By some freak of genetics that I don't pretend to understand, I have been blessed with everyman-like features, and over the years a disproportionately large number of people have told me that I look like someone they know, or someone famous. For example, a friend of mine once went up to someone on the tube and, convinced that it was me, said, 'Hi, Muzuhashi!' only to be treated with a blank look and a 'Who's Muzuhashi?' in reply, and in my days as a sound recordist, there was supposedly a doppelganger doing the same job, even though, like Superman and Clark Kent, we were never seen in the same room together.
In the interests of national security and for the safety of my family and friends, I have yet to post a photograph of myself on this blog. But while my true identity shall remain a closely guarded secret, I thought that now might be a good time to give you at least an inkling of the face behind the enigma.
For example, when I was much younger and still had hair, Ronan Keating was a prime suspect.
As I got older and my hair got thinner, it was Keifer Sutherland.
And then Kevin Costner.
Of course, the irony is that now I'm in Japan, rather than being an everyman, I stick out like a left-winger in the Labour Party, and the only Japanese name ever to have been mentioned in the same breath is that of TV presenter Tokoro George.
Closer to the mark is Arjen Robben, a Dutch international who plays his club football for Bayern Munich, and whom countless junior high school students have 'mistaken' me for.
Facial features, it has to be said, don't necessarily come into the comparison, so what these students are really thinking as they pass me in the corridor and shout 'Robben!' is 'You're a balding white man!'
In much the same way, balding white men - myself included - are often likened to Bruce Willis.
Despite the shining pate, however, Willis is facially even less reminiscent of me than Robben, so for a more likely lookalike, we need to consult some non-Japanese.
A good friend of mine insists that I'm a dead spit for Gary Barlow, which is very nice of him, so long as I choose to overlook the fact that what he's basically saying is 'You look like the ugly one out of Take That'.
Someone once came up to me in a pub and said that I looked like Tim Roth, which is fairly credible.
While a different person once came up to me in a different pub and told me that I looked like Ben Stiller, which is frankly tenuous.
Both witnesses may well have been drunk at the time, and where Roth looks a bit too mean and moody, Stiller looks a bit too sarky and smirky. Ben Miller, on the other hand, is in the right ballpark.
Another friend suggested Rob Brydon, who I like to think is a little on the craggy side for comparisons, although I have to admit that I'm veering into craggy territory myself these days (and by that I don't mean Snowdonia).
You can imagine my confusion, then, when Miller and Brydon appeared together on QI, and even went so far as to kiss each other on screen, a moment that for me was reminiscent of the bit in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich enters the portal into his own brain.
The same friend who compared me to Miller saw a Surf Crew billboard at a London bus stop, and claimed that he had to take a closer look just to make sure that I wasn't doing swimwear modelling on the side.
While the face may be similar, though, the body is a dead giveaway: I do of course look much better than this with my shirt off.
The best suggestion so far - so good, in fact, that it's genuinely spooky - is Christopher Timothy, who apart from a slightly different nose could quite easily be my long-lost identical twin brother.
Although rather like the Superman / Clark Kent combination, I have yet to be filmed sticking my hand up a cow's backside - not that I'm aware of, anyway.
A final disclaimer: while I do in some aspects resemble many of the gentlemen depicted here, I should of course emphasise the fact that I'm not even remotely as handsome or debonair as any of them. The closest I've ever come to that is by having my voice likened - by Japanese as well as Brits - to Hugh Grant's.
But let's face it, if I looked like Hugh Grant as well as sounding like him, I wouldn't be an English teaching assistant, I'd be...well, I'd be at least a deputy headmaster.
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:
If you know of anyone male who has moved or is thinking of moving to Japan – ie. working here rather than just taking a holiday – it is 99% certain they are not just coming for the culture, the comic books, the Zen meditation or the nuclear meltdowns. No, what they are secretly – or not-so-secretly, as the case may be – here for is the women, and it has to be said that despite taking a genuine interest in the woodcuts of Katsushika Hokusai, the films of Takeshi Kitano, learning a martial art and eating raw fish, I was no different.
My dream came true in the form of Mrs M, and while we are of course now blissfully happily married, I thought it might be interesting to tell you who are the top ten Japanese women that just supposing I wasn’t blissfully happily married to Mrs M, I wouldn’t be entirely displeased to find sitting across the table from me in a posh restaurant, for example, or next to me at an office party.
