When I lived in London, for two years I commuted to work by bicycle, but the distance was probably no more than about a kilometre and it took less than ten minutes one way. The bicycle that I used at the time was, I believe, a 12-speed cross bike on which only one of the gears actually functioned. This was partly because I was not serious about cycling, so didn’t want to spend money on something more sophisticated, and partly because in London, your bike is likely to be stolen.
When I came to Japan and moved away from Tokyo with the Mariposa – about which I have written at great length in my forthcoming book Charinko – I tried to cycle to the various schools where I worked at least three or four times a week, and this proved to be good training for when I embarked on the tour about which the book is written.
Fast forward to 2011, when Mrs M and myself returned to Japan after a few years in the UK, and I was even more serious about cycling. For the next three or four years I cycled to and from work at distances of up to 11 or 12 kilometres almost every working day of the year. At the time we only had one car and particularly once M Jr was born, Mrs M used it to take her to nursery and go shopping. So I would cycle to work no matter what the weather was like. In the snow I slipped and fell – not seriously and not surprisingly.
On another occasion, a typhoon was approaching Ibaraki and I cycled home from work not quite in the eye of the storm, but in very heavy rain and very strong winds.
In those days I didn’t care that much about how clean I kept my bicycle or how well the gears worked. I merely applied more oil to the chain and sprockets once every few months, and when they stopped working properly, I left the bike with a scrap merchant. In around 2015 I was fortunate enough to acquire another one from Mrs M’s older brother and that was when I began using a trip computer.
I have to admit that I took the whole business of how much time it took me to get to a particular school far too seriously. But it gave me something to concentrate on other than looking at the scenery and thinking about what I may have to do that day, and over the years I improved my fastest times to those schools little by little, so that on a good day with a following wind, I was covering nine or ten kilometres in about 20 minutes.
One of the closest schools to where I live usually took 12 or 13 minutes to reach. One morning I woke up, looked at the weather forecast, looked outside, and realised that today might be the day when I could break the ten-minute barrier. So I got on my bike, cycled away as fast as I could, and about a quarter of the way there, for the first and only time in my entire life, one of the saddlebags got caught in the spokes on the rear wheel. I never did break the ten-minute barrier for that particular school, much to my chagrin.
Over the years I found more obscure routes, mainly to avoid traffic lights, but also to avoid traffic and to find more attractive scenery. So I rarely came across other vehicles, people, or cyclists. I did occasionally get angry if a car passed by a little too close to me when it overtook or came towards me from the opposite direction. On one particular occasion I turned round, chased after the offending motorist, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should give fellow road users more than about a centimetre of space. Perversely, I enjoyed cycling in the pouring rain or in the hot and humid summer months. The only real hardships were when there was a headwind or when I had trouble with the bike. Having said that, even cycling 15 or 20 kilometres, four or five times a week for several years, I had an average of about one puncture per year.
In the final one or two years of working as an ALT, I kept myself company by putting my smartphone in my handlebar bag and listening to podcasts, NHK news, and so on. It’s now been just over six months since I quit that job and apart from human interaction – which is something that I’m sorely lacking now that I work from home – the only other thing that I really miss is the commute. In fact, you could almost say that I became one of those people who enjoys their commute more than the work itself. And while I did drive more often in recent years to avoid getting soaking wet or freezing cold, I still looked forward to my morning and afternoon rides more than I looked forward to my daytime teaching responsibilities.
At some point in the future, I may decide to rent or borrow some kind of office space from which to conduct my translating work and when that happens, no doubt I will cycle there and back. But for the moment, on some days the only exercise that I get is standing up to use my computer rather than sitting down – as a distinctly middle-aged member of society, I have to take more care than I used to about things like my lower back.
One of the great things about getting up early and going out cycling, walking, or jogging, is that you absolutely cannot fail to take fantastic photographs because the light is so magical at that time of the morning.
So these photos were taken between the hours of about four thirty to six thirty a.m., mostly from the flood-prevention dykes by the river near our house, and I didn’t need a digital SLR or any kind of fancy equipment, just an iPhone with a fixed, wide-angle lens.
Smartphone cameras as a rule don’t work very well in very low light, so the night photo series that I will post on this blog in due course did require a marginally more sophisticated – or rather, dedicated – digital camera that enabled long exposures. But these are literally point-and-shoot.
This one was taken on New Year’s Day and a friend of mine remarked on Facebook that it makes it look as if I live on Mars.
One or two of the others were taken when the temperature was approximately four or five degrees below zero.
On the other hand, many were taken in mid-summer when, even at that time of the morning, the temperature was probably 15 or 20℃.
