A small corner of the countryside in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture recently made the national headlines, when half a field full of green tea bushes and a large chunk of the hill on which it was perched plunged into the river eighty metres below. As I was watching the news, though, I couldn't help thinking of that scene in Crocodile Dundee, the punchline for which is 'That's a knife'. In other words, forget green tea bushes in Hamamatsu, this is what you call a proper landslide:
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.
The Okaba (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.
Ｋushiro City to Akkeshi Town (釧路市 – 厚岸町) – 56km
Mr Small Field slept for almost the same amount of time he had been drinking, and somewhat improbably claimed not to have a hangover. He drove me to the nearest internet café and looked positively sheepish as we said our goodbyes – a different man entirely from the rosy-cheeked, world-peace-promoting party animal I had met the previous day.
‘Hello,’ said a woman’s voice on the other end of the phone.
‘Is that the Akkeshi youth hostel?’
‘Yes, it is. Can I help you?’
‘I’m afraid my Japanese isn’t very good so you'll have to bear with me, but do you have any vacancies for tonight?’
‘There’s a fellow here who says his Japanese isn’t very good. He wants to know if we’ve got any vacancies for tonight,’ said the woman to an unseen colleague. ‘Yes, we do.’
‘And do you serve meals or should I bring my own food?’
‘He wants to know if we serve meals or should he bring his own food,’ she continued, in the same manner. ‘We serve dinner and breakfast.’
‘Do you mind me asking how much it costs for one night?’
‘He said he wants to know how much it costs for one night.’
And so on and so forth. Despite the three-way nature of the call I did eventually manage to secure a reservation, although the woman was doubtful that I would make it the fifty or so kilometres to Akkeshi without getting rained on.
Having left the internet café at around midday, I was in such a hurry to take advantage of a break in the weather that I fell off the bike. Nipping across the road towards a conbini, I misjudged the height of a kerbstone and was propelled onto the pavement. With plenty of witnesses driving past, the experience was more embarrassing than it was painful, although I did have to tend to a grazed knee in the conbini toilet.
(This is a sign I saw just down the road: 'Nature Beautification', it reads, while the little cartoon can is sobbing, 'Don't throw me away~'.)
True to form the heavens opened just as I reached the highest point of the day’s ride, and with no shelter to speak of, I was soon soaked to the skin for the second time in three days. Or rather, my feet were: my waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers had lived up to their labels, while my supposedly waterproof shoes had not.
When I finally squelched into the hostel, it became clear that prefixing it with the word 'youth' was something of a misnomer. Wearing a pinny, wrinkled stockings and sandals, the woman who had answered my call was at least in her seventies, and the man to whom she had presumably relayed my side of our telephone conversation seemed even older, speaking with a rumbling, throaty growl that made it sound as if he had a tracheotomy (later on while dinner was being served, a whole gang of OAPs could be heard nattering away to each other in the kitchen).
'Did you go up the hill and onto the cape?' asked the woman. 'The last foreign guy who stayed here did.'
'I nearly did, yes - I had to ask three different people for directions before I found my way here. By the way, have you got some, er...'
'To dry your shoes with.'
'Yes, to dry my shoes with!'
As I was about to pop to the shops on an emergency Choco Pie run later in the evening, she intercepted me at the front door.
'What time do you want to have breakfast?' she asked.
'You mean I can choose?'
'Will 8am be OK?'
'No, no. The cleaners will be in by then.'
'Hmm. That's probably a bit too late. How about seven?'
'Er, yes. Perhaps seven would be better.'
'That's settled, then,' she said. 'How old are you, anyway?'
'When you're my age, even a thirty-seven-year old looks like a school kid. Doesn't it get lonely sleeping in a tent all by yourself?'
'It is a bit scary sometimes, I suppose.'
My tatami-mat room at the hostel wasn't lonely or scary, but the pillow did, it has to be said, look and feel very much like a bag of gravel. Perhaps this would have some kind of therapeutic effect by massaging my pressure points as I slept. Either that or I would wake up the next morning with gravel marks all over one side of my face.
Churui to Chokubetsu (忠類町 – 直別) – 76km
Come the morning the campsite was positively buzzing: I met a pensioner who had come from Tokyo to escape the heat and play what is known as ‘park golf’ (‘You only need one club,’ he said. ‘What, you mean you don’t even use a putter?’ ‘Nope!’), a cyclist from Western Hokkaido who was practicing for a three-month tour of France the following year, and Mr Bell Tree, who like me had travelled from Ibaraki.
