Presents received – dinner, several beers
Situated at the meeting point of three continental plates, Japan is more prone to earthquakes than any other country in the world, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it is a dangerous place to live. In reality – and like our perception of the threat from terrorism or violent crime, for example – the chances of falling victim to an earthquake are incredibly small, and you are much more likely to die in a car crash, of a heart attack, or from sticking a knife in a toaster. As it happens, living through a small-scale quake can be more fun than frightening, and whether you are lying in bed, eating out or at work, the experience is usually quite predictable. First the room begins to shake, although gently at first, so that it can be a few seconds before people catch on to what is happening; then the shaking intensifies, to the point where crockery and glassware rattle and furniture sways back and forth; and finally, after somewhere between ten and thirty seconds, the movement subsides and everything returns to normal. The severity of a quake can be judged by the direction of its tremors: if they are from side to side there is nothing to worry about, but if they are up and down it is time to evacuate the building as soon as possible, or, if you happen to be any higher than the first or second floor, to hide under the nearest table. Rather than panic and run screaming through the streets, the sensible expat should try to appear as blasé as possible, and many Japanese will hardly react at all, except to briefly look up from what they are doing when the quake becomes perceptible, just to make sure that its tremors are not of the up-and-down variety. In a year and a half in Japan, I had only experienced side-to-side quakes, and the nearest thing to structural damage I had seen was at a supermarket, where a few bars of soap and bottles of shampoo had toppled from their shelves and fallen to the floor. It seems to me that you are less likely to realise an earthquake is taking place when you are moving around outside, and on that occasion I had been riding the Mariposa, with no physical sensation that a quake had hit, just the unnerving sound of rattling windows all around me.
Of course, the reason Japan has suffered so few earthquake-related fatalities – in modern times, at least – is because it is a First World nation, and can afford to make its architecture, roads, railways and coastline comparatively earthquake- and tsunami-proof: ‘comparatively’ being the operative word, as during the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, more than two hundred thousand buildings collapsed, together with a large section of the Hanshin Expressway and much of Kobé’s port. Over six thousand lives were lost, making it Japan’s worst natural disaster since the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of Tokyo and its surroundings in 1923 [editor’s note: that is of course until the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which took place after I wrote this account of my tour], although when the earthquake struck, through some quirk of tectonics its devastation was confined to the lower, coastal area of the city, leaving the hilly suburbs above largely untouched.
It wasn’t until I joined the rush hour traffic that I realised just how far above sea level I had ended up the previous evening, and how clear a division there exists between the area around my emergency campsite and the city centre below. Alongside a modest memorial to the earthquake stands Kobé Port Tower, from the observation deck of which I emailed Mr Sturdy Level to let him know that I would soon be arriving in Osaka. We arranged to meet for a drink later on, which meant a short ride along the coast, and practically a day off compared to yesterday’s odyssey. This gave me time to stop at an internet café, where despite explaining how unlikely it was that I would ever return, the assistant insisted that I fill out the paperwork and become a member. All I really wanted to do was to check on England’s progress in the Third Test, but due to the time difference, the first over of the final day was still several hours away, so I looked at my CDs of photographs instead. The shot of the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima had come out particularly well, and I tinkered with the PC’s control panel so that it appeared on the desktop, before changing my mind at the last minute, in case anyone thought I was trying to offend them with some kind of subversive statement about the war.
Kobé merged seamlessly with Osaka, and despite its proximity, I hardly caught a glimpse of the sea, which was obscured for the most part by expressways, high rises and reclaimed land. Back in the days when Japan had more money than it knew what to do with, land reclamation was all the rage, and several major airports, including Haneda in Tokyo Bay, Chubu near Nagoya and Kansai International in Osaka, are built on man-made islands. Like many public works projects these were enormously expensive, leaving local authorities heavily in debt, and as a consequence, Osaka has been practically bankrupt since the mid-nineties (or so I've been told, anyway). Still, the city felt a lot less claustrophobic than Tokyo, partly because the population is smaller, but also because the surrounding mountains are readily visible from its wide streets.
After lunch I phoned both of Osaka’s youth hostels, and while the first had a ten p.m. curfew, the second was in Shin-Osaka (shin meaning ‘new’, and Shin-Osaka being the city’s Shinkansen stop), which was just one subway stop from Mr Sturdy Level’s workplace, and did not shut its doors until eleven. It was on the upper floors of a newly built office block, with views over the city, carpeted corridors, discreetly modern fixtures and fittings, and all the mod cons a weary traveller could possibly need. With several hours to waste before I was due to meet Mr Sturdy Level, I put on a load of washing and pampered myself with a bath and a lie down, and soon got talking to another Englishman in the opposite bunk. Apart from nursing a hangover, he was touring Asia to take part in computer game contests, and made a living writing games reviews for magazines. He had been thinking about moving to Japan, he said, so I extolled the virtues of working as an ALT, and in return received some tips on how to keep using a Japan Rail Pass even after it has expired – apparently, the trick is to alight at smaller stations where the staff are less rigorous about checking tickets.