Some are not of the sunrise as such, but rather the dawn…
…and as well as the light, another thing that I like about the early morning is that there is often mist drifting along the river and through the trees. This is nature’s smoke machine, which if I was making a movie would require a lot of time, money, and effort to recreate. I suppose because our house is on a plateau and I go downhill and through the rice fields for my walks, jogs, and so on, mist is more likely to appear because the ground is essentially at sea level and next to a river.
One thing that is much harder to do is for a morning excursion to coincide with a time when there is fog around our house, up here on the plateau. I’ve taken many photographs in the snow, which is of course very photogenic, but hardly any in the fog because it appears only occasionally.
I should also say that several of these photographs – namely the two or three that are cropped to be square – have already been posted on my Instagram account.
Instagram is, I think, a lot like Twitter, in the sense that it’s very hard to generate followers who are going to bother looking at your photographs. On Twitter I have fewer than 30 followers and on Instagram a little more than 100. Whereas on Facebook I have more than 300 friends and although I don’t know exactly how many people visit this blog on a regular basis, its reach is almost certainly much greater than my Instagram account.
But should you wish to see the occasional photos that I post there, this is a link to it. Among other things, you will be able to see pictures of my beloved children, who are only rarely featured here at muzuhashi.com.
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.”
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.
Second — and of far greater importance — after years of writing/typing under the pen/keyboard name of Muzuhashi, I can reveal for the first time on these pages that my real name is Tom Gibb.
Just to set the record straight, I am not, as far as I know, related to the Bee Gees, nor am I the Tom Gibb who works for the BBC and wrote a book about Fidel Castro (lovely fellow though I am sure he is).
Camphor contacted me out of the blue last autumn and asked if I would be interested in contributing to the anthology. They are also guiding me through the process of turning Gaijin on a Push Bike into a full-length travel book.
As some of you will remember, I posted GOAPB on Muzuhashi a few years ago and so as not to spoil the fun, have now un-posted it. The very tentative date for inflicting it on the world in its printed and Kindlified form is the summer of 2021, although the way things are currently progressing — steadily and successfully, but slowly — that deadline may prove over-optimistic.
If you do decide to buy Inaka (you are going to buy it, aren’t you? I thought so!), a glowing review on Amazon or Good Reads — or if you prefer, in a national newspaper or popular magazine — will be much appreciated.
Finally, thank you all for visiting and reading this blog over the years — particularly since I took a break from it for so long — and if anyone out there is an aspiring writer, my experience with Camphor proves that starting a blog is worth the effort. While it may feel as if you exist on the distant, unfrequented fringes of the internet, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, doing so can lead to bigger things.
A few years ago a good friend of mine asked me to contribute to a Facebook project she had devised called My Journey to Work.
At the time I commuted by bicycle every weekday, rain or shine, and as it happened, was in the middle of a stint at the furthest of the five schools at which I work (at the moment I am commuting to the closest, which is within walking distance).
The journey of eleven kilometres took around thirty minutes, and along the way was a mixture of farmland, factories, roads, railway lines, and housing. There was nothing revelatory to see and I produced no photographic masterpieces, but the views give a nice idea, I think, of the landscape in and around a typical Japanese town.
The above is a milestone, probably very old and still standing — albeit on a concrete base — next to a busy crossroads.
Rice fields in winter, dry and dormant.
It costs more in tax to own a vacant lot than an abandoned house, which is one of the reasons many are left to rot instead of being demolished.
Beneath the Jōban Expressway.
In Japan you are never far from a drinks machine.
The area where I live is famous for its swans, who spend their winters here before returning north.
In Japan you are never far from a concrete works.
Winter fruit (these, I think, are a variety of plum) are one of the things that lend the landscape some colour.
Roadside shrines such as this are often memorials to fatal car accidents, and this one is at the apex of a ninety-degree corner. I have always assumed a misguided motorist came a cropper here, perhaps ending up in the vineyard beyond.
A traditional haystack of rice plant stalks. With few farm animals to feed in Japan, these are used for things like laying on the ground to protect watermelons and pumpkins as they grow.
A couple of weeks ago I had a moment of enlightenment, or satori (悟り), as they say in Japanese. At the time I was sitting on a mossy rock, next to a pool of water, in a forest, on a mountaintop, on a cold, damp night, in the pitch dark, and with a plastic bottle in my hand. If you’re wondering how such an unlikely set of circumstances led to a transcendental experience, allow me to explain.
Ask most of its residents what is the highest mountain in Ibaraki Prefecture and they are likely to say Tsukuba, when in fact the correct answer is Mount Yamizo (八溝山 / literally ‘eight ditches mountain’). Yamizo straddles the border with neighbouring Fukushima in the far north of the prefecture, and while it may lack the attractively pointy profile of Tsukuba – not to mention its cable car – it is 145 metres higher and boasts a paved road all the way to its summit.