Mr Bell Tree was riding a Honda Cub, which are those little scooters often used by aspiring London cabbies as they swot up on The Knowledge. He was heading to the Shirétoko Peninsula to start a summer job at a tarako (鱈子 / cod roe) processing plant, and had spent the previous winter in India studying percussion. As we were sitting on his picnic blanket, yet more campers came over and asked if we wanted some breakfast. Mr Bell Tree got a rice ball, while I was given what looked to be a whole box of Choco Flakes doused in a full pint of milk.
As I was packing to leave, a mother introduced me to her bashful toddler, who hid behind her legs and covered his face with his hands. ‘Say bye-bye,’ she said, as he tried to run away altogether. ‘Look, this nice gentleman has come all the way from England,' she continued, lifting him up by his hand until his feet were off the floor. ‘It would be rude not to!’
You may or may not have been wondering – well, you probably haven’t been wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway – what the average touring cyclist does when he or she needs to answer the call, as it were, of the wild. Obviously when one is cycling through the countryside public conveniences can be few and far between, so one tends to utilise the natural filtering qualities of grass verges to re-process one’s, er, number ones. There is, though, as I have discovered, a London bus-like rule, which dictates that even if you haven’t seen a single vehicle for hours on end, the very second you start to pee, two or three of them will pass by at once, forcing you to either finish hastily or stagger off into the bushes in mid-stream. Conversely, this rule ought to come in handy should your car happen to break down in the middle of nowhere: ie. if you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out waiting to be rescued, you may be there for quite a while, whereas if you unzip your fly and commence your ablutions, assistance should arrive within a matter of seconds.
When it comes to calls of nature on, so to speak, a larger scale, you might think that waiting until you find a public loo will solve the problem, but in Japan many toilets are still of the squat variety. Using one correctly (a friend of mine confessed that on his first encounter with a squat toilet, he took off his trousers and underpants, stood above it with his legs as wide apart as possible, aimed and hoped for the best) isn’t a problem, but using one while maintaining the full use of one’s lower body certainly is. Particularly because they tend to sit on the floor to eat, watch TV and so on, the Japanese have more flexible lower limbs than the rest of us, but to a chair dweller such as myself, remaining in a squatting position for ten or fifteen minutes at a time can trigger early onset arthritis, a process that is exacerbated should one’s knees already be in a fragile state from long-distance cycling. Today I spent ten or fifteen minutes in a supermarket restroom in the town of Urahoro, and emerged practically crawling along the floor, with all feeling gone from below the waist.
As the day wore on so the rain became heavier, and rather than camp, I decided to spend my first ever night in a rider house. While you will find rider houses elsewhere in Japan (I can recommend this one in Nara Prefecture, for example), they are essentially a Hokkaido invention, and act as cheap and cheerful (sometimes even free and cheerful) accommodation for bikers and cyclists. Almost all have dormitories instead of private rooms, many are run as a sideline by shopkeepers, farmers and so on, and some are in public buildings which have fallen out of use or are empty during the summer months.
Admittedly the weather didn’t help, but the word ‘godforsaken’ seemed inadequate to describe the village of Chokubetsu, which was little more than a muddy car park next to an apparently abandoned railway station, and much less amusing than its name – worthy of inclusion in Roger’s Profanisaurus - suggested. Chokubetsu was supposedly blessed with not one but two rider houses, the first of which appeared to be out of business and completely run down, while the second appeared to be out of business and comparatively run down. As a mangy dog sniffed at my legs, it took several minutes before I noticed a menu and price list in the window of the marginally less dilapidated of the two buildings, with the rider house itself hidden away across the overgrown back yard and through an unmarked side door.
Having checked in, though, I was able to use a washing machine and tumble dryer, clean my water bottles for the first time, hang my tent up to dry, shave and have a bath (the place was run by an old lady who everyone referred to as okah-san – お母さん / mum – and getting to the bathroom involved walking through her kitchen and lounge).
One of the other guests, Mr Middle Field, was in Hokkaido for his twelfth summer in a row, although rather than a motorbike, this year he was travelling by car with his wife and baby daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the couple had met while touring in Hokkaido, and through his job in the oil industry, Mr Middle Field had travelled widely elsewhere: he had recently been to Kuwait and Bahrain, he said, where the temperature was fifty degrees centigrade.
