Presents received – campsite discount, dinner, two beers
It was time to head north, back towards Honshu, and knowing that I faced a stiff climb out of the caldera, I rose at seven a.m. and set out before the sun had had a chance to burn through the early morning cloud cover.
During my day off I had felt dull and listless, my body little more than an awkward collection of aches and pains, but as soon as I was back on the Mariposa, everything fell into place. I took on some carbs at a conbini, just beyond which the road went from flat as a pancake to one-in-four, as it snaked its way into the woods and up the side of the crater. Perhaps it was the benevolent conditions, or perhaps it was the early hour, but I felt strong enough by now to revel in the kind of fantasies that I used to have as a teenager, when I would imagine myself to be Robert Millar, Richard Virenque or Claudio Chiappucci, toiling his way up the slopes of Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France, ahead of the chasing pack and wearing the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey.
From the mid-eighties the Tour was screened on Channel Four, and back then it didn’t seem to matter that every rider in the race was almost certainly pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs. As well as being a mind-boggling achievement – not that it is possible to measure these things, but the Tour de France is often cited as the toughest sporting event in the world – for a bored teenager like me there was romance in the sheer Gallic-ness of it all, and at the time, the peleton, the domestiques and the maillot jaune were described in the charming but uniquely hopeless French pronunciation of Channel Four’s commentating team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. Phil and Paul looked every bit like former cyclists, with the sunken cheekbones and thinning hair of those who have spent years of their lives leaning into a headwind and working off five to ten thousand calories a day, and I envied them just as much as I envied Robert, Richard or Claudio, because despite my childhood passion for football, snooker, cricket, tennis, and even chess, when it came to sport I was doomed to be an also-ran. As a sixteen year old, one of my colleagues on the Saturday shift at Woolworths would tell me about his training sessions with the local cycling club, who would race up and down the bypass near our home town over and over again, and about the fact that like every serious cyclist, he would shave his legs on a regular basis. The trouble was, while I was less suspicious of the whole leg shaving thing than perhaps I should have been, and even though I regularly went cycling on my own, it never occurred to me to join the club myself, just as it never occurred to me to join a football team or a cricket team – that is until, in terms of considering professional sport as a career option, I was already over the hill.
So at least in part, this holiday was a way of compensating for that failure, and of convincing myself that while I would never be classified as a has-been or even a nearly-was, I may at least be able to progress from an also-ran to a late-bloomer. And on present evidence my case appeared to be a good one, the rim of the caldera being around four hundred metres higher than the valley floor, and my ascent having been completed in forty-five minutes, which, including a couple of pit stops, translated into one hundred metres of elevation for every ten minutes of pedalling: not bad for an amateur, I decided, particularly one with getting on for fifteen kilos of luggage in his saddlebags.
Descending from over nine hundred metres above sea level, I hardly turned the pedals for the rest of the morning, as Route 212 carved its way through a deep gorge to a succession of reservoirs and dams, all of which I left behind in a freewheeling blur. Further west than the Yamanami Highway, and therefore beyond the confines of the Aso-Kujuu National Park, my surroundings were geared not towards tourism but the logging industry, and around every bend in the road stood another sawmill, from which trucks came and went carrying loads of timber. By lunchtime I had reached a town called Hita, and began scouting around for my next Mapple, along with an ATM at which to replenish my dwindling supplies of cash.
Credit cards are still rarely used in Japan, and high street banks tend to be more localised than their foreign equivalents, so before leaving Mito it had taken some time to establish exactly how I would be able to access my funds for the trip. The receptionists at my workplace did some research on my behalf, and discovered that rather than have to carry a large wad of cash the whole time, my Ibaraki Kenshin Bank card could be used without extra charge at any ATM in a 7-11 conbini. As it now transpired, however, not every 7-11 has an ATM, for which the manager of the Hita branch was most apologetic.
‘I believe there’s a 7-11 in Yoaké with an ATM.’ he said.
‘Oh, only about five or ten kilometres away.’
‘The thing is, I’m cycling.’
‘You’re cycling?’ He glanced over my shoulder towards the car park, as if looking for evidence of this. ‘Ah, I see. That does make things a little more difficult.’
‘Which direction is it?’
‘West. I think it’s on Route 386.’
This would take me off course, and ultimately, if I was to continue north from Yoaké towards Kita-Kyushu, over an eight-hundred-and-fifty-metre mountain pass.
‘You see, I don’t want to go all the way there if there isn’t one. Are you absolutely sure?’
Having telephoned the conbini in question, the manager confirmed that there was indeed an ATM in the Yoaké 7-11, and although Route 386 was narrow and busy with trucks, I soon had another fifty thousand yen to spend, and had managed to avoid my first night of guerilla camping since Toridé. With a new site to aim for, I turned onto a quieter side road, beside which a branch line meandered its way through the stepped rice paddies of a picturesque valley, and by late afternoon I had arrived in Chikuzen-Iwaya, the last stop on the railway line before it entered a tunnel beneath the pass.
