Home gym

I’ve only ever joined a gym once and that was out of necessity. I was in training for the London Marathon (which sounds very grand, although in the end, it took me nearly five hours to complete the course) and during training I got injured. I went to my local GP, who was of absolutely no help whatsoever. He prescribed some pain-relieving gel, which wasn’t going to solve the problem at all, so I booked an appointment with a physiotherapist whose office was in a gym next to Clapham Junction station. My original intention wasn’t to join the gym, but one of the things that she advised me in relation to the injury – the diagnosis was shin splints – was that I should avoid running on tarmac, concrete, uneven surfaces, and so on for the time being. So I paid my 40 pounds a month and very reluctantly started to go to this gym about three or four times a week.

A very nice guy who worked there talked me through various warm-up exercises and suggested an exercise routine. (He turned out to be a jazz trumpeter, so we went to one or two jazz jam sessions together as well, although that’s by the by.) I remember using a rowing machine and lifting some weights, but I don’t remember much else, apart from the fact that I spent a lot of time on the running machines. There were only a limited number, so sometimes I wasn’t able to run for as long as I wanted or I wasn’t able to run at all. But thanks to the gym and in particular the physiotherapist, my injury improved sufficiently that I could take part in the marathon.

My final major indoor training session involved running on one of the running machines for three hours. I did take a break once or twice, but I remember watching the entire FA Cup final and still needing time to carry on running for about another hour after it finished. I never used an exercise bike in the gym, but I remember that they had those exercise bike classes where the teacher sits on their bike in the middle, everybody sits on their bikes in a semi-circle around the teacher, and they go through a routine which is supposedly going to make them super-fit.

Cut to approximately 20 years later and Mrs M took up jogging here in Japan. When it was dark, she used a headlight and a reflective sash, but she still slipped and fell on one occasion and was nearly hit by a car on another. She was also rather worried about who might be lurking on those poorly lit backstreets and one day said that she’d like to get a running machine.

I was very much averse to this idea, but began looking on Jimoty, which is the Japanese equivalent of Freecycle in the UK (although by no means all of the items available on Jimoty are free). It’s a site where you can search for items within your prefecture and within the prefecture, the location of the person trying to offload it is listed, so you can also choose to purchase items being sold or given away by people who only live within a few kilometres of your house. I was lucky to find a running machine that, had we bought it in an electrical store, would have cost about 60,000 yen. The woman who listed it on Jimoty was selling it for 10,000 yen. It wasn’t brand new, but it was in perfect working order. The only problem was that it was very heavy and when I went to collect it from the woman’s house, which was about 50 minutes’ drive away from where I live, she had a friend of hers help me lift it into the car. Then when I arrived home, Mrs M helped me carry it upstairs and we probably both came within a hair’s breadth of giving ourselves hernias in the process.

We had to put it upstairs because the house where we live has one unnecessarily large bedroom on the second floor (first floor if you’re British) and because I was injured again – this time with a pulled hamstring. Rather against my will, I then started looking on Jimoty for an exercise bike. The reason that I managed to take advantage of the bargain-priced running machine is because it wasn’t listed using the accepted Japanese term for a running machine, which meant that when people were searching for running machines, the listing didn’t pop up in their search results. There are at least three different terms for an exercise bike in Japanese, and the man who listed the one that I ended up buying used the less well known of the three, which meant that I bought quite a nice exercise bike for about 6000 yen – less than half the price it would have cost to buy the same one new.

Most of the ones available in the shops and on sites like Jimoty necessitate a very unnatural sitting position, in the sense that you’re sitting up straight and your legs are slightly in front of you, which isn’t the kind of position that I’m used to with my cross bike. I almost bought one of those, but the person who I sent to message to didn’t respond. In this end, M Jr II and I drove a long way into neighbouring Tochigi Prefecture to buy an exercise bike with a more conducive sitting position.

That was about a year and a half ago and since then, I’ve ridden more than 2000 kilometres indoors and on the spot. I can’t say that I enjoy it, but if you have a routine that involves jogging and cycling every other day, if it’s chucking it down with rain (or snowing, as it has several times this winter), if I can’t be bothered to go outside, or if Mrs M is working and I can’t leave the children alone in the house, then an exercise bike and a running machine are – I will now very grudgingly admit – quite helpful tools to have in the house.

The main disappointment about exercising indoors is that there’s nothing to look at. I set up a TV for Mrs M to watch while she was using the running machine, but I find that I can’t really concentrate on the image on the screen while I’m moving. When I’m on the exercise bike, I listen to podcasts and music using the speaker on my iPhone. On the running machine, because it’s so noisy, it’s much better too listen on headphones, although another thing about the bike is that there’s no view. You can’t look at the scenery, you can’t watch the cars go past, you can’t look up at the sky, and you can’t look around and see anything interesting apart from a couple of posters on the wall.

