2008 Cadillac CTS - Japandemonium

Brian Konoske

I stop at an establishment whose sign reads "Swiss Inn" but is neither Swiss nor an inn. (Discuss.) Other than the non-Swiss non-Inn (it was a restaurant), none of the signs are in English. It's profoundly disheartening to realize that you not only have no reservation, you don't even know what a hotel looks like. We don't know what town we're in. Nobody speaks English. Sleeping in the car is looking like a distinct possibility.

Finally, Konoske snaps. He opens my Lonely Planet book and finds a page that includes the Japanese characters for "hotel." He studies this for a few minutes before shouting, "Hotel! Dude, that's a hotel! That's the word for it on the sign!" He's gesturing frantically at a building that looks just like every other building - which is to say, concrete and eight stories high - but I pull in to see if we've found salvation. By some divine act, this place is a hotel, and one with a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant right next door, no less. And all it took to find the place was for Konoske to teach himself how to read Japanese. I'm not sure this bodes well for the rest of the trip. The next morning, I peer out of my hotel-room window at the Subaru dealership next door. All the cars on the lot have their windshield wipers pointed skyward in the universal automotive symbol for imminent snow. Nonetheless, it's a new day, and I'm filled with optimism.

I fire up the Caddy and pull it around to the lobby, where I plan to coerce the desk clerk into translating my directional needs to my nemesis, the navigation system. But the nav system, apparently insulted by the many creative epithets I hurled at it yesterday, refuses to report for duty, its screen remaining stolidly blank. Cold panic fills my belly. It would be difficult to find Hokkaidō using the rearview mirror's compass. While Konoske packs his camera gear into the trunk, I plead with the nav system. I sweet-talk it and promise I'll behave: I'll take it to all those points of interest it always wanted to see and give it the latest map updates as soon as they're released. This time, things will be different. And they are, once I realize that I'd pushed the day/night dimmer button last night and pushing it again causes the screen to burst to life. I've never been so happy to fix a piece of electronics that I hate. I immediately resume calling it names, because I'm incorrigible.

We get back on the highway for two reasons: First, it's still a long way to Aomori, where my friend Jason lives. Second, it's already snowing, and I figure that sticking to the highway gives us the best chance of survival, short of returning this car to General Motors shod with steel wheels and Bridgestone Blizzaks.

In the daylight, and outside the gravitational pull of Tokyo, even the highway is beautiful. It's like Tuscany with snow, the road traversing forested hills, diving into long tunnels and back out to vistas draped in white. The mountains don't look as tall as the Alps or the Rockies, at least as far as I can tell through the omnipresent snow. I take it easy, and the Pilot Sports, ill-suited though they are, do yeoman's work in the wintry conditions.

A bowl of rest-stop ramen and a breathtaking $100 toll charge later, we're finally in Aomori. It's about five p.m. Angry gray waves batter the northern shore of Honshū, and the snow is so deep that the sidewalks are more like human sluiceways chiseled through the ice. But at least we're here, and I'm excited that tonight Jason will be able to help us find a hotel and a place to eat. I call him to say I've arrived in Aomori. There's an uncomfortable pause on the line before Jason replies, "I don't live in Aomori."

Japan is divided into prefectures like America is divided into states. So when Jason said he lived in Aomori, I'd assumed he meant the town. But there's also an Aomori prefecture. Our predicament now is akin to showing up in New York City and having your friend tell you, "Yes, I live in New York - Albany, New York."

Jason estimates that it'll take two hours to get back to his town, via a narrow, snowy road that hugs the unforgiving sea before turning right, into the dark forest inland. I'm coping with the slick road, barely, when I glance at the nav screen and see that I've got to take the next left, like now. I'm heading downhill, and the road is completely white. I try to muscle the Cadillac into the turn, but the traction isn't there and we begin a slow, sickening slide into the oncoming lane. Where there is a car. "This is it," I think. "I'm going to find out what happens when you have a car accident in Japan." I'll have to get out of my car, exchange insurance information, and commit seppuku for bringing shame to my family with my poor off-camber car control. But the CTS's stability control system, heretofore dormant, springs to action with a chattering from the brake pedal and a groan from the calipers, and somehow the electronic hand of God grabs the front end and points it back into our lane. Konoske exhales through clenched teeth. "There's a difference," I say, "between having a vacation and having an adventure. This is not a vacation."

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