Presents – Mount Fuji photographs, haircut discount, fish restaurant discount, postcards, Guinness
After a couple of months of neglect, my hair had become unruly and uncomfortable in the heat (ie. it had grown to about a centimetre and a half long), but while there were scores of barbershops in the city of Hamamatsu – one on every corner, so it seemed – almost all of them were closed.
‘Barbershops have always shut on Tuesdays,’ said the proprietor of the only one I found open, a clutter of hairdressing equipment with a large tropical fish tank as its centrepiece. ‘I’m not sure why, it’s just a tradition.’
‘You were lucky to find us open,’ continued his wife. ‘We normally do the same thing, except we’re going away tomorrow and had to rearrange our days off.’
Despite a recent trend for Kwik Kut 4 A Fiver While-U-Wait-type establishments, most Japanese barbershops are like they used to be in Britain: the kind of places that still have a revolving red-and-white-striped pole above the door, and where you can be properly pampered. Here the price of a haircut included hot towels, a massage and a wet shave, although I declined the latter, as the husband’s dexterity with a set of clippers reminded me of Gene Wilder’s comedy hand in Blazing Saddles…
THE WACO KID
Holding up his right hand, which doesn’t move.
Look at that.
Steady as a rock.
THE WACO KID
Holding up his left hand, which is shaking like a leaf.
Yeah, but I shoot with this hand.
…and I didn’t fancy him coming anywhere near me with a cutthroat razor.
‘I’ve got very, er, sensitive skin,’ I explained as he began to dab shaving cream onto my face, ‘so I’ll come out in a rash, I’m afraid.’
‘Ah, I see. That’s OK, we’ll give you a discount.’
But perhaps wet shaves were his wife’s responsibility, since she took over when it came to using scissors. Several photographs of Mount Fuji were tucked into the edges of the mirror, and I asked her about their significance.
‘Our daughter lives near there,’ she said, ‘and we take a lot of pictures when we’re visiting – if the weather’s good enough, of course. Unfortunately there’s a typhoon on the way, so you may not get to see it this week.’
I became interested in Fuji as a teenager when my mother introduced me to Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji – a series of woodcuts from the early 1800s that includes the famous image of a gigantic wave about to crash down on a group of fishing boats – and since then it had become something of an obsession. Even from the centre of Tokyo, Fuji’s iconic profile would have been a regular sight in Hokusai’s time, but in nine months of living there I saw it only twice: once from the elevated section of a commuter line as I went to work, and once at sunset, from a top-floor bar in the headquarters of Asahi Breweries. Fuji is so much higher than any other mountain in Japan that in the right conditions it is visible from hundreds of kilometres away, although regular hikes in the surrounding countryside had granted me just a handful of further sightings, as quite apart from industrial smog and traffic fumes, it is a magnet for cloud cover.
The only guarantee of seeing Fuji’s summit is to go there in person, which I managed just a few months after arriving in Japan. Tradition dictates that the best time to do so is overnight, thus enabling you to watch the sunrise when you reach the top, so after catching a lunchtime bus to Kawaguchi Fifth Station – two thousand three hundred metres up and as far as you can go by road – I had several hours to wait before there was any point in setting out. A fellow conversation school teacher, Mr Newfoundland, had been sitting next to me on the bus, and we spent the time together, sitting under a tree, talking about Don DeLillo and eating barbecued squid. Having begun the climb at eight p.m., by midnight we were about three thousand four hundred metres above sea level, and rested at one of the many mountain huts – or ‘hotels’ as they call themselves. These are staffed by a hardy band of people for whom the lack of oxygen at altitude makes them seem like pot-smoking stoners, although with an icy wind now whipping across the mountainside and a similar lack of blankets, I only managed about an hour’s sleep.
Unlike Himeji Castle, the Genbaku Dome and the Itsukushima Shrine, for instance, Mount Fuji had yet to be granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site [editor’s note: it has now, although as a site of cultural significance rather than one of natural beauty], and while its sunrise was indeed spectacular - Mr Newfoundland and I arrived there at about four thirty in the morning - the irony is that Fuji looks a lot better from a distance. Its huts resemble a bad case of fly-tipping, its zigzagging paths are shored up with steel and concrete, and Caterpillar-style tractors carry supplies all the way to the top, where you will find vending machines, souvenir shops and even a post office. Indeed, my most treasured photograph from the hike was taken at the highest point on the crater rim, and depicts not the summit itself but its flat-topped shadow on the plains of Yamanashi Prefecture far below.
