Presents received – Ripobitan D, melon slices, Mini Cup Noodle, tuna sandwich, potato salad
I passed the amusement park for a second time the next morning, and continued along a road that climbed gently through a dense forest before emerging into a rugged terrain of rocky mountains and streams swollen with water. Stopping to eat my remaining tomato from the previous evening, I pulled in at a small car park with a noticeboard, a toilet block and some wooden benches, on one of which sat a fellow gaijin.
The woman was pale-skinned and red-haired, with a rucksack, walking boots and waterproofs, although the latter were a size or two too big, and she didn’t seem like the self-sufficient, outdoors-y type.
‘Lovely day for hiking, isn’t it? I’ve come up from Beppu. Well, not just now, but I was there yesterday afternoon.’
She nodded and smiled but didn’t say anything in reply.
‘I’m from England, by the way. Do you live in Japan or are you just here on holiday? You’re not an ALT by any chance, are you?’
‘I’m from Canada.’ This came out almost as a whisper, and I had to lean forwards to hear what she was saying. Still, she may have been a little shy, but it was nice to speak English for a change.
‘Really? I’ve got some relatives in Canada. I’ve been there a couple of times, in fact, although not since I was at university. Are you on your own?’
‘No, I have friends.’
Come to think of it, her English was rather difficult to understand, and as she told me more, I couldn’t quite decipher whether these friends of hers were on their way, or had abandoned her at the car park and wouldn’t be back for hours.
‘Oh, I see. Er, where did you say you were from again?’
‘I’m from Quebec, so I speak French usually.’
‘French? Ah. I’ve only been to Ontario. Quebec’s supposed to be very nice, though.’
She nodded and smiled again, and I looked around at the mountains, trying to think of something else to say.
‘Hmm. I wonder if it’s going to rain later?’
Still there was no response, so without wanting to make it too obvious that I was trying to get away, I yawned, stretched my arms into the air and stood up.
‘Oh well. Time to make a move, I suppose.’
Making a mental note to never again assume that someone with white skin speaks English, I bid the hiker a hasty goodbye and sped off down the road.
Upon reaching the town of Yufuin I headed straight for the post office and bought an extra-large Jiffy bag, the idea being to stuff as many of my belongings into it as possible and send them back to Ibaraki.
There was, I had realised soon after leaving Mito, a fundamental flaw in the way I had chosen to pack my bags, and that was the fact that one of them was on my back. As a result, this part of my body had been constantly drenched in sweat, and if I didn’t want to spend the rest of the summer looking like an extra from Tenko, I would have to jettison a few of the more useless items of baggage and attach the offending rucksack to the Mariposa.
Top of the list for expulsion were:
1) Japanese for Busy People II, which had been weighing me down both literally and figuratively since day one, and caused me to wake up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion, in a cold sweat over its sheer superfluousness.
2) Swimming trunks, which I had envisioned making use of as a waterfall cascaded into the crystal clear depths of a secluded lake in the mountain wilderness, or something along those lines. This was unlikely given the fact that I can hardly swim, and had yet to encounter a single waterfall.
3) A wallet-sized executive memory card holder. When purchasing my camera in Tokyo the previous year, the salesman pointed out to me that the memory card included with it was a little on the small side (in terms of memory, that is, not size). Buying a better one added several thousand yen to the bill, thus rendering my efforts to shop around for the cheapest price pointless, and left me with a sixteen-megabyte card [editor’s note: remember, this was in 2005, when a sixteen gigabyte memory card, for example, would have been approximately the size of a family saloon car] – with holder – that I was never going to use because it only had the capacity to store about thirty photographs.
4) I had packed a couple of pairs of long socks in case of cold weather, but that was unlikely to materialise at any point between now and November.
5) In order to prevent my backside from becoming even sweatier than my back, I had been cycling commando style since day one, which meant that two pairs of Gap-for-Men brushed cotton boxer shorts were also superfluous.
6) Having said that, I had somehow managed to avoid the dreaded Chafing of the Inner Thighs – something from which I had suffered in my days as a jogger, and which is often combined with the even more uncomfortable Chafing of the Outer Testicles – and was now confident enough to dispense with my my talcum powder and moisturiser (OK, so I didn’t send these last two back to Ibaraki. That would have been stupid. I just threw them in the bin).
I told the post office clerk that my apartment would be empty until the end of August, and asked if it might it be possible to have the package delivered upon my return.
‘The end of August, you say?’
‘Yes. So any time from the first of September would be great.’
‘The first of September?’
‘Or later than that – the second or the third would be fine.’
‘Even the fourth. Just not earlier, if that’s OK.’
‘And today is…’
‘The twenty-fifth of July.’
‘Yes, the twenty-fifth.’