As explained in this podcast interview (if you do listen, fast forward to about 26 minutes in if you want to avoid the sponsors’ ads and another, extraneous interview) with a very interesting guy called Andrew Huberman, it’s very therapeutic to go walking or jogging or cycling and have a view around you that is panoramic, in the sense that you can look to your left, to your right, look up, look down, look behind you, look in front of you, and see a long way into the distance when you do so. Another thing that Huberman has pointed out on his own podcast is that sports like cycling, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing involve moving forward, but also leaning from side to side as you turn corners, and this has been scientifically proven to be a pleasurable experience for the people taking part. Something goes on in your brain when you are moving forward and leaning from side to side that releases some kind of happy chemical and makes you feel good. He explained this by saying that a lot of surfers and skateboarders are basically slackers, but when it comes to their hobby, are willing to get up very early in the morning, travel a long way, and go through a certain amount of hardship to enjoy it.

An annoying thing about my exercise bike is the gears – or rather, the lack of them. There is a knob on the frame that you can turn anti-clockwise or clockwise to make pedalling easier or more difficult. The knob operates a kind of pad that creates more or less friction on the front wheel (there is, of course, no back wheel). For starters, my children and any other children who happen to come to the house enjoy (ahem) fiddling with my knob, and if I get on the bike after they’ve been playing in the big bedroom – aka our home gym – it’s either far too easy and the pedals rotate like some kind of comedy cartoon at a million miles an hour, or it’s far too difficult and even if I stand up and put all of my weight on the pedals to make the first turn, they don’t move at all. I suppose not having a click as the bicycle goes into the next gear, and not having three, five, or eight gears arranged in increments to denote a particular ratio, is a good thing because it means you can find exactly the right setting for the amount of effort that you want to exert. Ultimately, though, it’s very difficult to find that sweet spot and I find myself adjusting the knob not constantly, but far more often than I would adjust the gears when I ride outdoors.

Speaking of children fiddling with your knob, we had a party about this time last year and various children are playing upstairs in the home gym. Myself a friend of mine, Mr. Ireland, were chatting away and keeping half an eye on what the children were doing when all of a sudden, M Jr II started shouting at me to stop the running machine. He said that something was stuck in the machine and when I looked down, I saw a kind of purple blob protruding from the front of the conveyor belt.

“Oh, don’t worry,” I said. “It’s just a balloon. It’ll pop.”

But M Jr II kept insisting that I do something about it. After closer investigation, myself and Mr. Ireland realised that it wasn’t a balloon at all, but a kind of beach ball that the children had been throwing around the bedroom. We put the running machine on its side, got a screwdriver, opened it up, extracted the now squashed beach ball, and made sure that none of the wiring and so on had been damaged. A plastic cover that protects the insides of the machine had snapped away at one or two of the screws, but fortunately it still worked.

When I was injured and joined a gym, I did my training, ran the marathon, and immediately cancelled my membership once it was over. (I also stopped running for the best part of 15 years.) But of course, many people resolve – for example, after Christmas and the New Year when they’ve eaten too much, drunk too much, and put on weight – to join a gym and get fit. What happens is that they sign on the dotted line, submit their credit card details, and the monthly fee disappears from their bank account. By April or May, they’ve already stopped going. Part of them feels guilty about this and part of them is determined to keep going: maybe next week, maybe the week after.

The same rule applies to buying fitness equipment for your home. I don’t know the statistics, but I would wager that well over 90% of fitness equipment in the home is lying in a corner, unused and gathering dust. The mother of a friend of M Jr’s came to our house a couple of months ago and saw our running machine for herself.

“Can I have a go?” she asked, to which Mrs. M said, “Of course. Take your time. This is how you switch it on. See what you think.”

This friend – let’s call her Ms. Tochigi – was so impressed that she went out the next day and bought a brand new running machine from an electrical store for 60 or 70,000 yen. She put it in a spare bedroom with the intention of getting fit, but when we saw her again recently and I asked, “How’s the running machine coming along? Are you using it every day?” she replied, “Actually, I haven’t even taken it out of the box yet.”

“Well,” I said, “you could always sell it on Jimoty.”

Food quiz no. 4

This is the fourth of my food quizzes in an ongoing series. I’ll be honest and say that for the previous three, I’ve only received one answer to the question that I posed. It was a correct answer, but the other two mysteries are, as yet, unsolved, so this time I want to give some clues as to what the answer may be. This won’t necessarily make the quiz any easier – particularly not for people living outside Japan – but anyway, I am a great lover of toast and a few years ago graduated from eating cereal for breakfast to eating toast instead, or bread as the case may be. Rumour has it that cereal contains less nutrition than a piece of cardboard, although this myth was busted by – appropriately enough – the TV show Mythbusters, which tested the nutritional contents of cereal and cardboard, compared them, and came to the conclusion that cereal was at least marginally more beneficial for your health than cardboard, or at least could keep you alive for longer.

The reason I switched to toast was because cereal is much less popular in Japan than in the UK, although in recent years, granola and the like are becoming more popular, even if they are a lot like UK cereals: in other words, 90% sugar and only 10% vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and so on.

