Presents received – four nigiri
There was one very important job to do before leaving the Middle Fields’ house, and that was to check on the result of the fourth Ashes Test, which had not finished until early that morning Japanese time. England had won, they were two-one up in the series and only needed a draw from the final Test, which somehow did not come as a surprise, and sent me on my way in a bouyant mood.
The sun was out and the rush hour already over as I rode past the Imperial Palace, Ueno Park and Tokyo Station. With a Kanto Mapple strapped to my shopping basket in place of the Crap Map, I was able to plan a more conducive route back to Mito than the one I had taken on the way to Tokyo nearly six weeks’ ago, and avoided Route 6 by heading further east on more minor roads. Again I crossed river after river, and passed through forests of concrete supports beneath a tangle of expressways and interchanges. I had reached the suburbs by lunchtime, and thus traversed Tokyo from one side to the other in little more than a day’s riding. It was an act that somehow brought the city down to size, and made it clear that although its population is much greater, Tokyo covers much the same area of land as London. Upon moving to both cities for the first time, I had explored them on public transport, popping my head out from underground stations like a mole from a front lawn. Some of these stations are no more than a few hundred metres apart and some twenty times that, but without moving between them above ground you only see a series of snapshots, isolated districts that imply a huge, frantic, intimidating whole. Until you become more directly acquainted with its geography you cannot get a true sense of how a city fits together, and now that I had done this, Tokyo’s power over me seemed at last to have dissipated.
By mid-afternoon there were 747s roaring overhead as they came in to land at Narita Airport, and the surroundings were a familiar mixture of small towns and farmland. For the first time I allowed myself to visualise what it would be like to arrive home: to open the apartment door, to unpack my bags and to sleep in my own bed. I thought about imitating Mr Fukuoka by riding on through the night, but there was another day of my summer holiday still to come, and after nearly a week of staying in hotels and at friends’ houses, I was also looking forward to one last night under canvas.
As the sun dipped below the horizon the road descended onto a plain around Lake Kasumigaura, and I acquired a second wind to take me the final few kilometres through a grid of straight roads between the rice fields. A man out walking his dog showed me around the campsite, which was little more than a landscaped public park on a spit of land that stretched out into the lake. There were no other campers and no members of staff, but there was a toilet block and a covered barbecue area, with running water, mains electricity and lights to help me see as I put up the Snow Peak. With nothing on offer in the way of entertainment I headed for the nearest town, which was several kilometres away along the lakeshore, and from which I could just about pick out the lights of the campsite as I looked back across the water from a soothing second-floor rotenburo. All I needed to round off the evening was a nice little restaurant, preferably with a few amiable locals to keep me company, and not far from the onsen I found what appeared to be the ideal place, in a small wooden building with a white mini-van parked outside. Its interior was lit by a single flourescent strip light, and two men in work clothes sat talking to the chef and his wife.
‘Good evening,’ said the chef as I took my place at the bar. ‘Would you like something to drink?’
‘A beer, please.’
‘And what would you like to eat?’
‘I’m really hungry but I don’t eat meat. Do you have any fish dishes you can recommend?’
‘You’ve come to the right place – this is a sushi restaurant.’
‘How about hot food?’
‘I’m afraid not. We have miso soup, but that’s about it.’
The chef nodded towards a hand-written menu on the blackboard behind him, which contained a daunting array of kanji, and I cursed myself for not having at least recognised the characters for sushi (寿司) on the sign outside. The very word itself still cast my mind back to the Food Poisoning Incident, but to walk out now would not be very good manners, so this was to be my last supper of the trip.
‘Can you eat any kind of fish?’ asked the chef.
‘Oh yes. Fish, shellfish, whatever’s going.’
‘Then leave it to me.’
He smiled and went to work, and I was soon presented with the biggest plate of sashimi I had ever seen: twelve fat slices of shining red flesh, arranged on a bowl of rice in a flower-shaped swirl. Having doused the first piece in soy sauce and wasabi, I forced it down, stifling the urge to retch.
‘Is it good?’
‘Mmm, delicious.’ I tried to chew the fish without it touching my tongue and while still breathing through my mouth, which was quite a difficult operation.
‘That was caught in Lake Kasumigaura, you know. It’s a local speciality.’
‘Do you mind me asking what the name of this town is?’
‘Nagayama. Why, are you looking for somewhere in particular?’
‘Not really. I’m on my way back to Ibaraki – to Mito, in fact.’
‘But this is Ibaraki. The border with Chiba Prefecture is just down the road.’
‘I should eat some natto, then. Do you have any?’
