Presents given – Kyushu Mapple
Further and further up the valley I went, until the narrow road ventured into the woods and signs of human habitation began to peter out. Drizzle turned to rain, rain became a downpour, and I had to stop and lean the Mariposa against a tree. Standing under the densest cover of cedar branches I could find, I waited, and for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, there was no let up. As I kept to my cosy patch of ground, rain was all that I could see against the darkness of the forest, and all that I could hear as it fell to the ground to form streams that washed their way downhill. There was nowhere to sit and no one to talk to, I couldn’t read a book or write my diary, and at first the delay was frustrating, as I was still determined to prove last night’s naysayer wrong by reaching the crossing to Honshu in a single day. But soon such thoughts fell by the wayside, and a stillness took over, as the lack of anything to do, or anything else to think about, became calming. I stood and watched, and that was enough. After perhaps an hour or more, the sky seemed to lighten just a little, and having broken out my pac-a-mac I continued on, hissing plumes of spray flying up from the Mariposa’s tyres as they weaved their way around the deepest standing water. By the time I reached Kiri-Ishi Pass the rain had stopped altogether, and a tunnel pointed the way northwards (as with Lake Shidaka, it took several years before my knowledge of kanji was good enough to track down the correct pronunciation of the characters for Kiri-Ishi - 斫石 - which mean ‘stone cut with a sword’).
Despite a conscious effort not to push it too far on the corners, I almost came a cropper on the descent, the Mariposa’s back tyre wobbling precariously on a slick of mud thrown up by some roadworks. But the road soon levelled off, became wider and more congested, and alongside it were the footprints of heavy industry. I passed a huge cement works that towered over the houses surrounding it – a Heath Robinson tangle of pipes, chutes and conveyors gouging great swathes of rock from the hillside – before pulling into the spacious car park of a tempura restaurant: spacious because almost every other vehicle on the road was now a truck, transporting goods and materials through a corridor of commercial activity to the northern tip of Kyushu.
You may have noticed that I am referring to food and drink a great deal in these posts, and looking back, I seem to have developed an obsession with such matters on a par with the natives. True, the touring cyclist needs plenty of sustenance, and is prone to timing his stops based on hunger and thirst. But more than that, after a year and a half in Japan, I was actually beginning to find food interesting. Whereas the British will break the ice at parties by talking about the weather, the Japanese tend to dwell on matters culinary, and I have therefore had numerous and minutely detailed discussions about dietary habits, chopstick technique, and what on earth baked beans and Marmite could possibly taste like. The Japanese are even in the habit of taking pictures of their food, and when someone shows you their holiday snaps, you are just as likely to see mouth-watering platters of sushi or bowls of noodles as a sunlit beach or a snow-capped mountain. Also, if you do happen to be going on holiday, you will almost certainly have to answer the following questions:
1) Asked before you leave: ‘What do you want to eat when you get to Hawaii / Paris / Bognor Regis?’
2) Asked after a few days of your holiday have passed: ‘What do you miss about the food at home?
3) Asked as the holiday draws to a close: ‘What are you going to eat when you get back?’
4) Asked once the holiday is over: ‘What was the most delicious / unusual / disgusting food you ate in Hawaii / Paris / Bognor Regis?’
You may think that I am being facetious in mentioning Bognor Regis, and you would be right, but there is a serious point here, which relates to the Japanese passion for regional delicacies. While the UK has its fair share of Yorkshire puddings, Cornish pasties and Welsh rarebits, for example, these are readily available elsewhere in the country. In Japan, however, such dishes are more varied and more specific to the locale in which they are produced, as well as being discussed at much greater length by the people who eat them. The Japanese distinguish between as many varieties of mushroom, seaweed or noodles as the Eskimos do between varieties of snow, and will produce countless variations on a signature dish, some of which can only be found in a single city, town or even restaurant. I was once driven by some friends from Mito for several hours with the sole purpose of visiting just such an establishment, whose menu consisted exclusively of dishes derived from yuba (湯葉), a specific variety of tofu. To me it tasted pretty much like any other kind of tofu, but the meal was treated with due reverance, conversation revolved around the subtleties of yuba, and samples of it were bought as presents, to be distributed among friends upon our return home. Even if it were possible to locate the correct ingredients, one would never dream of trying to replicate such a dish in one’s own kitchen, and countless inter-regional rivalries have developed, based on the fact that each believes their own version of a dish to be superior.
