The roads from Sado – Day 7

The hard-to-understand and hard-to-deal-with caretaker was back from his holidays, and had been collecting rubbish on the beach with some colleagues of his from the local council. They had been up since four in the morning, he said, and I realised as I was packing my gear onto the Rock Spring that in my eagerness to clean up the barbecue area a couple of days earlier, I had thrown away their toothbrushes, having mistaken them for the lost property of a forgetful camper. Not wanting to hang around in case the caretaker cottoned on to my mistake, I was on the road before seven and at the ferry terminal in Ryotsu by eight.

There I got talking to another cyclist from Ibaraki, who had a fancy-looking racing bike and had stayed on Sado for just one night. Resisting the temptation to ask him for a lift back – his car was in Niigata – I went upstairs to buy my ticket and check out the souvenir shops, and on the way found this farm produce vending machine (garlic – 200 yen, onions – 200 yen, potatoes – 200 yen, odourless garlic – 300 yen).

The seagulls had worked out that while there was no point in going to meet an incoming ferry – most of whose passengers will have tired of handing out crisps and snacks by the end of their journey – a whole new set of people will be on hand when the same ferry heads back to the mainland, so by the time we set sail, the MSG feeding frenzy was already in full swing.

This was the view back towards Sado – or the southern half of it, at least.

And this was the view as we pulled into Niigata port, where muddy flood water was still flowing into the clear blue of the Japan Sea.

The temperature hit thirty for the first time on the trip, and as I headed south from Niigata City my forearms felt like doner kebabs, basted in sunblock and almost visibly turning a darker brown in the harsh sunlight. Route 8 was long, straight and flat, and with a tailwind to help me along, I felt refreshed and ready for the journey home. In other words, something was bound to go wrong, and not long after passing this graveyard for broken bicycles – a bad omen if ever there was one – it felt as if I was cycling over corrugated iron rather than smooth tarmac, and a kind of rubbery slapping sound started to come from the back wheel.

It was, of course, a flat tyre, and I’m proud to say that I didn’t panic. After all, it was just last year that I completed a six-week bicycle maintenance evening class at Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre, and I was carrying all the necessary tools to instigate a speedy repair. Sure, the back wheel is always trickier to deal with than the front, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle, so I found a shady spot in a supermarket car park and went to work.

Panniers off, bicycle upside down, 15mm spanner, unscrew wheel nuts, disentangle back wheel from chain, remove back wheel, unscrew valve nut, prise off tyre, remove inner tube, re-inflate inner tube, listen for escaping air to locate puncture hole, realise that rather than having a single puncture hole, inner tube has worn through…

Oh dear.

I’ve had a few punctures in my time, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had an inner tube disintegrate on me before, and as a consequence, I hadn’t bothered to bring a spare. Looking at the tube, two areas on either side of the valve looked like the knees from a particularly old pair of jeans, and both were bigger than the repair patches I was carrying with me. I did my best bodge job, re-attached everything to the bike and cycled off down the road, but the tyre went soft again almost immediately. A nearby hardware store didn’t have inner tubes in the correct size (700 x 35c, in case you were wondering), so the staff there directed me to a shop called Koidé-jitensha (漕いで自転車 / Pedalling Bicycles).

When I walked in, a man in his eighties was repairing a shopping bike in that leisurely, unhurried fashion that only a professional of several decades’ standing can properly carry off.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘but would you happen to have a 700 x 35c inner tube?’
‘Hang on, I’ll just go and get my son,’ he said, before disappearing through the front door of the house over the road.

The son had soon located a stockpile of 700 x 35cs, and just in case the front one went as well – which was a distinct possibility on such a cheap Chinese bike – I shelled out 1900 yen for two of them (this, I decided, was the emergency for which I had set aside 2500 yen of my remaining budget). The son didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t afford to have him fit the tube for me, so the two of them looked on as I did the job myself, in that fumbling, inept fashion that only a rank amateur (or an alumni of Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre) can properly carry off.

