Hamamasu – Sapporo (浜益 - 札幌) - 90km
As I was talking to Mr High Bridge - a student from Ibaraki who had got up at five that morning and cycled all the way from Sapporo - a four-wheel-drive van with monster truck tyres pulled into the convenience store car park. Having jumped down from the driver's seat, a middle-aged man with an Elvis-like quiff came over for a chat and a cigarette and handed both of us his business card.
'If you're ever in trouble, call me here,' he said, and while it was highly unlikely that either Mr High Bridge or myself would find ourselves in trouble in or around the town of Hamamasu at any point in the future, we appreciated the gesture.
I made it to Sapporo myself at about lunchtime, and on the recommendation of Mr Eminent - the architecture student I had met the previous day - went straight to Moérénuma Park. Moérénuma Park is perhaps the most famous work by the artist Isamu Noguchi, who was born in the US to an American mother and a Japanese father, and became active in numerous different disciplines, including sculpture, painting, interior design, set design and landscape gardening.
While construction on the park began a few months before Noguchi's death in 1988, it wasn't completed until seventeen years later, and among Moérénuma's several square kilometres of geometric landscaping are fountains, cherry trees, tennis courts, an art gallery, an athletics track, a concert stage, a playground, a paddling pool, a baseball field, and a sixty-two-metre-high artificial mountain that boasts one of the best views in the city.
My next appointment was with Mr Assistant Wisteria, who had given me his phone number three weeks ago at Cape Erimo, and we met at Misono subway station to the south east of the city centre.
Over dinner at a restaurant nearby, Mr Assistant Wisteria confessed that he had given up drinking six months ago, before proceeding to down three glasses of beer in quick succession, and I wasn't quite sure whether to feel privileged that he was willing to jump off the wagon in order to toast my safe arrival in Sapporo, or fearful that I had managed to make friends with another raging alcoholic, in the same mould as Mr Small Field from Kushiro
. In the event, though, Mr Assistant Wisteria knew how to hold his liquor, and to the best of my knowledge didn't use the phrase 'Sapporo, number one!' at any point during the time I was with him.
Like me, Mr Assistant Wisteria played guitar in his spare time, and at the end of the evening we had an impromptu jam session back at his apartment, where I tried my best to remember the chords to a medley of Oasis and Frank Sinatra songs, and he played the English (that is to say, British) songs that he knew - among them Yesterday and Layla - along with some Japanese enka
Enka is the Japanese equivalent of American country music, in that it is perennially unfashionable, beloved of old folks, and its lyrics - cf Hibari Misora's Bihoro Pass from Day 15
- are more often than not about breaking up with one's lover. In fact, Mr Assistant Wisteria's life story wouldn't have looked out of place in an enka song.
'I used to be married,' he told me. 'We even had our honeymoon in Hawaii, but then a couple of years ago we got divorced.'
'Have you got a girlfriend now?'
'No, I haven't. I'm playing a concert with some mates of mine soon, and all of them are married with children. I'm forty-four now and I'm the only one left from my year at school who's still single. My sister's got two kids and my parents are putting pressure on me to get married again, but I'm not in a hurry. I've had my heart broken once so I'm a bit more choosy now - I'm waiting for my destiny.'
Minato-machi – Hamamasu (港町 - 浜益) 88km
At about 2am I got up to go for a pee, only to be confronted with a portly young woman who wore white wellington boots and brandished a mop. As I was standing at the urinal she said a cheerful hello - revealing in the process that most of her front teeth were missing - and went on to tell me how the sinks were often dirty because swimmers and campers would tramp in from the beach and wash their feet in them. Quite why she was cleaning the toilet block in the middle of the night was anyone's guess, but she was very jolly, and I complimented her on a job well done before going back to my tent.
At a michi-no-éki later that morning, I encountered two cyclists who had met on the road and decided to ride together to Wakkanai. One was Mr Abundant Fortune, a university student in Yokohama, and the other Mr Circle Field, at seventy-two years old approximately fifty years his senior. Smiling, tanned and with the aura of a Mr Motivator-style daytime TV fitness instructor, Mr Circle Field said that he used to be an engineer at power plants and had worked as far afield as Saudi Arabia.
'You never know,' he said. 'I might be laid up in bed terminally ill this time next year, so I'm getting out and about while I still can. Take my advice, though, and have kids sooner rather than later - you don't want to have to look after them when you're old.'
