Presents received – two tomatoes, one bottle of Aquarius, grapes
Presents given – dinner
My fear was that the Category Two Super Typhoon would linger on, thereby confining me to Fuji for another day, but when I awoke, conditions outside had changed completely. The rain was gone, the sun was out and there was hardly a breath of wind, so I packed my bags and bounded downstairs for breakfast (slipper-less, of course). My knees were rather less eager to get back on the Mariposa than the rest of me, and throbbed with pain for the first few kilometres of coast road, which ran flat and straight, in the lee of a sand dune forest of low, weather-beaten pine trees. I stopped outside a supermarket to do my stretching exercises, at a 7-11 for some canned coffee and a stodgy bun, and reached Mishima by mid-morning.
Just like the typhoon - and just as I had predicted - my déjà vu disappeared, and not overnight, but almost the moment I left Fuji City limits. With a clear head for the first time in two days, I made a list of rational explanations for why the déjà vu had manifested itself in the first place:
1) It was brought on by over-tiredness: something clicked in my brain around the time I went on the bonk, and did not repair itself until I was back in the saddle and physically rejuvenated.
2) It was brought on by the typhoon: as the atmospheric conditions changed and the air pressure dropped, something clicked in my brain and did not repair itself until the weather was back to normal.
3) It was brought on by a geunuine memory of a past experience near - but not necessarily in - Fuji City.
4) It was brought on by some sort of gas or radiation leak.
5) It was brought on by the egg ramen.
Meanwhile, the list of irrational explanations went like this:
1) I had visited Fuji City in a previous life.
2) I had simultaneously been visiting Fuji City in a parallel universe.
3) Someone else who had visited Fuji City – either in this universe, a parallel universe or a previous life – was using telekinesis to transfer their memories of the event into my mind.
Before converting to Hinduism or declaring myself to be the new Messiah, I decided to live with the mystery for now and ask a few carefully chosen friends for their opinion the next time I had access to my email account.
North-east of Mishima and a thousand metres above sea level lay Hakoné, a lakeside town famous for its onsen and views of Mount Fuji. Mr Sturdy Level had warned of how tough the ascent via Route 1 would be, but looking at the Mapple, there was an easier alternative to the south-east, on a road that climbed to five or six hundred metres and through the Takanosu Tunnel, before heading back down to the coast. With speed still my primary motivation I plumped for the latter, and beyond Mishima turned onto a minor road that pointed the way uphill.
While I may have chosen to avoid Hakoné, I nonetheless relished the thought of tackling a proper climb, and as well as being my first in a week, this would be my last of the summer. The moment was bittersweet, since I knew that I would miss the challenge, the climber’s high and the reward of a beautiful view or a fast descent. As the incline steepened, I clicked my way down through the gears, from the middle cog on the front chain ring to the smallest, then from sixth to fourth to second on the rear chain ring, and finally first. With no easier options, this was where I had to find my rhythm, to keep pedalling without straining too hard, and without slowing down so much that I lost my balance or ceased to proceed in a straight line.
Streams of water rushed along the tarmac on either side of me, and fan-shaped splashes of mud and stones spread out from gaps in the hedgerow: evidence of just how much had been washed away during the night. I stopped to pee on a leaf-strewn track, and as I walked back to the Mariposa, Mount Fuji appeared from behind the clouds to wish me well. Coming as they did either side of a typhoon, two sightings in three days were almost too good to be true, and bookended my time near the mountain in suitably providential fashion. I hastily unpacked my camera, and had just succeeded in commemorating the moment when an old man on a scooter rode up and handed me two large tomatoes.
‘Round here blah blah blah blah blah,’ he said, while I smiled, nodded and tried to work out what the hell he was on about. ‘Blah blah blah blah blah.’
Sometimes a few key words will enable you to keep up with a conversation, but in this case, even the non-key words were incomprehensible.
‘Blah blah blah blah blah,’ he laughed, and either wished me luck or called me crazy, before speeding off down the hill with his load of fruit and vegetables.
The climb only took about an hour, as there were no looping haripins, no food or drink emergencies, and it was agreeably cool after the storm. I stopped to savour the view, but felt less sentimental about passing through my final tunnel of the trip, and after a kilometre in the dark, the descent on the other side took me directly into the seaside resort of Atami City.
