Presents received – ice cream
Stirred as the sky began to brighten at about four thirty in the morning, I moved to close the outer door of the Snow Peak in case the sun managed to find a path through the trees and catch my eye later on. Whenever the zip for the inner door was undone, I made sure it was for as short a time, and to as narrow an opening, as possible, but only being half awake, this time I got sloppy. I left too big a gap for one too many seconds, and a mosquito took its chance to sneak in. It went to work immediately, and every few minutes as I tried to get back to sleep, that telltale, tortuous, high-pitched buzzing sound would reappear, hovering around my head. Sometimes I succeeded in swatting the mosquito away before it had the chance to bite, and sometimes I didn’t realise it had landed on my face until it was too late. I would then grab my potholer’s headlamp – a kind of hands-free torch attached to the forehead with strips of elastic – and investigate the direction in which it appeared to have escaped. But unless you are in a brilliantly lit room with a white floor, white walls and a white ceiling, mosquitoes can be maddeningly hard to find, and in the process of overturning everything that lay around me, I found the inside of the tent to be positively swarming with wildlife. While I had been expending my energy on keeping the mossies out, a veritable menagerie of caterpillars, beetles and bugs had taken up residence right under my nose, and there was no point in trying to catch them while my bloodsucking nemesis remained elusive. A few hours later I was doing my best not to scratch the cluster of red bites that now adorned my face, as I turned the tent inside out for the first time on the trip to shake it free of squatters.
Having crept past the pink-faced and still sleeping bikers, I made my way through Naruto town centre for the fifth time in the last twenty-four hours, and past a series of interchanges for the Kobé-Awaji-Naruto-Jidoshado, before a short climb cut the corner of the peninsula that reaches across towards Awajijima. The coast road north-west was reasonably flat, and with the wind behind me I felt confident of reaching Takamatsu by mid-afternoon, which should then leave enough time to catch a ferry to Shodoshima. I would have been perfectly happy with my progress, in fact, had a group of cyclists not flashed past at such high speed as to make me look as if I was standing still. Dressed in matching black outfits and blue helmets, they rode ultra-slimline racing bikes, and by the time I had thought to call out a friendly ‘Hello!’ were already several hundred metres down the road. The strongest of the five had thighs that were approximately the same circumference as my waist, and looked like some kind of cycling superhero, with broad shoulders and muscles that appeared to have been hewn from solid granite, not to mention bleached hair, a perma-tan and wraparound shades. After a turn as pacemaker, Superman peeled off the group to ride along the pavement on the opposite side of the road, sitting up in his saddle and letting go of the handlebars, despite still travelling at fifty or sixty kilometres an hour. More for my own amusement than anything else, I changed into the twenty-first of my twenty-one gears and began pedalling harder in an attempt to catch up. Having assumed the effort to be futile, I spotted the group a few minutes later, sprawled on the tarmac in a conbini car park and wolfing down a breakfast of onigiri and green tea. I asked Superman if they earned a living from cycling, or if it was just a hobby.
‘We’ve been professional since we graduated from high school,’ he explained, ‘and we race most weeks.’
‘So you must be really good.’
‘Well, not bad…’
‘The best in Shikoku?’
All five of them laughed when I said this, and were practically falling over each other to correct me.
‘No, no! Nowhere near the best in Shikoku. Maybe fourth…’
I couldn’t work it out. I had never seen a Japanese rider in the Tour de France, and couldn’t recall seeing one in a track event either, so where were so many professionals competing?
‘We race keirin,’ said Superman, and I had to ask what he meant, as this was in the days before Sir Chris Hoy and Team GB. Keirin (競輪) is a variety of velodrome racing that originated in post-war Japan, and that despite bringing in huge betting revenues and giving out huge prize money, has remained largely indigenous. It only became an Olympic sport in 2000, which no doubt means that a lot of very talented riders have never competed outside their home country, and I wondered if Mrs M had been shielding me from this domestic variety, for fear that it might appeal too much to my passion for cycling and turn me into a compulsive gambler. Taking a closer look at their bicycles, the total weight of all five was probably less than that of the fully laden Mariposa, and I was amazed to discover that even for an on-road training session, they still had only one gear apiece.
‘How far will you be going today?’ I enquired.
‘We’re going a bit further along the coast, then we’ll be heading up that mountain.’ Superman pointed to an inland peak that looked to be three or four hundred metres high, and on which a fixed-speed bike would surely be no fun at all. Despite its many faults, I realised now that the Mariposa was a marvellous machine, because if nothing else, it spared me such arthritis-inducing punishment, and having said goodbye to Sir Superman and Team Tokushima, rejoined the road in as low a gear and as leisurely a fashion as possible.
