Presents received – oden discount
Thus far on the trip, I had been wearing each of my t-shirts, pairs of shorts and pairs of socks for a couple of days apiece, and had realised that given a reasonable period of time spent crumpled up at the bottom of a pannier bag, it was perfectly feasible to wear them again. This meant that, technically speaking, every single item of clothing I had with me was dirty, so although I could don my one pair of long trousers and go without socks for the day, I couldn’t do without a t-shirt, and set aside the least obviously BO-ridden one before throwing the rest in the campsite washing machine. As the sun crept above the valley’s ridge, I hung everything out to dry between two trees on my trusty piece of string, although without using clothes pegs, as these, I had decided before setting out from Mito, would have been an unnecessary luxury.
By now desperate for my morning hit of caffeine, I risked breakfast at a Mister Donut, which has long been famous as a gaijin hangout, as it was one of the first American eateries to make it across the Pacific, and more to the point, offers free refills. Ironically enough the doughnut side of the Mister Donut franchise left a lot to be desired, and as I attempted to mask the blandness of a chewy choclolate swizzle stick with some old-style British dunking, my keitai rang. It was Mr Swansea, who wanted to inform his conversation class of my movements, and also to bend my ear about his latest women troubles. Having broken up some time ago with the girl he originally followed to Japan, Mr Swansea had decided to treat his current girlfriend, Miss Friend Child, to a romantic weekend away. But Miss Friend Child, whose affections had been thoroughly unpredictable since they started seeing each other, now claimed to be feeling unwell. Mr Swansea was worried that he may have to cancel, and suspected there was more to Miss Friend Child’s indecision than just a dodgy tummy, as her father had found out about the relationship, and apparently disapproved of her associating with a gaijin.
There are many things that militate against the success of an interracial relationship in Japan, including such parental disapproval, the language barrier, and the ever-present possibility that one party might disappear back to their home country. The most important, however, and surely the most frustrating, has to do with the indirect way in which any form of human interaction, be it professional or personal, is conducted. Foreign businesspeople often complain that their Japanese customers will say yes to a deal in person before subsequently turning it down in writing, and dating can follow a similar pattern. As a consequence, Mr Swansea and I had come to refer to our dealings with the opposite sex as entering The Matrix, the four stages of which go something like this:
1) You ask a girl out, and she says yes.
2) You take her on a few dates, and things appear to be going well. You may kiss occasionally, or even sleep together.
3) You ask her if you are now boyfriend and girlfriend, and she says yes.
4) Then, in a manner that can be almost too subtle to detect, she gradually pushes you away, to the point where you know you have been given the elbow, and cannot quite work out when, where or how it happened.
Such indirectness is referred to as aimai (曖昧) and despite being a little on the aimai side myself by not stating things too bluntly, it was clear that Mr Swansea’s relationship had by now progressed well into Stage Four.
‘Listen, I should go in a minute, ’cause this is probably costing me an arm and a leg,’ he said, before launching into yet more speculation as to why Miss Friend Child was being so awkward, and what the hell he was supposed to do about it. So as not to disturb the other customers at Mister Donut, I took our conversation outside, and tried to be as reassuring as I could, while at the same time not wanting to imply that Mr Swansea was anything other than a single man again.
When the two of us were not bemoaning our romantic woes, we were bemoaning our linguistic ones, and it struck me that my frustrations with the Japanese language were a lot like my frustrations with women, particularly during my younger, shyer and even less confident youth. As a teenager (and in my twenties. And let’s be honest, in my thirties as well), I would spend a disproportionate amount of my time thinking about girls, wishing I could pluck up the courage to ask them out, and that one of them would then become my girlfriend; as an expat, I spent a disproportionate amount of my time studying Japanese, wishing I could pluck up the courage to use it on the natives, and that one day I would become fluent. Whereas in the UK, Mr Swansea had never had any trouble finding a girlfriend, he now found himself not only trapped in The Matrix, but also confronted with the daily struggle of being unable to take part in even the simplest of conversations, and while I was lucky enough to have found Mrs M, this had a much less beneficial effect than you might think on my ability to communicate in Japanese.
The next couple of hours were spent shuffling around various depaato (department stores), my eyes barely able to focus on the parade of goods and the parade of customers, and while I was there mainly for the air-con and the Western-style toilets, I did manage to invest in a new pair of combat trousers. From being beige when I bought them, mine were now brown-verging-on-black, under an accumulation of chain oil and general grime which had resisted all attempts to wash it out. I found another pair in a darker colour and wore them immediately, and there was something very liberating about throwing the old ones in the bin, even if it did make me feel like a tramp on a shoplifting spree. Not only that, but the new pair had an elasticated waist, which meant another precious few grammes of baggage dispensed with, in the form of an equally old and tatty belt.
