Presents received – dinner, two beers, fee for campsite
To celebrate the end of my final year at university I went to the Glastonbury Festival with a group of friends, with the intention of getting thoroughly wasted for the entire weekend. By the time we arrived the site was a quagmire, as it had already been raining for several days, and after a yomp from the car park worthy of the march on Port Stanley, we huddled in the cold, desperately hoping that things would improve. One of the poles on my brand new tent had already broken, and I didn’t sleep a wink for most of the night, as a high wind pressed the roof to within inches of my face. At about six in the morning, cold, tired and thoroughly pissed off, I gave up, packed everything away, and walked to the bus stop without even telling my friends that I was leaving. Radiohead looked and sounded so much better from the comfort of my living room sofa, and I vowed never to camp again: why, after all, did humans invent bricks and mortar, hotels, heating and hot baths, if not to avoid communing so closely with nature? If God had intended us to live in teepees, He would have bestowed a more agreeable climate, and provided far more luxurious toilet facilities than are to be found at the average music festival.
It had only been financial constraints that forced me to go back on my word this summer, and yet, to my surprise, after a month on the road I was almost beginning to prefer life under canvas to life between four walls. Shin-Osaka Youth Hostel was the noisiest place I had stayed in so far, and the air inside it was parched from over-zealous air conditioning. To open the window would have allowed in the white noise of the city, and my sleep had already been disturbed by all sorts of bumps, bangs, alarms and snoring, even before piped elevator music began drifting through the PA system at seven in the morning. Plus, having continued to avoid them in the wild, I was once again plagued by mosquitoes now that I had reached a conurbation, and had been bitten once as I waited to go up Kobé Port Tower and again outside the elevator to the hostel. Still, I was able to find out the result of the Third Test (the hostel charged a hundred yen for fifteen minutes on the internet – it was a draw), and to talk to one of the few Japanese guests over breakfast, who was in Osaka on a baseball pilgrimage, to see the river in which the most fanatical Hanshin Tigers fans went for a swim when their team won the national championship (a river that, according to Mr Swansea – a Tigers fan himself – is little more than a muddy canal clogged up with old bicycles).
My semi-day off had me reinvigorated, and the sun shone on the empty bank holiday streets of Osaka, as I rode past the same transvestite tramp I had seen the previous evening, crash landed on another street corner and still ranting away to no one in particular. Crossing a bridge a few minutes later, I could have sworn that Sunny Boy passed me by, in a shirt and tie and riding his mama-chari to work, but by the time I had registered who it was, we were too far away from each other to warrant turning round and giving chase.
Having reached the outer limits of my second Mapple, I scoured the suburbs of Osaka for a decent bookshop, and was directed to the cookery section in one establishment, when an assistant misheard my request for chizu (maps) as chiizu (cheese). I even provoked some road rage when I cut across a main road to turn right, and a man in a four-by-four leaned out of the driver’s window and told me to ‘Kiero!’ seemingly irate that he had been forced to accelerate in his efforts to run me down. (‘Kiero!’ is often translated as ‘Fuck off!’ but means something more like ‘I strongly urge you to disappear!’ and is therefore a good example of the enduring and fundamental politeness of the Japanese language. Similarly, the most commonly used put-down is ‘Baka-yaro!’ whose literal translation is no more risqué than ‘You stupid rascal!’)
Apart from the small matter of a ‘No Cycling Beyond This Point’ sign on the way up, which I chose to ignore just as two police cars came along in the opposite direction, getting across the Kimi Pass to Hashimoto was easier than anticipated. Having sailed past my reserve campsite at two in the afternoon, I was ready to carry on to Mount Koya, which was another item on my list of recommended tourist spots, being eighty kilometres south of Osaka, and beteween eight hundred and a thousand metres above sea level.
Koya’s cluster of peaks contains a town, a university and a pilgrims’ paradise of Buddhist temples, and the road there wriggles its way up a narrow valley, mirrored by a single-track railway line opposite, whose cute little two-carriage trains pop in and out of caged tunnels overgrown with climbing plants. As highlighted by a series of red dots on the Mapple, the route was beloved of motorcyclists, long lines of whom sped past on their Harleys, Hondas and Kawasakis, no doubt relishing the experience of so many hairpin bends so conveniently close to a big city. Not for the first time, however, I had failed to properly prepare for two hours’ hard slog up a steep hill, and despite carrying enough water, was in dire need of solids by the halfway point, with not a shop or a restaurant in sight. The attendant at a gasoline stand eventually came to my rescue, producing three blackened and over-ripe but very welcome bananas from her house next door, for which she refused to accept any money.