Natto (納豆) is a dish of sticky, fermented soya beans with which even the Japanese have a love-hate relationship. It looks like lumpy diarrhea, smells of sweaty socks, and leaves flyaway strings of snot-like goo on your face and clothes, the smell of which can linger for days. Apart from, ‘What food do you miss from your home country?’ and, ‘Can I see your passport, please?’ one of the first questions the visiting westerner will be asked upon touching down at Narita is, ‘Can you eat natto?’ and so long as they know what it is, their reply will almost always be in the negative. Ibaraki, however, and Mito in particular, is the birthplace of natto, and during my time there I had become addicted to the stuff, as it regularly turned up in school meals and there was a natto factory on the way into Mito from my apartment. I had even entered the annual Mito Natto Speed Eating World Championships, where I was knocked out in the first round, partly because natto is so hard to pick up using chopsticks, and partly because the contest involved the consumption of a sizeable portion of rice at the same time. There is a bronze statue outside Mito Station that depicts a serving of natto in its traditional wrapping of dried grass, and while it now comes in individual polystyrene containers, each with its own sachets of soy sauce and mustard to temper the cheesy taste, natto is renowned for its health-giving properties. Asking for it here not only gave me the opportunity to mask the taste of raw fish, it also attracted the attention of the other customers, who were amazed that any foreigner could eat the stuff.
With a line of drool hanging from one corner of his mouth, the man at the far end of the bar was having trouble sitting upright, and as he moved to speak to the chef’s wife, she waved him away, saying, ‘You stink of booze!’ I laughed at this, which in turn provoked more laughter, and we were soon engaged in a heated debate about the distance between the restaurant and the campsite (someone insisted on twenty-five kilometres, which couldn’t possibly have been the case or it would have taken me the best part of two hours to get here), and whether or not Kasumigaura is the biggest lake in the country (it is in fact the second biggest, Lake Biwa near Nagoya being the first). The older of the two men was marginally more sober than his friend, with a lean, tanned face, close-cropped hair and a trim grey beard. For a construction worker in a small-town sushi restaurant, he was surprisingly passionate about internationalisation, and the important role that learning English has to play in modern-day Japanese society. I sensed in him something that I had found in so many others along the way, namely a desire to understand and interact with the outside world, despite the fact that the outside world only rarely encroached on his everyday life. Based on encounters like this, it seemed to me the supposed Japanese suspicion of foreigners existed on a collective rather than an individual level. Due to a declining birth rate and increased life expectancy, the country’s population is both ageing and shrinking, but there is still some resistance to solving the resultant labour shortage by increased immigration. Would there be a dilution of indigenous culture if more foreigners were allowed into the country? Of course there would, even if it might not be as drastic as many people believe. And would there be an increase in the crime rate at the same time? Yes again, although not because gaijin are inherently badly behaved, but because to disrupt the balance of a society that has remained so self-contained for such a long time would inevitably lead to conflict and inequality. Even taking all of this into account, I could no longer believe that the average Japanese had anything against me, it was just difficult sometimes to extract and to differentiate their personal feelings from the feelings of the group as a whole.
As the two restauranteurs and their two customers stepped outside to see me off, a fine drizzle had begun to fall. I could have been mistaken, but the construction worker appeared to be on the verge of tears, and shook my hand as if it were his own son about to ride off into the night. Having taken a wrong turn in the dark, I juddered along a gravel track for a couple of kilometres before finding my way back to the safety of the road. To my left were fields and the occasional farm building, to my right the lake, and beyond that the receding lights of Nagayama on the opposite shore. One or two cars passed by, but for the most part, the only sounds were the Mariposa’s tyres as they fizzed along the tarmac and the whir of the chain as the pedals turned. I was wet, tired, still hungry, and various parts of my body ached to a greater or lesser extent, but I thought to myself as I rode that I could do this forever, that I could happily go through Mito tomorrow and continue north, never to return. The trip, I now realised, had changed me. After so many weeks of encountering new and unexpected situations, rather than blind panic, I was prone to chin-stroking contemplation in a crisis, which I supposed was a typical traveller’s approach. On a more mundane level, this new-found calmness enabled me to sleep more soundly, and to ignore whatever strange noises were to be heard during a typical night’s camping. Where before I would curl up in the foetal position, pull the covers to my chin and hear every barking dog or tweeting bird, now I lay on my back, on top of the sleeping bag, with my arms splayed above my head, and soon nodded off to the sound of the wind in the trees, or, in the case of this particular site, a couple of stray cats scavenging for food. I imagined my stalker, that shadowy figure with a samurai sword, giving up and going home through the rain.