On my way to the subway later on, I came across an extraordinary scene outside a nearby conbini. A battered old car, which had seen at least a couple of prangs in its time and possibly even a fire or two, was parked diagonally across the pavement, with its back wheels still on the road and its radio blaring. It was overflowing with rubbish, as cups, crisp packets, fast food containers, newspapers, magazines, old clothes and goodness knows what else tumbled out of the doors and windows to be blown about in the breeze. Presiding over the devastation was a man in his thirties or forties, who wore aviator shades and talked loudly into his keitai, although something told me this was a one-way conversation. The most bizarre aspect of the whole thing was that he also happened to be wearing - along with a grubby t-shirt and an old pair of trainers - a pink frilly tutu.
Once I had arrived at the tongue-twister-in-the-making that is Nishi-Nakajima-Minami-Kata station, Mr Sturdy Level took me to a large and almost deserted izakaya, most of whose regular customers were out of town for Obon. He had invited three of his work colleagues, namely Mr Traverse Area, a shy, bespectacled man wearing clothes that appeared to have been chosen by his mother; Sunny Boy, a younger and more snappily dressed local with bleached hair; and Mr Sydney, an Australian who had studied Japanese at university, thus enabling him to bypass English teaching when it came to obtaining a work visa. The waiters and waitresses plied us with beer after beer and dish after dish, and I felt more confident than ever about my ability to join in with a conversation between Japanese men (not to mention Japanese-speaking gaijin). There were occasions when Mr Sydney had to translate, after Sunny Boy – so nicknamed because of his cheerful disposition – rattled off a question at top speed, or when Mr Sturdy Level had to re-pronounce in Kansai-ben (関西弁 / Kansai dialect) if Sunny Boy was baffled by my still overly polite Japanese. But I got the general gist of things, and hopefully didn’t come across like the swotty schoolboy a friend in Tokyo had once accused me of resembling. When Mr Sturdy Level asked if I had lost my temper at any point during the summer, I even managed to make everyone laugh by relating the story of the spotty receptionist at Shiawasé-no-Mura, and after Sunny Boy became the first person to notice it in four weeks, to coherently explain the significance of my wrist-watch.
For years after my father’s death in 1990, I had been in possession of his old Rolex, which was very much the worse for wear and had long since stopped working. When I eventually got round to having it repaired, I was told by the assistant at Watches of Switzerland in Bond Street that it was worth a tidy four-figure sum, and as such, it probably wasn’t the kind of thing I should be wearing on a cycling holiday. But wear it I did, as it reminded me of the interests my father and I had shared – he too was a keen cyclist and Tour de France enthusiast – and of how he would have enjoyed this kind of adventure himself. The irony was that as a watch, the Rolex was next to useless, as it slowed by several minutes a week, the hands were hard to see, and the date needed adjusting five months out of every twelve in order to compensate for the fact that it counted round to thirty-one. Its nearly new face was already scratched from an altercation with a crash barrier one morning on my way to work, and its condition had deteriorated even further on my journey through Japan. But as well as being a family heirloom, the Rolex was my one concession to superstition - my lucky charm for the trip - and more than that, it reminded me to be careful when it came to cultivating my tan, as my father had passed away because of skin cancer. Six weeks in the high heat of a Japanese summer gave me a pretty good chance of ending up in the same predicament, and regardless of aching knees or malfunctioning fingers – regardless even of the possibility of being knocked over by a passing car – my real nemesis was the sunshine itself, and the bottle of factor fifteen in my panniers more important than any first aid kit.
‘So, Muzuhashi,’ said Mr Sturdy Level as the evening drew to a close, ‘what will you do now? Are you going to cycle all the way back to Ibaraki?’
‘I’m not sure. It’ll certainly be tough.’
‘But how will you get home if you don’t?’
‘I suppose I’ll just tour around Kansai for a week, visit my friend Mr Swansea in Nagoya, and catch the same ferry you came in on, from Osaka back to Tokyo.’
But even as I said this, I didn’t believe it. Mr Sturdy Level hadn’t exactly laid down the gauntlet – he wasn’t the macho, competitive type, after all – but the subtext of his question was this: ‘Are you man enough to cycle all the way, to do what you set out to do, to ACHIEVE YOUR GOAL?’ And in this sense, he had me sussed, because looking back on it, I am not sure if there was ever a doubt in my mind that I would do just that. As we said goodbye at the station, I told Mr Sturdy Level and his colleagues that I might see them again in a week or two, although I already knew that to allow this to happen would represent, in terms of my rather fragile ego, a humiliating failure.