I went on my first cycle tour of Japan back in 2005 on an equally cheap and cheerful mountain bike, which Tokidoki (let’s call him Mr T for short) then used for his first tour. For his second, he bought a more upmarket model, and returned the favour by passing it on to me for my own second tour (stick with me here – I’ll get to the point in a minute). I then gave this bike to onii-san, who spent a lot of money and time upgrading it, before he lent it back to me last month for my ride to work. Since I haven’t got round to returning this bike to onii-san, for a limited period only, I am in possession of one decent and one half-decent bicycle, and this was the perfect opportunity for Mr T and I to relive our past touring glories.
Mrs M set the alarm for 7am and – bless her – got up to make us a packed lunch, while I showered, breakfasted and faffed around doing last-minute tweaks: fixing panniers to the cheapo bike, pumping up the tyres on the fancy one, and realising that should I get a puncture there would be no easy way of fixing it, since despite being in possession of a whole cupboard-full of tools and spare parts, the one thing I don’t have is a 15mm spanner (the wheels on the older bike are quick-release, whereas all four wheel nuts on the new bike are 15mm).
After meeting Mr T at the station we set off at around nine, by which time it was warm enough that we both wore shorts and t-shirts, and instead of taking cold- or wet-weather gear, our first stop was at the chemist’s to buy some sunblock. We also stopped to adjust our respective seat posts – Mr T is more like average height for a Brit, so needed to raise his, and I’m still trying to find the most conducive riding position after less than a week on the new bike – and to have our ‘French’ bread sandwiches by the Okuji River, where some fishermen and fisherkids were catching ayu: small, freshwater trout that are delicious salted, speared with a bamboo skewer and roasted over hot coals.
The last time I saw Mr T was on a rainy day in Brighton about three years ago, so we had plenty to talk about, and because, in the Japanese style, we were mostly riding on the pavement, our progress along Route 118 was fairly sedate. The road itself was busy with bank holiday traffic, and after consulting my trusty 100-yen map, we decided to head west at Daigo Town along Route 461, which took us through a beautiful, wide, flat-bottomed valley where the ta-ué (田植え / rice planting) was well under way. Having ploughed the dormant paddy field and filled it with water, most farmers will plant neat rows of rice shoots – already grown to about 15cm high – by machine. There are some, though, who still do this by hand, just like in the old days, and as a consequence, elderly men and women whose backs are bent almost at right angles, and who walk with such a stoop that if they weren’t pushing a shopping trolley or a bicycle they might immediately topple over, are a regular sight in the Japanese countryside.
A rather wonderful side-effect of filling the fields with water is the sudden influx of tiny green frogs it attracts, and the chorus of croaks they emit as you cycle past: I’m pretty sure I could see frog spawn floating between the slender green shoots, so I assume these are their mating calls, and that while we humans are busy growing rice, the frogs are busy making tadpoles. Tonbi (鳶 / kites) with a wingspan of more than a metre circled up above, uguisu (鶯 / Japanese nightingales) whistled their looping, lyrical song from the trees, little snowflakes of cherry blossom came floating through the air, and many of the front gardens we passed were a carpet of shocking pink shibazakura (芝桜 / literally ‘grass cherry blossom’), although by now our thoughts had turned to more pressing matters.
Because we had scoffed our packed lunches so early in the day, we were now pining for more food, and having veered away from the tourist trail, there wasn’t a restaurant in sight. Mr T thought he had spotted one on a side road, but it turned out to be a barbershop – in fact, there was another barbershop in the same village, but no restaurant, and not even a general store. Then we saw some advertising flags (hung vertically on poles that rest in a plastic base filled with sand or water – as with the umbrella for a picnic table – these flags line the highways and byways of Japan) saying ‘Restaurant’ and ‘Daigo Beer’, and stopped in front of a low, modern building with smoked glass windows and discreet signage. We had been hoping to find a cheap, local soba shop, but this place was air conditioned, expensive and as well as having its own brewery, served pizza and pasta. With less cycling time left than we had thought (we needed to get back by six at the latest, so that Mr T could return to Tokyo that night), I made the executive decision to save time and money by purchasing snack food at the next available opportunity.
So about ten minutes later we were standing in front of an old-style village shop, using upturned beer crates for a table and eating a crab stick, chikuwa (a tube of rubbery, reconstituted fish product that in this case was filled with cheese), two packets of seaweed flavour crisps, and four rectangles of indeterminate cheese, individually wrapped like the little butter pats you get with your toast at a motorway services, all washed down with a bottle of Aquarius ‘sports’ drink.
By now we had crossed the state line into Tochigi Prefecture, and having turned south, a more minor road provided us with our best riding of the day: a gentle climb along smooth tarmac (there was hardly any earthquake damage here, I noticed, so perhaps the rocky ground in the mountains had been more resilient than the plains nearer the coast), with no more than a single passing car every five or ten minutes, in a steep-sided valley that trapped the sun’s warmth and sheltered us from the wind.
Mr T regaled me with a story of two members of the same family falling off their rented bicycles twice in the same day, and translated a Japanese joke that involves a dose of eye medicine, a sweet potato diet and a fortuitous bout of flatulence. We talked of our respective experiences learning Japanese, of how you have to be careful not to rely too heavily on the ‘pub’ version of a foreign language if you don’t want to offend people, and were so busy chatting that we missed or mis-read several signs along the way and kept on having to backtrack to check that we were still heading the right direction. We also passed a factory which for no apparent reason had a total of four clapped-out old helicopters on the roof.
Time: 5h 39mins 41secs
Average speed: 14.9km/h
Top speed: 44.3km/h
Despite the factor 30, our faces had a very healthy glow to them as we walked to the station for Mr T to catch the 6.29 train: at about the same time the previous day it had been pelting it down with rain, and the following morning was overcast and chilly, so our timing had been impeccable, and we had learned that so long as you’re not in a hurry, having someone to keep you company makes the miles pass more quickly.