Under pressure from supporting so much weight and from a starting point of around twenty or thirty degrees, the Mariposa’s kickstand was now projecting at an angle of more like seventy or eighty. Despite going at the stand with a hammer and a vice, the mechanic at a local hardware store was unable to straighten it out, and suggested that it might be best to get rid of the thing, which lightened my load yet further, even if I no longer had the luxury of a free-standing bike (the reason hardly anyone uses kickstands in the UK is because they make a parked bicycle too easy to carry off, whereas in Japan, there is no need to secure your bike to a set of railings or a lamppost, remove the seat and the front wheel, and check on it every ten minutes to make sure that no one has sawed through the lock). I then asked a couple of passersby to direct me to the nearest internet café, and was told that it was either three or six kilometres away. Still inclined to doubt the Japanese sense of direction, I decided not to bother, as I didn’t fancy the extra mileage, and in any case, it would have been a lot of effort just to confirm my fears that England had been trounced in the Second Ashes Test.
Baseball was the order of the day at the onsen where I had arranged to meet Mr Stone River, and stepping into the sauna, I found ten or fifteen men watching a televised match. Each had a tenugui draped across his waist, and sat in silent contemplation of the screen, which was like a kind of anti-fireplace, its cool blue flicker protected by a heatproof pane of glass.
The higher you choose to sit on the wooden tiers of a sauna, the hotter it gets, so it is interesting to observe the stoic expressions of endurance, and to keep an eye on how long each person manages to remain inside before they make a run for the mizuburo. I wondered if this lot were timing themselves to the next hit, the next strike out or the next commercial break, although I didn’t last long enough myself to find out. Mr Stone River was still working when I called him from the relaxation room, so we agreed to meet later for some okonomiyaki, and I emerged from the onsen cleaner and more refreshed than at any time in the preceding fortnight, having frittered away the best part of two hours there.
No self-respecting Japanese finishes work at five o’clock, so it did not surprise me that Mr Stone River was still at it when I called him from the restaurant. He was on his way to a different restaurant for a business meeting, and said that he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to meet me at all this evening, as he planned on going straight home whenever he finally managed to get away. It is bad form in Japan to leave the office before your boss, and even then you are expected to consolidate professional relationships after work, either by drinking with colleagues or schmoozing clients. I understood all this, but was genuinely disappointed at not being able to see my new friend, particularly as none of the other okonomiyaki regulars was there to confuse me with their drunken Japanese. Losing the thread of what Mr Stone River was saying, I handed the phone to the manageress, who translated by holding her forearms in a batsu, a cross to mean ‘no can do’. She then discounted my meal of oden to such an extent that I had the feeling Mr Stone River was treating me in his absence.
(Oden, incidentally, is a dish of fish cakes, vegetables, seaweed and egg, simmered in broth and served with mustard. It makes for great comfort food and is traditionally available from conbini in the winter months, although the smell can be overpowering in such a confined space.)
It was dark by the time I cycled back towards the campsite, and not long before my turning, I thought that I could make out an object of some sort in the middle of the road. At first it looked like a rag or a piece of strapping fallen from the back of a lorry, but as I moved closer it became clear that it was a dog. Too well groomed to be a stray and looking more like an Akita or some similar pedigree, it appeared oddly dignified when illuminated by the headlights of passing cars. Lying directly along the centre line with its nose pointed back towards the sea, its legs were stretched out as if it was taking a nap, and its fluffy white fur was apparently unmarked. Turning my gaze towards the pavement, I saw what I took to be its owner, sitting on a bicycle and with her head slumped over the handlebars. A girl of elementary school age, she appeared to be crying, and as I passed, I wondered how the accident had happened: perhaps the dog had escaped its lead as she took it for a walk, or perhaps it had run away from home and she had only just found it. The further I continued past the scene, the more I felt that I should have stopped to help, to at least try and retrieve the animal from the middle of the road, where it ran the risk of being flattened by one of the cars that were passing just inches from its body. I imagined stepping out into the traffic, manfully raising my hand and commanding people to stop, before taking the dog in my arms and laying it gently on the pavement. But like everyone else who passed by, shut off in the hermetically sealed comfort of their vehicles, I was far too much of a coward to do anything so heroic. Who knows how long the girl stayed there, or what became of her poor pet, but my mood was downcast as I got ready for bed, and at ten o’clock the caretaker rode away on his moped, leaving me alone with my thoughts.