Day 11 – Betsukai to Shibetsu Town (別海 - 標津町) - 35km
With no snoring bikers, crowing cocks or foghorns to disturb me, I managed to sleep for eleven hours, and after a leisurely breakfast, stopped off in Nakashibetsu Town for an equally leisurely lunch.
When I sat down at the counter of a local café, I could hear the fellow sitting next to me confer with the waiter in Japanese ('How do you say "Where are you from?" in English, he was asking). Once he had plucked up the courage to introduce himself, Mr Strawberry told me that he had just formed a rock band, and it has to be said he looked like just the kind of person who ought to.
A disproportionately large number of Japanese bands go by Engrish / Japlish names - Glay, Smap, Mr Children, Greeen, Bump Of Chicken and Kis My Ft2 are a few that spring to mind - and Mr Strawberry said that he was looking for something along the same lines. During my next visit to an internet café I sent an appeal to my friends back home, who between them came up with:
Too Cool for School
Lipstick on a Pig
Despite passing this list of names on to Mr Strawberry, sadly I never found out if he adopted any of them, so if you happen to be forming a rock band yourself, feel free to use one (so long as you agree to pay me a percentage of all future royalties, that is).
Because of a bear sighting the previous summer, the Poh River campsite in Shibetsu Town was closed, and no less than ten cyclists had converged on a second campsite near the harbour, with not a single biker or caravanner to disturb us.
One young lad was halfway through a ten-month circuit of Japan, and had a plastic samurai sword attached to his bicycle frame for good luck. Another, who was only the second female cyclist I had met so far this summer, had a full-size pillow tied to her bicycle seat for staving off saddle sore.
Mr Cedar Mountain had come cycling for a couple of days from his home on the Shirétoko Peninsula, and while he owned a farm elsewhere in Hokkaido, he was currently renting it out with a view to returning in a year or two's time.
'Farming is a pain these days because of all the quotas and subsidies,' he said. 'A few years ago there was too much rice and the government told us to grow less. Now the price has gone up again we're being told to grow more! What they don't understand is that if you stop cultivating a rice field, it takes a fair bit of effort and money to get it up and running again.'
Now sixty years old, Mr Cedar Mountain had spent the 1970s travelling the world, from Europe and Africa to South and North America, and including a stint as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant in New York. While his children had yet to follow in his footsteps, both had moved from the countryside to the city - one to Tokyo and one to Sapporo. 'They like the freedom,' he said.
Mr Cedar Mountain and I had our evening meal at a local izakaya, where we sampled an impressive array of raw fish and seafood, including the aforementioned sanma, hotaté (帆立 / scallops), one variety of salmon that was served semi-frozen, and another that is prized because it only migrates from Russia to Hokkaido once every four years. Halfway through the meal a film crew turned up, although my hopes of being interviewed on Japanese TV were dashed when for some unknown reason they ignored us in favour of two younger, better looking female customers on the opposite side of the room.
Later on as we were cleaning our teeth at the campsite's communal sinks, we got talking to another of the cyclists, a gangly, scruffily dressed man in his fifties who devoted his holidays to finding - and bathing in - natural hot springs deep in the wilderness.
'For this one,' he said, showing us some photos on his laptop, 'I got up at 3am and hiked for six hours. It took another four and a half to get back.'
'Have you ever come across any bears?' said Mr Cedar Mountain.
'Oh yes. Three times, I think. But I survived to tell the tale!'
Mr Cedar Mountain said that when they wake up from hibernation in the spring, bears are, understandably enough, hungry, and more likely than usual to venture into towns and villages in search of food. He had seen several behind his apartment block - from the safe vantage point of his bedroom window, that is - so with only a thin layer of Gore-tex for protection, I was quite relieved to be able to spend the night in an officially non-bear-infested campsite.
Day 9 – Akkeshi to Nemuro City (厚岸 - 根室市) - 106km
'There aren't any shops on the coast road, you know,' said the old lady at the youth hostel. 'So I made you these.'
Refusing to accept any money, she presented me with a packed lunch of two grapefruit-sized nigiri (rice balls).
'I hope you've got some sun block.'
'Don't worry,' I said. 'I've put it on already,' and thought as she waved me off that while she may not have been youthful, she was just the right sort of person to be running a hostel: nosy, but only in the sense that she was concerned for the welfare of her guests.
