Day 10 – Nemuro City to Betsukai (根室市 - 別海) - 100km
One of the motorcyclists from the Okaba rider house was already at Cape Nosappu (納沙布岬) when I arrived, and Mr Pine Origin turned up not long after, raving about a sanma (秋刀魚 / saury) set breakfast he had eaten along the way. Crab, too, is a local speciality, and a flotilla of crab fishing boats sailed into the bay at about ten in the morning, attracting flocks of both seagulls and sightseers.
After Cape Erimo, Cape Nosappu - the easternmost point in the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago - was the second extremity of Hokkaido on my circumnavigation, and home to a small museum with a huge stuffed sea lion in the foyer, a restaurant selling something called teppoh-jiru (鉄砲汁 / handgun soup) and Shima-no-kakéhashi (四島のかけはし), a monument symbolising the hope that Russia will one day be nice enough to give back some of the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.
Possibly my favourite Japanese kanji are 凸凹, which not only have a satisfyingly onomatopoeic pronunciation - deko-boko* - but also an attractively symmetrical shape that in turn suggests their meaning. Individually they mean 'convex' and 'concave', and in combination 'uneven' or 'up and down', so the road from Cape Nosappu to Betsukai was deko-boko, and the further up each deko I climbed, the more I had to pull my baseball cap over my eyes to keep out the sun's glare until the next boko.
(This was a half-boat / half-building hybrid I spotted along the way.)
'Oh look, it's a cyclist!' said the caretaker at the Betsukai campsite. 'Where have you come from today?'
'Er, Furano, I think.'
'Furano?' exclaimed the caretaker. 'That's quite a ride for one day.'
'A few hundred kilometres, I should think,' said one of his colleagues.
'At least I think it was Furano.' I still hadn't quite got the hang of the place names in Hokkaido, many of which were originally coined by the native Ainu. 'Actually, it could have been something ending in "ro".'
'Kushiro?' said the caretaker.
'No, I was there a few days ago.'
'Yes, that's the one!'
There was an onsen just up the road from the campsite, and I gave a start when I looked in the changing room mirror. The Okaba rider house had been so infested with mosquitoes that we left a katori-senkoh
(蚊取り線香 / mosquito coil) burning in the dormitory all night, and my eyes were as red as Oliver Reed's on the morning after a three-day bender. In between this, Mr Pine Origin's snoring, a cock crowing in the yard and a foghorn blowing at regular intervals nearby, I hadn't had the best night's sleep. It was also forty-eight hours since my last proper bath, so in order to make myself feel at least partially human again, this evening I spent approximately:
5 minutes in the shower
10 minutes in the rotenburo
(露天風呂 / outside bath)
3 minutes beneath a kind of waterfall massage thingy
2 minutes in the sauna followed by 2 minutes in the mizu-buro
(水風呂 / cold bath)
3 more minutes in the sauna followed by 3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
4 more minutes in the sauna followed by 4 more minutes in the mizu-buro
5 more minutes in the rotenburo
3 more minutes beneath the waterfall massage thingy and
3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
I sighed like the bloke from the Strongbow ad
for pretty much the entire 49 minutes, and just to make things that little bit more conducive, there was a view from the rotenburo of the Shirétoko Peninsula (知床半島), which was to be the next extremity on my circumnavigation of Hokkaido.
* Actually, 凸凹 are not always deko-boko. In more formal or literary contexts they go by the much less catchy pronunciation of totsu-oh.
Mrs M and I live in the countryside, where it is pretty much impossible to lead a normal life unless you have a car, and while I do manage to cycle to work most days, when we go out shopping, sightseeing or to visit friends and family, it is almost always in our still prized and resolutely unglamorous Toyota Platz
.The most convenient thing about driving here - if you're British, at least - is that they do so on the left-hand side of the road. This means that to obtain a Japanese driving licence, all I had to do was take an eye test and fill out some forms (similarly, Mrs M got her British driving licence in double-quick time), whereas if you hail from a country that drives on the right, you'll need
to pass a practical driving test first.
The vast majority of cars are automatics, which often leads to the kind of accidents where confused OAPs mistake the accelerator for the brake pedal
, and for someone who was born and raised on the manual gearbox, makes for a rather dull driving experience. For variety's sake I keep my left hand busy by shifting into neutral and 'coasting' to a halt at the traffic lights, but even allowing for such eco-friendly driving techniques, you can still get more miles to the gallon - or rather, kilometres to the litre - out of a manual. Speaking of which, at the time of writing a litre of unleaded costs 145 yen (about £1), and a litre of diesel (aka kei-yu
/ 経由) 125 yen. Hybrids, incidentally - the Toyota Prius is still the second-best-selling car in Japan, and recently passed worldwide sales of five million - aren't necessarily any more economical, and if you buy an all-electric car - like, say, the Nissan Leaf
- there are still precious few places to plug it in.
As for road safety, Japan is statistically similar to the UK, with 4,663 road deaths in 2011 compared to 1,901 in the UK: in other words, nearly 4 deaths per 100,000 people, or 7 deaths per 100,000 cars owned. This compares favourably with many developed countries, including the US, where you are approximately twice as likely to kick the bucket in a car crash. Within Japan itself,
while Ibaraki accounted for the eleventh highest number of road deaths by prefecture in 2012 (142), relatively speaking, and as of 2010, it was only the 27th most dangerous prefecture in which to drive, with around 50 accidents per 10,000 people. Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku was ranked as the most dangerous in both 2010 and 2011, with 112 accidents per 10,000 people, and Shimané Prefecture in western Honshu as the safest.