The most visible ladies in Japan, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, are the forty-eight members of AKB48, whose management team hit upon the ingenious idea of an annual election to decide who is the most popular – and by implication, the cutest – member of the group. In a stroke of marketing genius, the rules of the election dictate that you are only entitled to vote if you have purchased an AKB48 CD or download, and the winner of the election is promoted to ‘lead singer’ (I put the words ‘lead singer’ in quotation marks because whether what AKB48 do can be described as singing – and indeed whether any of them actually sing on their records – is a moot point) for the proceeding year. In both 2009 and 2011 this was Atsuko Maéda, who while she does have a certain charm is also rather annoying. Whenever you see Maéda on TV, she is almost guaranteed to burst into tears from the sheer emotional strain of being in a girl group (as in this commercial for ochazuké
), and frankly, she should just pull herself together.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that anyone who thinks AKB48 are a prime example of Japanese womanhood is sorely mistaken, and would be better advised to do a Google image search for this lot instead:
1) Mari Yaguchi used to be in Morning Musumé, who were the AKB48 of their day, and the reason I have a soft spot for her is that she reminds me of Mrs M. While both Yaguchi and Mrs M are petite, however, Yaguchi’s husband is a foot taller than me, so I almost certainly wouldn’t stand a chance with her if – purely hypothetically, you understand – we happened to attend the same suburban swingers' key-swapping party.
2) Perfume are also a girl group, and to be brutally frank, every bit as talentless as both AKB48 and Morning Musumé. They are, however, less annoying (I have yet to see a member of Perfume cry on national television, for example), less ubiquitous, less numerous and better looking, in an impressively leggy kind of a way.
3) Speaking of legginess, I would argue that the most statuesque of Japanese models is Yu Yamada, whose face was absolutely everywhere when she first came to prominence in the mid-noughties. In the context of the fashion world, Yamada is already past her prime, but has a distinctly un-Japanese exoticism about her, possibly because she hails from the southern islands of Okinawa.
4) Attractive older women are known as jukujo (熟 女), and the queen of the jukujo is Sawa Suzuki, actress, variety show regular and a kind of Japanese version of Rula Lenska. Don’t get your hopes up, though, as she is currently engaged to be married to a man ten years her junior.
5) Possibly because I watch her every week on Honma Dekka, another jukujo eminently deserving of a mention is Wakako Shimazaki, who is, incredibly, still single.
6) Ayako Katoh is also a regular on Honma Dekka, and as well as keeping a level head when all about her are taking the piss, she either has very good taste in clothes or a very good stylist.
7) As Swiss Tony may once have said, a beautiful woman is worth nothing without a beautiful personality, which is why the next lady on my list is Ayano Fukuda, who is kinda quirky, kinda cute and, most important of all, kinda funny. Fukuda is an impressionist currently doing the variety show rounds, and while she may well have disappeared from view a year from now (worryingly, she only ever seems to trot out the same two impersonations), she will always have at least one fan club member in Ibaraki.
8) My next choice will be seen by many as wildly eccentric, but again, partly because she is on TV every week (Sekai Banzuké, Itté Q) and partly because she is the antithesis of AKB48 girly cuteness, Ayako Imoto is, as the saying has it, quite fit. She strikes me as the kind of woman who could hold her own in a fight, an argument or a piss up, and who because she has travelled the world several times over, would almost certainly have something interesting to say for herself should one, for example, find oneself sitting across the table from her in a pie and mash shop.
