I was feeling a bit depressed last week, and at first I thought it was a post-holiday slump or a bout of homesickness. After a while, though, I realised that my depression was caused by the gaping void which had opened up in my life since Mrs M and I finished watching the final season of ER.I was addicted to ER way back in the mid-nineties, and Mrs M caught the bug when a friend of hers lent us a huge pile of DVDs last year. Once she had reached season 5 or 6, I picked up where I had left off, and we both became more and more obsessed, until we practically sprinted through the last few episodes.
Bizarrely, the Japanese DVDs use Roman numerals, so it wasn't until I accompanied Mrs M to the local video shop that we realised season XV was in stock, although the show's secondary title in Japan is a helpfully literal translation of the phrase 'emergency room': 緊急救命室 / Kinkyu-kyumei-shitsu
. Mrs M watched some of the early episodes dubbed into Japanese, but this always felt a bit odd, particularly as the voice actors performed as if they were working on a more, as it were, 'grown up' production. So for the most part we chose the original soundtrack with Japanese subtitles, which gave Mrs M her English listening practice and me my Japanese reading practice (not that I'm ever going to use words like ten-teki
- 点滴 / intravenous drip - hin-myaku -
頻脈 / tachycardia - and hohwa
- 飽和 / saturation - in real life, but anyway).
To be honest, the glory days of ER were its first few seasons, when the show was fast-paced, technically superb and genuinely gritty (in a way that I assume Hill Street Blues used to be, although I never saw it). Somewhere around series 11 or 12, the makers seemed to lose their mojo, and we nearly gave up on it altogether, as the pace slowed to a crawl and it all began to look a bit daytime-y. But while the budgets had clearly been cut, with noticeably fewer set pieces and special effects than before, there was enough good acting and good writing that, by the two-hour finalé, we almost didn't want it to end at all.What the early shows in particular did well was to keep several story strands going at the same time, balancing action, romance, comedy and tragedy, against a backdrop of (so far as I could tell) realistic and well-researched medical-type stuff, and all wrapped up in a smooth, stylish, studio-based package
. (Geeky technical note: as a former sound engineer, I was particularly impressed with how they managed to avoid post-synching dialogue when such liberal use was made of the steadicam, and with so many of the actors wearing radio mics.)
At the peak of its success, the show's stars were getting paid seven-figure sums per episode
, which is pretty mind-boggling when you consider they were making 22 a year. The sequences set in the Congo in seasons 9 and 10 really did look more like a feature film than a TV show, and I suppose from that point onwards, they only way they could go was down.While the female characters remained strong until the end - Angela Bassett acts the rest of the cast off the screen as Doctor Banfield in season 15 (where on earth had she been since What's Love Got To Do With It?), and
Parminder Nagra (of Bend It Like Beckham fame) got better the more seasons she starred in - once Anthony Edwards and George Clooney had left, no one ever quite managed to fill their surgical gowns. Doctor Kovac, Doctor Gates, Ray what's-his-name: they were all a little too pretty and a little too shallow. Mekhi Phifer as Doctor Pratt was the pick of the bunch, although Mrs M's vote for studliest doc went to Noah Wyle as Carter.Carter was in many ways the heart and soul of the show: he started pretty much when it started and the two grew up together, and you could almost say we saw the world of the ER through his eyes. Carter also starred in what was probably my favourite episode, in which he and a medical student are stabbed by a psychopathic patient, although the way he left the show, by being dragged off to Africa by his frankly annoying wife (sorry, Thandie Newton - it wasn't you, it was the role), was a little anti-climactic.
Conversely, if I had to choose my least favourite episode, it would probably be the one in which Ewan McGregor adopts one of the thoroughly unconvincing accents for which he has become so renowned, playing a 'Chicago'-ite who holds up a convenience store (McGregor is so rubbish at accents that on occasion I even find myself doubting his Scots, although I should probably leave it to someone better qualified for the job to trash the likes of The Phantom Menace
Another stand-out episode (a double- or possibly even triple-bill, if I remember rightly), was the one in which Doctor Romano gets his arm chopped off by a helicopter rotor blade, which leads me on to one of the few gripes I have with the normally excellent scriptwriting.
