Presents received – one can of coffee, two Cup Noodle, half a bag of peanuts
Presents given – Kyushu Mapple
It was seven in the morning and the caretaker had come to check on my welfare after the storm. Only about eight hours too late, I thought, but still, it was a nice gesture, and having slept for another hour or so, I packed and left as quickly as I could, in the hope of avoiding a hungover Mr Peace Field on his way to work.
Mr Snow Praise was waiting for me at Kongobu Temple, which is the headquarters of a branch of Buddhism called Shingon, although I was disappointed to discover that he worked in the admin side of things, and wore jeans and a t-shirt rather than a monk’s robes. Our first stop was at the temple’s Zen garden, whose rocks and raked gravel – like those of the more famous Ryoanji in Kyoto – are strategically arranged for maximum meditative effect, and whose composition is supposed to resemble a dragon flying through the clouds, although to see this probably requires a little more faith and concentration than I was able to conjure up.
A storm gave me ample time to digest lunch at a michi-no-eki on the way, and as salvoes of thunder rang out overhead, to sit on a long wooden bench and write my diary.
I checked on the rain with an outstretched palm every few minutes, and once the downpour had turned to drizzle did the same thing myself, although I was now way behind schedule. Low cloud cleared the mountaintops and car tyres hissed by on the wet tarmac as I skirted around streams and puddles, and soon the tributary I had been following fed into a wide river valley, its green hills turning blue and purple in the twilight.
Having been out of range since leaving Koya, I stopped in a lay-by and held my keitai to the sky with its aerial extended, which was just enough to catch a quivering chevron of signal.
‘Hello,’ said the woman on the other end of the line, ‘this is Mount Yoshino Youth Hostel.’
‘Hello.’ I held the phone between thumb and fingertips, standing on tiptoe and leaning in what I hoped was the optimum direction to avoid our voices becoming lost in the ether. ‘I’m afraid my Japanese isn’t very good, so you’ll have to bear with me, but would it be possible to book a room for tonight, please?’
‘For how many people?’
‘Just one. I was caught in the rain, though, so I’m running a little late.’
‘Where are you now?’ She already sounded slightly dubious, so I continued to be as polite as possible.
‘I’m only a few kilometres from Mount Yoshino, but I shouldn’t think I’ll arrive until about seven o’clock.’
‘I’m afraid that we cannot accept guests after seven in the evening.’
Damn. I could almost hear the sound of a rule book hitting the reception desk.
‘Really? The thing is, I’m cycling, so I may well get there before seven. I just can’t be absolutely sure.’ The woman hesitated in her response to this, so I changed the subject before she had another chance to fob me off. ‘Do you serve an evening meal?’
‘No, we don’t, I’m afraid.’
‘How about restaurants? Are there any nearby?’
‘Yes, there are one or two.’ I could sense that she wanted to return to the topic of check-in times, but by now I was on a roll.
‘OK, I’ll see you at around seven o’clock.’
‘Er, all right. But what if…?’
‘Thank you very much!’
Oh dear. Either the signal had died or I had inadvertently hung up. The woman at the hostel hadn’t said that I could stay, but then again, she hadn’t said that I couldn’t stay, either, so on towards Mount Yoshino I went.
My route took me into another, smaller valley, and as seven o’clock approached, darkness fell and the forest seemed to close in around me. No problem, I thought, Yoshino is just around the corner – only a couple of centimetres on the Mapple – I’ll be there in a jiffy. Pretty soon, though, it was becoming difficult to distinguish the road in front of me from the trees on one side and the no doubt perilous drop on the other. After flirting with the latter on a couple of occasions, and with the Mariposa’s token front light barely penetrating the gloom, I was forced to don my headlamp. Gradually the slope steepened, and when it did finally materialise, Mount Yoshino was as hilly a town as I had come to expect for the end of a day’s riding, to the extent that two old ladies out for a stroll had to help me push the Mariposa up the last, seemingly forty-five-degree slope to the hostel.