'I can't imagine you'd have too much trouble,' I said, and thought that this is exactly how I want to be when I'm in my seventies: still fit and still cycling (Mr Circle Field's only concession to age was the bandana he wore as a mask - 'To keep out the exhaust fumes,' he said).
Today it seemed like every few minutes another cyclist would pass by on the other side of the road, and I met Mr Eminent during another one of my snack breaks that afternoon. An architecture student, Mr Eminent wore a towel around his head - a look beloved of daiku-san (大工さん / carpenters and builders) all over Japan - and as well as touring in Thailand and Vietnam had recently been to Europe in search of old buildings.
'I ate for free last night,' he said cheerfully. 'The staff at a convenience store were throwing out some bento that had passed their sell-by-date and said I was welcome to one if I wanted it.'
Over the course of many decades and no doubt at great expense (see Day 5
), the Japanese authorities have effectively succeeded in buliding a road around the entire coastline of Hokkaido, a task that neccessitated the construction of countless tunnels.
Particularly given Japan's status as the most earthquake-prone country in the world - not to mention the harsh climate this far north and the relative inaccessibility of many parts of the island - such tunnels constitute an impressive feat of engineering, although as I often worried while cycling through one, they do very occasionally fail.
The most notable incidence of this happened in the Toyohama Tunnel west of Sapporo one morning in 1996, when an estimated 27,000 tons of rock collapsed onto the unfortunate occupants of a car and a bus that happened to be passing through it at the time. Twenty people lost their lives, and when it was eventually dug out, the bus had been flattened to a third of its original height.
As a cyclist, though - and much more so than being crushed pancake-flat beneath an entire mountainside - the tunnels of Hokkaido are dangerous because, with a few notable exceptions, they are narrow, poorly lit and often devoid of a pavement. Even if there does happen to be one, it will more often that not barely be wide enough to cycle along, so high that should you veer off the edge and onto the road your front wheel will buckle from the impact, and lined with SOS telephones that protrude from the tunnel wall just that little bit too far to enable you to pass them comfortably. Not only that, but the gutters you ride through instead will be awash with a filthy cocktail of ground water and engine oil.
This stretch of Route 231 was even more blessed with tunnels than most, and by now I was cautious enough to stop before entering one, turn on my lights, put on my glasses (my eyesight gets drastically worse in the dark) and check behind me for approaching vehicles. I have to say, though, that I never quite felt at ease while cycling through one, and would grip the handlebars for dear life whenever a car - or particularly a truck - roared up from behind me to overtake (it goes without saying that engine noise is amplified tenfold in such a confined space, and when a cyclist passed by in the opposite lane, the two of us would often have to shout 'KONICHIWA!' at the tops of our voices in order to be heard).
Of course - and having said all that - sod's law dictates that if I am ever unfortunate enough to kick the bucket on my bicycle, it will not be beneath the wheels of a twenty-ton truck or in the murky depths of a tunnel, but by a Nissan Micra, on a sunny day, a straight road, and while wearing the most brightly coloured and highly visible clothing in my wardrobe.
Teshio – Minato-machi (天塩 - 港町) – 91km
Part-way through the morning I saw a young man on an overloaded, single-speed shopping bike - aka mama-chari - cycling towards me on the opposite side of the road, and followed him as he pulled into Shosanbetsu michi-no-éki. His name was Mr Enduring Magnificence, and he was on a six-month circumnavigation of Japan.
'How on earth do you manage on a mama-chari?' I asked him.
'The morning after the first day of the trip,' he said, 'I literally couldn't stand up. It's your quads that hurt the most when you ride one of these, but I'm used to it now.'
'How far are you cycling each day?'
'About eighty kilometres.'
Despite the fact that my own bike weighed several kilos less and had twenty more gears, and that I wasn't, unlike Mr Enduring Magnificence, carrying a rucksack the size of a Marshall stack at a Led Zeppelin concert on my back, this was, I'm embarrassed to admit, the same distance that I was covering.
'I saved some money doing a temporary job on a farm a few weeks ago,' he continued. 'But I'm trying to keep my spending down to three or four hundred yen a day. I never stay on proper campsites, I never go to restaurants and I eat instant curry most of the time - it only costs a hundred yen!'
There was a gas stove, a saucepan and a 2kg bag of rice strapped to Mr Enduring Magnificence's mama-chari, and as we were talking he unpacked and began to prepare his lunch.
'I never go to onsen, either,' he said. 'That would be a whole day's budget gone in one go.'
'Where do you wash, then?'
