The roads from Sado – Day 8

I woke up at about 6.30, got dressed, rolled up my sleeping bag and camping mat and unzipped the tent flap, only to find myself completely surrounded by school children. There was a sort of Mexican stand-off moment where we all stood and stared at each other, before I broke the silence by whispering a polite ‘good morning’ (somehow it didn’t feel right to raise my voice) and almost tip-toed my way to the car park to start loading the bicycle.

‘That was amazing,’ I said to one of the volunteers who was supervising them. ‘I didn’t hear a thing.’
‘Ah yes, that’s an activity where we ask them to explore what’s around them and write about it, but without talking to each other,’ he said. ‘This weekend is a kind of nature adventure, so last night we watched the sunset and lit an avenue of candles on the hillside, and later this morning we’ll be hiking into the woods and looking for plants and wildlife.’

The volunteers were from an organisation called JCI (Junior Chamber International, aka Worldwide Federation Of Young Leaders And Entrepreneurs) and all worked for small businesses in Sanjoh. The Sanjoh branch of JCI calls itself Tsubamé, which means ‘martin’ or ‘swallow’ (as in the bird), and whose kanji has an attractive symmetry to it:

Although the Tsubamé Sanjoh website is in Japanese, you can see some pictures of the children’s nature adventure here – on about the fifteenth photo from the top of the page, my tent is just out of shot to the left.

Speaking of which, it’s time for a short commercial break:

If you’re ever thinking of purchasing a tent, allow me to recommend the excellent Snow Peak range. Since 2005, my Snow Peak Landbreeze Solo has accompanied me halfway around Japan without so much as a leaky seam, a broken pole or a ripped flysheet, and while I bought it primarily because it weighs less than two kilos, it is also easy to assemble, thoroughly waterproof and can be purchased with an inner tent whose top half is more like a mosquito net (this allows a through draft and keeps the inside from feeling like a sauna, as can often happen with cheaper tents on a summer’s morning).

Coincidentally enough, if I hadn’t taken a wrong turn on the way south from Sanjoh, I would have ridden straight past Snow Peak HQ, which as well as the company factory is home to a Camp Field, Natural Lifestyle Store and something called a Creative Room. Still, I didn’t go too far in the wrong direction, and passed yet more flood damage (bad omen alert!) before a mid-morning break at Tochio michi-no-eki.

Michi-no-eki (道の駅 / literally ‘road station’) are the Japanese equivalent of a roadside services, although imagine, if you will, how much more stimulating a visit to Moto or Welcome Break would be if you could buy locally produced fruit, vegetables, cakes, snacks and souvenirs. And imagine how much more value for money you would get if stallholders were allowed to sell takeaway food from the car park. Here in Tochio, as well as a gift shop with all manner of Niigata specialities, there was a van outside selling aburagé (油揚げ / deep-fried tofu), which like the best Belgian pommes frites had been deep fried not once but twice, and was the most delicious thing I ate on the entire holiday (not something you will hear anyone say after a visit to Watford Gap Road Chef).

‘Good, isn’t it?’ said a stallholder from a craft market that was also taking place next to the aburagé van. ‘A young lad passed through here the other week, you know. He was cycling the whole west coast from north to south. And a few months ago, when I turned up first thing in the morning there was a cyclist camping on the grass behind the main building. Are you going far?’
‘To Ibaraki eventually.’ I dug out the Mapple and showed him the zig-zagging route I had planned, through the mountains and back into Fukushima Prefecture.
‘I’m pretty sure the road’s closed at Kanéyama because of the floods,’ he said.
‘That’s OK, I was going to turn right before that and head south east.’

I probably should have had two helpings of aburagé, as the road from Tochio led straight to a mountain pass. On the lower slopes I overtook a small tractor-trailer with a scooter on the back. Why didn’t the man who was driving it repair the scooter first and then ride it to wherever he was going, I wondered, only to hear the sound of the same tractor again about ten minutes later. He eventually passed me with a smile and a wave in what felt like slow motion, as by this point we were both travelling at approximately walking speed.

