I had anticipated passing through the heart of Nagoya to Mr Swansea’s home in the eastern suburb of Kasugai, but as we examined our Mapples at Yoshino Youth Hostel, Mr Reach had told me about a ferry service that cuts across Isei Bay, from Toba in Mie Prefecture to Tokonamé in neighbouring Aichi [editor's note: don’t get your hopes up if you want to follow in my footsteps, as the service lasted just more two years before it was axed in 2007]. This would almost halve the distance I had to cycle, as well as enabling me to avoid a sizeable chunk of urban sprawl, and I made it to Toba Port with approximately a minute to spare before the scheduled departure time. I rushed upstairs to the passenger entrance after surrendering the Mariposa to a member of the crew to be loaded onto the vehicle deck, and as the ferry sailed into the blue water of the bay, called Mr Swansea to make sure that he was going to be in when I arrived.
‘I was thinking we could go and see a baseball match,’ he said. ‘What time do you reckon you’ll get here?’
‘The ferry gets to Tokonamé at twelve, so I should be there by four o’clock.’
‘Tokonamé? That’s next to the airport, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know. Is it?’
‘It takes two hours just to drive there, and you’re on a bloody bicycle!’
‘It’ll be fine,’ I reassured him, even though I was now worried that it wouldn’t. ‘It’s only a page on the map, and I can normally do a couple of pages a day, even when it’s hilly.’
‘Four o’clock, then?’
‘Well, maybe five.’
‘Make it four thirty.’
The artificial island of Chubu International Airport – or ‘Centrair’, to give it its more corporate-sounding, anglicised name – had only been open since February, and everything nearby seemed newly built: the kerbstones were still smooth and cream-coloured, the tarmac shiny and unscuffed, and the 7-11 where I stopped to use the ATM as clean and colourful as a Lego model.
Out of sight of the check-in desks and departure lounges, the outskirts of Nagoya were the usual mix of industry, overgrown semi-countryside, and satellite towns trying hard to retain a sense of identity in the face of the big city. Following a train line northwards, I passed an urban beach overshadowed by factory chimneys and peopled with a mixture of sunbathers and amateur fishermen. Rows of shops lay abandoned and seemingly fragile enough to be blown away in the next typhoon, and a twenty-metre-high, copper-coloured Buddha statue peered out over the treetops at a local temple.
Children in Japan are groomed from birth to be kawaii. They wear kawaii clothes and buy kawaii toys, they watch kawaii animé, read kawaii manga, and their school books and bags are adorned with kawaii designs and kawaii stickers. Boys will cast aside the shackles of kawaii once they reach adolescence, to become consumers instead, as their female peers try to retain a kawaii look and demeanour on into adulthood – in the interests of being more kawaii, women will even adopt a higher voice, and my friend Miss Birmingham was not alone among gaijin women in being accused of sounding like a man by her kindergarten students. The influence of kawaii can be seen across the entire spectrum of the media, film, television, advertising, art and design, with a preponderance of cuddly mascots, bright colours and chirpy music, and it has been suggested by some commentators that this might be a reaction against, or a way of overlooking, the suffering and brutality of World War Two. More importantly, though, the cult of kawaii is evidence of how Japan lags behind other developed nations in terms of sexual equality. If the female population spends enough time worrying about its hair, make-up, nails, clothes, body language and voice – even its grammar and pronunciation – then they will be less inclined to worry about their wages, prospects for promotion, political representation, or rights in the workplace and in the home.
Nagoya is a prime example of this, because as a commercial hub that plays host to so many salarymen on business trips, it has also become a centre for the sex industry. The city’s conbini stock magazines as big as telephone directories devoted to hostess clubs, brothels and strip joints, all of which are awash with soft-focus photography, sparkly typefaces and kawaii colour schemes, with the emphasis on gold and silver accessories, pink skin and blonde hair. Even if they are not employed to entertain their menfolk, Nagoya-jo (‘Nagoya women’) are renowned for their devotion to designer labels. In other words, they want (or are encouraged, depending on how you look at it) to make themselves look kawaii for the benefit of the opposite sex, and are more interested in pursuing a man for his money than in pursuing a career. So as well as making me want to go out and buy the product in question, the subtext of such a billboard advertisement is that in Japan, even a grown woman will not domineer me. The car, which is after all a classic symbol of male power, incites an involuntary outbreak of kawaii in any woman who sees it, thus reinforcing our respective gender roles.
