Presents received – homemade sweets, green tea, tomatoes
It was a restless night all round, as I was roused by barking dogs, a creepy crawly scratching around beneath the flysheet, and the urgent need to pee at about five in the morning. Walking to the toilets was akin to being trapped in an Ansel Adams photograph, as this was the golden hour, that short time in early morning and early evening when the light is at its best and colours at their richest. The headland across the bay was a clear blue silhouette, above which clouds were stacked in an intricate patchwork, and there was a perfect clarity to the calm sea and receding shoreline; a luminous depth, held all too briefly and on the verge of disappearing before sunrise snatched it away. I should have dug out my camera, but being groggy and tired, decided instead to snatch some more sleep before the sun hit the tent, which duly happened at about seven a.m..
Three other campers were already up and about, packing away their tiny one-man tents and cleaning their teeth. Apart from Mr Sturdy Level on the ferry from Tokyo, these were the first touring cyclists I had met, and they had all the best kit for the job, including fancy racing bikes, wraparound shades and skin-tight multi-coloured jerseys. Perhaps they weren’t quite as professional as they appeared, however, as one of them had neglected to apply any sun block, and his thighs were burned to a shocking pink from the previous day’s riding. They were on a week’s round-trip from Shimonoseki, and we posed together for photographs before they clipped their expensive cycling shoes into their expensive clip-less pedals and sped off.
Even with the wind behind me I didn’t stand a chance of keeping up with such speed demons, but more importantly, there was one thing that I needed to get out of the way before I could relax into the day’s ride, and that was to find a western-style toilet. During my more idle moments in the saddle, I had come up with a new word to describe the trauma one experiences when confronted with a squat toilet: ‘unshatisfactory’. The campsite’s portacabin? Unshatisfactory. The most traditional kissaten in Hagi that I could find? Unshatisfactory? A conbini where I stopped to fill my water bottle? Also unshatisfactory. Short of breaking into someone’s house, there was nothing I could do but hope for the best, and I was on the verge of giving up when I found what appeared to be the perfect place. Set between the road and a sandy beach in a quiet little cove was a stylishly built public loo in concrete, wood and stainless steel, which by the looks of things had been there for no more than a year. Such a modern facility ought to have been deisigned for use by someone with less resilient joints than the average Japanese – ought to have been shatisfactory, if you will. But upon opening the smoothly sliding door to the gents, my hopes were once again dashed against the unforgiving porcelain of a hole in the floor flanked by two furrowed footholds. By now there was no turning back, so I settled in to a crouch and was soon fending off thoughts of early onset arthritis, and what it might be like to spend the remainder of my adult life on crutches. Just to round the experience off nicely, as I stood up to leave in the usual slow-motion manner, I found a grasshopper roughly the size of a human hand clinging to the cubicle wall. It was bright green and looked more like a child’s toy than a real insect, and I shivered at the thought that I had unwittingly spent the past ten or fifteen minutes in its company, in a position from which there would have been no hope of escape had it chosen to jump on my head, for example, or nibble my ear.
So my knees were still causing me trouble, but normally just in the small hours, when I would wake to feel them gently throbbing away, or if I had to sit on the floor in an izakaya or a restaurant. Possibly because the sun was less oppressive than it had been for those first few days, the squiggly black lines had disappeared and my eyesight was back to normal. There was also no sign of saddle sore, and the bar ends really did seem to be doing the trick, as my right hand was much less claw-like, and my diary no longer looked as if it had been written on a moving rollercoaster. A new worry was my circulation, as every day at around mid-morning, there was a point at which my feet would go numb with pins and needles, remaining that way for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. But despite this tendency towards hypochondria, while aches and pains came and went, I appeared to be more adept at dealing with them, and had come to realise that a niggle was par for the course, so long as it didn’t turn into a full-blown injury.
Eventually the road levelled off and ran beside a long sandy beach towards Masuda, which despite having an airport was no bigger than Hagi. Although it was only midday, I had already cycled fifty kilometres, and stopped for lunch at a place called Surf In. Japan is a country that prides itself in its carpentry skills, and like many independent restaurants, Surf In was made almost entirely of wood, although not of the planed and planked variety. Every surface from floor too ceiling, including the bar, chairs, tables, door and window frames, followed the knotted, uneven contour of a tree trunk’s cross section, sanded and varnished to a shine and with hardly a ninety-degree angle in sight. A set of steps led directly from the veranda down to the beach, and there were surfing photos on the wall and a surfing video playing on the television. But there were no surfer dudes or dudettes, and the only other customers were two guys in jeans and trainers who sat in the corner playing with their new keitai, and didn’t look as if they were about to leap into the sea or describe anything as being gnarly or tubular.
