Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 21

Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 21

Tuesday 9th August 2005 – Shikoku-Chuo-Shi to Iyashino-Onsenkyo (四国中央市癒しの温泉郷)
Presents received – free shower

The caretaker reappeared at eight in the morning to collect my fee, graciously waiving the cost of the shower I had taken the night before last, and before the sun hit the campsite I was off, up and away from the Seto-Naikai, and once more into the wilderness. While an expressway cut a swathe inland to the south, Route 319 followed the Yoshino River east as its valley became a gorge. This went from deep, narrow and spectacular to very deep, very narrow and very spectacular, and its two sections are known as Koboké and Oboké, the kanji for which mean ‘small walk danger’ and ‘big walk danger’, presumably in reference to how tricky they were to navigate before the coming of road and railway. Koboké and Oboké are now a magnet for white-water rafters, and one tour group had already taken to their dinghies as I passed by, although the mid-summer water level was low enough to have exposed two broad stripes of bare rock on either side of a calm river, and the only rowers to go overboard did so voluntarily.
Michi-no-eki (道の駅 / literally ‘road station’) are a vision of what British motorway services could have been, and more like a town square market than a truck stop. So at Oboké Michi-no-Eki there were stalls selling handmade snacks, a cafeteria selling decent food at decent prices, and the souvenir shop was full of local produce. As always, the emphasis was on making this michi-no-eki unique: the kind of place motorists will make a point of visiting, rather than a generic slice of corporate blandness that only draws customers because they have nowhere else to go (Welcome Break, Moto, Road Chef and their ilk: guilty as charged). I carried my takeaway lunch a little further up the gorge to Oboké railway station, where forty or fifty holidaymakers were milling around waiting for trains and buses, and where I chatted with Hungarian backpackers, a middle-aged man who used to live in Mito, and a trainee firefighter on one last holiday before he began working full time.

Through the Iya Tunnel above Oboké is Iya (祖谷 / ‘ancestral valley’ or ‘pioneer valley’), which is the deepest valley in Japan, and celebrated by Alex Kerr in his book Dogs and Demons as one of the country’s last great unspoiled beauty spots. An American by birth, Kerr moved to Japan with his parents when he was still a child, and having lived there ever since, wrote Dogs and Demons as – among many other things – a cry for help for the Japanese environment. When the booming economy made Japan rich, its local councils were given huge annual budgets, and in order to sustain this funding, had to come up with creative ways of spending at least as much money every year. So as well as having a transport infrastructure that is second to none, the country is also littered with unnecessary construction projects: with dams, bridges, roads, tidal and earthquake protection schemes, many of which serve little practical purpose. In particular, this has left rural communities dependent on such projects for their economic livelihood, so that to curtail them would mean widespread unemployment and further migration from the countryside to the cities. As Kerr explains, despite being approximately the same size as California, at one point Japan was using more concrete per annum than the whole of the United States, and while it is uncharitable of him to describe it as ‘arguably the world’s ugliest country’, there is certainly a flip side to such feats of civil engineering as the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido or the various Kanmon tunnels and bridges, and nowhere is that more evident than at Kazurabashi.

Kazurabashi – Iya’s centrepiece and its most renowned tourist attraction – is an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge that dates back to 1646, and is maintained and occasionally rebuilt using traditional methods and materials. Not ten metres away, and with an insensitivity to aesthetics that was hard to credit, a steel road bridge provides a convenient spot from which to take photos of Kazurabashi. Turning around to face in the opposite direction, however, I was confronted with something for which the epithet ‘monstrous carbuncle’ seemed woefully inadequate. Stretching for two or three hundred metres along the far side of the Iya River and already several stories high, stood a gigantic platform on hundreds of concrete columns. Workmen in hard hats swarmed over the site, described on a banner as ‘Kazurabashi Event Square’, and destined to be little more than a glorified car park. The sound of heavy machinery echoed through the valley, drowning out the chatter of tourists as they wobbled across the ancient rope bridge, and it was a tragic irony that this new development, so disproportionately big by comparison, should have materialised practically on the doorstep of Alex Kerr, who since 1973 has co-owned an old thatched house in Iya called Chiiori, which supports sustainable tourism and organic farming, and gives guests and volunteers an experience of traditional village life.