On one particularly sweeping bend near the top of the climb, a disembodied voice called out to me.
‘Hey,’ it said. ‘What are you up to?’
‘I’m on my way to Mount Koya,’ I replied, my gaze drawn to a white mini-van on the other side of the road.
‘What was that? Come on, come over here.’
The driver of the van hadn’t bothered to pull over or even turn his hazards on, so I stood by his open window, and our conversation continued as the traffic manoeuvred its way around us.
‘Where are you from?’ said the driver, who I could now see was grey haired and weather beaten, but as animated as someone half his age.
‘I’m from England.’
‘And you’re cycling up Mount Koya?’
‘Of course.’ I patted the Mariposa’s handlebars, just in case he had failed to notice what I was sitting on.
‘Ha ha! You foreigners are crazy. Who the hell would want to cycle up here?’ He reached over into his glove compartment and took out a large can of Asahi, and I sensed there was another, already open and half-drunk, somewhere close at hand. ‘Go on, have a beer. You deserve it.’
A grand archway leading to the first of Mount Koya’s temples marked the top of the climb, and I made my way to a campsite on the opposite side of Koya Town, where a group of junior high school students was staying for some kind of sporting summer camp (altitude training, perhaps?). One of their teachers chatted for a while and passed on yet another can of beer, before directing me to a tatty little bungalow beside the potholed track to the site’s entrance.
‘Excuse me, I was wondering if I might be able to stay here tonight.’
Short, wide and with a glum face and a fishing hat, the caretaker resembled the kind of mysterious old man you see in Miyazaki films like Spirited Away or My Neighbour Tottoro.
He lurked in the shadows behind the mossie screen to his front door, and after a few more grunts, disappeared into the darkness to leave me standing on the doorstep, before reappearing just as suddenly to get into his car
‘Grunt grunt,’ he shouted, and I had no choice but to follow, as he drove to a grassless playing field a few hundred metres away. With a sheltered barbecue area, a distinctly utilitarian toilet block and no sign of anything as luxurious as a shower, this must have been an overflow for when the main site was full.
‘Grunt grunt grunt,’ he said, by way of explanation.
‘How much will it cost for one night?’ I asked.
‘Grunt grunt.’ He waved away the question and got back into his car.
‘Before you go, do you happen to know if there are any restaurants around here?’
‘Ah. OK. Well, thanks very much.’
The caretaker drove off, and I asked the same question of a girl who was walking her dog around the playing field. Her name was Miss Peace Field, and it just so happened that she was studying English at university.
‘The restaurants around here usually close in the evenings,’ she said.
‘Are any of them open until late? It's just that the man from the campsite told me to go to a conbini.’
‘I’m not sure.’ Miss Peace Field thought for a moment or two, and I tried not to look too desperate or forlorn, knowing that it would be very presumptuous of me to expect what I thought she was about to say. ‘Maybe you can have dinner with my family – we only live next door.’
‘If it’s not too much trouble, I’d love to.’ I came over all Hugh Grant and bashfully grateful, but was inwardly relieved to have been rescued yet again by some unprompted generosity from a total stranger.
‘I’ll just go and check with my parents.’
She soon returned to confirm the invitation, and by the time I had changed into my cleanest t-shirt and knocked on the Peace Field family’s front door, it was pouring with rain and bolts of lightning were flashing across the treetops. This made me feel even more grateful for having been spared a meal of microwaved food, although when I found out what was for dinner, I regretted having been so honest with Miss Peace Field when she asked about my dietary preferences.