Here a small park and promenade were hemmed in by a road already busy with daytrippers, and overlooked by souvenir shops, cafés and high-rise hotels. Nestled within a small bay, the appropriately named ‘Atami Sun Beach’ was suspiciously pristine: sand near Tokyo tends to look darker, more volcanic, and I wondered if this particular stretch had been shipped in from somewhere more exotic. Just to complete the picture, and no doubt chosen by the authorities to lend that extra hint of the tropical, cod reggae music was playing through a system of speakers mounted on telegraph poles.
For lunch I found a rickety old restaurant perched on top of the next headland, whose interior was piled high with books, records and magazines, while all sorts of artefacts hung from the walls and ceiling, mostly relating to the owner’s passion for fishing. After much deliberation, I ordered hokké – a variety of mackerel that is cut open from end to end and served flat like a kipper – and once his other customers had left, the owner sat down for a chat. He was a man whose formerly muscular physique had begun the slow transformation to being merely plump, and whose beard was flecked with grey.
‘I get up at three in the morning most days,’ he told me. ‘If the weather’s good enough, that is.’
‘Do you sell what you catch?’
‘There isn’t usually enough for that. Often I just use it in the restaurant, for sushi and so on.’
‘So where’s the hokké from? Did you catch it yourself?’
‘The hokké? To tell you the truth I’m not sure. Canada perhaps, or maybe Norway.’
‘Norway? I didn’t realise fish travelled that far.’
Here I was talking to a fisherman-restauranteur, whose menu included sushi caught by his own hands that very morning, and I had managed to order something from halfway round the world, which was probably frozen in the bowels of a trawler for three months before it even arrived in Tokyo. Still, he cannot have been too offended, because I was presented with some budo for dessert – fat, red Japanese grapes with big, crunchy seeds and sour-tasting skins – and a bottle of Aquarius to keep me going through the afternoon, both of which were on the house.
Scanning the Mapple, I could see only two campsites in the whole of Greater Tokyo: one on a square of reclaimed land near Hanéda Airport, and the other in a place called Izumi-no-Mori (‘Forest Spring’), which appeared to be a park of some kind. To reach Izumi-no-Mori would require cutting inland at Hiratsuka, another fifteen or twenty kilometres along the coast, and I was halfway there when a voice called out from behind me. Turning to find out who it belonged to, I saw a young man riding a heavily laden touring bike.
‘Excuse me,’ he said.
‘Where are you from?’
‘I’m from England.’
‘Hello. My name is Mr Fukuoka. Nice to meet you.’
‘Nice to meet you, too.’
Mr Fukuoka was riding along the pavement, and continued to bump up and down the kerb at each successive side street, and to weave in and out of trees and lampposts, as I kept to the road.
‘So you’ve cycled from Kyushu?’ I said.
‘Yes. Have you been there?’
‘Yes, I’ve come from Kyushu myself, although I didn’t go to Fukuoka. Where are you going?’
‘I’m on my way to Hokkaido.’
‘How long have you taken so far?’ Ever competitive, I wondered if he had covered the same distance in a faster time.
‘Hmm, let’s see…Saturday, I think. Yes, it was Saturday.’
‘No, I mean what date did you leave Fukuoka?’
‘I don’t know. What’s the date today?’
‘About the twenty-fifth or sixth.’
‘Well, around the eighteenth or nineteenth then.’
‘Of August?’ Mr Fukuoka nodded. ‘And, er, when will you arrive in Hokkaido?’
‘I need to get there by next Saturday. I only have a short holiday, you see.’
‘So you’re cycling almost the entire length of Japan…’
‘…from south to north…’
‘South to north, yes.’
‘…in two weeks?’
‘Yes.’ He nodded again and smiled.
‘Unbelievable! How many kilometres are you doing each day?’
‘About a hundred and fifty.’
‘A hundred and fifty?’
‘I also ride at night, though.’
‘What about sleeping?’
‘I can’t afford hotels or anything. I just have a nap on a bench sometimes, or in a park. But it’s pretty scary, so I tend to keep going.’
‘You mean you’re afraid of getting mugged?’
‘No, I’m afraid of ghosts.’ I laughed at this, and then recalled my own nights spent lying awake and dreading the arrival of gangsters or madmen.