Another problem about living in Japan is that there are fewer options when it comes to what to spread on your toast or bread. I’m fanatical about peanut butter – in fact, I’m thinking of writing a post about peanut butter alone in the not-too-distant future because it’s such a big part of my life – but peanut butter, jam, and for English people Marmite, are less readily available in Japan, which has led to me searching for alternatives. I spread all sorts of weird and wonderful things on my toast in the morning and parenthetically, I usually cut one slice of toast into four and spread four different items, one on each quarter, which is, I have to admit, eccentric.

So today’s food quiz originates in one of those experiments. I can’t remember what I spread on the other two quarters of toast not visible in this photo because it was a couple of weeks ago now, but the two you can see here are alternatives to Marmite, in the sense that they are black and not necessarily the kind of thing that everyone would like on their toast.

By way of a hint as to what they are, the one on the left is something that Japanese people will often put on rice when they eat it. There tend to be two schools of thought in Japan: Mrs M is one of those people who doesn’t like to eat rice on its own, whereas I am one of those people who does. There is a foodstuff called furikaké, which we refer to with our children as “sprinkles.” Furikaké comes in all sorts of flavours ­– for example, seaweed, egg, salmon, and so on – and is usually dry and powdery.

The shiny black substance you can see here is not crude oil. Rather, it is a kind of paste and is definitely not available abroad unless you shop in a specialist Japanese supermarket. Personally, I think that it’s very nice on rice or toast, and it contains an ingredient that is not necessarily unique to Japan, but is much more popular here than in almost any other country in the world.

The other quarter of toast has something spread on it that is more unusual, that even an ordinary Japanese person may not have eaten and even if they have, may not like.

I received this as a gift – a very strange gift, you might say – when I was working as an adjudicator for an English exam in a far corner of Ibaraki Prefecture a few weeks ago. Normally, when I work as an adjudicator for this particular English exam, it’s all rather formal. There are a lot of examiners, a lot of students, and it’s quite a tiring day. The money is good, which is why I do it, but there tends not to be much banter or camaraderie, as there’s a lot of work to get through and because it’s an exam, we need to play by the rules and not take matters too lightly. But when I was adjudicating in a place called Ryūgasaki, the atmosphere was rather different. There were fewer examiners, fewer students, and the old guy who was helping us get through the day without making any mistakes, telling us what to do, where to go, whether or not to use anti-bacterial spray on our hands and so on, was an amusing fellow. I don’t know exactly who had left it for us, but at the end of the day we were given a present to go away with. Normally this would be something like cakes or sweets, but this particular present was very unusual. I’ve only ever received it on one other occasion and that was from one of Mrs M’s aunts, who makes it herself. The process of making it is very laborious and it takes, I believe, either 12 or 24 hours in a rice cooker, which is a lot of electricity to use for something that a lot of people don’t like.

I’m not even sure how most people eat it and/or whether they mix it with something else to create different recipes. Mrs M mixed it with a sweet, vinegary sauce to make a kind of paste and I had the bright idea that it might be a good idea to spread this on toast. Which is a very long-winded way of saying that the main ingredient in the spread on the second quarter of toast is a vegetable of some kind, although normally that vegetable is not black; in the process of cooking, it changes colour completely. In fact, the taste changes, too.

But I’ve already said too much! If you think you know the answers to food quiz no. 4, do please leave a comment, and I will be very impressed if anyone answers this correctly.

Cycling by moonlight

Blogger’s health warning: this post was lovingly crafted with the help of voice recognition software (specifically, Microsoft Word), so readers are warned that reading it may make you feel as if you have been accosted by someone with verbal diarrhoea.

For the past two or three years I’ve been going to bed earlier and earlier and getting up earlier and earlier. This is a result of my insomnia and the various strategies I’ve put in place to tackle it, and a side effect of getting up at four or five in the morning has been my exercise routine, which has also shifted to earlier in the day.

At first I was going walking or jogging or cycling at about six o’clock in the morning, so I would arrive back at the house when my wife and children were up and about, whereas for the past year or so, I’ve been getting up, getting dressed, leaving the house, going jogging or cycling, and getting back when they’re still asleep. During the summer this is not necessarily a difficult thing to do, or at least it doesn’t present too many practical problems. Also – and this is something I will post about in due course – you get some wonderful opportunities to photograph the sunrise and the golden hour, and last summer I took a series of early morning photographs of which I’m very proud, although in a sense it’s cheating to take photographs at that time in the morning because everything looks beautiful, even if you’re cycling past a concrete building, on a main road, with telegraph poles and dustbins and so on surrounding you. The morning light is so enchanting that you can’t fail to take good photographs, no matter how incompetent you may be as a photographer or whatever equipment it is that you’re using.