In that typically modern, middle-class way, I eat fish and seafood, but not meat – a pescetarian, to be precise – and there were one or two more dishes to which I had acquired an aversion after an unfortunate night out earlier in the year. Having just flown back from England after the Christmas holidays, I found myself in a cheap izakaya in Tokyo, and after a fortnight of fish, chips and mushy peas, was desperate for some traditional Japanese cooking. Following a meal of sushi, tofu and edamamé (枝豆 / green soya beans in their pods that are often served as a bar snack), I came down with a nasty case of food poisoning, and kept my friend Mr Cambridge awake by projectile vomiting into his toilet for most of the night. Ever since, not only did the sight of sushi – an ageing batch of which was the cause of the food poisoning – make me feel queasy, but so too, by association, did everything that went with it. And what else had Miss Peace Field’s mother prepared for her family this evening but beef stew, sushi, tofu and edamamé. There was no time to lay on a special menu for a fussy gaijin, so Miss Peace Field’s enquiry had been rhetorical, and one that I should have answered with more consideration.
It was with some suspicion, therefore, that her father eyed me as I forced down a neat slice of raw octopus for starters, before moving onto the beef stew with the cheerful assertion that ‘I don’t mind eating a bit of meat once in a while.’ Mr Peace Field was the person I most needed to impress, with ultimate authority over who did or did not get invited to dinner at short notice, and cannot have been too pleased that I had sent advance orders decreeing that most of the evening’s food was unsuitable. As if to reinforce my sense of unease, the family poodle had become territorial all of a sudden, and having ignored me when we were outside, went berserk as soon as I walked through the front door.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Miss Peace Field’s mother. ‘He’s always the same when there’s a stranger here.’
‘What’s he called?’ I had to shout to make myself heard above the racket, as she dragged the dog into another room.
‘President. We call him President because he runs the house.’
Miss Peace Field had lived in Oregon for a year when she was in high school, and was in the process of writing her dissertation on W.P.Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. She had recently attended interviews for a job at Narita Airport, as what she called a ‘brand hostess’, which involved dressing up in traditional costume and posing or handing out leaflets on behalf of one sponsor or another. Although she was very pretty, this struck me as a waste of her talents, as she was clearly intelligent too, and even jumped in with some quick mental arithmetic when we got onto the subject of average wages in the UK and Japan. She had inherited her looks from her father, who was slim and tanned, with a twinkle in his eye and a lustrous quiff of hair that showed no signs of greying. Despite initially being charming and inquisitive, however, the more beer Mr Peace Field drank, the less appealing he became.
Along with a Rolex, one of the things I inherited from my own father – or rather, from years of observing him – was the ability to sniff out an alcoholic. He could be articulate and modest one moment, rude and boorish the next, simply because he had knocked back a couple of glasses of wine in the meantime, and if there is one thing an alcoholic knows, it is how to spoil an evening. Thus the atmosphere around the Peace Field family dinner table gradually transformed from friendly and jovial to nervy and strained, as Mr Hyde emerged from Dr Jekyll’s shadow, and the conversation became more and more one-sided. The sleeves of Mr Peace Field’s t-shirt were rolled up to the shoulder, his head bobbing and his eyes glazed over, as he gesticulated to emphasise his point, which seemed to be something along the lines of, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re still going to die’. I nodded politely and asked for a translation from Miss Peace Field, who pretended not to understand what he was on about.
‘Let’s all go to England next year!’ said Mr Peace Field for the fourth or fifth time, and as dinner drew to a close I felt sorry for his family, who had surely seen the same performance many times before, and had to suffer not just the consequences of his drinking, but perhaps even worse, the dread of the inevitable that precedes them. He was eventually banished to the living room sofa, and sat there in silence, brooding in front of the TV like a clockwork toy that has wound down. It was a complete contrast to the man I had met when I arrived, and that is the fundamental difference between a social drinker and an alcoholic: when most of us drink, it magnifies aspects of our personality that were already apparent; when an alcoholic drinks, he becomes a different person entirely, a wretched creature that even his close friends find it hard to recognise.
After all their generosity, the family still insisted I make use of their shower before I left, and Miss Peace Field’s brother-in-law Mr Snow Praise, who had joined us for dinner with his wife, Miss Peace Field’s sister, offered to act as my tour guide the following morning. The rain had stopped by the time I said goodnight, and although the Snow Peak had stood up to the deluge, when I crawled inside to unpack my sleeping bag, the playing field beneath it was so sodden that water began to ooze through the groundsheet. I spent several minutes trying to break into a large storage shed, but had to relocate instead to the concrete floor of the barbecue shelter, dangling various towels and clothes around and about, although I very much doubted they would dry overnight.