Muroran is only fifty kilometres or so from Tomakomai, from which I planned to catch a ferry back to Ibaraki in the evening, so along the way I paid a visit to the Porotokotan Ainu museum in Shiraoi Town.
The Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, northern Honshu and on islands in the Sea of Okhotsk for the best part of a thousand years, and while they were never subject to the kind of ill treatment inflicted on Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, for example, they were effectively treated as second-class citizens for long periods of time, and are even now more likely to be dependent on social security and to drop out of the education system before entering university.
Conversely, the Ainu language is still comparatively visible, even if very few people actually speak it. For example, on the computer I am using to write this blog entry – a 2006 MacBook with OS 10.6.8 – there is an Ainu character input option in the system preferences language menu, and around 80% of the place names in Hokkaido – along with many more in northern Honshu – are of Ainu origin. The reason I came across so many bizarre place names over the course of the summer (‘centre buttocks island’, ‘increased hair town’ and so on), is that the Japanese decided – somewhat arbitrarily, it would seem – to render their phonetic Ainu pronunciations in kanji. Shiraoi (白老), for example, means ‘place of many horseflies’ in Ainu, while its kanji mean ‘white elderly’; Sapporo (札幌) means ‘big dry river’ in Ainu and ‘note awning’ in Japanese, and Muroran (室蘭) means ‘small hill’ in Ainu and ‘room orchid’ in Japanese.
Estimates as to the number of Ainu living in Japan vary greatly, with the official population at between twenty and thirty thousand, and the unofficial one at ten times that. The greatest concentration of Ainu, though, is here in the southern part of Hokkaido, and Porotokotan is a recreation of a traditional settlement, with thatched houses, a botanical garden and a statue of the village chief.
Today’s show was introduced by a charismatic young man in traditional costume, who had a good line in patter and some basic conversational ability in several different languages, although for the benefit of parties of tourists from China and Singapore, two interpreters were also translating what he said into Cantonese and Mandarin.
Among other things, he talked about the Ainu religion, which resembles Shinto in that everything is said to possess a spirit, including rivers, trees and so on, but also natural phenomena, household objects and even diseases. All creatures are considered sacred, and spiritual purity can be gained by releasing fish, birds and so on from captivity.
At a Seicomart just up the road I met a man who was originally from America, but with his big white beard looked so much like Father Christmas on a day off that I shall christen him Mr Lapland.
‘I guess that saves you some money,’ I said.
‘It does, although there’s nothing much to do on a campsite so it’s mainly to keep me occupied in the evenings.’
Noticing Mr Lapland’s flip-flops, I asked if he didn’t have anything slightly more durable to wear on his feet.
‘Nope. I realised pretty quickly these are the most practical thing there is – it doesn’t matter if they get wet, right?’
‘That’s true,’ I said, and wished I had thought of the same thing myself, instead of spending the summer either avoiding rain altogether or wrapping my only semi-waterproof hiking shoes in plastic bags.
‘Actually this is just what I ride in,’ continued Mr Lapland. ‘I’ve got a different set of clothes for the evening – gotta keep the mosquitoes away from your ankles, after all – although I also found that it’s difficult to do your laundry properly when you’re camping, so when my pants [editor’s note: he means trousers] get dirty I just throw them away and buy a new pair.’
‘Where are you going today?’
‘Towards Muroran. How about you?’
‘Tomakomai. I’m getting the ferry back this evening.’
‘Really? I’ll let you into a secret – another thing I’ve learned over the years is that clockwise is best.’
‘Well, you’re always on the side of the road that’s closest to the sea, so you get an unobstructed view.’
Mr Lapland had a point: like the British, the Japanese drive on the left, so it makes sense to go clockwise around the island if you’re following the coast road, not to mention being safer – after all, how many times had I had to dart across two lanes of traffic to get a better look at a beach, an island or a sunset? Yes, as it turned out, all this time I had been going the wrong way round.
Then again, if I had gone clockwise around Hokkaido instead of anti-clockwise, I would almost certainly never have met Mr Big Bridge, Mr Village Middle, Mr Small Field, Mr Safe Wisteria, Mr Cedar Mountain, Mr Flower Field, Mr Warehouse, Mr Assistant Wisteria or Mr Crocodile Field, and it struck me now that this cycle tour was a rather neat metaphor for life itself, in the sense that depending on arbitrary decisions such as which way to turn at a T-junction, where to stop and where to stay, where to eat and where to drink, how far to ride and how long to rest, like a computer model for chaos theory, where one ends up, what one ends up doing and who one ends up meeting can change completely, and not just that day or that night, but many weeks hence and hundreds, even thousands of kilometres down the road.
Somehow I had found myself at Cape Erimo in the fog, on Route 142 in glorious sunshine, at Cape Sohya in a gale, in the Sarobetsu national park with a tailwind, on the road to Kuromatsunai in the pitch dark, above Lake Kussharo with the perfect lake view, on Mount Hakodaté with the perfect night view, on the Godzilla Rock in Shiretoko, on the Swan Bridge in a sports car, and in a Seicomart car park with a Father Christmas lookalike. And in much the same way, somehow I had found myself quitting my job in London, moving to Tokyo, relocating to Ibaraki, meeting Mrs M, getting married and living happily ever after, and even if it did all happen by chance, even if the whole algorithm could have changed with the addition of a single digit or the subtraction of a single decimal point, even if the whole galaxy had spun in a different direction with a different combination of stars and a different configuration of planets, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Speaking of which, over the past few days I had concocted a plan to surprise Mrs M by returning in time for her birthday on 1st September, and when I called her from the ferry I pretended that I was still camped beside Lake Tohya, all the while praying there would be no announcements over the PA system that might give away my true location.
‘To be honest we didn’t have a lot of time for surfing,’ he said. ‘The ferry takes about twenty hours and it was another four hours’ drive to the beach. The waves were good, though, and we got to surf with schools of salmon that were on their way back to Hokkaido to lay their eggs.’
Mr Mountain Middle lived in Kashima in the south of Ibaraki and ran two interior design businesses (Bamboo Design Biz and Angin Furniture and Design), among other things importing furniture from Bali, where he had lived for a year. He had also spent a year in Australia and a year on Ohshima, an island in the Pacific south of Tokyo.
‘I worked as a waiter in a hostess bar,’ he said. ‘But most of the people who live there are older, so I was single the whole time. Actually it’s not that much different in Kashima. Because I’ve travelled a lot I’m seen as a bit of an outsider – plus there’s the san-busu, of course.’
‘San-busu?’ I said. ‘What’s that?’
‘In English it means “the three uglies”. The san-busu are Nagoya, Mito and Sendai – that’s where all of the ugly women in Japan are: Aichi, Ibaraki and Miyagi.’
Considering the fact that I had married a girl from Ibaraki and that one of my best friends lives in and is married to a girl from Nagoya, I might have taken offence at this, although it does have at least some basis in fact: in feudal times, clan leaders were in the habit of taking all of the beautiful women with them when they were relocated to another part of the country.
Also, once I had seen him in action, Mr Mountain Middle’s sob story about being a lonely bachelor seemed even more likely to be fictional than that of the san-busu. As we were queuing for our buffet dinner, he started chatting up one of the waitresses, and continued to badger her without the slightest hint of embarrassment for the rest of the time we were in the cafeteria. OK, so he never did get her phone number, but I couldn’t imagine it would be long before him and his surfer dude buddies – both of whom also claimed to be single – would find some women to accompany them on their next trip to the beach.