As my early morning cycling and jogging exploits continued into autumn and winter, I found myself getting up, getting dressed, going out, and getting back to the house all while it was still dark. I enjoy the sense of adventure that this presents and in fact, the only real reason that I’ve stopped doing it recently is because I’ve been busy with work and had plenty of other things to be getting on with. Four or five in the morning is a time when the house is quiet (apart from the cat, who meows from the other side of the dining room door, begging me to play with him). It’s a time when I can concentrate and get a good hour or so of translating done while I’m alert and drinking my morning coffee.

Apart from it being dark, one of the factors that makes cycling and jogging difficult in the winter is that it’s very cold and the preparation takes an unnecessarily long time. Another thing that I like to do at that time in the morning is listen to podcasts and music, so I have to get my smartphone and my Bluetooth headphones ready, in addition to putting on an extra couple of layers of clothing, gloves, hat, and snood.

(Many years ago I was told by a work colleague that a snood or a scarf is a good way of preventing colds, in the sense that it protects your throat. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but it’s something that I still do.)

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of going outside when it’s very cold is what in America they call “hangnail.” I still don’t really know what it’s called in British English and in Japanese it’s sakamuké or sasakuré. Basically, it is the condition where the skin on either side of a thumbnail or fingernail splits. It doesn’t bleed, but it does hurt a lot. Once you have hangnail, all sorts of everyday tasks become painful, so before I put on my gloves, I have to apply some special cream. My uncle in the UK recommended something called Snowfire, which is a kind of deodorant-style stick that contains a painkiller, as well as additional ingredients of obscure origin. Snowfire isn’t available in Japan and when I checked, it was sold out on Amazon, too, so I use this thing called Kiss Me (don’t laugh), which was recommended to me by my mother-in-law. She does a lot of cleaning, washing up, and laundry all year round, so her hands get very dry and she suffers from hangnail, too. I found that Kiss Me is very good, but you still need to apply it pretty much every day and the best time to do so is before you put on some gloves, so it has some time to work before you next wash your hands or the cream rubs off on whatever it is you’re handling.

There aren’t very many cars around at night, but it is slightly dangerous if you don’t have proper lights on your bike, and even if it’s not dangerous, you can’t see where you’re going very well and you may bash a into curbstone or fall down a drain. An ordinary bicycle light isn’t quite enough to show you where you’re going – as a rule, bicycle lights aren’t for the rider to see what’s around them, they’re for making them more visible to other drivers and pedestrians. So I eventually settled on using a headlight, too. You know the kind of thing I mean: a miner’s headlamp with an elasticated strap.

The coldest it’s been these past few months was about minus five or six degrees Celsius, and there’s something quite bracing about that if you’re wrapped up warm and moving your body, and sweating underneath all those layers of clothing isn’t such a bad thing.

I’ve been cycling to various different places in and around the small town where we live, and one of those is down by the river. Some of the best – if not the best – places to go cycling in Japan are these riverside cycle paths. Because of typhoons and heavy rain during the rainy season, there’s a great danger of flooding in Japan. So a lot of the wider rivers and tributaries have extensive dykes along both sides. These have been turned into cycling paths all over the country and I have a couple of routes that I take along the Kuji River, over a bridge, back along the opposite side, and back home.

Like I said, there’s hardly anybody around at this time of the morning, apart from the occasional truck and the occasional car driven by somebody who’s about to go to work or has just finished a night shift. But something you do see in Japan – as I discovered when I had insomnia and was often awake at two, three, four in the morning – is old guys on scooters delivering newspapers. I used to have a paper round when I was 14 or 15 years old and I would get up at 6:30, go to the paper shop at about 6:45, pick up my bag of newspapers, cycle around a nearby housing estate for three quarters of an hour delivering them, then go home, have breakfast, and go to school. But in Japan, traditionally people seem to like their newspapers to be delivered much earlier than that. The earliest I’ve seen a newspaper delivery guy scooting around is at about 2:30 in the morning. In fact, in order to help pay for his children to go to university, a friend of mine took on a paper round in addition to his day job, so he gets up at two in the morning and starts work at 2:30. I’m not sure when he gets back, but he has enough time to have breakfast, get ready for work, and go to his day job.

On one occasion a few months ago, I was cycling along a deserted side road when I saw the light from what I assumed were car headlights behind me. I moved over to the side of the road to let whoever it was go past, but as it turned out, it was an old guy on a scooter who pulled up beside me and said hello. I was hastily trying to press the stop button on my headphones and move them aside, so didn’t quite catch everything that he said. But he asked me where I was from and what I was doing, and I told him that I was just getting some exercise. He told me to take care and we went our separate ways, although I’ve also had a near miss with one of these newspaper delivery men.

A scooter pulled out from somebody’s driveway and nearly hit me, even though I was wearing my headlight. I don’t think he even noticed that I was there, and carried on his way. On another occasion, a car turned right from a main road onto the side road that I was about to exit. He didn’t indicate, cut the corner, and came within a whisker of bashing into me as he did so. It wouldn’t have been a serious accident and rather than me being injured, I probably would have scratched the side of his car. If this had been in London during the day and he’d been an inconsiderate taxi driver, it may have turned into a full-blown road rage incident. But this being Japan and me cycling along happy as Larry and listening to a podcast on my headphones, I didn’t feel angry. He, too, stopped the car, got out, said how sorry he was, and bowed apologetically, and we both went on our way without any sense of aggression or annoyance.