Noticing this on my dog-eared old Mapple road map one day, I worked out that it would be possible to cycle to Yamizo from our apartment, camp out for a night, get up early to see the sunrise and then cycle back the following morning.
My cycle tours in Japan have been getting progressively shorter over the years – six weeks in 2005, five weeks in 2008 and ten days in 2011 – and with a one-year-old daughter and a son on the way (apologies if this is the first you’ve heard – I was going to write a ‘Mrs M is pregnant again!’ blog post but never got round to it), this seemed like a good idea for a final tour before I become so busy changing nappies and mixing formula that I never have time to leave the house again.
So having negotiated with Mrs M for permission to abandon her and M Jr for the weekend, I set off at 8.30am Saturday 2nd November, when the weather was warm, the autumn colours were just starting to show, and Route 118 between Mito and Daigo Town was busy with sightseers.
As well as the Fukuroda waterfall (袋田の滝), Daigo is famous for its apples, and in the orchards that lined the way the trees were weighed down with large, ripe, red and green ones (in order to make the apples as large, ripe, red and green as possible, silver sheets are placed on the ground to reflect extra sunlight from beneath them).
The woman behind the counter at Daigo tourist information centre said that a campsite marked on the Mapple as being close to the summit of Yamizo had long since closed for business, and I told her that I would probably nojuku (野宿 / sleep rough) instead. While she was a little surprised by this, I reasoned that, in the same way mountaineers do before they set off on a climbing expedition, it would be a good idea to tell someone where I was going in case I got into trouble.
At a crossroads on Route 118 not far north of Daigo there is a road sign showing the way to Yamizo, along with a family-run convenience store the woman at the information centre had said would be my last chance to stock up on supplies for the night ahead. Among other things I purchased their last three onigiri (rice balls), and had a steaming hot bowl of soba at the very small – and very cheap – noodle restaurant next door.
Route 28 winds its way through a succession of small villages in the Yamizo River valley, and past farms whose main crop – where precious little land is level enough to accommodate rice fields – is green tea. A dog out for a walk with its owner barked suddenly as I cycled past, straining on the end of its lead to try and take a bite out of my tyres, and a stooped old lady in Wellington boots, a bonnet and a pinny stopped me for a chat, telling me to ‘Ganbarina’ (頑張りな / ‘Do your best’) about five times before she let me carry on up the road.
There were, as it turned out, a couple more places to buy emergency rations, but they were old-style village shops that sold very little in the way of fresh produce. Again I thought it best to let some of the locals know that a strange foreigner would be camping out on the mountain that night, so engaged the shopkeepers in conversation, and came away with two over-ripe bananas, a tomato and a tube of Smarties for my troubles.
Just as one of the shopkeepers had described it, the road up the mountainside was marked by a large wooden torii (鳥居 / shrine gateway).
Along with this little fellow dispensing free spring water.
Knowing that I would have a long time to spend on the summit with nothing to do, I had made a point of dallying on the way, and reached the torii at three in the afternoon. In theory this left me with just about the right amount of time to get to the top before darkness fell, although in practice it is much, much easier to cycle uphill first thing in the morning when one’s legs are fresh, and the shape of this two-day tour gave me no alternative but to tackle its most arduous stretch in late afternoon.
From being on the gentle slope of Route 28, I suddenly found myself on a 13.5% incline (that’s about 1 in 7 in old money), which aside from a couple of brief interludes where the road levelled off, barely let up for the entire 8km to the top, and around what felt like several hundred hairpin bends.
Actually there were more like twenty-five, but I was constantly weaving back and forth in an effort to find the line of least resistance – ie. the line of least steepness – and to say that my lungs felt as if they were bursting out of my chest would be an understatement: rather, it felt as if all of my major organs were about to explode and splatter themselves across the road in the manner of a zombie film fight scene.
Often on a climb there comes a point where you find a rhythm and forget about the physical exertion, and if that had happened I would have had my moment of satori right there and then. As it was, though, rather than enduring pain and suffering in order to achieve Zen enlightenment, here I never got beyond the pain and suffering part.
I stopped to catch my breath, eat my Smarties and mutter to myself, ‘Jesus fecking Christ this is steep!’ approximately fifteen times on the way up, and the only thing that prevented me from walking instead of riding was the fact that the last of the day’s hikers and sightseers were simultaneously on their way back down the mountain. The indignity of being seen pushing my bike along by its handlebars would have been too much to bear, so I gritted my teeth, fixed my gaze on the road ahead and strained to turn the pedals, in the hope that the procession of passersby would be impressed with my true-grit, true-Brit, never-say-die spirit of empire-building excellence.