Unable to read most menus, and only having learned the names of about two or three different types of seaweed thus far, I was unlikely to come across anything too obscure except by accident. Still, eating out was my one luxury for the summer, and with no desire to carry a gas stove, a saucepan and a tin plate, I intended to balance out the privations of camping and cycling with a healthy array of slap-up dinners. Tempura is one of the most palatable dishes for the westerner, and manages to be lighter than most other varieties of deep-fried food, since its batter is made using low-gluten flour and rarely contains additives like milk or beer. Visit a typical trucker’s caff in the UK and your arteries will be just that little bit more constricted by the time you pay your bill, but here the food was magnificent, and cost little more than a typical fried breakfast. My tei-shoku (定食 / set meal) consisted of sticky white rice, miso soup, a plate of assorted tempura (pumpkin, aubergine, prawn, white fish and so on - meat is deep-fried in breadcrumbs and called katsu), a bowl of dipping sauce (diluted soy sauce, essentially), tsukemono and minced daikon (大根 – or mouli as we call them – large white radish), and the thing is, this kind of restaurant is not the exception in Japan, but the rule. I really should have taken a photo, it was that good.
A week ago I had only skirted the city of Kita-Kyushu, and now found myself on its main street, which was dominated by a monorail and expressway on huge concrete supports. Towering over everything, they cast such a shadow that it was like being at the bottom of a canyon, and made a grey day even gloomier. What little character I could find among the urban sprawl was manufactured, as reaching the coast, I came across a strange new harbour development called Mojiko Retro. This resembled something from Nineteenth Century New England, with a wooden boardwalk and brightly coloured buildings in the Colonial style, which was all charming enough, but there were too few visitors to give the place any kind of atmosphere, and I couldn’t help feeling that the locals did their shopping somewhere else entirely.
My route to Honshu led through the Kanmon Pedestrian Tunnel, which along with the Kanmon Road Tunnel and the Kanmon Rail Tunnel passes beneath the Kanmon Straits and the Kanmon Bridge. Reaching it meant riding an elevator to more than fifty metres below ground, where the air was hot and stuffy, and the walls adorned with jaunty pictures of tropical fish. From here a rubberised pathway sloped gently downhill to the tunnel’s halfway point, before sloping gently uphill again, for a total of about eight hundred metres.
My keitai told me that the chances of rain between six p.m. and midnight were ninety per cent, and it was high time I treated myself to a proper bed, so I made for Shimonoseki Youth Hostel, which was a good deal more luxurious than the sort of place in which I used to stay as a teenager. Back in the eighties, the British arm of the YHA was still espousing the virtues of co-operation, and as justification for the low cost of a bed for the night, hostellers were expected to muck in with the chores and cook their own food. Like a military barracks, a hostel’s sleeping quarters typically consisted of large dormitories lined with rows of bunk beds, so you were liable to be disturbed as your fellow guests rolled in late from the pub, snored loudly, and rose the following day at the crack of dawn. In Japan at least, things had clearly progressed, and Shimonoseki Youth Hostel was equipped with free broadband, washing machines, a bath and showers, with all of the cleaning and cooking performed, hotel-like, by the proprietors. There were just four bunks per room, whose French windows afforded impressive views across the Kanmon Straits towards Kyushu, and the only downside was a nine thirty p.m. curfew. This meant that I would have to hurry if I was to go out for an evening meal (dinner was already over by the time I arrived), but in keeping with the spirit of YHA altruism, there was also no risk that I would disturb my roommates at some ungodly hour of the night.
