If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s to have low expectations, and this trip was so fraught with danger that in order to prevent and pre-empt disappointment, I had resolved from the outset to anticipate the worst. With nothing better to do for the rest of the day than stare out of the window at the Pacific Ocean as it rolled by, it was time to put the finishing touches to my official Top Ten List of Potential Disasters:
1) I will fall off.
2) I will get lost.
3) I will get at least one puncture.
4) I will get horribly sunburned.
5) I will have to put up the Snow Peak in the middle of the night.
6) I will have to put up the Snow Peak in the pouring rain.
7) I will get bitten half to death by mosquitoes.
8) I will lose something vitally important.
9) I will leave something vitally important behind and have to return to pick it up.
10) I will suffer from a riding-related ailment.
Like a chart show DJ, I was already poised to begin the countdown, because just as Mr Sturdy Level had prophesied, that night’s sleep had indeed been interrupted by a throbbing pain in my knees, which for some reason had failed to manifest itself while I was riding. Upon waking up, I also had pins and needles in the ring and little fingers of my right hand, which no matter how much I flexed or shook them refused to go away. My eyes too were behaving strangely, and in the bright light of morning, squiggly black lines would dance up and down before me whenever I looked at a blank wall or the blue sky. From the very beginning I had been prepared for the fact that taking on such a challenge would require sacrifice on my part, and that there would be pain and suffering along the way, but just two days in, the all too real possibility of causing myself PERMANENT DAMAGE had already reared its head. What if I injured my knees so badly I ended up in a wheelchair? What if my hand was slowly becoming paralysed, to the point where I would never again be able to play the guitar, or even wipe my own backside? What if I was doomed to see hallucinatory visions until I finally went blind? If I sought out a doctor upon arriving in Kyushu, I knew exactly what would happen: he would prescribe some painkillers, advise me to take it easy for a few days, and charge me a tidy sum into the bargain. But I was on a tight schedule, and as well as wanting to make it back to Ibaraki without resorting to motorised assistance, I was contractually obliged to my employers to do so by the end of the summer holidays. Missing several days’ cycling could mean the abject humiliation of NOT ACHIEVING MY GOAL, which would be almost as dire as causing myself PERMANENT DAMAGE, and very much on a par with LOSING MY JOB. If I was to overcome such pessimism, the paranoid, irrational part of my brain, which was imagining all sorts of doom-laden scenarios, would have to be suppressed.
In a canteen whose serving times were as strict as any British B&B, a few quiet passengers were dotted here and there, and the crew members, if you were lucky enough to see one, appeared underworked and (dare I say it) over-bored. Outside the sea was calm and quiet, and the passing coast barely visible through the haze. The only wind came from the forward motion of the ship, and I wasted time watching its wake unfurl from the bow, as the noise of the engine droned out from rows of huge funnels along the shiny green deck.
Like several of my favourite students when I worked in Tokyo, Mr Sturdy Level was from Kansai – the central part of Honshu, including Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe (somewhat improbably, Kansai is also known as Kinki) – and therefore inherently more gregarious than your average Japanese, so while he may have seemed shy by British standards, the very fact that he had spoken to a strange gaijin the previous evening singled him out.
Despite only having been there once, and then only briefly, I was aware of Kansai – rather like Merseyside in the UK – as the birthplace of a disproportionately large number of comedians and TV personalities, and that Kansai-jin (‘jin’ meaning people) are renowned for being open and direct. I had always had a sneaking suspicion that my inability to get to grips with the Japanese language might have something to do with being surrounded by uptight Kanto-jin (Kanto is the area around Tokyo), and had vague plans to move to Osaka at some point. For now, though, I was stuck with Japanese for Busy People II, which I had brought along on the advice of my Japanese teacher in Ibaraki.
Over the past couple of months, every Monday afternoon at four o’clock, I had been paying for one-on-one lessons with Ms Flower Pine, who lived in a large, detached house on the outskirts of Mito. As far as I could tell she wasn’t married, and shared the house with her elderly mother, whom I had never actually met, but whose voice could occasionally be heard emanating from the living room or kitchen. Ms Flower Pine was somewhere in her late forties or early fifties, with short, permed hair, Reactolite spectacles, and the unmistakeable speaking voice and skin tone of a regular smoker. Having greeted me at the front door, she would lead me into her office, which was lined with Japanese textbooks, dictionaries, CDs and videos, and fetch me a glass of water or a cup of green tea. We would then sit on opposite sides of her desk, which always made me feel as if I was attending a job interview, although after some preliminary chitchat, what followed was more like a contest, as the unstoppable force of her teaching style clashed with the immoveable object of my learning ability. She would explain some complicated grammar structure at great length, before leading me through a succession of exercises from the textbook and correcting every mistake that I made along the way, however minor. I would ask a succession of increasingly pedantic questions, grow progressively more confused the more convoluted her answers became, and somehow come away an hour and a half later knowing less than when we had started. It didn’t help that Ms Flower Pine’s teaching technique was so traditional, but it also didn’t help that I had taken a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course before coming to Japan, as there is nothing more annoying than a back-seat driver, and I would spend as much of my time inwardly criticising how I was being taught as I would outwardly participating in the lesson.
