The roads from Sado – Day 9

This photo was taken at 5.30am, because, quite frankly, I was a bit anxious about the whole nojuku thing and hadn’t slept very well. For that added touch of surrealism, I had managed to pitch the Snow Peak directly behind Bokushi-dohri, a shopping street constructed in the Edo style as a kind of living museum, so there was some nice architecture to look at as I cycled off into the sunrise.

Stopping for my usual convenience store breakfast, I met a tall, smartly dressed man in a baseball cap, polo-neck sweater and chinos.
‘My son lives near here,’ he told me, ‘so I come and stay at least a couple of times a year. In the winter I go ski-ing and in the summer I play golf. I’m playing eighteen holes with a friend of mine this morning – he’s supposed to be picking me up in a minute.’
‘You’re probably pretty good, I should imagine.’
‘Not bad, although I’m eighty now, so I can only hit the ball about a hundred yards. When you get to my age you don’t have the flexibility in your shoulders to get a good swing.’
‘What’s your best score, then?’
‘About seventy-eight, I think, although that was probably twenty or thirty years ago. Nowadays it’s more like a hundred.’

Bokushi-dohri is part of the Mikuni-kaidoh (三国街道 / ‘Three countries highway’), which has served as a route between Tokyo and Niigata for several centuries, and which I would be following today on my way into Gunma Prefecture. At Echigo-yuzawa the Joh-etsu expressway heads into an eleven-kilometre-long tunnel – the longest road tunnel in Japan – while the Mikuni-kaidoh (aka Route 17) goes from flat to steep in a matter of moments, and stays that way for the next thirty or so kilometres.

After the first few hairpin bends I stopped in front of an isolated two-storey house, where a young man in a blue puffer jacket was starting up his scooter in the front yard. He introduced himself as Fueda-san and asked where I was from.
‘England,’ I said.
‘And what do you do?’
‘I work as an ALT.’
‘That’s what I was doing until April, except I was teaching Japanese at a school in China. I need to find a job so I can save some more money and go back.’
‘Are you off to a job interview now?’
‘No. It’s Hello Work, I’m afraid.’
Hello Work is the Japanese equivalent of a job centre, and from what I can tell, going to one can be a similarly dispiriting experience.
‘Do you want to move to China for good?’ I asked.
‘I want to live in Taiwan eventually. That’s where my girlfriend’s from – we speak to each other on Skype every couple of days, so I’m trying to improve my Chinese.’
Noticing that my water bottle was empty, Fueda-san told me to re-fill it at a tap next to the garage.
‘That’s fresh spring water straight from the ground, so it should be ice cold,’ he said, and we wished each other luck before he sped off down the hill.

Route 17 was lined with ski-slopes and high-rise hotels, which because this was off-season were practically empty, so for most of the morning I had the road to myself. When I stopped in a layby for another drink (it wasn’t until I had downed a bottle-full that I noticed a sign above the washroom sink that read Nomémasen! / Undrinkable!), it was quiet enough that a family of monkeys emerged from the forest to scamper across the road.

  Although in case you’re under the impression this was a David Attenborough-style close encounter, here is the original, un-cropped photo:

I reached the Mikuni Pass at about midday, where the view was one of the lushest and most tree-filled I had ever seen (with so much natural forestation, I should imagine this is a good place to see the autumn colours).

Combined with an early start, the climb had completely wiped me out, and with the Konsei Pass on my itinerary for the following day, I decided that another night of nojuku was out of the question. The only thing for it was to break out my Emergency Cash Card, find a cheap hotel and get a decent night’s sleep. Mrs M wouldn’t be too happy when she found out that the trip had gone over-budget, but in the interests of a) my health and b) starting work again on 1st September, I withdrew another 10,000 yen from a post office ATM and braced myself for a stern talking to when Mrs M next checked our bank balance.

The first hotel I tried in Numata City was fully booked, but as well as having vacancies, the second – the Sasaya – was a fair bit cheaper and a lot more characterful. The woman behind reception was dividing her time between watching TV and babysitting her grandson, and when I asked where I could leave the Rock Spring, she told me to bring it through the main doors and park it among a collection of bikes and prams next to the drinks machine (neglecting to take your shoes off as you enter a building is considered to be bad manners in Japan, so wheeling a bicycle across a pile carpet felt positively criminal).