While seatbelts and child seats are compulsory, the latter are a recent development, and many people still neglect to strap their children in, or only resort to doing so to avoid being stopped, rather than with the more noble intention of protecting their child in the event of an accident. When M Jr was born, Mrs M's mother wondered why we didn't just hold her in our arms for the drive home, and the two-year-old daughter of a friend of Mrs M's is regularly taken to the family rice field by her grandmother: the grandmother rides a scooter, the granddaughter sits between her legs in the footwell, and neither of them wears a helmet.The speed limit on most roads is a conservative 60kph (around 40mph) and even on expressways
rises to just 100kph (around 65mph), although as in the UK, the majority of road users routinely exceed the limit by 10 or 20kph. You are, therefore, unlikely to be pulled over by the rozzers unless you're really putting your foot down.
Drink driving, on the other hand, is very much frowned upon, and while the limit in the UK is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, in Japan it is just 0.15mg. Not only that, but depending on the circumstances, the owner of the car, the passengers and whoever supplied the alcohol in the first place can all potentially be found liable should a drunk driver get into a prang. Civil servants caught drink driving automatically lose their jobs - I know of several teachers who have been sacked in and around Mito, and who will never be able to work in the school system again - and as a consequence are no longer permitted to hold staff parties on the evening before a work day. (My one brush with the Japanese police came way back in 2005, when I was stopped for failing to obey a stop sign. It was the middle of
the night on a deserted side street - or at least that was what I pleaded as an excuse - and having had a beer earlier in the evening, I could have received a lot more than just a ticking off had they decided to breathalise me.)
Similar to the UK, accumulating a certain number of points on your driving licence can cause it to be suspended or revoked, and the licences themselves come in three different flavours. New drivers get a green licence
, which is replaced after two or three years with a blue one - at this point you are required to sit through a two-hour lecture on road safety, during which the boredom is only partially relieved by a video of real-life fender-benders and near-misses. Provided you don't get into trouble within the following three years, you are then rewarded with a gold licence, which only has to be renewed once every five years, although the renewal time starts to come down again once you reach seventy years old.Perhaps more important than this in practical terms is the MOT - aka sha-ken / 車検 - which is both stricter and more expensive than in many other countries. Putting my clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra through its UK MOT often cost no more than the basic cost of the test - currently £54.85 - whereas the two-yearly sha-ken on our Platz recently set us back
100,000 yen (about £750), despite the fact that it was in perfect working order. For this reason, you will hardly ever see a clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra in Japan, and if their car needs some work, people tend to get it done properly (Mrs M couldn't believe it when I replaced a broken wing mirror on the Astra with a new one in a different colour, simply because a matching one would have been more expensive).
So Japan is, by and large, a relatively safe and relatively peaceful place to drive, although there are some habits, customs, rules and regulations that are worth bearing in mind for the foreign first-timer:
- Most drivers on a dual carriageway will opt for the right-hand lane, meaning that a lot of overtaking is done on the inside lane. The Japanese equivalent of the Highway Code says that you should keep to the left and overtake on the right, so like the speed limit, this is another case where theory and practice differ.
- When approaching an open level crossing, one is expected to stop one's car and check for trains before proceeding, and as is the case with stop signs (see above), a police car will often be lurking to catch anyone who fails to do so. For someone who has absolute faith in the reliability of Japanese technology, up to and including the automatic barriers at level crossings, this seems unnecessary, but the law was brought in to prevent accidents like the one that occurred in 2000 in Saitama Prefecture, when a car was hit by a train after a lightning strike cut the electrical supply to the barriers.
- If they overtake at all, motorcyclists and scooter-ists tend to do so on the inside, and you will often see bikers patiently waiting in line in traffic jams, which as far as I'm concerned defeats the whole object of riding a bike in the first place. But anyway, while helmets are compulsory (unless you happen to be a great-grandmother giving a lift to her great-granddaughter, that is), one or two youngsters will deliberately flout the rules for the purposes of 'looking' 'cool'. Just the other week we saw one such rebel-without-a-skid-lid being chased by a police motorcycle, and Ibaraki, it should be noted, is a magnet for boh-sohzoku
(暴走族 / motorcycle gangs), who ride their souped-up machines (actually, perhaps souped-down would be a better phrase) at maximum revs for maximum disturbance, but are almost certainly polite young lads with proper jobs who still live with their mums.-
Many minor and indeed major roads have no pavements (that's sidewalks if you're of the North American persuasion), which can render pedestrians unnecessarily vulnerable: in April 2012, a teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel and ploughed into a line of parents and children on their way to school. Two people were killed, including a pregnant mother, and their lives might have been saved had there been either a pavement or the concrete dividers - known as enseki
/ 縁石 - that are often used in place of one.
- You are expected to give way to pedestrians when turning either left or right into a side road, so if you try to nip through a gap in the oncoming traffic while turning right, you may find yourself confronted with a walking stick-wielding grandad and no choice but to wait until he finishes crossing. Conversely, Japanese motorists are addicted to what bikers refer to as the 'crafty right' - ie. turning right the very millisecond the lights change, and before anyone coming from the opposite direction has had time to react.- A much more risky addiction than the crafty right is what is known in Japanese as shingoh-mushi (信号無視 / ignoring a red light). It is not unusual for as many as three or four cars to carry on through a junction after the lights have changed, and the practice
is so prevalent that I can only assume the traffic lights here are timed to take it into account.