Finally, after the best part of an hour and a half of torture, and just as I had switched on my lights to combat the encroaching gloom, first one car park and then another materialised – both now empty – and the road reached a dead end just below two radio transmitters, the Yamizo-miné shrine and this impressively castle-like observation tower.
By now the skies had clouded over and there wasn’t much to observe, although at one point a canvas-covered army truck drove up and three members of the jiéitai (自衛隊 / Japan’s self-defence force) dressed in full camouflage gear jumped out. They appeared to be looking for something – or perhaps someone – but after couple of minutes of running around and shouting orders at each other, gave up, got back in the truck and drove off again.
There was a patch of grass in the lee of the observation tower where I could have pitched my tent, but after a little more investigating I found that one of the sliding doors to this outbuilding had been left unlocked.
Inside there was a cubby hole at one end stocked with chairs, mattresses and even a heater, although I resolved not to use them as I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself, and in any case, had made a point of bringing as much clothing and bedding as I could stuff into my panniers.
I parked my bike beneath the eaves before unloading it (I made sure to take off my shoes at the door, of course), and soon it was time to settle down for my evening meal – such as it was – of three rice balls, two bananas, a jam-filled bread roll, a bag of peanuts and a tomato.
One rather important thing was missing, though, and that was fluids.
As well as boasting one of the Bando-sanjusan-kasho (板東三十三カ所), thirty-three shrines in the Kanto area that form part of a 1300km pilgrimage, Yamizo is listed among the Meisui-hyakusen (名水百選), one hundred of the most attractive and well-preserved springs in the country. Assuming water would be plentiful, I therefore hadn’t bothered to bring any drinks with me, and set off with my water bottle to find Ginshohsui (銀性水 – literally ‘silver gender water’), the highest of Yamizo’s five springs.
Onii-san had lent me a miner’s helmet-style headlight, which illuminated a cone-shaped shaft of misty air before me as I walked, and a wooden sign told me that ginshohsui was just seventy metres away, although having expected to hear the sound of water gushing forth from the ground, I was greeted instead with silence.
There at a bend in the path was a shallow pool of water with a grey plastic drainpipe poking out from the hillside above it. It wasn’t so much a mountain spring as a murky puddle, and by the headlight I could see a beetle-like insect scuttle its way through the carpet of rotting leaves at the bottom – in other words, the water in the pool was just that little bit too stagnant to be trusted as drinkable.
Perhaps, I thought, the other four springs would be more gushing and geyser-like, but I didn’t fancy hiking even further downhill only to be similarly underwhelmed. More to the point, I didn’t fancy hiking all the way back up again on legs already fragile from the climb.
Looking and listening more closely, it became apparent that there was indeed a tiny amount of water trickling from the drainpipe, so if I was to avoid death by dehydration – well, OK, maybe not death, but certainly a further dose of pain and suffering – my only option was to sit here and wait as my water bottle filled.
Having positioned myself on a moss-covered rock at the edge of the pool, I realised that the water was flowing so slowly that rather than fall directly downwards, it was first of all snaking its way around the rim and back along the outside of the pipe, and that the sweet spot – that is to say the ideal position beneath which to hold my water bottle – wasn’t fixed, but moved ever so slightly depending on the subtlest variations in the flow of water. This meant that I had to keep as still and as quiet as possible, all the while listening for the dripping sound in the bottle: if the sound stopped I moved the bottle a smidgen one way or the other until it became audible again.
I was still thirsty from the climb, so at the first couple of attempts waited just a few minutes before gulping down whatever water had accumulated. Eventually, though, I decided that one full bottle – about 750ml – ought to be enough to see me through the night. I found a more comfortable position on a different but equally mossy rock, held out my right arm (it was at this point that I was thankful for my over-developed triceps, the result of years spent holding a boom pole with a microphone on the end of it for film and TV shoots), and since I didn’t want to waste the batteries, turned off my headlight.
The trees’ swaying silhouettes were visible against the night sky, and their leaves rustled in the wind or crackled like crisp packets as they were blown along the forest floor. I listened for any sound that might be regular – the footsteps of a wild boar, for example, or even a domesticated hiker – but there was none. At one point I felt the tiniest movement of air as a bat flew past my face and circled the pool, its wings a blurred flash in the semi-darkness, but to all intents and purposes I was alone, and it occurred to me this was the most isolated I had been in my entire life, with no other human being within a radius of several kilometres.
