubu desu.”
I have to assure them I’ll be fine three times before they let me go.
I’m left staring at the plasters like a nutty scientist who’s just discovered a new specimen. The idea of using a plaster for a blister is as embarrassing to me as walking barefoot in Japan should be. What kind of self-respecting country Kiwi would use plasters for this?
Yet I hesitate. I’d feel bad just throwing these away, so instead, I stick them on. As suspected, they’re peeling off after just a few minutes.
I try not to linger on the stares of drivers as they pass the weird gaijin walking along the road with their shoes not on their feet but in their hands.
I’m figuring I’ll at least get through this painful pad to the hilltop in peace when, out of the blue, one driver slows right down and takes a good uncensored eyeball at me. I’m about to break into that deranged laughter you see in cartoon characters who have no idea how to deal with the situation they’re in, but the driver’s appeasing smile springs forth and catches me off guard.
It’s an old lady, but her well-worn face is barely registerable beneath pulsing layers of a mysterious, youthful energy. Her wonderment is palpable, projecting like the fingers of a child towards a lolly. There’s no reservation whatsoever from this woman, which I guess must be one of the privileges earned after a sum of years spent dedicated to the effective functioning of society. Not that I would know anything about that—I mean look at me.
“Daijoubu desu ka?”
The child that once was still echoes in her aged voice, faint but omnipresent, like a windchime tinkling in the breeze.
Gathering the last of my sanity, I manage another conversation in Japanese. I’m not sure where this is going, but I figure it’s a chance to improve my speaking. Although, it’s getting dark and I should probably be getting a move on, not chatting with a strange old lady on a random deserted roadside.
The old lady knows better—never mind her childlike charm, she’s miles ahead of me—quick to point out my dilemma, she indicates for me to get into her car.
“Tsurete kite ne!” (Come on!)
Wait, what? I’m suspended in a dumb shock. Finally another voice rattles in my head. It’s futile to refuse. She wants to help, and let’s face it, I could do with some.
When we arrive, she still seems concerned. How will I make it back? I’m already eternally grateful and, not wanting to waste any more of her time, I insist she need not worry and thank her profusely.
Off to the caves, I lose myself easily in the moment, engrossed in exploring the funky rock formations. So much that, emerging back into the dimming evening, not only is it the last thing I expect, but I’ve almost forgotten the old lady—there she is waiting patiently, waving me towards her.
She’s like a fairy godmother from a children’s tale, and I’m so surprised that I struggle to articulate anything. It doesn’t help when she asks if I would like a plum softcream, a Fukushima speciality, from the stand close by.
My lack of answer doesn’t seem to matter to her. She totters over to buy me one anyway.
“Arigatou gozaimasu!” I manage to blurt out. I’m about to say I’ll walk back when she tells me to get in her car again.
I feel like a poodle being taken for a walk. But poodles get pampered at salons, fed, watered and loved. Not like the stray dog I must have appeared, clambering around in bare feet.
We arrive at the station. Now she’s fretting about the train times and telling me that rural areas don’t have frequent trains and it’s troublesome, isn’t it? Also, am I hungry?
I tell her it’s fine, don’t worry. I battle through another five minutes of fretting, but I feel it’s all worth it when at last, she turns and gets back in her car.
I breathe a sigh of relief. I was beginning to feel kind of guilty for accepting so many favours. And what was more, she’d mentioned she lived an hour away—shouldn’t she be getting home herself?
I sit down and begin to relax. I’m back on an independent road at last.
But no. There’s a squeak of brakes.
I’m struck a second time by the urge to break into that deranged laughter, but this time it’s out of sheer amazement.
The warm, cheeky smile I’m becoming well acquainted with breaks out on her withered face as she hands me sandwiches. Once again she’s saying, “Get in the car.” She’s going to take me to the next closest station so I don’t have to wait as long.
On the train back to Iwaki, darkness is closing in and I’m still in disbelief. What started off as a frustrating hike had ended with being pampered by a complete stranger.
How many times had I watched her wander off thinking she was finally done helping me, only to find her reappear, that grin on her face ever-twinkling? I’d lost count.
My mind drifts back to the plasters I’d received from the couple earlier. They may not have stuck well to my bare feet, let alone my Kiwi-esque attitude. But this lady had her own kind of plasters. And if I didn’t want to let them stick, then too bad. She was just going to stick more on top till I was home, safe and sound, and didn’t need any kind of plasters anymore.
Cover by Michał Parzuchowski