After checking in I went straight to the communal baths, where the sauna was mysteriously chilly.
‘This isn’t working, is it?’ I said to a fellow bather.
‘It’s working all right,’ he said. ‘They just set it to a low temperature, that’s all. It’s always like that.’
Most onsen will have a cold bath in which to cool off after your sauna, but that was empty too, so I assumed the owners were either keen practitioners of setsuden, or didn’t have enough guests to justify the expense of firing up the sauna.

Despite advertising itself as a wedding venue, the Sasaya was distinctly rough around the edges: the toilet roll holder in my bathroom, for example, was stuck to the wall with gaffer tape, there was a large cigarette burn on the shelf above the sink, and a hand-written notice on the ancient, free-standing air conditioner warned that it would leak if I tried to move it. Not that I needed an air conditioner, as the room itself was almost completely sealed off from the outside world. It was how I imagine being on a space station must feel, as I had no sense of the outside world whatsoever: there were no windows, it was eerily quiet, and even on a summer’s day the temperature remained at a constant 20 degrees.

When I arrived back from buying dinner at the local supermarket, an old man with fly-away white hair was sitting at the reception desk and peering at a newspaper through a magnifying glass. The Sasaya is about as close as you’ll get in Japan to Fawlty Towers (not for nothing does it score a whopping 2.62 stars out of 5 on the Rakuten Travel homepage), which made me feel rather at home, and I slept a lot more soundly than I had in the park behind Bokushi-dohri.

Do-Re-Mi ドレミの歌

The other day Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music was playing in the background during a TV programme about Switzerland, and Mrs M started singing along.

‘Do is the do of doughnut,’ she sang. ‘Re is the re of…’
‘Hang on, hang on,’ I interrupted. ‘Did you just say “doughnut”?’
‘Yes. “Do is the do of doughnut”. Why?’
‘Do isn’t the do of doughnut! Do is a deer, a female deer!’
‘What, you mean the English lyrics are different?’

Over the years, several people have translated The Sound Of Music into Japanese, but the version that stuck is by a woman called Peggy Hayama. Having seen the original stage musical in the early sixties, Hayama realised that particularly in the case of Do-Re-Mi, a literal translation wouldn’t work, so not only are her mnemonics different, but because the Japanese alphabet has no ‘la’ or ‘ti’ sounds, so are her syllables for the musical notes:

‘Do’ is the ‘do’ of ‘doughnut’
‘Re’ is the ‘re’ of ‘remon’
(er, lemon)
‘Mi’ is the ‘mi’ of ‘min-na’
‘Fa’ is the ‘fa’ of ‘faito’ (fight)
‘So’ is the ‘so’ of ‘aoi sora’
(blue sky)
‘Ra’ is the ‘ra’ of ‘rappa’ (trumpet)
‘Shi’ is the ‘shi’ of ‘shiawasé’
Right, let’s sing!

Another sound you don’t get in Japanese is ‘lé, hence a lemon becoming a remon, and just in case you think Hayama is advocating the use of violence, in Japan, using the English word ‘fight’ is a way of exhorting someone to do their best.

Hayama also added a second verse, which mixes in a couple more mnemonics for good measure:

DOnna toki demo (whatever)
REtsu wo kundé
MInna tanoshiku
FAito wo motté
SOra wo aoidé
RAn rararararara
(er, la la la)
SHIawasé no uta
Sah, utaimashoh

Translated back into English, it goes like this:

Whenever you want
Link your arms
Everybody having fun
Prepare to do your best
Look up at the sky
A happy song
Right, let’s sing!

Doughnuts? Fighting? Olanges and Remons? Rodgers and Hammerstein must be turning in their graves. But anyway, just for the sake of completeness, here is Hayama’s Japanese version in full:



ドレミファソラシド ドシラソファミレ
ドミミミソソ レファファラシシ
ドミミミソソ レファファラシシ……
ソドラファミドレ ソドラシドレド


Murder! / 殺人!

Mrs M appeared on TV the other day, although anonymously and with her face pixillated out. This was because she was talking about a high school classmate of hers who, believe it or not, is a murder suspect, as reported in these two news items from the 16th June edition of the Ibaraki Newspaper:

Wife and her acquaintance arrested – Chiropractor under investigation – Murder suspect ‘worried about violence’

After an incident in which chiropractor Takayuki Sawada (37) was stabbed to death in a fifth-floor apartment in Hitachi-Naka City, police from Hitachi-Naka West Precinct have arrested Sawada’s wife Satsuki Sawada (38, also a chiropractor) and a customer at their clinic, junior nurse Akiyo Kikuchi (27) of East Ohnuma Town, Hitachi City, on suspicion of murder. According to sources close to the investigation,  Mrs Sawada has said, ‘I was worried about my husband’s violence in the home’. The same police precinct is looking at whether problems within the marriage were a motive for the killing.

