Presents received – beer, snacks
If it had not been for the multi-coloured Mariposa and my multi-coloured wardrobe (I had three t-shirts: one red, one green and one blue), I might have looked like a government health and safety inspector, or the researcher for a Discovery Channel show about The Coolest Bridges in the World…Ever! as I cycled from island to island, snapping the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido from every conceivable angle. Ikuchi Bridge covers the seven-hundred-and-ninety-metre gap between Innoshima and Ikuchijima, and Tatara Big Bridge the kilometre and a half between Ikuchijima and Ohmishima. Resembling a slender length of steel held by the twin pincers of a production line robot, the latter is the second longest cable stayed bridge in the world, and certainly the most space age of the seven.
The only downside to all of this engineering has been its effect on the Seto-Naikai, which has lost some of the mystery that Donald Richie evokes in The Inland Sea. That book was written the best part of half a century ago, and once you have shoved a four-lane expressway through a previously isolated group of islands, industry and commerce are bound to follow. The coast roads, therefore, were flanked by factory after factory, in the bowels of which could be glimpsed great hunks of steel, lit momentarily by the blue flare from a welder’s torch. I passed an abandoned bus painted in Electric Kool-Aid hippy colours, a recycling plant whose tidy bays were piled high with cans, glass and plastic, a battery chicken farm that stank so much it almost knocked me off the Mariposa, and a seaside arena from which pounding techno music and DJ patter could be heard. Meanwhile, nature asserted itself in the form of swirling sea currents, which were so strong they seemed about to lasso the islands out into the Pacific, and rushed by faster than a speeding car.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that I reached bridge number seven, and this last link in the chain was a fitting climax to the Setouchi-Shimanami-Kaido. The Kurushima-Kaikyo Big Bridge is effectively three suspension bridges laid end-to-end, two of which are over fifteen hundred metres long, and with a total span of over four kilometres. It took me the best part of half an hour to ride across, and by the time I reached the other end I had almost run out of space for photographs on my memory card, and completely run out of adjectives with which to describe the amazing, astounding and awe-inspiring astonishingness of this very long sea crossing with an equally long name.
In Imabari, the first town I came to along the north coast of Shikoku, thousands of people were thronging the streets for a festival, and many of them wore yukata and hanten: yukata being a cheaper, lighter and ready-to-wear version of the kimono, worn for summer festivals or visits to the onsen, and hanten short, colourful coats, often adorned with a family crest or kanji denoting the wearer’s allegiance to a group or society. For many, the occasion appeared to be little more than an excuse to get drunk, and giggling groups of women were fending off lecherous packs of men, who passed around bottles of saké and shochu, and took advantage of the lack of traffic to stage mock wrestling bouts and acrobatic stunts.
I carried on through Imabari without indulging in so much as a drop of booze, as there was no campsite nearby, and in the midst of all this activity, it would be well nigh impossible to find an illicit spot on which to pitch the Snow Peak, let alone an empty hotel room. But maybe I should have stuck around, as my desire to cycle back to Ibaraki at all costs was beginning to feel a little misguided. Before we parted the previous evening, the Internationalist had offered to take me on a guided tour of Innoshima, and I had turned him down, based on the fact that to stay another night would have meant my journey through Chugoku overrunning its allotted week. In such a perpetual state of passing through, I appeared to be depriving myself of some of the pleasures of travel – of the opportunity to find a friendly island, for instance, and hang around for a while – and perhaps I would do better to allow for the possibility of NOT ACHIEVING MY GOAL after all. Sheltering from a downpour at a lonely conbini outside Imabari, I began to formulate a Plan B, and calculated that should I find myself short of time, it would be possible to catch the same two ferries from Osaka to Tokyo that Mr Sturdy Level had made use of, thus shortening my journey by several hundred kilometres.
Kyukamura-Setouchi-Toyo – the Toyo Inland Sea Holiday Village – was just a couple of kilometres further east, surrounded by trees and set back from the sea by a beach of soft sand. In trainers, tracksuit bottoms and a polo shirt, the young man at reception had the air of a PE teacher about him. I asked if there was an onsen nearby and he pointed to the cream-coloured building past which I had just ridden.
‘There’s one at the hotel.’
‘What time does it shut?’
This still gave me an hour or so, although like museums and art galleries, onsen often have a final admission time, so I thought it best to double-check.
‘When’s the latest I can go in?’
‘I’m afraid it’s already too late.’
‘They close the gates at seven thirty.’
There was a gate on the road leading up to the hotel, but as far as I could tell, it was only there to prevent people from driving to the beach after hours, and in any case, the hotel was no more than a couple of hundred metres away.
‘It’s OK, I’m on a bicycle, and if need be I can always walk.’
‘The other onsen opens until ten, though.’
‘What? You mean there are two onsen?’
