This photo was taken at 5.30am, because, quite frankly, I was a bit anxious about the whole nojuku
thing and hadn't slept very well. For that added touch of surrealism, I had managed to pitch the Snow Peak directly behind Bokushi-dohri
, a shopping street constructed in the Edo style as a kind of living museum, so there was some nice architecture to look at as I cycled off into the sunrise.
Stopping for my usual convenience store breakfast, I met a tall, smartly dressed man in a baseball cap, polo-neck sweater and chinos.
'My son lives near here,' he told me, 'so I come and stay at least a couple of times a year. In the winter I go ski-ing and in the summer I play golf. I'm playing eighteen holes with a friend of mine this morning - he's supposed to be picking me up in a minute.'
'You're probably pretty good, I should imagine.'
'Not bad, although I'm eighty now, so I can only hit the ball about a hundred yards. When you get to my age you don't have the flexibility in your shoulders to get a good swing.'
'What's your best score, then?'
'About seventy-eight, I think, although that was probably twenty or thirty years ago. Nowadays it's more like a hundred.'
Bokushi-dohri is part of the Mikuni-kaidoh (三国街道 / 'Three countries highway'), which has served as a route between Tokyo and Niigata for several centuries, and which I would be following today on my way into Gunma Prefecture. At Echigo-yuzawa the Joh-etsu expressway heads into an eleven-kilometre-long tunnel - the longest road tunnel in Japan - while the Mikuni-kaidoh (aka Route 17) goes from flat to steep in a matter of moments, and stays that way for the next thirty or so kilometres.
After the first few hairpin bends I stopped in front of an isolated two-storey house, where a young man in a blue puffer jacket was starting up his scooter in the front yard. He introduced himself as Fueda-san and asked where I was from.
'England,' I said.
'And what do you do?'
'I work as an ALT.'
'That's what I was doing until April, except I was teaching Japanese at a school in China. I need to find a job so I can save some more money and go back.'
'Are you off to a job interview now?'
'No. It's Hello Work, I'm afraid.'
Hello Work is the Japanese equivalent of a job centre, and from what I can tell, going to one can be a similarly dispiriting experience.
'Do you want to move to China for good?' I asked.
'I want to live in Taiwan eventually. That's where my girlfriend's from - we speak to each other on Skype every couple of days, so I'm trying to improve my Chinese.'
Noticing that my water bottle was empty, Fueda-san told me to re-fill it at a tap next to the garage.
'That's fresh spring water straight from the ground, so it should be ice cold,' he said, and we wished each other luck before he sped off down the hill.
Route 17 was lined with ski-slopes and high-rise hotels, which because this was off-season were practically empty, so for most of the morning I had the road to myself. When I stopped in a layby for another drink (it wasn't until I had downed a bottle-full that I noticed a sign above the washroom sink that read Nomémasen! / Undrinkable!), it was quiet enough that a family of monkeys emerged from the forest to scamper across the road.
Although in case you're under the impression this was a David Attenborough-style close encounter, here is the original, un-cropped photo:
I reached the Mikuni Pass at about midday, where the view was one of the lushest and most tree-filled I had ever seen (with so much natural forestation, I should imagine this is a good place to see the autumn colours).
Combined with an early start, the
climb had completely wiped me out, and with the Konsei Pass on my itinerary for the following day, I decided that another night of nojuku
was out of the question. The only thing for it was to break out my Emergency Cash Card, find a cheap hotel and get a decent night's sleep. Mrs M wouldn't be too happy when she found out that the trip had gone over-budget, but in the interests of a) my health and b) starting work again on 1st September, I withdrew another 10,000 yen from a post office ATM and braced myself for a stern talking to when Mrs M next checked our bank balance.The first hotel I tried
in Numata City was fully booked, but as well as having vacancies, the second - the Sasaya - was a fair bit cheaper and a lot more characterful.
The woman behind reception was dividing her time between watching TV and babysitting her grandson, and when I asked where I could leave the Rock Spring, she told me to bring it through the main doors and park it among a collection of bikes and prams next to the drinks machine (neglecting to take your shoes off as you enter a building is considered to be bad manners in Japan, so wheeling a bicycle across a pile carpet felt positively criminal).After checking in I went straight to the communal baths, where the sauna was mysteriously chilly
.'This isn't working, is it?' I said to a fellow bather.'It's working all right,' he said. 'They just set it to a low temperature, that's all. It's always like that.'Most onsen will have a cold bath in which to cool off after your sauna, but that was empty too, so I assumed the owners were either keen practitioners of setsuden, or didn't have enough guests to justify the expense of firing up the sauna.
