Presents received – two beers, okonomiyaki, Bantelin
A few kilometres beyond the city of Saijo I passed the aftermath of a landslide, where waves of rocks and mud had poured out from between the trees and engulfed a car dealership. Ghostly headlights and radiator grills poked out from beneath the rubble, and everything had been left as it was, squashed flat and with no attempt made to rescue the crumpled cars or the showroom’s remains. Although the mud was now baked dry by the summer heat and sections of the road had already been re-routed, their neat white lines skirting the tide line of debris, the scene still had an eerie feel to it, as if it were a fresh catastrophe.
From the top of the next headland Shikoku-Chuo-Shi came into view, at the far end of a sweeping bay and overlooking several small islands (Shikoku-Chuo-Shi means ‘Shikoku Central City’, and is one of many cities formed in the early noughties by the merger of two or three smaller towns, hence the rather unimaginative new name).
Making my way inland, industry gave way to shops, then houses, then semi-countryside, and I found my campsite tucked away in a steep-sided valley next to a small boating lake. The caretaker was expecting a party of motorcyclists to arrive later that evening, so it might not be as peaceful when I went to bed, but I was due a day off, and booked myself in for two nights anyway. Next to the lake a father was teaching his two small children how to ride their bicycles, and set them off in the fading light along a surprisingly steep stretch of road. Even with stabilisers it was a tough proposition, but the two of them positively relished the challenge – no doubt their next lesson would be ‘How to give your friend a lift on the luggage rack’, I thought, or ‘How to send an email from your keitai at the same time’.
Having asked their father for advice on where to go for interesting izakaya, I spent the next twenty minutes in the side streets of Shikoku-Chuo-Shi, utilising my foolproof system for locating a decent dinner venue:
1) Chains and franchises are a no-no, as they can be too much like eating in a hotel lobby or a company office.
2) So are noodle bars, which although cheap, have too high a customer turnover to foster conversation between strangers.
3) Anything upmarket is off the list, not just because of the price, but also because the atmosphere can be too hushed and formal, and the waiting staff bow too low to put you entirely at ease.
4) Some izakaya are also to be avoided, if it looks as if they might consist too predominantly of private dining rooms, with not enough communal space at the bar.
5) Last but not least, care has to be taken to avoid hostess clubs, which will normally have names like Cherry Blossom, New Rose or Miki’s Place, with a modern, backlit sign in pink, red or purple.
I eventually settled on an okonomiyaki restaurant (お好み焼き / okonomiyaki is a kind of Spanish omelette that is often cooked on a griddle at the customer’s table), which was suitably rough around the edges, with hand-drawn signs in the window and above the door a flashing yellow warning light of the kind you would normally see at a set of roadworks. At the next seat along the bar was Mr Stone River, who immediately took me under his wing, ordering both beer and food on my behalf. He was a big man with a bald head, thus fitting the gangster stereotype rather well, but it seemed unlikely that his job as a paper salesman was a front, particularly when Shikoku-Chuo-Shi, as he explained, was the paper capital of Japan. Next to Mr Stone River was a motley assortment of men and women in various states of inebriation, in whom the alcohol had instilled just enough courage to speak to a strange gaijin, and immobilised just enough motor function to render most of what they were saying incomprehensible. While I had not consumed such an enormous quantity of egg since stopping for breakfast at a particularly memorable burger van about five years previously (in a layby on the A1 near Peterborough, in case you ever fancy a three-fried-egg sandwich for about one pound fifty), I ate and drank heartily, and Mr Stone River gave me his number, suggesting that we go to the local onsen before dinner the following evening.
Back at the campsite, I was confronted not with a gang of leather-clad Hell’s Angels on Harley-Davidsons, but a group of business studies students on push bikes. Having travelled all the way from Tokyo, they were circumnavigating Shikoku in a week at the rate of eighty or ninety kilometres a day, and even at this late hour, the stragglers among them were still arriving. The site was a mess of tents, bicycles, food, drink, clothes and equipment, with exhausted cyclists sprawled on every available patch of ground. I found a group of lads who still had the strength to hold a conversation, and we swapped riding stories and compared aches and pains.
When I mentioned my knees, one of them fished a small plastic bottle from his panniers.
‘I use this stuff,’ he said. ‘My knees have been giving me problems as well, but it seems to help.’
‘What do you do with it?’ The clear liquid was called Bantelin, and came in a small plastic bottle with a kind of roll-on applicator.
‘You just rub it on your knees before you go to sleep. Go on, take it. We’ve got loads of the stuff.’
By virtue of the fact that she spoke the best English, I was introduced to a half-Peruvian girl, who stood out from the crowd because she was tall and skinny with light brown rather than jet-black hair. The students took it in turns to cook for each other, she explained, and were about to tuck in to a hearty supper of ramen, or Chinese noodle soup. She pointed out their leader, along with the strongest and weakest riders, and told me how they were grouped roughly according to ability, agreeing every morning on where to meet for lunch and where to camp for the night. It was hard to imagine British university students organising a cycling holiday with such efficiency – hard to imagine British university students organising a cycling holiday at all, in fact – and I looked on with admiration as they ate, washed up, collected rubbish, consulted maps, erected their tents, showered and cleaned their teeth, all with the minimum of fuss.