I had prepared myself for an early start, but it still came as a shock to be awoken at four thirty a.m. by the announcement that we were soon to disembark, and could we please remember to take all of our belongings with us. Back on dry land and back on the Mariposa, the weather was so cool that I vowed to get up this early from now on, the better to avoid the rigours of the midday sun, although I had to hold my breath as I was overtaken by truck after fuming truck on the road leading away from the port.
Before leaving Ibaraki, I had canvassed various friends for their recommendations as to where I should visit en route, and first on my list was the seaside city of Beppu. This lay somewhere to the south-east, so I hazarded a guess as to the right direction, and set off past a cluster of jagged peaks that soon gave way to the sparsely populated suburbs of Kita-Kyushu.
These were punctuated by disused railway lines and abandoned pachinko parlours (pachinko is like a cross between pinball and a fruit machine, and the most popular activity in Japan’s gambling industry. The so-called ‘parlours’ where it is played go in and out of business almost as fast as their customers win and lose money), while the shops were more run down, the roads more dusty and the houses more ramshackle than those I was accustomed to seeing in Kanto.
At the first available convenience store I headed straight for the bathroom to apply a fresh layer of sunblock, and remained there for a good fifteen minutes or so. Make such extensive use of a shop toilet in the UK and you would soon have the manager knocking on the door, suspicious that someone was shooting up or scrawling graffiti. In Japan, however, convenience stores – or conbini, as they’re abbreviated – are very much public spaces, and it is not uncommon to see customers standing by the magazine racks, or even sitting cross-legged on the floor, engrossed for hours at a time in the latest comic book or magazine and without the slightest intention of buying it.
As well as a toilet, I had come in search of baked goods, and there was a typically stodgy selection on offer. The average Japanese breakfast still consists of rice and miso soup, and if you are on the move, nigiri (triangular rice balls wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed) or instant noodles make a good substitute. But the Japanese have yet to get the hang of such Western staples as bread, which even at a dedicated bakery will be soft, white, slightly sweet, and filled with such oddities as custard or bean paste. Sandwiches come with their already spongy crusts cut off, and it is practically impossible to get hold of anything brown, wholemeal or granary. Even pastries have the taste and texture of what North Americans like to call ‘wonder bread’, and on this occasion I settled for the best of a bad bunch, namely a jam-filled roll, which resembled a kind of poor man’s doughnut.
Fortunately, a conbini breakfast can be vastly improved with the addition of canned coffee, which is some kind of modern miracle. God only knows what lethal chemicals it contains, but you can buy hot coffee, in a can, from a vending machine or the small hot cupboard next to a conbini’s cash register, twenty-four hours a day, almost anywhere you go. It certainly is sweet, but considering it has been kept at a constantly high temperature for anything up to a week or two – that is depending on the relative isolation of the vending machine or conbini in question – it is also eminently drinkable.
For long stretches, the road had been separated from the coast by an industrial hinterland, with the silhouettes of factories and machinery crowding the horizon, but eventually a sign pointed off to the left and towards a beach, where one or two locals were out walking their dogs, and waves lapped gently against a narrow strip of white sand. This looked as good a place as any to eat my breakfast, and to get in early by initiating today’s Conversation With A Stranger. I parked the Mariposa, psyched myself up and waded in with a cheery ‘Konichiwa!’ and whilst it would have been nice if the recipients of this greeting had been well-dressed youngsters, on this occasion at least, I would have to make do with a scruffy pair of vagrants. One was toothless, stand-offish, and only talked when prompted, although he seemed to know a few more words of English than his friend, who conversely sported an impressive array of dental work, most of it topped off with shiny silver caps. They wore second-hand baseball caps and third-hand clothes, although one had just finished his night shift at a gasoline stand, and would soon be off to sleep, he said, in a delapidated van that stood in the car park behind us. The bench on which we were sitting was positioned beneath a shelter made from no more than a few slats of wood, and little protection against the rising sun, which even at eight in the morning was already gaining in strength. As a result I didn’t stay long, and the silver-toothed man wished me luck, before directing me to a tap at which to fill my water bottle. Making my way back to the main road, I wondered if the two of them met there every morning, to sit and talk as they gazed out at the sea.