The campsite’s proprietor may have had the broadest local accent I had yet come across, but despite being impossible to understand, he was generous enough to offer me a discount, rather than have to track down the correct change for a crisp new ten-thousand-yen note. With no onsen nearby, I showered in a small wooden outbuilding behind his office, and this being the back of beyond, when it came to using the toilet, there was no choice but to put up with the squat-style, hole-in-the-floor variety still favoured in many public conveniences.
I am told that Japanese men have a low incidence of prostate cancer, and that this is largely due to the benefits of defecating from a crouched stance, but try doing so when you have just cycled for six hours and your knees will soon be begging for mercy. After five or ten minutes, circulation to the lower body is almost completely cut off, and standing up induces a distressing succession of creaks and snaps from the joints. Even then, you will have to grab each leg and manoeuvre it by hand, lurching out of the stall like some kind of toilet-trained Frankenstein (Donald Richie aptly describes squat toilets as ‘medieval’ and ‘barbaric’, and using one often reminds me of the scene in Robert Twigger’s book Angry White Pyjamas, where recruits to the Tokyo Police aikido training course are forced to kneel on the floor for extended periods of time, until they are literally screaming in pain). Contrast this with the kind of high-tech toilets that are becoming commonplace, and it is hard to believe the two co-exist in the same country.
At hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, or indeed any building modern and well appointed enough, sitting on the loo can be an experience to remember for all the right reasons. It isn’t so much the bowl or the cistern that is special – although naturally, these come with water saving, whirlpool-style flushing mechanisms – but the seat itself, which is wired up to both mains electricity and water. On the very latest models, a motion sensor detects your entry into the stall and automatically lifts the toilet’s lid, thus allowing you to more easily take your place on the heated seat. Such a seat obviates the need on cold days – or in poorly heated bathrooms – to flinch as if lowering your nether regions onto a ring of solid ice, and depending on personal preference, its temperature can be adjusted via a control panel on the wall, from luke-warm to something approaching an electric hob on full power. Having done what you came to do, you can then make use of the built-in bidet, which pops out from beneath the rim of the seat and aims a jet of water directly at the area for cleaning. This too allows for adjustment of both temperature and pressure, although based on personal experience, I would advise the uninitiated to err on the side of caution, as hot water at high pressure can be too much to take for such a sensitive part of the body (speaking of which, ladies can partake of their own special version of the bidet, which I presume involves the bidet fitment extending a little further from its hiding place, and its jet of water coming from a slightly different angle). Another thing I have discovered from personal experience is that the bidet’s jet of water is unerringly accurate, something that can only have come about through extremely thorough product development, and apparently, researchers have now turned their attention to the issue of so-called ‘splashback’, as caused by men who stand up to urinate into a toilet bowl. This research, which when you think about it must have been just as tricky to conduct as calculating the optimum position for a bidet’s water nozzle, involved counting the exact number of urine droplets to reach the bathroom floor, depending on where the men in question chose to take aim, and should eventually lead to technology that reduces splashback to a minimum. (As cited in The Japan Times, the findings of this research, which was conducted by Panasonic, were as follows: ‘If a man aims at the pool of water in the middle of the toilet bowl, splash from 400 millilitres of urine is kept to 85 drops. Aiming for the back of the bowl bumps that figure up to 207 drops, while a shot at the front of the bowl invokes a positive flood of 311 drops.’ So now you know.) Such are the consequences of the Japanese obsession with both cleanliness and technology; it is just a pity that heated toilet seats and adjustable bidet fitments have yet to make it overseas, and that the rest of us are still struggling with frostbitten backsides, bidets that resemble foot spas or no bidet at all.
The feeling in my legs had yet to return as I hobbled back to the tent, and on the way I bumped into an absolutely charming group of high school girls, who had arrived by train from Kita-Kyushu, and were staying in one of several log cabins connected to the campsite. They told me about their ALT, a blonde Australian girl (or was she American? They couldn’t remember), and I mentioned my plan to cycle all the way back to Ibaraki, to which they responded in unison with a resounding ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’
Japanese of all ages – and high school girls in particular – are in the habit of making this sound whenever they are surprised or impressed, and the longer, louder and more over the top their enunciation of the ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’ the more surprised or impressed – or both – they are. Pronounced as you would the English word ‘air’, an ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’ will also rise in pitch with the relative intensity of surprised-ness or impressed-ness, so that it can end up sounding like a passing sports car, and you will often hear what can only be described as ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’ battles taking place between groups of friends, as the story to which they are listening becomes more astonishing, and therefore more worthy of an ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’ in response. Once the girls had calmed down and returned to their cabin, my only other camping companions were a family with young children, and seeing them fire up their barbecue, I remembered that I would have to hurry if I was to eat an evening meal myself.