Because there is more time in a TV series than a movie in which to create realistically complex characters, it's very satisfying to watch those characters develop as time passes, but for whatever reason, Romano was never allowed to do so. He was bullying and insensitive from the very first minute he appeared on screen until the very last, and particularly after the arm / rotor blade incident, you felt there was a chance he might redeem himself. In one of the more bizarre curtain calls the show has seen, however, he died just as he had lived: as the guy everyone loved to hate.In contrast, there are characters like Frank: on the surface, Frank is a doughnut-eating, old-school conservative, racially
insensitive male chauvanist. While his main function is to provide comic relief to contrast with the blood-and-guts being spilled around him, in a couple of key episodes we are given insights into his life that cast him in a completely new light. In one we meet the daughter to whom he is devoted, and who happens to have Downs Syndrome, and in another, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the reception desk as a patient, he delivers an anaesthetic-induced monologue about the African-American soldiers he fought with and came to admire in the Vietnam war.I
n the old days, when the writers had run out of ideas and the film crew needed some time off, sitcoms used to do a flashback episode: scenes from previous series would be interspersed with 'Hey, do you remember when so-and-so did that hilarious thing?' dialogue and wiggly screen special effects straight from an episode of Scooby Doo. Apart from one very short sequence just before Doctor Rasgotra jumps ship, mercifully, the makers of ER didn't stoop to such nonsense. While a lot of the actors who had left the show returned for cameos in season 15, it was all done with a reasonable amount of subtlety, so that rather than a big, back-slapping party scene in the final episode, characters pop up in relatively credible circumstances - or in Doctors Greene and Romano's case, a rather ingenious and newly filmed flashback that fills in some of Doctor Banfield's back story.
Sure, there are a few more loose ends in the plotlines than before, the way in which characters are introduced and retired from the show is sometimes perfunctory, and the camerawork isn't quite as easy on the eye as it used to be, but even season 15 is gripping, and funny, and moving, and stomach churning, and all kinds of other things that make you want to keep watching, and for those many reasons, I shall continue to feel a bit depressed for at least another couple of weeks - or until Mrs M and I start watching seasons I to VIII of XXIV, whichever comes first.
I awoke at ten past six to the sound of muzak drifting in from the hotel corridor, and while the weather outside had improved since the previous evening, it was still very much on the moody side.
Pretty soon I had left the mountains behind me, and riding through the suburbs of Niigata City was relatively straightforward, as they were full of rice fields and flat as a pancake. The only problem was that after just three days on the road, I had begun to develop saddle sore. Saddle sore is a funny thing (funny peculiar, that is): on my first tour I went for six weeks without the slightest hint of it, but on my second I had to buy an extra-soft, gel-filled seat cover to stave off the symptoms. With less money to spare this time round, I ventured into a chemist's and asked if they had any cream for...well, you know, for...
'Do you mean...?' said the assistant.
'No, it's more a kind of...'
'And does it...?'
'A little bit, yes. But it's also...'
'How about this one. It's good for...'
'What if you...?'
'That too. Although you might want to try this instead. If it's...'
'I don't think it's going to be...'
'Well, so long as you're not...'
'No, I should think that'll be fine for...'
I ended up buying the smallest tube of the cheapest cream they had, and the fact that it contained steroids may have helped me through the rest of the trip in more ways than one.
Passing this sign along the way (I don't know about you, but I quite like the idea of living in a town whose name - Sakaya / 酒屋 - means 'off-licence'), I reached the ferry terminal just in time to buy a ticket for the 12.40 departure to Sado Island.
'Your bicycle goes free,' said the cashier, 'so that'll be 2320 yen, please.'
This was a pleasant surprise, as the ferry company's website had listed the fare for one-adult-plus-two-wheeled-non-motorised-vehicle as more like 3400. I handed the cashier a 5000-yen note, and in return got my ticket, a receipt and the change: a 1000-yen note and some coins. With just a few minutes before the ferry was due to leave, I rushed outside, unlocked my bicycle and wheeled it on board, and it wasn't until I was up on deck that I realised I had been short changed.