Cutting the corner of the Kokuto peninsula, I toiled across a plain of farmland and rice fields, where the air was still and thick, and the hills began to vanish in the haze as if draped in a sheet of muslin. The temperature here was even higher than in Tokyo, and a suffocating heat reflected off the shiny tarmac, into which my tyres would probably sink if I were to stop moving.
A small-town supermarket provided some respite, and as I sat in the shade near the entrance, one or two of its younger customers said hello. Particularly in the countryside, schoolchildren will often have a resident gaijin at their junior high school, and occasionally at their elementary school too. Known as an ALT (assistant language teacher), this is the plumb job for any foreigner, being as well paid as a conversation school but much less demanding, and much more conducive to acquainting oneself with everyday Japanese life. During my darkest days in Tokyo, I had on several occasions considered jumping on a plane and flying back to the UK, and eventually handed in my notice with a view to being home in time for Christmas. But as my final day approached, I couldn’t help feeling that I ought to give Japan another chance, and began applying for work as an ALT. The idea was to get as far away from Tokyo as possible without ending up in Russia, and having initially been offered a job in a fishing village in Iwaté – which would have been roughly the equivalent of a move from London to Northumberland – I settled in the end for a three-month contract in Tokai-Mura, Ibaraki (a small town with little in the way of distinguishing features, Tokai-Mura’s one claim to fame is that in 1999, it played host to the third most serious nuclear accident in history behind Chernobyl and Fukushima). I was subsequently employed just down the road in Mito, by which time I knew that being an ALT would keep me in the country, as my workload had dropped dramatically, my apartment was three times the size, and I was finally able to go out on the weekends and enjoy myself (more to the point, I had met Mrs M within a month of getting off the train from Tokyo, so there was romance in my life at last).
Walking around the various junior high schools in which I worked, almost all of the students would say hello and at least try to engage me in conversation, and such amiability also extended to everyday life: when children see a gaijin, whether they know his face or not, they see the friendly fellow who plays football with them during lunch break and livens up their English lessons with games and activities. My daily routine would typically involve starting work at eight thirty a.m., assisting for perhaps two or three one-hour lessons, eating and spending my lunch break with the students, and going home at half past two. There is less scope as an ALT for improving your teaching skills, as for the most part you are used as a kind of talking book by your Japanese colleagues, reciting pre-written dialogues for the students to repeat. But there is plenty of time to surf the internet, to practise your Japanese, and to take part in whatever event happens to be going on at the school: at one point or another, I had participated in everything from a performance on the taiko (太鼓) – traditional drums that range in size from the hand-held variety to those of more than two-metres in diameter – to the mochi (餅) festival, which entails pounding away at a bucket full of cooked rice with a large wooden hammer (the resulting soft rice cakes are not only delicious but dangerous too, and every year at least one or two people choke to death while eating them. Apparently, the best way to extract a mochi from someone’s airway is to use a vacuum cleaner, as demonstrated in the classic foodie film from the mid-eighties, Tampopo).
As I ate my supermarket snack food, two older men eyed me suspiciously, and appeared to be from the opposite end of the acceptance spectrum. It wasn’t quite Deliverance, but made me uneasy nonetheless, and I kept half an eye on them as I finished eating, disposed of some rubbish and unlocked the Mariposa. Waiting at the next set of traffic lights, I felt refreshed and strangely unburdened, which I soon realised was because I had forgotten to put on my rucksack. My heart sank as I made a mental list of its contents: camera, credit card, keitai (携帯 / mobile phone), spectacles, Mapple, diary, you name it. Japan may be an almost crime-free country, but I had managed to leave my most valuable possessions lying on the ground, right under the noses of two characters who could by now be sifting through them and throwing anything they didn’t need from the window of a moving car. Hurrying back, the same traffic lights took an age to change, and I looked anxiously towards the supermarket to see if I could pick the two men out from among the crowd of shoppers. Mercifully, although they had disappeared, my rucksack had not, and I replaced it on my back as nonchalantly as I could before continuing south.