Venturing into the backstreets I found a fish restaurant, and since the menu was largely incomprehensible, allowed the chef to prepare whatever he thought was the most appropriate meal for a starving cyclist. Beer in hand, I was keen to find someone to talk to, and turned to the person sitting next to me at the bar, a middle-aged man in work overalls with greying hair. Hunched over his own drink and reluctant to make eye contact, he was initially unforthcoming, although I did manage to glean from him that he worked as a rice farmer. Given the almost holy reverance that people have for rice in Japan – particularly of the home-produced variety – I suggested to him that this must be a very important job, but he was cagey about the details, except to say that it involved getting up very early indeed. Once we had changed the subject, however, he began to relax a little, and was soon cracking jokes with the chef about my ability to eat such an unusual dish – in this case a kind of risotto soup containing fish and vegetables. If I wanted to take in a bit of culture as well, he said, there was a firework display the following evening for which I ought to stick around. Such displays can make their overseas equivalent look paltry by comparison, but I was reluctant to take another day off so soon after Mount Aso, and Shimonoseki didn’t strike me as quite such a stimulating place in which to spend one. Checking my watch, I realised the curfew was imminent, and wolfed down the rest of my dinner before paying the bill. I was just unlocking the Mariposa outside when the farmer reappeared.
‘Do you fancy another drink?’ he asked.
‘I haven’t got much time, actually. I’m supposed to be back at the youth hostel by nine thirty.’
‘Only I’ve got some beers in the fridge back at my place. It’s not a particularly big apartment, but we can watch a bit of TV or something.’ Now that he was standing up, it became clear that he had been drinking for some time, and that more beer might not be such a good idea.
‘I’d like to, but then I wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep, and all of my stuff is at the youth hostel.’
‘Come on. The curfew doesn’t matter. They’ll still let you in.’
‘I don’t know, they seemed pretty strict about it to me.’
Sensing my reluctance, the farmer began to propound his theory that we were, in fact, soul brothers. ‘You know, the English and the Japanese have a lot in common. We’re the same inside, we have a strong heart.’ He grabbed my sleeve with one hand and pounded his chest with the other as if to emphasise the point.
‘Oh yes. I like the Japanese. They’re very kind and generous. We’re, er…we’re very similar.’
‘How about watching the fireworks tomorrow, then?’
‘Look, I’ve really got to go, otherwise they’ll lock the doors on me.’
‘We can meet in that bar over the road.’ He pointed towards a brightly lit building at the water’s edge. ‘It’s the perfect place to see them from.’
‘I’m not sure I’ll still be here…’ I was on the Mariposa now, pedalling along the pavement as the farmer jogged to keep up.
‘I’ll be there about eight o’clock.’
‘Right. Eight o’clock. Might see you there.’
I felt a little guilty as I sped away from my new best friend, and hoped that he wouldn’t mind too much when I failed to turn up for the fireworks, or better still, that the shock of getting up early for work would serve to blank out his memory of our meeting altogether.
It was a quarter to ten by the time I got back to the youth hostel, where the doors, I was interested to note, were still open, and while I was waiting for another guest to finish using the computer, the hostel’s manager came over for a chat. I asked him about a faded photograph on the noticeboard that depicted him in his younger days, standing in what could have been the Sahara desert or some Andean plateau, next to an old-style touring bicycle whose front and back panniers were laden with gear. Over the course of two years, he explained, he had circumnavigated the globe, visiting some fifty countries along the way, although these days he appeared content to live vicariously through his guests. After little more than a week on the road, the thought of a round-the-world trip did indeed make me jealous, and I presented him with my Kyushu Mapple as a gift, which he added to the youth hostel’s modest library. He said that I would need to be up for breakfast at eight, so I turned in early, to sleep indoors, under real sheets, on a real mattress, and in a real bed, for the first time since leaving Mito.