Mr Fukuoka was short and stocky with a sleeveless t-shirt and a mod-style mop of hair, and for some reason both his appearance and his energetic demeanour reminded me of Keith Moon. He was in his final year as an engineering student at university, and this was his last proper holiday before starting work the following March (the Japanese academic year runs from April to March, and many university students will already have a job lined up by the time they graduate). Having tackled the more challenging route from Mishima, he had been resting in Hakoné bus station when an old lady took pity on him. She invited him home, fed him and laid out a futon on her living room floor, but even in such a comfortable and ghost-free environment, Mr Fukuoka had managed little more than a couple of hours’ sleep. We decided to ride together as far as Izumi-no-Mori, and despite the inconvenience, he insisted on sticking to the pavement whenever the road was too narrow to accommodate the two of us side by side.
As we came closer to Hiratsuka, I noticed that drivers were honking their horns and calling out to say hello as they overtook – not for my benefit, but in response to a sign pinned to the back of Mr Fukuoka’s bike. I couldn’t read the whole thing, but it went something like this: ‘Hello. My name is Mr Fukuoka. I am cycling from Kyushu to Hokkaido in two weeks. Thank you for your support. I will try my best!’ It reminded me of the marathon runners who write their names on their vests so that even complete strangers will cheer them on, and I regretted not having come up with the same idea myself.
Mr Fukuoka’s bike was almost identical to the one that Mr Kanagawa had been riding in Himeji, and when we stopped at a conbini he suggested that I give it a test ride. It felt so strange that I could not pedal more than a couple of metres, partly because the weight distribution was so different – the bicycle had drop handlebars and panniers low down on both the front and back wheels – but also because it was so heavy.
‘This thing weighs a ton,’ I said. ‘What sort of stuff are you carrying?’
‘Oh, you know, just some souvenirs.’
He extracted a few items from the panniers, one of them being a big glass jar that contained what appeared to be pickled bees, and weighed getting on for a kilo.
‘You’re going to carry this all the way to Hokkaido?’ I asked, and Mr Fukuoka looked rather apologetic.
‘Well, I’ve been to so many interesting places, and I wanted to buy some presents for my family.’
I was having trouble operating the gear shifters on Mr Fukuoka’s bike, which were of the type that you will find on a modern-day racer, and the drop-handlebar equivalent of the Mariposa’s integral ones. To change gear required tapping the brake levers to the side rather than squeezing them – left lever for the front chain ring and right lever for the rear chain ring – although I couldn’t help noticing that when you did the latter, the brake blocks didn’t grip until the lever was practically touching the handlebars.
‘Isn’t that a bit dangerous?’ I said. ‘I thought it was best to have the cables tighter.’
‘I don’t know, I prefer it that way – it’s your brakes that are too tight.’ As he wobbled around the conbini car park, Mr Fukuoka was finding the Mariposa to be an equally challenging proposition. ‘And how do you manage with the seat so high up?’
‘If you have the seat too low it’s supposed to be bad for your knees,’ I explained. ‘Although to tell you the truth it doesn’t seem to have worked. I have to use Bantelin on them every evening.’
‘How about your backside?’
‘Ha ha! I was really worried about that, but it’s been fine.’
‘You’re so lucky. Mine really hurts, even with this.’
He showed me an extra-soft, padded seat cover, filled with a kind of gel that reminded me of nothing so much as a silicone breast implant, and we agreed that a bath at the end of the day is the best way to deal with aching knees and backsides. Mr Fukuoka was carrying a fold-out map of the whole of Japan, marked with little more than expressways and major cities, so we set out in search of an onsen that was marked on the Mapple as being in Atsugi, a small town between Hiratsuka and the campsite.