Part of the problem with learning a foreign language is that you can never be one hundred per cent sure of what the person you're talking to has said, and partly because of this, partly because of my congenital mathematical ineptitude, partly because I was in a hurry and partly because the price was cheaper than I had been expecting, I didn't notice the discrepancy straight away. (Having said that, would I have noticed if I was in the UK and we had both been speaking English? Possibly not.)
I went up to the information desk to explain what had happened, and about twenty minutes later my name was called out over the PA system.
'We've checked with the ticket office,' said the man behind the desk, who a few minutes earlier had been banging a kind of dinner gong to signal the ferry's departure, 'and it would appear that you were correct. One of the tills had a surplus of 1400 yen. Please accept our apologies, and here is your money.'
While I was almost certain the cashier had short-changed me by 1000-yen, I was almost equally certain that it hadn't been by any more than that. But seeing those four extra 100-yen coins in my hand, I decided to keep quiet: after all, I was poor, I was hungry and I had just noticed from the menu in the cafeteria that a bowl of soba cost exactly 400 yen, so that was what I had for lunch, with a comparatively clear conscience.
Apart from this unexpected cash bonus, easily the most diverting aspect of the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Sado was the large flock of seagulls that followed us out of the harbour. No doubt through years of experience, what these canny - and hungry - birds have realised is that if they fly alongside the ferry, excited tourists will feed them with as many reconstituted potato flour snack products as they can eat. Some people hold their crisps aloft and wait for a seagull to swoop in and grab them, but most simply throw them overboard, where they will be expertly intercepted and gulped down in mid-air.
As I was brushing my teeth in the gents after lunch, a bespectacled man in a check shirt came up to me and said, 'Strasvutchié.''Mmgmhm?' I replied with a mouthful of toothpaste.'Strasvutchi
é.''Ngmhmgm!'I assumed he was saying hello in an impenetrably broad Niigata accent, and said hello back as best I could without dribbling onto my t-shirt. After a couple more attempts at communicating, he bowed apologetically and left, but I
caught up with him in the lobby a couple of minutes later.'Sorry about that,' I said. 'I was trying to say hello but
you probably couldn't understand me.''That's OK. Where are you from? America?''England.''Ah.
There are quite a few Russians in Niigata, so I was
saying hello in Russian: strasvutchi
é.' I learnt the merest smattering of Russian when I was at school,
but not enough to recall it in such an unexpected context. As it turned out, though, N-san's English was even better than his Russian.
'I studied it in New Zealand,' he said.'Is that where you live now?''No, I live in Tokyo. How about you?''Ibaraki.''I went to university in Chiba.' Part-suburban and part-countryside, Chiba is sandwiched between Ibaraki and Tokyo. 'Ibaraki is a bit like Chiba, isn't it?''How do you mean?''Quiet.''
Ha ha! Yes, "quiet" is a pretty good way of describing it.' I couldn't help thinking of Ford Prefect's entry for the planet Earth in The Hitch-hiker's Guide To The Galaxy: 'mostly harmless'.'Do you know Constable?'
continued N-san.'The painter, you mean?''Yes. I really like Constable.''Me too. His paintings are very English
.''I went to
the National Gallery once. I also went to Newton's birthplace - I studied physics, you see, so I had always wanted to go there.''Ah, the apple!''Yes, the apple. Do you know anything about Sado?''Not much.''Have you heard of Charles Jenkins?''No.''It's ironic, because he's probably the most famous person on the island, and he's American.
Jenkins (thank you, Wikipedia
!) defected to North Korea during the Korean war, and ended up staying there - not necessarily of his own volition - for the best part of forty years. Over the past few decades, the North Korean government has intermittently kidnapped Japanese citizens, supposedly for intelligence purposes, and Jenkin's wife Hitomi was one of these unfortunate few. The two met and married in North Korea, and during a period in which relations between the countries had cooled off ever so slightly, were allowed to visit Japan with their children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never went back.
'How about the toki
?' N-san pointed to a photograph of a toki on the lobby wall. 'It's called the crested ibis, although the Latin name
is Nippon Nipponia
. "Japan Japan" - you can't get much more Japanese than that! They disappeared from Japan, though, so now they're having to re-import them from China. What are you going to do on Sado, anyway?'