'I just use the sinks at places like this - in parks and at barbecue areas. Several friends of mine around the country have promised to let me stay, so I'll be able to have a proper bath then.'
'What are you going to do when you're finished?'
'I'd like to stay in London for a while but it's too difficult to get a work visa for the UK, so I'm going back to Australia instead. I lived there for a couple of years and a guy I know in Brisbane has promised me a job.'
We were soon joined at our picnic table by Mr Great One, who had almost completed his own south-to-north trip through the country, and who in contrast to Mr Enduring Magnificence rode a bicycle with gears, wore proper cycling shorts, wasn't carrying a rucksack the size of a Marshall stack at a Led Zeppelin concert on his back, and said that he got up at 4.30 every morning, took a siesta at lunchtime, and bathed at proper onsen in the evening.
Hemmed in between the sea, the road and the mountains, and at the mercy of high winds and heavy snow over the winter months, many of the houses along this stretch of Route 232 are protected by high wooden fences, so that at times it felt as if I was cycling past the set for a cowboy film.
That night, though, I pitched my tent on a beach of soft sand at Minato-machi. Just a short distance back along the coast, white-crested waves were crashing against the rocks, but through some trick of geography (or engineering - I wondered if there wasn't some submerged tsunami protection barrier beyond the harbour walls that flanked the beach) the sea here was as ripple-free as a fish tank. Not only that, but along the west coast of Japan there is practically no change in the water level between high and low tide, so there was little danger of being swept away in the middle of the night.
The showers next to the beach were meant for daytime bathers and already locked by the time I arrived, so the family in the tent next to mine offered to give me a lift to an onsen along the coast, and even shared their dinner with me (a paper plate of curry, as it happened, which may or may not have cost them a hundred yen).
Otoh-san (お父さん / dad - I was never told his real name) was a 42-year-old truck driver; tanned, shaven-headed and a man of few words. His partner was at least ten or fifteen years his junior, and they had a one-year-old daughter with a pudding-bowl haircut who eyed me warily ('She's never met a foreigner before,' her mum explained). They had travelled from Tomakomai for a three-day holiday in what otoh-san called their 'bus': a big pink and purple camper van with faux-velvet-upholstered sofas and a fitted kitchen in the back, and a sound system with an animated computer screen in the front that played a continuous selection of bouncing dance-pop. A friend of theirs from Sapporo had joined them for the trip, and the final member of their party was Kuro, a chihuahua who they claimed was house-trained, and left to his own devices on the bus while we went into the onsen (kuro, you may not be surprised to learn from looking at this photo, means 'black').
Wakkanai – Teshio (稚内 - 天塩) – 88km
At Cape Noshappu (野寒布岬 / not to be confused with Cape Nosappu, which I had visited a couple of weeks previously), I bought presents for Mrs M and the in-laws, in the shape of tarako (鱈子 / cod roe) and ikura (salmon roe), which would wing their way to Ibaraki via that most Japanese of conveniences, kuuru-bin (クール便 / refrigerated postage). In the UK, for a parcel of any kind to reach its destination - let alone in one piece - is a minor miracle, whereas here you can quite literally send a single choc ice from one end of the country to the other, with a guarantee that it will still be shrink-wrapped and frozen when it gets there.
From Noshappu I continued south for what was, along with the road between Akkeshi and Nemuro in the far east of Hokkaido, one of the most glorious days' riding of the summer.
The coast road makes its way through the Sarobetsu Wetlands National Park, although an equally important reason for my enjoyment was the strong following wind, which propelled me effortlessly along as a succession of grimacing cyclists passed by on the opposite side of the road, each battling against the headwind and no doubt feeling as exhausted and thoroughly pissed off as I had on the previous day's slog to Cape Sohya.
One such unfortunate was Mr Small River, who I met at a roadside café. Mr Small River worked for a saké company in Osaka, and despite looking a good ten years younger than me, revealed that this was his thirtieth time in Hokkaido. He had previously come here by both car and motorbike, and I sensed that he wasn't yet a cycling veteran, as despite his struggle with the wind being made easier by a super-lightweight racing bike (pictured), it was simultaneously made more difficult by the enormous rucksack (not pictured) he was shouldering as he rode it.
This lovingly souped-up Anpanman van was parked outside a convenience store in Teshio town...
...and just as photogenic from the front as from the back (note the mini-Anpanman figurines either side of the bumper).