Even towards the end of a long day, the kilometres began to pass more quickly, and it was good to have some company for once. We talked of the hardships we had encountered on our respective tours, and I explained my theory of overcoming adversity through concentration and perseverance. While Mr Fukuoka did not recognise the word ‘Zen’ – which was perhaps excusable given the many different varieties of Buddhism that exist in Japan – the concept of ganbaru (頑張る) could be said to have a similar meaning. While its imperative form is used in the kind of situations where we would wish someone ‘good luck’, a more literal translation of the verb ganbaru would be ‘to try one’s best’, and the message on Mr Fukuoka’s sign concluded with the polite form, ganbarimasu. In Japan, it is looked upon as a particularly admirable quality to put one’s heart and soul into something, and as another car-full of youngsters rolled down their windows to cheer Mr Fukuoka on, it occurred to me that another reason for people’s generosity towards me had been their recognition of my own spirit of ganbaru, even if it was channelled into the essentially pointless activity of cycling from one part of the country to another.
Just before resigning from my conversation school job in Tokyo - in other words, at a point when I no longer cared about doing my job properly - I had presided over an Anglo-Japanese bad language exchange with some of my high-school-age students, and while Mr Fukuoka wasn’t too fussed about learning English, he did ask if I could teach him how to swear. My students had made a list of words on the classroom whiteboard like uzai, which means ‘You’re annoying!’ and shiné, which means ‘You die!’ and which seemed as tame to me as the aforementioned baka-yaro, but if he knew of anything more insulting or severe, Shinsuke was keeping it to himself. For my part, I listed my own top five swear words in descending order of acceptability, and explained how useful ‘stupid’, ‘fucking’ or even ‘stupid fucking’ can be when used as noun modifiers.
As the daylight faded for good, and having asked several shopkeepers and passersby, we were finally informed that the onsen in Atsugi had gone out of business (this was, incidentally, only the second time the Mapple had let me down in six weeks). There was another onsen between here and Izumi-no-Mori, but this proved almost as elusive, and even having a native speaker on my side was of little use, as we zigzagged back and forth across the Sagami River and its various tributaries. After a prolonged session of map reading at an isolated conbini, it became clear that our only option was to join Route 246, an elevated highway that would take us over the maze of industrial estates and dead-end streets.
To solve the problem of how to reach the city centre by car while still travelling at a reasonable speed, the Japanese simply raise their major roads above everything else, sometimes to double- or even triple-decker proportions, and even right in the heart of the capital, you can look out of a fourth- or fifth-floor window and still not see the the building opposite, or out of the ninth or tenth storey and directly onto an expressway. Where London has the Westway and the Limehouse Link, Tokyo has fifty times as many overpasses and underpasses (some of which were utilised to unforgettable effect in the driving sequence from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris: a real-life location otherworldly enough to pass for science fiction), and the kind of town planning that only an engineer – or perhaps J.G.Ballard – could truly appreciate.
The landscape beside Route 246 was spiked with an ever increasing concentration of tower blocks, billboards and neon signs, and I could feel myself being caught once more in the tractor beam of the big city. It was not at all the kind of road we should have been riding along - particularly with no lights - and Mr Fukuoka looked distinctly ill at ease as we hugged the barriers on the inside lane with cars roaring past us at seventy or eighty kilometres per hour.
‘Remember,’ – I had to shout to make myself heard above the traffic noise – ‘just keep going and don’t think about it!’
‘You know, Zen!’
Eventually a steep slip road fed off to the left and into a quiet, leafy neighbourhood, and we were soon parking our bikes outside Yumemi-Tokoro-Kokochiyu, or to give its literal translation, ‘Have a Dream Place Sensation Onsen’. It was large, modern and busy, with all sorts of indoor and outdoor bathing gimmicks, including one in a low-ceilinged log cabin that described itself as a 'Chinese steam bath'. Having balanced out my gift-giving karma by treating Mr Fukuoka to dinner, we had set off again by about ten o’clock, and it felt odd to be cycling squeaky clean and refreshed, but without knowing how much longer it would be before I found a place to stay.
Not having attempted to phone ahead, it was wildly optimistic of me to think that I would be able to check in to the campsite at such a late hour, and sure enough, when we arrived at Izumi-no-Mori, the scene outside was not an inviting one. Beside a dimly lit side road, the entrance to a small car park was blocked with a chain, and having ducked under this, we made our way past an assortment of abandoned old cars, through the broken windows of which it was just possible to make out crumpled old duvets and discarded food wrappers. It looked very much as if the cars were being used as temporary accommodation, and the smoked glass of the less battered ones seemed to stare at us through the gloom. Even if it wasn’t possible to be a paying customer, the park seemed as good a place as any to stay, and once Mr Fukuoka had helped lift the Mariposa over the front gate, we checked an information board and headed for the camping area. At the end of a potholed track was a clearing in the woods, with the usual barbecue area and stainless steel sinks and taps. A sign warned that only groups who had booked in advance were allowed to set up camp, but having come so far, I wasn’t about to let such a trifling piece of red tape stand in my way, so left bike and baggage behind, and returned on foot to the main road to see Shinsuke off.
