Presents received – two nigiri, key ring
Since that first night in Toridé, I had developed a speedily efficient routine for putting up the tent, and my beeper and fan also appeared to be doing their job. So it was ironic that a mosquito should pester me at the youth hostel, and having been bitten several times during the night, I only swatted the offending insect after my alarm had sounded, smearing approximately half a pint of blood across the mattress in doing so. A few other hikers and bikers had checked in the previous evening, and someone in the next bunk did of course get up, pack their bags and depart at about four a.m., but most of the rooms were taken up by a party of children, whose presence I had somehow managed to overlook the previous evening. This made for a very noisy breakfast, during which one of their parents explained – or rather, shouted – that this was an annual event, for which a group of families from a nearby town came to stay at the hostel over a long weekend. This year it was her turn to keep a horde of screaming kids amused and under control, she said, while several of her friends and neighbours enjoyed a peaceful and child-free few days at home.
At a kilometre long and well over a hundred metres high, the Kanmon Birdge towers over this district of Shimonoseki, and makes, I realised just minutes after leaving the youth hostel, an ideal lightning conductor. Rain burst forth from grey clouds as they rolled in from Kyushu, and I was forced to take shelter almost directly beneath the suspension bridge, which was struck by several bolts of lighting.
That morning the youth hostel’s manager had presented me with a small parcel wrapped origami style, and containing two plump, hand-made nigiri with umé-boshi (梅干し / extremely sour pickled plums, which are another unique taste the Japanese pride themselves in having been able to acquire). On the paper, I now discovered, was a message in marker pen, which he had been considerate enough to write using a combination of hiragana, katakana and English, with no confusing kanji. It read, ‘Remember, the Japanese summer can be very hot and humid, so good luck! Have a nice day! From Shimonoseki Youth Hostel.’
Having followed the river upstream for a few kilometres, my route took me through the valley formed by one of its tributaries, whose peace was suddenly disturbed when the sleek blue and white flash of a bullet train burst from the hillside on its overhead track. Known in Japan as Shinkansen (新幹線), these zip along at up to three hundred kilometres an hour, and can justifiably lay claim to being the safest and most punctual form of transport in the world. There has only ever been one fatality in their forty-year-plus history – caused when a passenger became caught in the closing doors while the train was stationary – and should you have trouble getting through to the speaking clock, you could do far worse than set your watch by one, as arrivals and departures invariably occur within a second or two of the timetable. While it can be an expensive business, travelling by Shinkansen compares favourably in terms of cost, convenience and duration with many internal flights, and it was odd to think that while I would not arrive in Tokyo for at least another four weeks, the train I had just glimpsed left the capital less than four hours ago. Also, anyone lucky enough to be a foreign tourist can buy unlimited travel for the duration of their holiday in the form of a Japan Rail Pass, which, depending on how much you use it, can save the equivalent of hundreds of pounds. As someone with a work visa I was no longer eligible for a JR Pass, and while the average salaryman will nod off within seconds of leaving Tokyo Station, you can always spot a Pass-carrying tourist, as they will spend their entire journey glued to the window and gazing at the scenery. Indeed, if you look at the photo album or Facebook page of almost any visitor to Japan, it is pretty much guaranteed to contain at least one picture taken from a moving Shinkansen, and depicting a foreground of buildings or telegraph poles blurred beyond recognition, against a backdrop of mountains or fields blurred almost beyond recognition.
The main reason Shinkansen are so fast is because they move on two continuously welded rails, which eliminate the bumpety-bump one is liable to experience on a bog-standard British commuter train, and it is partly because of their ability to showcase such superior technological expertise that Shinkansen have special dispensation to plough through the countryside, regardless of any disturbance they may cause. If there is a mountain in the way, no matter the expense, engineers simply tunnel through it, and even more than major roads or expressways, a Shinkansen line, with its concrete cradle and arteries of wiring, can be plonked down pretty much anywhere: I once saw a track under construction, several stories high and newly materialised beside a suburban housing estate, its grey edifice looming just metres from back doors and bedroom windows.
From man-made tunnels to naturally formed ones, Akiyoshido is one of the largest cave systems in Japan, and upon arriving there, I had to run the gauntlet of numerous souvenir shops, not to mention an avenue of bunting, lanterns, food and market stalls. Like a scene from Jurassic Park, mist appeared to be emanating from the very caves themselves, and it was all so conveniently atmospheric that I assumed there must be a smoke machine hidden somewhere behind the scenes. From the ticket office, a wooden walkway led towards a jagged opening in the hillside, beyond which lay several kilometres of tunnels.