According to the same police precinct, both suspects have confirmed the chain of events.

The two women are suspected of conspiring to murder Mr Sawada by stabbing him with a sharp-bladed weapon at around 4am on 14th June, in an apartment in East Ishikawa, Hitachi-Naka City.

Based on a statement by Ms Kikuchi, West Precinct police have discovered a kitchen knife and bloodstained clothing in Mito City centre. The knife appears to be from the Sawadas’ apartment.

The two suspects have said that, ‘Ms Kikuchi carried out the stabbing after Mrs Sawada let her into the apartment’. West Precinct police are looking at whether Kikuchi took the more active role in committing the crime, and at whether the apartment’s living room was the crime scene. An official autopsy is being performed on Mr Sawada’s body to determine the cause of death.

According to sources close to the investigation, Mr Sawada’s upper body had been stabbed numerous times, with stab wounds to his back and chest. Based on the fact that Mr Sawada had been stabbed both from the front and from behind, West Precinct police are regarding the stabbing as being with malicious intent.

West Precinct police transferred Mrs Sawada to Mito public prosecutor’s office on 15th June.

Possibility crime was planned

What can have gone on between the couple? After an incident in which a male chiropractor was murdered, the victim’s wife and a customer at the clinic the couple ran together have been arrested, and investigations into a motive for the crime and the chain of events that led up to it are now ongoing. According to sources close to the investigation, Ms Kikuchi has admitted that she visited the Sawada’s apartment. Mrs Sawada has said that, ‘I confided in Ms Kikuchi that I was worried about my husband’s violent behaviour,’ and Hitachi-Naka West Precinct are looking into the possibility that the two suspects had been planning the murder for some time.

Mrs Sawada called the emergency services at approximately 5.40am on 14th June and said, ‘My husband has fallen over, he’s covered in blood.’

‘When I got up this morning, my husband had fallen over,’ she explained.

An unemployed man in his sixties who lives in the same apartment block as Mrs Sawada said, ‘She was considerate and seemed like a very nice woman. I’m shocked [about the arrest].’

Ms Kikuchi was employed at a hospital in central Mito, and lived with her parents and older sister in Hitachi City. According to reporters, on the morning of 15th June, Ms Kikuchi’s family said, ‘[Ms Kikuchi] really admired Mrs Sawada.’

According to neighbours, Kikuchi was mild-mannered and courteous. Looking visibly shocked, a man in his forties said, ‘When you met her, she was the kind of girl who always bowed her head and said hello. That something like this has happened is unthinkable’.

Another high school classmate of Mrs M’s called to tell us what had happened as we were driving to the in-laws’, and while I was at Japanese class later in the evening, a reporter and cameraman turned up and filmed the interview, along with some footage of Mrs M looking at her high school yearbook.

Even though Mrs M was a member of the high school student council, and came in more regular contact with her contemporaries than most, she can’t remember much about Kikuchi, and hadn’t even realised they were in the same class together beyond the first year until she looked at the yearbook. Apparently Kikuchi was quiet without being obviously neurotic, although the reporter’s questions were very much of the ‘So you’re saying she didn’t have many friends?’ variety, and seemed to justify otoh-san’s suspicions about news reporters and their sensationalist tendencies.

When the interview was screened the following morning I had already left for work, but I saw an item on the evening news that filled in some of the details of the case.

As well as being a patient at the chiropractic clinic, Kikuchi helped out there in her spare time, and having befriended Kikuchi, Sawada sold her three hand-made ‘power stone’ bracelets. These have been fashionable in Japan for a few years, and allegedly possess healing powers, which must have been why Kikuchi was willing to fork out the equivalent of a hundred pounds each for them. The reason Kikuchi owned several, a friend of hers explained, was that a power stone needs to be taken off on a regular basis and left for a day or two so that its ‘power’ can be replenished.

Surprisingly, Kikuchi’s family also appeared in the report (although like Mrs M on the morning news, their faces were blurred) and said that in the weeks leading up to the murder, Kikuchi was ‘in a dark mood’, ‘unusually quiet’ and ‘worried about something’.