One final piece of good news: despite being included in the driving test, parallel parking (juu-retsu chuu-sha
/ 縦列駐車) is practically unheard of, and you will never encounter the kind of street one so often sees in the UK, with a line of parked cars on either side and barely enough room down the middle to ride a Fiat 500. Instead, the typical Japanese driver will take great pains to use an ordinary car parking space correctly: for example, I have never seen Mrs M's father park his car without going in and out of the space at least three times, until the wheels are perfectly aligned and precisely equidistant between the markings on either side.
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.
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.
Before you go on holiday in - or rather, from - Japan, your friends and relatives will typically ask you these two questions:
1) What do you want to eat in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
2) What Japanese food will do you think you'll miss when you're in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
And when you get back from your holiday, they will ask you these two questions:
1) What did you eat in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
2) What Japanese food did you miss when you were in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
Not only that, but rather than taking photos of the people you met or the places you saw while on holiday, you will instead take photos of the food you ate, and when you get back, rather than asking you about the photos you took of people and places, your friends and relatives will ask you about the photos you took of food. For example, when I showed my holiday snaps to my conversation class students last week, they were only mildly diverted by the fact that I had stayed in a house that was built five hundred years ago, or by the fact that I had driven past the Olympic Park, or by my charming five-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed niece. Instead, we had an extended discussion about Yorkshire pudding: how to cook it, what the ingredients are and what it tastes like.
So in the interests of cultural integration, there follows a detailed analysis of pretty much everything Mrs M and I consumed while we were in the UK over Christmas and the New Year, and to give you an idea of what we will miss the most between now and our next visit, I have marked those foodstuffs which are unavailable in Japan with an asterisk.
Saturday 22nd December
Breakfast: French toast, canned coffee
Location: convenience store en route to Narita Airport
Hot coffee and tea in bottles and / or cans is available from shops and vending machines all over the country, and surprisingly drinkable, particularly when you consider the fact that it may have been kept warm for weeks on end. French toast from a convenience store, on the other hand, is an insult both to the French and indeed to the very concept of toast itself. 'French sugar' would be more appropriate, or just 'Japanese stodge'.
Lunch: sour cream and chive flavour pretzels, pasta and vegetables, chicken and rice, chocolate pudding
Location: Virgin Atlantic flight VS901
Being the Saturday before Christmas, our flight was fully booked, and many of us were taking our children home for the holidays. One unlucky couple had to hold their baby in their laps for thirteen hours straight, but we were lucky enough to land bulkhead seats and what is referred to as a 'basnet', ie. a cot-type thing in which to plonk M Jr when she was sleepy, or when our arms felt like they were about to drop off from holding her in our laps. While the service was excellent, the food was disappointing (on the outward journey, that is. On the return journey it was completely inedible - see below), and only partially salvaged by the rather nifty idea of serving dessert separately from the main course, in the form of a chocolate pudding that wouldn't have looked out of place in the refrigerated section of a branch of M&S.
Dinner: vegetable chow mein, prawn toast*, rice crackers*
Location: hotel room, Kew
We were also served sandwiches, rice balls, some kind of evening meal that I can't quite remember, and Love Hearts* - yes, those sweets inscribed with romantic epithets like 'Be mine' and 'For ever'. When flying east to west, though, your day is elongated, so that when you finally arrive at your destination, despite your body clock telling you that you ought to have gone to bed, slept for several hours and got up again, you are still awake, and force down an 'evening' meal in a vain attempt at adjusting to the new time zone - in this case a Chinese takeaway with Thai prawn toast thrown in for good measure.
Sunday 23rd December
Breakfast: omelette, Weetabix*, yoghurt, wholemeal toast*
Location: pub downstairs from hotel room, Kew
Next to our table at breakfast was an industrial-size toaster that hummed away like an idling Land Rover with the choke on full. Often to be found in staff cafeterias, these are the kind of machines in which your sliced bread is slowly transported along a conveyor belt flanked with heating elements, before popping out at the bottom via a stainless steel slide, at which point it will be slightly under-done. Having been replaced on the conveyor belt, it will then emerge a few seconds later slightly over-done.
Lunch: fish and chips, roast dinner* (pork), venison casserole*, chocolate brownie and ice cream, sticky toffee pudding*, mulled cider*
Location: as above
Fish and chips was the obvious choice for my first pescetarian pub lunch, and while it was just as scrumptious as I could have hoped, my dining experience was spoiled somewhat by the chef's insistence on serving it not on a plate but on a chopping board. Serving pub food on chopping boards (as opposed to in baskets, Eighties-style) seems to be all the rage at the moment, and the blame, I think, can be laid squarely at the door of Jamie Oliver, who I have been reliably informed favours it at his own restaurants. Much as I admire Jamie's heroic crusade to save the planet's schoolchildren from certain obesity, someone really needs to sit him down and tell him that if you are served fish and chips on a chopping board, the fish will probably fall off, the chips will probably fall off, and the peas will definitely fall off.
OK, so I was joking about the peas, but anyway, barely a week has gone by over the past couple of years when Mrs M has not turned to me and said wistfully how much she longs to eat sticky toffee pudding, so dessert managed to be even more memorable than the main course (over the past couple of years, she has turned to me and said wistfully how much she longs to eat Yorkshire pudding more like once a fortnight).