Coincidentally, on the TV news the talk was of rising fuel and food prices, although despite the impending recession (this was summer 2008, remember), my room-mate - a Mr Inner Field, and not to be confused with Mr Middle Field - had just quit his job in Wakayama Prefecture. We both had trip computers on our bicycles, and Mr Inner Field said that his top speed so far was a dizzying 54kmh – six kmh faster than the 48 I had achieved on a downhill stretch earlier that day. In a car you would barely be out of third gear at 48kmh, but on a bicycle it feels as if you’re inserting your head into the very jaws of death itself.
Okah-san’s restaurant specialised in lamb barbecued with vegetables on an unusual, convex grill, a dish that for largely obscure reasons is known as Genghis Khan. Because Genghis Khan is barbecued at your table, and because several of the guests were smokers (a couple of leather-clad Harley enthusiasts turned up later in the evening to further cloud the air), it was like eating dinner in a fire drill evacuation practice tent, and not exactly the best environment for Mr Middle Field’s daughter.
Upon discovering that I didn’t eat meat, okah-san laid on a special set meal, although bless her, she seemed a lot more at home cooking for carnivores, and the salmon was little more than a lump of charcoal by the time it reached the table.
The weather forecast was for more rain, but much as I liked the people, I couldn’t see myself spending another day in Chokubetsu. The railway station, as it turned out, was functioning, but while the express trains sped through without stopping, the local ones were so infrequent that it wouldn’t even be possible to take a day trip to nearby Kushiro, so I decided to head off the next morning no matter what.
Niikappu Town to Erimo Town (新冠町 – えりも町) – 117km
The Airstream parked outside Mitsu-ishi roadside services was hard to ignore, not least because it was being towed by a Hummer.
‘It’s so big we couldn’t get through the gate to the campsite,’ explained the owners, who had driven all the way from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, ‘so we had to stay in the car park instead.’
The couple were taking a two-month trip around Hokkaido for the second summer in a row, and as well as a couple of generators strapped to the front of the Hummer, they had brought their dogs along for the ride.
Although less well known than nori (海苔 / paper-thin sheets of crispy, dark-green nori are used as wrapping for the rice and fish of rolled sushi), konbu (昆布) is probably the most palatable variety of seaweed for the uninitiated westerner, and is often served with soy sauce and sesame seeds as a rather moreish side dish called konbu-no-tsukudani (昆布の佃煮).
Just over a century ago, as Tokyo University professor Kikunaé Ikeda was eating dinner one evening, he wondered why it was that his mother’s homemade soup had always tasted so delicious. The next day he began a scientific analysis of the konbu it contained, and in the process discovered aji-no-moto (味の素 / the origin of flavour), better known in the West as monosodium glutamate, or flavour enhancer, or E621. A hugely successful business was built around Ikeda’s discovery, and by the name umami, it has been added to the very short list of fundamental flavours recognisable to the human palate (the other four being sour, sweet, salt and bitter).
95% of Japanese konbu comes from Hokkaido, and along this stretch of coastline in particular, the harvest was in full swing.
Having picked the long, black strands of konbu from the sea – they either use small boats or wade into the shallows at low tide – the locals were laying it out to dry on specially constructed pebble beds.
Because I was making good time, rather than cut inland I carried on along the coast to Cape Erimo (襟裳岬 / literally ‘collar-skirt cape’), which is the south-easternmost point in Hokkaido. Both my Mapple road atlas and several signs along the way had warned of high winds (on average, wind speeds at Cape Erimo exceed 10 metres per second - about 35kph - on 290 days each year) and fog, and and sure enough, when I arrived there the visibility was so poor that I might as well have been indoors.
Mr Assistant Wisteria didn't bother stopping to take photos, he just held up his camera phone and clicked the shutter in mid-stride, and had the air of someone who was there to tick Cape Erimo off his list. Skinny with quiffed hair and sunglasses, he looked like a typical travelling salesman - what my mother used to refer to as a 'spiv' - although having asked him to take my photo next to the sign for the Cape, he turned out to be polite, well-spoken and not a dodgy geezer in the slightest.
'I used to work for a printer company,' he said, 'but I packed it in to start my own business. I buy used cars and customise them for disabled people and OAPs, so I'm down here looking for bargains. There's nothing much around, though - the price of steel is so high that people are scrapping their cars instead of selling them secondhand.'