If you’re not particularly interested in the whys and wherefores of bicycle maintenance – a description that I assume encompasses pretty much everyone who reads this blog – then feel free to skip this next bit, as it’s a list of the various pieces of technical advice they gave me:

– Don’t screw the the valve nut too tightly against the wheel, as this can damage the tube
– If, on the other hand, the valve isn’t sticking out very far from the wheel, this means the tyre isn’t properly inflated
– Spin the wheel before you re-attach it to the bicycle to check that it’s regular and bulge-free. If there’s a bulge in the tyre, this means the tube has become pinched between the wheel rim and the tyre
– When you put the bicycle the right way up again after completing the repair, re-tighten the wheel nuts

I realised as I cycled off that this could just as easily have happened when I was in the middle of nowhere, and while getting a puncture was bad luck, getting a puncture within five minutes’ walk of a specialist bicycle shop was good luck of the very highest order.

It wasn’t long before I had reached Ohzaki-yama Park in the hills above Sanjoh City. As well as a campsite, the park had its own mini-onsen, although this was about to be over-run by a party of about fifty school children, so I bathed and shaved in about five minutes flat.

‘Can you use a Japanese-style toilet?’ said the receptionist when I arrived back from eating out in Sanjoh.
‘I can, although it’s a bit hard on the knees if you’ve been cycling all day.’
Squat toilets are still quite common in older buildings and public washrooms, and while I can use one in an emergency, my entire lower body tends to seize up in the process.
‘That’s OK,’ he said. ‘The side door is normally locked, but I’ll leave it open tonight in case you want to come in and use the western-style one.’
Now that’s what I call catering to the needs of your customers.



Some of you may not be aware that I once wrote a book about Japan, and that for a short while, a publisher was sufficiently interested in it to give me some editorial notes and ask for a re-write. In the end they didn’t feel they could sell enough copies to justify the investment of printing and promotion, but I may still self-publish as an e-book for the Kindle / iPad market, and the notes themselves made a very telling point about my first draft, one that I want to take into account as much as possible when writing this blog. I can’t remember the exact phrase, but their verdict on the overall tone of the book was that it was dangerously close to being that of a ‘whining’, ‘complaining’ foreigner, and on reflection, not only do I believe they were correct in saying this, but I can also see that it is an easy trap to fall into for any expat, and one that is very much in evidence on the internet.

But why would anyone who has chosen to move to a foreign country – quite possibly because they loved what they saw of it from afar and had a romantic view of what it was like to live there – be so quick to criticise?

Well, first and foremost there is culture shock, which affects everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Once the honeymoon period of wide-eyed awe is over, the expat begins to miss his home comforts and the cultural security blanket that most people have wrapped around them at all times. He becomes overly sensitive to inconvenience or difficulty of any kind, and frankly, at that point almost everything seems alien and annoying.

Secondly, it is in our nature to compare, and while many Japan / UK comparisons come out in favour of the former – the trains run on time, the vending machines work, the streets are crime free etc. – there will always be some that come out against: the almost complete absence of workers’ and women’s rights, for example, the over reliance on bureaucracy, or the still smoky atmosphere in most bars and restaurants.

Thirdly and most importantly, there is the language gap: one is always more likely to criticise or find fault with something one does not understand, or into which one does not have a proper insight. When you’re living in your own country, not only do you have the advantage of being a native speaker, but you have a lifetime of knowledge and experience with which to back that up: cultural reference points, customs and manners, education and upbringing, and so on and so forth. If you arrive in a foreign country with just a few basic phrases at your disposal – ‘Hello’, ‘Pleased to meet you’, ‘Can I have a beer, please?’ – you are completely helpless. It’s like being a baby all over again: you can’t understand what people are saying, nor can you read something as simple as a road sign, and to compound the problem, you cannot express even your most basic needs. What to do when you need to catch a bus, buy a plane ticket, or turn on your air conditioner? The trouble is, no matter how amenable or empathetic you might be, there is an innate human tendency to view everything as someone else’s fault, so even if the problem arises from the inability of two people to speak each other’s languages (and let’s face it, when a foreigner comes to the UK, it is much more likely to be the former who can make him or herself understood by the latter, and not vice versa), in the opinion of the expat, it is the native speaker who is being awkward, or ignorant, or obstructive.

