‘Hello? Excuse me?’
It was only eight in the morning and already they had tracked me down.
‘Sorry to bother you, but would you mind stepping outside for a moment?’
Presumably this was the campsite’s manager, and as he shuffled around outside the tent, I contemplated getting out of my sleeping bag, getting dressed, stepping outside for a moment and going through the formalities of paying for my pitch. Then I decided that I couldn’t be bothered.
If I lay still and didn’t breathe too loudly or make any sudden movements, he would go away and I could make the most of my lie-in. OK, so the poor man had no idea that I planned on staying for two nights, and was probably paranoid that I would do a runner as soon as he turned his back, but he also had no idea how knackered I was, so for now he would just have to wait.
My strategy worked, and soon I heard footsteps on the grass before a car was started up and driven away. But exactly half an hour later he was back, and this time there was no point in delaying him any further. In a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, I guessed that he wasn’t the person responsible for cleaning the toilets or emptying the bins, but he sure knew how to handle paperwork, and after signing my name in triplicate and handing over the correct fee, I was in desperate need of a morningu setto.
Japan has in no way been immune to the rise of Starbucks (which is abbreviated in conversation to ‘sutaba’) and its ilk, but there are still plenty of old-fashioned kissaten (喫茶店 / coffee shops) to be found, which although they are not part of any multinational conglomerate, tend nonetheless to exhibit similar characteristics. Your typical kissaten is situated in a one-storey stucco building, with wooden fixtures and fittings, a moodily lit interior, net curtains, ornate window frames, and various trinkets, mementoes and pictures hanging from the walls. The smoky atmosphere, booths, tables and bar make it reminiscent more of a pub than a coffee shop, and you can normally buy alcohol as well as caffeine. The morningu setto is the kissaten’s peculiarly Japanese take on a western-style breakfast, consiting of coffee or tea, toast, a hard-boiled egg and salad, and come the afternoon, my recommended dish would either be hotto cakey setto – small pancakes served with butter, vanilla ice cream and maple syrup – or choco parfait, which is a kind of super-charged sundae. At a kissatenn you will also be blessed with air-conditioning and as much iced water as you can drink, both of which were most welcome as I enjoyed my morningu setto in one near Aso Station, with the temperature outside already in the high twenties.
At a nearby tourist information centre there was a row of PCs with free internet access, and as requested, a friend of mine in the UK had been doing some research into my hand problem. Apparently, I had what is known as ‘ulnar nerve dysfunction’ caused by ‘excessive pressure on Guyon’s Canal’. The ulnar nerve (it says here), which runs down the arm, through the wrist, and to the little and ring fingers, is particularly susceptible to pressure at the point where it enters the palm of the hand: for example, where a cyclist (like me) uses straight, mountain-bike-style handlebars (like those on the Mariposa). Even if the condition becomes serious and prolonged, it is treatable with a simple operation, so whether or not my new bar ends did the trick, the possibility of PERMANENT DAMAGE was thankfully remote. In any case, today my ulnar nerve was off duty, and having picked over the match report for England’s inevitable defeat in the First Ashes Test, I caught a bus towards Nakadaké, listening along the way to a pre-recorded commentary in the soothing feminine tones of a tour guide. The higher the bus climbed the more the forest thinned out, and the bleaker and more lunar our surroundings became, until we entered a kind of mini version of the Aso Caldera: a bowl-like valley dotted with pools of water and covered in dry grass, upon which grazed a small herd of cows.
As Japan’s most active volcano, Nakadaké regularly spews lava and ash, but it is much more accessible than Kujuu, and the possibility that every living thing within a ten-kilometre radius might be wiped out by an eruption of cataclysmic proportions hasn’t stopped the authorities from building a cable car to the crater itself and a Volcano Museum just beneath it. The most interesting aspect of this museum was a kitsch documentary about Mount Aso and its environs, dating back to the sixties or seventies and shot in Cinerama, a long-forgotten format that uses three projectors to cast an impressively large image onto an equally enormous screen. With a musical score that could have been lifted straight from a Californian cop show, the film made as much use as possible of swooping helicopter shots, and culminated in a depiction of the annual Fire Festival. For this the locals set fire to the dry grass at the end of winter, creating a night-time spectacle of flame and smoke that symbolises the volatile forces at work beneath them. I didn’t get to see the whole thing, though, because Mr Heaven Valley – the friend who had warned me about unscrupulous truckers – called to see how I was getting on. He wondered if I had been caught up in the typhoon (the Japanese word is taifu, pronounced as you would the famous brand of tea) that swept through Kyushu the previous week, and suggested that if I was short of a place to stay or my tent was swept away in a storm (or, for that matter, slashed open by unscrupulous truckers), I could always sleep in a railway station waiting room. Thanking him for the advice and finding the cable car out of action, I walked the remaining distance to Nakadaké.
The crater was around a hundred metres in diameter and a hundred metres deep, with a plume of smoke rising from its centre, although there was nothing like boiling lava to be seen today, just a dusty pool topped with a sulphorous yellow crust.
They were a TV crew, here to shoot a documentary for BBC Science, and as well as Japan, their itinerary included Indonesia, California and Peru. Before packing it all in and getting a job in Tokyo, I had worked for several years as a sound recordist, but their eyes didn’t exactly light up with interest when I mentioned this, and I had the feeling they were in a hurry to leave for their next location. One of them was posh enough to exemplify the Oxbridge-graduate-miraculously-finds-job-with-the-Beeb stereotype, and took it upon himself to fend me off with a well-rehearsed rundown of the show. Listening to him and watching the other members of the crew hurredly prepare for departure, I recalled how things had been in my days as a film technician (or to be more specific and less romantic, video technician). When passersby aren’t mugging for the camera with a ‘Hello mum!’ or a ‘What’s this then, Candid Camera?’ they will often pose some inane question about what type of lens you are using, or how their friend Dave used to make wedding videos and do you know him? In other words, within the space of less than a year and a half, I had become just the sort of prat film crews hate. It felt odd to be confronted with people who could have been colleagues in my previous profession, and a little nostalgic too. But I realised now that I did not miss the job, and that despite the travelling and the exotic locations, theirs was an exhausting way of life, with the constant pressure of having to stay on schedule, get the next shot, set up and de-rig, book into the next hotel or catch the next flight.