But I digress. On one of my early morning riverside rides, I was using my headlight to find my way. You won’t even see any cars on a cycle path by the river, so I really did have the place to myself. I looked up and around and saw the stars. That night the moon was, if not full, certainly close to it and very bright. I realised that the light on the surroundings was a very attractive silvery colour and it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need my headlight. So I switched it off and indeed it was bright enough to see. The silence and semi-darkness made for a very agreeable ride. I followed the river, went across the bridge and back along the other side, and on the way I met another early morning exerciser with the same idea as me. This time I was the guilty party because I was cycling and this person was jogging. I was looking around me at the beautiful moonlit scenery and starlit sky when suddenly I saw a shape in front of me. We didn’t hit each other and I zipped past him and, well, to cut a long story short, I couldn’t be bothered to go back and apologise. But it made me realise that as a cyclist, cars and trucks are, if not your enemy then something that you have to be wary of. As a pedestrian or a runner, you also have to beware of cyclists.

There was a story on the news the other day about an Uber eats delivery person who was cycling around Tokyo, crashed into and killed a pedestrian. Dangerous cycling or cycling that may endanger people’s lives has been an issue in Japan for the past few years, as it has elsewhere in the world, and on this occasion he was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. Both adults and children have been taking out cycling insurance in case they cause an accident, so take care, fellow cyclists. Whether it’s during the day or during the night, make sure that people can see you coming and if you have lights, use them. If you have high-visibility clothing and accessories, use them, too.


Blogger’s health warning: the following post was written using voice recognition software and as a result is, er, rather odd.

Late last autumn I went to Tokyo for the first time in about two years – ah, the joys of COVID! The last time I went was with my family to Haneda Airport, although we weren’t going to fly in a plane. We went so that my son and daughter could watch the planes take off and land, and also so that we could go to the food court and the souvenir shops, as we wanted to sample some interesting cuisine and buy New Year’s presents for our family. Since then we haven’t been in lockdown, but there’s been a general restriction on travel and it hasn’t necessarily been viewed as a good thing to venture outside your own prefecture and potentially bring COVID back to give to your friends, family, and classmates.

I was given the opportunity to present a seminar at the midwifery department in a place called St. Luke’s International University. Myself and three or four other foreigners who’d experienced raising children in Japan took part, along with a Japanese lady who had given birth to her first child in America. We were talking to a fairly small group of elementary school students of about 11 to 12 years old, in a very nice new building, and various of the students on the midwifery course were helping out.

As an aside, I was given a shopping voucher to be spent on the products or services of my choice as a nominal fee for the day, but was paid full travel expenses. In actual fact, the cheapest and quickest way to get to Tokyo from where I live in Ibaraki is by bus, as the route by train is a little complicated, more expensive, and often takes more time. There are roadworks near our house at the moment and the bus stop that I would normally use is out of action, so I chose a different bus stop, to which I could cycle or drive in the morning, leave my car or my bicycle there and pick it up the next day, as I was going to combine this business trip with a night in Tokyo and some mountain biking the following day (MTB is an abbreviation that, to my embarrassment, I wasn’t aware of until I Ecosia-ed it recently).

I booked my bus ticket online and the information on the bus company website said that the bus stop was at the entrance to City Hall, which I have often visited because they used to be my employers. Partly because of Mrs M’s influence, I’m more organised than I used to be when it comes to preparing, packing, and planning, and I like to think I was well prepared for this particular trip. I slept well, got up on time, had some breakfast, and got my things together. I decided not to cycle to City Hall because the weather forecast for the following day was for rain and I didn’t want to cycle home in the rain and the dark having caught the late bus back from Tokyo. I parked in the overflow car park, walked to the entrance to City Hall, and arrived at about 8:20. There wasn’t anybody else there, but there’s a roundabout at the entrance and something that looks a bit like a bus stop on the road itself. I waited, checked the time on my smartphone, and at 8:25, when the bus was due to arrive and depart, started to wonder if something might be amiss. There is a staff entrance to the City Hall that backs onto a different road and I wondered if the bus stop was there. I was beginning to sweat a little at this point even though it was a winter’s day and ran over to the staff entrance. But the gate was shut and there was nobody standing on the road on the other side. I couldn’t see a bus anywhere and started to think, well, this bus doesn’t look like it’s going to turn up. If it was the UK, this would be a perfectly normal experience because buses and whatever other form of transport you care to use tend not to turn up on time, whereas in Japan, even buses arrive on time, which is quite miraculous when you consider that they can get caught in traffic jams very easily and shouldn’t necessarily be predictable.