Mr Assistant Wisteria gave me his business card and offered to give the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design a service if I made it to Sapporo, which was nice to know, as making friends in a big city can be a lot more difficult than it is, for example, on a foggy clifftop in the middle of nowhere.
It was almost dark by the time I reached Hyaku-nin-hama (百人浜 / hundred-man beach), so called because back in the days when there was no coast road, and quite possibly not a single living soul within a hundred-mile radius, a ship ran aground here and every single member of its hundred-man crew either drowned or died from starvation. Nowadays Hyaku-nin-hama has electricity, running water and even a sento (銭湯 / public baths), and just as I was leaving the latter, the woman behind the reception desk called over to me.
'Older brother!' she said. 'Older brother! Mr Village Middle wants to have a word with you.' (Not that I had quite worked it out at the time, but instead of saying, 'Hey you!' or 'Oi, mate!' the Japanese will often refer to strangers as if they are family members, so women become 'Older sister!' older men 'Dad!' and older women 'Mum!')
'Can you speak Japanese?' said Mr Village Middle.
'Yes, I can.'
‘What are you doing now?’
'I'm going to the campsite.'
‘You mean you're putting up your tent in dark?’
'Well, yes. I suppose so.'
'Not any more, you're not,' said Mr Village Middle. 'You’re staying at my place.’
'He uses some appalling language,' said the woman from the sento. 'But don't worry, he's a nice bloke really.'
'I can only fit two in the front so you'll have to sit with your bike,' said Mr Village Middle, as a friend of his helped lift it onto the flatbed of their truck.
'Er, OK. You will drive lately, won't you?'
'You mean slowly?'
'Yes, I mean slowly.'
'Don't worry, you'll be fine!'
Mr Village Middle drove north for a few kilometres - not particularly slowly, or even lately, it has to be said - and I could hear their muffled chatter as I gripped the side of the truck and watched the red glow of the tail lights on the road behind us. By the time we arrived at Mr Village Middle's house I was ravenously hungry, although I didn't want to come straight out and beg for food, so patiently sipped on a watered-down glass of shochu as we watched a boxing match on TV.
'That's Daisuké Naitoh,' said Mr Village Middle. 'He's from Hokkaido, you know. He used to get bullied when he was at school, but now he's world champion.'
If Mr Village Middle was a boxer he would have been a heavyweight: he was tall and well-built with craggy features and a mop of jet-black hair, although I couldn't help noticing that part of the little finger on his left hand was missing.
Cutting one's little finger off is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza (more commonly referred to as boh-ryokudan / 暴力団 - literally 'violence group'), and during the course of the evening, Mr Village Middle mentioned that in his younger days he had travelled the world on a tuna fishing trawler. Because this a) involves being away from home for months at a time, and b) is extremely dangerous, it is often used in a 'get on the boat or else' kind of way, as punishment for members of the yakuza who disobey the rules, or for ordinary folk who fail to keep up with their loan repayments or pay their protection money. Not that I fancied asking him about it, but as far as I could tell Mr Village Middle's shady past was just that, as nowadays he farmed konbu with his family in the summer and worked as a truck driver during the winter.
Mr Village Middle's house was very much that of a single man: I spotted at least one cockroach on the floor, the living room was used as a kind of storage area for old furniture and work clothes, most of the pictures on the wall were old and faded, the TV had a permanent purple-y green blob in the corner of the screen, and everything was slightly sticky and tobacco-stained. When it finally arrived (as I suspected, we had been waiting for the rice cooker to finish its cycle), our evening meal wouldn't have looked out of place in a student halls of residence, and along with rice I was given instant ramen, fried meat (it was so tough that I couldn't tell exactly what kind of meat, and now didn't seem to be the time or the place to mention that I was a pescetarian), and pickled vegetables, which Mr Village Middle's friend had made himself.
It was pretty hard work trying to follow what the two of them were on about, as they used only the crudest form of Japanese possible, something that wasn't so much bad language as basic language. For example, if you happen to be talking to someone of a higher status than yourself, you might say something like:
Nanika o omeshi-agari-masen ka? ('May I humbly entreat you to partake of something to eat?')
Or if you wanted to be reasonably polite without going over the top, you could say:
Nanika o tabenai deska? ('Would you like something to eat?')
If you were with friends or family, you could be more familiar:
Nanika, taberu? ('Fancy a bite to eat?')
Mr Village Middle and his pal, however, talked more like this:
Meshi, kuu? ('You gonna scoff some grub?')
