Presents received – tenugui
At some point in the previous few years, Yamaguchi Prefecture must have come into possession of a job-lot of yellow paint, because everything here seemed to be covered in it, from crash barriers to road signs, fences to kerbstones. Also, the roofs of most buildings were clad in the same black tiles, so that the place had an air of municipal uniformity about it. Beyond Akiyoshidai Safari Land – which was perhaps the real source of the animals I had been warned about the previous day – the road headed downhill all the way to the coast, where I took a detour west to the port of Nagato. From here regular boat tours departed to O-umijima (青海島 / ‘blue sea island’), and having bought a ticket for the next departure, I took a look around the souvenir shops and market stalls.
‘Where are you from?’ asked the first saleswoman I came to.
‘Oh really? Well, you should try this.’ She handed me a jar of some indeterminate, reddish fish paste, which had no obvious connection to my home country. ‘It’s only a thousand yen a jar.’
Then the woman at the next stall thrust a flat, brown object towards me that looked like the sole from an oddly shaped shoe.
‘How about some dried squid?’ she said.
‘Aren’t you supposed to soak it in water first?’ It looked tough enough to require a hacksaw rather than chopsticks or a knife and fork.
‘Oh no, it’s delicious as it is. Although this,’ she produced plastic bag filled with baby octopuses, their little suckered tentacles bathed in an inky brine, ‘might be more to your liking.’
Even more than seaweed, mushrooms or noodles, it is the variety of seafood that is the most mind-boggling aspect of Japanese cuisine, and they will consume anything from raw prawns to poisonous blowfish, from sea urchin to fresh salmon eggs, and from bonito flakes all the way up to whale burgers. In fact, whaling used to be a major industry in O-umijima, where a memorial service was held annually for the spirits of departed whales, whose unborn foetuses were buried in a special whale graveyard. But despite being adventurous compared to the average Brit, who will balk at anything with bones, skin, scales or head still attached, much of the produce on offer here was still beyond me.
A population of a couple of hundred uses the road bridge to and from O-umijima, but its main attractions are only visible if you take to the sea. Rock formations on the north coast have been designated among the hundred most picturesque views in Japan, and our boat took more than an hour to circumnavigate the island, where beneath steep wooded hillsides were outcrops, archways and caves carved out over millions of years by the Japan Sea. While their nickname of the ‘Sea Alps’ may be something of an exaggeration, it was like visiting ten Lulworth Coves in quick succession, and at one point the captain deftly steered us through a narrow opening to the next inlet, with centimetres to spare on either side of the boat and barely enough headroom to stand on deck. Having emerged, a photographer was sitting beneath a parasol on a nearby rocky outcrop, and we gathered on deck to strike a pose. While I had no intention of ordering a copy of the picture, I hoped the photographer was being paid a decent wage for having to endure such a tedious job, stuck there all day and only called into action once an hour.
My route to Hagi was a roundabout one, and followed a railway line as it meandered its way eastwards, the narrow road winding up and down past fishing ports and pebbly beaches. Such rugged coastline reminded me of Devon or Cornwall, and what few people I saw, foraging in rockpools or picnicking on the sand, had the place to themselves. Hagi itself was no more remarkable, being a large-ish town of around fifty thousand people, but for a while at least, over a century ago, it had been one of the most important places in the country.
If you are anything like me then the mere mention of the word ‘history’ will cause your eyes to glaze over and drool to trickle from the corner of your mouth, so I shall keep this next bit as brief as possible, but essentially, the most important thing to remember about Japan is that for around two hundred and fifty years it was almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. While there was some contact with other countries during this time, such a long period of isolation is the main reason Japan remains so insular, and why its culture is so unique. Film directors like Akira Kurosawa made a career out of depicting feudalism, with its Shogun warlords in heavily fortified castles and their gangs of oddly coiffured samurai, who carried extremely sharp swords and had a penchant for hara-kiri (腹切 / committing suicide by slicing open one's own stomach, a practice that is more often referred to in Japanese as seppuku / 切腹). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, though, something called the Meiji Restoration led to the reinstatement of the Emperor, a democracy of sorts, and ultimately to Japan’s involvement in the Second World War, and it just so happened that Hagi played a key part in this Restoration, as several of its major players were either born there or educated at the town’s political academy.
