Presents received – lunch, Mitsué Cider, tomatoes
A couple of hours from Ajimu I called in at a village shop, which was in the same dilapidated style as the izakaya where I had my evening meal in Toridé. There were a few shelves of produce just inside the sliding doors, but the majority of floor space had been given over to a table and chairs, and the proprietor, who was a cheerful old woman in a headscarf and pinny, straight away said hello and invited me to take a seat.
‘Do you like ocha (お茶 / green tea)?’ she asked.
‘Er, yes,’ I replied, and having had a cup of ocha placed before me on the patterned plastic tablecloth, I was introduced to her other guest, a man in his fifties with a mop of spiky grey hair and large, thick-rimmed spectacles. He was a maths teacher, recently retired from the local junior high school and a confident English speaker, which he explained was because, like many of his colleagues, he had specialised in several other subjects during the course of his career.
‘What about the terror in London, then?’ he said. Barely a fortnight had passed since the suicide bombings on the seventh of July, and to be honest, I was glad to be able to avoid what was probably wall-to-wall media hysteria back home. ‘It’s a shame, isn’t it? Were your family safe?’
‘Yes, they live in the countryside. I’ve got friends in London, but they were OK, too.’
‘Do you like mochi?’ said the shopkeeper.
‘Well, yes. But…’ Within seconds she had presented me with a plate of home-made rice cakes, as the teacher proceeded to tell me about the ALT at his former school, a Canadian who had worked there for over two years and was well known in the local community.
‘Do you like tsukemono (漬け物 / pickled vegetables)?’
‘I do. I’m not sure that I’ve got enough room, though. You really don’t have to…’
‘Hang on a minute, there are some out the back here.’
Having only intended to buy a soft drink, I was now being treated to a full meal, and while the teacher eventually had to go home, the shopkeeper continued to ply me with food. She said that if I was stuck, I could always camp in her back garden, although a broad Kyushu accent made it hard to catch whatever else she was talking about, so I just concentrated on eating and drinking.
After nearly an hour, I felt that I should at least buy something before I left, but she refused to accept a single yen, and was still trying to tuck drinks and snacks into my shopping basket as I got on the Mariposa.
‘Remember, you’re welcome to stay here any time,’ she said as I waved goodbye, and I couldn’t stop smiling: I had always assumed that such hospitality died out along with the good old days.
Ahead of me lay my first proper climb, and I was reminded of an incident from the first day’s ride between Mito and Toridé, when my only way of avoiding a busy slip-road on Route 6 had been via a footbridge. Along the centre of its twenty or thirty steps ran a smooth strip of concrete, the purpose of which was to enable the cyclist, having first dismounted, to more easily wheel their bike alongside them. In the interests of testing my ability to ride uphill, however, I decided to forego the dismounting stage, and allowed myself a decent run-up before changing into first gear and aiming for the narrow runway. Sheer momentum took me up the first couple of metres, but beyond that I could barely turn the pedals, and within approximately two seconds had ground to a halt, almost toppling over as I flailed around for a foothold on the steps. Red-faced from the indignity of it all, I pushed the Mariposa up the remaining steps in the prescribed manner, and wondered if I would have to spend extended periods over the coming weeks walking rather than riding. The similarly steep approach to Kazoku-Ryokomura had served to confirm my fears, and in order to reach the city of Beppu, I now faced a climb to around four hundred metres above sea level. Fuelled by such a hearty lunch, though, I was soon resting in a layby at the top of the pass, even if I had lost what felt like several pints of sweat along the way, and my legs were trembling so much that I could barely stand up.
My muscles got a rest and my sodden clothes an airing on the freewheeling descent to sea level, as a series of hairpin bends whisked me down to the Pacific coast. Nestled in a spectacular half-moon-shaped bay and surrounded by an amphitheatre of high mountains, Beppu is one of the most visited holiday resorts in Japan. This is because when rain falls on the mountainsides there begins a thirty-year process, at the end of which the water re-emerges at something approaching boiling point. Thus Beppu produces more hot spring water than anywhere else in the country, and as its municipal website boasts, the area’s ‘gush volume’ is surpassed only by that of Yellowstone in the United States. Apparently, ten of the eleven recognised varieties of hot spring can be found within the city limits, including sulphuric springs, acidic springs, bicarbonate springs and aluminium springs, although not, I was pleased to read, the eleventh variety, radioactive springs.
Up close, and as befits such a popular destination, the town itself wasn’t particularly attractive, being a collection of boxy high-rise hotels, faceless shopping malls and garish entertainment districts, all of which were cut off from the beach by a newly tarmaced dual carriageway. Beppu’s hot springs manifest themselves in a number of guises, from mud baths to steam baths to standard hot water baths, and purely for the purposes of spectating, it is also possible to visit the so-called ‘Nine Hells’, which are a series of bubbling pools of varying colours and chemical compositions, and include the fearsome sounding Chi-no-Iké (血の池), or ‘blood pond' hell. On the recommendation of several friends and acquaintances, however, I had come to Beppu for its sand baths, which were situated on the beach, in a building so modest that I initially rode straight past it.