So why am I here? I thought to myself. Why am I sitting on a rock in the freezing cold with my arm about to fall off from the strain of holding a water bottle beneath the trickle of water from a plastic drainpipe? Why am I about to spend the night on a lonely mountaintop, when I could be spending it in my living room, in front of the telly, before climbing into a hot bath and going to sleep on a fluffy futon beneath a warm duvet?
Why, for a holiday, of course!
OK, so this might not be most people’s idea of a holiday, and I had no luxuries to speak of: no bath, no shower, no TV, no heated toilet seat with bidet facility (although there was a small, basic toilet block next to the radio transmitters that despite the isolated location had been stocked with a fresh supply of toilet paper), no hot food, no hot water, and as it turned out, not much in the way of cold water, either.
I was here for the challenge, I suppose, and for the view: as well as the sunrise and the surrounding countryside, with any luck I would get to see Mount Fuji – more than 200km distant – the following morning.
Then as the trees continued to sway in the breeze, the leaves continued to dance around the forest floor and the dripping sound changed in pitch as my water bottle gradually filled, I once more thought to myself, why am I here? Except this time it was in the larger, philosophical, Capital Letters, Why Am I Here and What Is The Meaning Of Life? sense.
In my previous capacity as someone who held a boom pole with a microphone on the end of it for a living, I spent many happy hours driving around the UK in vans full of camera equipment, usually with a fellow technician or two to keep me company, and one particular conversation – which took place, if my memory serves me correctly, on the A13 just outside Southend – stuck in my mind.
Myself and the camera assistant were somewhere in our late twenties, while the cameraman was somewhere in his early forties, and after listening to us talking about our lives for a while, he chipped in. ‘I know what it’s like,’ he said. ‘You’re working in showbiz, you go to some pretty nice places and meet some pretty glamorous people. You’re earning a bit of money, you’ve got your flat in London, your Ikea furniture, a big TV and a nice stereo system. You go to the pub with your mates and you go to the cinema to watch a movie. You think you’re pretty happy, don’t you? I mean, you think you’ve got it sorted.’ The assistant and I looked at each other with smiles of recognition. ‘Yep,’ I said. ‘As it happens you’ve just described my life.’ ‘How did you know?’ said the camera assistant. ‘Because I was like that myself once. But eventually I decided that I needed to settle down. I found someone nice, got married and had kids. And kids,’ said the cameraman, ‘are the missing piece of the puzzle.’
In actual fact I had always suspected this to be the case, and even when I was young and found the prospect of having children utterly terrifying, deep down I somehow instinctively knew that one day I would change my mind, or perhaps just accidentally start a family and realise that it wasn’t such a hideous ordeal after all. It wasn’t until I became a father, though, that I truly understood what my colleague was talking about, although this, too, was as much to do with finding someone who was willing to be the mother of my children, rather than with deciding that I wanted to have them in the first place.
Bringing up M Jr is by turns miraculous, and inspiring, and uplifting, not to mention exhausting (a couple of weeks ago all three of us came down with the norovirus, and one particular night turned into a kind of three-person toilet relay of vomiting and diarrhea).
Witnessing one human being’s journey practically from conception onwards is akin to witnessing the evolution of the entire human race in microcosm. You see them in the womb when they are barely more than a pixel on a computer screen, and, like some pre-historic sea creature, yet to set foot on dry land (this, incidentally, is one of the most infinitely mysterious things about babies, in that they are first of all amphibious, inhaling amniotic fluid as if through a set of gills, and only transform into air-breathing mammals when they are halfway out of the womb). You hear their heartbeat and watch as their limbs and features develop, and then once they emerge you feel the grip of their hand on your finger, and watch them sleep and eat and pee and poo and cry and smile for the very first time.
In evolutionary terms, M Jr is currently at the caveman stage – or should I say cavegirl – in the sense that she is standing on her hind legs, using rudimentary language, gestures and tools. She hasn’t yet started a fire, invented the wheel or written the complete works of Shakespeare, but that will all happen in due course. In the meantime she can already listen, learn, watch, copy, remember, emote, give and receive affection, accept or refuse requests, ask and answer questions. All human life and all of human history has somehow been distilled into this one, tiny being with a wobbly walk and a voice like a slightly less robotic version of R2D2’s, and in this sense just one of its members embodies the hopes and fears of the human race as a whole.
All of which contemplation brought me back round to my original, literal, lower-case question, namely, why am I here? If my wife, daughter and unborn son are so important to me, why am I sitting on a mossy rock, on a cold mountaintop, in near darkness, waiting for a water bottle to fill very, very slowly, before sleeping on my own in a bare outbuilding, with not another living soul for miles around? And asking the question like that made it a little more difficult to answer.