I won’t bore you with the names of these great men, which were mostly long and unpronounceable, but their legacy is an unusually large number of old buildings, many of which are still standing, thanks to Hagi’s avoidance over the years of both natural disasters and full-scale battles. So while its castle may have disappeared, the town is both beautiful and well preserved, being situated on a delta at the mouth of two rivers, criss-crossed with waterways, and full of fortifications, temples, tea houses, boat houses, graveyards and grand family residences.
Having stopped for an ice cream, I was soon being plied with green tea and questions by the staff at a local souvenir shop, who tried to sell me Hagi pottery, Hagi glassware and Hagi sweets, before finally giving up and presenting me with a complimentary tenugui (onsen towel) before I left.
Tenugui, usefully for the cyclist, are much smaller than a normal towel and often given to customers for free. They are used not just to dry oneself off, but also as a flannel, or to strategically cover one’s privates when walking around an onsen naked. Older Japanese men are in the habit of folding up their tenugui and placing it on their head while bathing, although this doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to prevent them from losing the thing. By the time I arrived in Hagi I was already on my second of the summer, and had hit upon the idea of tying it to one of the Mariposa’s panniers to dry as I rode along during the day. Usually being white, however, the tenugui has a tendency to become very grubby very quickly, and after a couple of days’ use is practically impossible to restore to its original, pristine condition, hence their being so readily available.
At the end of a dusty track and through a hole in a dry-stone wall, my campsite was little more than a bumpy field by the beach, its facilities consisting of a portacabin-style toilet block and a standpipe. As well as being in a lovely spot, with its own stretch of sand beneath a wooded headland, it was free of charge, although that was about the only information I could glean from the caretaker, a retired volunteer with only two or three remaining teeth, who surpassed his counterpart in Chikuzen-Iwaya to set a new benchmark for conversational incomprehensibility.
A large group of locals was holding a barbecue on the beach, and I looked on as around fifty children took part in a programme of activities. For the grand finale, an imposing, shaven-headed dad directed proceedings, arranging them all in a line along the sand, staggered very roughly in terms of age and ability. The children – most of whom had already shuffled forwards a metre or two even before Dad shouted ‘Go!’ – raced to a finish line further down the beach, and the winner was then blindfolded, spun around several times, and directed by his friends to a watermelon, which was lying on the sand near the barbecue.
‘LEFT! LEFT! TURN LEFT! STOP! GO FORWARD! RIGHT A BIT! RIGHT! TURN AROUND! BIT MORE! STOP!’
Once this chorus of shouted instructions had died down and the blindfolded boy was in position, he had three attempts at cracking open the watermelon with a wooden sword. As his friends continued to scream, and before taking his initial swing, the boy was looking ahead, almost upwards, as if trying to peek down at the target from under the blindfold, and I got the feeling his eyes hadn’t been properly covered. But if anyone else noticed this they didn’t say anything, because after two direct hits there was a huge cheer as the watermelon was split in half, and Dad set to work dividing it up to be eaten.
After a luxurious salt-water onsen at a nearby hotel and a meal of unexotic seafood, I sat on the beach and listened to the waves as they gently swished against the shoreline. The stars were out, the sand was still warm and the lights of Hagi reflected rippling lines of light around the bay. Later on, at around midnight, I was stirred by the sound of a bear bell (as you might expect, such bells are worn by hikers in the Japanese wilderness, in order to prevent them from bumping into an unsuspecting bear), and torchlight flickered across the side of the tent.
This is it, I thought, the sword-wielding maniac has come for me at last – let it be a quick death, his glinting blade scything through the canvas to my defenceless body! As I held my breath and tried to ignore the fact that my heart was now beating in my neck rather than my chest, I could just about discern the sound of a panting dog, and it dawned on me that no self-respecting assassin would carry a torch and a bell, let alone bring his dog for a walk at the same time. It must have been the toothless man, returning before bedtime to check on his guests’ welfare.