I spent rather more time than was necessary examining Yahoo Japan Map and experimenting with short cuts that turned out to be nothing of the sort, before eventually settling on a route that took me first of all across a four-lane bypass. After this I veered into a narrow side street and past a wood yard, a ramen restaurant and an estate of dilapidated old bungalows (the Japanese equivalent of a trailer park), before the road dropped down into a valley of rice fields. From the brow of the hill, on a clear day you could see all the way to a mountain range on the border between Tochigi and Fukushima Prefectures, sixty kilometres to the north-west, and the pavement in the valley was constructed from large concrete blocks, which during the earthquake had been shaken out of alignment to form an obstacle course of slopes and steps. On the opposite side of the valley was a posh country club, where well-heeled businessmen would go for a quick nine holes or a session on the driving range before work, and beyond that a suburb of sorts, with two pachinko parlours – one abandoned and one still in business – two concrete works, two convenience stores, a beauty salon and a barber shop. There was also a run-down looking hostess bar with an old neon sign, an amateurish, hand-painted portrait of a supposedly glamorous hostess, and five A4 sheets of paper permanently pasted to the wall that read ten-in boshuh-chu (店員募集中 / staff wanted).
Perhaps once or twice a week, a people carrier would pass by with one of its rear windows rolled down. Come rain or shine, a child of about four or five years old – presumably being driven to kindergarten by its mother – would lean out of the window and shout ‘HELLOOOOOO!!!’ although I rarely reacted quickly enough to say anything in reply.
In the morning, that long uphill stretch was a relaxing freewheel through a large industrial estate, in whose central car park truck drivers would be emerging from their cabins after a night’s sleep, and various tradesmen and travelling salesmen would be chatting with their colleagues or sipping on vending machine coffee.
At the bottom of the hill the road ahead was blocked by a landslide that had yet to be cleared even a year after the earthquake. Here I turned right along with the rest of the traffic and into a short tunnel, at the other end of which was a wide river valley.
The river marks the border between the so-called city where I lived (it’s more like a town) and the so-called town where I worked (it’s more like a village), and on the other side was a mushroom farm that gave off a stench like a cross between raw sewage and rotting flesh, a Yakult shop with its fleet of three-wheeled delivery scooters, a tiny police station, and an even smaller shrine on the pavement beneath a garden wall. Such shrines are erected by bereaved relatives after a road death, and this one was made from a couple of breeze blocks, a jizoh (地蔵 / small stone statue in a red cap and jacket), some opened cans and bottles of drink to keep the departed spirit from going thirsty, and two vases that were regularly replenished with fresh flowers.
I could tell if I was on time by whether or not the school bus was parked outside the local kindergarten (it left at 8.20 on the dot), and on the last narrow street between the main road and the school, one angry dog would strain at its rope as it tried to scale the garden fence and attack me, and one placid dog would gaze benevolently from its blanket-lined basket a few doors down.
For several months over the winter I wore a waterproof jacket, woolly hat, fleece and long trousers, while in the summer months, even at 8am the temperature was in the twenties. As well as cycling home in the snow, one afternoon last September I did so in a typhoon: admittedly, the storm didn’t reach its peak until a few hours later, but I still had trouble staying upright, and the next day the river was twice as deep and twice as wide as usual.
Every day on the way home I would pass the same group of elementary school children with their yellow hats and red satchels. Although I was speeding past on the opposite side of the road, over the course of the year we managed to turn this into a kind of mini-English conversation class, so:
First kid in the group – ‘HELLO!’
Me – ‘HELLO!’
Fifth kid in the group – ‘HOW ARE YOU?’
Me – ‘I’M FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?’
Tenth kid in the group – ‘I’M FINE THANK YOU!’
And so on and so forth.
At least for the next couple of months my journey to work will only take five minutes, and I won’t see any tombi, or shirasagi, or salmon (although I do pass a different and even angrier dog), and apart from anything else I’ve already put on weight from the lack of exercise.