Just outside Akkeshi, an official-looking car - yellow and black with red lights on the top, rather like an AA van - stopped on the other side of the road.
'Excuse me, sir,' said the driver, leaning out of the window. 'Will you be heading along the coast road?'
'Please watch out for cars along the way.'
Telling someone to watch out for cars on a road seemed like rather unnecessary advice, but it was nice to know the powers that be were concerned for the welfare of a humble cyclist.
'No, not cars,' he said, 'bears.' (An easy mistake to make: the Japanese for car is kuruma - 車 - and the Japanese for bear is kuma - 熊.) 'There was a sighting earlier this morning.'
According to conventional wisdom, a bear is liable to attack if you happen upon it without warning, whereas it will steer clear if it can hear you coming in advance. So I gave my rather weedy bicycle bell a ping to show that I was fully prepared, and the man told me to take care before driving off again.
(This is a 'beware of the bear' sign I saw later that morning:)
Certain routes in the Touring Mapple
are highlighted in purple, which denotes that readers have recommended them as being particularly scenic, and Routes 123 and 142 - which meandered their way along clifftops, past fishing villages, and around harbours, bays and tidal lakes - were purple almost all the way to Nemuro, making for some of the best riding of the summer.
On an inland stretch of Route 142 I met Mr Safe Wisteria, a sixty four year old from Osaka who had embarked on various adventures since his retirement, including sailing round the world on the Peace Boat
and walking the Shikoku-henro
(四国遍路), a pilgrimage to eighty-eight different temples around the island of Shikoku.
Along with panniers on both the front and back of his bike, Mr Safe Wisteria had a little basket on the handlebars with a radio in it - he said that it kept him company when there was no one to talk to - and because he was heading in the opposite direction, had just phoned the lady at Akkeshi youth hostel to book a room for the night.
With its broken windows, peeling paint and weed-strewn surroundings, the railway station at Hatta-ushi looked to be abandoned, although trains on the Nemuro Line do apparently stop there.
Japan maintains a much greater number of rural lines than, for example, the UK, and the one- or two-carriage trains that trundle along them are known as 'one man', which is a reference to the lone driver, although it could just as easily be to the number of passengers (Wikipedia Japan describes Hatta-ushi as being used by an 'extremely small number' of people).
In the manner of the Eurorail pass, foreign visitors can buy a Japan Rail Pass
, which allows unlimited use of the rail network. For the natives, though, and for those of us who live and work here, our best option is the juu-hachi-kippu
(18 ticket), which as the name implies is aimed at cash-strapped youngsters, and while it doesn't allow you to board Shinkansen
(新幹線 / aka bullet trains), can be used on just the kind of one mans that stop at Hatta-ushi.
(お母婆 / old hag) rider house was, as they say, a curate's egg: ie. good in parts. One of the good things was the price: it was free to stay there so long as you had your evening meal at the izakaya next door. One of the bad things was the lack of facilities: there was no shower, for example, so I had to settle for a hand bath while standing up at the sink (the guy who ran the place said they were in the process of building a shower block, but hadn't raised enough money to finish it yet). Because the Okaba was situated in what was effectively a swamp, another bad thing was the preponderance of mosquitoes, which meant that my twilight stroll was both good and bad: good in the sense that an atmospherically smoke machine-like mist hung in the air, and bad in the sense that I was bitten to shreds whenever I stopped to take a photo.
There were four of us staying at the Okaba that night, myself and three motorcyclists. One worked as a civil servant and another was studying at a vocational school, although I didn't find out much else about them because the third, Mr Pine Origin, was such a talker they could hardly get a word in edgeways.
Mr Pine Origin worked in Iwaté Prefecture as the secretary at an elementary school, which because of the long-ish holidays had enabled him to come to Hokkaido no less than seventeen times.
'I usually ride about three or four hundred kilometres a day,' he said. 'I once did six hundred, but I couldn't move my legs when I woke up the next morning.'
Bikers, it would seem, are the same the world over, and the three of them ordered extra-large portions of pork escalopes and pork kebab.
'As you can see,' said Mr Pine Origin, indicating his portly physique, 'I come to Hokkaido for the food.'
We rounded off the evening with Russian vodka and Russian chocolate, both provided on the house. Nemuro has close ties with Russia, and most of the city's road signs are in Russian as well as Japanese. There were Russian books on the izakaya's bookshelves, and photos on the wall from an annual visit to the Okaba by Russian schoolchildren: hopefully they don't mind the mosquitoes, I thought, as I dashed across the yard to the dormitory and slammed the screen door behind me as quickly as I could.