I suppose everyone, to coin a phrase, needs a break from time to time, and even though I love being with my family, I also happen to enjoy being on my own. Cycle tours, however long or short, are my way of doing this, what is referred to in Japanese as kibuntenkan (気分転換), a change of scene. Recently, for example, Mrs M has been putting M Jr in a nursery a couple of times a week, not just because she is tired from being pregnant and looking after a one year old, but because she wants to have some time in her life when she is something other than ‘just’ a mother.
OK, so maybe this is just my excuse for being a good-for-nothing, layabout husband; maybe all of that Meaning Of Life stuff is a bit over the top, and maybe I really was just sitting on a rock waiting for a water bottle to fill, nothing deeper or more meaningful than that. But regardless, there was something meditative about the experience, and by that point any anxiety I had at the prospect of spending the night cold and alone had dissipated.
I couldn’t tell you exactly how long I had been there – probably no more than thirty or forty minutes – but eventually I realised that the dripping noise had stopped, and when I poked a finger into the mouth of my water bottle, that it had filled to overflowing.
In exactly the same way that it is possible, on a long climb, to get into such a rhythm that you zone out and forget you are turning the pedals at all, so I had ceased to be concerned about how long it was going to take for the bottle to fill, and ceased to listen for the change in pitch in the sound of the dripping water as it did so. Rested, enlightened and saved from dehydration, I screwed the cap back on my water bottle, switched on my headlight and walked back to the summit of Mount Yamizo to have dinner.
I had planned to call Mrs M and tell her how I was getting on, but there was no signal on my mobile phone and even an email I tried to send didn’t make it through the ether, so once I had eaten, all I had to keep me company was a single comic book.
Upon discovering that I was a fan of Japanese manga, a deputy headmaster at one of the schools where I teach suggested that I read one of the classics, namely Hi-no-tori (火の鳥 / The Phoenix) by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is described in Wikipedia as the ‘god of manga’, and Hi-no-tori as his ‘life’s work’, and it tells the story of a phoenix which is said to grant eternal life to anyone who can capture it and drink its blood.
Having read the first of its twelve volumes, I cannot recommend it highly enough, and what follows is my translation of a scene I read that night. In it, the young huntsman Nagi has tracked the Phoenix to the volcano where it nests, and just as he is about to begin firing arrows at it, hears the firebird’s voice in his head.
Nagi: Why is it you’re the only one that gets to live forever, while all of us humans have to die? That’s so unfair!
Phoenix: Unfair, you say? What are you hoping for? The power to avoid death? Or would you rather have good fortune while you’re still alive?
Nagi: I don’t give a damn about good fortune! But if I can live forever like you, that’s good fortune, isn’t it?
Phoenix: Look down at your feet, Nagi. Can you see the ants? They’re alive, aren’t they? And they live for just six months. The life of a mayfly is shorter still. Even if a mayfly reproduces, it lives for just three days. Nobody calls that bad fortune, though.
Nagi: So what does a stupid little insect know that we don’t?
Phoenix: The lifetime of an insect may be ordained by nature, but they are brought up properly, they eat, they love each other, they give birth to their young, they are fulfilled, and then they die. Human beings live longer than the insects, longer than the fish in the sea, longer than dogs and cats and monkeys. In the course of a lifetime, if you can find happiness, isn’t that good fortune enough?
Nagi: You’re not making any sense! And anyway, I’m going to shoot you down.
Phoenix: Whether or not you understand, Nagi, you will still die one day.
Nagi: Before I do, I’ll be sure to drink your blood!
I’m not ashamed to say that I went to sleep that night with tears in my eyes, because as I read Hi-no-tori, I realised that I have found happiness in my life, and this is as much as I can ask for. My alarm woke me at five-thirty the next morning, and I packed up my belongings as quickly as I could – the sun was due to rise at six – before stepping outside.
I had been alone for almost exactly twelve hours when an early-morning sightseer joined me in the observation tower, and we lamented the fact that even on such a fine day, this was as close as we would get to seeing Mount Fuji.
Then at about seven-thirty I threw a coin in the collection box at Yamizo-miné shrine and prayed that my children will grow up happy and healthy, before drinking the remainder of my precious spring water and freewheeling my way back down the mountain.
When you go on a cycle tour, your shoes are the weakest link. I realised this while making my way around Hokkaido three years ago, where the weather was, to say the least, changeable. If a t-shirt or a pair of shorts get wet, you can hang them up and they’ll be dry by the next morning, but if it’s a pair of shoes, you’ll be stuck with damp feet for the next couple of days, and quite possibly a chronic case of athlete’s foot into the bargain. As a consequence, a lot of touring cyclists in Japan wear sandals or even flip-flops, but this summer I compromised on one pair of ordinary shoes and one pair of fake Crocs (500 yen at Shimamura – which is a kind of Japanese version of Peacocks – as opposed to 1500 for the genuine article). Because they’re made of plastic, Crocs don’t soak up any water, and because they’re so light, they also come in handy when you’re trying to keep your baggage to an absolute minimum.