Be it on paper or on the internet, what these three things give rise to is a lot of writing that instead of celebrating what’s cool, interesting or great about Japan, focuses on what’s regressive, inconvenient or unfair. My favourite J-Blog of all, Tokyo Damage Report, has often been often guilty of this, and along with the book Dogs And Demons, whose author Alex Kerr is an expat of sorts, it served as possibly my biggest influence when I made my bid for travel literature immortality. I’m certainly not saying that foreigners should refrain from criticising Japan, but I do believe they should think twice before doing so, and ponder whether they are in fact contributing to an overall atmosphere of what the current jargon calls snark – ie. a bitchy, critical writing style that has become all too prevalent in today’s Facebook / Twitter / blog-heavy virtual world.

On my current visit to Japan, I have tried as much as I can not only to look for the positive in what I encounter, but also to look for its negative equivalent in my own culture, or at least to balance out one negative with another. For example, while Japan isn’t exactly a world leader when it comes to protecting the environment, neither is the UK. Where Japan’s landscape is blighted with concrete, the UK too has become a homogeneous suburban wasteland, in which out-of-town superstores and four-lane bypasses are rapidly replacing rolling hills and village greens. In the same way that everything in Japan claims to be eco, green or energy saving when it is often nothing of the sort, so everyone British with an ad budget and a product to sell has been jumping on the environmental bandwagon, whether they have the credentials to back it up or not – in fact, given Japan’s record for innovation, if a solution to global warming can be found, it is more likely to come from the East than the West.

So if you, dear reader, ever find the balance of this blog tipping too far into the realm of the snark, please encourage me to restrain myself, as my aim – my manifesto, even – is to avoid such negativity.

Nantai-san / 男体山


A couple of weeks after I moved to Ibaraki nearly six years ago (I stayed for just over a year, although I’ll be back for a lot longer as of this March), I went with some friends to climb Nantai-san, which at six hundred and fifty-three metres is the highest peak in this part of the prefecture. Despite there being snow on the ground at the time, I didn’t remember the ascent as being particularly arduous, so this time around decided to combine it with a sixty-kilometre round trip by bicycle, from the in-laws’ house in Hitachi-ohta.

Having spent the greater part of this year’s visit to Japan sleeping for an average of nine or ten hours a night, it wasn’t too much of a wrench to get up at seven am for once, although since Mrs M’s parents tend to monopolise the bathroom in the morning, I was obliged to have my bath the night before. After a breakfast of cereal, toast and coffee (normally it’s just cereal and coffee or toast and coffee, but I was carbo-loading), I put on otoh-san’s shell suit top, which was better suited to cycling than either of the jackets I had brought with me from the UK, and packed a small rucksack with essentials for the day. These included two bottles of water, two nigiri handmade by Mrs M that morning, two satsumas, a banana, a madeleine, a packet of peanuts choco, otoh-san’s mobile phone, onii-san’s old digital camera, my spectacles and a hundred-yen map of Ibaraki.

As part of his programme to pimp up the bicycle on which I toured Hokkaido in 2008 (and on which, having bought it for about sixty thousand yen, my friend Tom-san toured practically the whole of Japan earlier the same year), onii-san has fitted super-slim racing wheels, and I pumped up the correspondingly super-slim tyres to the improbable pressure of more than six psi before setting off at ten to eight, to cast a long shadow on the road ahead.

The first part of the journey followed a route that Mrs M and I have taken on many occasions when visiting friends and relatives, but in order to avoid the city – well, town is probably a more accurate description – of Hitachi-ohmiya, I veered north just before the Kuji River, on a road that within minutes was almost devoid of traffic, and narrow enough that two cars traveling in opposite directions would barely have the room to pass one another. I stopped to use the toilets at a michi-no-eki (roadside services) that appeared to have gone out of business, although the infa-red detectors that sense when you have walked away from a urinal and flush it with water were working perfectly (they were apparently being kept in operation for the benefit of campers at a site next to the river, where even in late December, at least one family had stayed the night).

