Presents received – dinner
Mr Kanagawa woke me at five a.m. to say that he was off to find a café and write his diary, and such an early start could either have been force of habit, or because he found it difficult to sleep in what for him were unusual conditions (in a subsequent email, he described the Somen Campsite as ‘probably the scariest place’ he had stayed during his entire two months away). The weather may have been dry overnight, but everything else at the campsite was still soaking wet, and when I got up about three hours later, another couple of cyclists were packing away damp tents on the far side of our mud bank. One was Japanese, and looked like a still from a cycling magazine, with every part of his body adorned in a specialist item of sportswear, from his bandana to his bumbag. A former soldier, he had downgraded to pedal power when his motorcycle broke down, and his travelling companion was an Englishman. While each had learnt a few words of the other’s language, it was the Brit who did most of the talking, and explained how he had quit his banking job in order to spend some of the money he earned rather than just save it. Up until then, his longest tour had been for a week or two around Europe, but now, after a year and a half cycling through Australia, New Zealand, China and Thailand, his milometer (or should that be 'kilometometer'?) was about to tick over the sixteen-thousand-kilometre mark. His bicycle was an old-style racer with drop handlebars and three large water bottles attached to the frame, which had doubtless come in handy in places like the Australian outback, where the distance between convenience stores was much greater, and the consequences more serious should you happen to run out of liquids. With Japan as the final country on his itinerary, he was due to fly home in just a fortnight’s time, and as the two of them cycled off for a bi-lingual breakfast, I wondered how he would cope with sitting behind a desk again after so much freedom.
As promised, Mr Kanagawa was waiting for me outside Himeji Castle, which has dominated the city for the best part of seven hundred years, and while I could bore you with some history at this point, I am sure that you would be far more interested to know about its appearance in the Bond film You Only Live Twice. If you have read Ian Fleming’s book of the same name, you will recall that its finale takes place in Blofeld’s castle, where visitors go to partake in a form of assisted suicide, and for which Himeji would have made the perfect location. In the more high-tech film adaptation, however, Blofeld attempts to trigger World War Three by launching a spacecraft from his secret base in a hollowed-out volcano, and Himeji is relegated to a brief cameo as a ninja training camp. Still, if Sean Connery had once set foot in the grounds, I was more than willing to take some time out of my schedule for a closer look.
The foundations of the castle are constructed like a large-scale dry stone wall, with irregular blocks ingeniously slotted together to form a uniformly sloping surface, and from this wide base, each successive layer is smaller than the last, so that its structure is more pyramid-like than box-shaped. Both the outbuildings and the castle’s interior are a maze of dead ends, false walls, rooms within rooms and hidden doors, so that a defending army can retreat inwards and upwards, while still having access to supplies and ammunition. The higher you climb within, the lower the ceilings, the narrower the corridors and the smaller the windows, until on the top floor there is a solitary room just a few metres square, in which the remaining members of a shogun’s family may have continued to fend off an attack. The only problem with this strategy is that whoever does the attacking can simply burn the place down, although contrary to the Trigger’s Broom Principle of Japanese Monuments (see Day 15), this has not happened to Himeji Castle for at least four hundred years. Indeed, I have never seen a building that felt so indestructible or so impenetrable, its dark, hardwood framework as solid as its thick stone walls, and its staircases – which hadn’t exactly been easy to negotiate on the lower floors – little more than ladders by the time Mr Kanagawa and I had reached the top.
‘I want to go and live abroad,' he said.
‘America, if I can.’
‘So you want to study English?’
‘Yes.’ Mr Kanagawa looked a little sheepish at this point. ‘I suppose you’ve noticed that since we met, I’ve only been speaking Japanese.’
‘Well, yes. I didn’t think you wanted to speak English. You should have said something.’
‘My English isn’t very good, though. One day I want to improve it, but for now…’
At a crossroads not far from the castle we said our farewells, Mr Kanagawa heading north towards Maizuru and me east towards Kobé, and if I hadn’t prompted him into shaking hands, he would have ridden off with just a wave. He was a shy and thoroughly modest man, and seemed unaware of – or at least unaffected by – everything he had going for him, and of just how courageous he was to travel around the country for two months, on his own and on a shoestring.
‘Hmm. Shiawasé-no-Mura. I wonder…’ The assistant stroked his chin and studied the Mapple.
‘The thing is, it looks like it’s just over there,’ I said, pointing towards some residential side streets, beyond which the campsite was only a couple of kilometres away as the crow flies.
‘I know it looks as if it’s close by,’ said the assistant, ‘but it’s actually quite difficult to get to. You’re on a bicycle?’
‘I think it’ll be easier to go this way.’ He ran his finger along the map in the direction from which I had just arrived, and to a road that headed northeast, skirting a large green area on the map, in the middle of which was Shiawasé-no-Mura. It seemed like a long way round, but based on the fact that he hadn’t turned the Mapple upside down when I handed it to him, I decided to trust his judgement, even as a few spots of rain began to fall.
