Having spent the greater part of this year’s visit to Japan sleeping for an average of nine or ten hours a night, it wasn’t too much of a wrench to get up at seven am for once, although since Mrs M’s parents tend to monopolise the bathroom in the morning, I was obliged to have my bath the night before. After a breakfast of cereal, toast and coffee (normally it’s just cereal and coffee or toast and coffee, but I was carbo-loading), I put on otoh-san’s shell suit top, which was better suited to cycling than either of the jackets I had brought with me from the UK, and packed a small rucksack with essentials for the day. These included two bottles of water, two nigiri handmade by Mrs M that morning, two satsumas, a banana, a madeleine, a packet of peanuts choco, otoh-san’s mobile phone, onii-san’s old digital camera, my spectacles and a hundred-yen map of Ibaraki.
As part of his programme to pimp up the bicycle on which I toured Hokkaido in 2008 (and on which, having bought it for about sixty thousand yen, my friend Tom-san toured practically the whole of Japan earlier the same year), onii-san has fitted super-slim racing wheels, and I pumped up the correspondingly super-slim tyres to the improbable pressure of more than six psi before setting off at ten to eight, to cast a long shadow on the road ahead.
The first part of the journey followed a route that Mrs M and I have taken on many occasions when visiting friends and relatives, but in order to avoid the city – well, town is probably a more accurate description – of Hitachi-ohmiya, I veered north just before the Kuji River, on a road that within minutes was almost devoid of traffic, and narrow enough that two cars traveling in opposite directions would barely have the room to pass one another. I stopped to use the toilets at a michi-no-eki (roadside services) that appeared to have gone out of business, although the infa-red detectors that sense when you have walked away from a urinal and flush it with water were working perfectly (they were apparently being kept in operation for the benefit of campers at a site next to the river, where even in late December, at least one family had stayed the night).
After another few kilometers I joined Route 118, which followed the Kuji River valley and the Suigun railway line north through a succession of sleepy towns, in one of which was a building that advertised itself as the home of washi (Japanese handmade paper – I made a mental note of the location and resolved to come back when it was open for business). After taking a detour along the main street of one such town, where approximately half the shops had gone out of business, I came to a five-way junction with no road signs and had to stop to consult my map.
No sooner had I done this than a middle-aged man parked his car on the pavement and came over to ask if I needed help. When I told him where I was from, he gestured to a girl of perhaps junior high school age who had been with him in the car, as if to say, ‘Go on, now’s your chance to speak some English!’ Having expected her to come out with a faltering hello or an enquiry as to my favourite Japanese food, she instead spoke confidently, and with a British-English accent to boot. She lived in Malaysia, she explained, and went to an English school, so I assumed the man was her grandfather, and that her parents had emigrated (she looked to be Japanese rather than mixed race or native Malaysian). The man confirmed my hunch that the road I should take entered a nearby tunnel, before saying goodbye and driving off to the hairdressers, where the girl had an appointment to get her hair cut.
Twenty minutes later I was standing outside Saigané station, where I knew there would be a more detailed map than my own of the area around Nantai-san, since I had Googled a blog entry by an anonymous fellow hiker the night before. There was no toilet at the station, so I stopped for a pee on the tiny side road that led up another, smaller valley towards the mountain, and in which the temperature dropped noticeably. Instead of towns there were now villages, or just small farms nestled on the hillside, their vegetable fields still caked with frost, and after an ever steeper succession of hairpin bends, the tarmac came to and end outside a soba restaurant, whose sign said that it would be open for business at ten thirty.
I locked up the bike, although it seemed even less likely to be stolen here than in Hitachi-ohta, so I didn’t bother to attach it to anything with the lock, and left the lights and puncture repair kit in place. A path led between fields of green tea bushes for a hundred metres or so, at which point I had to choose between the ippan-kohsu (一般コース) and the kenkyaku-kohsu (健脚コース): the Ordinary Course and the Experienced Walker Course. The aforementioned blogger had taken the latter without complaint, so I did the same, and soon realised that the transition from an ascent by bicycle to an ascent on foot isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth one. From the gravel car park outside the soba restaurant, Nantai-san loomed almost vertically above me, with the most likely hiking route being through a gulley to one side and along a ridge to the summit. But the kenkyaku-kohsu went straight up the cliff face, which while it may not have been as close to ninety degrees as it appeared, certainly wasn’t far off.
