Presents received – can of beer, peach
The day dawned clear and bright, and as I packed and prepared for the climb to Misaka Pass, a guest from one of the log cabins took my picture and gave me another beer. I could do without the weight of a half-litre can, and getting drunk on the way to the pass would not be the most sensible way of re-hydrating, so I discreetly poured it away behind the dining hall a few minutes later, in anticipation of the kind of sustenance I really needed. This failed to materialise, however, as Grandma and Grandad apologised, confessing that today they would be unable to provide me with breakfast. It appeared that my policy of freeloading had finally backfired, and although I hadn’t exactly assumed they would come through for me, stupidly, I also hadn’t thought to buy any supplies the previous evening. Misaka Pass was this side of Hikimi, and I couldn’t face the thought of cycling to the shops, and then back up the hill past the campsite.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I’ll just buy some drinks from the vending machine.’
But Grandad could tell that I was putting a brave face on things, and began rummaging around in their cool bag.
‘There isn’t much left, I’m afraid. We need to do some shopping today,’ he said, and produced a large peach from the bottom of the bag. ‘You can have this if you want.’
‘That’s mine, grandad! You said I could have that one!’ The granddaughter was indignant, and I waved away the offer.
‘Go on, take it.’ Grandad thrust the peach towards me.
‘That’s not fair! That was my peach! I wanted it!’
I didn’t want to deprive the girl of her peach, but at the same time, it would have been rude to turn down such a gift.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course I am.’
‘Grandad! You promised I could have it!’
‘It’s OK, we can always buy some more.’ While Grandad tried to reassure the girl that more treats would be forthcoming, I tried to reassure myself that she wouldn’t be too upset,
‘Oh well, if you insist.’ Seeing me accept the peach, she stormed off and shut herself inside the tent. I had actually made a small child cry.
‘Don’t you want to come and say goodbye to the nice man?’ asked Grandma, to which a reply came between loud sobbing noises.
‘She’ll be fine,’ Grandad shrugged, and I thanked him effusively, although it had put a bit of a dampener on things, and as I waved goodbye and wheeled the Mariposa across the rope bridge, even the grandson was subdued.
Route 488 soon became steeper, hugging the contours of the valley, and the crest of each turn took me higher, until the river rushed along far below. Very occasionally I would spy an abandoned building, overgrown and deep in the forest, but to all intents and purposes my surroundings were uninhabited, and this was as wild as anywhere through which I had yet ridden. One of the locals had told me that the road is high and narrow enough to be impassable for most of the winter, and I wondered if it might have been a good idea to bring a bear bell – after all, the kanji for Hikimi do mean ‘animal watch’. Even today I encountered just three other vehicles en route, and the beauty of the place was surprisingly difficult to photograph, as there was just too much greenery to allow for any kind of perspective, the valley looking like a soft hammock into which you could lie back and be enveloped.
Eventually the landscape began to open out, and I found myself above the level of one or two adjacent peaks, although there was still that nagging sense of disappointment, when what you think is the highest point turns out to be just another small ridge, beyond which the road continues uphill. I could feel myself becoming impatient, and tried not to anticipate the pass. The secret of successful climbing, I decided, is Zen: to keep pedalling one turn at a time, to think not of the future but of the moment, to concentrate on the journey rather than the destination. My knees may have been painful when I set out, or when the slope became severe, and there may have been times when I felt dizzy or began to wheeze from the strain of turning the pedals, but if I kept plugging away the effort became automatic, and I reached a point where I didn’t notice that I was cycling at all. This is the goal: not the pass or the campsite or the kissaten or the conbini, but the state in which you cease to be aware of what your body is doing, and your mind becomes clear of anxiety and conscious thought. On a bicycle in particular, you can go beyond simply taking in your surroundings, and to feel as if you are a part of them and they are a part of you. While I am not a religious man – in fact, I am a staunch atheist – on climbs such as this, I do feel that I attained some small moment of spiritual enlightenment. I hadn’t proven the existence of God, or Buddha, or any sort of parallel universe or heavenly kingdom, but I had come to realise the supreme benefits to be gained from throwing all of one’s being into achieving an objective, and how that can lift your life out of the ordinary, if only for a short time.