Which is not to say that Japanese women are completely subservient. They may hit a glass ceiling in business or politics, or even be made to quit their job should they become pregnant, but to paraphrase the old saying, behind every great Japanese man is a great Japanese woman. Should he manage to successfully negotiate The Matrix and get married, the average husband will hand over complete control of the family finances to his wife. She will then organise the household bills, go shopping for essentials, go shopping for non-essentials, and give him what is left over as an often paltry amount of pocket money, and in this sense, husbands could be seen as slaves to their wives rather than the other way round. In recent years, and with varying degrees of success, many such wives have taken their command of the purse strings one step further, to become what are known as ‘kimono traders’. They will spend their weekdays at the family PC, buying and selling stocks and shares or speculating on foreign currencies, and this phenomenon has become so widespread as to have a noticeable effect on the markets.
I had my own brush with girl power at a suburban conbini, where the two teenagers behind the counter broke out in a fit of giggles after I asked them to heat up my jam-filled roll, and continued to whisper to each other as they waited for the microwave to ping.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t quite hear you. Is there something funny? It’s very rude to talk about a person when they’re standing right in front of you, and anyway, I can understand everything you're saying, so you might as well say it to my face.’
Except that I couldn’t understand everything, and that isn’t how I responded. What really happened was that I blushed, mumbled an embarrassed, ‘Thank you’, and sloped out of the shop in silence. Ironically enough, my gaijin’s Japanese was almost certainly what the two girls were making fun of in the first place, and while losing your rag in a foreign language can be a useful skill to acquire, it is not something you will ever be taught, and difficult to copy from real life because it tends to happen at twice the speed – and to be half as comprehensible – as normal modes of conversation.
Even without opening our mouths, we foreigners were easy to spot in a big city like Nagoya, being the only cyclists to travel any faster than a brisk walking pace. If it means more than five or ten minutes in the saddle, most Japanese will ride their mama-chari no further than the nearest railway station, so there’s a pretty good chance that anyone who whizzes by on a racer or mountain bike, grim faced beneath a helmet and shades and apparently trying to break the land speed record, is a gaijin. Whether in London, Tokyo or Ibaraki, rather than an exercise in getting from A to B, I too was inclined to treat cycling as a time trial, and today was no exception. At one point the grey edifice of a thunderstorm blocked out the sun to the west of the city, but for the most part, a tailwind cast billowing sails of cumulonimbus across the blue sky and to the mountains beyond, carrying me to Kasugai with time to spare.
‘Is this place called the Fuck You Dome then?’ I asked, as Mr Swansea and I filed our way into the baseball stadium a little later, having seen numerous Chunichi Dragons fans with the word ‘Fukudome’ printed on the backs of their t-shirts.
‘That’s one of the players, you pillock. Kosuké Fukudomé – foo-koo-do-mé. He’s pretty good, actually.’
Tonight the Dragons were up against the Yokohama Bay Stars, and we took our seats in the family enclosure next to an old woman and her grandson, who looked as if he would rather be with the more fanatical supporters on the opposite side of the field. Beer was served in pint-and-a-half paper cups, and as if he was back home watching Swansea City, Mr Swansea concentrated on getting as much down him as possible.
‘I’m a Hanshin Tigers fan, as it happens, so I’m hoping the Dragons get a pasting. The last time I came here we were the away team, and I sat in the middle of all the home fans with my Tigers shirt on. They couldn’t believe it! Had to keep quiet when the Dragons lost a batter, mind you.’