This stretch of Shikoku’s north coast appeared to have been hit hard by the recession, with many of its businesses dilapidated or abandoned, and it was some time before I found a lunch venue. I was also looking for a printer’s, as I needed to free up some space on my memory card by burning the contents onto CD, so after eating, I set about finding a USB lead that lay somewhere at the bottom of the Mariposa’s saddle-bags. Just like the Snow Peak, however, these were now home to some unwanted hitchhikers, and my reward for leaving them open overnight was exactly the kind of creepy-crawly about which I was prone to having nightmares. Curled up beneath my notebook, waterproofs and t-shirt recycling facility (ie. plastic bag full of dirty clothes) was a shiny black millipede, a good twenty centimetres long and with its rows of comb-tooth legs undulating silently from the disturbance. After removing as many items from the saddle-bag as I dared, I gingerly detached it from the Mariposa, before turning it upside down at arm’s length and shaking vigorously. The millipede plopped out onto the tarmac, but didn’t seem to appreciate the sudden exposure, and headed for the shelter of the bicycle’s back wheel. I couldn’t bring myself to prise him off, and having re-packed and re-attached my luggage, got on the Mariposa and rode away, assuming that he would be flung clear as we picked up speed. Looking back through my legs as I pedalled, though, he was still resolutely clinging on, like the last passenger on an out-of-control ferris wheel. Knowing my luck, I thought, he’ll climb onto the luggage rack at the next set of traffic lights and crawl up my sleeve – or worse still, my trouser leg – at an inopportune moment. So I dismounted, whacked the Mariposa against the kerb, poked at the millipede with a stick, and when the two were finally separated, rode away again as quickly as possible.
When you are using a foreign language, talking on the phone can be twice as hard as talking face to face, and even Mrs M and I preferred to communicate by email when we were arranging to meet up. Poor sound quality, background noise and the absence of body language can turn even the simplest of calls into a minefield of misunderstandings, so I tended to avoid answering the phone unless I could be sure of an English-speaking voice on the other end. For the most part, though, I had been keeping up with my quota of at least one Japanese conversation every day, so after three weeks of immersion, it was time to put my mobile where my mouth was, and I resolved to book my bed at Shodoshima Youth Hostel by keitai. A bit of browsing at a roadside shopping mall was enough to empty my mind of negative thoughts, and having retired to a quiet corner of the car park, I dialled the number for the hostel. For a first-time effort the call came off rather well, as the woman who answered seemed accustomed to dealing with faltering gaijin, and had such a sympathetic ear that I managed to stick to Japanese, as well as keeping her from lapsing into English, which I suspected she could speak perfectly well. She detailed the strict timetable for checking in, eating and bathing, which I confessed I would be unlikely to adhere to, as the next ferry for Shodoshima did not leave for another couple of hours. I asked for confirmation that I would be able to do my washing, which after all was the main reason I wanted to stay there, and whether the hostel was easy to spot, and in the end, the trickiest aspect of the call was not its comprehensibility but its level of politeness.
In my efforts to rebel from Ms Flower Pine’s use of the Japanese for Busy People teaching method, I had been practicing the plain form of Japanese on my conversational test subjects, and on reflection, one or two of them may have been offended by this. Theoretically speaking, a youth hostel receptionist was lower down in the social hierarchy, and ought to address me, the customer, using the polite form, while I could use the plain form in return. But on the telephone there was no way of knowing how old she was, or whether she was the owner rather than the receptionist, and should therefore be granted more respect. There are also grey areas in spoken Japanese, where it seems permissible to lapse into the plain form if a conversation’s subject matter is mundane enough, or if in some indefinable way, the participants are getting on so well that they no longer feel the need to bother with social conventions. Moreover, I often had the feeling that it was best to treat any business interaction as inherently formal, and to bestow one’s politest Japanese upon even the lowliest shop assistant. In this case, it was impossible to tell from the woman’s reaction whether or not I was striking the right note by throwing in the occasional dose of informality, so I would have to wait until I reached the hostel to find out whether or not I had passed the politeness test.
With time on my hands in Takamatsu before the ferry departed, I went to Ritsurin Park, which dates back to the seventeenth century and is one of the three most famous ornamental gardens in the country (another, Kairakuen, is in Mito, and famous for its plum blossom).