Despite advertising itself as a wedding venue, the Sasaya was distinctly rough around the edges: the toilet roll holder in my bathroom, for example, was stuck to the wall with gaffer tape, there was a large cigarette burn on the shelf above the sink, and a hand-written notice on the ancient, free-standing air conditioner warned that it would leak if I tried to move it. Not that I needed an air conditioner, as the room itself was almost completely sealed off from the outside world. It was how I imagine being on a space station must feel, as I had no sense of the outside world whatsoever: there were no windows,
it was eerily quiet, and even on a summer's day the temperature remained at a constant 20 degrees.When I arrived back from buying dinner at the local supermarket, an
old man with fly-away white hair was sitting at the reception desk and peering at a newspaper through a magnifying glass. The Sasaya is about as close as you'll get in Japan to Fawlty Towers (not for nothing does it score a whopping 2.62 stars out of 5
on the Rakuten Travel homepage), which made me feel rather at home, and I slept a lot more soundly than I had in the park behind Bokushi-dohri.
I woke up at about 6.30, got dressed, rolled up my sleeping bag and camping mat and unzipped the tent flap, only to find myself completely surrounded by school children. There was a sort of Mexican stand-off moment where we all stood and stared at each other, before I broke the silence by whispering a polite 'good morning' (somehow it didn't feel right to raise my voice) and almost tip-toed my way to the car park to start loading the bicycle.
'That was amazing,' I said to one of the volunteers who was supervising them. 'I didn't hear a thing.'
'Ah yes, that's an activity where we ask them to explore what's around them and write about it, but without talking to each other,' he said. 'This weekend is a kind of nature adventure, so last night we watched the sunset and lit an avenue of candles on the hillside, and later this morning we'll be hiking into the woods and looking for plants and wildlife.'
The volunteers were from an organisation called JCI (Junior Chamber International, aka Worldwide Federation Of Young Leaders And Entrepreneurs) and all worked for small businesses in Sanjoh. The Sanjoh branch of JCI calls itself Tsubamé, which means 'martin' or 'swallow' (as in the bird), and whose kanji has an attractive symmetry to it:
- on about the fifteenth photo from the top of the page, my tent is just out of shot to the left.
Speaking of which, it's time for a short commercial break:If you're ever thinking of purchasing a tent, allow me to recommend the excellent Snow Peak range. Since 2005, my Snow Peak Landbreeze Solo has accompanied me halfway around Japan without so much as a leaky seam, a broken pole or a ripped flysheet, and while
I bought it primarily because it weighs less than two kilos, it is also easy to assemble, thoroughly waterproof and can be purchased with an inner tent whose top half is more like a mosquito net (this allows a through draft and keeps the inside from feeling like a sauna, as can often happen with cheaper tents on a summer's morning).Coincidentally enough, if I hadn't taken a wrong turn on the way south from Sanjoh, I would have ridden straight past Snow Peak HQ, which
as well as the company factory is home to a Camp Field, Natural Lifestyle Store and something called a Creative Room
. Still, I didn't go too far in the wrong direction, and passed yet more flood damage (bad omen alert!) before a mid-morning break at Tochio michi-no-eki.
Although the Tsubamé Sanjoh website is in Japanese, you can see some pictures of the children's nature adventure
Michi-no-eki (道の駅 / literally 'road station') are the Japanese equivalent of a roadside services, although imagine, if you will, how much more stimulating a visit to Moto or Welcome Break would be if you could buy locally produced fruit, vegetables, cakes, snacks and souvenirs. And imagine how much more value for money you would get if stallholders were allowed to sell takeaway food from the car park. Here in Tochio, as well as a gift shop with all manner of Niigata specialities, there was a van outside selling aburagé (油揚げ / deep-fried tofu), which like the best Belgian pommes frites had been deep fried not once but twice, and was the most delicious thing I ate on the entire holiday (not something you will hear anyone say after a visit to Watford Gap Road Chef).
'Good, isn't it?' said a stallholder from a craft market that was also taking place next to the aburagé van. 'A young lad passed through here the other week, you know. He was cycling the whole west coast from north to south. And a few months ago, when I turned up first thing in the morning there was a cyclist camping on the grass behind the main building. Are you going far?'
'To Ibaraki eventually.' I dug out the Mapple and showed him the zig-zagging route I had planned, through the mountains and back into Fukushima Prefecture.
'I'm pretty sure the road's closed at Kanéyama because of the floods,' he said.
'That's OK, I was going to turn right before that and head south east.'
