There was a small village about halfway to the Minokoshi Pass where I stopped at a vending machine in the hope of finding canned coffee. Having fed a couple of coins into the slot there was no response from the button for hot coffee, and when I pressed the button for cold, still nothing happened. Perhaps I would have to make do with green tea for breakfast, I thought, but having pressed that button as well, no can or bottle plonked into the tray at the bottom of the machine. I stood back to check for the red lights that signify whether or not an item is sold out, and lo and behold, every single one of them was lit. The machine was switched on, accepting coins, and contentedly humming away as if to keep its contents warmed or refrigerated, the only problem being there were no contents. While I had come across out-of-commission vending machines in the past, and occasionally been denied my drink of choice from a working model, I had never been denied the whole lot at the same time, and even in the remotest of areas, the people who drive around refilling these things tend to know what they're doing, so I wondered if this might be a joke on the part of some mischievous local – after all, now that I took a closer look, the dummy drinks on display were faded, misshapen, and had brand names that I couldn’t recall having seen anywhere else.
Next door was a shop that worked on the opposite principle, in that it was so dark inside as to appear closed, but having poked my head around the door, an old man emerged from the back room to say hello and take his place behind the counter. General stores like this and the ones I had visited near Ajimu and Hikimi are becoming increasingly hard to find, because despite being run by such friendly people, they tend to ignore almost all of the basic rules of marketing. Where a modern-day conbini will have a car park and a colourful sign, uniformed staff and a brightly lit interior, a toilet, photocopier, ATM and hot food, this place was dark, musty, silent, and with more empty shelves than stocked ones. Much to my disappointment, it was also devoid of hot coffee, and I had to make do with a can of cold and a bag of crisps instead. Consuming this rather boring breakfast, I went for a walk around the village, and found a front garden that was home to a whole community of scarecrows: old ladies in bonnets, farm hands in wellies and builders in hard hats, all sitting on lawn chairs or hanging from fenceposts, stuffed and stitched up like Cabbage Patch Kids, and seeming to have sprouted from the ground like the very plants that surrounded them.
I had fallen off the Mariposa in rather embarrassing circumstances a few months beforehand while on the way home from work, having applied the front brake so firmly that I was sent flying over the handlebars. Over the next few days my wrist showed no signs of recovery, and prompted by a friend of mine from the UK who had broken his own wrist in an equally innocuous fall, I took a trip to the nearest hospital. Apart from discovering how much more efficient the Japanese health system is than its British counterpart, I was told by the doctor who examined me that because both your body and your bedroom are colder in the morning, the pain from an injury is magnified, as the muscles and joints have yet to warm up. My wrist was unharmed on that occasion – I was even given a copy of the X-ray as proof – and the doctor prescribed something that looked like nicotine patches and worked by feeding a mild painkiller directly to the injury.
Whether you are using Bantelin, painkilling patches or something stronger, in a way that I assume to be the case for many sportspeople, pushing your body to its limits can be a delicate balance, and in my diary for Day 22, I wrote that ‘despite my whole body being exhausted, I am not as yet in actual pain’. Looking back, it is hard to tell how I differentiated between actual and virtual or imagined pain, but I suppose it is whatever allows you to persevere without unnecessary distraction, or whatever hurts without making you say ‘Ouch!’ An ache? Fatigue? Cramp? Discomfort? Anything that might be considered – as football parlance would have it – ‘niggling’? These are all varieties of pain, but they are also what an athlete chooses to ignore, is happy to live with, if not ignoring them would mean giving up when his goal is within sight, or when he is in the midst of competition. Not that I was ready to turn professional just yet, as despite having made it to fourteen hundred metres above sea level – a new high for the journey – and to a point somewhere between five hundred and a thousand metres above Iyashino-Onsenkyo, it was worth reminding myself that for a typical stage in the Tour de France, the riders will complete two or three such climbs within four or five hours, often in much hotter weather, much tighter clothing, and without taking a break for coffee and crisps halfway up.
After some zaru-soba at one of several restaurant-stroke-gift-shops (zaru-soba is one of the best dishes to eat on a hot summer’s day, and consists of a kind of wickerwork plate of iced buckwheat noodles, which are dipped into a mixture of soy sauce, spring onions, grated ginger and wasabi before eating), I caught a chairlift towards the nineteen-hundred-metre summit of Mount Tsurugi. Tsurugi was surrounded on all sides by a sea of green pointed peaks, but looking at the view, I realised that something about Shikoku had so far failed to inspire me. Because it so perfectly exemplified the division in Japan between a mountainous interior and a populous coastline of flat, arable land, nowhere on the island had felt as unique as, say, Hagi, Miyajima or Mount Aso, and I began to understand why comparatively few tourists made their way here, and why Shikoku is looked upon as something of a backwater.
A road as narrow and twisting as the one on which I had climbed to the pass snaked its way down a valley on the other side, but the further I descended, the wider and straighter it became, until I was haring along at fifty or sixty kilometres an hour (by the reckoning of my mental speedometer, that is. A physical speedometer would have clocked me at more like thirty or forty). I flashed past farm buildings, side roads and junctions as if the Mariposa had a motor attached, although looking at the Mapple, there was one more climb to negotiate before I could rest for the night.
Given the fact that I had already spent the best part of the morning toiling away in first gear, this turned the day into something of an epic, and I stopped halfway to the Kawai Pass to take a photograph of the Mariposa’s chain, looped as it was around the small cog on the front and the large cog on the back: my most used ratio.
For as long as I can remember I have been prone to sitting up, yelling at the top of my voice and occasionally trying to climb out of the bedroom window while still asleep, and being surrounded by families and children, I was hoping that I wouldn’t do the same thing here. In the event, though, it was as much as I could do to get to sleep in the first place, since I was sure that I could hear a prowler creeping around outside. As the thief / unscrupulous trucker / samurai swordsman / serial killer crept ever closer, I lay there with my eyes wide open, trying to work out exactly where he or she was, and on the pretext of going to the toilet, resolved to burst out of the tent for a surprise attack. But the Snow Peak didn’t exactly lend itself to stealth and ninja-like invisibility, and by the time I had put on a t-shirt, unzipped the tent flap and struggled to my feet, there was no one to be seen.