I had set my alarm to allow just enough time to throw on some clothes and head downstairs for breakfast, which was coffee and toast. Nothing else. No tea or orange juice; no cereal, fruit, eggs, bacon, croissants or doughnuts. Just coffee and toast, served at a few bare tables in the foyer, with sachets of sugar, individual tubs of long-life milk, butter, jam, plastic cutlery and paper plates. I stretched to two cups of coffee as I waited for a businessman to finish using the internet, only to realise when he put the laptop in his bag that the connection was available to guests, but not the computer itself.
Compared to the previous evening the conditions outside were benevolent, but as the self-appointed weatherman for my trip, Mr Heaven Valley had called to give further warning of the impending typhoon, so it seemed inevitable that I would lose at least a day’s riding. Since leaving Nagoya I had ridden the best part of two hundred kilometres and almost halfway to Tokyo, so my plan was to book into another hotel when the storm hit, and if necessary, to sacrifice all or part of the time I had set aside for catching up with friends in the capital.
Through the Shizuoka suburbs and across the Miho Peninsula, Route 1, the Tomei Expressway, the Tokaido Shinkansen and the Tokaidohon railway line all converge on the same stretch of coastline, and led me into another cathedral of concrete. I stopped to climb over the sea wall, behind which the Pacific already appeared menacing, and instead of a sandy beach found a sloping pile of concrete jacks. Tetrapods, as they are known, are ubiquitous in Japan, and resemble the six-pronged stars of the children’s game on a grand scale, being several metres in diameter and weighing up to eighty tons apiece. Their efficacy in preventing erosion has been called into question, most notably by the aforementioned Alex Kerr, and ten thousand are needed to fortify just a kilometre of coastline, which makes for many millions in the country as a whole. At a few select locations the government has begun a tetrapod removal programme, thereby restoring estuaries, harbours and beaches to their natural state, although it is not known whether the tetrapods in question are then dismantled or simply dumped somewhere different. If nothing else, they make for an enjoyably adult-sized climbing frame, and I clambered to the water’s edge and back, as wave after wave slammed against the concrete to set off fireworks of sea spray.
Cyclists and pedestrians were soon directed away from the commotion of cars, and through a village that was little more than a main street with a row of houses on either side, wedged between Route 1 and the railway line. The exertions of the past couple of days had begun to take their toll, and with my head feeling fuzzy and my limbs a dead weight, I stopped at a ramen restaurant for an early lunch. Ramen is a Chinese noodle dish that often contains strips of beef or pork and is normally made using a meat stock, but I was so desperate for food that my pescetarianism became subject to another temporary suspension.
‘Can you recommend something without meat in it?’ I asked the chef, who had a cheerful face and wore a white apron turned grey from years of use.
‘I’ve got just the thing’ he replied, and within minutes had presented me with an enormous bowl of noodles topped with what appeared to be a five-egg omlette. The stock was salty and floating with a film of oil, and after a few mouthfuls I was full again. By now, though, the chef had joined me for a chat, and anxious not to offend him, I continued to hack away at the egg with my chopsticks.
‘Where are you hoping to reach by this evening?’ he asked.
‘Mishima, I should think.’ Mishima was another thirty or so kilometres along the coast, and I ought to make it there by mid-afternoon. ‘What with the typhoon being on its way, I probably won’t get any further than that.’
‘But where will you stay?’
‘I won’t be able to camp, so a hotel, I suppose.’
‘They could be rather expensive in Mishima, and they’ll be busier too. Hang on a second.’ The chef disappeared through a door at the back of his kitchen, and returned a couple of minutes later to find me still toying with my ramen. ‘How about Fuji City? It’s a little closer than Mishima, but the hotels are cheap, and they’re more likely to have vacancies.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Oh yes.’ He moved towards the back room again. ‘You’re not leaving yet, are you?’
‘No. This is delicious!’ I lied.
After yet more time behind the scenes he handed me two sheets of A4 paper as I paid the bill. ‘I couldn’t get through on the telephone,’ he said, ‘but if you arrive early I’m sure one of them will have some space.’
The printouts contained directions to two different hotels in Fuji City, along with their addresses and phone numbers, and once the chef had realised how little of his ramen I had managed to eat, I hoped he would feel that helping me out had been a fair swap. In actual fact, I assumed the printouts would be irrelevant, and that I would reach Mishima in time for tea, but no more than an hour or so later, hunger yet again caught up with me, and this time it wasn’t just a craving for hotto cakey setto or choco parfait.
Riding across the Fuji River, I went on what joggers like to describe as ‘the bonk’. In scientific terms, being on the bonk is a sign that your body is running out of fuel, but in symptomatic terms, it is more like smoking a joint or eating a hash cake. You feel light-headed, your body starts to tremble, and because the sensation is so unsettling as to be funny, you are also liable to get the giggles. You are hungry, of course, but not in the ‘I fancy a bit of a snack’ sense, more in the ‘GIVE ME FOOD IMMEDIATELY OR I WILL LOSE CONSCIOUSNESS’ sense. It is similar to being uncomfortably cold for an extended period of time, and as such, reminds me of the stories one hears about hypothermia: of how when death is close at hand, the sufferer is overcome with a feeling of warmth and inner peace. The next conbini couldn’t have arrived soon enough, and fearing the imminent onset of both warmth and inner peace, I ripped open a packet of peanuts-choco and devoured its contents while still laughing manically to myself. (Peanuts-choco, incidentally, is unique in its ability to combine two mediocre ingredients – peanut pieces and mass-produced milk chocolate – into one mouth-wateringly delicious snack product.) Having recovered my composure, I also fished the printouts from my rucksack and set out for the nearest of the two hotels.