I probably should have had two helpings of aburagé, as the road from Tochio led straight to a mountain pass. On the lower slopes I overtook a small tractor-trailer with a scooter on the back. Why didn't the man who was driving it repair the scooter first and then ride it to wherever he was going, I wondered, only to hear the sound of the same tractor again about ten minutes later. He eventually passed me with a smile and a wave in what felt like slow motion, as by this point we were both travelling at approximately walking speed.
'That was quite steep, wasn't it?' said the older of the two, who didn't even appear to have broken sweat on the way up. 'About five per cent, I should think.'
'It felt steeper than that to me,' I said between gulps from my water bottle. 'Where are you going from here, anyway?'
'We live near Sanjoh, so we're doing a round trip - probably about seventy-five kilometres in all. How about you?'
'I'm heading for Route 252.'
'We're going to the michi-no-eki on 252 for lunch. I could be wrong, but I think the road's still closed beyond there.'
'You mean because of the floods? Oh well, I can always take Route 352 instead.'
Sure enough, there was an automated sign above Ichihirosé michi-no-eki that read tsuu-koh-domé (通行止 / road closed), and one of the waitresses in the cafeteria was acting as a kind of voluntary traffic information guide.
'Are you sure I can't get through on a bicycle?' I asked her.
'I'm afraid not,' she said.
'How about Route 352?'
'That's closed as well, unfortunately.'
My only option now was to head even further south and cross from west to east through Nikko, which would involve climbing to the Shiisaka Pass at 740 metres above sea level, the Mikuni Pass at 1076 metres and the Konsei Pass at a giddy 1880. Taking such a long detour meant that my mathematical blunder - of thinking that I had ten days before the end of the summer holidays when in actual fact I had eleven - was beginning to look like an inspired incidence of foresight.
Probably because they felt sorry for me, the two cyclists from the pass gave me one of their energy gels when they had finished their lunch (energy gels combine the taste of Lucozade with the texture of rice pudding, and are all the rage with athletes these days). They then whizzed off down the road, although I caught up with them several more times in the next hour or two - in fact, after saying, 'Fancy seeing you here!' for about the third or fourth time and being presented with at least two more energy gels, the situation began to get a little awkward.
As I was admiring the view from the pass, two cyclists on racing bikes appeared wearing the full compliment of helmets, wraparound shades and matching lycra shorts and shirts.
By the time I had shaken them off I was
back on the plains, and so far south that I had to throw away my battered old Tohoku Mapple (originally given to me by Tokidoki Tokyo
) and buy the Kanto edition instead. The scenery wasn't quite so inspiring as it had been that morning, but I did see this man making rather novel use of the car wash at a gasoline stand ('We come here at least once a week,' he said, 'otherwise the dog starts to smell bad.').
Rather than trying to find a campsite, my aim now was to cycle as far as I could and pitch the Snow Peak somewhere inconspicuous, an activity that is known as nojuku (野宿 / literally 'field stay').
Many touring cyclists nojuku as a way of saving time and money, but I had only done so on one previous occasion, and while the rational part of me knew that no one would so much as bat an eyelid if I set up camp in the woods or in a disused rice field, the irrational part of me was worried that the local yakuza might burn my tent to the ground, throw the Rock Spring in the nearest river and set upon me with baseball bats.
By about 6pm I had reached Shiozawa, and in the TV room at the local onsen, asked the family at the next table if they could recommend a suitable spot for nojuku-ing. After some thought, the father - whose Japanese, incidentally, was as crystal clear and comprehensible as an NHK newsreader - gave me directions to the local park, which he said was quiet, spacious and had a toilet block that would be open all night. So, once the onsen had closed for the evening that's exactly where I headed, although I suspected the toilets probably wouldn't be western style.
The hard-to-understand and hard-to-deal-with caretaker was back from his holidays, and had been collecting rubbish on the beach with some colleagues of his from the local council. They had been up since four in the morning, he said, and I realised as I was packing my gear onto the Rock Spring that in my eagerness to clean up the barbecue area a couple of days earlier, I had thrown away their toothbrushes, having mistaken them for the lost property of a forgetful camper. Not wanting to hang around in case the caretaker cottoned on to my mistake, I was on the road before seven and at the ferry terminal in Ryotsu by eight.
There I got talking to another cyclist from Ibaraki, who had a fancy-looking racing bike and had stayed on Sado for just one night. Resisting the temptation to ask him for a lift back - his car was in Niigata - I went upstairs to buy my ticket and check out the souvenir shops, and on the way found this farm produce vending machine (garlic - 200 yen, onions - 200 yen, potatoes - 200 yen, odourless garlic - 300 yen).
