Presents received – salad, Pocari Sweat
I unzipped my tent flap the next morning to find breakfast already served: the middle-aged couple had left another paper plate-full of food, and although I wouldn’t normally choose to eat mixed salad with Thousand Island dressing before about midday, it was gratefully received. My fellow campers had already gone out for the day, so I popped a polite thank-you note through their tent flap before I left, imagining how surprised they would be to find it written in Japanese – albeit the Japanese of a dyslexic five year old.
The caravanners were already packing up, and I wondered if I had precipitated their early departure by declining their invitation to go hiking. While it would have been nice to stay in Kokonoé, somehow I felt that I had to keep going, and this didn’t just stem from my desire to get in and out of Kyushu within a week. Given my conversational limitations, I also felt that I woudn’t necessarily delve any deeper by spending more time with them, no matter how kind they were, and no matter how well they fed me. To do so may also have been an imposition, and in any case, I was beginning to enjoy the fleeting nature of a traveller’s friendships: the experience of dipping a speculative toe into the onsen, if you will, of someone’s life without having to get emotionally involved with - or feel any kind of responsibility towards - them. This, I realised, was something that my friends who had gone backpacking for their gap years must have loved: the endless conveyor belt of acquaintances with whom you are presented, and the consequent – and admittedly somewhat selfish – ability to take what you want from them. When confronted with such a language barrier as the one I had to deal with, you may never get beyond small talk, but that in itself can be pleasurable, as if every day is spent laughing and joking, in a continous and unrequited flirtation with life.
Another tourist who buttonholed me in the car park had no such pretensions to commune with nature or yomp through the mountains, and offered to throw the Mariposa in the back of his van and drive me to the top of the pass.
‘I’ve been going to this onsen on the other side of the mountain every day,’ he said. ‘You can have a bath, the food’s good, and then I usually just fall asleep for a couple of hours. A lot of the places round here are too flashy. They charge too much and the customers are just rich kids. This place isn’t too expensive, though. You should come along.’
The offer of motorised assistance – not to mention a hearty lunch and an afternoon nap – was unexpected, and when it came, I was taken aback. No one was going judge me, and I wasn’t in a race, but to accept would have felt too much like cheating. Almost without realising, I had laid down a set of rules and felt compelled to stick to them, even if it meant foregoing the opportunity to make friends.
‘That’s very kind of you, but no thanks. I want to cycle up.’ The man looked at me as if I was a few grains short of a full bowl of rice, but wished me well before he drove off.
As the Yamanami Highway climbed towards a pass beside Mount Kujuu, the air had a morning crispness about it and the sun had yet to break through the clouds, to the point where I positively enjoyed the ascent. This, I supposed, was due to the endorphins, the adrenaline rush – what a bodybuilding friend of mine calls ‘the pump’. When presented with a physical challenge, the first attempt pushes you beyond your capabilities – even to the point of physical pain – but second time round, that challenge seems achievable. Pain mutates into pleasure, and you are caught in a cycle (so to speak), where to get the same kind of buzz, it is necessary to push yourself further still.
Just to prove that I had managed to make it this far above sea level, I took a photo of the road sign at the top, which read ‘Makinoto Pass 1330m’.
The Highway descended further into a network of valleys, obscuring both Kujuu behind me and Aso up ahead. All around, lush grass grew a metre high, shimmering in the breeze, and dome-like little hills crowded the horizon. Perfect as if sculpted by a set designer, the whole scene had the primary colours and permanent sunlight of a children’s cartoon: a magical kingdom of clear blue and glowing green, from which I half expected a team of Teletubbies to pop their heads out of the ground and say hello. Even the traffic seemed to slow down, so that all you could hear was each gust of wind as it tumbled through, carrying beneath it a silver wave of reflected sunlight.
Then, just as I was about to give up, I heard the sound of snoring emanate from a raised tatami-mat room at the back of the shop.
‘Excuse me,' I said. 'Are you open?’
‘Ah! Welcome to my shop. What can I do to help you?’
The owner stirred from his siesta and clambered to his feet, reciting the standard customer greeting several seconds before he was fully conscious of what was going on. Unshaven and as scruffy as his surroundings, I wondered whether it had been a good idea to rouse him at all.
‘I was looking for those extra bits you put on the end of your handlebars. Er, you know, the ones that come out at ninety degrees, kind of like this.’ I didn’t even know the English word for them – was it bullhorns? – and mimed what I was after as we stood looking at the Mariposa.
‘You mean this sort of thing?’ His own mime was similar enough that we appeared to be speaking the same language, even if it wasn’t quite Japanese, and rummaging through the mess, he had found what he was looking for within seconds.
‘Ah yes, bar ends. That’s what I meant.’