Incidentally, I can highly recommend staying in hotels above pubs when jet-lagged, as the period of time between stuffing oneself with Sunday lunch and falling fast asleep in front of the telly can be reduced to little more than five minutes.
Dinner: pork pie*, Pringles
Location: friends' house, Kew
Come the evening we were still stuffed, so made do with a light snack - in this case Mrs M had a pork pie and Pringles were the veggie option.
Monday 24th December
Breakfast: kipper*, selection of pastries
Location: pub downstairs from hotel, Kew
While the Japanese often dry their fish and seafood in the sun, they tend not to smoke it, and obscurities like the kipper are unheard of.
Lunch: baked salmon, baked potatoes, mince pies*
Location: aunt and uncle's house, Wiltshire
If you go to a festival in Japan you will often find a stall selling yaki-jaga
(焼きジャガ / baked potatoes), but they never quite match up to the British version. This may well be down to the variety of potato, but as any connoisseur will tell you, a proper baked potato should be hard enough on the outside that when you tap it with a knife it makes a kind of crinkly knocking sound, and fluffy enough on the inside that you need a spoon to scoop it rather than a knife to cut it. For that extra touch of authenticity, today’s tatties were baked in my Auntie J’s prize possession, an Aga.
Dinner: pasta, pesto, vegetable sauce with Quorn* pieces
Location: brother's house, Somerset
My brother used to be a vegan, and while he did eventually join me in succumbing to the twin temptations of dairy products and seafood, still stocks his kitchen with plenty of Linda McCartney-style delicacies. One or two restaurants in Tokyo now have 'fake meat' on their menus, but Quorn - which fanatical vegetarians refuse to eat because it is a fungus and therefore, in effect, a living organism - has yet to be imported.
Tuesday 25th December
Breakfast: Jordan's muesli*, Grape Nuts, Shreddies*
Location: as above
I keep on telling myself that I should quit eating cereal, which while it does have more nutritional value than the box it comes in (as demonstrated by Mythbusters), it doesn’t have as much nutrutional value as, say, a couple of slices of toast. The trouble is, cereal is inextricably linked in the minds of British adults with their British childhoods, and ADHD-inducing concoctions like Golden Nuggets, with their multi-coloured boxes, games or cartoons on the back and free gifts inside.
Lunch: cream tea (scones, homemade jam and marmalade, clotted cream)
Location: as above
The cream tea is one British tradition that has made it as far as East Asia, but if you happen to have a cream tea in Japan, the biggest let-down will be the paltry amount of clotted cream it comes with. Clotted cream can be bought over the counter in Tokyo, but because it has, quite literally, been imported from Cornwall, it will be prohibitively expensive and come in a very small tub indeed. In contrast, at the Co-op near my brother's house a 227g tub of Rodda's
will set you back just £2.15 (for anyone planning a truly epic cream tea, Rodda's even sell a 907g version).
And therein lies a dilemma: when you have a cream tea, which do you spread on your scone first, the cream or the jam? Most people treat the cream as a kind of butter substitute, spreading it on the scone first, with jam as the topping, whereas my brother insists on cream first / jam second, and as it turns out, his theory is backed up by Rodda's themselves, on the packaging for whose clotted cream is printed a short explanation detailing the superiority of that very method.
Dinner: lentil bake*, Yorkshire pudding*, roast potatoes, sprouts, parsnips*, smoked haddock*, sparkling wine, Christmas cake*
Location: as above
A few weeks after M Jr was born, Otoh-san sat me down for a man-to-man chat.
'Muzuhashi,' he said, with a serious expression on his face. 'I just want to talk to you about M Jr.'
'Absolutely,' I said, wondering if he was going to ask whether or not we planned to continue living in Japan, or warn me of the difficulty of keeping one's daughter from falling in with the wrong crowd.
'You see, there's something I'm quite worried about.'
'You're not going to bring up M Jr as a vegetarian, are you? We wouldn't want to think she was being deprived of a proper, balanced diet.'
Meat and dairy products are a comparatively recent addition to the Japanese diet - for a period of time prior to the Meiji Restoration, eating meat was actually illegal - but since the war they have taken to them with gusto. As a consequence, the average Japanese is now several inches taller than their ancestors, and I am forever separating the meat from the fish and vegetables in my school lunch. So while I reassured Otoh-san that we will allow M Jr to decide for herself whether or not to be a vegetarian, whenever Mrs M spends Christmas in Somerset, she is in a minority of one, and instead of tucking in to a roast turkey, has to make do with a lentil bake with all the trimmings.
Dessert was Christmas cake, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would, simply because you will find nothing as rich, fruity or frankly dense as this in Japan.
Wednesday 26th December
Breakfast: toast, peanut butter, Marmite*
Location: as above
If you ever find yourself in a Japanese supermarket, there is one particular item that I would urge you to avoid, namely a concoction called Peanuts Cream. Peanuts Cream purports to be a variety of - or at least a viable substitute for - peanut butter, and in reality is nothing of the sort. As well as having a sugar content several times higher than the average jar of Sun Pat, it has the annoying habit of liquifying when spread on toast. As a card-carrying peanut butter addict since about the age of ten, I prefer Skippy imported from America, although what I really crave is the nothing added / nothing taken away, Whole Earth-style variety, which has a layer of oil on top when you open it, and congeals to a consistency like half-dried tile grouting the closer to the bottom of the jar you get.
