Part-way through the morning I saw a young man on an overloaded, single-speed shopping bike – aka mama-chari – cycling towards me on the opposite side of the road, and followed him as he pulled into Shosanbetsu michi-no-éki. His name was Mr Enduring Magnificence, and he was on a six-month circumnavigation of Japan.
‘How on earth do you manage on a mama-chari?’ I asked him.
‘The morning after the first day of the trip,’ he said, ‘I literally couldn’t stand up. It’s your quads that hurt the most when you ride one of these, but I’m used to it now.’
‘How far are you cycling each day?’
‘About eighty kilometres.’
Despite the fact that my own bike weighed several kilos less and had twenty more gears, and that I wasn’t, unlike Mr Enduring Magnificence, carrying a rucksack the size of a Marshall stack at a Led Zeppelin concert on my back, this was, I’m embarrassed to admit, the same distance that I was covering.
‘I saved some money doing a temporary job on a farm a few weeks ago,’ he continued. ‘But I’m trying to keep my spending down to three or four hundred yen a day. I never stay on proper campsites, I never go to restaurants and I eat instant curry most of the time – it only costs a hundred yen!’
There was a gas stove, a saucepan and a 2kg bag of rice strapped to Mr Enduring Magnificence’s mama-chari, and as we were talking he unpacked and began to prepare his lunch.
‘Where do you wash, then?’
‘I just use the sinks at places like this – in parks and at barbecue areas. Several friends of mine around the country have promised to let me stay, so I’ll be able to have a proper bath then.’
‘What are you going to do when you’re finished?’
‘I’d like to stay in London for a while but it’s too difficult to get a work visa for the UK, so I’m going back to Australia instead. I lived there for a couple of years and a guy I know in Brisbane has promised me a job.’
We were soon joined at our picnic table by Mr Great One, who had almost completed his own south-to-north trip through the country, and who in contrast to Mr Enduring Magnificence rode a bicycle with gears, wore proper cycling shorts, wasn’t carrying a rucksack the size of a Marshall stack at a Led Zeppelin concert on his back, and said that he got up at 4.30 every morning, took a siesta at lunchtime, and bathed at proper onsen in the evening.
Hemmed in between the sea, the road and the mountains, and at the mercy of high winds and heavy snow over the winter months, many of the houses along this stretch of Route 232 are protected by high wooden fences, so that at times it felt as if I was cycling past the set for a cowboy film.
The showers next to the beach were meant for daytime bathers and already locked by the time I arrived, so the family in the tent next to mine offered to give me a lift to an onsen along the coast, and even shared their dinner with me (a paper plate of curry, as it happened, which may or may not have cost them a hundred yen).
Otoh-san (お父さん / dad – I was never told his real name) was a 42-year-old truck driver; tanned, shaven-headed and a man of few words. His partner was at least ten or fifteen years his junior, and they had a one-year-old daughter with a pudding-bowl haircut who eyed me warily (‘She’s never met a foreigner before,’ her mum explained). They had travelled from Tomakomai for a three-day holiday in what otoh-san called their ‘bus’: a big pink and purple camper van with faux-velvet-upholstered sofas and a fitted kitchen in the back, and a sound system with an animated computer screen in the front that played a continuous selection of bouncing dance-pop. A friend of theirs from Sapporo had joined them for the trip, and the final member of their party was Kuro, a chihuahua who they claimed was house-trained, and left to his own devices on the bus while we went into the onsen (kuro, you may not be surprised to learn from looking at this photo, means ‘black’).