A couple of weeks after I moved to Ibaraki nearly six years ago (I stayed for just over a year, although I’ll be back for a lot longer as of this March), I went with some friends to climb Nantai-san, which at six hundred and fifty-three metres is the highest peak in this part of the prefecture. Despite there being snow on the ground at the time, I didn’t remember the ascent as being particularly arduous, so this time around decided to combine it with a sixty-kilometre round trip by bicycle, from the in-laws’ house in Hitachi-ohta.
Having spent the greater part of this year’s visit to Japan sleeping for an average of nine or ten hours a night, it wasn’t too much of a wrench to get up at seven am for once, although since Mrs M’s parents tend to monopolise the bathroom in the morning, I was obliged to have my bath the night before. After a breakfast of cereal, toast and coffee (normally it’s just cereal and coffee or toast and coffee, but I was carbo-loading), I put on otoh-san’s shell suit top, which was better suited to cycling than either of the jackets I had brought with me from the UK, and packed a small rucksack with essentials for the day. These included two bottles of water, two nigiri handmade by Mrs M that morning, two satsumas, a banana, a madeleine, a packet of peanuts choco, otoh-san’s mobile phone, onii-san’s old digital camera, my spectacles and a hundred-yen map of Ibaraki.
As part of his programme to pimp up the bicycle on which I toured Hokkaido in 2008 (and on which, having bought it for about sixty thousand yen, my friend Tom-san toured practically the whole of Japan earlier the same year), onii-san has fitted super-slim racing wheels, and I pumped up the correspondingly super-slim tyres to the improbable pressure of more than six psi before setting off at ten to eight, to cast a long shadow on the road ahead.
The first part of the journey followed a route that Mrs M and I have taken on many occasions when visiting friends and relatives, but in order to avoid the city – well, town is probably a more accurate description – of Hitachi-ohmiya, I veered north just before the Kuji River, on a road that within minutes was almost devoid of traffic, and narrow enough that two cars traveling in opposite directions would barely have the room to pass one another. I stopped to use the toilets at a michi-no-eki (roadside services) that appeared to have gone out of business, although the infa-red detectors that sense when you have walked away from a urinal and flush it with water were working perfectly (they were apparently being kept in operation for the benefit of campers at a site next to the river, where even in late December, at least one family had stayed the night).
After another few kilometers I joined Route 118, which followed the Kuji River valley and the Suigun railway line north through a succession of sleepy towns, in one of which was a building that advertised itself as the home of washi (Japanese handmade paper – I made a mental note of the location and resolved to come back when it was open for business). After taking a detour along the main street of one such town, where approximately half the shops had gone out of business, I came to a five-way junction with no road signs and had to stop to consult my map.
No sooner had I done this than a middle-aged man parked his car on the pavement and came over to ask if I needed help. When I told him where I was from, he gestured to a girl of perhaps junior high school age who had been with him in the car, as if to say, ‘Go on, now’s your chance to speak some English!’ Having expected her to come out with a faltering hello or an enquiry as to my favourite Japanese food, she instead spoke confidently, and with a British-English accent to boot. She lived in Malaysia, she explained, and went to an English school, so I assumed the man was her grandfather, and that her parents had emigrated (she looked to be Japanese rather than mixed race or native Malaysian). The man confirmed my hunch that the road I should take entered a nearby tunnel, before saying goodbye and driving off to the hairdressers, where the girl had an appointment to get her hair cut.
Twenty minutes later I was standing outside Saigané station, where I knew there would be a more detailed map than my own of the area around Nantai-san, since I had Googled a blog entry by an anonymous fellow hiker the night before. There was no toilet at the station, so I stopped for a pee on the tiny side road that led up another, smaller valley towards the mountain, and in which the temperature dropped noticeably. Instead of towns there were now villages, or just small farms nestled on the hillside, their vegetable fields still caked with frost, and after an ever steeper succession of hairpin bends, the tarmac came to and end outside a soba restaurant, whose sign said that it would be open for business at ten thirty.
I locked up the bike, although it seemed even less likely to be stolen here than in Hitachi-ohta, so I didn't bother to attach it to anything with the lock, and left the lights and puncture repair kit in place. A path led between fields of green tea bushes for a hundred metres or so, at which point I had to choose between the ippan-kohsu (一般コース) and the kenkyaku-kohsu (健脚コース): the Ordinary Course and the Experienced Walker Course. The aforementioned blogger had taken the latter without complaint, so I did the same, and soon realised that the transition from an ascent by bicycle to an ascent on foot isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth one. From the gravel car park outside the soba restaurant, Nantai-san loomed almost vertically above me, with the most likely hiking route being through a gulley to one side and along a ridge to the summit. But the kenkyaku-kohsu went straight up the cliff face, which while it may not have been as close to ninety degrees as it appeared, certainly wasn’t far off.