Lunch: panini (mozzarella and tomato, chorizo), cakes (incl. mincemeat slice*, tiffin)
Location: Butternut café, Exeter
Incredibly, I have had tea and tiffin in Japan on several occasions, hence the lack of an asterisk.
Thursday 27th December
Lunch: Caribbean veg pasty*, cheese & onion pasty*, bread (various), goat's cheese, cheddar cheese, salad (incl. beetroot*), Kalamata olives*
Location: brother's house
Whenever my mother made lunch, she would put on a kind of help yourself buffet of bread, cheese, salad, pickles and so on, a tradition that my brother - who lives in the same house that we inherited from her - has continued, so with one or two minor variations, this was what we ate pretty much every day we were staying there.
As I'm sure I have mentioned before, two food items the Japanese haven't yet mastered are cheese and bread, so I had been looking forward to stilton, cheddar, goat's cheese, smoked cheese, brie etc etc, and to elaborately complex breads with various combinations of white, wholemeal, rye, cornflour, sourdough, seeds and nuts. As well as a Co-op selling cheap clotted cream and 400g of cheddar for three quid (the same amount would cost the equivalent of more like £20 in Japan), the town where my brother lives has a truly extraordinary bakery, which sells a selection of everything from bread to scones to pasties to cakes, all in satisfyingly Western-style sizes.
'What's that you're eating?' our niece asked Mrs M at one point during the week. 'That's meat, isn't it?'
Forced to curb her carnivorous instincts for several days on the trot, Mrs M had bought some cured ham from the aforementioned Co-op, and was extracting slices of it from an open packet on her lap before disguising them with mayonnaise.
‘I don't want to see you eating meat!' ordered our niece, and my brother had to tell her that actually, Mrs M wasn't a vegetarian like the rest of us and it was OK for her to bring cured ham into the house.
Friday 28th December
Lunch: scampi* and chips, slow-roasted lamb shank*
Location: Blue Ball Inn, Sidford
This was Mrs M's chance to eat meat like, as she put it, a genshi-jin (原始人 / caveman).
Afternoon tea: white chocolate caramel slice*, lemon and redcurrant slice
Location: sea-front café, Sidmouth
The weather while we were in the UK, it has to be said, was atrocious, and with just three sunny days in three weeks – not to mention flooding and almost constant rain – it's a wonder more people weren’t suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. This was the scene on Sidmouth sea front...
...so after battling against the elements for little more than ten minutes, we ducked into a café for tea and cake, which included a variation on the aptly named millionaire's shortbread.
Dinner: baked potatoes, butter, grated cheese
Location: brother's house, Somerset
Saturday 29th December
Elevensies: gingerbread house*
Location: as above
For some reason I had never come across a gingerbread house until this Christmas, and they seem to be all the rage, partly, it would seem, because Ikea have been selling a flat-pack version, which if it's anything like their furniture probably requires several hours of hard graft, a degree in engineering and an Allen key to assemble. My brother had bought a handmade one for Mrs M as a Christmas present (a gingerbread house, that is, not an Allen key), and after putting it on display for a few days, I suggested that our niece might like to ceremonially demolish it.
Afternoon tea: rice crackers*, raisins, fruit juice (carton), tea (vending machine)
Location: Minehead Community Hospital
A good friend of ours – who is still going strong at 92 years old – fell down and broke her hip late last year, and we went to visit her in hospital, where after just one month of rehabilitation, she was already up, about and walking around the ward. When the time came for refreshments, the vending machine tea I bought in reception was utterly foul, and while styrofoam cups are the main cause of a crap cuppa – my theory is that the polystyrene itself begins to melt into the tea as you are drinking it – despite being in a paper cup, this tea still had that indeterminate chemical-y taste, combined with an extra, gag-reflex-inducing hint of UHT.
For snackage, we made do with what our friend J had lying around her hospital room, which included a packet of so-called rice crackers. Rice crackers in Japan – aka senbei (煎餅) - are a many, varied and often delicious snack item, my own favourites being kuro-mamé senbei (黒豆煎餅 / black bean rice crackers). Rice crackers in the UK, however, are a flavourless and indeed joyless thing, with the texture of polystyrene and the flavour of cardboard, and only popular for two reasons: firstly because they are healthy, and secondly because they are gluten-free. It just so happens that three very good friends of ours – including J – have a gluten allergy, thus making their food choices rather difficult, but fobbing them off with food barely fit for a pet rabbit is frankly unfair.
Dinner: Thai takeaway (incl. prawn crackers*, spring rolls, jasmine rice*, red curry, sweet and sour deep-fried red snapper)
Location: brother's house, Somerset
Thai food is surprisingly hard to come by in Japan, whereas the town in which my brother lives (population approx. 1500) is blessed with a very good Thai restaurant. When you order a takeaway, they even throw in a free bag of ‘posh’ prawn crackers – ie. thinner and less oily than the standard variety, and light brown instead of the usual white.
Monday 31st December
Afternoon tea: speciality hot chocolate, tea
Location: Starbucks, Sedgemoor Services
At Sedgemoor Services on the M5, it is possible to avoid the over-priced cafeteria in favour of an over-priced Starbucks, although when the girl behind the counte...sorry, I mean the barista told me they were running short on mugs, I did manage to blag a large (ie. bucket-sized) hot chocolate for the same price as a medium.