After another few kilometers I joined Route 118, which followed the Kuji River valley and the Suigun railway line north through a succession of sleepy towns, in one of which was a building that advertised itself as the home of washi (Japanese handmade paper – I made a mental note of the location and resolved to come back when it was open for business). After taking a detour along the main street of one such town, where approximately half the shops had gone out of business, I came to a five-way junction with no road signs and had to stop to consult my map.

No sooner had I done this than a middle-aged man parked his car on the pavement and came over to ask if I needed help. When I told him where I was from, he gestured to a girl of perhaps junior high school age who had been with him in the car, as if to say, ‘Go on, now’s your chance to speak some English!’ Having expected her to come out with a faltering hello or an enquiry as to my favourite Japanese food, she instead spoke confidently, and with a British-English accent to boot. She lived in Malaysia, she explained, and went to an English school, so I assumed the man was her grandfather, and that her parents had emigrated (she looked to be Japanese rather than mixed race or native Malaysian). The man confirmed my hunch that the road I should take entered a nearby tunnel, before saying goodbye and driving off to the hairdressers, where the girl had an appointment to get her hair cut.

Twenty minutes later I was standing outside Saigané station, where I knew there would be a more detailed map than my own of the area around Nantai-san, since I had Googled a blog entry by an anonymous fellow hiker the night before. There was no toilet at the station, so I stopped for a pee on the tiny side road that led up another, smaller valley towards the mountain, and in which the temperature dropped noticeably. Instead of towns there were now villages, or just small farms nestled on the hillside, their vegetable fields still caked with frost, and after an ever steeper succession of hairpin bends, the tarmac came to and end outside a soba restaurant, whose sign said that it would be open for business at ten thirty.

I locked up the bike, although it seemed even less likely to be stolen here than in Hitachi-ohta, so I didn’t bother to attach it to anything with the lock, and left the lights and puncture repair kit in place. A path led between fields of green tea bushes for a hundred metres or so, at which point I had to choose between the ippan-kohsu (一般コース) and the kenkyaku-kohsu (健脚コース): the Ordinary Course and the Experienced Walker Course. The aforementioned blogger had taken the latter without complaint, so I did the same, and soon realised that the transition from an ascent by bicycle to an ascent on foot isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth one. From the gravel car park outside the soba restaurant, Nantai-san loomed almost vertically above me, with the most likely hiking route being through a gulley to one side and along a ridge to the summit. But the kenkyaku-kohsu went straight up the cliff face, which while it may not have been as close to ninety degrees as it appeared, certainly wasn’t far off.


If Mrs M and I had driven here, as had been my first suggestion, I would have been practically jogging my way up, as I have always found it easier to climb a mountain than to come back down (too much jarring of the knees always leaves me in pain), but I had already used enough energy this morning to leave me a long way off the pace, and must have stopped to rest at least once every two or three minutes for the first half hour. It didn’t help that the air was so dry, as during winter the prevailing wind arrives in Japan from Siberia rather than the tropics, and I was already near the end of my water supply (should have refilled my water bottles on the way up the valley, I thought – there were several back gardens from which spring water flowed freely through rudimentary drainpipes).

For perhaps the most fleeting of moments I even considered giving up and heading back for a slap-up lunch at the soba restaurant, but the one compensation of the kenkyaku-kohsu was its directness, and every two or three minutes of huffing and puffing took me ten or twenty metres further above sea level. To enable this without the use of crampons or other such high-tech climbing gear, a series of metal rods had been driven into the cliff face, and to these chains and ropes attached, so that these were the easiest sections of the climb, as I could transfer the strain from my overworked legs to my underworked arms, which until then had merely been flicking between gears or squeezing brake levers.

At one long section of chains, I spied a man up ahead in a check shirt, peaked cap and walking boots, and had to ask him whether he was heading up or down when our paths crossed. As I suspected, he had already made it to the top, and he reassured me that there wasn’t far to go. Indeed, when the path levelled off at a smaller ridge beneath the summit, the view was more impressive, the terrain more exposed, and the wind more biting than before, so that despite having removed my own hat, gloves and jumper earlier on in the climb, now I had to put them back on again.