On the way I passed the aftermath of an accident, although not one that had just occurred. A south-east Asian teenager, an older woman whom I could not see well and a middle-aged western man stood with two uniformed policemen, who were taking notes as they measured a set of skidmarks on the road. The parallel lines darkened to the point at which they disappeared completely, and a corresponding splash of paint dust gave the impression that a car had vanished into thin air, like Doc’s De Lorian in Back to the Future. It had probably been no more than a harmless tail-ender, but the scene had an air of mystery to it, and the fact that it was being investigated so thoroughly perhaps implied something more serious. To add to my sense of disorientation, I had begun to experience flashes of déjà vu, as every few minutes a fragment of memory skated across my mind’s eye, its significance tantalisingly beyond reach.
Then, all of a sudden, Mount Fuji appeared before me, its slopes stretching inland towards that unmistakable silhouette, which poked out perfectly from a soft ruff of cloud. Again my heart began to beat faster, but this time because I knew there could be just seconds to spare before the mountain disappeared. After dashing around for several minutes in search of a spot where no power lines would obscure the view, I rattled off two shots, one wide and one close-up, before the cloud closed in to shroud the summit once more: capturing Fuji on film was an even less regular occurrence than seeing it, and particularly as the weather forecast was so ominous, this had to be a sign.
My other printout pointed the way to a ryokan (旅館), ryokan being a more traditional kind of hotel and a step up from the business variety, not to mention a youth hostel or a minshuku (民宿), which is the Japanese equivalent of a bed and breakfast. The Fujimi Ryokan did indeed have bigger rooms and communal eating and bathing, although I needn’t have worried about the price, as it was decidedly rough around the edges, and despite the name – which means ‘Fuji look’ – was tucked away down a side street, with rooms on only two floors, and even in fine weather no hope of seeing the mountain from any of its windows.
The owner was a chubby man with features that could have passed for being European, and having greeted me at the front door, he went to sit in a tiny, cluttered office, passing pen and check-in form towards me through a sliding window.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Are you American?’
‘No, I’m from England.’
‘Ah! I have been to England. I went there after I graduated from university, on a cycling tour.’
‘Really? Where did you go?’
‘Oh, you know, London, Brighton, Canterbury, many places. I was there for about three weeks. The English people were very kind to me. I also travelled around Europe. To France, Italy and so on.’
We discussed our respective tours as he showed me around the ryokan, whose original structure appeared to have been augmented in a somewhat random fashion, so that you often found yourself walking along a rubber mat beside the car park, or through a corridor made from nothing more than corrugated plastic, and filled with random bits of furniture and kitchen equipment. There was some wood involved in the building’s construction, but most of the outside walls were of aluminium siding, originally painted brick red and now faded from exposure to the elements.
As is invariably the case in a traditional hotel, I had been issued with a pair of visitor’s slippers. These loathsome items of footwear are to be found in any building where members of the public are required to remove their footwear upon entering and do not happen to have brought their own (believe it or not, some people carry an emergency pair of slippers with them at all times). Like other indigenous products, a single company appears to have a monopoly on the manufacture of visitor’s slippers, meaning they only ever come in two sizes (adult or child), two colours (red or green), and one universally impractical shape. Made from cheap plastic and embossed in gold lettering with the name of whichever establishment you happen to be visiting, they are merely flat soles with a pocket sewn to the front that resembles half a pitta bread, and into which the wearer inserts their foot. The trouble is, as soon as you begin to move, your visitor’s slippers will fly off and shoot several metres down the corridor or across the room, and the only way to keep them on for more than a few seconds is to curl your toes into a claw while shuffling along like an emperor penguin on incubation duty. When it comes to negotiating a flight of stairs, even this technique is ineffective, the usual outcome being an undignified tumble of feet, limbs and slippers to the floor below. Like the warm-air hand dryer, there was apparently no testing stage in the design process for visitor’s slippers, but the orders nonetheless came flooding in, and as a result, unsuspecting victims all over the country are left to curse their uselessness.
My own visitor’s slippers lay in wait outside my room, daring me to escort them to dinner, but I couldn’t face it, and resolved to feign forgetfulness should anyone ask why I was only wearing socks. As I took my seat in the dining room, two young men at the next table introduced themselves. They were already winding down after a day of meeting clients on a business trip, and I hoped they might invite me along on their search for nightlife in Fuji City. But no matter how many times they tried to explain, I couldn't even work out what it was they were selling (slippers, perhaps, or warm-air hand dryers?), so would probably have cramped their style. Instead, I rode to the nearest conbini for a can of beer and a chocolate bar, and was asleep on my futon by ten, still exhausted from the effort of escaping Nagoya. Meanwhile, the déjà vu had continued all evening, and despite my efforts to capture the image as I drifted off, even in the dark and with my eyes closed, it remained elusive.