Dinner - king prawn korma, vegetable bhuna, popadoms*, pilau rice*, peshwari nan*, onion bhaji* (delivery), Snickers bar (vending machine)
Location: Premier Inn, Gloucester
Our lodgings were at the Premier Inn, Gloucester: a snip at fifty quid a night and with enough space in our double room to sleep a family of ten (one of the double rooms down the corridor really was sleeping a family of ten, although that’s another story). Instead of going out on the town for New Year's Eve, we ordered a takeaway curry, ate it while watching The Best Of Come Dine With Me and were fast asleep by 10pm. A word of warning: although the nice man behind the reception desk was kind enough to provide us with plastic cutlery and paper plates, a single one of the latter was, as I discovered, not quite up to the task of supporting a popadom, an onion bhaji, half a nan bread, a large dollop each of korma and bhuna, and half a tub of pilau rice.
Tuesday 1st January
Breakfast: buffet (incl. crumpets* prepared on industrial-sized toaster)
Location: pub next door to Premier Inn, Gloucester
Breakfast was served – or rather, left on a table for us to help ourselves – in the pub next door, where the staff hadn’t quite finished cleaning up after a the previous night’s revelries, and from the look of the vomit-encrusted men’s toilet cubicle, I surmised that one of the party-goers had also eaten curry for his final meal of 2012.
Lunch: soup, salad, bread, cheese
Afternoon tea: lardy cake*, chocolate biscuit selection box*
Location: friends’ house, Forest of Dean
If I was a proper vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat cheese, as much of it contains rennet, or to be more precise, cow’s stomach. I also wouldn’t eat lardy cake, which contains, er, lard.
Dinner: veggie delight sub, turkey and ham sub
Location: Subway, Gloucester
There are now more branches of Subway in the world than there are branches of McDonald’s, which I have to say is a good thing, as I’d much rather eat a veggie delight (ie. cheese sandwich) than a filet o’fish. Also, the young lad behind the counter at this particular branch was very friendly. He asked us what we had done on New Year’s Eve, and having returned the question, I expected a reply along the lines of, ‘Oh yeah, man. I was larging it with my mates. We went to this club, right, and I was so pissed I can’t even remember what I was doing when it turned midnight. Still got a hangover now, bruv!’ Instead, he confessed that he had been safely tucked up in bed after spending the evening with his two children. If you’re wondering whether this made me feel old, you’d be right.
Wednesday 2nd January
Elevensies: ham and cheese slice
A brief rant: vending machines in Japan – and in other countries, I assume – a) work, b) accept bank notes and c) give change. Vending machines in the UK a) don’t work, b) don’t accept bank notes and c) don’t give change. Vending machines at car parks in the UK, moreover, a) do sometimes work, but b) don’t accept bank notes, c) don’t give change and d) don’t reflect incremental payments in the tickets they dispense. So for example, in Malmesbury town square, one hour of parking will set you back 40p and two hours will set you back £1.20. But even if you put in a pound coin (because naturally, you do not have enough change to put in exactly 40p or £1.20), YOU STILL ONLY GET A TICKET FOR ONE HOUR’S WORTH OF PARKING, EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE PAID MORE THAN DOUBLE THE AMOUNT FOR AN HOUR. End of rant.
This, by the way, is M Jr window shopping at the bakery from which Mrs M purchased her ham & cheese slice.
Lunch: pumpkin and sweet potato soup, tuna melt panini
Location: CJ’s café, Chippenham
On the way into Chippenham from the A350, we passed a large and very busy tattoo parlour, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the town.
Dinner: filo pastry, pesto and goat’s cheese ‘pizza’, baked potatoes
Location: uncle and aunt’s house, Wiltshire
Thursday 3rd January
Lunch: smoked salmon, wholemeal toast*, oatcakes*, brocolli soup
Afternoon tea: lemon cake
Dinner: roast lamb, cheese and broccoli bake
With so many vegetarian relatives – including one of her sons - Auntie J had assumed that Mrs M was a veggie too, and was so pleased when she found out otherwise that she immediately sent Uncle C to the butchers to buy a cut of lamb, which she Aga-ed just enough to turn it brown on the outside and keep it pink in the middle. (My cheese and broccoli bake was of course green in the middle.)
Friday 4th January
Breakfast: crumpets* (square), bran flakes (Waitrose own)
Location: as above
Lunch: sandwiches (with crusts cut off and incl. smoked salmon, roast beef), scones, jam
Location: friends' house, Berkshire
It was a close thing, but the best scones we ate all holiday were, ironically enough, probably the ones made for us by a Japanese friend of Mrs M’s – in fact, what with the crust-less sarnies, cups, saucers and teapot, the only thing missing from this authentic afternoon tea was a fancy cake stand.