The island of Rishiri (利尻島 / literally 'Profitable Buttocks Island' - yes, your guess is as good as mine) lies about fifteen kilometres off the coast, and if my memory serves me correctly is the setting for the rather downbeat ending to Will Ferguson's excellent travel book Hokkaido Highway Blues.
Rishirisan (利尻山), the 1721-metre-high peak that dominates the island, is - like pretty much any mountain in Japan with a volcano-like profile - known colloquially as Rishiri-fuji for its supposed resemblance to Mount Fuji, and as the sun set, several amateur photographers - including yours truly - could be seen rushing around a patch of waste ground near Teshio harbour, each of us looking for the ideal angle from which to capture the scene.
Hamatonbetsu – Wakkanai (浜頓別 - 稚内) 95km
Up here in the far north of Hokkaido, Hamatonbetsu was like a frontier town, and in a spooky, slightly Lynchian kind of way, all six sets of traffic lights along its dead straight and practically deserted main street were synchronised to change from red to green and back again at precisely the same time.
'There's no crime around here,' said the manager as I was checking out of his business hotel, 'just car crashes.' And indeed, there was a sign outside the police station detailing the number of days since the last fatal accident, something I had only previously seen on an oil rig in the North Sea.
As I made my way north along Route 238, a bank of black cloud rolled by in the opposite direction, carrying in its wake a brisk headwind that seemed to grow in intensity as the day progressed.
Riding into a high wind is infinitely harder than riding up a steep hill, for while the effort involved is approximately the same, the nature of that effort is different. In both cases, you use a low gear and sometimes have to stand up on the pedals to give yourself extra leverage, but while the meditative quality of a climb makes it pleasurable, working against the wind is supremely frustrating. Why, one thinks as one struggles onwards, head down and teeth gritted, should it be such a challenge to ride along a flat road on a fine day? On a climb, while your muscles may be straining, your surroundings are calm. Against a headwind, however, there is no escape: your ears ring with white noise and your body is pummelled as if by an invisible adversary - it feels, in fact, a little like those nightmares in which you are trying to run away from someone but can't.
Whenever I stopped to eat, to rest or to pee, I had to hide behind the nearest wall or building just to give myself some respite from the onslaught, and as you can see, out in the open I couldn't even keep my camera straight to take a photo.
Simply because they provided some shelter, a line of hills along the way came as blessed relief, but on the downhill stretch of each, the wind was so strong that if I stopped pedalling I would remain - as if on an exercise bike - rooted to the spot.
Cape Sohya - the northernmost point in Japan - was the fourth extremity on my circumnavigation of Hokkaido, and from it the Russian island of Sakhalin is just about visible forty kilometres away.
Instead of being elated at the achievement of having reached Sohya, though, I was almost delirious with exhaustion, and even here - especially here, in fact - the wind was relentless. After taking a couple of commemorative photos and cowering behind a public toilet to eat my lunch, I set off again as soon as I could, and the contrast between cycling north into a headwind and south with a tailwind couldn't have been greater
Having covered the previous sixty kilometres in six hours, it took just an hour to cover the thirty to Wakkanai Town, and along the way I passed - surprise, surprise - the biggest wind farm in Japan.
As the sun set in the west so the moon appeared in the east...
...and I arrived at Midori-no-yu, which at first seemed like just another rider house: a woman at the reception desk sat silently watching the Olympics on TV, there was a bucket full of fag ends in one corner of the common room, and the adjoining sento was even more basic and old fashioned than the one I had been to in Asahikawa.
I was on the verge of heading into Wakkanai for dinner when I got talking to one of the other guests, a student from Kumamoto who had taken five days to get here using his juh-hachi-kippu
- ie. by local trains from Kyushu at the opposite end of the country - and had until the end of September to cycle all the way back (his bike and baggage had arrived in Hokkaido by post). As we were talking, the woman at reception - who the other guests referred to as okah-san
(mum) - turned off the house lights, started up a mirror ball that hung from the ceiling, picked up a microphone and, her voice drenched in karaoké-style reverb, began to speak.
'Good evening everyone and welcome to Midori-no-yu,' she said. 'Unfortunately, last year our amplifier broke down, so tonight we'll only be able to sing one song together. As usual there is all-you-can-drink shoh-chu
(焼酎 / a cheap, vodka-like spirit made from wheat or potatoes), and if you feel sick at any time, there are toilets here' - at this point she gestured with her hands like an air stewardess indicating the emergency exits - 'and here. The ones at closest to reception are better for number ones. For number twos, I would recommend the ones at the far end of the room. Now, if everyone would like to stand up and join hands, let's sing!'
