The Airstream parked outside Mitsu-ishi roadside services was hard to ignore, not least because it was being towed by a Hummer.
The couple were taking a two-month trip around Hokkaido for the second summer in a row, and as well as a couple of generators strapped to the front of the Hummer, they had brought their dogs along for the ride.
Just over a century ago, as Tokyo University professor Kikunaé Ikeda was eating dinner one evening, he wondered why it was that his mother’s homemade soup had always tasted so delicious. The next day he began a scientific analysis of the konbu it contained, and in the process discovered aji-no-moto (味の素 / the origin of flavour), better known in the West as monosodium glutamate, or flavour enhancer, or E621. A hugely successful business was built around Ikeda’s discovery, and by the name umami, it has been added to the very short list of fundamental flavours recognisable to the human palate (the other four being sour, sweet, salt and bitter).
95% of Japanese konbu comes from Hokkaido, and along this stretch of coastline in particular, the harvest was in full swing.
'I used to work for a printer company,' he said, 'but I packed it in to start my own business. I buy used cars and customise them for disabled people and OAPs, so I'm down here looking for bargains. There's nothing much around, though - the price of steel is so high that people are scrapping their cars instead of selling them secondhand.'
Mr Assistant Wisteria gave me his business card and offered to give the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design a service if I made it to Sapporo, which was nice to know, as making friends in a big city can be a lot more difficult than it is, for example, on a foggy clifftop in the middle of nowhere.
'Older brother!' she said. 'Older brother! Mr Village Middle wants to have a word with you.' (Not that I had quite worked it out at the time, but instead of saying, 'Hey you!' or 'Oi, mate!' the Japanese will often refer to strangers as if they are family members, so women become 'Older sister!' older men 'Dad!' and older women 'Mum!')
'Can you speak Japanese?' said Mr Village Middle.
'Yes, I can.'
‘What are you doing now?’
'I'm going to the campsite.'
‘You mean you're putting up your tent in dark?’
'Well, yes. I suppose so.'
'Not any more, you're not,' said Mr Village Middle. 'You’re staying at my place.’
'He uses some appalling language,' said the woman from the sento. 'But don't worry, he's a nice bloke really.'
'I can only fit two in the front so you'll have to sit with your bike,' said Mr Village Middle, as a friend of his helped lift it onto the flatbed of their truck.
'Er, OK. You will drive lately, won't you?'
'You mean slowly?'
'Yes, I mean slowly.'
'Don't worry, you'll be fine!'
Mr Village Middle drove north for a few kilometres - not particularly slowly, or even lately, it has to be said - and I could hear their muffled chatter as I gripped the side of the truck and watched the red glow of the tail lights on the road behind us. By the time we arrived at Mr Village Middle's house I was ravenously hungry, although I didn't want to come straight out and beg for food, so patiently sipped on a watered-down glass of shochu as we watched a boxing match on TV.
'That's Daisuké Naitoh,' said Mr Village Middle. 'He's from Hokkaido, you know. He used to get bullied when he was at school, but now he's world champion.'
If Mr Village Middle was a boxer he would have been a heavyweight: he was tall and well-built with craggy features and a mop of jet-black hair, although I couldn't help noticing that part of the little finger on his left hand was missing.
Cutting one's little finger off is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza (more commonly referred to as boh-ryokudan / 暴力団 - literally 'violence group'), and during the course of the evening, Mr Village Middle mentioned that in his younger days he had travelled the world on a tuna fishing trawler. Because this a) involves being away from home for months at a time, and b) is extremely dangerous, it is often used in a 'get on the boat or else' kind of way, as punishment for members of the yakuza who disobey the rules, or for ordinary folk who fail to keep up with their loan repayments or pay their protection money. Not that I fancied asking him about it, but as far as I could tell Mr Village Middle's shady past was just that, as nowadays he farmed konbu with his family in the summer and worked as a truck driver during the winter.
Mr Village Middle's house was very much that of a single man: I spotted at least one cockroach on the floor, the living room was used as a kind of storage area for old furniture and work clothes, most of the pictures on the wall were old and faded, the TV had a permanent purple-y green blob in the corner of the screen, and everything was slightly sticky and tobacco-stained. When it finally arrived (as I suspected, we had been waiting for the rice cooker to finish its cycle), our evening meal wouldn't have looked out of place in a student halls of residence, and along with rice I was given instant ramen, fried meat (it was so tough that I couldn't tell exactly what kind of meat, and now didn't seem to be the time or the place to mention that I was a pescetarian), and pickled vegetables, which Mr Village Middle's friend had made himself.
It was pretty hard work trying to follow what the two of them were on about, as they used only the crudest form of Japanese possible, something that wasn't so much bad language as basic language. For example, if you happen to be talking to someone of a higher status than yourself, you might say something like:
Nanika o omeshi-agari-masen ka? ('May I humbly entreat you to partake of something to eat?')
Or if you wanted to be reasonably polite without going over the top, you could say:
Nanika o tabenai deska? ('Would you like something to eat?')
If you were with friends or family, you could be more familiar:
Nanika, taberu? ('Fancy a bite to eat?')
Mr Village Middle and his pal, however, talked more like this:
Meshi, kuu? ('You gonna scoff some grub?')
In fact, I didn't even catch on when Mr Village Middle's friend said that he was off home, which left me on my own, in an isolated house, in the middle of the night, with only a supposedly ex-gangster for company. And at least one cockroach.
On reflection, perhaps it would have been a better idea to put my tent up in the dark.