Anyway, it got to 8:30 and 8:35, and half of me was panicking and half of me was resigned to failure. Thankfully I had a Plan B, but that involved walking to the nearest railway station, catching a local train to Mito, then catching an express train from there to Tokyo. There was a local train leaving soon, so in the end I arrived at the venue in Tokyo on time. But as well as spending about 2000 yen on a bus ticket, I spent about 4000 yen on a ticket for the express train and ended up paying for both. I had an amusing story to tell to the nice people at St. Luke’s about not being able to catch the bus from City Hall, but I didn’t have the heart to ask them for 8000 yen in travel expenses.

After the lecture I met two friends of mine from when I was living in Tokyo in 2004. One was my former teacher from a volunteer Japanese class and the other was Mr Vancouver, who was a fellow student in the same class. Among other things, Mr Vancouver was kind enough to attend both legs of my online 50th birthday party last April and when I said that I was coming to Tokyo, he suggested that we go mountain biking together. When he did so, my first thought was, well, if I’m going to Tokyo, I don’t want to get on a train, leave to go mountain biking, come back and then leave again for Ibaraki. Plus this was going to be my first experience of mountain biking and I wasn’t overly keen on the idea. For cycle touring I have a cross bike and I cycle along roads. Obviously I cycle up and down mountain roads but I’m on the bike the whole time, whereas I’d always assumed that mountain biking involved carrying your bike up a steep hill and then cycling back down again, which sounded to me like a hassle, not to mention being dangerous. But in the interests of spontaneity, I decided to accept his invitation.

Our former Japanese teacher is a very generous soul: a computer engineer who retired on a very tidy pension and lives in a fashionable part of Tokyo, albeit on the ground floor of a very small house with his son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren occupying the first (that is, second) floor. On this occasion we went to a trendy bar in Nakano, then to a fish and seafood restaurant. The narrow backstreets of Nakano are very atmospheric and the food was fantastic. Among other things, we ate deep-fried cod sperm (shirako/白子). I ordered too much, ate too much, ate too late (I would normally stop at 7 p.m. and it was past 8 when I had savoured the last morsel of sperm), and we very much enjoyed ourselves.

I had booked a room at hotel in Shinjuku at the rock-bottom price of 3500 yen, and both the room and the hotel were better than I expected, in a high-rise building of 10 or 15 floors. I had a single room with my own bed and a TV. There wasn’t a toilet in the room, but there were toilets on the same floor and a large communal bath in the basement. I had a very hot bath at about 9:30, the bed wasn’t the most comfortable in the world, and as the evening wore on, a lot of doors were slamming in the corridor. I read my book (Cycling Japan by Bryan Harrell), did my meditative breathing exercises, and couldn’t get to sleep, so switched on the light, read my book again, went to the toilet along the corridor, came back, and repeated the process. Then I repeated the process again, and again. I was supposed to meet Mr Vancouver at 7 o’clock the following morning, so I needed to get up at six. He had said that he didn’t mind going later, but I had to return to Tokyo in the afternoon to catch the bus (if I could find the correct stop, that is), so was worried that I wouldn’t get enough sleep and not be in the best mood or physical condition to go mountain biking.

The wall clock ticked on to 10 o’clock, 10:30, 11, and 11:30. After about the fourth or fifth time of trying, I opened my eyes and miraculously, it was light outside. Out of the window was a view of the high-rise buildings of Shinjuku in a pale and misty morning light. I looked at my smartphone and it was almost exactly six o’clock, which meant that by my calculation, I had enjoyed a decent-but-not-outstanding six hours’ sleep. I was elated at this and rushed to get dressed, pack my things, and go downstairs. There was nobody in reception, so I left my key on the desk and was on my way out when the receptionist appeared from a back room and asked me to sign a checkout form.

The entertainment district of Shinjuku is an interesting place to walk through, as I had done the previous evening, and on that occasion there were lots of people who had been to a local shrine and bought New Year’s decorations. At six on a Sunday morning there were just those who’d been up all night drinking and women (probably some men, too) tottering along on high heels. No doubt a lot of them had been bar hopping or working in hostess or host clubs until the small hours. Some were still enjoying themselves, some were couples negotiating about where to go for breakfast, some of them were falling asleep on their feet.

Before going to bed, I had promised myself some 7-Eleven coffee for my own breakfast. A couple of years ago, 7-Eleven decided to adopt coffee machines that make proper ground coffee for about 100 yen a cup. You can see the beans being fed into the top of the machine and you can hear them being ground. It takes about 15 or 20 seconds before the coffee appears in your paper cup, although this could all be a ruse to make you think that it’s not instant. By way of solids, I had some gifts that I had received from St. Luke’s the previous day, which were also from 7-Eleven and now squashed flat in the bottom of my rucksack. One of them was a stodgy cake of some description, which contained just the right amount of sugar, flour, chocolate, and cream to kick me awake in combination with my supposedly ground coffee.