After a rousing - although not altogether tuneful - rendition of a song called Sakura
(桜 / cherry blossom - actually there are several famous Japanese songs called Sakura, and I couldn't tell you for sure exactly which one we sang), the microphone was passed around and we introduced ourselves one by one. Due to the loud grinding noise emanating from an ice-making machine in the corner of the room, I didn't catch everything of what was said, but there follows a selection of the more memorable introductions:
'This is my second time in Hokkaido. The first time was with my girlfriend, but she dumped me in April so this time I'm here on my own.'
'I had a crash yesterday and today is my first day on a rental bike.'
'I'm in my fourth year at university and I'll be graduating next March. I've managed to land a job as a trainee newscaster in Nagano Prefecture, so perhaps one day you'll see me on TV.'
'If anyone else would like to join me, I'm getting up at 3.30 tomorrow morning to go and watch the sunrise.'
'Last night I pitched my tent in a park. I was woken by the sound of the morning exercise programme on NHK, and I ended up doing the exercises with an old guy who had brought his radio with him.'
'When I came to Wakkanai I only intended to stay for one day, but it's so much fun that I've already been here for three. I'll definitely leave tomorrow, though.'
At the end of the evening okah-san put down the mic, turned the lights back on and took a Polaroid photo of us all. Quite by coincidence, I now realised, I had found the same rider house that my friend Tokidoki Tokyo
had stayed in on his tour of Hokkaido - also riding the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design - the previous summer, and when I asked okah-san if I could have a look through the Midori-no-yu archives, I found his rosy-cheeked Devonian face among a similar group of guests from almost exactly a year before.
Esashi – Hamatonbetsu (枝幸町 - 浜頓別) 40km
It rained all night and on into the morning, and not long after I set off there was a bolt of lightning and a crack of thunder, the drizzle turned to a deluge and I took refuge in this bus shelter.
During the next couple of hours the only person to join me was picked up ten minutes later by the only bus to pass by, and I wiled away the time sending emails to Mrs M, having a shave, studying Japanese, eating all of my emergency rations, and writing a list of every item of luggage I had with me to compare with a similar list from a previous tour (if you don't happen to be a cycling geek bordering on the obsessive then feel free to skip this next bit. Notations are as follows: L = lighter than previous tour / H = heavier / S = the same / N = new item).
Bicycle – L (my trusty Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design, inherited from Tokidoki Tokyo
Tent – S (my trusty Snow Peak, which I've written about before
Foam mattress – L (on the last tour I took an inflatable one, which was a) unnecessarily heavy and b) got a puncture)
T-shirts – H (I brought an extra t-shirt this time to reduce the likelihood of having to 'recycle' the ones I had already worn)
Socks – H (ditto an extra pair or two, because wearing socks more than once can be even more offensive to the nostrils than doing so with a t-shirt)
Shorts – L (perhaps my strictest concession to weight reduction was to remove the drawstrings from the waistbands of both of my pairs of shorts)
Trousers – L (last time - cotton / this time - artificial fibres)
Sun hat – L (ditto)
Waterproofs – S
Riding gloves – NBar ends
– L (last time - stainless steel / this time - aluminium)
Deodorant – S (Forever Living Aloe Evershield
, which I can highly recommend)
Dr Bonner's – S (see Day 12
Sleeping bag – S
Books – L (lighter in the sense that this tme I didn't bring any books at all, having realised that it's actually rather impractical - not to say dangerous - to read a book while riding a bicycle)
Diary – L (last time - A5 / this time - A6)
Hammer – S (for banging in tent pegs, in case you were wondering)
Spare inner tube – S
Tools – L (the wheels on the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design were quick-release, thus dispensing with the need for a spanner)
Pump – S
Lights – H
Water bottle – N
Mapple – S
Mobile phone and charger – S
Digital camera and charger – L (technology being what it is, the camera that I used on this tour weighed far fewer grammes and had many more megapixels than its predecessor)
Electric shaver and charger – S (I felt very pleased with myself when I found the super-lightweight National / Panasonic ES8815 electric shaver on a trip to Akihabara, only to discover when I got home that it came with an inconveniently humungous charger)
Bell – H
Mascot – N (see Day 1
Chopsticks – S (while waribashi
- 割り箸 / disposable chopsticks - are marginally less prevalent in Japan than they used to be, I still saved the equivalent of a small sapling by refusing them in favour of my own, reusable pair)
Spectacles – S
Business cards – N (as I had come to realise these are an essential in Japan, where even bikers carry them)
Mosquito coils – S
Bicycle lock - H
Despite the anally retentive enjoyment of compiling this list, in the end I reasoned that the rain wasn't going to stop at any point before the end of the day, so wrapped my feet in plastic bags and rustled my way along the coast to Hamatonbetsu Town.