There was no doubt about it when I woke up on the morning of Sunday 21st: the Crocs would be my footwear for the day, and the proper shoes would stay safely tucked away in my panniers. It didn’t exactly chuck it down from dawn till dusk, but then again, there wasn’t exactly anything that you could call a dry spell either, so rather than sailing along and admiring the scenery, today was very much a case of putting my hood up, getting my head down and grinding out the kilometres.
By midday I had made it into Fukushima Prefecture – still a fair distance from the nuclear evacuation zone, but as Tokidoki Tokyo pointed out, almost completely devoid of tourists – and stopped for lunch at a michi-no-eki (道の駅 / literally ‘road station’). Whereas a motorway services in the UK will be massively overpriced, and present the motorist with a depressingly generic selection of junk food and stodgy snacks, at a michi-no-eki, you can choose from cheap and delicious cafeteria food (noodles, tempura etc.), cheap and delicious off-the-back-of-a-van food (octopus balls, rice dumplings etc.) or a large selection local specialities (gift-wrapped cakes and sweets, seasonal fruit and veg etc.). As it happened, I had been given a leftover bento box at a festival the previous evening, which I ate in the cafeteria while gazing out at the rain, and before getting back on the bike, I decided to ask this guy what he was up to.
‘I’m dressed as Teranishi Jujiroh,’ he said, and proceeded to tell me about Teranishi’s life and achievements. Fortunately, he also gave me a leaflet about Teranishi, so what follows is a mixture of what I can remember from our conversation, and what I’ve managed to translate from the leaflet.
Teranishi was born in Hiroshima in 1749, and grew up in poverty. By his mid-twenties he had been employed by the shogun, and in 1792 was sent to Hanawa Town to act as governor. Such governors were posted to the far reaches of the country not just to enforce shogun rule, but also to act as lookouts, sending word back to Edo (now Tokyo) if any kind of trouble was in the offing. Because of his background, Teranishi was unusually sympathetic to the suffering of his subjects, and rather than being transferred to another outpost after three or four years – a rule that was devised as a way of preventing corruption – he remained in Hanawa for more than two decades, and while he was there, created what you could argue was a template for modern Japanese society – for societies all over the world, even.
When Teranishi arrived in Hanawa, its people were just getting over a famine, and in order to aid the town’s recovery, he exempted farmers from land taxes and lent them money (the interest generated was used to help orphaned children); he created farming infrastructure, including irrigation and dykes; he turned the town into a centre for the horse trade, opening a regular market and giving subsidies to help people buy their own horses; and he built a public warehouse to store food in case of future famines. Teranishi even built Japan’s first public park, and based on Confucian principles, drew up a kind of constitution for the town. Known as ‘The Eight Articles Of Teranishi’ (寺西八ヵ条), here is a rough translation:
1 – Heaven is tremendous – Heaven is visible from the Earth, it rewards good and punishes evil 2 – Land is important – Arable land must be managed 3 – Parents are important – One must devote oneself to one’s parents 4 – Children must be treated with compassion and tolerance – Children are precious and must be brought up with equality 5 – Couples must get along with and support each other for their whole lives 6 – Siblings must get along – Siblings must be friendly and help each other 7 – One must be industrious in one’s vocation – One must work hard and live frugally 8 – Everyone must love their hometown – People must be amiable and patient with each other
Not only that, but families were central to the town’s new philosophy, so that under Teranishi’s rule, money was lent to cover the expense of getting married, financial incentives were offered to encourage people to have children, along with financial assistance once the children were born, a record was kept of pregnancies and births, the health of mothers and their children was protected by law, mothers and children from outside the district were encouraged to come and live there, and nannies were employed to help with child rearing.
What all this progressive thinking engendered was a successful frontier town, which went from being poor and neglected to being an important stop on the road to and from what is now Tohoku. Teranishi was so popular and so successful that he was even allowed to hand over control of the area to his sons – another act that was normally frowned upon by his superiors – and the people thanked him by building the Teranishi Shrine in his honour.
‘Instead of being selfish or covetous,’ said Teranishi’s modern-day representative, ‘the people of Hanawa helped each other out and shared what they had. He’s become a symbol of the town – that’s him over there as well.’ He pointed to a cloth and wire sculpture on the other side of the car park.