Photographing Kazurabashi seemed rather meaningless, as to do so would have presented a highly selective view of the place, so I pointed my camera instead at the concrete edifice opposite. This was what the world needed to be shown, and was so big that even using the widest angle of my camera lens, I was unable to fit it all into one frame, and instead took two shots side by side, to be Photoshop-ed together at a later date.

Continuing east, the crowds thinned out and the noise of pneumatic drills and cement mixers gradually subsided. Steep little side roads zig-zagged up the valley and through villages that clung to the slope, their houses balanced on narrow ledges of level ground or spindly steel legs. Audible above the sound of a blaring television, a couple in one such house were in the middle of a heated argument, and as it was three in the afternoon, I wondered if the husband was one of those who had failed to find work at Kazurabashi Event Square and was stuck at home instead, getting drunk or getting on his wife’s nerves. Not that I was deliberately eavesdropping, as I had merely stopped outside their house to look at an open-air fish tank, around which goldfish drifted serenely in the afternoon sunlight.
My campsite was so ineluctably at the top of a steep approach road that I wished I could have put money on the fact beforehand, although ‘campsite’ wasn’t quite the word, as for some reason there was a lot more tarmac than grass in the designated area of Iyashino Onsen Village, tucked away as it was behind the hotel car park. A Japanese girl and her gaijin companion were unpacking as I rode up, and I was greeted by the unmistakable sound of an American accent.

‘Hey, how’s it going?’
‘Good thanks.’
‘Where did you cycle from?’
‘I was in Shikoku-Chuo-Shi this morning. How about you?’
‘We’ve been hiking. There are loads of mountain trails around here, and I try to run if the path goes along a ridge. I think I might have injured my ankle, though, and I can’t go too fast or I’d leave Miss Bow Child behind.’

Mr Ohio had met Miss Bow Child in northeastern Shikoku, where he taught English at a small, independent conversation school. Tall, energetic and in hiking shoes, combat trousers and a bright orange waterproof jacket, he had constructed a kind of bivouac tent that was half inside and half outside the rear door of their battered old van, which he explained had been donated by a friend who could no longer afford to keep it on the road. As we chatted, he gave the Mariposa the once over, and I felt suddenly self-conscious, as it was just the kind of bicycle that big kids like Mr Ohio would have teased me about when I was younger.

‘You do know what mariposa means, don’t you?’ he said, tilting his head sideways to read the brand name transfers on the frame.
‘I can’t say I’d thought about it, really. I just bought the cheapest mountain bike I could find, and they’re always called something stupid like Laser Quest or Frontier Demon. Why do you ask?’
‘It’s a Spanish word. Literally it means “butterfly”, but they use it as a euphemism for “gay”.’
‘Really? You mean to say that I’ve been riding around for the past year and a half on a bicycle with the word “GAY” written on it in big red and yellow letters?’
‘I guess so.’
‘Oh dear.’
‘I’m pretty sure that’s what it means, anyway. But hey, most Japanese people can’t understand Spanish, so it’s not so bad.’

Once I had pitched the Snow Peak on a postage-stamp-sized strip of grass between a fence, a covered seating area and a pathway, the three of us headed for the onsen. While Miss Bow Child was in the women’s side, Mr Ohio and I tested our ability to endure the mizuburo, and try as I might, I could not find anything irritating about him.

As an American, by rights he should have been loud, obnoxious and overweight, but instead he was articulate, open-minded and looked to have eaten at least one or two vegetables in his time.
‘This is what I don’t understand,’ I told him, as we sat up to our necks in cold water, trying not to move. ‘How can a country that produced Reagan and Bush, gun crazy rednecks, evangelical Christianity, McDonald’s and Jerry Springer, also produce so much great art, so many of my favourite books, films, painters and photographers?’
‘It depends where you go in America, of course. Speaking from personal experience, Ohio is not the most diverse part of the world, but then New York is the complete opposite, it’s a lot more cosmopolitan and intellectual. America is a big country, so you get a lot of variation, and as for the creativity, that’s all about freedom, I think.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, take Japan, for instance. It’s a very conformist society. Everybody toes the line, they’re obedient, and hardly anyone speaks out against the status quo, because that would make them look bad. But in the States it’s important to be able to do what you want, and that produces both extremes: people are free to be creative, and to have ideas and opinions, but they’re also free to be ignorant.’

