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.