'Well, I wanted to cycle all the way around the coast, but now I've seen a proper map, it looks bigger than I thought.'
'Yes, it's probably 2 or 300 kilometres.'
'Really? I'd rather have some time off from riding the bike, I think. How about you?''My sister lives here with her son, so I'm staying with them for a couple of days. They live in Sawata
, which is not very beautiful. In fact, it's probably the least interesting town on the island.'Naturally, Sawata is exactly where I headed once the ferry had
arrived at Ryotsu port, as it was less than an hour's ride away and had a campsite, whose caretaker really did have an impenetrably broad Niigata accent.'
Did you slvg oind qpidknc odiioa?' he said when I poked my head around the door of his office.'Excuse me?''Did you come for the xlirnhce?''What was that?''Did you come for the festival?''What festival is that?''The Zoqedk Festival.''The what?''The Earth Festival.'
'I didn't realise there was one.''Well, you're too late anyway. You've missed it.''Oh.''How pqigld oidowg lneq?''Pardon?''How long are you oshgecm?''Er...''How long are you staying?''One night. Maybe two. I haven't decided yet.''You have to decide now.''Do I?''Yes. I won't be here tomorrow. It'll be a different person, so you have to decide now.''Right. OK. Er, one night then.''That'll be qpondg hdii dnclk.''Excuse me?'And so on and so forth.
Despite the rather terse servcie, the site was in a lovely spot - in a grove of pine trees and just across the road from a sandy beach - and after visiting the local onsen for a bath and and the local convenience store for dinner, I was lulled to sleep by the sound of chirping crickets.
here were two possible routes west from Aizu-wakamatsu towards Niigata, and the decision as to which one to take was based on my Touring Mapple
. Mapple is a map company whose logo is an apple (map + apple = Mapple. Geddit?), and while their 'touring' series is aimed primarily at motorcyclists, it's just as handy for those of us using pedal power, because even if you can't read Japanese, most of the roads have numbers, and there are easy-to-understand symbols for campsites, convenience stores, onsen and restaurants - in other words, everywhere you're going to go to on the way to wherever it is you're going to go to. Another feature of the Touring Mapple is that particularly scenic or fun-to-ride routes are highlighted in purple, and while Route 49 was a run-of-the-mill red A-road, Route 459 was purple almost all the way to Niigata, so I spent the morning admiring some rather lovely mountain scenery.T
his shop was in one of the few villages I passed through along the way, and I asked the nice lady who worked there about the history of the building, whose interior resembled something distinctly olde worlde, its great wooden beams turned smooth and a rich dark brown with age.
'I didn't move here until I got married,' she said, 'so I can't tell you much, but they call this stuff kura.' Kura (蔵) means 'warehouse', and is shorthand for any building that uses wattle and daub - ie. wooden latticework covered in dried mud or clay. 'If you go outside you can see where it cracked in the earthquake, but we can repair that, and it's warm in winter.'
The closer to the Japan Sea coast you get, the more extreme the winter weather becomes, and as well as kura, since Lake Inawashiro I had seen more and more totan-yané (トタン屋根 / tin roofs), which are lighter than the tiled variety, and less likely to collapse under the weight of large amounts of snow. This one was even fitted with heating elements, presumably to melt the snow before it has a chance to build up.
Ignoring the above sign ('How about eating some wild boar meat?'), I stopped for lunch in the village of Miyako, which declared itself as soba-no-sato
(そばの里 / the hometown of soba noodles), and where thirteen of the thirty households are in business as soba restaurants. As the first customer of the day at Kawamaé
, I naturally ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, although when my set meal arrived, there was enough of it to feed a whole family, including a limitless supply of noodles, mushrooms with grated daikon (大根 / daikon is a big, white radish that English-speaking vegetable lovers will know as mouli), tsukemono (漬け物 / pickled vegetables), konnyaku (こんにゃく / devil's tongue - a weird kind of calorie-free vegetable jelly), nimono (煮 物 / boiled vegetables and fishcakes), soba-flavoured green tea, and a cup of what is essentially diluted soy sauce, into which you dip your noodles before eating them. There was also grated wasabi and diced spring onions to be mixed into the sauce, and a separate pot of soba-yu, the still-warm and starch-y water in which the soba has been cooked, which the waitress told me to add to the sauce and drink at the end of the meal.