Up until that point I hadn’t recognised anything from my previous visit to Nantai-san, but just before the top was a tin-roofed shelter over a wooden table and benches, which I remembered as the spot where my friends and I had eaten our packed lunch, so we must have taken the ippan-kohsu on that occasion. A sign said ‘Take a rest before you aim for the summit’, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait any longer, as I had vowed not to eat today’s nigiri until reaching my goal, and was by now desperate for food. Along with a TV or radio transmitting station of some kind (a line of telegraph poles stretched through the forest and down the other side of the mountain), there was a stone obelisk on the summit adorned by previous hikers with piles of small rocks, and a weather beaten shrine surrounded by a fence of concrete and steel poles. Partially sheltered from the wind, I sat on the far side of this to eat, and the sun was bright enough that I had to put on my baseball cap to get a proper look at the view.

It was slightly hazy, so that the furthest one could see was Mount Tsukuba, about sixty kilometres to the south. Neither Mount Fuji nor the more proximitous peaks of Nikko in neighbouring Tochigi prefecture were visible, although a yellow sheen of reflected sunlight glinted off the Pacific to the south east, and to the north a bank of cloud rolled in over the hills like a burst of dry ice. I could see Daigo Town further up Route 118, the soba restaurant, green tea bushes and valley road below, and the white radio mast to the east that watches over Hitachi-ohta. In the middle of my two nigiri were two umé-boshi – pickled plums – and when I threw the stone of one over the shrine’s steel pipe railing, there was no sound as it fell through the air.

I spent five or ten minutes trying to master the self-timing feature on onii-san’s camera in order to capture my own likeness next to the shrine, and then a further five or ten minutes trying to work out where the ippan-kohsu led back downhill – it was signposted from the covered bench and chairs, but not from the shrine, obelisk or transmitter. Not having expected to encounter anyone else at all on a chilly winter’s weekday, I passed five more hikers on the way down: the first were a couple of around my own age who said that they had ‘overtaken’ my bicycle (almost certainly on foot rather than by car, otherwise they must have been walking very slowly as I climbed very quickly), the second was a lady in her fifties or sixties who like me had noticed a few flakes of snow in the air as the clouds passed over, and the last were another couple, who either said ‘Good, isn’t it?’ or ‘Warm, isn’t it?’ as we squeezed past each other on the path – probably the latter, as by then we were sheltered from the wind by the gulley beneath the ridge and bathed in sunshine, and they were working up a sweat on their way up.


For the most part I was alone on the forested slopes, with only the sound of bird song and the creaking cedar as they swayed in the breeze to keep me company. The ippan-kohsu rejoined the kenkyaku-kohsu next to the tea bushes, and by the time I unlocked my bicycle, the soba restaurant was open for business, and I had climbed to the summit and back – with half an hour of faffing once there – in less than two and a half hours. The return journey to Hitachi-ohta was more downhill than up, and apart from a few photo calls – a vending machine graveyard, a roadside sign in Ibaraki dialect urging motorists to drive safely, and one last glimpse of Nantai-san from a bridge over the Kuji River – I didn’t waste too much time on pit stops. I also didn’t spend any of the pocket money Mrs M had granted me for the trip, and just as I had saved my nigiri for the summit, so I saved my peanuts choco for the living room kotatsu (a kotatsu is a coffee table with a heating element underneath for warming one’s feet when the weather is cold, and worthy of a blog entry of its own, now I come to think of it) rather than eat it in a layby or the car park of a convenience store.

Going cycling in Japan after more than two years away was like dusting off an old record or watching a favourite film, and while there were times when it seemed like I had done it all before, and times when I couldn’t remember what all the the fuss was about, I also had an inkling of how great it would be to get up the next morning and do the same thing all over again. And the morning after that, and the morning after that, until I was a long way from the in-laws and in some far flung corner of the country I had never knew existed before.

(The hundred-yen map, incidentally, was already coming apart at the creases when I took it out of my rucksack – built-in obsolescence, no less.)