Presents received – instant coffee, toast, salad, can of beer
I am terrible with names, particularly Japanese ones, and I am ashamed to say that I know the names of hardly anyone I met during the six weeks of my trip. Either they told me and I forgot, or I neglected to ask in the first place, although I have since had an interesting conversation on the subject with a customer in a Tokyo fish restaurant. Upon being asked for his name, the man shook his head and waved away the enquiry, saying that in Japan, people do not do so when they have only just met. Instead, they will get to know each other a little better and save the matter for later. Perhaps this man, whose name I consequently never found out, was right, but in any case, with one or two exceptions, the people I met while on tour will forever be men, women or children, campers or caretakers, managers or members of staff. Something that was due more to shyness on my part, and about which I feel guiltier, is the fact that I took hardly any photographs of these people. Looking at my album there are plenty of landscapes, plenty of detailed studies, plenty of buildings, roads and bridges, but hardly any portraits. I suppose I was happy enough to be able to converse with strangers without also having to ask if they minded being committed to film (or rather, to memory card). What frustrates me is that it needn’t have been that way, because the Japanese are rarely shy in front of a camera, and will always proffer a peace sign and say ‘cheese’ if asked – more to the point, people often took photos of me during the course of the summer, so it was almost rude not to have returned the compliment. But anyway, the family with whom I breakfasted were a middle-aged couple from Kyushu, who often came to Hikimi on holiday and were looking after their two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both of around four or five years old. I did not find out their names and I also didn’t take a picture, for which I apologise.
Having woken up at around nine thirty after my soundest night’s sleep of the summer so far, they gave me coffee, toast and salad (all I needed was a hard boiled egg for the complete morningu setto), and invited me to go fishing with them in a tributary of the Hikimi River that cascaded down the valley next to the campsite. The water was cool and clear, and tiny leaves floated on its mirror-smooth surface between heaps of boulders, which were so numerous that you could work your way up or downstream by jumping from one to the next.
As you learn any foreign language, you begin to track your progress by applying an age-equivalent to your level, and while under normal circumstances I liked to think of myself as getting on for four or five, the irony is that the way children of that age speak is entirely different from how I had been taught. So despite being fun, hanging out with these two was very much like hanging out with a couple of aliens. To them I probably sounded like Victorian Dad, hopelessly stuffy and old-fashioned, and to me they sounded like chirping birds or squeaking dolphins, chatty and charming but completely incomprehensible.
The large frame tent in which they were sleeping was on a wooden platform, with built-in anchors to which guy ropes could be attached, and this, I now realised, was the more expensive pitch I had been told about by the campsite’s receptionist the previous evening. My own tent was nestled between tree roots on the bare earth nearby, and the site as a whole was spread over a large area, with a rope bridge across the river, a few log cabins and a wooden dining hall. Grandad had only been able to furnish me with instant coffee, so I went to the latter in search of something stronger, only to encounter a subtly different but equally frustrating language problem.
A young woman in plain black work clothes and an apron was standing behind the counter, and I thought to myself, 'Great, we’ll have loads to talk about!' As I waded in with some small talk, she listened patiently and answered politely, but despite our best efforts, the conversation faltered within minutes.
Up until now I have been very flattering in translating my conversations with the Japanese in their native tongue, but it might help to be more literal for once, and to give you a better idea of what they had to cope with:
Good morning. Can I help you?
(Theatrically pointing at counter top)
Er, is coffee here?
Yes. Would you like a cup of coffee?
Yes. A coffee, if you would be so kind.
(MUZUHASHI raises his eyebrows to make sure the WAITRESS knows that what follows is a question)
Um, you…are you…work here?
Yes, I do.
For summer? Summer job? Is it...part-time job?
Yes, it’s a summer job.
(Beginning to sweat now as he searches for the right words, while the WAITRESS smiles sympathetically and listens to everything he says with exaggerated interest)
What time…when is it from? How many months would that be?
About two or three months. We start in June and there are people staying here until the end of August.
(MUZUHASHI is now floundering, as his attempt at small talk begins to sound more and more like a police interrogation)
Do you…do you, er…have work after? In September?
I’m at university.
I’m a university student.
(His eyes light up as he finally understands)
Ah, I see! And where might that be?
(Her smile faltering from the sheer effort of having to feign interest for such a sustained period of time)
In Hiroshima. I’m in my second year.
Interesting! May I enquire after your…er, your major?
And so on and so forth. For the poor girl behind the counter it was like being stuck talking to the retarded guy, the one with no social skills who left school before his GCSEs, never got a job, and perennially hangs around in charity shops or on park benches, while for me it was like being a precocious primary school student who is suddenly presented with the opportunity to meet the Queen. Resigned to conversational defeat, I sat alone at a table outside, and once I had consumed enough caffeine to rouse a tranquilised rhinoceros, bid the waitress a very brief goodbye.
