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.