‘You mean they might have beaten you up?’
‘No. No danger of that. This is Japan, after all. The thing is, you aren’t allowed to cheer your team when they’re fielding, so I would have been the only guy within a fifty-metre radius making any noise.’
‘You mean, the supporters actually take it in turns to cheer?’
‘Yep. Can you imagine that happening in England?’
It would seem that even the hooligans here were polite, and I finally had an answer to Miss Blessing Effective Child’s enquiry as to what had surprised me about Japan. Having emailed to tell her of my discovery, I asked Mr Swansea about the music that accompanied each hitter on his walk to the plate.
‘Isn’t that a bit presumptuous? Playing an R&B number when the black guys come out to bat?’
‘That’s what I used to think, but apparently they choose the music themselves.’ So the Japanese players took to the field to the strains of the latest J-Pop hit, the black Americans to R.Kelly or Jay Z, and their white countrymen to Van Halen, The Eagles or something similarly middle-of-the-road. ‘Who said people don’t conform to stereotypes, eh?’
From football to curling, darts to poker, polo to tiddlywinks, as a man, I am genetically predisposed to find any sport interesting (except bowls, of course, which is utterly tedious whether you are male or female), so it did not take long for me to become absorbed in the contest. Baseball, it seemed to me, is a lot like cricket, in that it goes on for far too long, nothing much happens for a good deal of that time, and people’s appreciation of the game is based as much on their enthusiasm for complicated statistics and obscure rules as it is on the physical endeavours of the players. So instead of the Duckworth-Lewis method or the offside rule, I quizzed Mr Swansea on batting averages and what exactly constitutes a strike out, and by the ninth inning, he had gained a statistical advantage over me in the draft beer stakes of five to two. It became clear that the Dragons were not playing to their full potential, and despite a valiant attempt to claw back a four-point deficit, they finally succumbed to the Bay Stars. Unlike football, however, baseball matches take place almost every night of the week over the course of the season, so the Dragons would have the chance to redeem themselves against the same opponents the following evening.
In fact, with a capacity of around forty thousand, the Nagoya Dome plays host to well over two million supporters every year, and its cheap ticket prices put the average Premiership stadium to shame. There is such a demand for the sport that even high school tournaments are shown on television, and for children as young as nine or ten, baseball is a serious business. Training regimes are notoriously strict, and given the pressure to succeed in such tournaments, the after-school baseball club is the toughest that any boy can hope to join. In a private high school where I was almost posted before moving from Tokyo to Tokai-Mura, the baseball coach had recently committed suicide due to a combination of overwork on his part and underachievement on the part of his team, and if he was that hard on himself, one can only imagine how hard he was on the students.
Back in Kasugai Mr Swansea and I went for a proper Indian curry – not unheard of in Japan, but certainly a rarity – so after beer and sport, all we needed to round off the evening were girls, and with none on offer, made do with talking about them instead.
‘I don’t know, I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall sometimes. One day Miss Friend Child will email me ten times and it’ll be three love hearts, fourteen smiley faces and thirty six kisses at the end of each message. Then the next night she won’t want to meet up because she’s got a stomachache.’
‘What about Miss Brazil? You seem to get on pretty well with her.’
‘Yeah, she’s been great, actually. She’s even promised to help me move house.’ Mr Swansea had met Miss Brazil – so called because she was the vocalist in a bossa nova band – at a party the last time I was in Nagoya, but after seeing each other for a while, things between them had cooled off. ‘We’ll go and see Miss Coffee Shop too, although I gave up on her a long time ago. And anyway, I reckon she’s knocking off the bloke who’s been helping her out at the shop since she hurt her leg.’
There was also talk of Miss Isé, Miss Toyota, and any number of other adversaries Mr Swansea had been grappling with of late. ‘I tell you what,' he said, 'you’re better off out of it. It sounds like you’ve landed on your feet with Mrs M, and trust me, you don’t want to end up back in The Matrix. It’s a nightmare.’