Oh, hang on, that wasn't the right photo…
9) To continue the theme of strong women, I couldn’t possibly finish this post without mentioning at least one member of the Nadéshiko Japan women’s football team, who while they aren’t exactly Girls Aloud, are the height of glamour compared to Nadéshiko GB, for example, or even Nadéshiko Sweden. While many men would ask Nahomi Kawasumi
to accompany them on a romantic night out at Old Trafford, the Bernabéu Stadium or, er, Ladysmead
, I would offer my spare ticket to Saki Kumagai, who is a) rather attractive, and b) scored the winning goal in a World Cup final penalty shoot-out
10) Last but not least, when it comes to having crushes on famous people, I have always believed that it’s important to seek out someone a little more obscure and a little more accessible – so obscure and accessible, in fact, that there really is the slimmest of chances one might find oneself sitting next to her on the bus, for example, or in the launderette. The reason being, in this case, that the thoroughly charming Shizuka Haségawa is a presenter-stroke-reporter for NHK Ibaraki, whose studios are just down the road from where I now live. When Haségawa was on TV the other week, onii-san described her in no uncertain terms as being busu
(ugly), but that only endeared her to me more, not to mention increasing my confidence that should the opportunity arise, our destinies may still be intertwined (Haségawa is so obscure that I couldn't find a decent picture of her, so the curious amongst you will have to make do with her NHK Ibaraki profile page
So that’s that. I'd like to reassure you that I ran this blog post past Mrs M just in case she took offence (she didn’t, mainly because she knows that not a single one of the aforementioned women would give me a second glance if I was quite literally the last man on earth), and I suppose the obvious follow-up would be a post about the Japanese men she thinks are deserving of a wider – or rather, worldwide – audience. In the meantime, suggestions for additions to the list would be much appreciated: who is your ideal J-lady, and why?
It has now been three weeks since M Jr was born, and as well as the usual parenting concerns – eg. How do I change a nappy? How do I tell when a bottle of formula has reached the correct temperature? Is it just me or does one of her ears stick out slightly further than the other one? – I have been trying my best to get up to speed with the various traditions and pecularities associated with having a baby in Japan.
Starting at the very beginning, here’s what I’ve managed to find out so far (although be warned, as some of these may be specific to Ibaraki, or subject to variation depending on which part of the country you happen to live in):
1) Moh-koh-han ( 蒙古斑 / Mongolian spot)
Most East Asian babies, along with a few from isolated groups elsewhere in the world – Native Americans, for example, and East Africans – are born with a blue-green mark in the small of their back called a Mongolian spot. In most cases the mark disappears over time, although it occasionally persists until adulthood, or manifests itself elsewhere on the body (if you find your Mongolian spot embarrassing, like a tattoo, it can be removed with laser treatment). According to Wikipedia, Mongolian spots are sometimes mistaken for bruises in the West, and as a consequence, at least a few expat parents have been wrongly accused of hitting their children. M Jr has a small and rather faint Mongolian spot, although given that it's at the top of her builder's cleavage, I didn't think a snapshot would be appropriate.
2) Mei-shin (迷信 / superstitions)
M Jr is both a lion and a dragon (Leo and Chinese year of the~ respectively), although we won’t know what her ketsu-eki-gata (血液型 / blood type) is for another year or so, which in Japan is rather akin to not knowing your own name. Even Mrs M, who is almost as cynical as me when it comes to things like star signs, will talk in all seriousness about how As are obsessive compulsive and ABs have split personalities, and isn’t it unusual that we ended up together despite me being a B and her being an O.
A rather more obscure superstition that I became aware of just recently is the roku-yoh (六曜 / six labels for the Japanese calendar). Originally imported from China, the roku-yoh designate each day of the year with varying degrees of good or bad fortune, and while they don't really have anything to do with childbirth, I thought I'd share them with you anyway, in case, like me, you've ever wondered what all those strange kanji are next to the dates in your diary:
– Sen-shoh (先勝 / literally ‘before win’) – The morning of a sen-shoh day is lucky, but the hours between 2pm and 6pm are unlucky.
– Tomobiki (友引 / ‘friend pull’) – The morning is lucky, lunchtime is unlucky and the evening is very lucky. Tomobiki days are good for business dealings and lawsuits, but bad for funerals.
– Senbu (先負 / ‘before lose’) – The morning is unlucky and the afternoon is lucky.
– Butsu-metsu (仏滅 / ‘Buddha destruction’) – Very unlucky all day.
– Tai-an (大安 / ‘big safe’) – The most auspicious of the six, and thus a good day for weddings and the like.
– Shakkoh (赤口 / ‘red mouth’) – The time between 11am and 1pm is lucky, but the rest of the day is unlucky.
Despite being born at four in the afternoon on a shakkoh, M Jr seems to be doing well, although in future, we may decide to hold her birthday parties at lunchtime.