Compared to the road from Himeji there were suddenly a lot more hills, and it took at least an hour in the countryside before I made it back to civilisation. Even then, whenever I stopped to ask a passerby, Shiawasé-no-Mura was always just that little bit further down the road, round one more bend or over one more bridge. Finally, at about six in the evening and still short of my goal, the heavens opened, and I sought shelter in a shop doorway.
While it may be possible in the Japanese multi-tasking style to hold an umbrella while riding a bicycle (it is also possible to buy special umbrella clamps, which attach to the handlebars and do the job for you, as well as tubular plastic holders for the front forks, in which to stash an umbrella when you are not using it), I certainly wasn’t going to try. Had I been walking, however, I may well have used one, because here they can be genuinely useful. In the UK you carry an umbrella with you all day, open it when the rain begins to fall, see it blown inside out within seconds, and then inadvertently leave it on the bus, never to be seen again. In Japan, on the other hand, you can buy a brolly for a hundred yen (about fifty pence), which is a price much closer to its material value, and entails no real disappointment should it be mislaid. Secondly, the weather is more predictable: in the rainy season you can pretty much guarantee to get soaked at least once a day, whereas in winter, you might go for months at a time without so much as a light shower, and there is rarely the need to carry a brolly ‘just in case’. Thirdly, when it does rain, it does so copiously, prodigiously, and straight down. It can rain for twenty-four, even forty-eight hours non-stop, and so hard that the finest Gore-Tex will keep you dry for approximately five minutes – not to mention uncomfortably hot. If you are unlucky enough to be out in a typhoon, your umbrella will of course be ripped to pieces, but you will also be in danger of being hit by flying roof tiles, scaffolding, street signs or fellow pedestrians, so you really should have stayed indoors in the first place. At all other times, there is rain but no wind, and your umbrella does the job for which it was designed. What this also means is that umbrellas are not considered uncool, and even the toughest or trendiest high school kid is content to be seen beneath a dainty little see-through number with a white plastic handle. My waterproofs were no match for this downpour, and even a hundred-yen umbrella would be too much of a luxury for my baggage allowance, so I just sat and watched. I watched the rain smack against the pavement and roll down the gutter, I watched the lightning flash over Kobé, I watched a queue form at the Chinese restaurant over the road, and out of curiosity, I watched the weather forecast on my keitai, which said ‘Kobé – 6pm – 20% chance of rain’.
It was dark by the time I coasted into Shiawasé-no-Mura, a utopian idyll and the complete opposite of the modest little places I was used to. Secreted away in a bowl-like valley and oblivious to the homes and shops nearby, its car parks, sports facilities and hotels were surrounded by a faux countryside of flowerbeds, fields and trees. I parked the Mariposa outside the largest and most ostentatious building, and couldn’t help but feel pessimistic as I crossed an expanse of marble flooring between the revolving doors and the reception desk.
‘Would it be possible to stay on the campsite this evening?’
The receptionist was short and plump in his bellboy’s jacket, with a flaming red spot on his top lip, from which I attempted to avert my gaze as he replied.
‘If you would like to stay at the campsite, you should ring this number and book in advance.’ He slid an information leaflet towards me across the counter.
‘Well, I’m here now, so can I stay at the campsite tonight?’
‘Like I said, if you would like to stay at the campsite, you should ring this number,’ he waved his hand over the leaflet to indicate the phone number once more, ‘in advance.’
‘Of course. I understand. What about tonight, though? Are you fully booked?’
‘How did you travel here today?’
‘By bicycle. It’s, er, outside.’
‘I’m sorry sir. I’m afraid the campsite is fully booked.’
I wondered why he hadn’t told me this in the first place, but tried to remain diplomatic. ‘You see, I’m in a bit of bother. As far as I can tell this is the only campsite in Kobé. Are you sure it wouldn’t be possible for me to stay? It’s only for one night and my tent’s very small, so I could…’
‘I’m afraid this is an auto campsite. We don’t have any space for cyclists or motorcyclists.’ The receptionist’s spot seemed to glow even redder than before from the sheer satisfaction of having spoilt my evening.
‘But there isn’t even a youth hostel in Kobé, so if I can’t stay here…’
‘Sorry sir. As I explained, the campsite is fully booked.’
At this point, and just as I was beginning to contemplate physical violence, the receptionist had a change of heart. You wouldn’t have known it from his expression, which still oozed contempt, but some long-dormant part of him must have taken pity on me. He produced a map from beneath the counter, and proceeded to show me two (ahem) spots elsewhere in Kobé where it might be possible to camp, and which ought to have mains water, even if they didn’t have toilets or showers. There was no point in rushing, as it was already dark, and if the places to which he had directed me were only semi-legitimate, the later I arrived the better.
‘Can I use the onsen before I go?’
‘Certainly sir. Our onsen is open to members of the public.’ With the merest hint of a smile, he directed me to a nearby vending machine. ‘You can buy a ticket over there.’