The clerk stood up from his seat and went to confer with one of his colleagues, with whom he was deep in conversation for several minutes. Having returned to the counter, however, he simply scrawled a few words on a piece of scrap paper and sellotaped it to the parcel. This didn’t exactly fill me with optimism that it would arrive at all, let alone the month after next, but then again, now that I had to lug them around with me all day, material possessions had begun to lose their appeal, and the thought of losing one or two no longer seemed like such a big deal.
When I asked for directions to Mount Aso at a nearby café, the couple who ran the place spent a great deal of time poring over a map and showing me which routes were the steepest, which had the best views and which the least traffic. Their verdict was that I should follow a road called the Yamanami Highway, and they even gave me a so-called ‘nutrition drink’ to send me on my way, no doubt assuming that I would need an extra something for the impending climb out of Yufuin. Eiyouh dorinku / 栄養ドリンク – aka. nutrition drinks – are a staple of the overworked salaryman, and come in small brown bottles presumably designed to give the impression that the drink therein has medicinal properties. With brand names like Regain, Rock Star and Tough Man (mine was called Ripobitan, which due to the vagaries of Japanese pronunciation would be called Lipovitan anywhere else in the world), such drinks can contain anything from caffeine to taurine and even liquid nicotine, and are to be avoided should the comsumer be under threat of any kind of random drugs test (worried that imbibing so many stimulants might cause some kind of flashback to my days as a pill-popping raver, I am ashamed to say that I poured the café owners’ gift down the drain a couple of days later).
Now that I was a kilo or two lighter, it was possible to rationalise and rearrange what I was carrying, to the point where my rucksack was no longer on my back but secured to the shopping basket with an elasticated luggage net. Sweat-free at last, I felt liberated, and with the memory of reaching Lake Shidaka still fresh in my mind, the climb away from Yufuin seemed less intimidating. More to the point, I remembered to stock up on water at a shopping mall on the edge of town, and almost before I knew it, I was once more at the top of a steep hill, and looking out across a stunning panorama of tree-covered mountainsides.
Finding it all most agreeable, I went in search of my Englishman’s afternoon tea, and at the end of a narrow driveway found a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Mediterranean, with its terracotta paintwork, canopied veranda and protruding wooden joists. The building was surrounded by apple orchards, where the trees grew in regimented rows, their branches painstakingly manipulated over many years using a framework of nets and wires. This formed a convenient apple-picking canopy about three metres above the ground, and the apples themselves were on sale in an apple-themed shop with apple-shaped souvenirs, and in an apple-themed restaurant at which I ordered apple tea and apple cake. The staff wore apple-motif uniforms, and all three waitresses had soon gravitated towards my table, curious about the gaijin in their midst. While the younger two kept quiet, their superior was keen to chat.
‘Your Japanese is very good,’ she said. ‘How long have you been living here?’
‘About a year and a half.’
‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m an English teacher.’
‘Oh, an English teacher. How marvellous!’
Despite the friendly welcome, however, there were no freebies here, and she refused to direct me back downstairs to the gents until I had first settled my bill.
It had begun to dawn on me that the Japanese are far too generous for their own good, and that the more devious traveller might play on his foreign-ness and travel around on next to nothing, on the assumption there will always be a kindly native to give him free food and drink. So, a little sneakily perhaps, I walked back to the car park and asked a group of friendly looking caravanners if I might be able to join them for my evening ‘meal’ of yet more snack food, purchased from the souvenir shop just before it had closed its doors. Sure enough, they sat me down on a folding chair and were soon plying me with proper food.
One of them had driven over six hundred kilometres from Nagoya, while his four friends – two married couples – were from northern Kyushu, and everyone appeared to be in their fifties, which, this being Japan, probably made them about twenty years older. As well as hiking and sightseeing, they had come to Kokonoé for a spot of amateur astronomy, and would take it in turns with the telescope every time there was a break in the clouds. One sighting was deemed particularly unusual, and I was invited over to see for myself.
‘Look,’ said one of the men, ‘it’s [something or other].’
Squinting into the eyepiece I saw a jumble of stars.
‘At first I thought it was [something or other], but that would be further west. Can you see it?’ He pointed enthusiastically as his friends nodded in appreciation of whatever star I was supposed to be looking at.
‘Er, yes.’ This seemed like a reasonable answer, as there were hundreds of them, even in the tiny section of space visible through the eyepiece.
‘If we’re lucky, we might get to see [something or other] later on. Is [something or other] visible from England?’
‘I should think so.’ If only the names of planets and constellations had come up in my Japanese lessons I might have been be on firmer ground, but for now it was best to keep things as vague as possible.
‘If I move it over here, you can see [something or other]. Hang on.’ He panned the telescope to one side and lined it up at exactly the right angle, so that when I looked again I could see…well, another bunch of stars.
‘Ah yes. Very interesting.’
‘[Something or other] has to be the most beautiful [something or other] in the sky.’
‘Absolutely. Does anyone else want a go?’