4) Héso-no-o (臍の緒 / umbilical cord)
Allowing a father to cut his baby’s umbilical cord is a recent development in Japan, and wasn’t even mentioned to me as a possibility when M Jr was born. A much older tradition dictates that the umbilical cord is given to the parents, who leave it to dry before placing it on the butsudan (仏壇 / Buddhist altar) or kamidana (神棚 / Shinto shrine) in the family home. Otoh-san, for example, still has both Mrs M’s and onii-san's umbilical cords, and while we donated most of M Jr’s for medical research, a small part of it now sits in a little wooden box on the kamidana.
(In contrast to this, Bobby Orgon
said recently on Sekai Banzuké
that in his home country of Nigeria, the umbilical cord is believed to possess mysterious powers, and that rather than keeping it, a father takes his baby’s umbilical cord from the hospital and buries it where there is no chance of it ever being found.)
Three days after her baby is born, it is customary for the mother to eat bota-mochi – rice cakes covered in red bean paste – and for her family to give them to friends and relatives when they pass on the news of the birth. Okah-san placed her order for bota-mochi almost as soon as M Jr had let out her first cry, and a couple of days later I took the day off work to drive okah-san around, handing out bota-mochi to our many aunts, uncles and cousins. The two main disadvantages of bota-mochi are that a) they’re not particularly appetising, and b) they’re made of mochi-gomé
(餅米 / extra-sticky rice used specifically for making rice cakes), which in the past was thought to aid the production of breast milk, but which has recently been found to do the exact opposite.
5) Mei-mei-sho (命名書 / name scroll)
Also on the third day after the birth, the mei-mei-sho – on which are written the baby’s name, its status within the family (for example, whether it’s an older brother or a younger sister), its birthday and the name of the head of the household – is displayed on the butsudan, the kamidana or even the tokonoma (床の間 / the decorative recess in an old-style tatami room, which in a modern-day hotel or B&B is often home to the TV). When Mrs M was born, otoh-san hired a professional calligrapher to write her mei-mei-sho at a cost of over 10,000 yen, whereas this time round, he typed it on Microsoft Word and printed it on a sheet of A4 paper.
6) Shussan-todoké (出産届 / notice of birth)
It is necessary to give notice at the town hall within fourteen days of a birth, so that your baby can be included on the koseki-toh-hon (戸籍謄本 / family register), and also so that you can begin receiving kodomo-té-até (子供手当 / child benefit). In the process of doing this, Mrs M and I realised that while M Jr will be registered as living at Mrs M’s parents’ address, her hon-seki (本籍 / permanent residence) is about a kilometre away, on a now empty plot of land where her great-grandparents – otoh-san’s parents – owned a house before they passed away in the 1970s.
7) Toko-agé (床上げ, aka obiaké / 帯明け or possibly obiya-aké / 産屋明け)
Back in the days when home births were the norm and the child mortality rate was far higher than it is now, a party called oshichi-ya (お七夜 / ‘honourable seventh night’) was held to celebrate a baby reaching a week old. Nowadays mothers and their babies spend that first week in hospital, and are only allowed to check out when they’ve been given a clean bill of health. At this point, however, they are expected to spend a further two weeks at the mother’s parents’ house, and this twenty-one-day period is known as toko-agé.
The literal translation of toko-agé is ‘floor up’, and refers to the practice of keeping mother and baby’s futon laid out on the bedroom floor at all times. While grandma does the washing, the cooking and the cleaning – not to mention as much of the baby-minding as her daughter is willing to hand over – mother and baby stay indoors and avoid anything that involves the use of cold water (they are seen as being particularly vulnerable to catching colds and infections). Unfortunately for Mrs M, otoh-san didn’t quite catch on to the purpose of toko-agé, and packed her futon away every morning, thus depriving her of the chance of a siesta. Also, for someone who was going for a walk at least once a day until the evening before M Jr was born, being stuck indoors felt a little claustrophobic, so she moved back to our apartment after just seven days in hospital and seven days at home.
8) O-iwai / uchi-iwai (お祝い / 内祝い)
In the UK, a new arrival is the cue for a veritable frenzy of knitting – booties, blankets, little baby-sized jumpers and so on – but in Japan, the parents will instead be granted the gift of cold, hard cash. The word o-iwai – ‘honourable celebration’ – is used to describe all kinds of gifts, but the tricky thing for the recipient is what to give in return (uchi-iwai).