I wasn’t going to the main part of Shinjuku station but to Seibu-Shinjuku Station just north of it, which houses the line along which I used to live when Mr Vancouver and I were in the same Japanese class. For some reason, the ticket machines in Tokyo didn’t like my Aeon supermarket credit card, even though it’s a legitimate Japanese one, and kept on spitting it out at me while I was there. So having bought a ticket with cash, I boarded a stationary train that was resting against the buffers at the beginning of the Seibu-Shinjuku Line. The carriage that I boarded was almost empty, so I enjoyed my 7-Eleven breakfast undisturbed.

I love these Tokyo train carriages because there’s lots of stainless steel, they’re very spacious, and they have proper heating and/or air conditioning. Once the train got going it took me past the same views and the same roads and buildings that I used to see about 18 years ago. Nogata Station used to be rather pokey and a bit dark, but the ticket gates and so on are now in an overpass above the tracks and I was bang on time and when I arrived. Mr Vancouver doesn’t live too far from the station and had brought two mountain bikes with him. A particularity of cycling in Japan is that a lot of people disassemble their bikes and put them in bags so that they can then take them on trains, bullet trains, aeroplanes, and so on. For example, if you catch a ferry in Japan, you can park your bicycle below decks, but if you want to save money, even on a ferry you can save yourself the parking fee if you put it in a bike bag. On the other hand, most trains in Japan will not let you wheel a bike on with the wheels attached. In fact, you won’t even be allowed through the barriers in the first place. So Mr Vancouver was busy with Allen keys when I met him, taking the two bikes apart and putting them in bags. They were expensive mountain bikes, but there’s a particular mountain bike shop in Tokyo that he often goes to and is friends with the people who run it. He bought his bike there secondhand, although the one that I was going to ride was, in a sense, cursed.

He had been given it by a Japanese friend of his, not as a gift in the sense that the friend didn’t need it anymore, but because when he was out mountain biking, this guy had crashed, broken his neck, and was now paralysed from the waist down. He was married with four children when he had the accident and quite apart from the fact that he’s now confined to a wheelchair, his wife then left him and took the children with her. So I could have been superstitious about riding his bike, but chose not to think about it too much and talked technical with Mr Vancouver instead. Both bikes had disc brakes and suspension, and the tyres on his were filled with a kind of green slime, which is supposed to mean that even if you get a puncture, rather than all the air from the tyre hissing out, the only thing that comes out is a small sort of honeycomb section of gel and the rest of the tyre will stay – well, inflated is the wrong word, but it won’t go flat. (I contemplated buying these tubes when I was working on the bike that I currently ride, but realised they are a mountain bike thing that you wouldn’t really want to buy for thin road tyres).

From Nogata we boarded a train heading northwest away from the centre of Tokyo and I honestly can’t remember how many times we changed trains or where. Mr Vancouver knew exactly which platform to use and which end of it to stand on so that we’d be next to a door where it was easy to put our bike bags on the train. There was one station where we had to get out, get in a lift, cross a bridge and descend to another platform, but again these were typical Tokyo trains because they were clean, spacious, and well heated. They also have bigger windows and better views than the trains in London. We leaned our bike bags against the wall of the carriage and tied them to one of the handrails, and Mr Vancouver was always keeping an eye out to make sure that the bikes weren’t in the way of anyone who got on the train.

It took at least an hour to get to where we were supposed to go, by which time we had left metropolitan Tokyo and entered Saitama Prefecture. We went through the barriers with our bike bags before Mr Vancouver began the laborious process of reassembling the bikes. We then cycled to the mountain biking area, which is a place that he calls The Maze. It was about 20 minutes ride from the station and living in the countryside as I do, if you go out into the woods there’s nobody there. In and around Tokyo, however, if you go out into the woods, there are people everywhere. For example, there were not many buildings or roads, but even in the woods there was a track for remote controlled cars, from which even early in the morning could be heard the sound of remote controlled cars whizzing around. There was a dog run, too, where people with their pedigrees were gathering to meet other dog owners and let their dogs run around (because of course you don’t let your dog off the lead in Japan, even in the park). We stopped at a public toilet just before the maze to get changed and I put on Mr Vancouver’s spare shin pads, which were too big and kept on slipping around the back of my legs, although he said that I would need them to stop the pedals from gouging chunks of flesh from my legs. We put the luggage that we didn’t need in a plastic bag, hid this in some bushes and took the essentials with us, including some food that we had stopped to buy in a convenience store on the way. Then we went into the maze and spent a good three or four hours there.

Because he goes there regularly, Mr Vancouver was telling me which trails are the best to take, the steepest, the most dangerous, and the easiest, but because there is a constant flow of people through the area, there’s a slightly tense relationship between mountain bikers and hikers. The issue of who has the right to use the various paths and tracks is slightly contentious and the hiking fraternity erects signs saying this or that path is for hiking and mountain biking is not allowed because it would be dangerous for the hikers. The mountain bikers say, well, we’ve been using this as a mountain biking area for many years and we’re perfectly entitled to do so, as long as we ride safely. But mountain bikers sometimes come hurtling down a steep path at great speed and if they happen to come across a hiker, it’s not going to be a very even match in terms of who comes off injury-free and who is hospitalised.

