Come the morning the campsite was positively buzzing: I met a pensioner who had come from Tokyo to escape the heat and play what is known as ‘park golf’ (‘You only need one club,’ he said. ‘What, you mean you don’t even use a putter?’ ‘Nope!’), a cyclist from Western Hokkaido who was practicing for a three-month tour of France the following year, and Mr Bell Tree, who like me had travelled from Ibaraki.
Mr Bell Tree was riding a Honda Cub, which are those little scooters often used by aspiring London cabbies as they swot up on The Knowledge. He was heading to the Shirétoko Peninsula to start a summer job at a tarako (鱈子 / cod roe) processing plant, and had spent the previous winter in India studying percussion. As we were sitting on his picnic blanket, yet more campers came over and asked if we wanted some breakfast. Mr Bell Tree got a rice ball, while I was given what looked to be a whole box of Choco Flakes doused in a full pint of milk.
As I was packing to leave, a mother introduced me to her bashful toddler, who hid behind her legs and covered his face with his hands. ‘Say bye-bye,’ she said, as he tried to run away altogether. ‘Look, this nice gentleman has come all the way from England,' she continued, lifting him up by his hand until his feet were off the floor. ‘It would be rude not to!’
When it comes to calls of nature on, so to speak, a larger scale, you might think that waiting until you find a public loo will solve the problem, but in Japan many toilets are still of the squat variety. Using one correctly (a friend of mine confessed that on his first encounter with a squat toilet, he took off his trousers and underpants, stood above it with his legs as wide apart as possible, aimed and hoped for the best) isn’t a problem, but using one while maintaining the full use of one’s lower body certainly is. Particularly because they tend to sit on the floor to eat, watch TV and so on, the Japanese have more flexible lower limbs than the rest of us, but to a chair dweller such as myself, remaining in a squatting position for ten or fifteen minutes at a time can trigger early onset arthritis, a process that is exacerbated should one’s knees already be in a fragile state from long-distance cycling. Today I spent ten or fifteen minutes in a supermarket restroom in the town of Urahoro, and emerged practically crawling along the floor, with all feeling gone from below the waist.
Admittedly the weather didn’t help, but the word ‘godforsaken’ seemed inadequate to describe the village of Chokubetsu, which was little more than a muddy car park next to an apparently abandoned railway station, and much less amusing than its name – worthy of inclusion in Roger’s Profanisaurus - suggested. Chokubetsu was supposedly blessed with not one but two rider houses, the first of which appeared to be out of business and completely run down, while the second appeared to be out of business and comparatively run down. As a mangy dog sniffed at my legs, it took several minutes before I noticed a menu and price list in the window of the marginally less dilapidated of the two buildings, with the rider house itself hidden away across the overgrown back yard and through an unmarked side door.
Having checked in, though, I was able to use a washing machine and tumble dryer, clean my water bottles for the first time, hang my tent up to dry, shave and have a bath (the place was run by an old lady who everyone referred to as okah-san – お母さん / mum – and getting to the bathroom involved walking through her kitchen and lounge).
One of the other guests, Mr Middle Field, was in Hokkaido for his twelfth summer in a row, although rather than a motorbike, this year he was travelling by car with his wife and baby daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the couple had met while touring in Hokkaido, and through his job in the oil industry, Mr Middle Field had travelled widely elsewhere: he had recently been to Kuwait and Bahrain, he said, where the temperature was fifty degrees centigrade.
Coincidentally, on the TV news the talk was of rising fuel and food prices, although despite the impending recession (this was summer 2008, remember), my room-mate - a Mr Inner Field, and not to be confused with Mr Middle Field - had just quit his job in Wakayama Prefecture. We both had trip computers on our bicycles, and Mr Inner Field said that his top speed so far was a dizzying 54kmh – six kmh faster than the 48 I had achieved on a downhill stretch earlier that day. In a car you would barely be out of third gear at 48kmh, but on a bicycle it feels as if you’re inserting your head into the very jaws of death itself.
Okah-san’s restaurant specialised in lamb barbecued with vegetables on an unusual, convex grill, a dish that for largely obscure reasons is known as Genghis Khan. Because Genghis Khan is barbecued at your table, and because several of the guests were smokers (a couple of leather-clad Harley enthusiasts turned up later in the evening to further cloud the air), it was like eating dinner in a fire drill evacuation practice tent, and not exactly the best environment for Mr Middle Field’s daughter.
The weather forecast was for more rain, but much as I liked the people, I couldn’t see myself spending another day in Chokubetsu. The railway station, as it turned out, was functioning, but while the express trains sped through without stopping, the local ones were so infrequent that it wouldn’t even be possible to take a day trip to nearby Kushiro, so I decided to head off the next morning no matter what.