Presents given – udon, mugi-cha, soap, shampoo
One of my ideas for a sightseeing stop-off on the return journey from Kyushu to Ibaraki had been Jigokudani in the Japan Alps, where Macaque monkeys take refuge from the snow in steaming pools of volcanic spring water, their exposed fur flecked with chunks of ice. It now seemed unlikely that I would make it that far north, but encountering monkeys in their natural habitat was the activity I had secretly looked forward to more than anything else on the trip, so I was positively thrilled to discover that Shodoshima had its own population of monkeys, even if they didn’t have a penchant for taking hot baths.
At the front gates of Choshikei-Osarunokuni-Shizendobutsuen (‘Choshikei Honourable Monkey World Nature Animal Park’ – yes, these were more than just monkeys, they were honourable monkeys), I was presented with a leaflet depicting the dos and don’ts of monkey-spotting etiquette, whose illustrated instructions went something like this:
What to beware of when observing monkeys:
1) Do not go near the baby monkeys.
2) Do not touch the monkeys.
3) Do not look into the monkeys’ eyes.
4) Do not show them sweets or fruit.
5) Pay attention to your hand luggage. [In the cartoon for this one, a thuggish looking monkey is trying to grab a woman’s handbag. “Give us it!” he snaps, as she says, “Oh…Oh dear!” and a bead of sweat trickles down her cheek.]
6) In particular, please leave plastic bags, paper bags and so on at the ticket office.
Take care of the above when you enter the park and the honourable monkeys will be happy and give you a warm welcome.
The cartoon monkey in number three was fixing the gaze of a punter in a particularly intimidating manner, and made me feel as if I was about to enter a dodgy East End pub, although having joined the queue of visitors on a tree-lined pathway, there was no wildlife to be seen. Presently the pathway opened out to reveal an adventure playground of ropes, climbing frames and old car tyres, where lone monkeys sunned themselves or darted in and out of the bushes. Then, beside a long, wooden office building, suddenly there were monkeys everywhere, to the extent that you could hardly move without bumping into one.
Whether squatting on the ground or walking on all fours, they were no more than half a metre tall, with long, pink faces and yellowish eyes, and resembled photographs of their Macaque cousins in Jigokudani, only with less of the mousey, grey-brown fur. A small boy in a baseball cap threw handfuls of peanuts from a plastic bucket into the crowd, and was the centre of attention for a sea of monkey heads, which bobbed up and down like spectators at a rock concert trying to catch a glimpse of the lead singer.
Unless we humans happened to be carrying a bucket of peanuts, the monkeys hardly paid us any attention, and simply got on with whatever it was they were doing in their knee-high world. Some were breastfeeding or carrying babies around on their backs, others were fighting over food or grooming each other, and it soon became possible to distinguish individual personalities: the scrawny outcast who keeps getting beaten up, the unruly youth messing around with his mates, or the grandmother offering to babysit for her daughter. Using a camera enabled me to look into their eyes without breaking the rules, and while it may sound like a cliché, there really did seem to be something profound going on. The monkeys could not have had any concept of what I was pointing at them, or of who these strange creatures in their midst really were, and yet they still possessed an air of self-consciousness, and I sensed a connection no less weighted with meaning than when you catch a stranger’s eye in the street: an exchange that somehow alludes to common understanding.
Although the worst of the rain had passed, the ground was still wet beneath the steel exit ramp at Himeji Port, and as I consulted my Mapple, a cyclist stopped beside me and asked if we could ride together into the city centre. Mr Kanagawa was tall and slim with fashionably bleached hair, little John Lennon spectacles, baggy clothes and black and white Converse All-Stars. A university student, he had two whole months at his disposal between summer and autumn terms, and planned on catching a ferry to Hokkaido later in the week, via the Japan Sea from a town called Maizuru. No matter how hard I tried, no matter the conditions, and despite basing my calculations on a mixture of mapwork and guesswork, I normally covered around sixty kilometres a day. Mr Kanagawa, on the other hand, claimed to be averaging more like a hundred, which was either because of his bicycle – a lightweight hybrid of mountain bike and racer that cost sixty thousand yen (about three hundred pounds) – or his routine. Mr Kanagawa had yet to pay for a single night’s accommodation, and often chose to camp in the grounds of elementary schools, which meant rising early – normally at five a.m. – so as to avoid staff or students taking part in summer holiday activities.