Bar ends are two short metal tubes attached at right angles to each end of a set of straight handlebars, thus enabling the rider to grip said handlebars parallel as well as perpendicular to the frame, and they would, I hoped, give my poor hands more freedom while I was riding, thereby easing the pins and needles.
‘Where’s the other one, I wonder? I’m sure it was here somewhere…’
I stood and watched as the shopkeeper commenced his search for the second bar end, and it soon became apparent that finding the first had been miraculously fortuitous.
‘Can I help at all?’
‘No, no. Please make yourself at home.’ He cleared a small space on an upturned box and asked me to sit down, before presenting me with a chilled bottle of Pocari Sweat (which does not, so far as I am aware, contain any sweat, but can be helpful if you are producing it). After several minutes of seeing him clank through piles of cables, spanners, brake blocks and gear levers, and struggle to force open drawers stuffed full of rusting bits and bobs, I began to think that even if the part were here, his chances of locating it were almost zero.
‘Don’t worry if you can’t find it,’ I reassured him, ‘it’s my right hand that hurts, so just the one will do.’ But he refused to give in, driven no doubt by a recollection of the missing bar end, somewhere in the shop, at some unspecified point in the long-distant past. The same drawers were trawled twice, even three times, the same leaning mounds of metal overturned, and finally, incredibly, it appeared.
‘Got it!’ He held up the matching pair of bar ends in triumph, like bones from an archeological dig, and watching him fit them proved almost as captivating as the preceding search. This was not a man with a methodical approach to the job, and I looked on aghast as he wrestled with hammers, Allen keys and Stanley knives, always on the verge of gouging his hand or propelling himself to the floor in a shower of sharp objects.
Eventually, for a mere three thousand yen including parts, labour and Pocari Sweat, the bolts were tightened and the Mariposa looked more ridiculous than ever, like a clown’s bicyle at a bullfight, horns drawn and ready to charge. Riding up and down outside to test the new arrangement, I hoped that pressure was being applied to a different area of the offending hand, and that my ability to perform simple tasks might be restored.
Aso Town lay near the centre of the caldera, and behind it, on the pine forested slopes of Nakadaké, were several campsites. The first was just for caravans and the second fully booked, but at the third I was the only customer, and when I arrived, two men were packing up equipment from an outdoor concert that had taken place over the weekend. One was in his fifties or sixties, and the other was young and fashionably dressed, to the extent that he wouldn’t have looked out of place in a trendy bar in Tokyo. He also spoke a little English, and explained that they weren’t responsible for the site.
‘If it was up to me,' he said, 'I’d let you stay here for free.’
‘So who am I supposed to pay?’
‘They come round and check, but not every day, so you might get away with it.’
I asked if he could recommend an eatery nearby.
‘There’s not much around here, really. You’ll probably have to go to the family restaurant along the main road.’
‘Oh. I was kind of hoping for an izakaya. You know, somewhere friendly and local.’
‘There’s one where I live,’ said the older man. ‘I can give you a lift if you want.’
‘How far away is it?’
‘Oh, about eight kilometres, I’d say, so it could be a little tricky getting back. It’s a shame really, ’cause the food’s really good.’
The site was called Mina-no-mori (‘Everybody’s Forest’), and its facilities included toilets, a cold shower and a washing machine, although the latter was so well hidden that I didn’t find it until I had already hand-washed all of my dirty clothes in the sink. There was also a playing field, a bandstand-like summerhouse, a barbecue area and a small office, and on the other side of the road an ornamental garden that was in the process of being absorbed back into the forest after what appeared to be several years of neglect. From a grassy rise at the far end of the car park, you could look out across Aso Town to the caldera rim, or up at Nakadaké, whose smoke glowed salmon pink in the setting sun.
‘I can see a live volcano from my campsite,' I boasted.
‘Really? Stop showing off.’
‘Come on, surely you’re impressed with that?’
‘I suppose so. Is it erupting right at this minute?’
‘Well, no. Not quite. But there is smoke coming out of it. I could be swept away in the middle of the night on a river of molten lava, you know.’
‘Whatever. Have you met any fit women?’
‘Not exactly. There don’t seem to be that many of them in the countryside.’
‘How about blokes?’
‘There was one here a minute ago, actually. You would have liked him.’
‘Oh my God! What did he look like?’
‘I don’t know. Twenties, spiky hair, combat trousers. He had one of those little goatee-beard-type things, and he had his sunglasses on the top of his head instead of over his eyes.’
‘That’s it, I’m coming to visit!’
‘You do know that I’m in Kyushu, don’t you?’
‘Never mind. What have you been up to, anyway?’