The weather wasn’t too cold or cloudy, and we explored pretty much every corner of The Maze. It isn’t that big and it surprised me that Mr Vancouver should return again and again and not get a little bored with running the same pathways over and over. Contrary to my expectations, we didn’t have to stop and carry the bikes or even wheel them along that much. A lot of the hills were gentle enough that you could change down into a low gear and cycle up. If there were tree roots, rocks, or a stream blocking the path, sometimes I got stuck and either had another go or wheeled my bike over the obstacle manually.

I constantly have problems with the gears and chain on my cross bike. I managed to order online and then fit an entirely new set of rear cogs, a new chain, and a new derailleur about three or four years ago and was very proud of myself for this. I watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to do this and on how to adjust the gears on a bike, which is devilishly hard and something that until then I didn’t know how to do properly. (One of the videos that I found very helpful was from a site called Park Tool). But even though I ordered what, on the face of it, were the correct Shimano parts for my particular bicycle and fitted them correctly, they have never quite worked properly. Often the chain slips with a clunk when I’ve stopped the bike and start pedalling again, but the cursed mountain bike was fitted with gears that just seemed to work more smoothly. I found that even when I was in the middle of a manoeuvre – that is, going round a corner, up a hill, or very slowly, it would slip into the next gear up or the next gear down more easily than on my cross bike, which I found very satisfying in a geeky cycling obsessive kind of way.

The interesting thing was that even though he is a mountain biker, Mr Vancouver is much more keen on the downhills than the uphills. He’s an adrenaline junkie, whereas I’ve always said that going uphill is what I get the most pleasure from when I go cycling. You could tell that difference immediately on the steepest hill that we cycled up. He’s a fit and healthy man and even though he’s older than me, looks younger. But when we cycled up this hill, I got into the zone and felt this is what I was there for. I was slightly out of breath, but just ahead of me Mr Vancouver was struggling and wheezing all the while.

We stopped and talked to some hikers who had lost their way, stopped for lunch, and stopped for Mr Vancouver to take some videos of me enjoying my first experience of MTB. Later he posted these on Facebook with the caption, “Muzuhashi shredding the trails.” Well, I wasn’t exactly shredding the trails to be honest. Caressing would be a better word, or stroking them gently. I didn’t take any risks, but as the day progressed I became a little braver in terms of what kind of hill I would cycle down and how fast I would cycle down it. Initially I said to Mr Vancouver, “Of course I very rarely make it to Tokyo, so we’re not exactly going to be able to go mountain biking together very often.” But from initially saying I may never do this again, by the end of the day I agreed that it was good fun and that I might have another go one day.

We arrived back at the public toilets to find that the plastic bag with our excess kit was still there, and stopped in a park between there and the station for Mr Vancouver to wash the bikes. He has a small length of hose in his kit bag which he can connect to a tap on the sinks in the park and parenthetically, I was interested to see that he doesn’t use any kind of cleanser. He just uses water to wash the mud off and doesn’t wait until the water has dried from the chain before he oils it again. When I clean my bike ­– which admittedly isn’t every time I ride it – I brush and scrape away all the oil, grit, and dirt, use a foaming cleanser, then wash that off and wait until it’s completely dry before I oil it, otherwise I get spots of rust on the chain.

We had to change trains at various stations in the suburbs before we made it back to civilization and one of the stories that Mr Vancouver told me on the way was about a foreign friend of his who had been out mountain biking on his own in The Maze. Mr Vancouver received a phone call – it was already mid-afternoon on a weekend – and his friend had crashed his bike in the forest. He said, “Can you come and help me, please?” But at that point Mr Vancouver was at home in Nogata, so even if he had wanted to, it would have taken at least two hours from his front door to wherever this friend happened to be, on a trail in the woods somewhere. Mr Vancouver’s Japanese isn’t the best, so his wife phoned the nearest police station to the maze and in the end, somebody went into the woods and from Mr Vancouver’s friend’s description of where he was lying injured, managed to find and rescue him

As per the weather forecast, once I was back in the centre of Tokyo it started raining. I was walking around Shinjuku for a long time, went to an electronics shop looking for a new computer keyboard, and spent far too much time trying to decide what to eat for dinner (in the end I settled on nondescript convenience store fare, although not from a 7-Eleven and with no sugar, flour, chocolate, or cream). I did thankfully get on the correct bus at the correct bus stop, and was back at the City Hall where I had left my car by about eight in the evening.

When I asked the bus driver where the bus stop was, he described a location several hundred metres from the entrance to City Hall, next to a restaurant and on a different, main road that wasn’t visible from where I had been waiting on Saturday morning. If I had been really eagle-eyed, I may have spotted the bus between the trees and buildings as it sped past at 8:25, but by that time it would have been too late to flag it down. I also called the bus company the next day in the hope of getting a refund, but was told that that would be impossible, and that the location of the stop itself was common knowledge among local people, even if it had only a very tenuous connection to the description on their website.