As okah-san explained to us, uchi-iwai should amount to at least half the value of the original o-iwai, and it is best to go for a nice, round figure. For example, to the friends and relatives who gave us 10,000 yen o-iwai, we will give uchi-iwai to the value of 5000 yen, and for the friends and relatives who gave us 5000 yen o-iwai, we will round up their uchi-iwai to 3000 yen. Many people order their uchi-iwai from gift catalogues, but to avoid disappointment, Mrs M and I will be giving shopping vouchers instead, and okah-san has insisted that we supplement these with an extra present of something edible, meaning that in some cases we will retain just 20 % of the original o-iwai.
The shopping vouchers are from a credit card company called JCB (nothing to do with the people who make mechanical diggers, I might add), and purchased at a branch of the electronics store Yamada Denki. One of Mrs M’s great aunts lives just down the road from Yamada Denki, but when Mrs M suggested dropping in to hand over the uchi-iwai straight away, okah-san said that under no circumstances must we do so until the twenty-one days of toko-agé were up (after all, Mrs M was officially supposed to be at home, napping on her futon and with okah-san waiting on her hand and foot).
OK, so that’s the stuff we’ve already done, but still to come – in the near future, at least – are:
9) Omiya-mairi (お宮参り / first visit to the shrine)
After thirty days (one website suggests thirty-one for a boy and thirty-two for a girl, but anywhere around the one-month mark seems to be OK), the baby is taken to the local shrine so its family can pay their respects to the ubusunagami (産土神 / god of one’s birthplace). In some cases, this is done a hundred days after the birth, and known as momoka-mairi (百日参り / hundred-day visit).
10) Okui-zomé (お食い初め / literally ‘honourable eat first’, aka momoka-iwai / 百日祝い)
Taking place a hundred days after the birth, okui-zomé is symbolic of the move from a milk-only diet to rinyu-shoku (離乳食 / solids), although unfortunately for the baby, the food on offer is strictly for adults. A variety of traditional dishes are laid out on the dinner table and then wafted under the baby’s nose - if it’s a boy, this is done by the senior male member of the family, and vice versa for a girl – before being eaten. Presumably the baby has to make do with a jar of Cow & Gate instead.
(Nb. This isn't M Jr, just an anonymous Google picture search baby.)
11) Koku-seki (国籍 / Nationality)
While most Japanese citizens are only allowed to hold one passport, those of mixed parentage (who are referred to as haafu – ie. half-Japanese, half-foreign) are allowed to hold two until they reach twenty years of age. At that point they are supposed to choose which passport they want to keep, although some who retain their Japanese passport secretly renew the other at a later date. By the same token, some parents don’t bother registering their haafu baby with the relevant foreign embassy in the first place, effectively choosing Japanese nationality straight away.
Partly because so many foreigners went back to their home countries after the earthquake, immigration laws – or at least the way in which they are implemented – have been relaxed a little of late, so I have a feeling the one-passport-only rule may have been dispensed with by the time M Jr reaches her twentieth birthday. In any case, at some point in the next few months, Mrs M and I will apply to the Consulate-General in Hong Kong for M Jr’s British passport, which will cost about a hundred quid including postage, and last her for the next five years (by which time she will of course look utterly different from the photograph of Winston Churchill contained therein).
As I was passing through the outskirts of Numata City, Mrs M called to ask if I wanted her to come and pick me up.'I've
got to work tomorrow,' she said, 'but I could drive to Nikko today and we could put your bicycle in the back of the car.'I have to say that for a moment or two I was tempted by the offer, but male pride can be a powerful thing. If I accepted, I would officially have failed in my mission
to get to Sado and back by pedal power, something I would probably have to lie about if anyone asked me how my summer holidays had gone. So I told Mrs M not to worry, crossed my fingers and carried on towards the Shiisaka Pass as planned.About halfway there, a truck driver honked his horn, waved and smiled a cheery 'Hello!' in a manner that seemed to say, 'What the bloody hell are you doing trying to ride a bicycle up this hill, you fool!' and as if to emphasise his point, the next car to pass by was a hearse. I made it to the top unscathed, though, and
after a quick freewheel into the Katashina River valley, it was time for today's main event, namely the forty-kilometre trek to the Konsei Pass.
The lower slopes were comparatively gentle, and on the way I met Ishii-san, the first proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip. A university student, Ishii-san was wending his way back from Hokkaido (where during the summer holidays you will encounter a touring cyclist approximately once every five minutes) to Nagoya, and nojuku-ing along the way.
