I was awoken several times during the night by the warning bell on the level crossing next to the rider house, and by the sound of Mr Middle Field’s baby daughter crying. As we were eating breakfast the next morning, he apologised and said that in the end he had taken her for a drive to quieten her down. ‘I think staying in an unusual place spooked her,’ he said, although it was just as likely to have been the lingering aroma of barbecued Genghis Khan.
According to the rainfall radar on Mr Inner Field’s smart phone, there was going to be a brief dry spell later in the morning, and as I was getting ready to leave, okah-san told me that when she was much younger, she would often ride her bicycle on a twenty kilometre round-trip with forty kilos of rice on the back, which made me feel a bit of a wuss for not wanting to get wet.
Kushiro, the fourth biggest city in Hokkaido, is famous for its sunsets (along with those in Bali and Manila, supposedly the most beautiful in the world), but it looked pretty grim today.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Do you happen to know the way to the rider house?’
Upon closer inspection, the man – who was chubby and red-faced – looked a little the worse for wear.
‘Rider house?' he said, swaying slightly. 'I’m not sure. The thing is, I’ve been drinking since about ten o’clock this morning. Where are you from, anyway?’
‘I’m from England.’
‘England? You should have said so! Come and stay at my house instead!’
‘Er, are you sure that’s OK? I mean, I don’t want to be any trouble.’
‘No, not at all.’ At this point he switched from slurred Japanese to slurred English, with appropriately exaggerated gestures to make his point. ‘Me, Japan. You, England. World peace! Kushiro people, very friendly! Kushiro, number one!’
For a moment or two, I wondered if it might be best to make my excuses and discreetly cycle off, but then I remembered that the whole point of going on a cycle tour was to meet the locals. If they happened to be alcoholics then so be it – in fact, alcoholics, along with truck drivers, builders and old ladies – have tended to be more patient and considerate than most with my faltering Japanese.
Mr Small Field (not to be confused with Mr Middle Field or Mr Inner Field), was 48 years old and worked as a civil servant. He was married with two children, one of whom lived in Tokyo and worked as a game designer, while the other lived in Sapporo and worked as a beautician.
‘We’re supposed to be driving to Sapporo tomorrow,’ he said, ‘although my wife’s got a cold at the moment.’
Despite his assertions to the contrary, Mr Small Field’s house was large, newly built and rather swanky – it even had, unusually for Japan, central heating and double glazing – and once he had shown me in, I was treated to beer, cheese and crackers.
‘Do you like French food?’ he said.
‘Right, let’s go and get a bite to eat.’
‘I found this bloke on the street,’ said Mr Small Field to the waitress as we walked through the door. ‘He was asking where this restaurant was!’
A few minutes later his friend Mr Cross Border turned up – the two of them had taken part in a rowing race as part of the festival early that morning.
‘We lost,’ he said, ‘so we thought we’d go for a drink to console ourselves!’
‘Been drinking since…when was it?’ said Mr Small Field.
‘Eight, I think. Or maybe nine.’
‘Fancy some red wine?’
‘Cheers! Kushiro, number one!’
Along with the wine, Mr Small Field ordered an embarrassingly large amount of food, which after a short day in the saddle and unadon for lunch, I didn’t quite have the appetite for. Still, after a couple of hours of eating, drinking and general merriment, we paid our compliments to the chef – despite the authentic French cuisine he was, of course, Japanese – said goodbye to Mr Cross Border, and before long were sitting at the counter of an izakaya in the city centre. Despite having been drinking for about ten hours straight, Mr Small Field was on a roll, and in between shouting ‘Moshi-moshi!’ (‘Anyone there?’) and ‘Sumimasen!’ (‘Excuse me!’) at the women behind the bar, made friends with the chap sitting next to us, a Mr Three Bridges.
Mr Three Bridges was more of a quiet drinker than Mr Small Field, and during our time at the izakaya hardly said a word, instead smiling and peering at us through the half-closed eyes of one who is cheerfully sozzled. Before long the three of us were in a taxi together, and Mr Three Bridges began chatting away to me in English. He used to work in Alaska, he said, selling fishing boats, and was supposed to be taking part in the festival himself. ‘After my event was cancelled,’ he said, ‘I ended up going out drinking instead’.
‘Japan! World peace! Kushiro, number one!’ exclaimed Mr Small Field as we took our seats at a Korean restaurant and ordered yet another round of beer. ‘This Australian guy…er, I mean Dutchman. Sorry, where are you from again?’
‘Ah yes. This Englishman is in Kushiro for the first time. Isn't it great? I only met these guys today and we're friends already!’
Despite the waitresses giving him as wide a berth as possible, Mr Small Field managed to order chijimi – a kind of pizza-esque potato cake – and rather like a pissed-up Brit at a curry house, asked for the spiciest one on the menu. The chijimi was so spicy, in fact – the kind of thing that would give Adam from Man v Food a run for his money – that despite Mr Small Field’s challenge, no one in the restaurant could eat more than a mouthful of it.
Our fourth taxi ride took us back to Mr Small Field’s driveway, where it finally seemed to have dawned on him that letting a complete stranger sleep on the living room floor might not go down too well with his wife (well, that and going out drinking all day, anyway). There was an awkward moment when he tried to cram my bicycle into the back seat of the taxi and asked the driver to take me to the rider house.
‘It’s OK,’ I told him. ‘I don’t mind getting a bit wet. I can ride there myself.’
‘No, no, no. I can’t let you ride your bicycle in this weather.’
But once Mr Small Field had realised the bike wouldn’t fit, he gave up and directed the driver to yet another bar.
‘Kushiro! Number one! World peace!’ As I sipped my beer very slowly indeed, Mr Small Field spilled his all over the counter, and I could sense that he was finally running out of steam. After our sixth and final taxi ride (I have no idea how much money he spent that day, but it must have been in the tens of thousands of yen), we at last made it back to his front room. By the time I had finished having a shower (a cold one because I couldn’t figure out how to use the digital temperature control panel above the bath), a still rosy-cheeked Mr Small Field was sprawled on the sofa, fast asleep and snoring like a drain.