Once through the gates you can stroll around immaculate flowerbeds, over arched bridges and past carefully pruned pine trees, and because the nearby slopes of Mount Shiun are free from development, there is not the slightest hint that you are in the middle of a big city. The park is dotted with ponds, whose opaque water is as green as pea soup, and in which brightly coloured carp bob to the surface looking for food. A one-storey wooden teahouse stands at the edge of one such pond, and in the muggy weather its sliding screens had been left open to the elements, so that it almost looked as if the roof was floating in mid-air. The overall effect was impressively calming and spatially balanced, although it felt strange to be on two feet instead of two wheels, as my brain had grown accustomed to processing information at normal cycling speed, and I rather wished that Mrs M was here, as such an attractive venue was more suitable for a date than some one-man sightseeing.
‘Mmm, this is delicious,’ I declared, tucking in to the various buffet dishes I had crammed onto my tray. ‘Which one of you is the chef?’
A petite and pale looking girl in an apron, a young man whose long fringe obscured his eyes, and a stockier fellow in his thirties, all bowed their heads in the affirmative.
‘Well done. It’s very good, you know – I should think the kids enjoyed it too.’
The bow this time was less obvious, and the three of them seemed to hunch even further over their rice bowls, and to increase their chopstick speed ever so slightly.
‘Have you been busy this summer?’
The girl looked at her two colleagues, realised that she was now on her own, and let out a very quiet ‘Hai’ for ‘yes’.
‘Good, good.’ We ate in silence for a few seconds before I tried another angle. ‘Are you volunteers, then? On holiday from university?’
This too elicited no more than a one-word reply, and it felt as if I had intruded on a gang of heavies who are in the middle of planning a bank job. It was all a far cry from Shimonoseki, where the staff had been well travelled and curious about their guests, although to be fair, my reception here was still infinitely friendlier than the one I had received at Iwakuni, and the woman at the front desk – with whom I had spoken over the phone earlier on – had apparently not been put off by my treating her as a lackey.
After dinner I asked for directions to the bathing area, which she told me was down the hall and to the left of the drinks machines, but somehow, and in a way that reminded me of the scene from This is Spinal Tap where the band get lost trying to find the stage (‘Hello Cleveland!’), I soon found myself standing outside, on a grubby window ledge next to an air conditioning unit. Surely this isn’t what she meant? I thought to myself, as I attempted to replace a mossie screen that had lurched out of its frame when I slid it open, and to climb back in without anybody suspecting that I was in the throes of some kind of prison camp escape fantasy. I could have sworn that she had said ‘to the left of’ rather than ‘turn left after’ – which, as I soon discovered, was what I should have done – but perhaps this was an example of my still remedial listening skills, rather than the skewed Japanese sense of direction.
Once undressed and sitting on my little plastic stool, I was happily showering away when I spotted yet another insect adversary. A large cockroach was perched on the wall tiles above my mirror, and although it was unlikely to bother me physically, it would certainly bother me mentally, even if it sat stock still until I had finished bathing and left the room. Over the course of nine months in Tokyo, I had knowingly shared my apartment with three different cockroaches, and found them just as difficult to kill as their reputation suggested. Your average cockroach will scuttle across the wall or the floor in a peculiarly unnerving way, and even when you have whacked him with, let’s say, a large kitchen knife, will carry on scuttling until you hit him again. Only after four or five hefty blows will he finally be in two halves, but like Monty Python’s Black Knight, the cockroach does not consider this to be a sign of defeat, and the two halves will continue to scuttle separately, albeit in a confused, twitchy and even more unnerving manner. Each half requires another three or four hits with the knife before you can feel safe enough to pick up the remains with a paper hanky, put them in a bin bag, tie it up and take it outside straight away, just in case they are re-animated at a later date.
While I continued to shower, my movements had slowed down considerably, and I couldn’t take my eyes off this one for a second. I know, I thought, I’ll drown the bastard! I’m holding a shower nozzle in my hand, so all I have to do is wash him onto the floor, force him into the bath, and he’ll be a goner in no time. At this point, I was of course choosing to overlook the fact that cockroaches are capable of surviving a nuclear attack, and therefore unlikely to be bothered by a light shower of warm water. So after frantically hosing down the walls for a couple of minutes, I realised that what the Black Knight needed was something more forceful, something with a sharp edge and a bit of weight to it. If anyone had entered the bathroom in the following few minutes, they would have been treated to the sight of a naked, soaped-up gaijin, climbing around the room like some sort of demented monkey and flailing at the walls and ceiling with a plastic washing up bowl. Surprisingly, I did manage to land a killer blow, and to continue my bath in peace, although I left it to whoever cleaned the place up to dispose of the Black Knight’s remains.