It was too late now for the manageress to turn me away, but when I asked again about food, she had changed - or at least modified - her story, and insisted that while there were restaurants in the area, they had now closed. In between ferrying damp bags and equipment into the foyer, I kicked up as much of a fuss as I could muster, and her father eventually offered to drive to the nearest conbini and buy me a Cup Noodle, although tonight I made a point of not mentioning my pescetarianism.
The hostel was a traditional building, its ground floor divided by rows of sliding doors – here sadly devoid of gold leaf and flocks of cranes – which could be drawn aside to create a large communal area. Yoshino is famous for its hanami (花見 / annual festival for viewing cherry blossom), and while there was room enough here to accommodate scores of sightseers, tonight there were just two of us, and I found my fellow guest in the bath a few minutes later.
Mr Reach was what someone less charitable might have described as otaku, otaku being a word that through a rather convoluted etymology has come to mean ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’. He worked as a computer programmer in Tokyo and lived with his parents, lavishing his spare time and money on a sporty little blue Mazda, which coincidentally had been parked right in front of me as I waited for the rain to stop over lunch at the michi-no-eki. When Mr Reach wasn’t driving, he was taking photographs with a digital SLR much more expensive and sophisticated than my own, and was particularly fond of its self-timer. As a consequence, alongside technically impressive landscapes and advertising-style close ups of the Mazda, many of the shots in Mr Reach's laptop slideshow were of him striking comical poses: with people he had met that day, in front of famous landmarks, or while wearing a rented samurai costume.
Otaku are renowned for their singular dedication to hobbies such as animé, manga, cosplay, (a contraction of ‘costume play’, this veers slightly more towards fetishism and S&M than what we would refer to as fancy dress), collecting limited edition toys, following pre-pubescent pop groups, and even good, old-fashioned trainspotting, but Mr Reach’s photo essays were so idiosyncratic they were almost works of art, and I urged him to create a home for them on the internet. He may not have had a girlfriend or a cool haircut, but whereas the stereotypical otaku will shy away from social contact, or from making an exhibition of himself, Mr Reach – admirably so, in my opinion – embraced both. As he orchestrated some suitably surreal photographs of us in the common room, the manageress’s father arrived back from the conbini, and Mr Reach was even kind enough to show me The Way of the Cup Noodle (pour in boiling water, cover, and leave to stand for three minutes before eating).
My appetite thus sated, it was time to take advantage of the hostel’s washing machine.
‘Here you go,’ said the father, having led me to a back yard cluttered with mops, buckets and bicycles. ‘Put a cup of powder in and press this button. It only takes about twenty minutes.’
‘And where’s the dryer?’
‘Dryer? Oh, we haven’t got a dryer. You can hang it up, though.’ A couple of clotheslines were stretched across the porch in the muggy night air.
‘But I’m leaving first thing tomorrow morning. I can’t imagine my clothes will be dry by then.’
The father shrugged his shoulders, and I headed back inside with my t-shirt recycling facility untouched and unwashed. Mount Yoshino may have been charging more than the other youth hostels I had stayed in, but I couldn’t help thinking that a separate group of unseen guests was getting a better deal. If it wasn’t even possible to order breakfast, then why was there such a large kitchen? And if my only option for an evening meal was a trip to the shops, then who got to drink those big bottles of Asahi in the glass-fronted fridge?
Back in my room, I was using my trusty piece of string to construct an outsized cat’s cradle on which to air the Snow Peak, when Mr Reach knocked on the door to present me with half a bag of peanuts.
‘They will give you energy for the ride tomorrow,’ he said, and I thought it an odd thing to do, particularly at eleven o’clock at night, until I realised that by presenting Mr Reach with my Shikoku Mapple earlier in the evening, I had unwittingly obliged him to offer me something in return. Having purchased its replacement near Osaka, the Mapple was of no use to me any more, but in keeping with the tradition of giri (義理 – the ongoing exchange of gifts or favours between friends, neighbours and relatives, around which a complicated set of rules and conventions has arisen), the gesture had to be reciprocated, not matter how modestly.