By mid-afternoon I had reached the Agano River, whose water was light brown and completely opaque: the same colour as a proper cup of tea, now I come to think of it. On first sight it looked as if there was a drought, as the river was lined on both sides with a wide band of bare earth, but as I cycled along, it became clear that rather than subsiding from its normal level over the course of several months, the river had risen suddenly, washing away almost everything in its path.
Just over three weeks before, parts of Niigata and Fukushima had suffered their heaviest rainfall in thirty years: in Aga Town just downstream, 50mm fell in the space of just ten minutes, which is a national record, and elsewhere there was anything up to 700mm over the course of three days. In the resulting floods, four people lost their lives, seven were seriously injured, and 173 people had to be airlifted to safety after they were stranded at a local school. In places the water level rose by an incredible 24 metres, and both of the dams along the Agano overflowed - this one was thankfully back to normal, although you can still see some of the mud that was left behind.
The aftermath of the flood looked eerily similar to images of the 11th March tsunami: countless trees had been felled or washed away, dunes of sandy mud - now hardened and cracked - had been deposited on the forest floor, clumps of foliage and rubbish were lodged in the roadside crash barriers, and bulldozers were at work clearing away the wreckage.
'You'll be lucky to find a campsite,' said a shopkeeper in the town of Tsugawa, who had stopped me to ask where I was going. 'Most of them have been washed away.'
He was wiry and tanned with grey stubble on his chin, and wore a baggy white vest with a pen clipped inside the collar, and we were joined by one of his customers, who had an almost full set of silver caps on his teeth, and eyebrows so black and bushy they looked two Groucho Marx moustaches.
'There's a campsite in Kanosé which is quite high up,' said the shopkeeper.
'Actually I've just come from there. I was thinking of carrying on to Mikawa instead.'
'That's next to the river, isn't it?'
'You could be right,' said the customer.
'Plus it'll be getting dark soon, and if it's going to rain' - a few spots had begun to fall as we were chatting - 'you'd be better off finding somewhere near here.'
'I can't really see anywhere on the map.'
'How about near the station? There's an onsen behind it that only costs 300 yen, and you could stay in a bus shelter. They're not very big but at least you'd be dry, and the buses finish early so no one will bother you. Better than getting stranded halfway between here and Mikawa.'
The shopkeeper gave me a bag of chocolates to send me on my way, and as the heavens opened an hour later, I realised that I should have heeded his advice. Conditions like this called for four walls and a roof, although perhaps not the four walls and a roof of a bus shelter, so I ducked into the nearest shop and asked the couple who worked there if they knew of a cheap place to stay.
'They've got vacancies tonight,' said the husband, after calling a hotel called Yuu-ando-yu (You&湯, which is a rather corny pun on the English 'you' and the Japanese yu, meaning 'hot water'), 'and it'll be cheaper than the other places around there. Shin-mikawa is an onsen resort, you see, but Yuu-no-yu is run by the local council.'
'How much is it, though?' I asked.
Evading my question, he proceeded to give me directions to Yuu-ando-yu, and on the way I spotted what appeared to be the campsite I was originally aiming for. The sign at the entrance was hard to decipher, and as I was reading my way through the list of facilities - which included a ski slope, among other things - a car pulled over next to me and the driver wound down her window.
'Are you on your way to Yuu-ando-yu?' she said.
'Er, yes. How did you know?'
'I work there. I was just going home and I heard there was someone on a bicycle coming to stay. Do you want me to guide you in?'
A few minutes later I was standing at the Yuu-ando-yu reception desk, filling out my details on a check-in form. When I'd finished, the receptionist handed me a key and said, 'I'll show you to your room now.'
'Er, just one more thing,' I said. 'Um, would you mind telling me, er, how much it's going to cost. For one night, that is. I'm on a bit of tight budget, you see.'
'5000 yen,' he said.
'Oh,' I said, looking out of the lobby doors at the still pouring rain. 'I see.'
'If you'll just follow me.'