Having paid my entrance fee and stripped down in a dingy little changing room, I donned a sort of tabard, which was reminiscent of a hospital gown in that it exposed parts of my body I would normally prefer to keep covered up. A wooden gazebo stood a few metres from the water’s edge, with enough room beneath it for around five customers at a time, and I sat self-consciously in a plastic garden chair to wait my turn. Each of the old ladies who worked there carried a shovel, and having directed me to lie down, they proceeded to bury me until only my head was left exposed. The coarse, black sand is heated using hot spring water, and to a temperature that I now realised was somewhere on the verge of the human pain threshold.
‘How long do I lie here?’ I asked one of the women.
‘You’re supposed to stay covered for twelve minutes, although some people do get up sooner than that. How does it feel?’
It felt like I might have to go to hospital, but I reminded myself that the minerals contained in volcanic spring water – and thus the sand baths themselves – are said to ease any number of ailments and afflictions.
‘Tell me if it starts to hurt, won’t you.’
It had started to hurt after approximately the second shovel-full, but the rather dainty-looking young woman with whom I changed places had successfully endured the full twelve minutes, so my male pride was now very much at stake.
Even through the tunic, it felt as if someone had tipped a boiling kettle over my chest, and now more than ever, I wished that I had some moral support, a friend to compete with, or at least say, ‘Jeeeeeesus Christ that’s hot!’ to. As the women leaned on their shovels and chatted to each other, I stared at the roof of the gazebo and weighed up the pros and cons of giving up early. My next campsite lay at the top of a steep climb, and it was already mid-afternoon, so I wasn’t sure I would have the energy to make it, particularly with third degree burns over ninety per cent of my body.
‘How long have I been in here now?’
‘Oh, about eight minutes.’
Eight minutes? Was that all? I concentrated hard on blanking out the pain, separating mind from body in an attempt to achieve a trance-like state. Then I lifted up my hand and asked them to dig me out.
By the time I took it off, the tunic weighed a good deal more than when I had put it on, and I spent at least twelve minutes washing the sand away, which had insinuated itself into every conceivable nook and cranny of my body. I then spent a good deal more than twelve minutes in the relaxation room, which was essentially a portacabin on legs, with a television, an air conditioner and a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the beach.
With such a useful resource directly beneath their feet, many of Beppu’s residents earn some extra cash by opening onsen in their back gardens, and the aforementioned municipal website contains instructions for doing just that, including how to apply for planning permission, how close to your nearest rival it is possible to open for business, and even guidelines on the correct diameter for a bore hole. As I rode away from the sand baths, countless columns of steam were picked out by the setting sun, each a billowing, brilliant white against the mountainside’s silhouette, and each a mini-onsen, run by a local family and with room for no more than a couple of customers at a time.
Even before I reached the outskirts of Beppu the road had become uncomfortably steep, although I decided against refilling my water bottle at a conbini, reasoning that in such a touristy area, there would be plenty more along the way. It didn’t take long, however, to realise this had been a very stupid mistake indeed, as houses became fewer and further between, and shops non-existent. Around every corner lay another corner, and another, and another, and each time I felt that the road might be levelling off, the next corner brought with it an even more severe incline. Looking up, there was no way of knowing where the road reached a pass, and all I could see was an amorphous, rolling horizon of thick forest. By now I was wheezing like a forty-a-day smoker, and peered hopefully down every driveway and side road, longing for a stream or back-yard water tap. The higher I climbed, the less there was in the way of civilisation, and I might have flagged down a car and begged the driver for water, had other road users not been equally scarce. At the sharpest hairpins the ascent seemed almost vertical, and I even contemplated turning back, booking into an onsen hotel and starting again the next morning.
At last a solitary building appeared through the trees, from which the lines of a cable car rose, stretching up and away to the lofty peak of Mount Tsurumi beyond (Mount Tsurumi, incidentally, features in the climactic scene of Vengeance Is Mine, a fantastic serial killer film directed by Shohei Imamura). Three or four more agonising corners later I pulled into the car park, with its oasis of vending machines and a public toilet with running water, where I doused my head in the washbasin and drank with the gusto of a child from an ad for Sunny Delight. Then I sat down on a bench and drank some more, and I looked so dishevelled that a couple who had just emerged from the cable car came over to ask if I needed any help – an ambulance, perhaps, or a saline drip. I might have collapsed where I sat and stayed there for the rest of the night, but the approaching darkness was soon puncutated by a tannoy announcement for the final cable car of the day, and, knowing there could be plenty of climbing still to come, I set off again with as much liquid on board as I could carry.
What had been a truly punishing climb did eventually level off into something merely arduous, and half an hour later I came to a stop at Joshima-Gorakuen Amusement Park, at the entrance to which stood two smartly dressed young men with pens in their top pockets and clipboards in their hands.
‘Excuse me,' I said. 'Can you tell me how to get to the campsite, please?’