Knowing what might lie ahead, I found it difficult to relax as I bathed, and the holiday camp atmosphere didn’t help, with screaming children chasing each other between the rock pools, waterfalls and indoor palm trees. Once I had left the 'village', the receptionist’s directions took me up a couple of steep climbs (Kobé was turning out to be a veritable San Francisco of the East) and along a deserted side road, beside which the pylons and transformers of an electricity substation hummed away in the darknesss. Unsure of quite what I was looking for, I contemplated diving into a hedgerow and lying down in the undergrowth, but presently, voices began to filter through the trees, and at the end of a muddy track I spied a group of children enjoying a barbecue.
‘Excuse me,' I said. 'I’ve been told I might be able to camp here.’
A stern-looking middle-aged man came over and stood directly in front of me.
‘No, you can’t stay here,' he said. 'As you can see, there is a scout camp this weekend. Nobody else is allowed to stay.’
‘It’s just that I tried a campsite down the road and they wouldn’t let me in, so…’
‘You can’t stay here. We have booked the site this weekend.’ The man, who clearly took me for some deranged child killer, guided me back towards the road. ‘I’m afraid you will have to find somewhere else.’
But I wasn’t going to be turned away now, and stalled for time by examining the map and putting on my most convincing ‘lost puppy’ face, which it has to be said wasn’t too difficult under the circumstances.
‘What are you looking for?’ A prim girl in a baseball cap, t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms stood between the scouts and myself, as if to protect them should I pounce suddenly. I told her what had happened at Shiawasé-no-Mura and was greeted with the same negative response, although by this point, one or two of her friends had noticed my presence, and were taking an interest in our conversation. A lad with spiky hair and glasses chipped in.
‘Where have you come from today?’ he said.
‘Himeji? By bicycle?’
‘Yes. It’s not so far really. Only about sixty kilometres.’
The girl in the baseball cap appeared unmoved, but by now, several more people had introduced themselves. Like those I had met in Higashi-Hiroshima and Shodoshima, they were university students who had given up some of their holiday time to work with children. The spiky-haired lad began talking to the girl in hushed tones, and appeared to be negotiating on my behalf. After a couple of minutes, she relented.
‘Seeing as you appear to be in genuine need, I will check with my boss to see if you can stay.’ Bingo! My strategy had worked. ‘Mr Healthy Englightenment, can you look after this gentleman in the meantime?’
‘OK.’ The spiky-haired lad turned to me and asked, ‘Have you eaten dinner yet?’ Bingo again! They were even going to feed me.
‘Er, no, I haven’t,’ I replied, and with that, Mr Healthy Englightenment led me to the staff room and produced an array of snacks, sweets and fizzy drinks. Pretty soon, I had also been furnished with miso soup and nigiri, as the girl in the baseball cap reappeared.
‘I have telephoned the owner of the campsite, and he says that you can stay for one night, so long as you keep the place clean and tidy, and leave early tomorrow morning.’ Result! At last I had a place to stay. I bowed and thanked her in as polite a manner as possible, while cheering inwardly for having foiled her evil plan to cast me back into the wilds of suburban Kobé.
Once the scouts had been put to bed, we held an English conversation seminar around the staff room’s picnic table, with the students firing questions and me answering between mouthfuls of junk food. They took it in turns disappearing into the shower block, and when everyone was done, I was shown to a small car park next to the toilets to put up my tent.
‘We’ve been thinking,’ said Mr Healthy Englightenment, ‘before you go to bed, we’d like to do a performance for you.’
‘What sort of performance?’
‘It’s called towaaringu.’
‘Yes, towaaringu.’ I had no idea what towaaringu was, but I wasn’t about to turn them down. ‘We’re performing for the children tomorrow. It isn’t quite perfect yet, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it.’
Four metal rods were produced, each with a T-shaped handle at one end and a tight ball of rags at the other. The rags were soaked in what appeared to be petrol or paraffin, lit, and either individually or in pairs, the students spun the now flaming torches around them in the manner of majorettes’ batons. My friend Miss Birmingham – she of the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound Gucci sunglasses – practiced something called poi, which involved lengths of cord with rubber balls on the end and similar choreography, but towaaringu was altogether more impressive. The torches made a tremendous whooshing sound as they spun, their trails of light hanging in the air like an after-image, and each performance would gradually speed up, until with one final, blurring swoop, the flames were extinguished. I kept half an eye on the Snow Peak in case a torch flew from someone’s grasp and blazed a trail through the flysheet, but only one was dropped (by Mr Healthy Englightenment, who had already admitted to being tired, having spent the previous evening in a love hotel with his girlfriend), and that flew harmlessly away across the car park.
The finale was handed over to Mr Clever Fat Son, who had sat unobtrusively in the corner as we ate, only interjecting now and then to correct his friends’ English. Sure enough, he produced the best moves of all, and like so many Japanese was a man of hidden talents, who didn’t make a show of the fact that he had practiced something with such dedication as to become spectacularly good at it.
‘Twirling!’ I blurted out, as Mr Clever Fat Son’s performance came to an end, and Mr Healthy Englightenment looked confused.
‘Twirling – that’s what you meant by ‘towaaringu’. It is an English word after all.’
Mr Healthy Englightenment apologised for their mispronunciation, and I said goodnight with the light still dancing across my eyes.