The aforementioned TEFL course had instilled in me what I now saw as the fundamental priniciples of teaching a foreign language – and quite possibly the fundamental principles of teaching anything – namely that it is best to demonstrate rather than to explain, to encourage guesswork from your students rather than spoon-feeding them information and expecting them to memorise it, and to allow them as much opportunity as possible to practice what they have learned. Ms Flower Pine not only disobeyed all three of these rules, but partly through her devotion to Japanese For Busy People, she also suffered from the Second Curse of Japanese Teaching, which is an insistence on putting the polite form before the plain form.
When textbooks like Japanese For Busy People were originally conceived, most visitors to the country were business people, hence its dry narrative of a gaijin who has been transferred to the Tokyo branch of his law company, and his life of business meetings and formal introductions. Thus the philosophy of JBP is that whoever you talk to, you should always use the polite form. But precisely because of this, countless students of Japanese are discouraged from continuing with their studies, because what they are taught bears so little relation to what they see and hear in everyday life. Nowadays, visitors to Japan are more likely to be English teachers, exchange students or tourists, and while a thorough grounding in the art of being polite is essential for negotiating the formalities and social conventions of Japanese life, talking to a school child, a fellow student or some bloke you’ve just met in the izakaya as if they are a company director, an elderly neighbour or a member of the royal family is patently ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the fact that in order to comply with such social conventions, students are expected to use polite Japanese when talking to their teacher, who in the context of a school or college is of a higher status. This makes any kind of role-play impossible, and means that you only ever get to practise one particular way of conversing. The tragedy is that aside from the inherent difficulties of learning a language whose roots lie in Chinese rather than Latin – the writing system, for example, is completely different, and parts of speech have an annoying tendency to be arranged in reverse order from what one expects – Japanese is not only a fascinating language, but in many ways it is a lot more logical than English: conjugating verbs is more logical, turning adjectives into adverbs is more logical, the vocabulary for numbers and fractions is more logical (as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which makes a credible case for this as the reason students from East Asia tend to be better at mathematics), pronunciation is phonetic, there are fewer tenses, and there are far fewer exceptions to grammatical rules.
But perhaps I am being unfair. After all, just as the majority of Japanese teachers are hopelessly old fashioned, so English teachers such as myself can be useless in all kinds of new and unusual ways, TEFL course or no TEFL course. Most of us arrive in Japan with little or no teaching experience and proceed to do the bare minimum of work, either because we are lazy, or because we don’t have the time to plan our lessons, or because we are not given enough training and feedback to learn from our mistakes. The reason so many Japanese find it difficult to hold a conversation in English is that despite studying for an average of six years in junior high and high school – not to mention attending conversation schools like the one at which I used to work in Tokyo – they are taught in the same out-moded way as students of Japanese. And yet, after five years of French lessons as a teenager, I can barely order a coffee and a croissant in the Eurostar buffet car, so my language studies in the UK have been no more effective.
In any case, I was more determined than ever that my Japanese wouldn’t suffer the same fate as my French, so before leaving Mito, and with ‘Immersion’ as my new middle name, I had set myself the task of holding at least one conversation per day with a complete stranger. In my mind’s eye, I imagined striding up to people and confidently engaging them in small talk, before segueing seamlessly into politics, history or the arts, and eventually eliciting candid confessions about their private lives. In reality, I tried desperately to catch people’s eyes as they walked past me in the corridor; I prayed that at lunch, the staff behind the counter might decide to ask me a question – any question would do, so long as it wasn’t ‘Would you like milk with your coffee?’ – and I spent the rest of my time on the Ocean Tokyu talking to precisely no one.
By early afternoon, the coastline of Shikoku had begun to emerge from the haze, and soon we were docked at Tokushima, our only stop between Tokyo and Kita-Kyushu. I managed to catch up with Mr Sturdy Level just as he was heading below decks to reclaim his bicycle. He shook my hand, wished me luck and handed me a note that read, ‘If you find yourself in trouble in Osaka, please get in touch,’ followed by his phone number and email address. I had made my first friend of the trip, and resolved to buy him a beer if and when I managed to make it back as far as Osaka.