‘Yes. There’s supposed to be a campsite here.’ I indicated its little red wigwam symbol on the Mapple, which one of the men examined as his colleague walked over to a nearby wooden sentry box. The latter was asking another, older member of staff whether or not it might be OK to let me pitch my tent in the woods near the car park, and as the three of them conferred, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of absolute calm and relaxation. Fuck it, I thought, I’ve just climbed the Mount Everest of roads, a veritable Tour de France, Category One special, and quite frankly, I don’t care any more. I don’t care if there isn’t a campsite, I don’t care if there isn’t anywhere to eat, and I don’t care if there isn’t an onsen. It is what it is, and whatever will be will be. I’ll build a bivouac in the woods, survive on witchity grubs, go AWOL and grow a beard, and they won’t find me for another twenty years, by which time I will have to be persuaded that it is no longer 2005, and that Tony Blair’s reign as Prime Minister has indeed come to an end [editor’s note: as New Labour voters will be aware, it did, although not for another couple of years].
In the event there was a campsite, and it was of course back in the direction from which I had just come. At a junction just before the road plunged back down towards the cable car station, I turned right to head along the ridge, and found a quiet lakeside site whose ¥310 fee (about £1.50) was low enough to guarantee very little in the way of facilities, but still high enough to necessitate filling in a booking form.
‘Where’s the nearest place I can buy an evening meal?’ I asked the caretaker as he checked over my details.
‘Beppu,’ he replied, and I had to laugh.
‘How about a conbini?’
‘There’s a gasoline stand at the pass. If you hurry they may still be open.’
The thought of getting back on the Mariposa made me feel quite faint, but I hastily ditched my baggage, raced back to the pass for the third time that evening, and made it in the nick of time. Having grabbed some bags of crisps and chocolate cookies, I presented them to the woman behind the counter, who was intimidatingly wiry and hard bitten: like a female version of the men on the beach the previous morning, only with slightly better teeth. In an attempt to stop her scowling, I related the story of my quest for the campsite and thanked her for being open. She in turn asked me to hang on, before disappearing through the rear door of the shop to fetch a couple of large tomatoes.
‘You can have these for free,’ she said, and while there wasn’t quite a smile on her face as I bid her goodnight, she did at least look marginally less menacing.
It is a curiosity of the Japanese language that for several years after returning from my holiday, I had no idea how the names of many of the places I visited should be pronounced, particularly those in more out-of-the-way locations. At least for westerners, the most challenging aspect of the Japanese language is its writing system, which includes, as you may already be aware, two alphabets, namely hiragana and katakana. These are in effect no more difficult to learn than than any other alphabet, so the factor that makes a Japanese newspaper, a Japanese book, or even the sign on a Japanese toilet door so hard to read, is the addition of kanji (漢字).
Kanji are pictographic characters originally derived from Chinese, and when you read a piece of Japanese text, while some of it will be made up of hiragana and katakana – verb endings, conjunctions or phonetically transcribed foreign words, for example – a large part of it, including almost everything that gives the text its meaning, will be made up of kanji. By the time the average Japanese student graduates from high school, he or she will be expected to know more than two thousand kanji, and by the time I set off on my summer holiday, I knew something like two or three hundred. This would be akin to picking up an English newspaper, book or magazine with prior knowledge of only four letters of the alphabet, so you can imagine how at sea I felt, even when it came to everyday items like menus, shop signs, timetables and so on.
However you approach it, memorising two thousand kanji is a formidable undertaking (and an undertaking that is once again compounded by eccentricities in the way Japanese is taught), but in the same way that English numbers and letters can be annoyingly similar – a lower case l and the number 1, for example, or an upper case O and the number 0 – so vast numbers of kanji can be devilishly hard to distinguish, particularly to the untrained eye.
Just to give you an example, take a look at this little selection:
Yes, every one of those characters has an entirely distinct meaning from the others, and when you begin to take into account such near-identical siblings as 晴, 情, 精 and 清, or 溝, 構, 講 and 購, or even 義, 儀, 犠 and 議, it is enough to make any sane human being get down on their knees and beg for mercy.
Not only that, but depending on the context, kanji are not necessarily pronounced in the same way at all times, so the characters for my campsite – 志高, which mean something like ‘high hopes’ – could be read as shiko, shiringutaka, jinko, betaka, beshiko, yukitaka, or any combination of the above, and particularly with place names, there is no way of knowing the correct pronunciation unless you ask someone who lives there, or become proficient enough in Japanese to look it up in a book or on the internet. In other words, there is no way of even guessing the pronunciation of many Japanese words unless you have studied kanji for a significant period of time.
Which is a very long-winded way of saying that after well over five years of studying Japanese, I now know that the kanji 志高 should be pronounced Shidaka (I also know that 安心院 – of Kazoku-Ryokomura fame – should be pronounced Ajimu and not Ajima, something I didn’t find out until part-way through writing the third draft of this book), which was an idyllic spot, whose tranquillity could not have been in greater contrast to the holiday bustle of Beppu.