Once they had finished cutting my hair, the barbershop couple presented me with a small selection of their own photographs, and typhoon or no typhoon, World Heritage status or no World Heritage status, I looked forward to being in its presence once more.
Route 1 was lined for its entire length with waist-high bollards painted powder blue, which counted down the distance to Tokyo in 250-metre increments, and which no matter how hard I tried, kept on creeping into my field of vision. By lunchtime there were still three-hundred kilometres to go, and I had an idea for something that might distract me from this, while at the same time subverting the power of multinational corporate capitalism: I decided to become (possibly) the first person in history to eat at a McDonald’s without buying any of its products.
Supersize that! I thought, as I wiped my mouth with a McDonald’s serviette, threw my plastic packaging from a conbini-bought lunch in a McDonald’s dustbin, and washed my face and hands in a McDonald’s bathroom, all without having placed an order at the till.
With cyclists prohibited from entering a long tunnel beneath the next headland I followed the old coast road instead, which rose spectacularly to cling to the cliff face, with a hundred-metre drop to the Pacific to my right. As the road descended towards Shizuoka, one section appeared to have collapsed or been buried by a rockfall, but rather than repair it, the powers that be had decided to go for broke, constructing a two-hundred-and-fifty-metre-long stretch that looped out over the sea in a huge arc.
Having turned round and headed back towards the city centre, I found four university students outside Shizuoka station who had cycled all the way from Fukuoka in northern Kyushu. (Like Fukuda and Fukudomé, Fukuoka is pronounced ‘foo-koo-oh-ka’, although it may not surprise you to learn that the three-letter acronym for the its airport is the satisfyingly curt FUK.) Having abandoned their plan to climb Mount Fuji, which was already closed to hikers in anticipation of the typhoon, they too had tried and failed to contact Miho Youth Hostel, and I asked where they planned on staying instead.
‘We’ll probably just sleep here,' said one. Their meagre pile of belongings and bicycles was strewn along a cold stretch of pavement, and sheltered only by the overhanging station façade. ‘We’ve got tickets for a train home in the morning.’
‘Have you been using youth hostels the whole time?’
‘No,' he said. 'We usually stay in Gusto.’ Gusto was the chain of family restaurants where Mr Ohio’s furiita girlfriend Miss Bow Child had worked night shifts. ‘They’re open twenty-four hours, and if you get a table out of sight of the waitresses you can normally get some sleep.’
Much as I would have liked to keep them company, I certainly didn’t fancy bedding down with a bunch of students in the open air, and asked if they could keep an eye on the Mariposa while I went in search of something a little less austere. The lights were off at the tourist information desk, but a member of staff from the shop next door noticed me loitering.
‘I’m afraid they shut about half an hour ago,’ she said. ‘Can I help at all?’
‘I was hoping to find a place to stay.’
‘There’s a list behind here somewhere. Hang on, I’ll see if I can find it for you.’
After a couple of minutes rifling through piles of papers and leaflets, she produced a photocopied map that was dotted with marks from a highlighter pen and listed ten or fifteen hotels. The first one I called turned out to be the cheapest, and while I hoped the students wouldn’t be offended by my decision to spend six thousand yen on a bed for the night, they seemed like the kind of people who thrived on a bit of hardship, to the extent that even if they had the cash, I fancied they wouldn’t spend it on anything so indulgent.
Apart from being slightly more compact than its foreign equivalent, my room at a nearby business hotel was comfortingly familiar, with a view from its one window of a blank wall, a flat roof and some heating ducts. The glass tumblers were wrapped in plastic, the toilet paper neatly folded to a point, and there was a pyramid of white towels on a high shelf in the bathroom. It felt as if I was betraying my principles by surrendering to such luxuries, but these were extraordinary circumstances, and there was still room in my budget for the occasional treat, particularly now that I was off the tourist trail and campsites and youth hostels were harder to come by.