Day 5 – Erimo Town to Churui Village えりも町 – 忠類村 – 91km
There were so many futons in Mr Village Middle’s spare room that I wondered if he wasn’t running a guest house on the side. Having said that, there were also no sheets, no pillows and no curtains, so that I had to drape an old piece of material across the window when the first rays of the sun hit me directly in the face.
By that point Mr Village Middle had already left the house, although having returned at about nine, he said that the weather was no good for harvesting konbu and they had only been able to do prep work. Before I left he gave me a shoe-box sized package of the stuff for Mrs M’s family, and even drove me to the post office to send it off.
Calling in at Cape Erimo the previous day had given me the idea that instead of just wandering aimlessly around Hokkaido for five weeks, I should circumnavigate its coastline. With this in mind my next goal was Cape Nosappu to the northeast, heading for which would first of all take me along a 33-kilometre stretch of Route 336 better known as the Ohgon-dohro (黄金道路 / Gold Road).
The Gold Road was completed in 1934 and follows the rugged coastline between Erimo Town and Hiro-o Town. It took seven years to build, and earned its nickname because of the astronomical construction costs, which in today’s money would amount to approximately six billion yen, or more than a thousand pounds per metre of tarmac.
The road is closed due to bad weather more than any other in the country – approximately ten times a year – and in 1981, four people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after becoming stranded in one of its tunnels during a snowstorm. In fact, more of the Gold Road seems to be in tunnels than out of them, and even when I wasn’t cycling through one, I was overlooked by hillsides and cliff faces swathed in concrete and steel, or protected from potential rockfalls by barriers like this one.
Due to the harsh winter weather and the battering the Gold Road takes from the Pacific, it is still eating up construction cash even now, and when I was there, work was underway to lengthen its longest tunnel to nearly 5km. Up above, too, workers abseiled between a network of scaffolding walkways, their safety ropes disappearing into the fog, and crashing waves enveloped me in a fine mist of sea spray.
At Hiro-o Town – whose streets were lined with signs advertising its winter-only Santa Land theme park – the landscape levelled off, and I took a road that aside from one slight kink ran dead straight for about fifteen kilometres.
Cycling 100km a day necessitates a drastic increase in one’s calorie intake, so despite having breakfast at a convenience store in Hiro-o, it wasn’t long before I was feeling peckish, and it wasn't long after that that I was feeling absolutely bloody starving.
Out here there was nothing but fields and farmhouses, and the only shop in the coastal village of Asahihama was shut. That morning Mr Village Middle had given me a bag of pickled gyoja
(wild garlic) to send me on my way, which had stunk so much there was a danger of my clothes and camping kit (not to mention my breath) becoming infused with the aroma, so I had thrown it away. This meant that my only remaining rations were two satsumas and an emergency Cup Noodle, which as I now realised was useless without some emergency hot water.It wasn't until halfway through the afternoon that I finally found
a row of trusty jihanki
(自販機 / vending machines), which emerged from the fog at an otherwise deserted crossroads. The can of hot tea and bottle of pop I bought gave me just enough energy to make it to a supermarket, and I eventually called it a day at Churui Village, whose symbol is an animal known as Naumann’s Elephant.
Heinrich Edmund Naumann worked as an advisor to the Meiji government in the late 1800s, among other things producing the first proper geological map of Japan, and discovered the fossilised remains of a kind of half-elephant, half-mammoth hybrid in Yokosuka near Tokyo. T
he species - which lived in Japan for around 100,000 years, and whose tusks were up to two and a half metres long - was officially named after him in 1924, and since a Naumann's elephant was discovered in Churui in 1969 (the remains of one, that is, not a living version), the village now has its very own Naumann's Elephant Museum
. After checking in at the campsite next door and having a very hearty evening meal,
I could have done with an extra, mammoth-like covering of fur to help me through the night, which was damp, dark and distinctly chilly.
The other day Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music was playing in the background during a TV programme about Switzerland, and Mrs M started singing along.
'Do is the do of doughnut,' she sang. 'Re is the re of...'
'Hang on, hang on,' I interrupted. 'Did you just say "doughnut"?'
'Yes. "Do is the do of doughnut". Why?'