‘Yes, but you have to be a customer at the hotel to use the first one.’
‘You mean the one that opens until eight?’
‘Yes. Except the gates shut at seven thirty.’
‘Seven thirty. Right. But if there’s an onsen that’s open till ten and I walk up, I can use that one, can’t I?’
‘No, because when you come back down, the gates will be closed.’
What was this guy talking about? First there was one onsen, then there were two, they were both open, and I couldn’t use either of them. I took a deep breath, and spoke as slowly and clearly as I could.
‘What time does the hotel onsen close?’
‘And do I have to be a customer at the hotel to use it?’
‘So when’s the latest I can go up?’
‘Which means I’ve still got half an hour.’
‘No. You’re too late.’
Despite persevering in the same vein for several minutes, I was obviously missing some key piece – or more likely, several key pieces – of information. Remember, this is only an approximate translation of what I think the receptionist was saying, and what I like to think I was saying in reply. To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson from the old Barclaycard commercial, we were both fluent, but sadly in different languages.
In the end I was directed to a completely different onsen, for which I set out just as it was getting dark, and having wheeled the Mariposa over some sand dunes, found myself on another side road, where groups of campers and caravanners were tending their barbecues. Many had petrol-driven generators, so that riding past felt like spying on a succession of dinner parties, as each gazebo rang with music and laughter, and cast an oblong of electric light onto the ground before me.
Turning inland I came to a district of love hotels, which, like the capsule hotel, are an ingenious invention that some enterprising businessperson would do well to introduce to the rest of the world. Because houses in Japan are often so small, and because many young people live at home until they get married, a spot of privacy for the average couple can be hard to come by, and love hotels cater for an estimated five hundred million visits annually, which equates to two per cent of the population every day. Since love hotels are as prevalent in small towns as in big cities, the need for anonymity can be very important, and while their exteriors can be a gaudy mix of neon and faux-historic façade – surrounded by palm trees and spotlit from all sides, the most ostentatious example in Toyo looked like a cross between a Greek temple and a Scottish castle – in certain key details they are designed to be as discreet as possible. Each room will have its own parking bay, which can be screened off in case someone you know happens to be a guest at the same time – after all, you may not want your friend, neighbour, parents, children, or in some cases spouse, to find out that you are spending the afternoon in one – and for added privacy, many have completely dispensed with the need for staff and customers to interact, so that a clock starts running when you enter the room and payment is made upon departure, by the hour or by the night, at an automated till just outside the door. The rooms themselves tend to be well kitted out, with Jacuzzis, big-screen televisions, karaoke, complimentary condoms, and vending machines that dispense food, drink and even sex toys. Many are designed according to a theme – futuristic manga, school classroom or S&M dungeon, for example – and some apparently have a notepad on the bedside table, in which one is encouraged to describe exactly how one made use of the facilities for the benefit of future guests. I can highly recommend a decent love hotel as the venue for a hot date, although my one word of advice would be never to ask the person you are going with if they have been to one before, as this can provoke a very awkward silence indeed.
While condoms and karaoke would have been nice, all I needed tonight was some hearty food and a warm bath, which I found at an upmarket leisure complex composed, among other things, of hotels, restaurants and a golf course. The onsen itself was more on the downmarket side, as on top of the standard entry fee I paid extra for sachets of soap and shampoo (never having been charged for these before, I had left my own toiletries at the campsite), and once inside, the bath was tiny, there was no rotenburo and no mizuburo. I wasn’t exactly entering into the spirit of adventure by being so fussy, and I cannot imagine I would last long trekking through the Amazon jungle or across the icy wastes of Siberia, but by now my on-the-road routine was as set in stone as the one I followed in everyday life, and just as likely to unsettle me should it be disrupted.
Back at the campsite I wandered down to the beach, where a group of twenty-somethings offered to share their stash of beer and crisps. They were from Matsuyama in the west of Shikoku, and having found out that I was English, one of their number – a lanky fellow with long hair and a black, band logo t-shirt – confessed to me his love of Queen.
‘I think Brian May is the best guitarist. He is so cool. Do you like him?’
‘Er, yes. He’s very good.’
‘Do you know any Queen songs? Radio Ga-Ga, Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You…’
‘Of course. They’re extremely popular in England.’
Thankfully no one had a guitar to hand, otherwise they would have been treated to my take on the riff from One Vision, or perhaps Crazy Little Thing Called Love minus the chorus. Racking my brain for some rock trivia, I instead kept the Queen fan happy with stories of how May’s hairstyle closely resembles that of his wife, how he still uses a guitar that he made in the garden shed as a teenager, and how he prefers to wear clogs in the recording studio. With such conservative taste in music, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when instead of getting raucously drunk and staying up until the early hours, the twenty-somethings all went to bed at half past eleven.