That night I went to a restaurant-come-guest house that was buzzing with diners, who every few minutes would stand up in unison, rush outside and start applauding. They would then return with an exhausted-looking companion in tow, who would sit straight down and tuck in to his or her evening meal. Each one wore shorts and a vest with a number on it, and had, as they later explained, taken six days to run here from Cape Erimo in the far south-east of Hokkaido. For some, their 550-kilometre odyssey would reach its climax tomorrow at Cape Sohya, but for a hardy few, that would merely be the halfway point on a 1100km round-trip. There were a mixture of men and women, most in their fifties and sixties, and having covered almost eighty kilometres a day, every day for a week, they had begun to resemble each other: short, wiry, and so heavily tanned that at first I mistook them for a visiting delegation of native tribespeople from the Brazilian rainforest.
Nayoro – Esashi (名寄市 - 枝幸町) – 106km
On an island of lengthily unpronounceable place names, this was the lengthiest and most unpronounceable I came across.
A little further up the road in the only marginally shorter and more pronounceable Otoineppu, I went for lunch at a busy soba restaurant, where the same young man was taking the orders, cooking the food, serving it to customers, doing the washing up and working the till.
'What do you recommend?' I asked when he arrived at my table (as it happens this was one of my most frequent Japanese utterances of the summer), to which the reply came in English.
'Do you like natto?'
'Yes, I do.'
'Then you should try the tororo soba.'
'OK, I will. Do you mind me asking where you learned to speak English?'
'From my foreign girlfriend when I lived in Tokyo and Fukuoka.'
'Really? Was she American?'
'Ah, I had many foreign girlfriend! Where are you from?'
'I'm from England - have you ever been out with an English girl?'
So there you have it. If any female readers of this blog happen to find themselves in Otoineppu, may I suggest that you make your way to the local soba restaurant, where the manager / waiter / cook / dishwasher will give you a warm and multilingual welcome. Sadly I didn't think to take his photo, but he was, in so far as I am a good judge of these things, tall, dark, handsome and open to offers.
Just outside the restaurant I found this car - the lettering gaffer-taped to the bonnet reads 'Tokyo - Hokkaido'.
The dishevelled looking couple eating convenience store food in the front seat said that it took them twenty-four hours to make it the eight hundred or so kilometres to Hakodaté. 'We're taking it slowly now, though,' they said. 'Just driving around for a few days before we head back again.' Clearly not that slowly, as they were already another four hundred kilometres further north.
The forecast was for heavy rain, so in the coastal town of Esashi I checked in at a ryokan, where my room contained the first coin-operated television I had ever seen (one hour for a hundred yen), and where, more importantly, I would be able to use a washing machine. One of the other guests, a Mr Flower Field, introduced himself as I was transferring my clothes to the tumble dryer.
'I studied English for ten years,' he said. 'It was my major at university, but you know what? I can hardly speak a word.' And he was right - when I challenged him to read the label on my bottle of Dr Bonner's, his pronunciation was terrible, and he almost invariably failed when trying recall an English word or phrase. 'I've been to Hawaii and Guam on holiday,' he explained, 'but of course, most of the people there speak Japanese for the benefit of the tourists, so I didn't get the chance to use any English.'
Mr Flower Field was in Esashi with a colleague of his for their 'side business', as he called it, importing ingredients for cosmetics from India, and suggested that we go to the local festival together. As far as I could tell from his description, this involved performing a dance to ward off ghosts and evil spirits, and was essentially a large-scale fancy dress party. As well as cartoon characters and celebrities, some of the costumes functioned as advertising for local businesses, so there was a cow promoting beef, a milk carton promoting, er, milk, a block of tofu, and even someone dressed up as a slate-grey block of kon-nyaku (devil's tongue - a flavourless jelly made from a type of potato).
Instead of kon-nyaku, Mr Flower Field treated me to a plastic glass of beer and a paper plate of chips, which we sat down to eat with disposable chopsticks at a folding table with a paper tablecloth. While neither of us wore a costume, Mr Flower Field claimed that people often mistook him for Prince Charles, although I'll leave you judge the credibility of this for yourself.