'Do isn't the do of doughnut! Do is a deer, a female deer!'
'What, you mean the English lyrics are different?'
Over the years, several people have translated The Sound Of Music into Japanese, but the version that stuck is by a woman called Peggy Hayama. Having seen the original stage musical in the early sixties, Hayama realised that particularly in the case of Do-Re-Mi, a literal translation wouldn't work, so not only are her mnemonics different, but because the Japanese alphabet has no 'la' or 'ti' sounds, so are her syllables for the musical notes:
'Do' is the 'do' of 'doughnut'
'Re' is the 're' of 'remon' (er, lemon)
'Mi' is the 'mi' of 'min-na' (everyone)
'Fa' is the 'fa' of 'faito' (fight)
'So' is the 'so' of 'aoi sora' (blue sky)
'Ra' is the 'ra' of 'rappa' (trumpet)
'Shi' is the 'shi' of 'shiawasé' (happy)
Right, let's sing!
Another sound you don't get in Japanese is 'lé', hence a lemon becoming a remon, and just in case you think Hayama is advocating the use of violence, in Japan, using the English word 'fight' is a way of exhorting someone to do their best.
Hayama also added a second verse, which mixes in a couple more mnemonics for good measure:
DOnna toki demo (whatever)
REtsu wo kundé (queue)
MInna tanoshiku (everyone)
FAito wo motté (fight)
SOra wo aoidé (sky)
RAn rararararara (er, la la la)
SHIawasé no uta (happy)
Translated back into English, it goes like this:
Whenever you want
Link your arms
Everybody having fun
Prepare to do your best
Look up at the sky
A happy song
Right, let's sing!
Doughnuts? Fighting? Olanges and Remons? Rodgers and Hammerstein must be turning in their graves. But anyway, just for the sake of completeness, here is Hayama's Japanese version in full:
The one thing I forgot to mention when I was reminiscing about my previous job
was the commute, which was often the highlight of my working day. Even though my employers were paying me travel expenses based on covering the 14km round-trip by car, I only did so about ten times in the whole year - usually because I had to take my suit either to or from work, although on one rainy day when Mrs M had to use the car, I wore the suit beneath my waterproofs without causing any obvious damage. The rest of the time I commuted by bicycle: for the first few weeks on onii-san's lightweight semi-racer, and thereafter on the trusty Rock Spring. One fine morning I made it to school on the former in under twenty minutes, while on the latter it took more like twenty-five - sometimes thirty on the way back, as this included a long uphill stretch.
I spent rather more time than was necessary examining Yahoo Japan Map
and experimenting with short cuts that turned out to be nothing of the sort, before eventually settling on a route that took me first of all across a four-lane bypass. After this I veered into a narrow side street and past a wood yard, a ramen restaurant and an estate of dilapidated old bungalows (the Japanese equivalent of a trailer park), before the road dropped down into a valley of rice fields. From the brow of the hill, on a clear day you could see all the way to a mountain range on the border between Tochigi and Fukushima Prefectures, sixty kilometres to the north-west, and the pavement in the valley was constructed from large concrete blocks, which during the earthquake had been shaken out of alignment to form an obstacle course of slopes and steps. On the opposite side of the valley was a posh country club, where well-heeled businessmen would go for a quick nine holes or a session on the driving range before work, and beyond that a suburb of sorts, with two pachinko parlours - one abandoned and one still in business - two concrete works, two convenience stores, a beauty salon and a barber shop. There was also a run-down looking hostess bar with an old neon sign, an amateurish, hand-painted portrait of a supposedly glamorous hostess, and five A4 sheets of paper permanently pasted to the wall that read ten-in boshuh-chu
(店員募集中 / staff wanted).
Perhaps once or twice a week, a people carrier would pass by with one of its rear windows rolled down. Come rain or shine, a child of about four or five years old - presumably being driven to kindergarten by its mother - would lean out of the window and shout 'HELLOOOOOO!!!' although I rarely reacted quickly enough to say anything in reply.
In the morning, that long uphill stretch was a relaxing freewheel through a large industrial estate, in whose central car park truck drivers would be emerging from their cabins after a night's sleep, and various tradesmen and travelling salesmen would be chatting with their colleagues or sipping on vending machine coffee.
At the bottom of the hill the road ahead was blocked by a landslide that had yet to be cleared even a year after the earthquake. Here I turned right along with the rest of the traffic and into a short tunnel, at the other end of which was a wide river valley.