‘Have you ever been caught?’ I asked, as we rode through the suburbs beside a busy dual carriageway.
‘A couple of times, yes.’
‘And did you get into trouble?’
‘Not at all, no. Once I’d explained what I was doing, they said there was no need to hurry so long as I left by eight or eight thirty, and I’m normally gone by six.’
Mr Kanagawa’s plan for tonight was to join the community of homeless people that lives on parkland surrounding Himeji Castle, but the place was still crowded with tourists when we arrived, and I couldn’t imagine it would be long before he was moved on by park keepers or the police.
‘Do you fancy staying at a proper campsite tonight?’
‘I don’t know. How far away is it?’
‘Here, have a look at the Mapple.’ The Somen Waterfall Municipal Campsite was no more than five or six kilometres away, and because Mr Kanagawa seemed reluctant to break his routine, I offered him a deal. ‘I tell you what, I’ll buy you dinner in return. How does that sound?’
‘You don’t have to. I’ve got some money.’
‘I’m not trying to say that you look poor. It's just that wherever I go, people are always treating me to meals and buying me drinks, and I never get the chance to return the favour because I’m always gone the next day. You shouldn’t be staying around here, anyway,’ I indicated the well-kept greenery around the castle walls, ‘and the campsite won’t cost much.’
Mr Kanagawa agreed and we headed north, although having reached our destination, it was a toss-up as to which was the less salubrious: a shanty town for the homeless or the Somen Campsite. The site lay at the end of a narrow side road, beside which a swollen stream rushed back down the valley, and water dripped from overhanging trees as if it was still raining. The spot on which we were directed to pitch our tents was little more than a mud bank, and should there be another storm during the night – or even, God forbid, an earthquake – it looked very much as if we would be swept away downstream. Not only that, but compared to the Mapple’s price list, the rate was several hundred yen more than anticipated. As we ferried equipment up a slippery path to our pitch, Mr Kanagawa did not appear to be very pleased with the arrangement, and I noticed that his preparations for a night’s camping were a lot less methodical than my own.
‘Do you think I should put up my flysheet?’ he said, bits and pieces of luggage scattered around his feet.
‘Probably, yes. Don’t you normally use it?’
‘But what if it rains?’
‘Oh, I just pack up and get going.’ Mr Kanagawa unravelled the flysheet and draped it over his tent frame. ‘There, that’ll do.’
‘Aren’t you going to use the pegs?’
‘Nah, I can’t be bothered.’ Typical student, I thought, and tried to reason with him.
‘If it’s windy, though, surely the flysheet will just blow away?’
‘Maybe, but it’s too much of a pain to get them into the ground.’
Having asked at a koban for directions, we soon found ourselves on the second floor of a shopping mall, at an establishment that looked more like a bowling alley or a multiplex cinema than an onsen, with its foyer of garishly patterned carpets, high ceilings and mirrored escalators. It wasn’t until I sat down for my shower that I realised there was no soap or shampoo, and had to put my clothes back on, return to the front desk and buy two disposable grooming kits, one of which I gave to Mr Kanagawa. I got the impression that he hadn’t seen a bath for quite a while, and was more accustomed to washing under the cold tap outside deserted school changing rooms, so I didn’t want him to go without soap now that he had finally made it to an onsen.
Unaccustomed to staying up so late, Mr Kanagawa struggled to keep pedalling on the road back to the campsite, although he was still faster than me, hunched over the handlebars and with his shoulders swinging from side to side. A fog had descended on the forest, which echoed with a damp silence, and I kept losing sight of his silhouette up ahead, as it ghosted through the pale glow of each isolated streetlamp, in and out of the darkness.