In fact, I didn't even catch on when Mr Village Middle's friend said that he was off home, which left me on my own, in an isolated house, in the middle of the night, with only a supposedly ex-gangster for company. And at least one cockroach.
On reflection, perhaps it would have been a better idea to put my tent up in the dark.
Every now and then I come down with a bout of homesickness, and my most recent episode was brought on by the research I had been doing for a lecture about the photographer James Ravilious.
Ravilious was born in Eastbourne in 1939, and both of his parents were artists: his mother Tirzah Garwood was a wood engraver, and his father Eric was famous for his watercolours of the South Downs.
Having ditched his original plan of becoming an accountant, Ravilious studied at St Martin's before working as an art teacher at Hammersmith College. He married Robin Whilstler - daughter of the renowned glass engraver Laurence Whistler - in 1970, and the couple moved to the village of Dolton in North Devon.
Ravilious got a job teaching printmaking at nearby Beaford Arts Centre, and was commissioned by its curator John Lane to create an archive of life in this comparatively unchanged corner of the English countryside. By the time of Ravilious's death in 1999, the Beaford Archive contained around 80,000 of his photographs.
I first came across Ravilious's photographs in 2009, at a modest exhibition in the foyer of the National Theatre, and was struck not just by their beauty and their humanity, but by a wave of nostalgia for my own childhood: my parents moved to North Devon at around the same time as Ravilious, and I spent the first few years of my life in a small village not far from Dolton and Beaford - this particular photograph depicts the same maternity ward on which I was born.
Obviously Ravilious's work reminds me of the Devon countryside of my youth - of the narrow lanes with grass down the middle, the flocks of sheep in the road, the high hedgerows, the rolling hills, the blackberry picking and the muck spreading - but another thing that makes it so special is that Ravilious got to know his subjects over long periods of time, something that allowed him to capture for posterity the minutiae of their everyday lives.
One particular character - the farmer Archie Parkhouse - crops up again and again, most notably in what is perhaps Ravilious's best known photograph...
...but also in many others, in which we see Parkhouse both at work...
...and at home.
Ravilious's technique was deceptively simple: he shot in black and white, and more often than not from head height. His preferred camera was a pre-war Leica M3...
...which he used in conjunction with a 35mm (ie. comparatively wide-angle) Leitz Elmar lens.
Modern lenses have a coating that makes for sharper photographs and prevents lens flare (or 'Lionel Blair', as it is still referred to in Cockney rhyming slang by film and TV cameramen), whereas older lenses - including the Elmar - are uncoated.
The irony is that Ravilious had a fondness for shooting into the sun, so while his Leica equipment produced images that are soft, low in contrast and have a wonderful painterly quality, in order to reduce flare, he had to attach a handmade lens hood to the camera. This looked a bit like the inside of a toilet roll painted black, and is described by his wife Robin in the documentary James Ravilious: A World In Photographs (which as far as I know is occasionally repeated on Sky Arts, and can be purchased on DVD via the producers Banyak Films).
Ravilious experimented with various developing techniques to achieve the look he was after, and while I don't profess to understand these particularly well, as explained in this blog, he used 'film rated at 400asa, exposed at 200asa and under-developed in order to allow the shadow tones to become a little more lifted in the image'.
These days, such tinkering would be done in Photoshop rather than in the dark room, although it is probably fair to say that Ravilious's photographs - reproduced here, I have to confess, entirely without permission - are as good an argument as you will find for the superiority of film over digital photography, or at least for film as a fundamentally different medium.
I gave my lecture on Ravilious to a small audience of English-speaking locals last Saturday evening, and at the end, one of them made a very interesting point: if Ravilious's brief was to produce an archival - and therefore documentary - record of life in Devon, why did he work in black and white, and why did he put so much effort into making his photographs look beautiful?
All I can say in answer to this question is thank goodness he did, and thank goodness Lane gave him such a free rein, while at the same time paying Ravilious enough money to hone his craft over such a long period of time.
A footnote: Ravilious did in fact take some colour photographs, although I could only find one online.
And as Ravilious is quoted as saying by one of the contributors to A World In Photographs, the Devon landscape is so lush and verdant that conversely, photographing it in black and white somehow works better.
The official James Ravilious website can be found here, and you can see many more of his photographs at the Beaford Archive website, while an original will set you back between three and four hundred pounds.