Another interviewee said that Sawada had suffered broken teeth and broken ribs, so one can only assume the allegations of domestic violence were true, although it was the manner in which Sawada did away with her husband that makes the story so intriguing. The word sen-noh (洗脳 / brainwashing) was used several times in the news report, and she appears to have preyed on Kikuchi’s vulnerability in order, ultimately, to use her not just as an accomplice but as a kind of hired killer. Ironically, the more you find out about the case, the more Kikuchi begins to seem like the innocent party, even though she was the one who allegedly wielded the murder weapon.

As newsreaders are fond of saying, more on this story as we get it, and in the meantime, here are the Ibarkai Newspaper items in the original Japanese:


















Koyubi 小指

I’ve always been a sucker for any news story that involves bungling crooks, and this one from last week is a fine example of the genre:

On Monday 7th May at around 5.30pm, a 59-year-old woman arrived back at her apartment complex in Nishi-ku, Sapporo, and was checking her mail just inside the main doors when a man crept up on her from behind. He snatched her handbag – which among other things contained approximately 4000 yen (about £20) in cash – and ran off, a moment that was captured for posterity by security cameras in the residents’ car park.

As any bag snatcher worthy of the job title will tell you, it’s essential to plan your escape route in advance, but being a certified Bungling Crook, our man got on his bicycle and promptly headed towards a dead end at the back of the apartment block. Not only that, but the victim of his crime was hot on his heels, and caught up with him as he was turning around to look for a way out.

While the woman preferred to remain anonymous, she did agree to be interviewed on camera, and appeared on the news filmed from the neck down and with her voice disguised. Here’s how she described what happened next:

I held up my hands and shouted, “Wait!” and then grabbed the shopping basket on the front of the bicycle. I managed to get hold of my bag, and as I was trying to snatch it back, the struggle continued next to the bicycle. I was biting down on the thief’s left hand, and you could see it was hurting him, but even so, he didn’t make a sound. After he escaped I noticed something strange in my mouth. When I realised it was a finger, I felt rather queasy and spat it out.’

Yes, that’s right, in the process of successfully reclaiming her bag, the woman managed to bite off part of her assailant’s little finger – a neighbour interviewed for the same news item described finding it on the ground a few minutes later.

Once the thief had extricated himself from his victim’s vice-like jaws – she bit down so hard that she broke one of her front teeth – he did eventually make his getaway, and at the time of writing is still at large. Aside from the obvious distinguishing feature of being one fingertip short of a handful, he is described as being in his 30s, between 170 and 180cm tall, and solidly built, with a light-coloured jacket and dark-coloured trousers.

The most amusing thing about the story is that cutting off the top of one’s little finger is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza, so while the suspect is almost certainly not a gangster (it’s highly unlikely that a proper yakuza would indulge in such petty thievery), he is destined forever to be mistaken for one.

As one news agency rather dryly concluded, ‘The police have not revealed the whereabouts of the severed finger, nor have they said whether or not they will take a fingerprint from it to help apprehend the suspect.’

(Unfortunately, two news reports on this story have already been removed from YouTube, but if you fancy reading more about missing little fingers – aka koyubi / 小指 – may I recommend Junichi Saga’s fascinating book Confessions Of A Yakuza.)

Fresh air 新鮮な空気

In the year during which Mrs M became pregnant, we were living in a two-storey block of four apartments, one of which was being used by our landlord to store furniture, and therefore empty. Living next to us on the second floor (that’s a Japanese / American second floor, British first floor) was a middle-aged couple who had several screaming rows during the time we were living there (the walls were thin so it was hard to ignore), and whose relationship deteriorated to the point where by the time we moved out they hardly seemed to spend any time together. Beneath us on the first floor, meanwhile, was a younger man who appeared to live alone, and was a fan of what to my untrained ear sounded like ragga music. He would play his ragga not at ear-splitting volume, but loud enough to keep me from getting to sleep at night, and to wake me up before my alarm went off in the morning. We eventually made a complaint about this via the estate agents, and almost as soon as we had done so the music stopped, although this was just a coincidence.

