There was a sign near my apartment that read ‘Tokyo 110km’, and I had given myself the best part of two days to cover that distance and catch the ferry. Having turned off the gas, unplugged the telephone, pulled down the shutters and closed the windows, I filled my water bottle, fixed everything to the Mariposa and locked the front door behind me. A minute later I bid a cheery ‘Hello!’ to a group of volunteers who were clearing rubbish from the roadside. A minute after that, I said, ‘Forgotten something!’ as I passed them again, on my way back to the apartment to fetch some missing item that had suddenly crossed my mind as being essential.
The previous night I had laid all of my various bags and panniers out on the floor and double-checked my luggage list. After much deliberation over what was necessary for the trip and what was quite patently unnecessary, I had packed it all, including my super-lightweight Snow Peak tent, my super-lightweight collapsible pillow and my super-lightweight acrylic shorts with extra wicking capability. I had also packed my not-so-super-lightweight inflatable mattress, my frankly heavy SLR-style digital camera (complete with batteries, charger, spare memory card and USB lead), my electric shaver, my two volume, hand-crafted Japanese-English notebook-cum-dictionary, my copy of Morning, Noon and Night in Japanese by Akemi Tanahashi, and the textbook Japanese For Busy People II, which on its own weighed getting on for a kilo. Still, without any undue effort the Mariposa appeared to be upright and moving forwards, and as Ms Tanahashi says in the aforementioned Morning, Noon and Night in Japanese, ‘One of the best ways to study foreign languages is to talk to yourself in your mind’, so I occupied myself by doing just that.
‘This is a place where they sell cars! That is a place where you can have your car repaired! Here is a place where you can buy tyres! What a lot of traffic there is on the road today!’
OK, so the suburbs of Mito didn’t exactly lend themselves to poetic flights of fancy, but apart from seeing Japan, my goal in traversing its highways and byways was to master the language. Despite studying almost every day since my arrival, I had had precious little opportunity to converse with the natives. Like a lot of ex-pats, I spent far too much time either hanging out or working with other ex-pats. I was shy, the Japanese were shy, and the Japanese who weren’t shy tended to be like that because they could speak English, so as far as I could tell, the only possibility for advancement lay in what is commonly known as ‘immersion’. I had to put myself in a position where neither I, nor the backwoods yokel I stopped to ask for directions, had any other option than to speak Japanese.
With this in mind I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, whose seemingly pitch-black interior swallowed up the midday glare and left me struggling to decipher the menu. I ordered one of the few dishes whose description I could read, asked for more water, and then directions to the toilet.
‘Oh, your Japanese is very good,’ said the waitress. ‘How long have you been in Japan?’
‘About a year and a half.’
‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m an English teacher.’
‘Oh, an English teacher. How marvellous!'
She was so impressed with my Japanese, in fact, that having finished the meal, I was presented with a free bowl of ice cream.
‘On the house,’ she said, to which I thanked her extravagantly, thinking as I did so how ironic it is that in a country where the service is so universally excellent, one isn’t expected to leave a tip – either for waiting staff, taxi drivers, hotel porters, or anyone else for that matter.
Upon reaching Kyushu, I would be relying for navigation on successive editions of the Touring Mapple, a guide aimed ostensibly at motorcyclists, which details everything from where to find the best breakfast to where to find the most spectacular hairpin bends. For the moment, however, I was stuck with a couple of pages ripped from an English language road atlas. This was quite the worst map it has ever been my misfortune to utilise, blessed as it was with no index, no scale, no significant landmarks of any kind, and no road constructed after about 1960. It didn’t even have page numbers, and certainly no campsites, so tonight I would have to pitch my tent illegally.
Whereas elsewhere in the world, camp where you are not supposed to and you could end up with a shotgun poking through the flysheet come sunrise, in Japan – or so I had been led to believe – people take a more relaxed view. On one website I had come across, there was even a step-by-step guide on how to camp in parks, vacant lots and so on, with snapshots of jolly cyclists cooking up their evening meal on a gas stove, tents apparently pitched in a flowerbed beside a dual carriageway.
With aching muscles and my skin sticky from sweat and sunblock, I craved the comfort of a warm bath, and asked around for directions to the nearest onsen (温泉) or sento (銭湯). These public baths are everywhere in Japan, and a trip to the onsen after work is as common as a trip to the pub for the average Brit. Technically speaking, onsen are more luxurious and make use of natural hot springs, while sento are more basic and heat their tap or spring water artificially, but the difference between the two is becoming less pronounced, as more and more onsen choose not to extract their hot water from the ground, and more and more sento upgrade their facilities. As well as being a damn sight cheaper than a health club or a gym, they are one of the most civilised features of an already civilised society: places solely dedicated to relaxation and cleanliness. Onsen are also very good for dispensing with inhibitions, and during my time in Japan, I have been privileged enough to share a bath with prospective employers, various members of Mrs M’s family, Japanese teachers, friends and colleagues – even, on one occasion, women (although that’s a story for another blog post).