'To be honest,' I said, 'I'm still a bit wary of nojuku.''I was too at first, but you get used to it after a week or two.
''Did you come over the Konsei Pass from Nikko?''No, but I'm heading for this place.' Leafing through his copy of the Kanto Mapple, Ishii-san pointed out the
Shibu Pass in Nagano Prefecture, which at 2172 metres is the highest in the country. His bicycle appeared to be a good deal heavier than mine, laden as it was with panniers on both the front and back wheels, and - among other things - a full-size non-stick saucepan with a Pyrex lid, so if he could make it to 2172 metres, there was no excuse for me fail at 1880.
As well as its official title of 'Japan Romantic Road', Route 120 is known colloquially as 'Tohmorokoshi (Corn On The Cob) Road', so that was what I had for elevensies, at one of the many roadside stalls in Katashina Village.'Come in, sit down, take a break!' said a friendly old woman in a patterned pinny and headscarf, before handing me some tohmorokoshi that almost surpassed the aburag
é I had in Tochio as the most delicious food of the trip.
When I was a child, my mum used to boil corn on the cob for about half an hour and smother it in butter, salt and pepper, whereas this, the stallholder told me, had been barbecued for just three minutes. It was soft, sweet and didn't need anything to accompany it, although she still insisted on including green tea, pickled cucumber and fresh tomatoes in the 300-yen asking price.
From there onwards, Corn On The Cob Road became steeper and steeper, and just to make things that little bit more agonising, a succession of road signs counted down the distance to the pass in 250-metre increments. Depending on how you translate it, the expression hiza ga warau
(膝が笑う) means 'knees are smiling' or 'knees are laughing', and describes the physical sensation of hiking up a mountain. But it can just as easily be applied to cycling up one, and my knees were laughing so much that by about lunchtime it felt as if they had watched the complete works of the Marx Brothers back-to-back.
I stopped for an extended break at the Marunuma Kogen ski resort, where d
espite the lack of snow, the lifts were still running and skiers and snowboarders were making use of a stretch of all-weather astro-turf. At the entrance to the resort there was a cast-iron hand pump dispensing natural spring water, and as I was filling my water bottle, a family got out of their car and waited in line behind me. When I turned round, the grandfather broke out into a smile, pointed and exclaimed, 'Steve McQueen!''Pardon?' I said.'Steve McQueen! What was that film again? Ah yes, Die Hard!''Die Hard?''Yes, Die Hard!
No, no,' I corrected him. ' Steve McQueen was in The Great Escape. You must be thinking of Bruce Willis.'As a white man with a receding hairline, I am often likened to Bruce Willis (who is currently starring in this commercial for Daihatsu)
, even though a receding hairline is pretty much the only feature we have in common.'Bruce Willis?' The grandfather looked confused, and after turning the thought over in his mind for a moment or two, he smiled and pointed at me again.'Steve McQueen!'
Just as I was about to leave around an hour later, another potential Steve McQueen lookalike (and the second proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip) coasted into the car park.
Originally from Canada, J worked for an oil company in Egypt, and while this was his first visit to Japan, he had already taken advantage of his month-on-month-off shift pattern to visit most of the rest of Asia. As well as a Mapple, he carried an iPhone and a solar-powered GPS, and while his bicycle was, like mine, a kind of half-mountain / half-road hybrid, the seat looked as if it had been stolen from one of those old fashioned delivery bikes with a wicker shopping basket on the front.'I had some problems with saddle sore and I've tried several different seats
,' J explained, 'but if you ask anyone in the know, they always say to get a leather one. It was expensive but it really does work.' The break had restored my knees to something like their more sombre selves, and I made it to the pass just before three o'clock, where a
t the other end of a short tunnel there was a sign telling me I had entered Tochigi, my fifth prefecture of the trip. It was decidedly cool at this altitude, and as I changed into my waterproofs ready for the descent, one or two hikers were emerging from the mist, presumably on their way back from climbing Mount Shirané, whose summit was another seven hundred metres above us.
As well as mountains, marshland and dense, natural forests, the Nikko National Park encompasses a succession of rivers, rapids, lakes and waterfalls, the final one being the 97-metre Kegon waterfall.