 As I was admiring the view from the pass, two cyclists on racing bikes appeared wearing the full compliment of helmets, wraparound shades and matching lycra shorts and shirts.
‘That was quite steep, wasn’t it?’ said the older of the two, who didn’t even appear to have broken sweat on the way up. ‘About five per cent, I should think.’
‘It felt steeper than that to me,’ I said between gulps from my water bottle. ‘Where are you going from here, anyway?’
‘We live near Sanjoh, so we’re doing a round trip – probably about seventy-five kilometres in all. How about you?’
‘I’m heading for Route 252.’
‘We’re going to the michi-no-eki on 252 for lunch. I could be wrong, but I think the road’s still closed beyond there.’
‘You mean because of the floods? Oh well, I can always take Route 352 instead.’

Sure enough, there was an automated sign above Ichihirosé michi-no-eki that read tsuu-koh-domé (通行止 / road closed), and one of the waitresses in the cafeteria was acting as a kind of voluntary traffic information guide.
‘Are you sure I can’t get through on a bicycle?’ I asked her.
‘I’m afraid not,’ she said.
‘How about Route 352?’
‘That’s closed as well, unfortunately.’

My only option now was to head even further south and cross from west to east through Nikko, which would involve climbing to the Shiisaka Pass at 740 metres above sea level, the Mikuni Pass at 1076 metres and the Konsei Pass at a giddy 1880. Taking such a long detour meant that my mathematical blunder – of thinking that I had ten days before the end of the summer holidays when in actual fact I had eleven – was beginning to look like an inspired incidence of foresight.

Probably because they felt sorry for me, the two cyclists from the pass gave me one of their energy gels  when they had finished their lunch (energy gels combine the taste of Lucozade with the texture of rice pudding, and are all the rage with athletes these days). They then whizzed off down the road, although I caught up with them several more times in the next hour or two – in fact, after saying, ‘Fancy seeing you here!’ for about the third or fourth time and being presented with at least two more energy gels, the situation began to get a little awkward.

  _By the time I had shaken them off I was back on the plains, and so far south that I had to throw away my battered old Tohoku Mapple (originally given to me by Tokidoki Tokyo) and buy the Kanto edition instead. The scenery wasn’t quite so inspiring as it had been that morning, but I did see this man making rather novel use of the car wash at a gasoline stand (‘We come here at least once a week,’ he said, ‘otherwise the dog starts to smell bad.’).

Rather than trying to find a campsite, my aim now was to cycle as far as I could and pitch the Snow Peak somewhere inconspicuous, an activity that is known as nojuku (野宿 / literally ‘field stay’).

Many touring cyclists nojuku as a way of saving time and money, but I had only done so on one previous occasion, and while the rational part of me knew that no one would so much as bat an eyelid if I set up camp in the woods or in a disused rice field, the irrational part of me was worried that the local yakuza might burn my tent to the ground, throw the Rock Spring in the nearest river and set upon me with baseball bats.

By about 6pm I had reached Shiozawa, and in the TV room at the local onsen, asked the family at the next table if they could recommend a suitable spot for nojuku-ing. After some thought, the father – whose Japanese, incidentally, was as crystal clear and comprehensible as an NHK newsreader – gave me directions to the local park, which he said was quiet, spacious and had a toilet block that would be open all night. So, once the onsen had closed for the evening that’s exactly where I headed, although I suspected the toilets probably wouldn’t be western style.

Beaujolais? No-jolais!

As we were sitting – or rather, kneeling – down for dinner at the in-law’s the other day, onii-san arrived back from the shops with a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.
My rule of thumb for judging the quality of a wine from its label – which I first heard in a comedy routine, but which I have found to be surprisingly reliable – is:

Text only = good wine
Black & white picture + text = fair to middling wine
Colour picture + text = bad wine

And this particular label did not bode well, being a garish mish-mash of fonts and flowers.

The bouquet – if you can call it that – hit my nose like a right hook from Mike Tyson, and even once I had recovered sufficiently to drink the stuff, the taste was akin to that of neat paraffin – indeed, this may have been the first time I have ever wanted to drink red wine with ice.