If Mrs M and I had driven here, as had been my first suggestion, I would have been practically jogging my way up, as I have always found it easier to climb a mountain than to come back down (too much jarring of the knees always leaves me in pain), but I had already used enough energy this morning to leave me a long way off the pace, and must have stopped to rest at least once every two or three minutes for the first half hour. It didn’t help that the air was so dry, as during winter the prevailing wind arrives in Japan from Siberia rather than the tropics, and I was already near the end of my water supply (should have refilled my water bottles on the way up the valley, I thought – there were several back gardens from which spring water flowed freely through rudimentary drainpipes).
For perhaps the most fleeting of moments I even considered giving up and heading back for a slap-up lunch at the soba restaurant, but the one compensation of the kenkyaku-kohsu was its directness, and every two or three minutes of huffing and puffing took me ten or twenty metres further above sea level. To enable this without the use of crampons or other such high-tech climbing gear, a series of metal rods had been driven into the cliff face, and to these chains and ropes attached, so that these were the easiest sections of the climb, as I could transfer the strain from my overworked legs to my underworked arms, which until then had merely been flicking between gears or squeezing brake levers.
At one long section of chains, I spied a man up ahead in a check shirt, peaked cap and walking boots, and had to ask him whether he was heading up or down when our paths crossed. As I suspected, he had already made it to the top, and he reassured me that there wasn’t far to go. Indeed, when the path levelled off at a smaller ridge beneath the summit, the view was more impressive, the terrain more exposed, and the wind more biting than before, so that despite having removed my own hat, gloves and jumper earlier on in the climb, now I had to put them back on again.
Up until that point I hadn’t recognised anything from my previous visit to Nantai-san, but just before the top was a tin-roofed shelter over a wooden table and benches, which I remembered as the spot where my friends and I had eaten our packed lunch, so we must have taken the ippan-kohsu on that occasion. A sign said ‘Take a rest before you aim for the summit’, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer, as I had vowed not to eat today’s nigiri until reaching my goal, and was by now desperate for food. Along with a TV or radio transmitting station of some kind (a line of telegraph poles stretched through the forest and down the other side of the mountain), there was a stone obelisk on the summit adorned by previous hikers with piles of small rocks, and a weather beaten shrine surrounded by a fence of concrete and steel poles. Partially sheltered from the wind, I sat on the far side of this to eat, and the sun was bright enough that I had to put on my baseball cap to get a proper look at the view.
It was slightly hazy, so that the furthest one could see was Mount Tsukuba, about sixty kilometres to the south. Neither Mount Fuji nor the more proximitous peaks of Nikko in neighbouring Tochigi prefecture were visible, although a yellow sheen of reflected sunlight glinted off the Pacific to the south east, and to the north a bank of cloud rolled in over the hills like a burst of dry ice. I could see Daigo Town further up Route 118, the soba restaurant, green tea bushes and valley road below, and the white radio mast to the east that watches over Hitachi-ohta. In the middle of my two nigiri were two umé-boshi – pickled plums – and when I threw the stone of one over the shrine’s steel pipe railing, there was no sound as it fell through the air.
I spent five or ten minutes trying to master the self-timing feature on onii-san’s camera in order to capture my own likeness next to the shrine, and then a further five or ten minutes trying to work out where the ippan-kohsu led back downhill – it was signposted from the covered bench and chairs, but not from the shrine, obelisk or transmitter. Not having expected to encounter anyone else at all on a chilly winter’s weekday, I passed five more hikers on the way down: the first were a couple of around my own age who said that they had ‘overtaken’ my bicycle (almost certainly on foot rather than by car, otherwise they must have been walking very slowly as I climbed very quickly), the second was a lady in her fifties or sixties who like me had noticed a few flakes of snow in the air as the clouds passed over, and the last were another couple, who either said ‘Good, isn’t it?’ or ‘Warm, isn’t it?’ as we squeezed past each other on the path – probably the latter, as by then we were sheltered from the wind by the gulley beneath the ridge and bathed in sunshine, and they were working up a sweat on their way up.
For the most part I was alone on the forested slopes, with only the sound of bird song and the creaking cedar as they swayed in the breeze to keep me company. The ippan-kohsu rejoined the kenkyaku-kohsu next to the tea bushes, and by the time I unlocked my bicycle, the soba restaurant was open for business, and I had climbed to the summit and back – with half an hour of faffing once there – in less than two and a half hours. The return journey to Hitachi-ohta was more downhill than up, and apart from a few photo calls – a vending machine graveyard, a roadside sign in Ibaraki dialect urging motorists to drive safely, and one last glimpse of Nantai-san from a bridge over the Kuji River – I didn’t waste too much time on pit stops. I also didn’t spend any of the pocket money Mrs M had granted me for the trip, and just as I had saved my nigiri for the summit, so I saved my peanuts choco for the living room kotatsu (a kotatsu is a coffee table with a heating element underneath for warming one’s feet when the weather is cold, and worthy of a blog entry of its own, now I come to think of it) rather than eat it in a layby or the car park of a convenience store.