The most notable book about Ravilious is called An English Eye, and much of the information for this blog post was culled from this excellent Guardian obituary.
Tomakomai Cycling Terminal to Niikappu Town (苫小牧サイクリングターミナル – 新冠町) – 103km
Mr That Swamp was already hard at work when I turned up at his restaurant first thing in the morning.
‘I opened this place last year,’ he said. ‘But I’ve got another restaurant that I ran for thirty years before that – it’s been featured in newspapers and magazines, and I was on TV a couple of times. In actual fact, I first learned how to make soba from a video.'
There was a small, tidy kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where Mr That Swamp mixed buckwheat flour, wheat flour and water in a stainless-steel bowl.
‘It’s not as humid today so the dough’s a bit dry,’ he said, ‘which makes it harder to work with.’
After several minutes of kneading, he rolled out the dough with two long, thin rolling pins, and in the process turned an initially pizza-like disc into a square.
He folded this over several times and began cutting the dough into thin, noodle-sized strips.
‘There are enough noodles in each batch for about ten portions, and I make three batches a day. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually use this gizmo to do the cutting instead of a proper soba knife.’
Sadly Mr That Swamp wouldn't be cooking the soba until lunchtime, so I left in search of breakfast, heading east and away from Tomakomai’s American-style grid of city blocks.
Out in the countryside the roads were lined with retractable wind-breaks like big Venetian blinds, presumably to prevent snow from drifting during the winter months. Wild deer flashed their fluffy white backsides as they scampered off into the woods, and I passed this sign promoting the Atsuma Town Strawberry Association.
Just as I was getting the urge for my Englishman’s afternoon tea, a row of fluttering flags appeared advertising a café called Chaka Ippu (Eccentric Tea & Cake), which was in a homely little one-storey cabin with a pretty, well-tended garden.
'I lived in Tokyo for nine years,' said the waitress, Mrs Forest Field, 'and studied aroma and rifuré.'
‘Aroma? You mean you studied smells?’
‘No, no! Aroma is short for aromatherapy, and rifuré is short for reflexology. I taught people how to make afternoon tea as well. Then I moved back to Hokkaido to get married and help in the café. This is my mum.’ Mrs Forest Field’s mother appeared from the kitchen to say hello. ‘And my older sister bakes the cakes.’
I felt obliged to order the most British thing on the menu, and asked for a pot of Earl Grey, thinking as I did so how much less popular Earl Grey would be if it didn’t have such a heritage-friendly name: ‘Dave Smith’, for example, or ‘Billy Nugget’ would never have caught on.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ said Mrs Forest Field, ‘but is it true that everyone carries a gun in England?’ By way of illustration she brandished an imaginary automatic, cop-show style.
‘Ah, you must be thinking of America.'
‘We don't have many guns in Japan,' she said, 'but there’s a lot more crime than there used to be.'
Particularly around here, though, I couldn’t imagine there was so much as a cat stuck up a tree for the police to deal with, whether or not they carried automatics (the police that is, not the cats).
That night I was one of only two customers at a hilltop campsite in Niikappu Town, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of cars passing on the coast road below: as well as wind-breaks, another safety measure in Hokkaido involves scoring grooves in the tarmac for extra grip, which made it sound as if everyone had left their snow tyres on for the summer.
Before embarking on my cycling-tour-stroke-endurance-test to Sado Island last summer, I decided to build up my stamina with a spot of hiking. On a typically sweltering August afternoon, I parked the car at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / roadside services), took a precautionary photo of the route - as displayed on a nearby information board - and headed west along a narrow valley road. The footpath I wanted was so well hidden that I walked straight past it the first time, and having doubled back, found it to be overgrown and strewn with fallen branches. Fortunately, a local hiking group had been considerate enough to tie lengths of day-glo pink ribbon to trees along the way, so the main obstacle to my progress was the enormous number of spider's webs, seemingly all of them at head height. To be honest, apart from swatting away at these with a makeshift walking stick, there wasn't much to keep me distracted, and in well over an hour of yomping the only thing I found worthy of a photograph was this mushroom - quite an impressive mushroom, it has to be said, but a mushroom nonetheless.
I passed the highest point on the trail - the 275-metre peak of Mount Shirazawa-fuji - almost without realising, and soon arrived at the Shirayama Jinja (白山神社 / White Mountain Shrine), which was as shrouded in foliage as everything else in the vicinity.