Despite its modest size and relative isolation from the outside world, Hikimi does possess one sizeable tourist attraction, namely a large wooden maze. Back in the eighties such life-size puzzles were incredibly popular, and every year up to ten million paying customers would lose themselves in mazes all over Japan. The prime mover behind this maze craze – if you will forgive the rather lame attempt at assonance – was an entrepreneur from New Zealand called Stuart Landsborough, and this maze in Hikimi was the first of twenty of his designs to be franchised for construction, including one in Mito. But while a theme park in Landsborough’s home country still thrives – along with several of his mazes elsewhere in the world – Japan has almost completely lost interest, and there are now just two left.
Not that I knew any of this as I approached the maze, and as there didn’t appear to be anyone selling tickets, I simply wandered in and spent the next hour or so becoming progressively more disorientated. Around a central area of two-metre-high fences, there were four small towers and several raised walkways, and as I traversed these or backtracked from numerous dead ends, it became clear that conquering the maze wasn’t simply a matter of finding one’s way to the middle. Mazes such as this were originally designed to accommodate as many as fifteen hundred people at a time, with rescue crews on hand to help anyone who found it all too much, or who appeared liable to spend the night if left to their own devices. Today there was just me, a father and his two sons, who appeared when I had already been walking around for at least half an hour, and who were each carrying some kind of score sheet. As in a game of orienteering, the object was to locate various stations within the maze, mark your score sheet with the relevant stamps as proof that you had done so, and collect a certain number before exiting, preferably within as short a time as possible. But it was as much as I could do to find my way back out, by which time my caffeine high had worn off and I no longer had the energy to start again from scratch. A member of staff was now stationed in the ticket office, and having spent so much time on the premises, I insisted on paying her the entry fee, even though I hadn’t exactly made the most of the experience.
As was the case during my day off in Mount Aso, I felt out of sorts. Rather than appreciating the rest, my body longed to be back in the saddle, and cycling seemed to be the only way in which I could return to being alert and energetic. As I tuned in to its sounds and its rhythms, its mechanisms and its idiosyncrasies, the Mariposa was becoming an extension of my own body, and I was particularly sensitive to the gears, which governed how we related to the road, and acted as the connection between my physical exertion and how smoothly or quickly we moved. The way the chain clicked as it spun round in twelfth; the way it sometimes skipped fourth or fifth as I changed up, or failed to move into sixth even when I twisted the gear shift all the way round; the way I was able to tell which gear we were in merely from how the Mariposa felt to ride, and without checking the numbers on the gear shift, or on which sprocket the chain was turning. It wasn’t exactly man and machine in perfect harmony, but despite its many shortcomings – or perhaps because of them – if you had put me on a different bicycle, or, God forbid, taken the Mariposa away from me altogether, I would have felt quite bereft.
After my evening onsen and another dirt-cheap tei-shoku in the same restaurant at which I had dined the previous evening, I returned to the campsite to find various youngsters wandering around the car park with torches in their hands. They were conducting a bug hunt, and within seconds of my arrival had descended on me with big hairy caterpillars in their hands, or even bigger – though thankfully dead – cicadas. The children from the tent next door had seemed equally lacking in fear during our fishing trip, gleefully grabbing handfuls of worms and maggots as bait, and thrusting them towards me as I tried to pretend that I wasn’t scared. I, on the other hand, had even stopped using the campsite’s toilet block because whenever I stood at the urinal, a circling formation of flies would appear to pester me, and on the wall above lurked daddy long legs that truly lived up to their name, alongside spiders, mosquitoes, and moths the size of mobile phones.
As the children continued their quest to find the most enormous insect in Hikimi, two of their parents introduced themselves and offered me a can of beer. They were unusually attentive and regularly nodded in agreement – both at me and each other – and we soon got onto the subject of languages. My absolute faith in immersion meant that despite regularly lacking the confidence to talk to strangers, I was putting pressure on myself to do so almost every time I stopped the Mariposa. This not only caused me to become disappointed with my progress, it also made me confused as to why I was so timid in the first place – was it because I lacked the linguistic skills, the social skills, or both? Looking back, such insecurity wasn’t entirely justified, especially when you take into account the essentially reserved nature of the Japanese. Unlike the United States, for example, where every man and his dog can be your best friend within five minutes of meeting them, in Japan, such things require perseverance, and while there may well have been a discrepancy between the apparent kindness of strangers and how genuine a connection I made with them, my decision not to dwell in one place for any longer than a night or two made this inevitable. By the same token, the couple explained that like many Japanese, they were wary of talking to foreigners not because they didn’t want to, and not necessarily because they were too shy, but because they had so little confidence in their own ability to speak English. I have on numerous occasions seen parents nudge their embarrassed child and say, ‘Speak English!’ upon encountering a gaijin, and confronted with such pressure, the children come to associate English with fear, which cannot be the best way to learn. And yet here I was, just as afraid as everyone else, and all because I put the same kind of pressure on myself (perhaps this stemmed from my current profession, and I was treating myself as I would one of my own students?). It was ironic too, I thought, that three people who were supposedly so frightened of each other should be standing around in a car park, drinking and chatting away, seemingly without a care in the world.