Presents received – melon, beer, sushi, ice cream
A group of children started playing dodgeball on the adjacent pitch at twenty past six in the morning, and for the next hour and a half I drifted in and out of sleep, until sunrise turned my one-man tent into a one-man sauna. Five minutes of freewheeling later I sat down to my best morningu setto of the whole summer, in a brand new kissaten where the coffee came from some new-fangled percolator that resembled part of a chemistry set, the toast was from real rather than sliced bread, and even the salad dressing was homemade.
‘This is fantastic,’ I proclaimed, as the chef looked bashful and the waitress smiled shyly, and seeing me polish off every last scrap of food, they presented me with a slice of watermelon that was, inevitably, on the house.
‘Have you been busy since you opened?’ I asked.
‘There are lots of people coming to Hiroshima for the anniversary, so we were hoping for some extra customers,’ the waitress replied, ‘but it’s still rather quiet at the moment.’
They seemed far too nice to be running a business, and I couldn’t help feeling that despite the stylish décor and the quality of the food, their kissaten might not last long. It didn’t appear to be visible from the nearby expressway, and even at eight in the morning, Route 375 was hardly teeming with traffic. Had this been England or America, I would have left a sizeable tip, but settled instead for wishing them luck.
‘Watchy-watchy,’ said the waitress as I left, which I think was some appropriated English, meaning they would wait and see how things turned out. Such doubled-up, onomatopoeic words - like our own ‘tick-tock’ or ‘flip-flop’ - are widely used in Japanese, and as a colleague of mine once pointed out, seem like something carried over from baby talk into adult language. One can be doki-doki (nervous), gari-gari (skinny), or bero-bero (drunk); things can happen toki-doki (occasionally), shiba-shiba (often) or dan-dan (gradually); and as well as being kira-kira (sparkling), neba-neba (sticky) or muchi-muchi (plump), they can be achi-kochi (here and there), bara-bara (in pieces) or gocha-gocha (in a mess).
The next leg of my journey would take me to the island of Shikoku, and across the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido, which took more than twenty years to complete and consists of seven bridges that connect Honshu with its southern neighbour, via an archipelago of six smaller islands in the Seto-Naikai (瀬戸内海 / Inland Sea). First up was the Onomichi Big Bridge, which was accessible through a toll booth at the top of a steep and spiralling footpath. Despite being – as the name suggests – Big, the bridge looked a little dated, and was completed around a decade before work began on the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido proper. The Nishi-Seto Expressway traverses all seven bridges, and reaches the island of Mukaishima (or just Mukai Island, depending on how tautologous you want to be) via the adjacent and altogether more spectacular New Onomichi Big Bridge, which has a span of over five hundred metres. Being a cyclist, I had to follow a less direct route across Mukaishima, and not having taken this into account when I checked the Mapple, revised my camping plans en route. Instead of island hopping all the way to Shikoku in one go, it became clear that I would not make it beyond Innoshima before sunset. This second island lay at the other end of bridge number two, the imaginatively named Innoshima Big Bridge. With its battleship grey metalwork and suspension cables, this resembled the Kanmon Bridge, only with a longer span and a cycle path. The path was attached beneath the expressway in a kind of cage, whose framework became a magic lantern, strobing images of the choppy sea and surrounding islands as I rode the twelve hundred metres to Innoshima.
‘I’ll be off in a minute,’ he said, ‘but someone else will turn up at eight in the morning. The showers are over there.’ He indicated a wooden building with what appeared to be a radiator attached to the roof. ‘You can use them whenever you want, although be careful. They’re solar powered, you see, so they can be a bit temperamental.’
My pitch was at the bottom of a small valley with its own secluded, sandy beach, on a damp patch of grass that was surrounded by a drainage channel, and thus looked more like a bowling green. With so much stagnant water on hand, it was also Mosquito Hell, and I was soon peppered with bites. Since that first night in Toridé, I had gradually gained the upper hand in my battle with the mossies, which only seemed to appear when I was indoors (for example in the utility room at Iwakuni Youth Hostel). Here however, there was no escape, and putting up the Snow Peak turned into another weight-loss workout, as I once more resorted to wearing my pac-a-mac with the hood up. Wary of leaving any extremity unmoved, I danced around the bowling green like a boxer around the ring, and ran back and forth every couple of minutes to swat myself down. I then made a dash for the shower block, checking for stray insects before I ducked through the sliding door and peeled off my sweaty clothes.