While its surrounding stone walls - well, they were more like battlements - had tumbled over in the earthquake, the shrine itself was perfectly intact: originally erected in 1515, Shirayama was burned down in a forest fire in 1862 before being rebuilt in 1880, and there appeared to be at least 132 years' worth of dust on the floors and furniture inside.
The front steps were the first place I had found that offered enough space to sit down, so I dug out the carton of tea and peanuts choco I had brought with me and took a break. And that would have been it, had I not discovered another, much smaller shrine a few hundred metres further along the trail, tucked away in the mossy recesses of a rocky outcrop.
Konsei-shin (金精神) is a Shinto god of fertility, safe childbirth and happy marriage, and making an offering at a konsei-jinja (金精神社 / konsei shrine) reputedly works as a miracle cure for STDs (thank you, Wikepedia Japan). The kon of konsei means 'gold' or 'shining', and the sei means, among other things, 'sperm' or 'sexual stamina'. So in the same way that the kintama are one's 'golden balls', the konsei are, so to speak, one's 'golden tadpoles'. Not that you need to know any of this to identify a konsei shrine, as its centrepiece is normally a large phallus - or phalli - made of wood (no laughing at the back there, please), stone or metal.
This tiny shrine had three of them, and while I hadn't thrown any money into the collection box at Shirayama, I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss, and tossed a hundred-yen coin into the cave-like cubby hole before saying a prayer.
At the time, Mrs M and I were just about to embark on our first attempt at IUI, and whether or not this unplanned pilgrimage helped things along, I don't know. Still, the coincidence had a karmic feel to it, and as if to emphasise my good fortune, not long before rejoining the main road to the michi-no-eki, I was finally rewarded with a view.
As a footnote to this story, a couple of weeks later I came within a few hundred metres of a much more renowned konsei shrine, which is apparently a short walk from the Konsei Pass between Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures. While I didn't realise this at the time, the road from the pass did take me through the Konsei Tunnel - or if you prefer, the Golden Tadpole Tunnel - an act that for its sheer Freudian symbolism must surely have done Mrs M and I some favours.
Even after leaving Nikko I was still going downhill, and the road to Utsunomiya was an unexpected treat. Route 119 is known as Nikko Suginamiki (日光杉並木 / Nikko Cedar Avenue), and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest tree-lined thoroughfare in the world. Way back in 1625, a local bigwig called Masatsuna Matsudaira began planting cedar here, and there are now more than 12,000 over the course of thirty-five kilometres.
The only downside to its 400-year heritage is that Route 119 is no wider than it was in the early 1600s, and with no pavement and a steady stream of rush-hour traffic, I had to be careful not get barged off the road and straight into the trunk of the nearest cedar.
As I was pondering the best way to get to the other side of Utsunomiya, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and tracksuit ambled up and asked me where I was going.
'Ibaraki,' I said.
'Ibaraki? You should take the bypass, then.' He pointed towards a busy dual carriageway that appeared to be a lot more dangerous than Cedar Avenue, and as he spoke there was a whiff of cheap shochu in the air - either he was on his way home from a big night out, or he had started drinking very early in the day (it was about 8am).
'I'm not sure. I might head towards the city centre instead.'
'Oh well, suit yourself,' he said, before ambling off again in a not entirely straight line.
I made it back to our apartment just as Mrs M was about to leave for work at one o'clock, and waiting for me in the fridge was one of two homemade fruit cakes I had posted to the in-laws from a gift shop in Sawata. I cut a generous slice for myself, made an extra-strong, extra-large mug of tea, and sat down with the Rock Spring's Cat Eye trip computer to collate my stats:
Total distance: 847km
Average distance per day (not including the two rest days on Sado): 90km
Shortest distance in a day: 55km (Mikawa to Sawata)
Longest distance in a day: 116km (Sanjoh to Shiozawa)
Top speed: 56kmh
Average speed: 14kmh
Quite frankly, Sado Island was further away than I had envisaged, and this, along with the enforced detour through Nikko, had turned the trip into something of an epic. The next day, Otoh-san described me as looking gessori, which means 'gaunt' or 'disheartened', and implies that one's face has taken on the appearance of geso (squid tentacles), although bizarrely, I had actually managed to put on weight since 21st August. This could have been an improvement in my body's muscle-to-fat ratio due to strenuous physical exercise, although I get the feeling it was more to do with the large amount of stodgy convenience store food and sugary convenience store drinks I had consumed along the way...