Presents received – two beers, chips, salad, extra hour’s onsen charge
‘Bebo-ban! Bebo-dan! Bedo-dan!’
I looked at my watch. It was before seven and sunlight was already sliding down the outside of the Snow Peak.
‘Dedo-dan! Medo-dan! Medo-jan!’
What the hell were these kids talking about? Was it some sort of playground taunt? Were they telling one of their friends that he smelled, over and over again?
‘Debo-dan! Mebo-dan! Mebo-jan!’
No matter which one spoke, the intonation was always the same, a grating high-high-low, high-high-low.
‘Mego-jan! Mego-chan! Nego-chan!’
After several minutes of keeping my eyes resolutely shut, it was clear they weren’t going to stop, so I peered out to see what was going on. Three toddlers, already wired with energy at this unreasonable hour, were trying to make friends with the mangy looking campsite cat, crouched a few metres away and eyeing them with suspicion.
‘Neko-chan! Neko-chan! Neko-chan!’
Of course! This was the prowler who had kept me awake the night before, and now that I could see what was going on, it was easy to unscramble the kids’ mantra: neko is ‘cat’ and chan is a term of affection for close friends, relatives or pets, so:
‘Here kitty-kitty! Here kitty-kitty! Here kitty-kitty!’
Not that this made me feel any better about such a rude awakening, and within a further half-hour I was dressed, packed and yawning my way back to the main road, past fields of sunflowers as their petals unfurled to drink in the warmth of a new day.
Route 438 snaked its way up, down and along a narrow river valley, and work was under way to make it straighter and wider, the early morning traffic contra-flowed to one side as brand new bridges, cuttings and crash barriers took shape. The landscape levelled off as I neared Tokushima City, at whose port Mr Sturdy Level had disembarked from the ferry to Kita-Kyushu nearly three weeks before, and after more than a week without email – not to mention the BBC Sport homepage – I headed for the first internet café I could find.
Still marvelling at the fact that the England cricket team had managed to win the Second Test against Australia, I then followed the coast road towards Naruto, and came across a restaurant whose name was nothing if not karmic. ENGLAND had several welcoming Union Jacks on its signage, and I opened the front door with my mouth watering at the prospect of fish and chips, bubble and squeak, or perhaps a spot of tea and tiffin. Once inside, however, there were no portraits of the Queen and no signed photos of the cast of Eastenders, and I got the distinct impression that a fried breakfast would not be in the offing.
‘Excuse me,’ I enquired in my best Japanese. ‘Is this restaurant open?’
The manageress was glamorous but stern looking in a bouffant hairdo and heavy make-up, and while she eyed me suspiciously, the two waitresses behind her stood rooted to the spot. They were probably surprised to hear a foreigner speak the language, I thought. Best ask again, just to make sure.
‘Er, excuse me, is this restaurant open?’
Still no response. Babs Windsor, Wendy Richard and Lorraine Chase these three most definitely were not. In fact, I may well have been the first Londoner ever to set foot on the premises (or rather, the first Mockney – I am a Londoner by long-term residency rather than by birth). Convinced that what I was saying made at least a modicum of sense, I tried again, only this time more slowly and deliberately.
‘Excuse. Me. Is. This. Restaurant. Open?’
The manageress looked at me as if I had just accused her of running a brothel.
‘Pardon?’ she said.
From an initial air of buoyant expectancy on my part, the atmosphere was now positively tense, and somehow I didn’t feel hungry any more. In one final effort I resorted to the power of mime, gesturing towards the empty tables and lifting an imaginary glass to my lips. This seemed to do the trick, as I was directed to sit down and a menu placed in my hands, although not by either of the waitresses, who took several minutes to close their mouths, stop staring and get back to work. I would have liked to tell them that I was English, to see their faces light up with excitement at the coincidence and bombard me with questions, but here of all places, native Japanese was the only possible option, and in any case, they were clearly not Anglophiles. Like a westerner with a kanji tattoo, the owners of ENGLAND were appropriating a slice of foreign culture not because they had ever been to the place or understood anything about it, but because they thought it looked cool, which I suppose made me feel homesick. I wanted to be back in England itself, not behind its façade, and feeling a little let down, I apologised in both languages and left as quickly as I could, without so much as ordering a cup of Gypsy Rose Lee. It must have been a blip, though, a trick designed to lure unsuspecting gaijin into the linguistic Twilight Zone, because the assistant at a cake shop down the road was the very embodiment of politeness, and understood everything I said to her.
From Naruto, my intention was to head northeast across Awajijima, a long, narrow island between Shikoku and Honshu. Like the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido, the Kobé-Awaji-Naruto-Jidoshado is another massive engineering project with enormous suspension bridges and a ridiculously long name, which island-hops via Awajijima to the mainland. Both an expressway and a train line cross Awajijima towards Kobé, but I was told by the woman behind the counter at Naruto Tourist Information Centre that bicycles are forbidden from travelling on either – unless they have been taken apart and stashed as luggage, that is. The nearest ferry towards Honshu ran from Takamatsu, which was sixty kilometres north-west, so I now faced another two or three days’ cycling, and since I would be unable to stay on Awajijima tonight as planned, I also had to retrace my steps to a campsite near Tokushima Airport, where instead of a beach and a sea view, I found a chunk of the Pacific in the process of being reclaimed.
This new peninsula, which covered an area of at least a square kilometre, was being built to accommodate an extension to the runway next door. It was contoured like a quarry, with carved ramps and dam-like walls, and if you looked closely, each one of the procession of trucks that drove onto it was depositing a full load of sand: building the ground up from nothing, as opposed to tearing it down and carrying it away.