Asahikawa – Nayoro (旭川 - 名寄市) 126km
Today was a strange day, and one that in retrospect I probably should have taken off and spent sightseeing in Asahikawa - I could have gone to Asahiyama Zoo, for example, which is probably the second most famous in the country behind Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.
Instead, though, I headed north through the suburbs and took a wrong turn at pretty much the first junction I came to. This led me over four mountain passes and a distance of more than a hundred kilometres to the town of Nayoro, which if I had turned right on Route 99 instead of left on Route 72, would have been just 70km away along a flat valley road.
Then, having pitched my tent at a campsite in Nayoro, instead of heading back into the town centre and going to the local sento, I rode several more kilometres up a dead-end road, in the pitch dark and through swarms of insects, to an onsen that seemed so much closer when I had first found it on my Mapple.
Finally, having trekked my way back to the campsite and swallowed several more mouthfuls of bugs along the way, I was kept awake into the small hours by a biking bore in a nearby tent, who droned on interminably about his 'adventures' to two friends who remained almost completely silent (perhaps, unlike me, they had already fallen asleep without him noticing).
The only plus points about the day were getting a phone call from Mr Great Barr, who was flying over from the UK to attend the Japanese leg of my wedding to Mrs M the following month, spotting the Cutest Bus Shelter In Hokkaido...
...and meeting this lovely couple at a rest area on Route 275.
Mr and Mrs Pond Field were from Kitami, which I had passed through earlier in the week, and in the middle of a ten-day driving holiday (I assume they were civil servants, as hardly anyone else in Japan could get away with taking that much time off in one go). They suggested that I come and stay at the same campsite as them on Lake Shumarinai, which gave me yet another regret for the day: staying at Shumarinai rather than continuing to Nayoro - as I later decided to do - would have saved me a good deal of pedalling, not to mention giving me someone to talk to over dinner, which in the event I ate on my own, and hurriedly, as I had arrived at the onsen cafeteria just a few minutes before it closed for the night.
Soh-unkyo – Asahikawa (層雲峡 - 旭川) – 89km
In the Daisetsuzan national park, most of the shop fronts have been specially designed not to clash with their natural surroundings, and include this monochromatically low-key 7-11.
At Aibetsu Town the cliffs and waterfalls of Soh-unkyo...
...gave way to a wide river valley, and I stumbled across a newly constructed, thirty-kilometre-long cycle path, which allowed me to spend a blissful afternoon away from the traffic, with just the dragonflies and the grasshoppers for company (and where, parenthetically, the photograph that graces the title page of this blog was taken).
The caretaker - a Mr High Bridge - was just about to get on his scooter when I turned up at Shunkohdai Park in Asahikawa City.
'Sorry to interrupt,' I said. 'Were you busy?'
'Not at all,' said Mr High Bridge. 'I was going to run an errand but it can wait until later.'
'I can always come back, though.'
'No, no,' he said. 'O-kyaku-sama wa kami-sama dess!'
How wonderful! I thought, as this was the first time I had encountered the phrase (お客様は神様です), which means 'The customer is God'.
That morning the assistants had said hello and thank you whenever anyone went into or came out of the 7-11 in Soh-unkyo; just down the road the staff were lined up in a hotel car park to wave off a coach load of guests; in the afternoon, two assistants stood on the pavement and bowed deeply as an elderly gentleman - presumably having purchased something very expensive - left a department store in the centre of Asahikawa, and now I too felt suitably God-like as Mr High Bridge took my details and escorted me through the park to the camp ground, telling me along the way about his recent holiday in Sydney, and giving me a map that among other things showed the location of the nearest launderette.
Thanks to the map I was soon at the Futaba sento (銭湯 / bath house), where the owner pointed me in the direction of a sign detailing the etiquette of using public baths in Japan.
Something of a rarity these days, such old-style sento are cheap to enter and frequented not by tourists but ordinary local people. At the entrance to a typical one will be a raised reception desk, from which the receptionist herself has a grandstand view of both the women's and men's changing rooms. Once you have set aside your inhibitions, undressed and entered the bathing area, you will almost invariably see a mural of Mount Fuji above the baths themselves, which will be hot enough to give you first-degree burns should you spend any more than thirty seconds at a time in them. You will also, it is safe to say, be the youngest customer by at least three or four decades.
For dinner I found an equally old-style izakaya, which the owner - Mrs Holy Tree - told me she had been running for forty years.