Setsu-den (節電 / saving electricity) has been the watchword in Japan over the past six months, although the management at Yuu-ando-yu didn't appear to be too fussed about such trifling matters as a national power shortage. The tea urn in my room was bubbling away at 95°c, the cooler was pumping out air at 23°c (bizarrely, it was several degrees cooler outside), a fridge full of beer and soft drinks was set to the highest notch on the dial, the heated toilet seat was on full, and all four bulbs in both ceiling lights were lit up. Half-board at Yuu-no-yu would have set me back another 3000 yen, so once I had turned everything off or down and collected what I needed from the bicycle, I took the receptionist up on his offer of a lift to the nearest convenience store to buy some dinner.
'Was the hotel flooded?' I asked as we headed back towards Mikawa.
'The water came all the way up the valley and stopped at the car park. Some people weren't so lucky, though. You see these houses on the left? The first floors were completely underwater - some of them will have to be knocked down and rebuilt.'
In the onsen a little later I got talking to Kanezuka-san, who made his living as a piano tuner.
'My wife teaches the taishoh-goto in the building next door,' he said, 'and if the weather's bad I give her a lift from Niigata City.'
'What's a taishoh-goto?'
'You're not busy, are you?'
'Not at all. I was going to go back to my room and eat a Cup Noodle in front of the TV.'
'Well, I'll take you along and you can have a listen.'
As soon as we got to the classroom I was sat down in front of a taishoh-goto (大正琴), which is a modern version of the koto, a stringed instrument played horizontally like a lap steel (as opposed the shamisen / 三味線, which looks and plays more like a banjo). Mrs Kanezuka unearthed an English language song - The Sound Of Silence - and I was relieved to discover that I didn't have to be able read music to join in. Rather than frets, the taishoh-goto has numbered keys, so all you have to do is strum its closely bunched strings with a plectrum, and press 2 2 3 3 5 5 4 / 1 1 1 2 2 4 4 3 (or numbers to that effect) for 'Hello darkness my old friend / I've come to talk with you again'.
After performing a couple of songs they had been working on, the students plied me with snacks and drinks, and by about 8 o'clock, Kanazuka-san noticed that I was looking sleepy, and wished me luck before I made my excuses and went upstairs for that Cup Noodle.
Partly because it was my first time under canvas for three years, and partly because it was raining all night, I didn't get much sleep at the Kitsuné-uchi campsite, and once I had packed the still-wet tent away, was even more desperate than usual for my morning coffee . On previous tours I would have treated myself to a sit-down breakfast in a proper coffee shop, but this year Mrs M has been tightening the purse strings. Like most wives in Japan, she handles the family finances, and keeps what is known as a kakeibo (家計簿 / household accounts book), which is filled with receipts and columns of figures detailing exactly how much we have spent and on what, right down to, for example, on-the-road snack breaks. So my budget for the holiday was restricted to 40,000 yen - about £200 - with another 10,000 set aside in case of emergencies, and my breakfast on Monday 22nd set the pattern for the rest of the trip.
Drinks-wise, this would mean a 110-yen, 500ml carton of coffee: very milky, very sugary and not quite as caffeine-y as I would normally take it. Food-wise, it would mean a pre-packed bread product of some kind: either hotto cakey (four small American-style pancakes, zapped in the microwave for a few seconds to melt the 'butter' and 'maple syrup' sandwiched between them), a bread roll with a jam and margarine filling, or on this occasion, a variation on eggy bread that was steamed rather than fried. Japanese bread products are - how can I put this in as tactful and diplomatic a way as possible? - completely devoid of taste, texture and nutritional value, but since I can't quite bring myself to eat rice for breakfast, I put up with them out of both habit and financial necessity.
Not that I bought my breakfast there, but this is very much the kind of corner shop you might find on a quiet country road in Japan:
Hello shop! And a little further along Route 294 I found this:
Billboards placed many miles away from the location they advertise are everywhere in Japan: this one is either telling you to proceed for 20km and turn right, or to turn right and proceed for 20km, and it's not unusual to find them even further afield, or to find billboards telling you to make a u-turn and head back in the direction you've just come from. I would have been genuinely intrigued to check out the 'authentic tea room', 'English goods import shop' and 'British Hills original cakes', but they never materialised. Instead my route took me along a winding valley road (which my diary entry for the day summed up as follows: 'waterfalls, drizzle and roadworks'), over a mountain pass and down to Lake Inawashiro (猪苗代湖).