It had taken more than two hours, but when eventually I did reach Misaka Pass, which marked the border between Shimané and Hiroshima Prefectures, a sign told me that I had climbed for fourteen kilometres, and to nine hundred and sixty metres above sea level. It was an unspectacular spot, and somehow didn’t feel commensurate with the achievement of having reached it, being too hemmed in by the surrounding forest to afford much in the way of views. But I basked for a few minutes in the glory of my own adrenaline rush, photographed the sign as proof that I had been there (‘Beware of falling rocks on the road to Hikimi,’ it said, which would have been useful to know before I set out), before getting back on the Mariposa and carrying on down the other side.
Seeing this made me nostalgic for my own biking days, when I would pootle around London on my 400cc Honda CB-1 (authentic Japanese import, of course – none of your British-made rubbish for me), imagining that I looked pretty cool, when in reality I was nothing of the sort, in my luminous yellow jacket and plain white helmet for extra visibility. In fact I never felt entirely at ease on a motorcycle, partly because riding one is so dangerous, and partly because all of that Gore-tex and Kevlar is uncomfortably hot in summer, never quite warm enough in winter, and incredibly inconvenient once you have reached your destination and have nowhere to put it. I was also in the habit of dropping the CB-1, and kept on having to replace broken wing mirrors or pay for engine repairs as a result. What I really missed was being part of the Brotherhood, and having each passing biker flash his headlight or nod his head in greeting – something that, in the UK at least, cyclists are not in the habit of doing – although it was also nice to be reminded of how a biker will ride purely for its own sake, and that roads such as this, with its Monte Carlo curves, are the kind along which he will ride back and forth all day, just for the thrill of the centrifugal force as it drags him through each tight corner.
On the way into Hiroshima, the road was once again lined with pachinko parlours and used car lots, and from the brow of one final hill, the city itself came into view, baking in the afternoon sun. Iwakuni Youth Hostel lies in the western suburbs, and despite standing out perfectly well on the Mapple, proved much harder to locate in three dimensions. I knew where I wanted to go, but trunk routes and twisting junctions kept blocking the way, before a ludicrously complicated sign described the designated cycle route in a squiggle of twisting arrows, which led up, around, onto a footbridge and over a railway line. Thinking I was home and dry, I instead found myself stranded in a supermarket car park, my last remaining options being to turn back and re-cross the footbridge or jump in the bay.
It was time to ask for directions, so I approached an old man who wore what can only be described as department store golfing gear, and was walking so slowly that it almost didn’t count as forward motion at all. ‘Youth hostel, you say? Well, well, well. I’ve lived here all my life and I never even knew there was a youth hostel. No idea, I’m afraid. Sorry.’
When I did finally arrive at the hostel, it came as no surprise that the old man had been unaware of its existence, as it was in a small, grubby building with only a photocopied sign in an upstairs window to distinguish it from the surrounding apartments and offices.
‘That will be ¥3500,’ declared the warden, who sported a ponytail, a long, grey goatee beard and tatty pink shorts that were constantly sliding down his waist. ‘You must bring your bicycle inside and put it here, but please lock it.’
‘Do you serve food?’
‘No. But there is a kitchen if you like.’ He pointed to a dark corner of the common room that was a mess of greasy units and rusting utensils, its gas cooker encrusted an inch thick with baked-on grime.
Handwritten signs were pinned to every available surface and detailed, among other things, how much to pay for a cup of tea, where to put the money and in exactly which bin to place the teabag once you were done. As I gathered my things together and went upstairs, the warden was sifting through the rubbish and muttering to himself that someone had had the temerity to dispose of a plastic bottle in the wrong bin. Having showered and put my clothes in the washing machine, I returned to the lobby to use one of two ageing PCs. These were as low-tech as everything else in the hostel, and once you had slotted your hundred-yen coin into a metal box that was bolted to the side of the monitor, a little yellow bulb lit up and an on-screen clock counted down the seconds from thirty minutes.