The climb was short and sharp, and at the top, Akiyoshidai resembled Dartmoor, its tor-like boulders protruding from rolling hills of rough grass and gnarled trees. Again, it brought to mind something more prehistoric: the kind of place Godzilla might like to go on his days off. There were watchtowers and hides dotted here and there, and although warning signs told me to ‘beware of the animals’, they didn’t say what kind, and today at least, there were none to be seen – not even a Dartmoor pony.
So-called ‘auto’ campsites often neglect to cater for the humble tent, but when they do, you can guarantee some luxurious facilities, and Akiyoshidai Auto Camp had all the mod-cons a tired cyclist could wish for, including an onsen (besides the usual baths and saunas, this one contained a kind of massage therapy contraption, for which you stepped inside a cage of stainless steel pipes, pressed a button and braced yourself for a high-pressure assault from multiple jets of hot water). It was even less trouble than staying at a youth hostel, and I could watch television, buy a beer and sit down for a meal, all within fifty metres of my Snow Peak. In a masochistic kind of way, though, I almost missed the hardship, and a certain amount of character had been sacrificed for the sake of scale and convenience. There were many more campers than I had become accustomed to sharing a field with – kids playing football, couples in caravans, parties of thirty or forty organising barbecues – but despite being surrounded with people, my ability to strike up a conversation seemed to have deserted me, so I made a keitai call to my friend Mr Swansea, with whom I planned to stay upon reaching Nagoya.
Mr Swansea had emigrated to Japan back in 2002, and staying with him during my first visit that same year was the experience that convinced me to move there. Quite apart from being enchanted by the people, the landscape, the food, the culture and the JR Pass, my interest was piqued when Mr Swansea mentioned how easy it was to get a job as an English teacher. At the time I was already looking for a way out of the TV industry, and had long harboured the ambition to live abroad and learn a language, partly because I still felt guilty about the fact that during a six-week stay in Savoie as a teenager I had been too shy to speak a single word of French. Once I moved to Tokyo, of course, life turned out to be a lot tougher than I had been expecting, and now that I was in regular contact with Mr Swansea, it became clear that the same was true for him. So while Miss Birmingham was my confidante in Ibaraki, Mr Swansea provided me with a male perspective on culture shock, and we would spend countless hours on the phone dissecting the finer points of what it means to be a gaijin in Japan.
Many of our conversations were either impossible to transcribe with any kind of coherence or unfit to print without causing offence, but the main reason I enjoyed talking to Mr Swansea was because no matter how bad things got, he always found a way to make light of them. I was so enamoured of his one-liners that I had begun to note them down, and imagined one day publishing a slim volume entitled The Wisdom of Mr Swansea. Our conversation tonight would have been liberally sprinkled with witticisms like the following, which more often than not were prefixed with the phrase, ‘As my grandmother used to say…’:
1) On failure: ‘He’s just pissed in his chips.’
2) On rejection: ‘She took the jam right out of my doughnut.’
3) On comeuppance: ‘You have just been shot with a bullet of your own shit.’
4) On intelligence: ‘He’s as thick as a miner’s wrist.’
5) On beauty: ‘Everyone’s got a right to be ugly, but she’s just abusing it.’
6) On the relationship between employer and employee: ‘You pretend to work, and we’ll pretend to pay you.’
7) And on the relationship between teacher and student: ‘You pretend to learn, and I’ll pretend to teach you.’
8) On prostitution: ‘He’s bi-sexual. If he can’t find a woman, he buys sex instead.’
9) On involuntary celibacy: ‘When the balls are full, the brain is empty.’
10) On romantic ineptitude: ‘Drop me in a barrel of tits and I’d still come out sucking my thumb.’
Despite having the same kind of reservations that led me to quit my job in Tokyo, Mr Swansea still worked for the Nova conversation school in Nagoya (Nova used to be the biggest of Japan’s conversation schools, although it has since been closed down, after being taken to court for defrauding its students), and one of his classes had been monitoring my progress.
‘When I told them what you were doing, they couldn’t believe it. I said that you’d caught this boat down to Kyushu and you were cycling all the way back, and they were like, “Eeeeeeh!!!” We’ve got a map on the wall now and we’re sticking pins in it to keep track of where you are. You can come and do a show-and-tell when you get here.’
Not wanting to run up too big a bill on my keitai, I didn’t talk to Mr Swansea for long, and unable to insinuate myself into someone else’s barbecue party, was in bed by nine thirty. The only thing to disturb me during the night was a thunderstorm that passed over in the early hours, which made me anxious at first, as I half expected to be swept away in a raging torrent. But the Snow Peak lived up to its waterproof label, and I comforted myself with memories of childhood camping holidays, which seemed always to be blighted by bad weather: after all, there is no more cosy feeling in the world than to be lying under rain-lashed canvas, as thunder and lightning rumble and flicker in the distance.