Going cycling in Japan after more than two years away was like dusting off an old record or watching a favourite film, and while there were times when it seemed like I had done it all before, and times when I couldn’t remember what all the the fuss was about, I also had an inkling of how great it would be to get up the next morning and do the same thing all over again. And the morning after that, and the morning after that, until I was a long way from the in-laws and in some far flung corner of the country I had never knew existed before.
(The hundred-yen map, incidentally, was already coming apart at the creases when I took it out of my rucksack – built-in obsolescence, no less.)
Some of you may not be aware that I once wrote a book about Japan, and that for a short while, a publisher was sufficiently interested in it to give me some editorial notes and ask for a re-write. In the end they didn’t feel they could sell enough copies to justify the investment of printing and promotion, but I may still self-publish as an e-book for the Kindle / iPad market, and the notes themselves made a very telling point about my first draft, one that I want to take into account as much as possible when writing this blog. I can’t remember the exact phrase, but their verdict on the overall tone of the book was that it was dangerously close to being that of a ‘whining’, ‘complaining’ foreigner, and on reflection, not only do I believe they were correct in saying this, but I can also see that it is an easy trap to fall into for any expat, and one that is very much in evidence on the internet.
But why would anyone who has chosen to move to a foreign country – quite possibly because they loved what they saw of it from afar and had a romantic view of what it was like to live there – be so quick to criticise?
Well, first and foremost there is culture shock, which affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Once the honeymoon period of wide-eyed awe is over, the expat begins to miss his home comforts and the cultural security blanket that most people have wrapped around them at all times. He becomes overly sensitive to inconvenience or difficulty of any kind, and frankly, at that point almost everything seems alien and annoying.
Secondly, it is in our nature to compare, and while many Japan / UK comparisons come out in favour of the former – the trains run on time, the vending machines work, the streets are crime free etc. – there will always be some that come out against: the almost complete absence of workers’ and women’s rights, for example, the over reliance on bureaucracy, or the still smoky atmosphere in most bars and restaurants.
Thirdly and most importantly, there is the language gap: one is always more likely to criticise or find fault with something one does not understand, or into which one does not have a proper insight. When you’re living in your own country, not only do you have the advantage of being a native speaker, but you have a lifetime of knowledge and experience with which to back that up: cultural reference points, customs and manners, education and upbringing, and so on and so forth. If you arrive in a foreign country with just a few basic phrases at your disposal – ‘Hello’, ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘Can I have a beer, please?’ – you are completely helpless. It's like being a baby all over again: you can't understand what people are saying, nor can you read something as simple as a road sign, and to compound the problem, you cannot express even your most basic needs. What to do when you need to catch a bus, buy a plane ticket, or turn on your air conditioner? The trouble is, no matter how amenable or empathetic you might be, there is an innate human tendency to view everything as someone else’s fault, so even if the problem arises from the inability of two people to speak each other’s languages (and let’s face it, when a foreigner comes to the UK, it is much more likely to be the former who can make him or herself understood by the latter, and not vice versa), in the opinion of the expat, it is the native speaker who is being awkward, or ignorant, or obstructive.
Be it on paper or on the internet, what these three things give rise to is a lot of writing that instead of celebrating what’s cool, interesting or great about Japan, focuses on what’s regressive, inconvenient or unfair. My favourite J-Blog of all, Tokyo Damage Report, has often been often guilty of this, and along with the book Dogs And Demons, whose author Alex Kerr is an expat of sorts, it served as possibly my biggest influence when I made my bid for travel literature immortality. I’m certainly not saying that foreigners should refrain from criticising Japan, but I do believe they should think twice before doing so, and ponder whether they are in fact contributing to an overall atmosphere of what the current jargon calls snark – ie. a bitchy, critical writing style that has become all too prevalent in today’s Facebook / Twitter / blog-heavy virtual world.
On my current visit to Japan, I have tried as much as I can not only to look for the positive in what I encounter, but also to look for its negative equivalent in my own culture, or at least to balance out one negative with another. For example, while Japan isn’t exactly a world leader when it comes to protecting the environment, neither is the UK. Where Japan’s landscape is blighted with concrete, the UK too has become a homogeneous suburban wasteland, in which out-of-town superstores and four-lane bypasses are rapidly replacing rolling hills and village greens. In the same way that everything in Japan claims to be eco, green or energy saving when it is often nothing of the sort, so everyone British with an ad budget and a product to sell has been jumping on the environmental bandwagon, whether they have the credentials to back it up or not – in fact, given Japan’s record for innovation, if a solution to global warming can be found, it is more likely to come from the East than the West.