Dinner: bread rolls, crab paste, cured ham (all Waitrose)
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond
Saturday 5th January
Breakfast: eggs Benedict*, eggs Florentine*, 1 x smooth cappuccino, 1 x rich cappuccino
Location: Carluccio’s, Richmond
Maybe it’s because we are accustomed to Starbucks-style frappa-cappa-macha-latte-ccino chocolatey-caramel-y-whipped-creamy milkshake-style caffeine-based beverages, but even the supposedly smooth version of Carluccio’s coffee was strong enough to have an Olympic athlete test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
Oh, and another mini-rant: as a self-confessed skinflint, I feel so much happier living in a country where there is no tipping. Tipping in the US is a matter of course, but the rules regarding tipping in the UK are irritatingly vague. On this occasion, I might have left a tip but didn’t have any cash, and was presented with neither a ‘Would you like to leave a tip?’ option on the credit card machine, nor a conveniently obvious receptacle for leaving one in cash. I also didn’t want to place two quid (too obviously stingy) or a fiver (too ostentatious and frankly too much) directly into the hand of the waiter at the till, who in any case was a different waiter from the one who had served us. To be honest, the whole experience can be enough to spoil a perfectly decent meal, as you are liable to leave a restaurant paranoid that the staff there hate you, and either guilty for or uncertain about whether or not you have remunerated them sufficiently. Whilst I do take great satisfaction in not leaving a tip at a restaurant whose food and / or service I have deemed to be rubbish, the most agreeable method , I think, is to have an ‘Optional service charge of 12.5%’-type thing at the bottom of one’s bill, and just as importantly, on the credit card machine, thus allowing one to discreetly give as much or as little as one wishes. End of second rant.
Lunch: fish and chips, Adnams ‘Cheer Beer’*
Location: Anchor Bankside, Southwark
This was one of only two opportunities I gave myself to abandon my family and get raucously drunk. Well, OK, have a couple of pints of bitter and a quiet chat before sobering up with a coffee and heading back to the hotel.
Dinner: Sainsbury’s sandwiches (tuna and sweetcorn, egg and cress), Jaffa Cakes*
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond
I have often been heard to mock the Japanese version, but nothing can be quite as awful as a pre-packed British supermarket sandwich.
Sunday 6th January
Breakfast: croissant, pain au chocolat, 2 x cappuccinos
Location: as above
As you can see, my Carluccio’s croissant was, quite literally, as big as M Jr’s head.
Lunch: trout, grated apple and celeriac* salad, fried salmon, olive mashed potato, cress salad
Location: friend’s house, Clapham
Our friend T has eaten at several Michelin-starred restaurants in his time, and owns a selection of fancy-looking cookbooks, so the lunch he prepared for us was, as expected, excellent – he even laid on a proper starter containing an obscure vegetable we had probably never eaten before.
Dessert: mince pies, brandy sauce
Location: friend’s house, Richmond
Another warning: shop-bought brandy sauce may cause the consumer to exceed the legal drink-drive limit.
Dinner: falafel* wrap, fattoush salad
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond
The kebab shop we found near Richmond station was living proof of the old adage that the best way of judging the quality of a restaurant selling foreign food is whether or not its customers are foreign – in this case, a whole family of Turkish folk, children included, were eating dinner at a table in the corner. The falafel kebab in particular was delicious, so that rather than a half-open pillow case of pitta stuffed with salad and kebab meat, it was cylindrical and rolled up in wrapping paper, like a kind of edible Camberwell Carrot. The one thing that let the place down was the guy behind the counter, who in most respects was perfectly normal. Make the mistake of looking into his eyes, however, and you would be overcome with a feeling of abject terror. They were so bloodshot it gave the impression he had been awake non-stop for at least a week, probably as a result of taking part in something deeply sinister, like human organ trafficking or an armed jewel heist. Either that or he was a real-life vampire who would literally syphon off our baby daughter’s blood and drink it with lemon juice and Tabasco if we took our eyes off her anything for more than five seconds.
Monday 7th January
Breakfast: cinnamon roll, croissant
Location: Sainsbury’s, Chingford
The café at Chingford Sainsbury’s is on the first floor, and while we were eating our breakfast, most of the customers made their way to and from it via the lift rather than the stairs, which tells you pretty much everything need to know about the town.
Lunch: ciabatta sandwiches
Dinner: tamarind-based starter, curry (various incl. cheese, peas, spinach, aubergine, peppers), basmati rice* cooked with onions and spices, apple pie and cream
Location: friend’s house, near Cambridge
Our good friend S is second-generation British-Indian, and we asked – actually, begged would be a better word – her to make us a curry when we came to visit. She duly obliged, and also made a delicious starter of tamarind sauce, crispy semolina egg-shaped cracker-type things and what she described as black chick peas, all of which you have to down in one before the tamarind mixture melts its way through the crispy semolina egg-shaped cracker-type thing.
Mrs M was intrigued to discover that S even gives her two-year-old daughter spiced warm milk before bedtime – a little like chai without the caffeine – which as well as tasting good is supposed to ward off colds.
Tuesday 8th January
Breakfast: cereal (granola, Grape Nuts, Shreddies*)
Lunch: pasta, salad
Dinner: fajitas (incl. vegetarian sausage-based filling for herbivores)
Location: as above
Wednesday 9th January
Elevensies: sushi (M&S)
Location: platform at Richmond Station
After gorging herself on English fare for over a fortnight, Mrs M was finally starting to miss Japanese food (see above), so today we had two helpings of sushi, one from M&S and the other from Wasabi. Not up to much when compared with the real thing, but it was a relief to eat something that hadn’t been anywhere near a deep-fat fryer.
Lunch: smoked haddock fish cakes*, salad nicoise*, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs
Location: Patisserie Valerie, Old Compton St.
Patisserie Valerie, incidentally, was another restaurant where I failed to leave a tip.