On some mornings the surrounding hills were shrouded in mist, on others the sunlight sparkled on the river, and on still others the wind whipped up the valley and I was sprayed with standing water by passing cars. In the morning a pair of tombi (鳶 / black kites) would eye me suspiciously as I passed beneath their perch atop a streetlight, and in the afternoon scores of them would circle high above the river, their tails twisting back and forth as they changed direction in the updraft. Slender white shirasagi (白鷺 / heron) stood at the water's edge while their human counterparts ventured out on long wooden boats: in the winter they fished for ayu (鮎 / sweetfish), and for a few weeks in the autumn for the salmon that swim upstream to spawn (the bodies of those salmon that failed to survive the journey lay on the riverbed for weeks afterwards).
The river marks the border between the so-called city where I lived (it's more like a town) and the so-called town where I worked (it's more like a village), and on the other side was a mushroom farm that gave off a stench like a cross between raw sewage and rotting flesh, a Yakult shop with its fleet of three-wheeled delivery scooters, a tiny police station, and an even smaller shrine on the pavement beneath a garden wall. Such shrines are erected by bereaved relatives after a road death, and this one was made from a couple of breeze blocks, a jizoh (地蔵 / small stone statue in a red cap and jacket), some opened cans and bottles of drink to keep the departed spirit from going thirsty, and two vases that were regularly replenished with fresh flowers.
I could tell if I was on time by whether or not the school bus was parked outside the local kindergarten (it left at 8.20 on the dot), and on the last narrow street between the main road and the school, one angry dog would strain at its rope as it tried to scale the garden fence and attack me, and one placid dog would gaze benevolently from its blanket-lined basket a few doors down.
For several months over the winter I wore a waterproof jacket, woolly hat, fleece and long trousers, while in the summer months, even at 8am the temperature was in the twenties. As well as cycling home in the snow, one afternoon last September I did so in a typhoon: admittedly, the storm didn't reach its peak until a few hours later, but I still had trouble staying upright, and the next day the river was twice as deep and twice as wide as usual.
(A geeky aside: while you might expect a bicycle to be cleaner after it has been ridden it in the rain, in fact the opposite is true, and the Rock Spring was always at its grubbiest after bad weather, its white frame splattered with mud and its chain clogged with oily gunk.)
Every day on the way home I would pass the same group of elementary school children with their yellow hats and red satchels. Although I was speeding past on the opposite side of the road, over the course of the year we managed to turn this into a kind of mini-English conversation class, so:
First kid in the group - 'HELLO!'
Me - 'HELLO!'
Fifth kid in the group - 'HOW ARE YOU?'
Me - 'I'M FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?'
Tenth kid in the group - 'I'M FINE THANK YOU!'
And so on and so forth.
At least for the next couple of months my journey to work will only take five minutes, and I won't see any tombi, or shirasagi, or salmon (although I do pass a different and even angrier dog), and apart from anything else I've already put on weight from the lack of exercise.
In amongst many newspaper stories commemorating the first anniversary of the earthquake, this one caught my eye for several reasons. Firstly, it is about one of the few people who lost their lives in Ibaraki (there were twenty-four in all - twenty-five if you include another who is still missing), and one of the few who did so as a result of the earthquake rather than the tsunami. Secondly, the events described took place in Mito, which is just down the road from where Mrs M and I now live. But thirdly, the manner of her death was bizarre to say the least...A mother's heart has not healed, but she is helped by a circle of friends and supportersDaughter died with her beloved cat - Akira Ikegami's publication is her destinyMs Seguro of Mito - 'Finally I can get back on my feet'65-year-old Yasuko Seguro runs a beauty salon in Matsumoto Town, Mito City, and lost her daughter Keiko Taguchi - a housewife, who was 37 at the time - in the Great East Japan Earthquake. Yasuko showed us a recently published book that contains Keiko's story. Keiko had a cold and was asleep on the third floor of Yasuko's house when the disaster struck, and died from cerebral contusion when her collection of books collapsed on top of her. She loved novels and manga, and more than five thousand titles were arranged on the bookshelves in her bedroom. She was staying with her parents at the time because her husband was working away from home.Yasuko found Keiko's body after pushing her way through the many books that were scattered about the room. Keiko was with her beloved cat Gato. As if the cat was protecting Keiko, it was covering her face when it too died. 