Izumi-no-Mori was bisected by Route 246 and directly adjacent to a large truck stop, and as we sat outside exchanging details, Mr Fukuoka noticed a sign that listed dormitory beds. Having been inside to ask about prices, he told me they only cost four thousand yen for the night.
‘Maybe I’ll stay here, then,’ I said. ‘It’s probably a little safer than camping in the forest, and I can get a proper breakfast in the morning.’
‘You’ll need your bicycle, though. Do you want me to help you bring it back?’
‘That’s OK. I’ll manage. What about you? Where will you go now?’
‘Through the centre of Tokyo. Maybe via Shibuya or Shinjuku.’
‘You should stay in a capsule hotel.’
‘No way. I want to see what it’s like, but then I’ll carry on.’
‘Where do you think you’ll be by tomorrow morning?’
‘Somewhere in Chiba, probably.’
‘So you’ll get to Ibaraki about three or four days before I do.’
‘I suppose so, yes.’
We shook hands and promised to meet again on the road one day, and with that, Mr Fukuoka disappeared into the night. I returned to the park, climbed over the fence, walked to the camping area, collected the Mariposa, and was back at the truck stop about twenty minutes later. A woman in a cleaner’s pinny and headscarf was standing behind the reception desk when I walked in.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Can I stay for one night, please?’
The woman looked up for a moment, and went back to sorting out some paperwork before giving me an answer.
‘Sorry, we’re full.’
‘There are no beds at all?’
‘No. You have to book in advance.’
This was turning into a repeat performance of my conversation with the receptionist at Shiawasé-no-Mura, and I sensed that even my lost puppy face might not succeed in changing the woman’s mind. As far as I knew, Mr Fukuoka had asked her about prices rather than vacancies, so perhaps it was my fault for not checking, although I couldn’t imagine a trucker having the presence of mind to book his sleeping venue ahead of time.
‘You see, I was going to stay at the campsite, but when I arrived it was already closed.’
She looked me in the eye once more and said, ‘Sorry, we’re full.’
‘Are you sure it isn’t possible to stay?’
‘You have to book in advance.’
‘But…my friend…I thought…’
Even if Mr Fukuoka had not asked about tonight, the implication must surely have been that he intended to stay, so the woman’s story had apparently changed merely because the prospective customer was a gaijin, and this, it dawned on me, could be my first experience of racial discrimination.
A naturalised expat called Arudou Debito (to become a Japanese citizen, foreigners are required to transpose their name to its Japanese spelling, using either kanji, hiragana or katakana, so Arudo Debito was originally christened David Aldwinckle) has been a tireless campaigner against such discrimination, which still goes on despite its illegality, and his website includes a rogues’ gallery of establishments that make life difficult for their gaijin customers, or exclude them altogether. Debito even sells a range of t-shirts copied from a sign originally seen in Gunma Prefecture, which reads ‘Japanese only – No foreigners allowed – By order of the owner’, and while the Toshin Truck Station displayed no such sign, its admissions policy was now readily apparent. It would be impossible to take the owners of a truck stop to court at eleven o’clock on a Friday night, and even if I had the linguistic ability at my disposal, I would also prefer not get into an argument. Especially this summer, the vast majority of people I had met in Japan had gone out of their way to be friendly and accommodating, so this was very much an isolated incident, and one that I decided to write off to experience.