I spotted the symbol for an onsen – three wisps of steam rising from the elliptical outline of a bath – on a roadside sign sooner than expected, and was soon bogged down in the gravel driveway of a low wooden building. This, I assumed, was Kazoku-Ryokomura-Ajimu (‘Family Holiday Village Ajimu’), my intended camping venue for the night, although approaching the front door, I couldn’t help feeling that something was amiss. The cost of a bath was a good deal more expensive than I had hoped, as this particular onsen, the receptionist explained, consisted of smaller, private bathrooms. She handed me a towel, a locker key and my receipt, before directing me along a corridor towards the rear of the building.
‘You’ll be sharing with a family.’
I stopped in my tracks.
‘I’ll be what?’
‘You’ll be sharing with a family.’
At least that was what I thought she said, and had visions of some poor Japanese father shielding his wife and children’s eyes as a sweaty, naked gaijin came barging in on them.
‘Er, before I go in, could you tell me if there’s a campsite here?’
‘A campsite?’ The receptionist looked at me quizzically. ‘No, this is just an onsen. There’s a hotel, but no campsite.’
‘Thank God for that.’
‘Oh, nothing. I think I was looking for somewhere else.’
My hopes of a bath may have been dashed, but I was relieved not to be scarring the minds of innocent women and children, and asked for a refund before hastily making my way back to the main road.
In what was to be a foreshadowing of many subsequent occasions that summer, the real Kazoku-Ryokomura-Ajimu lay a few kilometres further on, and up a short but extremely steep hill. After huffing and puffing my way to the top, I managed to overshoot the entrance and continue down the opposite side, and, unable to face another turn of the pedals, resigned myself to the shame of walking the Mariposa to reception.
The majority of the campsite consisted of large, permanently erected tents, which were occupied that night by a party of schoolchildren. Upon arrivng back from an evening meal at the so-called ‘Joyfull’ family restaurant next door, I found both teachers and students gathered round the campfire, and watched as they performed an elaborate programme of skits, songs and dance routines. The entertainment continued long after dark, and was rounded off with speeches and prize giving, although by the time the children had queued up at the toilet block to clean their teeth, I was drifting off to sleep in my tent.
A couple of hours later I was roused by the sound of another fire being lit, followed by talking, laughter and the unmistakeable sound of No Woman No Cry, rendered on bongos and acoustic guitar. I lay there for a while without moving, willing whoever it was to stop so that I wouldn’t have to be the spoilsport who told them to shut up and go to bed. But with little sign of an end to the festivities, there was no alternative but to get dressed, unzip the tent flap and brace myself for a confrontation. Ten or fifteen youngsters were seated around a large campfire just a few metres away, and something stopped me from launching into a tirade of abuse, as they invited me to sit down, offered me a drink and told me about the annual Ajimu Town Ska Festival. Quite why there was a ska festival taking place this far out in the sticks was anyone’s guess, but at least it explained the choice of music. After a few more selections from the Bob Marley songbook, someone asked whether or not I could sing. They were probably hoping for some Prince Buster, or perhaps a bit of Toots and the Maytals, but my only previous experience of playing music in public involved jazz standards, so I proceeded to serenade them with a couple of Sinatra numbers. Struggling to remember both the chords and the lyrics to Everything Happens to Me, I must have sounded hopelessly fogey-ish, but reasoned that such old-fashioned fare might just bore them into calling it a night.
The early start from Kita-Kyushu, the physical exertion and the soaring temperatures had been eating into my confidence all day, and I had been forced to suppress a hissy fit more than once, not to mention the urge to give up altogether and catch the ferry back to Tokyo. But with a guitar in my hands and a group of complete strangers applauding my somewhat inept rendition of I’ve Got You Under My Skin (not, sadly, in a reggae style), things didn’t seem so hopeless. This evening had been much more the sort of traveller’s experience I was hoping for, and enough to persuade me that I shouldn’t go home just yet.