'My daughter had no visible injuries,' says Yasuko. 'Gato had protected her.'When this story appeared in newspapers, a publisher made an offer to Yasuko, saying, 'We want Keiko's story to appear in Akira Ikegami's book.' Yasuko preferred to quietly lay the incident to rest, and rejected the offer.After losing Keiko, Yasuko stopped eating, and lost over ten kilogrammes. Almost every day she talked to her daughter's photograph, and while she knew there would be no reply, she even sent text messages to Keiko's mobile phone saying, 'I want to meet you, I want to meet you'. Soon afterwards, Ikegami called Yasuko directly, telling her that all proceeds from the book would go towards helping people in areas affected by the disaster.'Lots of people have had a hard time, had their houses swept away in the tsunami, had family members go missing.' Yasuko agreed to the publication, and says, 'Hopefully I can contribute something to helping the victims of the disaster.'The book, published as 'From The Great East Japan Earthquake - News To Join Our Hearts', was published at the end of June last year, with Keiko's story appearing as 'To heaven with her beloved cat'. But even now, after a year has passed, Yasuko has yet to read the book. The events of 11th March 2011 weigh heavily on her heart. Recalling Keiko, she says, 'Why couldn't I have helped you?'Meanwhile, Keiko's story has appeared in newspapers and in the book, acquaintances of Keiko have come from far and wide to meet Yasuko, neighbours have given her food, and people often pause as they pass the house to bow silently. Many people have supported Yasuko.'Even if it hadn't been for the earthquake, I wouldn't have been able to put my mind in order yet. But despite having been affected themselves, everyone has shown their support for me, even though they should have been too busy to even think of me. So now, at last, I can get back on my feet,' says Yasuko, her voice filled with tears.(From the
Tokyo Newspaper, 11/3/12. Incidentally, Akira Ikegami is probably the brainiest person in Japan, or at least the most famous brainy person in Japan, and while it hasn't yet been translated into English, you can buy his book here
As Mrs M and I were returning from a visit to the in-laws the other day, we noticed something rather strange happening on the forecourt of an Eneos petrol station. For a split second, Mrs M thought we had stumbled upon a murder scene, but a closer look revealed something far less sinister, namely our second encounter with an inoshishi
(猪 / wild boar) in the past year (the first one
gave rise to a disappointingly blurry photograph).
As anyone who's seen the film Deliverance will tell you, it's usually best to avoid groups of country folk who own guns, drive pick-up trucks and wear fishing vests and baseball caps, but while their replies to my questions were very much on the monosyllabic side ('Is that a wild boar?' 'Yes.' 'Did you kill it yourselves?' 'Yes.' 'With a gun?' 'Yes.' 'Will you keep the hide?' 'No.'), that was due more to Japanese reserve than redneck menace.
You need to apply to the town hall for a special licence to hunt wild boar, and the official season runs from 15th November until 15th March. According to our community newsletter, during the 2010 / 2011 season the wild boar population was reduced by a grand total of 62: 53 of them trapped and 9 of them shot. An interesting way to spend a Wednesday evening, I reckon, and enough meat at the end of it to feed a small army - or at least a medium sized hunting party.
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.
While Japan may not have as many lethal predators as, say, Australia, it still has a lot more creepy-crawlies and animal oddities than the UK, and while I'm not quite Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I have managed to capture a few for posterity.
First up is this snake I spotted while cycling along a country road. I'll be completely honest here and say that I have no idea what kind of snake it is, but despite having a camera waved around approximately a forked tongue's length from its beady eyes, I can hereby bear witness that it did not sink its fangs into my arm or inject me with poisonous venom in any way, shape or form. In fact, it didn't move a muscle the whole time I was ogling it, so perhaps it was asleep.
When I say 'camera', what I actually mean is 'mobile phone camera', and this being Japan, the camera part of my mobile phone has an impressive 8.1 mega pixels to play with, which means that despite not being able to see what's on the screen during daylight hours, you can take shots that wouldn't look out of place on the memory card of a digital SLR.
A very large moth - probably twelve or thirteen centimetres across - seen lurking above the wash basins in a public loo.
A kabuto-mushi, aka rhinocerous beetle.
Kabuto were the elaborately decorated helmets samurai used to wear in battle, and the Japanese keep the samurai tradition alive by pitting their kabuto-mushi against each other in insect sumo wrestling contests.