In fine weather, Lake Inawashiro is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery, but today this was hidden in the clouds, so after eating another pre-packed bread product - this time a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off and extra sugar in the peanut butter - I continued on to the Aizu Hometown Youth Hostel
in Aizu-wakamatsu, which by day doubles up as the Yamaguchi Off Licence.'If you'd booked in advance,'
said the manageress as I was checking in, 'I could have made you an evening meal.''That's OK,' I said. 'I'm trying to save money anyway.''Well, if you go to the Co-op down the road, they should be cutting the prices on their bento boxes about now
.'And indeed they were, thus enabling me to sit in my own private room at the hostel and chow down on this luxurious supper - a snip at just under 500 yen for the lot.
When you go on a cycle tour, your shoes are the weakest link. I realised this while making my way around Hokkaido three years ago, where the weather was, to say the least, changeable. If a t-shirt or a pair of shorts get wet, you can hang them up and they'll be dry by the next morning, but if it's a pair of shoes, you'll be stuck with damp feet for the next couple of days, and quite possibly a chronic case of athlete's foot into the bargain. As a consequence, a lot of touring cyclists in Japan wear sandals or even flip-flops, but this summer I compromised on one pair of ordinary shoes and one pair of fake Crocs (500 yen at Shimamura
- which is a kind of Japanese version of Peacocks - as opposed to 1500 for the genuine article). Because they're made of plastic, Crocs don't soak up any water, and because they're so light, they also come in handy when you're trying to keep your baggage to an absolute minimum.
There was no doubt about it when I woke up on the morning of Sunday 21st: the Crocs would be my footwear for the day, and the proper shoes would stay safely tucked away in my panniers. It didn't exactly chuck it down from dawn till dusk, but then again, there wasn't exactly anything that you could call a dry spell either, so rather than sailing along and admiring the scenery, today was very much a case of putting my hood up, getting my head down and grinding out the kilometres.By midday
I had made it into Fukushima Prefecture - still a fair distance from the nuclear evacuation zone, but as Tokidoki Tokyo pointed out
, almost completely devoid of tourists - and stopped for lunch at a michi-no-eki
(道の駅 / literally 'road station'). Whereas a motorway services in the UK will be massively overpriced, and present the motorist with a depressingly generic selection of junk food and stodgy snacks, at a michi-no-eki, you can choose from cheap and delicious cafeteria food (noodles, tempura etc.), cheap and delicious off-the-back-of-a-van food (octopus balls, rice dumplings etc.) or a large selection local specialities (gift-wrapped cakes and sweets, seasonal fruit and veg etc.). As it happened, I had been given a leftover bento box at a festival the previous evening, which I ate in the cafeteria while gazing out at the rain, and before getting back on the bike, I decided to ask this guy what he was up to.
'I'm dressed as Teranishi Jujiroh,' he said, and proceeded to tell me about Teranishi's life and achievements. Fortunately, he also gave me a leaflet about Teranishi, so what follows is a mixture of what I can remember from our conversation, and what I've managed to translate from the leaflet.
Teranishi was born in Hiroshima in 1749, and grew up in poverty. By his mid-twenties he had been employed by the shogun, and in 1792 was sent to Hanawa Town to act as governor. Such governors were posted to the far reaches of the country not just to enforce shogun rule, but also to act as lookouts, sending word back to Edo (now Tokyo) if any kind of trouble was in the offing. Because of his background, Teranishi was unusually sympathetic to the suffering of his subjects, and rather than being transferred to another outpost after three or four years - a rule that was devised as a way of preventing corruption - he remained in Hanawa for more than two decades, and while he was there, created what you could argue was a template for modern Japanese society - for societies all over the world, even.