‘Not much really. Just chilling out. We’ve been to the beach a few times, been to the cinema, been bowling…’
I felt more self-righteous by the second about my summer holiday: about how culturally enriching it was, how physically challenging and at the same time linguistically beneficial. But I couldn’t help feeling that if I was back in Mito with Miss Birmingham, I might well be having a better time. We had become friends purely by virtue of being two gaijin in a small city, but despite the fact that our personalities were completely different, we had ended up spending more time with each other than with our respective partners – me because Mrs M was often busy with university and a part-time job, and Miss Birmingham because her boyfriend was in the UK.
More than anyone else I had ever met, Miss Birmingham knew how to enjoy herself. She may have been living in a dull suburb of Mito, she may have been working at a reputable private kindergarten, and she may have been able to speak no more than a few words of Japanese, but she could turn something as mundane as a trip to the video shop into a wild night out, and when she really was on a wild night out, all bets were off. Being a mild-mannered thirty-four-year-old fogey who liked to be tucked up in bed by ten-thirty with a good book and a cup of herbal tea, I often wondered why I spent so much of my spare time with a twenty-one-year-old party girl whose top five hobbies were – in no particular order – drinking, smoking, shopping, flirting and clubbing. But I have often needed a gregarious friend to bring me out of my shell, and this was true more than ever when attempting to cope with culture shock. If you are living in a foreign country, it is all too easy to become alienated, or to avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding by simply staying at home, so for someone who was anti-social in the first place, the influence – be it good or bad – of a personality like Miss Birmingham’s was essential if I was to make the most of my time in Japan. And on a deeper level, while Miss Birmingham appeared to be enjoying herself twenty-four hours a day, beneath the surface she was grappling with exactly the same kind of problems as I was, problems that affected her job, her relationship, her health, and whether or not she was going to stay in the country at all. There was never any question of us becoming romantically intertwined – we were much more like brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend – but we had what I suspect many ex-pats around the world also share: a friendship that during the time we were drawn together was unusually intimate, a two-person support network that made living in a foreign country fun, often against the odds.
‘Oh, and I went to Hong Kong as well. I stayed at Mr Hong Kong’s place, and he’s got this roof terrace, so you can just sunbathe all day.’ (Mr Hong Kong also used to live in Mito, but was deported when the authorities realised he had been working there illegally.) ‘We went out every night, got really drunk... On the last night he got so drunk he could hardly stand up – I had to find our way back to the apartment and help him up the stairs. It was fantastic, but I spent so much money. I bought these Gucci sunglasses – you’ll never guess how much they cost.’
‘I don’t know. Fifty quid? A hundred?’
‘No, they were two hundred and fifty quid.’
‘I had to have them, though. They’re so cool.’
Admittedly, Miss Birmingham did earn good money, but two hundred and fifty pounds was the equivalent of about two weeks’ budget for my cycle tour, and my phone call had had the desired effect. Comparing our respective summer holidays, I felt that I could afford to feel pretty smug, this being quite possibly the most picturesque place I had ever spent the night. With shadows creeping out across the car park and the caldera bathed in the warm, golden light of a summer’s evening, I told Miss Birmingham to take care of herself and headed back towards Aso Town.
When it comes to onsen, different people have different routines. Many Japanese are addicted to the sauna, into which they will disappear several times during the course of an hour or so. But for me the sauna can be too hot and dry, and the one at the onsen near Aso Station made it feel as if someone had applied a layer of Deep Heat directly to my forehead. After a single sweltering minute I ducked out, only to be confronted with the mizuburo (水風呂 / cold bath), the very sight of which made my body tense up. Bearing in mind that the less you move, the less icy it feels (in some onsen the hot water can be almost unendurable, particularly for a westerner, but the same rule applies, in that the less you move, the less it feels as if you are being boiled alive), I waded in and sat down, something that is admittedly an easier manoeuvre to execute in summer. Today the mizuburo felt particularly soothing on the knees, and after another warming stint, this time in the rotenburo (露天風呂 / outdoor bath), I became a little less tentative. By the third or fourth time the mizuburo began to feel like my one true destiny in life, and similar to riding up a steep hill, I could sense the germ of an addiction taking root. Not only that, but I was refreshed on my return to the changing rooms, and not at all like the sizzling sausage one normally resembles after a hot bath.
After dinner at another branch of ‘Joyfull’ (see Day 4), I cycled back to the campsite at around nine thirty. It was now pitch dark, and by my front light the empty shopping basket threw a strange, latticework shadow across the road. As it swung from side to side with each pedal stroke, this white glow was all that I could see, and the only other living things en route were a pack of dogs that surprised me for the third time that day by barking suddenly from behind a garden gate. Toothbrush in hand, I took one last stroll along the ridge before turning in, to contemplate the twinkling streetlights of Aso Town below and their stellar counterparts up above.