Having done so, I cycled once more to Izumi-no-Mori, lifted the Mariposa over the fence, dodged the potholes on the path through the forest, and went about setting up camp. As vehicles came and went from the truck stop next door, their headlights shone through the trees, and wary of being reported for trespassing by an eagle-eyed driver, I switched to Stealth Mode, as I was by now so adept at erecting the Snow Peak that I could do so in total darkness. I resorted to my headlamp just once, in order to check which way round the flysheet should go, but no more than five minutes after arriving, I had cleaned my teeth, locked up the bike, stashed my panniers, and was revelling in the soothing power of Bantelin. Apart from the drone of traffic on Route 246, the forest was quiet, and it wasn’t long before I began to drift offBEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEPJesus Christ, what the fuck was that?BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEPFuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEPThey knew where I was and they were coming to get me!BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEPI sat up, threw on my clothes, and had taken the tent apart within seconds. My heartbeat rose to somewhere around my Adam’s apple, and I hoped that I could escape over the fence before a posse of park keepers and policemen arrived to forcibly eject me, or perhaps take me in for further questioning. By now the alarm had stopped, but as I secured my luggage to the Mariposa, it went off again, and this time I wondered if it really was connected to the local koban, or even the parkie’s pager, as it seemed more likely to be a deterrent: a motion sensor with a flashing yellow light designed to scare off opportunistic intruders just like me.
Trying to talk my way out of the front gate the next morning was always going to be difficult, and I was unlikely to sleep well with an alarm going off every few minutes, so I decided instead to search for a place with four walls, a roof, and a more liberal attitude to gaijin guests. Back at the truck stop for the fourth time tonight, and through a process of complete guesswork, I chose the road that appeared most likely to lead to civilisation, and after a couple of kilometres of closed shops and darkened streets came to a place called Tsuruma. Trains had long since stopped running for the night, but I spotted two men sitting on a bench outside the station. They were wrapped up against the night air in baseball caps and bomber jackets, and looked to be from Central or South America, with dark skin and bushy moustaches.
‘Do you know if there are any cheap hotels around here?’ I asked.
‘Around here?’ said the man on the right. ‘Hmm…’
‘You won’t find one in Tsuruma,’ said the man on the left, before being interrupted by his friend.
‘How about Yamato? I’m sure he could stay the night at the onsen. That would be pretty cheap.’
‘You mean the one on the south side of the station?’
‘No, no, no. The one with the red sign. You know, on the second floor.’
The odd thing was that while they talked to me in Japanese, they argued with each other in Spanish, and despite having studied the latter only briefly during my time at secondary school, I found that I could get the gist of what they were saying in both languages.
‘Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘We’re from Peru. We have lived in Japan for many years. Fifteen, sixteen years?’
‘Yes, sixteen I think. How about you?’
‘I’m from England.’
‘Do you know Solano?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘He used to play for Newcastle. Now he has gone to Aston Villa. He is a great player.’
It was nothing if not surreal, to be talking about Aston Villa, in Japanese and Spanish, with two Peruvians, at one in the morning, next to a deserted railway station on the outskirts of Tokyo, and eventually they explained that all I needed to do was follow the railway tracks towards Yamato. Along the way I passed several cosy-looking bars whose lights were still on, and into which I was sorely tempted to go for a nightcap, but at this point, I needed a place to sleep a lot more than I needed a beer, so pressed on.
At Yamato Station the all-night onsen was nowhere to be seen, and the only person around to ask for help was touting for business on a street corner. She looked to be south-east Asian – one of many who enter the country each year on so-called ‘entertainment’ visas – and was smoking a cigarette and looking bored. I wasn’t sure how she would take to being interrupted while on duty, as it were, but she was very helpful, and didn’t seem to be offended when I declined her offer of a massage.
The receptionist at the nearby Yamato Grand Hotel quoted me a suitably grand price for a single room, so I asked if there were any cheaper hotels nearby, and was allowed to use the telephone on the front desk. The first place I called turned out to be just as expensive, but without even realising it, I had been haggling, and was suddenly offered a better deal.
‘OK,’ said the receptionist as I put the phone down. ‘You can have a single room for three thousand yen. If there are still vacancies, we charge a special rate after one thirty a.m.’
This was clearly nonsense, but I wasn’t about to complain: judging by the sort of late-night entertainment that was on offer over the road, he had simply needed to satisfy himself that my room would be used to sleep in and nothing else besides. The additional effort of escaping from Izumi-no-Mori had rekindled my appetite, so before going to bed, I ventured out to a twenty-four hour conbini for an emergency packet of peanuts-choco, noticing along the way that the girl who gave me directions had temporarily vacated her post.