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Kintaro Walks Japan

A search for my father’s birthplace brought me to the land of rising suns and falling pink blossoms. Locals dubbed me Kintaro—Golden Boy—after the legendary Japanese character, and so began Kintaro’s journey that would last more than four months and 3,000 kilometers with nothing but an old sketch as a clue.

It is said that every great journey begins with a single step. Mine took place in Cape Sata, the southernmost tip of Mainland Japan, where I embarked on a long walk that would take me the length of Japan, across islands, over mountains and into the homes of strangers.

I thought coming to Japan would be a great chance for me to find my father’s birthplace somewhere in Hokkaido. His parents had been Presbyterian missionaries on the northern island when he was born. Soon after returning to the U.S., my grandpa died, and all the information of my father’s birthplace slowly evaporated. All except one sketch my grandma drew of a distinct coastal scene near where they were living. With sketch in hand, I thought, surely I could find this place.

After graduating from college I saved up money working as a waiter at my dad’s restaurant. Then I was off to southern Japan. In Kyushu I weaved my way up a mountain pass and walked through a narrow tunnel opening to a wide expanse of cascading rice patties, small wooden homes and a thick green tropical forest. The backpack felt heavy, and there wasn’t much of a roadside for me on which to walk. I had never hiked more than 40 kilometers, and here I was attempting to trek more than 3,000.

It wasn’t until Shikoku when the cherry trees began to bloom and scatter the hillsides with little pink firework-like flowers. If you are wondering what to do next spring—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 they were being replaced with brilliant green leaves that are just as beautiful.

Before 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 home stay. 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 (a postcard I made with a picture of me on one side and a map of Japan on the other), and he enthusiastically handed me ¥1,000. I continued on my way.

Later that night I was preparing camp by the river, when I heard my name being yelled in the wind. “Going crazy already are yah, ol’ Kintaro?” I muttered to myself. 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 they had been searching for me for more than two hours.

They urged me to stay at their house, which I happily did. The man’s name was Nakagawa, and his wife brought out sushi and a bottle of sake that looked as if it had been saved for a special occasion. 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 ashes of the grandparents. Two black-and-white portraits of the grandparents hung above, tilted downward and 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 had shown my grandmother’s sketch to nearly everyone with whom I had sat down, but it wasn’t until Hokkaido when people began recognizing the place. The sketch was of Candle Rock, off the coast of the Shakotan Peninsula, only a couple hundred miles from where I stood.

I had shown my grandmother’s sketch to nearly everyone with whom I had sat down, but it wasn’t until Hokkaido when people began recognizing the place. The sketch was of Candle Rock, off the coast of the Shakotan Peninsula, only a couple hundred miles from where I stood.

Standing at Cape Soya, I was wearing the same pair of thinning boots I wore 145 days and 3,200 km. earlier, but this time I was at the opposite end of Japan, a country with which I felt I had become close friends. I thought of my first day at Cape Sata, and how I was so young to the walk, but there at Cape Soya, I felt as if I could continue walking forever.

I jumped in the cold water. It was the end of my long walk, but it felt so much like the beginning of a new life. 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.

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