The seagulls had worked out that while there was no point in going to meet an incoming ferry - most of whose passengers will have tired of handing out crisps and snacks by the end of their journey - a whole new set of people will be on hand when the same ferry heads back to the mainland, so by the time we set sail, the MSG feeding frenzy was already in full swing.
This was the view back towards Sado - or the southern half of it, at least.
And this was the view as we pulled into Niigata port, where muddy flood water was still flowing into the clear blue of the Japan Sea.
The temperature hit thirty for the first time on the trip, and as I headed south from Niigata City my forearms felt like doner kebabs, basted in sunblock and almost visibly turning a darker brown in the harsh sunlight. Route 8 was long, straight and flat, and with a tailwind to help me along, I felt refreshed and ready for the journey home. In other words, something was bound to go wrong, and not long after passing this graveyard for broken bicycles - a bad omen if ever there was one - it felt as if I was cycling over corrugated iron rather than smooth tarmac, and a kind of rubbery slapping sound started to come from the back wheel.
It was, of course, a flat tyre, and I'm proud to say that I didn't panic. After all, it was just last year that I completed a six-week bicycle maintenance evening class at Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre, and I was carrying all the necessary tools to instigate a speedy repair. Sure, the back wheel is always trickier to deal with than the front, but it was nothing I couldn't handle, so I found a shady spot in a supermarket car park and went to work.
Panniers off, bicycle upside down, 15mm spanner, unscrew wheel nuts, disentangle back wheel from chain, remove back wheel, unscrew valve nut, prise off tyre, remove inner tube, re-inflate inner tube, listen for escaping air to locate puncture hole, realise that rather than having a single puncture hole, inner tube has worn through...
I've had a few punctures in my time, but I can honestly say that I've never had an inner tube disintegrate on me before, and as a consequence, I hadn't bothered to bring a spare. Looking at the tube, two areas on either side of the valve looked like the knees from a particularly old pair of jeans, and both were bigger than the repair patches I was carrying with me. I did my best bodge job, re-attached everything to the bike and cycled off down the road, but the tyre went soft again almost immediately. A nearby hardware store didn't have inner tubes in the correct size (700 x 35c, in case you were wondering), so the staff there directed me to a shop called Koidé-jitensha (漕いで自転車 / Pedalling Bicycles).
When I walked in, a man in his eighties was repairing a shopping bike in that leisurely, unhurried fashion that only a professional of several decades' standing can properly carry off.
'Excuse me,' I said, 'but would you happen to have a 700 x 35c inner tube?'
'Hang on, I'll just go and get my son,' he said, before disappearing through the front door of the house over the road.
The son had soon located a stockpile of 700 x 35cs, and just in case the front one went as well - which was a distinct possibility on such a cheap Chinese bike - I shelled out 1900 yen for two of them (this, I decided, was the emergency for which I had set aside 2500 yen of my remaining budget). The son didn't seem to mind that I couldn't afford to have him fit the tube for me, so the two of them looked on as I did the job myself, in that fumbling, inept fashion that only a rank amateur (or an alumni of Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre) can properly carry off.
If you're not particularly interested in the whys and wherefores of bicycle maintenance - a description that I assume encompasses pretty much everyone who reads this blog - then feel free to skip this next bit, as it's a list of the various pieces of technical advice they gave me:
- Don't screw the the valve nut too tightly against the wheel, as this can damage the tube
- If, on the other hand, the valve isn't sticking out very far from the wheel, this means the tyre isn't properly inflated
- Spin the wheel before you re-attach it to the bicycle to check that it's regular and bulge-free. If there's a bulge in the tyre, this means the tube has become pinched between the wheel rim and the tyre
- When you put the bicycle the right way up again after completing the repair, re-tighten the wheel nuts
I realised as I cycled off that this could just as easily have happened when I was in the middle of nowhere, and while getting a puncture was bad luck, getting a puncture within five minutes' walk of a specialist bicycle shop was good luck of the very highest order.
It wasn't long before I had reached Ohzaki-yama Park in the hills above Sanjoh City. As well as a campsite, the park had its own mini-onsen, although this was about to be over-run by a party of about fifty school children, so I bathed and shaved in about five minutes flat.
'Can you use a Japanese-style toilet?' said the receptionist when I arrived back from eating out in Sanjoh.
'I can, although it's a bit hard on the knees if you've been cycling all day.'
Squat toilets are still quite common in older buildings and public washrooms, and while I can use one in an emergency, my entire lower body tends to seize up in the process.
'That's OK,' he said. 'The side door is normally locked, but I'll leave it open tonight in case you want to come in and use the western-style one.'
Now that's what I call catering to the needs of your customers.