When Teranishi arrived in Hanawa, its people were just getting over a famine, and in order to aid the town's recovery, he exempted farmers from land taxes and lent them money (the interest generated was used to help orphaned children); he created farming infrastructure, including irrigation and dykes; he turned the town into a centre for the horse trade, opening a regular market and giving subsidies to help people buy their own horses; and he built a public warehouse to store food in case of future famines. Teranishi even built Japan's first public park, and based on Confucian principles, drew up a kind of constitution for the town. Known as 'The Eight Articles Of Teranishi' (寺西八ヵ条), here is a rough translation:
1 - Heaven is tremendous - Heaven is visible from the Earth, it rewards good and punishes evil
2 - Land is important - Arable land must be managed
3 - Parents are important - One must devote oneself to one's parents
4 - Children must be treated with compassion and tolerance - Children are precious and must be brought up with equality
5 - Couples must get along with and support each other for their whole lives
6 - Siblings must get along - Siblings must be friendly and help each other
7 - One must be industrious in one's vocation - One must work hard and live frugally
8 - Everyone must love their hometown - People must be amiable and patient with each other
Not only that, but families were central to the town's new philosophy, so that under Teranishi's rule, money was lent to cover the expense of getting married, financial incentives were offered to encourage people to have children, along with financial assistance once the children were born, a record was kept of pregnancies and births, the health of mothers and their children was protected by law, mothers and children from outside the district were encouraged to come and live there, and nannies were employed to help with child rearing.
What all this progressive thinking engendered was a successful frontier town, which went from being poor and neglected to being an important stop on the road to and from what is now Tohoku. Teranishi was so popular and so successful that he was even allowed to hand over control of the area to his sons - another act that was normally frowned upon by his superiors - and the people thanked him by building the Teranishi Shrine in his honour.
'Instead of being selfish or covetous,' said Teranishi's modern-day representative, 'the people of Hanawa helped each other out and shared what they had. He's become a symbol of the town - that's him over there as well.' He pointed to a cloth and wire sculpture on the other side of the car park.
The costumed man - whose real name I forgot to write down - went off on all kinds of tangents as he was telling me about Teranishi (for example, how in ancient times, people walked on the left to enable them to defend themselves more effectively with their swords, hence Japan being one of the few countries that still drives on that side of the road) and in the end, I realised that unless I drew the conversation to a close myself, he would quite happily talk all day. I had initially assumed that he was with a group of fundraisers for 24-Hour Television (Japan's version of Children In Need, for which celebrities don't necessarily donate their appearance fees to charity - or so onii-san had told me), but apparently not.
'Tomorrow I have to go back to work,' he said. 'But I come here whenever I am free and tell people about Teranishi.' The fundraisers had mysteriously dispersed while we were chatting, so I said goodbye and left him in front of the michi-no-eki, ready to buttonhole another unsuspecting tourist with an impromptu history lecture.
Having struggled on for another couple of hours I reached a place called Kitsuné-uchi in Higashi-mura (東村 / East Village). Kitsuné-uchi (きつねうち / Home of the Fox) is a complex of sports facilities, a junior high school, an onsen (温泉 / hot springs) and a campsite, whose receptionist told me that since I lived outside the town, he was obliged to charge me 1200 yen for the privilege of pitching my tent. After some concerted haggling, I managed to get the price down to 300, a fact that I later came to feel rather guilty about when I realised that 1200 yen (5 or 6 quid) is the going rate for a campsite pretty much everywhere in Tohoku.
I watched the closing stages of 24-Hour Television in the onsen relaxation room, before making another new friend as I was cleaning my teeth in the campsite toilets - it was raining so hard that even the frogs had come inside to seek shelter.
I'm sure some of you have been wondering where I've been for the past couple of weeks (at least I hope some of you have been wondering where I've been for the past couple of weeks), so just to let you know, I haven't disappeared off the face of the earth, I've merely disappeared off the face of Ibaraki.
For the final week and a half of my summer holidays, I decided to cycle to Sadogashima (佐渡島 / Sado Island) on my cut-price Joyful Yamashin mountain bike, and the plan at present is to transform the scrawled diary entries I kept into eloquent and evocative blog posts. While I'm working on the first of these, here's a pretty photo of the prettiest place I saw: Futatsugamé on the northern tip of the island.
(Nb. The producers of this blog would like to point out that the weather conditions depicted in the above photograph are in no way representative of those encountered at other times during the holiday.)