From here, Nikko City itself lies at the bottom of the Irohazaka (いろは坂), two one-way roads that between them have forty-eight hairpin bends. Each curve on the Irohazaka is named after a letter from an older version of one of the Japanese alphabets - hence the name 'iroha', which means 'ABCs' - so in amongst the usual characters, you will find the now obsolete ゐ and ゑ (which are pronounced wi and wé respectively).
The Irohazaka was quite the most enjoyable downhill ride I had ever experienced - if they haven't already, the people from Top Gear really should do some filming there - and by the end of it the Rock Spring's brake blocks had worn down by another few fractions of a millimetre, its wheel rims were almost too hot to touch, and together we had clocked 56.7kph, a new fastest speed for the trip (eat that, Clarkson!).
Covering the fifty kilometres between Numata and the Konsei Pass - mostly uphill - had taken me the best part of seven hours, while the fifty kilometres or so between the pass and Nikko - mostly downhill - had taken less than three. It was almost dark when I arrived at Daiya River Park
, which as well as a campsite has an athletics track, a bird sanctuary, a farm, a mini golf course, classrooms and a concert stage, although tonight I was practically the only person there.
'Do you get many mosquitoes?' I asked the receptionist as he was showing me to the campground.'Not really,' he said, 'although you should watch out for abu.''What are they?''They're sort of a cross between a mosquito and a bee.''And do they bite?''Oh yes, although it's not itchy like a mosquito bite.''No?''No. It's just painful.''Right. Er, thanks for warning me.'
There wasn't much light to see by in this secluded corner of the park, so I changed out of my cycling gear beneath one of the street lights that lined the footpath. Just as I was putting my shoes back on, a jogger emerged from the shadows, and while I bid her good evening in as friendly a way as I could muster, stumbling across a scruffy looking foreigner on a dark evening had probably given her the fright of her life, and she didn't say anything back.
Thank goodness she hadn't run past when I was halfway out of my shorts, or I could have ended up spending the night in a police cell instead of the Snow Peak.
One thing I never got round to doing before I confessed to Mrs Muzuhashi that I’d be OK with the idea of moving to Japan, was to make a For and Against list of, er, Pros and Cons. Given my penchant for lists of all kinds (apart, that is, from those Saturday night TV epics along the lines of ‘The Fifty Greatest Car Chase Film Bloopers Starring Chevy Chase and Chris Tucker of All Time’), I may still get around to compiling this at some point, but for the moment, and while the memory of recent experience is still fresh in my mind, I’d like to pontificate on one particular Con, namely the flight – either to Japan from the UK, or vice versa.
Remember when you were a kid and being bored was the most easily replicable mental state in your entire repertoire? Remember how boredom could be almost physically painful? Remember double maths? Rainy Sunday afternoons? School trips to museums? Homework assignments? Shopping with parents and / or other relatives? Remember how boring those things were? Well, those of you who are already familiar with the joys of long-haul flights can skip the next paragraph or so, but for those of you who are not, trust me, being stuck on a plane for anything between ten and approximately fourteen hours is the equivalent of that excruciating childhood boredom multiplied to the power of a very large digit indeed, one that would contain so many noughts as to not fit on the screen of a calculator.
On the face of it, long haul shouldn’t be so bad. After all, what is there to worry about? So long as you’re not afraid of flying (which on reflection certainly wouldn’t make the flight boring, just very frightening for a sustained period of time), all you’ve got to do is settle down with a good book or two, a good magazine or two, a good film or two, and the hours will just fly by (so to speak). Right? Wrong. OK, so aeroplane entertainment systems are a good deal more sophisticated than they used to be (I’ll never forget flying with Aeroflot a few years ago, when the in-flight film was at least thirty years old: a kind of children’s fantasy in the vein of The Wizard of Oz, projected onto a single screen at the far end of the cabin), and on our BA flight a couple of weeks ago, we could watch recent release films, recent release films dubbed into Japanese, and various TV programmes, not to mention the now ubiquitous flight map, which I have seen some people glued to from take off to landing. We could also listen to a whole library of old and new music (see an upcoming blog entry for my reflections on the Stones’ Exile On Main Street) and play computer games. Add to that the newspapers, regular mealtimes, trips to the toilet and so on, and you might think I’d be able to stave off boredom pretty easily, but oh no.