'It used to be just fields around here,' she said. 'Then as the city got bigger there was lots of development. Eight or nine years ago the factories started disappearing again - instead of staying in Asahikawa everyone's been leaving for Sapporo or Honshu. My daughter's in Tokyo now and I haven't even been to visit her yet. I did go there once before she was born, but that was the only time I've ever left Hokkaido.'
'Why just the once?' I asked.
'The izakaya's open every day of the week except Sunday,' said Mrs Holy Tree, 'so I haven't got the time.'
As we were talking, Mr Holy Tree arrived back for a break from his job as a taxi driver.
'I used to drive a tour bus but it was tough being so far from home,' he said, 'and in any case there's more money in the taxi business. The only trouble is the hours. Once I've had dinner I'll go back out and work until early tomorrow morning - probably about 4am.'
Mr Holy Tree was a ham radio enthusiast and said that if only his English was better he would be able to talk to people in the UK and the US. As well as recommending where to visit and what to eat elsewhere in Hokkaido, he told me that the view from the Bihoro Pass - where I had been a couple of days ago
- was 'the second best lake view in the world', although when I asked what the best one was he confessed that he couldn't remember.
A couple of years ago, Nihon Terebi
(Japan TV) began broadcasting an offshoot of the long-running NHK programme Nodo-jiman
. The original Nodo-jiman is a Gong Show-style singing contest in which ordinary folk from around the country are given the chance to perform with a live orchestra - posh karaoké, if you will - and for Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo
(literally 'Throat Boast The! World', although the programme also goes by the more sensible, English-language name of 'Song For Japan'), the difference is that while the songs are Japanese, the singers themselves are foreign.
Mrs M has a bit of a crush on two-time winner Nicholas Edwards
- a twenty-one-year-old American with big blue eyes and even bigger hair - and the winner of the sixth show was a Londoner called Paul Ballard
, but if you're looking for genuine singing ability, the real star of Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo has been Chris Hart.
Hart was born in San Francisco into a musical family - his father is a jazz bassist and his mother a classical pianist and singer - and learned to play the oboe, clarinet, saxophone and flute while he was still a child. He began studying Japanese at the age of twelve, and the following year stayed for two weeks as an exchange student with a family in Tsukuba, Ibaraki. After graduating from university - where his studies combined his two great loves, music and Japanese - Hart applied for jobs that would allow him to polish his language skills, working at an airport and for a cosmetics company. Having moved to Japan in 2009, he got a job at a vending machine company and practiced singing in his spare time, uploading videos of himself to YouTube.
Nodo-jiman Za! Wahrudo came along at exactly the right time for Hart, who won the star prize at his first attempt in March 2012, singing
Kazumasa Oda's ballad Tashika-na-koto
) and the SMAP song Yozora-no-mukoh
. The funniest thing about his performance of the latter (video here
) is that Masahiro Nakai - who is SMAP's version of Andrew Ridgely and famously can't sing - is one of the co-hosts on Nodo-jiman, and had to look on as Hart showed him how it was done.
Hart was contacted the next day by Jeff Miyahara, one of the most renowned producers in Japanese pop music, and his debut album, Heart Song, was released in June this year. Of course the true test of Hart's longevity will come when he turns his vocal chords to some original compositions, but for the moment, Heart Song shows what he has made of some of the most memorable J-Pop hits of recent years - this is a snippet from
his version of the Yusaku Kiyama song Home.
This is a video
of Hart singing the same song on Nodo-jiman (on the strength of this performance, the original went to the top of the download charts the following day ), and the following
video shows Hart's version of the Naotaroh Moriyama song Sakura. While for some reason (possibly copyright-related) the first minute or so is audio only, it's worth watching all the way through just to see how it reduces the comedian Kanako Yanagihara to an emotional wreck.
Hart's less-is-more singing style is mirrored in his personality - it wasn't until Mrs M and I saw a news piece about him that we realised he is a fluent Japanese speaker, as he hardly says a word during his appearances
on Nodo-jiman - although don't get your hopes up, ladies, as he was married earlier this year to fellow singer Hitomi Fukunaga.At the time of writing, it is still possible to book Hart as a wedding singer
via his official homepage
. OK, so this is actually part of a semi-charitable scheme which has seen Hart perform for free in disaster-affected areas in the north east of the country - all you have to do is write to him and state a decent case for why you would like him to sing for you - but this opportunity will surely not be available for much longer. Most of the dates for his forthcoming national tour are already sold out, and Hart is, I suspect, destined for much bigger things.