Mr Ohio’s language skills were also pretty impressive, as Shikoku attracted very few gaijin compared to Kanto and Kansai, for example, so in addition to being one of the only foreigners in a small town, he was the only teacher at his school, and answered directly to a Japanese boss. Miss Bow Child had been one of his students, although she waited until her course had finished before asking him out, and while their relationship was going well, her life beyond it was typical of a furiitaa or niito as they are known: young adults who instead of entering the pressurised and competitive worlds of business or the professions, choose to work supposedly less demanding, often part-time jobs.

With its etymology in both German and English, furiita means something like ‘free part time’, and niito is the Japanese pronunciation of the acronym for ‘not in employment, education or training’. During the so-called bubble economy of the eighties, Japan’s labour market became more flexible than it had ever been before, meaning a new generation could earn good money without having to graduate from university, and without having to devote themselves to a particular profession or company – in the same way that, for example, Mr Stone River from Shikoku-Chuo-Shi still did. When the bubble burst, however, many of these furiita found themselves without a job, or with a part-time job, or with a job that no longer paid as well, and their number has since increased rapidly, to the extent that by the turn of the century, there were thought to be over four million. Not that recession was the only reason for so many furiita failing to find what your parents might like to call a ‘proper job’, as the phenomenon is also a sign that young people are less inclined to adhere to traditional social conventions.

Of course, a part-time job in Japan is commonly defined as taking forty hours a week, and the average furiita works almost five days out of seven, so in a sense, they are merely opting for what the rest of us would see as full-time employment. After graduating from university, Miss Bow Child had spent seven years working night shifts in a Gusto family restaurant, which must have been anything but an easy ride – now I came to think about it, she did look a little pale – and which made it more difficult for her to re-enter the mainstream labour market, because like so many other countries, changing career in Japan becomes more difficult the older you get.

‘It’s such a waste,’ said Mr Ohio as we dried off in the changing rooms. ‘Her English is good and she’s been studying on and off for years. In fact, she resigned from Gusto so that she could go and live abroad, but I’m not sure she’ll ever get round to it. She hasn’t saved enough money, for a start.’
‘Why don’t you take her back to America with you?’ I asked.
‘I think that’s what she’s hoping for, but I don’t want to end up marrying a Japanese girl. It’s an interesting country, but culturally we’re too far apart. It would be difficult for Miss Bow Child in the States – it would be really difficult for her in Ohio – and Japan is too alien a place for me to stay here the rest of my life.’

For Miss Bow Child’s benefit we spoke Japanese over dinner, which was probably for the best, as it had been nearly a week since my last face-to-face English conversation, and in the same way that Mr Swansea sometimes wouldn’t let me put the phone down, I was almost too keen to talk to Mr Ohio, and could feel myself getting over-excited, like a kid who has stayed up too late or eaten too much jelly and ice cream.

Later we explored an abandoned baseball field next to the campsite, which was now covered in weeds, bushes and potholes. By the glow from our keitai screens we scrabbled around in the undergrowth looking for pieces of wood, and had soon collected enough for Mr Ohio to light a campfire and toast some marshmallows. The Milky Way was spread out across the sky, and when a shooting star burst forth from its maze of constellations, Miss Bow Child told us that the Japanese also wish upon what they call nagareboshi (流れ星). Being British, I crossed my fingers for the clear skies to continue.

0 thoughts on “Gaijin on a Push Bike – Day 21

    1. It is interesting (and pretty easy to track down a cheap copy on Amazon, as far as I know), although probably slightly out of date by now, and rather sensationalist, too, so if you do read it, best to take what he says with a pinch of salt, as the saying goes!
      Kerr is an interesting character, though, and I saw him on TV here recently – among other things, he’s started a scheme to try and preserve old-style Japanese houses, as people here seem much less inclined to do so than they are in the UK, for example.

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