A Barefoot Blunder: When Japanese Plasters Don’t Stick to Kiwi Feet (Extended Version)

This is the long/extended version of my story, originally published by Global Hobo. With their permission I have posted it here. If you’d like to read the short version, click this link.


I’m 10 minutes into my 2.5 hour walk to get from the little empty station on the side of the little empty road to the limestone caves of Abukuma when I realise I may have a slight problem. The the last few days of marching determinedly on a sightseeing mission around Fukushima, Japan is finally starting to take its toll on my feet.

Blisters. A hiker’s worst enemy; not to mention something most travellers can probably sympathise with.

Alas, typical rurally-raised New Zealander that I am, I simply shrug my shoulders and slip off my sneakers, trading the painful rubbing of feet against shoes for the unrelenting surface of the hard roadside gravel.

Ah, the good old barefoot solution, a classic go-to for many ‘Kiwi’s. I’m not unaware of how strange that will look here though, in the midst of a country where shoes are immediately exchanged for slippers upon entering a home, or you at least retain your socks for a bit of decency.


This being the case, I’m not too surprised when the Japanese couple hiking down the hill cast me with concerned looks and ask if I’m all right (“daijoubu desu ka?”). What does surprise me, though, is the frantic digging about in backpacks that ensues and somehow results in a stunned Eli accepting plasters from a pair of strangers.

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.

Thanking them and assuring them I would be fine three times, we finally break paths and I’m left standing there awkwardly holding these weird little pieces of material between thumb and forefinger, staring at them in puzzlement like a nutty scientist who’s just come across 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 rural Kiwi would be seen alive with plasters on just because of a little hurt feet?

Yet for some reason, I hesitate. I’d feel kind of bad just throwing these away, even though I know they’re not the type that will stick to sweaty hiking feet. Hmm, that’s odd. Maybe there’s something more to the Japanese couple giving me plasters than just my mediocre language skills. But what?!!


Just as expected, the plasters are falling off within minutes of having put them on and pulled socks and shoes back over again. God damn it, screw this plaster shit, I’m over it!aaaaand I’m back to bare feet.

I try not to let my thoughts linger on the stares of drivers as they pass the weird gaijin walking along the side of the road with their shoes not on their feet but in their hands.

Seriously foreigners, what the hell next. Oh well, at least I’m good entertainment value, I feebly try and joke to myself, nevertheless becoming painfully aware of how stupid I look.

Well, at least the rocks stabbing into my feet are providing some distraction.

One driver in particular slows right down to take a good uncensored eyeball at me out the side of her window, and immediately I feel like I’m about to lose it and break into that delirous, deranged laughter you often see in cartoon characters who have no idea wtf is happening to them and have no other way of dealing with the situation.

I’m caught off guard, however, by the appeasing smile that greets me from the driver. The well-worn face of wrinkles is barely registerable beneath what feels like pulsing layers of a mysterious youthful energy. The wonderment with which she fixates me is practically palpable, projecting towards me like the fingers of a child about to touch a lolly they haven’t bought yet. There’s no reservation whatsoever from this old lady, which I guess must be one of the privileges you earn after a large 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 the effort of engaging in another conversation in Japanese. I’m not really sure where this is going, but I always figure a chance to talk to a local is a chance to improve my speaking. To be honest, though, it’s autumn and Japan doesn’t do daylight savings, so even though it’s only 3o’clock right now it’s already getting dark and I should probably be getting a move on, not chatting with a strange old lady on a random deserted roadside.

Of course me being me this is only a tiny backlight thought in my ‘ah well, who cares just roll with it’ mentality and I’m not going to interrupt her just for the sake of time.

Silly me. Luckily 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!”

For a moment I’m suspended in a dumb shock, until at last I realise it would be futile to refuse.

During the drive she asks me where I’m from, what I do, how long I’m traveling Fukushima and where I’m staying. In turn I ask where she is from: Kawamata.

I remember passing through there earlier today; it’s a whole hour north of where we are. I decide not to mention it, but I’m blown away that she would take time to vessel me about when she could be getting back to the comfort of her home.


At last we make our arrival. Despite making the destination she still seems concerned about how I’ll make it back. I’m already eternally grateful however and, not wanting to waste any more of this lady’s time, I insist she need not worry and thank her, I guess, a lot more than three times.

I’m off to the caves at last. I lose myself easily in the moment, engrossed in exploring the funky rock formations. So much that an hour later, emerging back into the dimming evening, not only is it the last thing I expect but I’ve almost forgotten the kind old lady–except there she is waiting patiently, waving me towards her!

It’s like she’s a fairy godmother from a children’s tale. I’m struggling to articulate anything and 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 though, as she totters over to buy me one anyway. I follow her in dumbfounded shock.

“Arigatou gozaimasu, hontou ni!” I somehow manage to blurt out. I’m about to try and say I’ll walk back when she tells me to get in her car again and she’ll drive me to the station.

At this stage I begin to feel almost like a poodle being taken for a walk. But poodles get pampered at salons, they get fed, watered and loved. Not like the stray dog I must have appeared, clambering over a road in bare feet.

As soon as we get to the station and I thank her again, she’s fretting about the train times and telling me, rural areas don’t have frequent trains and it’s troublesome isn’t it?

Also, am I hungry? Have I had dinner?

I tell her it’s okay, and at last (though after another five minutes of fretting) 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 from this old lady. And what was more she lives an hour away—shouldn’t she be getting home herself?

I sit down opposite the only other person at the station, a high school student who had been observing our interaction. Kind old lady, isn’t she? he says. We talk briefly and I begin to relax, thinking at last I’m back on an independent road.

But no. She still isn’t done. My answer of “it’s okay” may as well have been as good as a poodle’s, because instead of heeding it, she’s come back, again!

I’m struck a second time by the urge to break into that delirious laughter, but this time it’s out of sheer amazement and disbelief.

The warm, somewhat cheeky smile that I’m becoming well acquainted with breaks out on her withered face as she hands me convenience store sandwiches. Once again she’s saying, get in the car. She’s going to take me to the next closest station, just so I don’t have to wait as long for the train.

What the…?!!

Fast forward I’m sitting on the train, chugging away back to Iwaki as darkness closes in. I still can’t believe the day’s events. What had started off as a frustratingly slow hike due to blisters had ended with being pampered by a complete stranger…

I’d lost count of the amount of times I said “Daijoubu”, watched her wander off thinking she was finally done helping me, only to find her reappear.

I thought about the plasters I’d received from the couple earlier. They may not have stuck well with 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, well 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 any more.

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