It’s like…it’s like…how can I put it? One of the films I watched on this occasion was called Buried, and was about a guy who’s stuck in a coffin somewhere beneath the ground in Iraq. He spends the whole film there, with only a mobile phone and a cigarette lighter for company – it’s a pretty good film, get it out on DVD if you have the chance – and it made me think while I was watching it just how much being on a long-haul flight is like being buried alive in a coffin with only one’s wife and a digital entertainment system for company (although not necessarily in Iraq).
The first hour of the flight passes quickly, because you’re a bit nervous about the possibility of the plane exploding into a ball of fire and twisted metal during take off. In our case, this tension was exacerbated by the fact that the wings were frozen, and we had to wait for a guy to come and spray them with anti-freeze before we could join the queue for the runway (as the plane took off, you could see a green liquid the colour of Swarfega speading across the wings in the on-rushing, sub-zero, foggy air), but anyway, it still passed quickly, and I had leafed my way through the Guardian by the time we were in the air (I saved the crossword for later, and had yet another crossword for even later than that, saved from a couple of days beforehand).
The second hour also passes quickly, because you are either anticipating drinks, drinking drinks, eating nibbles, anticipating your meal, eating your meal (full marks to BA here, as there were more veggie options to choose from than meat ones, and I hadn’t even put in a request beforehand), digesting your meal, or going for your post-meal trip to the toilet.
The third hour is a breeze. There are so many menus, sub-menus and general bits and bobs to tinker with on the entertainment system that by the end of it, you’ve successfully managed to delay the moment when you watch your first film by…well, by an hour.
So, hours four and five are mostly taken up with said film – interspersed with perhaps another toilet trip and another drink or two – and you haven’t even bothered to check the time yet. Checking the time for the first time (if you’ll pardon the rather inept phraseology) is the key moment in any flight, and the longer you can put this off, the better. When you’ve got twelve hours or so to endure, I find the clock watching begins before the halfway point, which is a very cruel self-inflicted blow. Only five and a half hours gone, you realize, as you check the flight map and see that you’re still Somewhere Over Siberia – a state that you will continue be in for about two thirds of your time in the air, Siberia being such an inordinately big place to fly over – pausing only to have your mind boggled by the thought that the plane (a 747 in this case) is traveling at over one thousand kilometres per hour, before doing a double-take when you see that the Flight Time Elapsed figure is still inexplicably lower than the Flight Time Remaining figure.
This is like hitting the wall for a marathon runner. Or rather, it’s like hitting a wall, as there will be several more during the coming six and a half hours, because taking a long-haul flight is far more demanding even than running a marathon. Like the funny / spooky zoom / track shot from Jaws, time and space seem to warp and stretch before your very eyes. The flight literally feels like it’s never going to end. The thought of spending another six and a half hours cooped up in this confined space with only the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy to watch between trips to the toilet and mealtimes induces a boredom so profound it is – to get back to our bored child simile – almost physically painful.
The irony is, even by the time the plane lands, although it will be confusingly early the next morning Japanese time, and therefore already daylight, in UK terms it will not be long past midnight. ‘Hey,’ you try to convince yourself, ‘what’s the big deal? I’ve stayed up after midnight watching crap films before, so I ought to be able to handle that once in a while, right?’ Wrong again.
I began watching the new-ish Stephen Frears film based on a Posy Simmonds graphic novel after approximately my tenth hour on board, and like Buried, it was a perfectly good film - decent actors, funny lines, nicely shot – but I almost couldn’t look at the screen I was in such agony. Every sinew of my body was screaming at me. I wanted to get up and run around the cabin screaming my head off - better still, to get up and run around the cabin with no clothes on and screaming my head off. I was trapped, I was confined, I was frustrated, I was BORED. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored (as Eddie once so memorably opined in an episode of Bottom). Mentally, I was twelve again, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, there was a homework assignment waiting to be done, and I’d already been forced to go shopping with my mum.
Quite apart from the fact that you get jet lag at the other end, that flying is very bad for the environment, and that it costs a fair old whack to buy a return ticket to Japan these days, long-haul flights are just boring. Excruciatingly, agonizingly, tormentingly, indefatigably boring, and there is no way round this problem. For as long as I live in Japan and bother to come back to the UK, I will have to put up with this, and I sense that it may get to the point where I begin to feel anxious about my next flight as soon as the most recent one is over, and much of the intervening year will be spent mentally bracing myself for the epic, transcendental, mind-boggling boredom of it all.