The costumed man – whose real name I forgot to write down – went off on all kinds of tangents as he was telling me about Teranishi (for example, how in ancient times, people walked on the left to enable them to defend themselves more effectively with their swords, hence Japan being one of the few countries that still drives on that side of the road) and in the end, I realised that unless I drew the conversation to a close myself, he would quite happily talk all day. I had initially assumed that he was with a group of fundraisers for 24-Hour Television (Japan’s version of Children In Need, for which celebrities don’t necessarily donate their appearance fees to charity – or so onii-san had told me), but apparently not.
‘Tomorrow I have to go back to work,’ he said. ‘But I come here whenever I am free and tell people about Teranishi.’ The fundraisers had mysteriously dispersed while we were chatting, so I said goodbye and left him in front of the michi-no-eki, ready to buttonhole another unsuspecting tourist with an impromptu history lecture.
Having struggled on for another couple of hours I reached a place called Kitsuné-uchi in Higashi-mura (東村 / East Village). Kitsuné-uchi (きつねうち / Home of the Fox) is a complex of sports facilities, a junior high school, an onsen (温泉 / hot springs) and a campsite, whose receptionist told me that since I lived outside the town, he was obliged to charge me 1200 yen for the privilege of pitching my tent. After some concerted haggling, I managed to get the price down to 300, a fact that I later came to feel rather guilty about when I realised that 1200 yen (5 or 6 quid) is the going rate for a campsite pretty much everywhere in Tohoku.
I watched the closing stages of 24-Hour Television in the onsen relaxation room, before making another new friend as I was cleaning my teeth in the campsite toilets – it was raining so hard that even the frogs had come inside to seek shelter.
Partly because it was my first time under canvas for three years, and partly because it was raining all night, I didn’t get much sleep at the Kitsuné-uchi campsite, and once I had packed the still-wet tent away, was even more desperate than usual for my morning coffee . On previous tours I would have treated myself to a sit-down breakfast in a proper coffee shop, but this year Mrs M has been tightening the purse strings. Like most wives in Japan, she handles the family finances, and keeps what is known as a kakeibo (家計簿 / household accounts book), which is filled with receipts and columns of figures detailing exactly how much we have spent and on what, right down to, for example, on-the-road snack breaks. So my budget for the holiday was restricted to 40,000 yen – about £200 – with another 10,000 set aside in case of emergencies, and my breakfast on Monday 22nd set the pattern for the rest of the trip.
Drinks-wise, this would mean a 110-yen, 500ml carton of coffee: very milky, very sugary and not quite as caffeine-y as I would normally take it. Food-wise, it would mean a pre-packed bread product of some kind: either hotto cakey (four small American-style pancakes, zapped in the microwave for a few seconds to melt the ‘butter’ and ‘maple syrup’ sandwiched between them), a bread roll with a jam and margarine filling, or on this occasion, a variation on eggy bread that was steamed rather than fried. Japanese bread products are – how can I put this in as tactful and diplomatic a way as possible? – completely devoid of taste, texture and nutritional value, but since I can’t quite bring myself to eat rice for breakfast, I put up with them out of both habit and financial necessity.
Not that I bought my breakfast there, but this is very much the kind of corner shop you might find on a quiet country road in Japan:
Hello shop! And a little further along Route 294 I found this:
Billboards placed many miles away from the location they advertise are everywhere in Japan: this one is either telling you to proceed for 20km and turn right, or to turn right and proceed for 20km, and it’s not unusual to find them even further afield, or to find billboards telling you to make a u-turn and head back in the direction you’ve just come from. I would have been genuinely intrigued to check out the ‘authentic tea room’, ‘English goods import shop’ and ‘British Hills original cakes’, but they never materialised. Instead my route took me along a winding valley road (which my diary entry for the day summed up as follows: ‘waterfalls, drizzle and roadworks’), over a mountain pass and down to Lake Inawashiro (猪苗代湖).
In fine weather, Lake Inawashiro is surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery, but today this was hidden in the clouds, so after eating another pre-packed bread product – this time a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off and extra sugar in the peanut butter – I continued on to the Aizu Hometown Youth Hostel in Aizu-wakamatsu, which by day doubles up as the Yamaguchi Off Licence.
‘If you’d booked in advance,’ said the manageress as I was checking in, ‘I could have made you an evening meal.’ ‘That’s OK,’ I said. ‘I’m trying to save money anyway.’ ‘Well, if you go to the Co-op down the road, they should be cutting the prices on their bento boxes about now.’ And indeed they were, thus enabling me to sit in my own private room at the hostel and chow down on this luxurious supper – a snip at just under 500 yen for the lot.