This little fellow was given to Mrs M as a present when one of her colleagues found it in the chemist's shop where they both work, although since it didn't seem to be enjoying life in a small cardboard box, rather than training it to be an insect sumo killing machine, we decided to let it go outside the apartment.
Female kabuto-mushi look more like ordinary beetles - albeit ordinary beetles that are approximately the size of a bar of soap - and don't have the crazy pincer-like horns / antlers their male counterparts are blessed with.
Particularly in Tokyo, the night-time call - a kind of high-pitched whirring noise like a speeded up football rattle - of the semi (cicada) can be quite deafening.
Mrs M tells me that semi live underground for several years, before emerging to sit in a tree and make a lot of noise for about a week, during which time they shed their skin (the Wikipedia entry for the cicada contains quite a neat little video of this
), mate, lay some eggs and then promptly pass away. So rather than being a photo of a semi, this is a photo of its discarded shell.(The reason semis spend such a large proportion of their lives underground is so they can avoid cerain predators, as explained in this item from the BBC News site about prime numbers.
Apart from mosquitos, which are practically impossible to photograph unless you have a very good camera, proper protective clothing and a full can of insect repellent close at hand, cockroaches - or in Japanese, gokiburi - are the peskiest pest in Japan.
The cockroaches I encountered in Tokyo were the biggest and baddest of the lot, so this one, which okah-san zapped with a lethal dose of cockroach killer - a spray that cuts off the roach's oxygen supply so that it dies a slow and agonising death - was only a few centimetres long.
A dragonfly, or tonbo as they're called in Japan.
Tonbo can be seen flitting back and forth above the rice fields for much of the summer, and are of course much bigger than weedy little British dragonflies.
A spider that is, I suspect, a lot less dangerous than it looks.
A grasshopper / cricket.
A very hair caterpillar (as opposed to a はらぺこあおむし
), which wriggled across the pavement surprisingly quickly.
A non-hairy but still rather colourful caterpillar.
A dog in a microwave.
Well, OK, so it's not really a dog in a microwave, but since we're on the subject of animals, I thought I'd include a couple of photos of the unique institution that is the Japanese pet shop.
Whereas in a typical British pet shop there won't be any dogs or cats on display at all, here there are banks of glass-fronted cubicles and perspex cages, each containing a tired-looking puppy or kitten.
When it comes to keeping pets, the Japanese are very much of the tie-it-up-outside-and-leave-it-be school of thought, so this kind of thing isn't considered cruel at all, and is of course extremely popular with children, who even if they didn't want a puppy when they came into the pet shop, are guaranteed to want one by the time they leave.
As well as a price, the notices to the right of this cage / microwave contain information about where the puppies were born, how large they will be when they grow up, and whether or not they have been vaccinated.
Apparently, one of these chihuahua puppies is around half the price of the other - 45,000 yen / 350 GBP as opposed to 88,000 yen / 700 GBP - because it has recently been treated for a hernia.
The other notices on the cage say things like, 'When the puppy is asleep, please do not wake it up / tap on the glass. Puppies and kittens need about twenty hours' sleep a day, so please be quiet,' and, 'The world's smallest dog. Spirited, inquisitive and full of vigour.'
Here's another pet-related oddity: the large, glass-fronted box in this shop is like a kind of dog car wash, in that you put your dog inside, close the door, push the start button, and the dog is then shampooed, rinsed and blow-dried automatically.
When we saw a dog in mid-cycle, it didn't seem to be unduly terrified, and as a lot of pet owners would testify, using a dog wash is probably a lot easier than using a bath.
Last but not least, here is the one that got away.
The small, grey, out-of-focus blob you can just about see in the middle of this photograph is in fact an inoshishi (猪 / wild boar).
While inoshishi are common in Japan, it's very unusual to see one first-hand, although okah-san tells us they often visit her allotment to try and nose their way into the compost bin.
Mrs M spotted this one standing in a field as we drove past, and when we returned to take a photogaph, it crossed the road directly in front of us. What my mobile phone camera then singularly failed to capture was a very large - at least a couple of times bigger than your average Alsatian - and slightly bedraggled creature with two little trademark tusks either side of its snout.
In the latest edition of our community newspaper, there was a two-page article telling farmers how to safeguard their crops from inoshishi, which as well as weighing in at between 50 and 100kg, can run at speeds of up to 40kmh and overturn objects of up to 60kg in their quest for food.