Having checked in at the campsite, I was directed to an onsen that was more functional than the tourist variety to which I had grown accustomed, and presumably frequented by workers from the airport and nearby docks. It was resolutely unrefined, and the changing rooms felt like a factory cloakroom, with hundreds of clanking metal lockers and, I noticed, a vending machine that sold plain white razors, toothbrushes, vests and even underpants. (Contrary to popular belief, there do not appear to be any vending machines in Japan that sell used schoolgirls’ knickers, and believe me, I’ve looked everywhere for them.) In the onsen itself was the usual array of jacuzzis, medicated, hot, cold, indoor and outdoor baths, and now and again, a customer would disappear behind a large shower curtain for a massage. In keeping with the Japanese lack of inhibitions, the masseuse herself, who emerged once or twice from her inner sanctum (clothed, of course), did not seem fazed at being in the presence of so many naked men, and the feeling appeared to be mutual. Indeed, it is not uncommon to be walking around an onsen stark naked, and have to swerve to avoid a woman who is cleaning the floor or collecting discarded towels. The only prerequisite for landing such a job appears to be old age, as I suppose a younger woman might be more distracted – and would certainly cause more of a stir – should she find herself surrounded by so much exposed male flesh.
Something much more intriguing set this particular onsen apart, however, and that was the mysterious but unmistakable aroma of curry. Having assumed that it was drifting in from the kitchen or from a neighbouring restaurant, I eventually found its source in a big bath of orange liquid, clearly labelled as the Curry Onsen. Perched beside it was a bucket of sauce that looked very much like the sort of thing you might eat from a foil takeaway tin, and the idea was apparently to paint yourself with this before spending five minutes in the bath itself. Not wanting to miss out on such a unique opportunity, I slopped some sauce over my chest and shoulders with the brush provided, and sat in the bath trying to read the information board above it, which detailed the many supposed health benefits of bathing in curry. It was a little heavy on the turmeric, I thought, but given some onions, peppers, maybe a few prawns and a side order of naan, would make for a reasonable meal. No matter how much I adjusted my position, however, the chilli seemed to be zeroing in on one particularly sensitive spot, and after barely two minutes, I leapt to my feet and into the mizuburo.
Still feeling the after-effects several minutes later, I went outside to sit on a wooden bench and allow the cool breeze to circulate beneath my tenugui.
‘It makes your dick hurt, doesn’t it?’
A mischievous looking middle-aged man came and sat next to me, clearly having noted the surprise and discomfort of a curry onsen rookie. It was the first time a stranger had ever approached me in an onsen and, completely unprompted, started a conversation.
‘Yes, it does,’ I winced. ‘I only managed a couple of minutes. How about you? Did you stay in there for five?’
‘Of course. It’s very healthy, you know. Where are you from anyway? Are you English?’
‘I am, actually, yes.’
‘Ah, I thought so. I had that David Beckham in the back of my cab once. He was a very nice man, and ever since then, I’ve loved English people. I’m not too keen on Americans, mind you, but the English are a good bunch. What are you doing afterwards?’
‘I’m going to see the Awaodori.’
‘Well, don’t go yet. Meet me outside the changing rooms and I’ll buy you a beer.’
Originally from Shikoku and in Tokushima for a family visit, Mr Young Forest worked as a taxi driver in Osaka (his story was certainly credible, as the England team – including Beckham – had played a match in Osaka during the 2002 World Cup), and was just as talkative and opinionated as his cab-driving colleagues in London. Besides Americans, he also wasn’t too keen on Osaka-jin, Tokyo-jin, Junichiro Koizumi (the prime minister at the time – Mr Young Forest was going to vote for a female candidate in the forthcoming election) and the Awaodori, which is a dance festival unique to Tokushima Prefecture
‘It’s boring and it goes on all night, so there’s no need to hurry. Come on, have another beer.’ We were in the relaxation area, and Mr Young Forest had returned to the ticket machine to buy more food. ‘Do English people like chips?’
‘How about salad?’
‘I do, but that’s more unusual for an Englishman.’
A couple of minutes later a waitress brought beer, chips and salad to the table, we said ‘Kanpai!’ (乾杯 / ‘Cheers!’), and Mr Young Forest continued to expound his philosophy of life. As far as I could tell, he had a theory about the fundamental psychological similarities between the Japanese and the English, but as we both became more drunk and his accent more difficult to decipher, the specifics were a little hazy. Although I offered to go halves, he insisted on paying for everything – including the charge I had incurred for overrunning my time in the onsen – and wished me luck before disappearing into the night.
The Awaodori attracts over a million tourists every year, and has been around in various forms for centuries. In the past it was as much about drinking and fighting as dancing, but these days the noise is the only thing likely to annoy the neighbours, and as I approached the centre of Naruto, the rumbling of taiko (太鼓 / Japanese drums) grew louder and louder. An area of several blocks had been closed off to traffic, with a succession of teams dancing and drumming their way slowly towards a central arena. Each team consisted of twenty or thirty women and children dressed in colourful silk yukata, followed by ten or fifteen musicians, the men playing taiko and the women the shamisen (三味線), a banjo-like stringed instrument. The women wore circular straw hats that were folded in half to resemble a taco shell, and the men hachimaki (鉢巻), a kind of doughnut-shaped bandana. As the dancers swung their concertina fans in small, swooping hand movements, the musicians maintained a pulsating, hypnotic rhythm, and all the while the procession edged forwards in delicate and intricately rehearsed steps.