Having escaped the confines of Nagoya, I spent much of the day on Route 1, and with a steady stream of trucks sweeping past to leave me wobbling in their slipstream, I thought of switching to the pavement on more than one occasion. As a cyclist you put tremendous trust in the drivers who pass you by, drivers who would only have to veer ever so slightly to one side to have you wrapped like kebab meat around their vehicle’s front axle. Irrational though it may seem, in the same way that I fear some random maniac pushing me in front of a tube train, I also fear the vindictive driver who might deliberately plough into the back of me as I cycle along a busy road, and being on Route 1 was the only time in six weeks that I regretted not having brought a helmet.
The Shikoku and Kanto Mapples very nearly overlapped, but not quite, so to cover a few square kilometres around Koya and Yoshino, I had been obliged to buy the intervening Kansai edition. More than three weeks ago, the proprietor of a second-hand bookshop near Kita-Kyushu had refused to take a Mapple off my hands due to some frankly negligible water damage, which I couldn’t imagine a biker caring about one way or the other. But after less than a week of use, the Kansai Mapple was still in mint condition, and I was hopeful of clawing back some of my costs as it was examined by the assistant at a second-hand book shop near Toyota City.
‘Yes, we can buy this from you,’ she said. ‘If you would just like to give us your details.’
Once I had written my name, address and phone number, the assistant asked to see my gaijin card (外国人証明書 / aka the soon-to-be-defunct Alien Registration Card), and called on her supervisor to oversee the transaction.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said the supervisor after checking both form and card. ‘Here is your receipt.’
The smiling assistant then counted out my money, although she wouldn’t have been too pleased with what I then exclaimed had she been an English speaker.
‘Yes, sir. Eighty yen.’
I stood there for a few moments with my mouth hanging open, looked at the coins in my hand and then at the Mapple I had just ‘sold’.
Both supervisor and assistant bowed slightly in acknowledgement of my question, although they seemed oblivious as to why I was so taken aback. The Mapple had cost fifteen hundred yen just six days ago. There was hardly a scratch on it, barely a creased page or a coffee stain, and it would surely be sold on for at least a thousand, which made for a very healthy profit. Being paid about forty pence for a secondhand book somehow felt so much more depressing than giving it away, and if this were Tokyo city centre, I would have handed the Mapple to the nearest homeless person instead: better to be used as a firelighter than sold for such a risibly low price, I thought. But there were no homeless people here, and I could do without the extra weight, so off I went, calculating as I did so what it would be possible to buy with my new-found wealth. Two thirds of a can of coffee? Half a newspaper? Or eight tenths of any item from a hundred yen shop? The possibilities were endless.
My campsite was on the reclaimed land of Benten Island, which acts as support for various road and rail bridges as they converge at the tidal inlet to Lake Hamana. The light was already fading by the time I asked for directions, and my first victim hadn’t heard of the place, while the second pointed me towards an enormous holiday hotel, the far side of which took about twenty minutes to reach. This in turn led to a busy overpass on which my rear light would have come in very handy, had it not been for the fact that it was only visible when the luggage rack had no luggage on it. Back in the safety of a residential street, victim number three was out walking his dog, and warned me to be careful of mosquitoes at the exact moment I was being bitten by one. He did, though, direct me to Nagisa Park, where I left my bags and keitai number with the caretaker, with a promise to return before the gates were closed at ten o’clock.
My fellow diner at a nearby restaurant was a flight attendant called Miss Knowledge Bright. She was tall and slim with short hair and a dark blue trouser suit, and had driven all the way from Tokyo to sample the unagi for which Lake Hamana is famous (unagi is grilled eel: far superior to its jellied London equivalent, and normally served on a bed of rice with a special, slightly sweet soya sauce).
I asked how long she planned on staying, and she replied in impeccable English, ‘Only one night.’
‘Wow. That’s a long way to come just for unagi. I mean, it’s very nice, but I’m sure you can buy it in Tokyo as well.’
‘I only have two days off, so I came down on the spur of the moment. I’ll be back at work the day after tomorrow, and my mother will complain if I don’t spend at least one night at home.’
‘Where are you flying next?’
‘I used to go to Europe a lot, but recently I’ve been doing the Pacific routes, so I’m off to America.’
‘How long have you been a flight attendant?’
‘You won’t believe me even if I tell you.’
‘Go on then.’
‘It’s been sixteen years.’
‘Sixteen years? I don’t believe you!’ Judging by Miss Knowledge Bright’s appearance, that would have meant starting work in her mid-teens, so perhaps it's not true what they say about frequent flying being bad for your skin. ‘Do you still live with your parents?’
‘I don’t get to spend much time there, but yes.’
‘And you’re not married?’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘Sorry, that was a bit of a personal question.’
‘That’s OK. Actually I was engaged a few years ago. I met someone really nice, but because he was foreign my father didn’t approve.’
‘Couldn’t you have just married him anyway?’
‘No, I couldn’t. My father would have disowned me. I may never have been able to see my family again.’
Our conversation was interrupted by a call from the caretaker at Nagisa Park, and I had to wolf down the rest of my unagi before saying goodbye. Miss Knowledge Bright gave me her business card as we stood outside the restaurant, and told me to call if I was ever in need of assistance at Narita Airport. She returned to her hotel alone, and I wondered how many similar hotels she had stayed in over the past sixteen years; how many other people she had met just once and for such a short time, and whether or not she was happy.
There was no shortage of space at the park, with its running track, tennis courts, baseball and football fields, and with not another soul in sight, I tucked the Snow Peak beneath a row of pine trees in the hope of avoiding a direct hit from the rising sun the following morning. Having salvaged my bags from reception I was left on my own in a muddy field, in the dark, with nothing to do, no one to talk to, and nowhere to go for a beer, so after nosing around the changing rooms and cleaning my teeth very meticulously indeed, I retired early in anticipation of another long day.