As it turned out, the man had a wife and baby son, who, in accordance with Japanese tradition, had spent a few months around the time of the birth at her parents’ house. Once they had moved back in with the father, instead of being kept awake at night by ragga, we could instead eavesdrop during the day on the general crash, bang, wallop of a baby boy going about his everyday business. When Mrs M got pregnant (read this if you want a detailed account of our conception-related adventures), she quit her part-time job and, particularly for the first two or three months of the pregnancy, took things easy, and it was at this point that she realised something quite remarkable, namely that the baby downstairs – and its mother, for that matter – never left the apartment.

The father would head off to work at around 7am, and come rain or shine, whether it be a weekday or a weekend, mother and baby would spend the rest of the day indoors, until the father got back at seven or eight in the evening. By the time we moved out, the baby was about a year old and already walking – we could hear his footsteps as he did circuits of the living room – but even at this point he was never taken to the local park, or even out of the front door to look around the yard. I said to Mrs M that surely they must go shopping together, but she explained that no, once or twice a week a van from the Co-op came to deliver groceries. Admittedly, the mother didn’t appear to be local and probably didn’t have any friends nearby, but despite having her own car, hardly ever used it.

We weren’t sure if they were from the mother’s or the father’s side, but every few weeks the baby’s grandparents would come to visit, and they too would only ever play with their grandson inside the apartment, before driving off again a few hours later. Even more infrequently than this, mother, father and baby would get in the car and disappear for the day, but based on the evidence we had, we could only assume this was to visit the same set of grandparents at home, and certainly not to go to Disneyland or even a shopping mall. So the only time their baby was exposed to the outside world was once every couple of months, when it was carried the short distance between apartment and car at one end of the trip, and car and house at the other.

Largely out of necessity, the mother made as creative use as possible of the relatively small space – probably about sixteen square metres – she had at her disposal, turning the apartment into a kind of live-in kindergarten, and kept her son occupied with all sorts of activities: among other things, the two of them could be heard reading books, playing games, playing with toys, exercising and watching TV, and she would forever be cooing over, chatting to or consoling him.

The boy’s day-to-day life was probably as stimulating as it was possible to make it under the circumstances, but if nothing else, he was in danger of contracting rickets due to a lack of vitamin D, and Mrs M said that if she were in the same situation, it wouldn’t be long before sheer claustrophobia drove her completely round the bend. The most heartbreaking thing that we witnessed – or rather, that we could assume from our eavesdropping – happened in March of last year, when the poor kid wasn’t even allowed outside to enjoy the first snowfall of his young life; all he could do instead was survey the scene from the living room window.

OK, so I was exaggerating when I said they never left the house: just once, I found the mother standing outside the back door with her son in her arms (it could have been my imagination, but they both looked rather pale), as they waved the grandparents off after a visit. Mrs M, too, bumped into them on one occasion, and during a brief chat was surprised to find out that when she was younger, the mother had spent a year living in Australia. The father, on the other hand, was what Mrs M described as a chinpira (chav if you’re British, redneck if you’re American). He was foul-mouthed, prone to shouting at his wife, and preferred to spend his days off (actually day off – he seemed to work six-day weeks for the most part) working out at the gym rather than playing with his son. On one occasion, Mrs M returned from our early evening stroll to find him on the warpath, having discovered a strange car parked in ‘his’ space. Despite the fact that the car in question wasn’t blocking him in and would no doubt be gone by the following morning, and that in any case, the car park was large enough to accommodate several more vehicles than were owned by the people who lived there, he had summoned both the landlord and the police. There was some paperwork relating to a cram school visible on the front seat of the offending car, and it took a certain amount of diplomacy on Mrs M’s part to convince him that it wasn’t me or one of my English-teaching friends who had parked it there,

Not that this is exactly a complimentary description of them, but contrary to what you might think, I don’t in any way want to suggest that the couple were bad parents. The father may have been a little narrow-minded, but he wasn’t a wife beater or an alcoholic (the middle-aged guy on the second floor sounded much scarier when he got drunk), and let’s not forget that according to statistics, the average Japanese husband spends just fifteen minutes a day with his children. Also, the apartment-as-prison scenario is pretty extreme even by Japanese standards, where most parents will merely shield their baby from the elements until it is three months old, and smother it in hats, scarves and surgical masks to stop it from catching a cold thereafter (they also, I was surprised to find out recently, never kiss their babies, a custom that would come as a blessed relief to British politicians on the campaign trail). Once M Jr arrived, though, the experience of having such eccentric neighbours convinced us to take her outside as much as possible, and if there is ever the slightest hint that she has acquired an interest in ragga, I shall immediately confiscate her iPod.