As the proprietor cooked me a spaghetti ai frutti di mare that wouldn’t have looked out of place at an upmarket Italian restaurant, I asked him why the place was so quiet.
‘Is it because it’s a Monday morning?’
‘Not at all,' he said. 'It’s just that nobody bothers surfing until the winter. The wind isn’t strong enough at the moment, so the waves are pretty useless.’ He had a point, although I found it hard to imagine what surfers would look like bobbing up and down on the waves in a snowstorm.
‘Actually you might be able to help me. I want to head south towards Hiroshima, but I’m not sure of the best way to get there. Which road do you recommend?’
‘Route 191 is quicker. It only takes a couple of hours if you go along there.’
‘What about by bicycle? I’d prefer if it wasn’t too steep.’
‘By bicycle? Ah, well, 191 is pretty up and down. In fact, I’m not even sure you’re allowed to cycle. It’s quite a fast road.’
‘How about this way?’ I pointed out Route 488 on the Mapple, a smaller road that traversed Chugoku further south.
‘Yes, you can take that one, but it still goes through the mountains. You can’t get to Hiroshima without climbing a few hills, I’m afraid.’
From Masuda I could see storm clouds brewing to the east, and considering the fact that I may have to turn back if I chose Route 119, Route 488 seemed like the more sensible option. It followed the Hikimi River upstream, which twisted and turned its way inland, and whose valley deepened as hills became mountains, their thickly forested slopes rising to hundreds of metres all around.
Only the occasional car passed by, although it wasn’t just peace and quiet that made this such an enchanting place. The government’s cedar planting programme had yet to reach the Hikimi Valley, whose ancient, deciduous woodland was softer and less regimented than the harsh lines of an evergreen forest. It is a tradition in Japan to view the koyo (紅葉 / autumn colours), but many prime spots have been spoiled by the steady encroachment of the cedar tree, which resembles a disease come to blot out the vivid koyo of beech, oak, camphor and maple. As well as putting a dampener on many an autumn day trip, the wholesale replanting of indigenous woodland has rendered countless mountainsides more prone to subsidence, although my own reason for objecting to the practice was rather more mundane.
Having become a hay fever sufferer in my early twenties, I soon realised that the best way to avoid the pollen hell of June and July was by going abroad, and since it is a lot less grassy – for want of a better word – than London, summer in Tokyo had indeed been hay fever free. But spring in Ibaraki proved that if there is one type of pollen worse than grass pollen, it is cedar pollen, which millions of Japanese have come to dread, as it carries with it a guarantee of streaming eyes, incessant sneezing and a perpetually runny nose, against which no medicine, remedy or surgical mask is effective. This was particularly embarrassing for a foreigner trying to fit in, as blowing one’s nose in company is considered bad manners, and for several weeks in March and April, once I had finished blowing my nose there was little time left to do anything else.
Looking for refreshments, I stopped in a village that was little more than a row of houses by the side of the road, and found a shop similar to the one near Ajimu where I had been made to feel so welcome, only half the size and twice as dark. It was so dark, in fact, that I could hardly see what was on sale, and almost dropped my bag of crisps when an apparently disembodied voice asked if I would like to sit down. Over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, a succession of drinks and snacks were handed to me from the gloom, and the voice – which as far as I could tell belonged to a woman in her sixties or seventies – related how the business had been open for eighty-five years, and was originally run by her grandparents.
‘We haven’t seen many foreigners in that time,’ she said, and I wondered if this was because not many of us ever came to the village, or because the shop was so dark that it was difficult to make out what the customers looked like. Once again, and purely by virtue of being a gaijin in the backwoods, I practically had to force my money on the woman, who only charged me for the crisps. I was so embarrassed by her generosity that in bowing my thanks, I wobbled and almost fell off the Mariposa while riding away, although by the time I arrived in the Hikimi Town I had travelled a hundred and ten kilometres in a single day, along a route that rivalled the Yamanami Highway for its unspoilt beauty.
Of the three eateries in Hikimi, just one was still open at seven in the evening, and only then by virtue of an office party that was taking place in its private dining room. When some more customers did eventually materialise, they turned out to be my neighbours at the campsite, and I was invited for breakfast the following morning, although I told them not to expect me too early, as my tent would be in the shade and I had a serious lie-in planned.