For perhaps the most fleeting of moments I even considered giving up and heading back for a slap-up lunch at the soba restaurant, but the one compensation of the kenkyaku-kohsu was its directness, and every two or three minutes of huffing and puffing took me ten or twenty metres further above sea level. To enable this without the use of crampons or other such high-tech climbing gear, a series of metal rods had been driven into the cliff face, and to these chains and ropes attached, so that these were the easiest sections of the climb, as I could transfer the strain from my overworked legs to my underworked arms, which until then had merely been flicking between gears or squeezing brake levers.
At one long section of chains, I spied a man up ahead in a check shirt, peaked cap and walking boots, and had to ask him whether he was heading up or down when our paths crossed. As I suspected, he had already made it to the top, and he reassured me that there wasn’t far to go. Indeed, when the path levelled off at a smaller ridge beneath the summit, the view was more impressive, the terrain more exposed, and the wind more biting than before, so that despite having removed my own hat, gloves and jumper earlier on in the climb, now I had to put them back on again.
Up until that point I hadn’t recognised anything from my previous visit to Nantai-san, but just before the top was a tin-roofed shelter over a wooden table and benches, which I remembered as the spot where my friends and I had eaten our packed lunch, so we must have taken the ippan-kohsu on that occasion. A sign said ‘Take a rest before you aim for the summit’, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer, as I had vowed not to eat today’s nigiri until reaching my goal, and was by now desperate for food. Along with a TV or radio transmitting station of some kind (a line of telegraph poles stretched through the forest and down the other side of the mountain), there was a stone obelisk on the summit adorned by previous hikers with piles of small rocks, and a weather beaten shrine surrounded by a fence of concrete and steel poles. Partially sheltered from the wind, I sat on the far side of this to eat, and the sun was bright enough that I had to put on my baseball cap to get a proper look at the view.
It was slightly hazy, so that the furthest one could see was Mount Tsukuba, about sixty kilometres to the south. Neither Mount Fuji nor the more proximitous peaks of Nikko in neighbouring Tochigi prefecture were visible, although a yellow sheen of reflected sunlight glinted off the Pacific to the south east, and to the north a bank of cloud rolled in over the hills like a burst of dry ice. I could see Daigo Town further up Route 118, the soba restaurant, green tea bushes and valley road below, and the white radio mast to the east that watches over Hitachi-ohta. In the middle of my two nigiri were two umé-boshi – pickled plums – and when I threw the stone of one over the shrine’s steel pipe railing, there was no sound as it fell through the air.
I spent five or ten minutes trying to master the self-timing feature on onii-san’s camera in order to capture my own likeness next to the shrine, and then a further five or ten minutes trying to work out where the ippan-kohsu led back downhill – it was signposted from the covered bench and chairs, but not from the shrine, obelisk or transmitter. Not having expected to encounter anyone else at all on a chilly winter’s weekday, I passed five more hikers on the way down: the first were a couple of around my own age who said that they had ‘overtaken’ my bicycle (almost certainly on foot rather than by car, otherwise they must have been walking very slowly as I climbed very quickly), the second was a lady in her fifties or sixties who like me had noticed a few flakes of snow in the air as the clouds passed over, and the last were another couple, who either said ‘Good, isn’t it?’ or ‘Warm, isn’t it?’ as we squeezed past each other on the path – probably the latter, as by then we were sheltered from the wind by the gulley beneath the ridge and bathed in sunshine, and they were working up a sweat on their way up.
Going cycling in Japan after more than two years away was like dusting off an old record or watching a favourite film, and while there were times when it seemed like I had done it all before, and times when I couldn’t remember what all the the fuss was about, I also had an inkling of how great it would be to get up the next morning and do the same thing all over again. And the morning after that, and the morning after that, until I was a long way from the in-laws and in some far flung corner of the country I had never knew existed before.
(The hundred-yen map, incidentally, was already coming apart at the creases when I took it out of my rucksack – built-in obsolescence, no less.)