As with many activities in Japan, there is a set routine for using an onsen, which, depending on where you are, goes something like this:
1) Take off your shoes at the door and put them in their own individual coin locker.
2) Buy a ticket from the nearby vending machine – these machines have a bewildering array of buttons, and no matter how many I use, I still have trouble working out which button denotes ‘one adult’. (Because they dispense with the need for staff to handle cash, such ticket machines are eminently practical. They are used in all kinds of establishments – restaurants and museums, for example, as well as onsen – and would be ideal for the UK, if it wasn’t for the fact that vending machines there never work, and never give change.)
3) Hand over your ticket and key to the counter staff, who will in turn present you with another key – this is for a locker in the changing rooms, and designed to be worn around the wrist or ankle as you bathe.
4) Enter the changing rooms, undress, and stash everything in your locker.
5) The first thing you encounter once you enter the baths will be a row of shower fittings – pull up a small plastic stool before one of these, sit down and wash yourself thoroughly.
6) Partake of the various baths and atmospheric treatments on offer.
Toridé onsen was modern and fairly spacious, and even on a Wednesay night the car park was packed. There were showers, a sauna, steam room, hot, cold and medicated baths, and a small back yard with yet more baths, a paved area, and white plastic garden chairs on which to sit and soak up the last rays of the setting sun – or possibly to imagine what might be going on in the adjacent women’s bathing area, as voices drifted over the bamboo fence that separated one from the other. There was also the relaxation room, to which you can retire after your ablutions and watch television, order food or simply lie down on the tatami (畳 / a kind of straw matting that is still used to floor even modern Japanese buildings) floor for a nap.
Apart from having a general aversion to all things multinational, chain and brand related, I have learned from experience that in Japan, the smaller, older and more ramshackle an establishment looks from the outside, the more fun it will be on the inside. So for my evening meal I sought out the friendliest looking izakaya (居酒屋) I could find – an izakaya being a cross between a bar and a restaurant, and probably the closest thing you’ll find to a western-style pub in most Japanese towns. The one I chose was nestled between a shopping mall and an apartment block, in a rickety wooden building that positively screamed the words ‘FIRE HAZARD’. Pipework, wiring, ventilation and air conditioning units sprouted from random points around the roof and walls, which were a mosaic of panelling and plasterwork. There was barely a right angle to be seen, and if it didn’t burn down first, the place appeared destined to collapse. But then again, that was the whole point, as beyond the red lantern above the entrance, its interior was cosy and characterful, with counter-tops, door frames, flooring and furniture in dark, aged wood, posters and photos hung haphazardly on the walls, and a smoke-stained ceiling. Beyond the bar area was a semi-private tatami room in which customers could sit cross-legged as they ate and drank – not that there were any this evening, as I appeared to be the only person here apart from the landlady.
‘Please come in,’ she said, and I ordered a beer before asking for directions to the toilet.
‘Oh, your Japanese is very good. How long have you been in Japan?’
‘About a year and a half.’
‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m an English teacher.’
‘Oh, an English teacher. How marvellous!’
In between cooking and fixing drinks, the landlady was organising a golf tournament for her regular patrons that was due to take place the next day. She must have been worried when I told her about my intended sleeping arrangements, and explained that if need be, I could stay at the internet café next door. As is often the case in Japan, they were open twenty-four hours, and charged a few thousand yen for what is known as a ‘night pack’: a blanket, pillow, eye mask and comfy chair in front of your own personal games console or PC, with all the fizzy pop you can drink and sometimes even a shower room thrown in.
But I had more rugged pursuits in mind, and back at the shrine donned long trousers and a pac-a-mac – not for protection from the weather, but from bugs. While shopping around for insect repellents, I had come across a particularly vivid description of the daily routine of your average mosquito: how it resides in stagnant water and flies off at dusk in search of a ‘blood meal’. I knew from experience that my blood was just the kind of meal a mossie relished, and had purchased two nifty new gadgets to augment the pac-a-mac. One was a small, solar-powered box that emitted a high-pitched whistling noise, the other was a small, battery-powered fan that emitted an odourless gas, and neither appeared to be doing any good at all. I had to stop every few seconds to swat at the air in front of my face and swipe a precautionary hand over every inch of exposed flesh. Arms spinning like a windmill and hood up despite the dry weather, had anyone been around to witness the scene they might have mistaken me for a demented athlete attempting to sweat off some extra pounds or an epileptic in the throes of a fit, and despite being exhausted from the day’s ride, by the time I crawled inside the tent I was too hyped-up to sleep. As I lay there listening to the traffic and the trains go by, the warning of a Japanese friend came back to me. Mr Heaven Valley had talked of unscrupulous truck drivers: tattoo-covered yakuza who would slash my tent open, steal my possessions and quite possibly violate me in some horrible manner, and now every sound, every rustling leaf or cracking twig, became that of a menacing, black-clad figure, marching through the night with a sword in his hand and a score to settle.