The showers were in little cubby holes about a metre and a half above ground level, and having climbed a small ladder, I hung up my towel and arranged my soap and shampoo on a slatted plastic mat that covered the tiled floor. There was a curtain across each cubby hole, but no plastic stool to sit on, and the reason for its absence only became apparent once I had pressed a large button on the mixer tap. The water hose stiffened, and there was a split second of suspense as the shower head reared up like an angry cobra, before unleashing a jet of water powerful enough to stop a student demonstration. I was immediately thrown to the other side of the cubicle, and while a timer stemmed the flow after about five seconds, the water was in any case too hot to withstand for longer than two or three. Having pressed the button for a second time, I stood my ground and got as wet as I could without risking third degree burns, before soaping myself up and repeating the process. The sheer volume of water was so phenomenal that the drains couldn’t cope, and within minutes the cubicle was knee-deep in standing water and fast overflowing into the changing area. My soap and shampoo were swept away on the tide, and while the plastic mat had initially prevented me from slipping, it now floated freely on the tide of excess water, and was behaving more like a surfboard or a makeshift raft. It was probably the least relaxing bathing experience I had ever had, and having climbed down to rescue my shoes and towel from the floor, which was by now swimming in water, I was forced into a toilet cubicle at the far end of the block, where the flood crept under the door as I dried off.
Along a path at the top of the valley was a dog-eared old restaurant, with a view of Innoshima Big Bridge through its picture window, and more importantly, air conditioning. As something of an eighties throwback I was fond of my designer stubble, but there is a point – normally after a week or so – at which stubble becomes itchy and irritating, as it begins its transformation into a full-blown beard. Also, the more facial hair you have, the more it absorbs the aroma of whatever food you happen to be eating, and there is nothing worse than being followed around for the day by the mysterious and all-pervasive smell of rank butter or off milk. So the time had come for my twice-weekly shave, and because a conventional razor brings my skin out in a rash, one of the more luxurious items I had packed for the trip was a Braun electric shaver, which wasn’t just heavy but impractical too. If you sweat a lot – for example, in the high humidity of a Japanese summer – an electric shaver no longer glides smoothly across the skin, so I was often on the lookout for chilly shaving venues, and my plan this evening was to cool down over dinner before popping to the bathroom for a sweat-free shave. That is until I realised the bathroom lay outside the restaurant’s front door, and therefore beyond the range of the air conditioning. Almost as soon as I began a recce of the facilities, beads of perspiration began to roll down my forehead, and worse still, a mosquito was buzzing around near the sink. Suddenly taken with the idea of some insect extermination, I followed as it flew across the room and into one of the toilet stalls. After a few failed practice swings, I became aware of a pain in my temple, and upon looking in the mirror, noticed that the whole right side of my face was red and swollen. It looked as if someone had caught me with a left hook and felt as if I was having a stroke, the pain shooting through my cheek and down into my neck. The little fucker must have been some sort of genetic mutant, I reasoned, and he was clever, too, using his partner as a decoy before sneaking up to administer the killer blow. I sloped back into the restaurant like the Phantom of the Opera, hiding the swollen side of my face from the waitress as I paid the bill, and left with my designer stubble still firmly in place.
On the far side of the campsite I found a beachfront café with a table-full of diners outside, who were soon plying me with beer and sushi. It was perhaps understandable that this lot had welcomed me with open arms, as one of their number introduced himself as an ‘internationalist’. A dapper and well-preserved pensioner in pressed trousers and a button-down shirt, he told me the story of how his grandfather had lived for several years in the United States, building up a successful business in Seattle. Travelling to America to visit his grandfather, the Internationalist was inspired to work with the Lions Club, organising student exchanges and the like, and his family had recently played host to an eighteen-year-old girl from Latvia, although he admitted that her inability to speak Japanese had made life a little difficult.
Wary of being bitten to death should I go for a pee during the night, I hadn’t intended to drink too much beer, but it is the Japanese custom to keep your guest’s glass – or in this case, paper cup – full at all times, so I was soon decidedly merry. Despite an average age of around sixty, the partygoers were still going strong when a neighbour came to complain about the noise at eleven o’clock, and only reluctantly agreed to wind things down. I was sent on my way with another paper cup - this time containing soft-serve ice cream - and realised that I was beginning to suffer from a kind of reverse compassion fatigue, whereby I secretly longed for someone to overlook the opportunity to buy me a drink or neglect to offer me a share of their meal.