Dinner: sushi, chirashi-zushi (Wasabi)
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond
Thursday 10th January
Breakfast: full English breakfast*, vegetarian breakfast
Location: café, Clapham Junction
Despite being the same price, the full English came with bacon, sausages, fried egg, baked beans, hash browns (or rather, a hash brown), half a fried tomato and fried mushrooms, while the veggie came with just scrambled egg, baked beans, a hash brown and half a fried tomato. Surely this amounts to discrimination?
Dinner: scampi* and chips, crisps, chilli nuts*
Location: Cittie of Yorke, High Holborn
My second helping of beer-fuelled hell-raising (ie. quiet chat over a couple of pints of bitter) was at this fine old pub near Chancery Lane tube. The Cittie of Yorke is owned by Samuel Smith, so the drinks are ludicrously cheap by today’s standards, and it used to serve a perfectly edible plate of nachos. Despite retaining the name, brewery and décor, however, under new-ish management the food has taken a nosedive, and while my friends toyed with a meagre portion of sub-standard nachos (served on a plate so hot that it almost scorched its way through the table and landed on the floor), my scampi and chips had the unmistakeable taste and texture of a meal which has been microwaved from frozen, as per the instructions on the packet. The evening was rounded off with one of those snack products you can only find in an English pub, namely chilli peanuts, which tipped me over from feeling merely bloated into a state of full-blown indigestion.
Friday 11th January
Lunch: fish and chips, vegetarian larder board
Location: The Anchor, Wisley
At last it was time for Mrs M to sample Great Britain’s great British dish, which on this occasion came with a traditional – indeed, some might say great – slice of bread and butter, and mercifully was not served on a chopping board. As I should have guessed from its name, the vegetarian larder board, on the other hand, was served on a chopping board, from which several of its constituent parts lost their balance and fell onto the table.
Dinner: homemade ciabatta, cheese and cucumber sandwiches
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond
In his time, Uncle H – with whom we ate our pub lunch – has run various restaurants, fish and chip vans and food stalls, and his current craze is for baking his own bread (apparently, the old-style method involves mixing the flour with water and leaving it to stand, which releases the natural sugars in the flour, meaning there is no need to add sugar to the dough). So for our final night in the hotel we were given a goody bag containing still-warm, hand-made ciabatta. The only mistake I made was to refuse Uncle H’s offer of a knife (I had assumed there was one among the plastic cutlery given to us at the Premier Inn, Gloucester), and was obliged to spread the butter on our sandwiches using a spoon, which is just as tricky as it sounds.
Saturday 12th January
Breakfast: coffee, tea, fruit juice, croissant, mozzarella & tomato panini
Location: Eat, Heathrow Terminal 3 departure lounge
Even more than fish and chips, the items that we ate and drank the most during our three-week trip were probably good, old-fashioned English breakfast tea (milk no sugar and strong enough to stand your teaspoon in) and the good, old-fashioned, er, French croissant (ideally flaky, buttery, fresh from the oven and as big as a baby’s head).
Lunch: sweet and sour chicken and rice, pasta with cheese and vegetables, Gü Black Forest pudding
Location: Virgin Atlantic flight VS900
Our flight home was half-empty, which made looking after M Jr easier than it had been on the way out, but while the service was as good as ever, I can say without hesitation that the food was quite the most revolting of the entire holiday – yes, even worse than pre-packed Sainsbury’s sarnies.
Mrs M’s sweet and sour chicken came with what purported to be rice, but may well have been something else entirely. Upon initial examination, it was dry and hard, but once you put a fork-full of it in your mouth, it underwent a mysterious transformation, so that after an initial hint of something at least faintly rice-like, it turned to a kind of heavy, starchy powder, like un-mixed Polyfilla or an unmade Pot Noodle.
Live in Japan for a year or two and you will come to appreciate the joy of eating rice on its own: fluffy, light, ever-so-slightly transluscent, just sticky enough to eat using chopsticks and with little specks of yellow among the grains, this is what Japanese farmers spend so much time cultivating, and what Japanese people eat as many as three times a day. Virgin Atlantic rice, however, was an abomination, and probably had most of the passengers on the plane wondering how it was possible to take something so simple, so pure, and turn it into a substance that was barely fit for repairing the cracks in a patio.
Afternoon tea: cheese Danish
Breakfast: ‘omelette’, boiled potatoes
Location: as above
Actually, the breakfast ‘omelette’ was very nearly as bad as the rice.
Over and above the stuff we stuffed ourselves with, we also brought back a whole suitcase of goodies to hand out to as presents, including Jaffa Cakes*, Bakewell tarts*, Mini-rolls*, Mini Eggs*, fruit cake*, Viennese whirls* and twenty packets of tea, because even though M Jr didn’t have a seat to herself, she was still entitled to 23kg worth of check-in baggage. Taking a baby on a plane and then halfway round the UK was less arduous than we had been expecting, and after spending so much time staring at us as we ate, just a day or two after we arrived back in Japan, M Jr took her first taste of solid food – rice, naturally, cooked, mashed and mixed with warm water.
In case any of you have been wondering where I had disappeared to, this picture should give you a clue.
Yes, over the Christmas holidays, Mrs M, M Jr and myself went to the good old U of K, mainly to see friends and relatives for the first time in almost two years, but also to sample as much great (or not so great, as the case may be) British grub as was humanly possible.
So, once the jet lag has stopped making me feel like I've overdosed on tranquilisers, expect news of what we ate, where we ate it and whether or not we'll have to wait another two years before eating it again.
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.
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
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.
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
‘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.