On my way to the campsite I had briefly called in at the only eatery in Chikuzen-Iwaya, and was warned by the manageress that she may have to close at seven should there be too few customers. But as I burst through the door again with a minute to spare, the place was full – which is to say there were around five customers, as this was the kind of dinner venue that perfectly matched my ideal, being a pokey little soba restaurant with two tables and a tiny bar. A group of office workers in shirts and ties invited me to sit down, and I was amazed to discover they would soon be heading back to the town hall to put in some overtime (although it has to be said, not quite amazed enough to respond with an ‘Eeeeeeh!!!’).
The senior of the three listened intently as I explained that I would reach the crossing between Kyushu and Honshu by the following evening.
‘On the map it’s about sixty kilometres,’ I said.
‘More like eighty or a hundred,’ he countered.
‘Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ve been averaging that sort of distance.’
‘That will take you two days, I think.’ His tone was calm and authoritative, and I began to understand what a typical working day would be like for his colleagues, who were probably much too sensible to disagree with anything he said.
‘But once I’m over the pass, it’ll be relatively flat all the way to Kita-Kyushu, won’t it?’
‘There are some big hills before you get that far.’
‘I’m sure I’ll be fine.’
‘Yes, of course. And it will take you two days.’ By this point, all three were putting their suit jackets back on and preparing to leave.
‘One and a half, maybe?’
‘Definitely two days.’
He gave a bow before they left, and his face bore the smile of a man who knows that he is right, while mine bore the smile of a man who used to know that he was right, but was now having second thoughts.
I was soon ushered into the bar area, whose bare wooden floor was home to a battered table and chairs, and where where the campsite manager was already well into a drinking session with a group of friends: workmen and farmers, by the looks of things, and altogether more earthy company. The most talkative of them bore an uncanny resemblence to Ernest Borgnine, and alongside him were a much-travelled construction worker who had lived as far away as Kyoto, a chubby guy in a baseball cap and overalls who stood in the corner, drinking continuously and hardly saying a word, and a gregarious fellow with a sly grin, big bushy eyebrows and his shirt undone to the waist.
Students of Japanese will often better understand what women say to them than men, as women tend to speak more clearly, and to use more polite grammar and vocabulary, whereas even the most polite and refined of Japanese men speak with a very guttural intonation, and use more in the way of slang. Using the kind of slang that would have had Ms Flower Pine (see Day 3) reaching for her earplugs, this lot were about as guttural as you can get, but despite a certain amount of impenetrable banter, the booze was flowing freely, and seemed to oil the wheels of conversation. In fact, I was so into the swing of things that at one point I even managed to steer us towards politics (compared to the West, Japanese prime ministers are never in power for long enough to become great leaders – or so seemed to be the consensus), a subject that would normally be given a very wide berth. The campsite manager remained resolutely impenetrable, Eyebrows espoused the aphrodisiac qualities of the food we were eating, the Quiet One stayed quiet, and Ernest took a photograph on his keitai, explaining that they ‘don’t get many foreigners round here, so I want to show this to the wife and kids.’ He then proceeded to pay for all of my food and drinks, so that yet again I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of a group of complete strangers.
This, I realised, was the mythical ‘real Japan’ of which people so often speak, but it had nothing to do with the bright lights of Tokyo, the temples of Kyoto or the cherry blossom in springtime. Here there were no karaoké bars, no skyscrapers and no samurai swords. There were no bonsai trees, no geisha, no Buddhist monks and no haiku poets. These men in Chikuzen-Iwaya may have worked as stereotypically hard as anyone in Japan, but they were not squeezed onto a commuter train in the morning rush hour, or cooped up in a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs, and nor were they taking part in the tea ceremony or practicing their judo moves. They did not have a robot to perform their household chores, or a flat-screen, high-definition television, or even a heated toilet seat with a bidet facility [editor’s note: this may have been true in 2005, but by now they almost certainly do have flat-screen, high-definition televisions and heated toilet seats], and in that sense they were more representative of what being Japanese is all about. Which is all a rather long-winded way of saying that getting pissed with a bunch of yokels was probably the most authentic experience I had yet had in Japan. Admittedly, it is true in whatever country you go to that its people will be friendlier in a small village than a big city, but what I experienced here demonstrated something more than this. Particularly somewhere so remote, my hosts and I were not just being courteous, we were acting as cultural ambassadors. In making an effort – however inept – to learn the language, I was demonstrating a desire to communicate, and in being so welcoming, they were demonstrating that Japan is less insular than its stereotype suggests.
Eventually the campsite manager’s wife poked her head around the door and asked when he was going to come home.
‘Don’t worry about her,’ said Eyebrows, ‘that’s just his mum.’
It was like a scene from a seventies sitcom, with the wife – who it has to be said did look like something of a battleaxe – turning up to spoil the fun, and her husband obedient enough to do exactly what he was told. We were soon on our way out of the door, and since no one seemed to be the slightest bit concerned that they were about to drive home drunk, I tried my best not to appear nervous when the Quiet One – the most inebriated of them all – was designated as my chauffeur for the short trip back to the campsite.