Sunday, December 27, 2009

Son of a ditch

My friend Sergey and I wanted to celebrate Christmas by doing a multi-day hike from Kyoto to Lake Biwa. The plan was to hike all day and then sleep for free at a 24-hour McDonald's.

But the McHike turned out to be a McBust after Sergey fell into a ditch and smashed his knee.

We had been hiking for eight hours before the accident happened. We managed to hike up one side of Mt. Hiei and down the other side without incident (well, except for when I lost my footing and fell backwards against a rock, cracking the face of my watch. The running joke after that? "What time is it?" "Half past a crack").

The first eight hours were a lot of fun. Sergey told a lot of strange Bulgarian jokes involving shady doctors. We entered a temple for free and illegally rang the giant bell. We lit some incense and made a wish. We took a lot of the same photos we took the first time we climbed Mt. Hiei. We laughed when we realized Sergey was wearing the same outfit he wore on our first hike. We cried when we found out the vending machines selling hot coffee at the top of the mountain were closed. We asked each other all kinds of stupid questions ("How would you rather die? Burning or drowning?"). We nearly twisted our ankles several times. We cursed like motherfucking sailors.

By the time we made it down the mountain, it was starting to get dark. We left the woods and entered the suburbs of Shiga Prefecture. The hike from here was pretty straightforward. All we needed to do was reach Lake Biwa, find a public bath, eat dinner and then settle in for a long sleepless night at McDonald's.

It was Christmas Eve but it didn't feel festive at all. There was no snow, no lights, no rampant commercialism. No one had the Christmas spirit -- not even the 7-11 employee forced to dress up as Santa Claus.

You wouldn't have known it was Christmas if it wasn't for the fact that every convenience store, restaurant and shop was playing George Michael's "Last Christmas." After hearing the song for the 10th time that day, Sergey snapped.

"I don't remember what happened to me last Christmas but there's no way I'm ever going to forget what happened to George Michael," he said.

We were getting hungry by this point but we wanted to find a 24-hour McDonald's where we could spend the night before going out for dinner (we didn't want to eat at McDonald's. We just wanted to sleep there). We were walking down dark roads hoping to stumble across a McDonald's but we weren't having any luck.

We were exhausted and dehydrated. We were about to give up and head to the nearest convenience store to ask for help when I turned around and saw a billboard facing the opposite direction we had been heading. It was a huge sign advertising a 24-hour McDonald's 1.5 km down the road. Sergey and I did a little dance of joy. Hikers call these sorts of serendipitous moments "trail magic."

With our accommodation for the night magically taken care of, we headed to a convenience store to ask for directions to an onsen. The nearest one was six kilometers away so we cheated and hopped on the train (we were too tired to walk).

We had trouble finding the onsen after we got off the train so we stopped at an electronics shop to ask for directions. Sergey is pretty much fluent in Japanese and I am pretty much not. So when we both understood the directions differently (I heard, "Cross the street, turn left, go straight and you'll find it on your right side" and Sergey heard "Cross the street, go straight and you'll find it there") we went with Sergey's interpretation.

We crossed the street, went straight and got lost for a good 20 minutes. We had to ask someone else for help and it turned out that I, the shitty Japanese speaker, had actually understood the original directions better than Sergey, the "fluent" Japanese speaker.

This was especially gratifying because of an earlier exchange when I asked Sergey if he wanted to speak Japanese with me.

"What for?" he asked.

"Practice," I said.

"With you?!?!" he said.

In your face!

We managed to loiter at the onsen for four hours. We had a bath and dinner and then we stretched out on the tatami floors until closing time.

At around midnight, we made our way to McDonald's. This is when I noticed Sergey was limping and appeared to be in pain.

He confessed that he had fallen into a gutter and smashed his knee when I wasn't looking. He didn't say anything at the time because he was too embarrassed.

The accident had happened a few hours earlier. We had been walking on dark roads with no streetlights or sidewalks. It was difficult to see where we were going. We were forced to walk along the narrow shoulder, with no more than a few inches of room between the cars on our right side and a deep gutter on our left side. The gutter was mostly covered over with concrete blocks but there were stretches where the covers were missing and if you didn't watch your feet, you could trip and fall in. Which is exactly what happened to Sergey.

He was walking behind me. But instead of walking on the narrow strip of paved shoulder, he was walking on top of the concrete-covered gutter. Because he wasn't looking down at his feet, he didn't notice that the entire length of the gutter wasn't covered. And so he stepped right into the open gutter and smashed his right knee on the way down.

He scrambled out of the gutter and didn't say a word to me. I was walking ahead of him at the time and I didn't see it happen. It was only when his knee began to throb unbearably that he felt compelled to confess.

The injury wasn't serious enough to require medical attention but it was painful enough that Sergey wasn't sure if he'd be able to continue hiking on Christmas Day. The fact that he had crashed his bike the day before and fallen on the same knee only made things worse. We decided to camp out at McDonald's for the night and see how things looked in the morning.

It was about 12:30 a.m. by the time we arrived at McDonald's. We found a table in the corner of the restaurant with two padded benches. We ordered a couple of drinks and some fries. We took off our shoes, opened up a bottle of whiskey and settled in for the night.

There were only a few other customers. A pair of girls in their early 20s, a table of drunk guys trying to sober up before heading home, and a greasy looking guy in his 40s reading comics (hereinafter referred to as "Chubby Comic Book Guy"). By 3 a.m., everyone had left except for Chubby Comic Book Guy. He would end up outlasting Sergey and I.

The two of us passed the time by talking, playing games and attempting to sleep. Sergey was starting to become a bit jittery because he hadn't had a cigarette in almost 24 hours. He had decided to quit the morning we started hiking because he was tired of me taking pictures of him smoking and posting them on facebook. (My shame campaign worked!)

By 4:30 a.m. I finally managed to fall into a deep sleep. But I was shaken awake by Sergey an hour later.

"Wake up," he said. "We have to go."

"What are you talking about?" I said. "It's 5:30 in the morning."

"I didn't sleep at all, I think I have a cold, my knee hurts and I can't hike anymore," he said. "I already checked the schedule and there's a train going back to Kyoto in 20 minutes. But first you have to buy me breakfast."

I didn't want to cut the hike short but there was no arguing with a guy suffering from sleep deprivation and nicotine withdrawal. Besides, he was injured so there was no other option but to return home.

We headed back to Kyoto at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning and slept until late in the afternoon. We wanted to have an unconventional Christmas but, ironically, ended up having a traditional Christmas instead. We stayed in and cooked chicken (the closest thing to turkey in Japan) with all of the trimmings.

Once we got over the disappointment of cutting the hike short, I think we both agreed spending a traditional Christmas at home was much nicer than spending a second sleepless night at a McDonald's in the middle of nowhere.

I'm actually kind of glad the McHike turned out to be a McBust. Sergey's knee injury aside, I wouldn't have wanted to spend Christmas any other way.

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