Presents received – umé-boshi, Kyushu miso, free camping
In a nightmare my room at the youth hostel became a rollercoaster, as I hurtled down the mountainside, swerving to avoid a collision on the assault course of clothes and camping gear hanging above me, and by the time Mr Reach knocked on my door to say goodbye, I was lying sideways across the futon, disorientated and agoraphobic in such spacious surroundings.
‘Mr Reach. Come in.’
‘That’s OK, I was just about to leave.’ Mr Reach stayed by the open door and gave an apologetic nod. ‘Sorry, did I wake you up?’
‘No, not at all,' I lied.
‘Thank you again for the Mapple. I'll use it on my next holiday.’
‘Take care on the way back.’
‘You too. Goodbye.’
Mr Reach gave another bow, and as he left I did my best to reciprocate from my position beneath the duvet.
Among its other peculiarities, the hostel only had squat toilets, so having checked out I headed straight for the public loos in Yoshino town centre. On one of three doors was the wheelchair symbol for ‘disabled’, and beyond this the western-style toilet I had been looking for. I am not registered disabled, I do not have a disabled badge on my car, and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to any disabled readers for the indiscretion, but such a symbol not only denotes a spacious cubicle with coat hooks and hand rails, in Japan, it also denotes the ability to sit down on the job as nature intended. To my shame, I did once jump the queue at a club by nipping into the disabled loo, to be confronted upon my exit by a woman in a wheelchair, but at eight in the morning on Yoshino's deserted main street, the chances of the same thing happening were very slim. Also, I knew that my knees would otherwise be unable to withstand the punishment, which in my book counted as extenuating circumstances – as temporary disability, in fact.
There was no lock on the door, but thankfully no other tourists around – disabled or otherwise – to disturb me, nor to overrun Mount Yoshino’s shrines and temples, one or two of which I investigated on my way through the town. At these there were smouldering incense sticks, gold Buddha statues, stone troughs overflowing with spring water, bells to ring after saying a prayer, and collection boxes in which to drop a coin or two, although in the same way that most visitors to Yoshino will come for its cherry blossom, what impressed me more than the spirituality of the place was a particular aspect of its architecture.
On a stretch of shingle by the Yoshino River was a temporary campsite that if only I had known about it could have saved me all sorts of time, trouble and money the previous evening, and the road east followed the same river on its twists and turns upstream. Stopping for breakfast at an old-style village store, I was served by an oddly androgynous shopkeeper, who was no more than five feet tall, with a high voice and his last few tufts of grey hair tinted to a reddish brown. As it happened, he was selling quite the best pain au chocolat I had ever tasted, which would have been unusual in a big city, and was the equivalent of finding a chunk of kryptonite this far out in the wilderness.
A few minutes later I was overtaken by a familiar blue Mazda, from which Mr Reach emerged after pulling over to the side of the road.
‘Muzuhashi, hello again.’
‘Mr Reach, long time no see.’
‘I’ve just been to the Sasa Waterfall. Would you like to see my photos?’ Mr Reach showed me a series of new shots on his SLR, of him miming his amazement at the waterfall or befriending fellow tourists.
‘Before I go, I have something for you,’ he said, fishing a small bag of umé-boshi out of the glove compartment.
‘Thank you very much.’
It was getting to the point that I ought to offer another gift myself, but I hadn’t even saved a spare pain-au-chocolat.
‘Well, take care on the drive back to Tokyo.’
‘I hope you reach Ibaraki safely. Goodbye.’
About an hour later I pulled in at a soba restaurant, and what should be the only other vehicle in the car park but the same blue Mazda. Inside the restaurant, Mr Reach was polishing off the last of a large bowl of noodles.
‘Muzuhashi! How are you?’
‘Good, thank you. How long have you been here?’
‘About half an hour.’
By now, our ability to catch each other up was making things a little awkward, and Mr Reach felt obliged to stay and talk while I ordered my own meal of zaru-soba.
‘I shouldn’t think I’ll see you again,’ I said, as we gathered up our belongings. ‘The road from here looks pretty steep.’
‘Yes, it does. Good luck.’
‘You too. I’ll send you an email when I get home.’
At this point the chef came over with the bill, and before we knew it had offered us two free bowls of what he described as Kyushu miso, which took another twenty minutes to eat. After a final farewell in the car park, I took things easy for the next few kilometres, just in case Mr Reach had broken down, stopped to take more photographs, or bought me yet another gift.
Despite my recent enthusiasm for cycling, I had come to two wheels relatively late in life, and being a hopeless coward, only learned to go without stablisers as an eleven year old. I started riding my Raleigh Spider to school not long afterwards, and the bigger boys were soon teasing me about its bright yellow paintwork and hi-vis luggage box, to the point where I had to sneak through the back gates in order to avoid them, and ultimately stopped riding it altogether. While they were popping wheelies, I was prone to falling off when doing little more than riding in a straight line, on a dry day, and with both wheels firmly on the ground. At the time the BMX was king, and another of the Spider’s accessories that opened me up to accusations of being homosexual were its mudguards. The mudguard is a brilliant innovation, which not only prevents many of the component parts of your bicycle from rusting, but also your backside from acquiring a brown stripe of grubby rainwater whenever you ride in the wet. Unfortunately, it would seem that whoever designs and manufactures modern-day bicycles suffered from exactly the same kind of bullying when they were young, and is still subconsciously terrified of having A Gay Bicycle. Ironically enough considering its name, the Mariposa was a typical product of this climate of fear, being blessed at the time I bought it with fat tyres and bouncy suspension but no mudguards, and in this sense, mountain bikes are a lot like four-by-fours: designed for appearance rather than practicality, with most of their owners never daring to venture any further off-road than a gravel drive.
In a distinctly otaku kind of way, I had therefore developed a minor obsession with which varieties of tarmac threw up the most spray and which were more absorbent, and while my backside was protected by the luggage rack, the frame, panniers and tent would still get spattered with dirt. As the afternoon progressed, claps of thunder began to echo around the valley, and in conditions such as these, I would freewheel along with my feet in the air in order to prevent my trainers from getting soaked. Fortunately, though, the bulk of the rain confined itself to the mountains, and when the storm had cleared, cotton wool balls of cloud rolled along the hillside until the sun poked through to evaporate them.