With no need even to unroll my sleeping bag at the end of the evening I was in the mood for a pint of beer in a proper pub, although my first stop was a fish restaurant, whose proprietors fed me their most interesting and obscure dishes, none of whose ingredients I can remember, except to say that they were delicious. I left with a hefty discount on my bill, along with a present of some postcards depicting Japanese festivals, and the more I encountered such generosity, the more I became convinced of the reason for it. People went out of their way to help me not because I was foreign, but because I had made an honest attempt to speak their language, and while I never believed that my rudimentary grasp of Japanese merited such special treatment, I understood that it garnered respect simply for being such a rare occurrence.
That key phrase in any language, ‘Can you tell me the way to the nearest pub?’ came in handy as I stood outside the restaurant, where a young couple did some quick keitai research before escorting me to a bar in an underground shopping mall. I offered to buy them a drink by way of thanks, but they declined, confessing that they were still in high school, and therefore too young to be allowed in: being English, I still made the mistake of assuming that anyone over the age of fourteen was a hardened binge-drinker, when in fact it is illegal buy alcohol in Japan until you are twenty, a law that most youngsters seem happy to abide by.
It wasn’t exactly the gaijin hang-out I had been hoping for, as there were no foreigners, no pint glasses and no real ale, but it was full of people winding down after a hard day at the office, and the most wound down of them all was sitting right next to me. A stereotypical salaryman in a suit and tie, he had a moustache, wire-framed glasses and a parting in his salt-and-pepper hair, which became progressively more unkempt as the evening wore on. Between ordering whiskies and fielding emails from his wife, he told me about his job in computers, his love for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and his passion for baseball. Just as I was bracing myself for an onslaught of statistics or a discussion of the designated hitter rule, another email came through, and he made the sign of the devil’s horns: a crooked index finger sprouting from each temple.
‘She is very angry,’ he slurred, and after one final whiskey was staggering out of the door, briefcase in hand.
‘Is that guy a regular?’ I asked the next customer along the bar.
‘Of course,’ she said, ‘he’s always in here.’
‘And he’s always pissed,’ confirmed her friend.
The two women had also come straight from work, although they appeared to be pacing themselves a little more sensibly, and having been introduced, I immediately forgot their names. In the UK, such an eventuality can be disguised by the judicious use of the second-person pronoun, but in Japan, it is often considered rude to address someone as ‘you’. Instead, a new acquaintance will normally be called by their surname with the suffix ‘san’, although since many gaijin introduce themselves Christian name first, surname second, they will be referred to as Peter-san or Jane-san, rather than Smith-san or Jones-san. Add to this the abundance of first-person pronouns, the appropriate use of which can depend on status, context or politeness, and the aspiring Japanese speaker has yet another linguistic assault course to negotiate. Too embarrassed to ask the women’s names for a second time, I spent much of the evening coming up with name-avoidance strategies, which appeared to work, as they were happy to take me to Shizuoka’s real gaijin pub.
At the improbably named My Boozer, I was served with my first Guinness of the summer, although it wasn’t of the draught variety, and it wasn’t quite a pint, either. Brewed in Australia, the head-less drink was poured from a bottle into a glass, before being placed on a contraption that looked like a teleporter from the Starship Enterprise. Either through the application of some kind of electromagnetic field, or via the column of neon light that shone from beneath the glass, its bubbles were activated and the black liquid became magically frothy. While not the best I had ever tasted, the resulting Guinness was much appreciated, particularly as it had been paid for by a new member of our party, a younger, slightly less stereotypical salaryman who happened to work for Sapporo Breweries, and whose name I didn’t catch above the the sound of a pool table, a jukebox and a respectable crowd of Tuesday night drinkers.
By the time we called it a night I had forgotten where the Mariposa was chained up, and had to laboriously retrace my steps via the bar in the shopping mall. As I ambled back to the hotel, I reflected that contrary to being long on distance and short on conversation, today’s trek along Route 1 had required me to speak more Japanese, and to a greater variety of people, than at any other pint on the trip…sorry, I mean ‘point’.