Onii-san and I had to take a breather after the first couple of sips, and a little later, to be fair, the smell had subsided. The trouble was, rather than dissipating into the surrounding environment, it had become absorbed into the wine itself, giving it a kick like chip shop malt vinegar.

Drinking wine from decent glass can improve the flavour (something I learned from a friend of mine who co-writes the excellent Wine Rambler blog), so perhaps we weren’t doing the Beaujolais justice by using cheap – and not quite spotlessly clean – tumblers. The prime suspect in its lack of quaffability, though, was more likely to be the bottle.

Buying Beaujolais Nouveau at the very second it goes on sale – or within the first few days, at least – has been popular in Japan since the late seventies, with the added incentive that due to the time difference, it is legally available here eight hours earlier than in Western Europe. For this reason, much of it is imported by air rather than by sea, and partly in an effort to counteract the prohibitive costs involved, plastic bottles were introduced in 2009.

While this didn’t go down too well with the producers (who seemed to be conveniently ignoring the fact that cheap table wine in plastic bottles has been available on the continent for years), Japanese consumers appear to be perfectly happy with the arrangement; they even buy white Beaujolais and rosé Beaujolais, which I had always been under the impression were, er, not Beaujolais.

In any case, for the sake of both my taste buds and my sense of smell, from now on I’ll be sticking to text-only wine labels, whatever the bottle they’re stuck to happens to be made from.


‘This morning,’ K-sensei told me the other day, ‘when I looked at the thermometer it was minus eight degrees.’
‘At 4.30, you mean?’ (K-sensei’s sleep patterns make Margaret Thatcher look  like a lazy teenager, and 4.30am is when he usually gets up.)
‘No, at 4,’ he said.
‘You woke up at 4am?’
‘No, no. I woke up at 3.30. I got up at 4, and by 4.30, the temperature was minus ten. It is the first time in my life this has happened.’

Statistically speaking, this winter has in fact been marginally warmer than average, but around here at least, the reality doesn’t quite tally with the statistics. For example, the other week we went on a day trip to the Fukuroda Waterfall (Fukuroda-no-taki / 袋田の滝), which had frozen up several weeks earlier than usual – it won’t be long before the more adventurous sightseers are strapping on the crampons and climbing their way up.

In actual fact, winter temperatures in Ibaraki tend to be similar to those in the UK, but it’s the quality of the cold here that’s different. In the summer, warm, humid air arrives in Japan from the tropics – often in the form of typhoons – but in the winter, cold, dry air sweeps in from the continent. Until about a fortnight ago, more than a month had passed without a single drop of rain, and most people’s front lawns now look like old-style brown bristle doormats. The school playground turned into a dustbowl, and when the first year boys sat down for their English class after a lunchtime kickabout, they looked as if they’d just walked off the set of The Hurt Locker. (Parenthetically, one of my Japanese teachers holidayed to the US last year, and said that Salt Lake City is even drier – her rheumatism, she said, almost completely cleared up.)

While the brief interlude of grey skies and drizzle may have given me a pang of nostalgia, for the most part, the almost constant sunshine makes a pleasant change from those damp, grey days of a British winter. Apart from giving your skin the approximate texture and appearance of a fine-grade sandpaper, the main problem with the lack of moisture is that you are more likely to fall ill. Almost half the school came down with a cold last October, one of the first years caught whooping cough, and according to the latest circular to land on my desk, a student at the elementary school now has type-B influenza (when the humidity level is at 50% the flu virus perishes almost immediately, but at 35% it can survive for up to 24 hours – or so one of the experts on Honma Dekka?! said last week). While some people gargle with salt water, the primary method for flu prevention is still the surgical mask (which I still can’t quite bring myself to wear, no matter how much I would like to fit in with the locals), although my immune system would function a lot more efficiently if only I could keep warm at home.

There are three very important features that almost every building in Japan lacks, and those are double glazing (ni-juu-mado / 二重窓), insulation (dan-netsu-zai / 断熱材) and central heating (er, sentoraru hiitingu). During a trip to Tokyo before Christmas, friends of mine were kind enough to let me spend the night in their spare room, and even though the building itself was less than ten years old, with underfloor heating in the living rooms and earthquake-proof foundations, the windows were only single-glazed, and misted with condensation by morning. There are several hundred apartments in the block, so despite the lack of heating in the spare bedroom, being surrounded on all sides kept it tolerably warm. There are, however, just four apartments in the block where Mrs M and I live, which makes them oven-like when the temperature outside is in the thirties, and freezer-like even before it dips below zero.