So if you, dear reader, ever find the balance of this blog tipping too far into the realm of the snark, please encourage me to restrain myself, as my aim – my manifesto, even – is to avoid such negativity.
Woman in silver seat has shorts cut with scissors
A man has been arrested for property damage by police in Higashi Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, after a woman who was asleep on a train had her shorts cut with a pair of scissors. The suspect, 57-year-old Kohji Takahashi of no fixed address, claims to be employed as an architect.
At around 6.45am on the 19th, on board a semi-express train travelling from Sakado to Sakama on the Tobu-Tojo line, Takahashi was sitting to the left of a twenty-year-old vocational college student, who was asleep in a ‘silver seat’. The suspect is alleged to have cut the left thigh of the woman’s shorts in three places, the cuts measuring approximately ten centimetres in length.
‘The woman was occupying a sliver seat, and I became angry because I thought an OAP would not be able to sit there,’ Takahashi said.
The woman did not realise that her shorts were being cut, but having woken up when Takahashi stood up to leave, she got off at Takasaka station and reported the incident to a member of staff, who made an emergency call.
半 ズボンを切られている最中は気付かなかった女性だが、高橋容疑者が立ち上がったことで目が覚め、自らも高坂駅で下車。事情を聴いた駅員が一一〇番通報し た。
Baldie Song in School Broadcast - Teacher With Thinning Hair Enraged
In an elementary school in Maehashi City, a song that ridicules people with thinning hair was broadcast via an elementary school's PA system.
It is understood that a teacher in his 40s with thinning hair was angered by the song, and made 28 pupils prostrate themselves on the classroom floor. The song, which is called 'Fugue for Baldies in a Minor Key', came from an internet video site and is by a duo called Brief & Trunks.
On December 30th at 1pm, around one to two minutes of the song were broadcast. Whilst he was with the headmaster, the teacher in charge of the broadcast club heard the song and rushed to the studio. He then stopped the broadcast and told off six members of the broadcast club, making them prostrate themselves on the floor for around a minute. Four days later, twenty-seven more children who were listening to the song were asked to prostrate themselves.
A problem came to light after some of the children's parents contacted the school. It was pointed out that 'because the teacher has thinning hair, he flew into a rage', although the teacher in question has stressed that, 'I did not become angry because of my personal feelings'.
For the past couple of years, a good deal of my Japanese practice has consisted of reading those free newspapers that are published by the Japanese expat community in London, namely News Digest
, the thrillingly titled Japan Update Weekly
(formerly known as Bay Spo) and Weekly Journey
Weekly Journey is my favourite of the three, and its most interesting feature is a page of bizarre stories trawled from the week's news, stories that usually involve bungled crimes or deviant behaviour of one kind or another.
Once Mrs M and I have moved to Japan, I'll be rather disappointed not to be able to pick up Weekly Journey any more (sadly, the bizarro stories do not feature on its website), as reading a real-life Japanese newspaper is much more like hard work. So before that happens, may I be so bold as to present you with one or two gems found in translation, as it were: ‘Looking at them was exciting’ - 78 saddles are seized from a man suspected of theft, who has been re-arrested in Tochigi Prefecture. 37-year-old company employee Yuichi Fukuda was arrested on the 22nd and taken to Sakura Police Station in Takanezawa Town, Tochigi Prefecture, on suspicion of stealing a young girl’s bicycle saddle. He is already being prosecuted for a previous offence of damage to property. ‘Looking at the saddle made me excited,’ the suspect confirmed. A large number of saddles and student’s bicycle helmets were found at Mr Fukuda’s residence, and Sakura Police are investigating further offences. According to Sakura Police, between the afternoon of the 6th March and the morning of the 7th March, Mr Fukuda is suspected of stealing a bicycle saddle (worth around 100 yen) from the residence in Takanezawa Town of a nine-year-old girl who is in the fourth grade of elementary school. Mr Fukuda was previously arrested by Sakura Police on 29th May on suspicion of damage to property, when he was caught in the act of covering the bicycle helmet of a junior high school girl with a urine-like liquid. When officers searched Mr Fukuda’s home, they discovered 78 bicycle saddles, 10 bicycle helmets and various items of PE kit. According to investigations, Mr Fukuda has been targeting bicycles with junior high school markings, and has testified to stealing saddles and helmets. ‘Women of my own age don’t take any notice of me,’ he is quoted as saying.
And in case you fancy reading the Japanese instead:
「見て楽しんだ」サドル７８個押収 窃盗容疑で男を再逮捕 栃木
A picture of Mr Fukuda's horde of stolen goods can be seen here