If you were being charitable, you might say that the place had a run-down charm all of its own, although that was more than could be said of the warden, who was quite the most inappropriate person to be running a youth hostel, being a miserable old git who found his customers’ every request a massive inconvenience. A steady stream of guests came through the front door while I was checking my emails, and I eavesdropped as he patronised each one of them in turn. Ironically enough for someone who belonged to an organisation whose facilities are open to members from anywhere in the world, he reserved his greatest venom for gaijin, to whom he spoke English as loudly as possible, regardless of their nationality, and as if to an unruly child. Each tentative query or slight misunderstanding was greeted with a roll of the eyes and an increase in volume, and he was unwilling to credit any foreigner with the ability to speak Japanese, so that even when someone tried – as I had – this Basil Fawlty of the youth hostel business just ploughed on regardless, in ever more irate English.
‘The door will be locked at ten thirty, so you must be back before. I cannot open door after that,’ he bellowed as I left for the nearby ferry terminal, from which regular services sailed to Japan’s second most famous landmark after Mount Fuji – something I had described on my list of recommended attractions as the ‘big red gate thing’.
It was dark by the time I reached the island of Itsukushima – also known as Miyajima – and most of the day’s sightseers had already gone home.* Souvenir shops were closed or closing and the footpath almost deserted, although I was momentarily startled upon noticing who was there to keep me company. At first they were just a couple of silhouettes poking out from the flowerbeds, but the more my eyes adjusted to the subdued street lighting, the more of them I saw. Some were lurking in the shadows, others were scavenging down alleyways, and they ranged from fully grown adults to youngsters less than a metre tall. These were the deer of Itsukushima, which are free to roam wherever they please, and seem unperturbed at living in such close proximity to human beings, no doubt because this guarantees them a steady supply of food. It doesn’t necessarily follow that human beings will be unperturbed, particularly when some of the bucks have rather large antlers, so it was reassuring to see that the public toilets had been fitted with specially designed deer-proof doors, as I wouldn’t have wanted to be charged down at an inopportune moment.
There is a classic scene in Only Fools and Horses, in which Trigger relates how the council has presented him with a medal, in recognition of the fact that he has been using the same broom to sweep the streets of Peckham for the past twenty years. The punchline is that during that time he has replaced the handle fourteen times and the head seventeen times, and this is a theory that could be applied to many of Japan’s most famous monuments. Itsukushima Shrine, for example, which is a complex of low buildings, walkways and jetties at the water’s edge, was founded in the Eighth Century, and due to both natural and man-made disasters has been rebuilt on countless occasions. Its centrepiece is a sixteen-metre-high arch, which rises out of the sea just offshore, and which has also been rebuilt on many occasions since it was first constructed in the Twelfth Century. Which I suppose would make the shrine the head of Trigger’s broom, and the arch as its handle, but anyway, I was glad to have come here in the evening, as quite apart from the lack of tourists, the arch itself looked stunning, its paintwork lit to stand out against the night sky.
The room was small and stuffy, with three bunk beds and as yet no other hostellers. A dusty air conditioning unit protruded from one wall and the windows were painted shut, so my choices were to sweat the night away in a sauna, or to risk waking up dehydrated and with a sore throat. I chose the former and was nodding off within minutes, only to be snapped back into consciousness when the light came on and a young man with curly hair and rectangular-framed spectacles walked in. Once he had found out that I was from the UK, he began to natter away in English, and once I had found out that he was from Switzerland, I realised why he was already fluent in four languages. After some lessons and a bit of self-study back home, he was now well on the way to making Japanese language number five, and had spent the day chatting to strangers in bars and restaurants, despite this being his very first visit to the country. While part of me wanted to find out how the human mind could hoover up such a huge amount of grammar in such a small amount of time, another part of me wanted to go to sleep and not wake up for the next eight hours, so it was something of a one-sided conversation, and I fear that in the end, I may well have nodded off mid-sentence (his sentence, that is, not mine).
(*As with the jima of Oumijima, the shima of Itsukushima means ‘island’, so what I am really saying here is ‘the island of Itsuku Island’. While this may seem ridiculous, it would be odd to refer to Itsuku Island when it is already well known as Itsukushima, and unless you happen to know what shima means in the first place, how are you – the non-Japanese-speaking reader – supposed to deduce that Itsukushima is an island? Moreover, many places whose names end in shima or jima are not islands at all, but cities or prefectures, and you wouldn’t want to refer to Hiroshima as Hiro Island, because that would just be silly.)