Hokkaido's Caribbean notes

What are the odds, in a small town in the northern island of Hokkaido, to stumble across a Spanish-speaking Japanese who has lived and worked in the Dominican Republic for 47 years and now imports some of the finest coffee beans you can find in Asia?

Life is the byproduct of random events that you can only try to surf carefully so to be open to “the unexpected” when this arrives.

Accidentally invited to travel 24h by boat to transport a rally car to Hokkaido, your friend decides to go solo camping and you book a homestay with no check-in desk in a town you had not heard of before. The owner is not there when you arrive. Your friend suggests the closest cafe to wait, the place is hard to find but he’s determined not to leave you in the street so he eventually finds it.

You order a coffee. At first, you’re surprised that a place in the middle of nowhere, with no menu, has four kinds of coffee beans, each sort roasted at a different temperature. But Japan is full of strange things so you just sip your coffee and wait for time to pass. Then you start noticing pictures from faraway places and inquire about them. They’re from Haiti. Also unusual. Too many coincidences, your curiosity awakes.

While answering your questions, the owner is undusting two bags of pictures. You think it’s his routine for a Saturday morning but it’s not.

Before you have the time to realise anything, he’s discretely handling all the pictures and explaining to you, in excellent Spanish, how Japanese soldiers returning from WWII had to be reallocated abroad because in Japan there was no job for everyone. The government started sending them to places they could not even locate on the map, at conditions that were far worse than they could ever imagine. He went to the Dominican Republic at 19 when the country was still a dictatorship under Trujillo. There was no reception procedure, no structure to support them. After a while, many of the Japanese who had gone with him petitioned to be moved and were sent to Brasil. By then, however, Trujillo had gone so that he felt the wind was changing. Encouraged by the political change he started his own commerce: vegetables, then TV, TV channels and eventually coffee, which he maintained until now.

Over the years, he witnessed several deals, mediated with the Japanese government, the World Bank and was awarded national prizes for the development of the country, all humbly documented by pictures that were scanned onto A4 pages and some into a booklet that he produced himself. There he also got married to a Japanese woman and ended up staying until 2000, when he returned to Hokkaido and opened the “mi casa”. The place could easily be a museum, given all the memorabilia stored here and there and the beautiful pictures hanged around. They ask customers to bring their own biscuits and food. What they offer at “mi casa” is coffee, beans by the weight and history. They also managed to get a famous chocolate factory to use their coffee beans to produce an exclusive box of coffee-flavoured chocolates that they proudly sell at the coffee shop.

He showed so many pictures from the Caribbean and I realised that I miss (wild) travelling. Moving around during the pandemic was relatively ok, I’ve been one of the lucky ones, never confined at home and I had the freedom to move around countries so I can’t really complain. But I miss going to lost places, whose existence you could not even imagine, board old planes wondering if they will land in the right place or will make it through the end of the journey (it’s crazy but yes, I also miss that) and feeling lost, alone and sometimes lonely but alive among complete strangers. I miss snatching a hitchhike ride on a food truck for the sake of saving 5 dollars or ending up doing something completely different from what you had planned because you accidentally met some nice people on the way and revisited your itinerary.

I keep on feeling, possibly more and more, a sort of invisible hand moving me here and there and suggesting the next move. I cannot explain rationally many of the things happening since I arrived in Japan. Something pushed me to move to a new place in Kyoto. There, I met new people who accepted me with my broken Japanese and invited me to Hokkaido where, coincidence after coincidence I ended up in one of the places with the richest history of this town.

I finally checked in and went for Sushi. My phone had suggested several options but I eventually followed my nose and entered a random place. I was the only customer so the owner had the time to discuss things. He lived in Tokyo for years, learning the art of Sushi before returning to his hometown to open his small (and delicious) sushi place. We talked of food, sea urchins and unlikely recipes like “acqua pazza” and I discovered that he knows well my new “Dominican Republic adopted” friend.

Things just keep on rolling. Some bring you joy, some bring you sorrow, but the biggest mistake is probably to look for the overall meaning of what is happening today as if its sense of all this had all to be revealed to you “now and here”. Some things make sense now, some others will acquire meaning only days, weeks, months from now and, as the Dalai Lama said, “sometimes not getting what you want is the biggest gift life could offer you”.


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