In the bathroom you can defrost beneath a hot shower, and after a summer of saving electricity, I did eventually relent and let Mrs M switch on our heated toilet seat. With the help of an electric blanket and some extremely fluffy duvets, keeping cosy while we’re in bed (or in futon, so to speak) isn’t much of a problem, although one’s pocket of warmth only extends so far, and many is the time I have rolled over in bed, only to roll straight back when my head hits the exposed, ice-rink-like edge of the pillow. For the past couple of months the condensation has been freezing to the inside of our bedroom and living room windows, and unless you light one of the gas rings and leave it running, there’s no way of thawing out the kitchen at all. A fluffy cloud of breath hovers in front of my face as I potter about making breakfast – at which point our fridge magnet thermometer is normally at about the five degree mark – there is a pause of several seconds before half-frozen water splutters out of the tap, and it isn’t until long after I have left for work that the kitchen becomes fit for human habitation.

While the air conditioner in the living room doubles up as a heater, our secret weapon against the cold is a kotatsu. In the old days, most homes had an irori, an open hearth in the middle of the living room that acted as both cooker and heater. The kotatsu was presumably invented as a replacement for the irori, and consists of a floating tabletop, a frame with four short legs and a downward-pointing heating element at its centre, and two fireproof quilts (well, I assume they’re fireproof…), one of which is laid on the floor beneath the kotatsu, and one of which is sandwiched between the frame and the tabletop. Kotatsu would be a big hit abroad if it wasn’t for the fact they force you to sit on the floor the whole time. For example, it’s very difficult to wedge your feet beneath a coffee table when you’re on a sofa or in an armchair, and customising the average dining table wouldn’t work either, as most of the heat would escape between the legs of the average dining chair.

Mrs M suffers from poor circulation, and the kotatsu was probably the home comfort that she missed the most when we were in the UK. While our living room in London was warmed by a radiator, the floor remained resolutely cold, and just draping a blanket over her legs didn’t seem to help matters, so that we developed a rather eccentric routine whereby I would roll up my shirt and she would warm her feet on my stomach as we settled down to watch TV on winter evenings.

Still, however tough things get in Ibaraki, I should be thankful that I’m not living in Hokkaido, on the Japan Sea coast, or in the mountains, where most houses have rows of planks nailed to the windows to keep them from caving in beneath the weight of huge snow drifts. To give you an example, back in 2008 I went for a weekend of snowboarding in Nagano – where that particular year they had more than ten metres of snowfall – and spent two nights in what I can say without hesitation is the coldest place I have ever stayed. The owners were living elsewhere at the time and renting it to a friend of mine for next to nothing. It was a decent sized, two-storey detached house, and in order to save money my friend restricted himself to using just one room. Once we had turned off the heater and turned out the lights, the temperature plummeted, and by the early hours I was fully clothed beneath my sleeping bag, duvet and blankets: as well as a woolly hat and gloves, if my memory serves me correctly I think I even put my shoes on. An already fitful night’s sleep was interrupted at about 4am when an elderly neighbour began screaming for help after falling on the icy pavement outside (I can only assume that, like K-sensei, he had popped out to check the thermometer), and when I ventured into the bathroom in the morning, a large icicle was protruding from the bath tap. It took several minutes of massaging the shower hose before any hot water emerged, and to be honest, snowboarding through a blizzard for the rest of the day came as a blessed relief. The following night I insisted that we leave the heater on, but by then I was already in the early stages of a cold, and my resistance to winter weather has never been quite the same since.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with another photo – taken on Mount Takao near Tokyo – of what are known as shimo-bashira (霜柱 / literally ‘frost columns’). Shimo-bashira are formed when the temperature below ground level is above freezing and the temperature at ground level is below freezing, which draws moisture from the ground and sculpts it into these attractively regular geometrical shapes.