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.
There were two possible routes west from Aizu-wakamatsu towards Niigata, and the decision as to which one to take was based on my Touring Mapple. Mapple is a map company whose logo is an apple (map + apple = Mapple. Geddit?), and while their ‘touring’ series is aimed primarily at motorcyclists, it’s just as handy for those of us using pedal power, because even if you can’t read Japanese, most of the roads have numbers, and there are easy-to-understand symbols for campsites, convenience stores, onsen and restaurants – in other words, everywhere you’re going to go to on the way to wherever it is you’re going to go to. Another feature of the Touring Mapple is that particularly scenic or fun-to-ride routes are highlighted in purple, and while Route 49 was a run-of-the-mill red A-road, Route 459 was purple almost all the way to Niigata, so I spent the morning admiring some rather lovely mountain scenery.
This shop was in one of the few villages I passed through along the way, and I asked the nice lady who worked there about the history of the building, whose interior resembled something distinctly olde worlde, its great wooden beams turned smooth and a rich dark brown with age.
‘I didn’t move here until I got married,’ she said, ‘so I can’t tell you much, but they call this stuff kura.’ Kura (蔵) means ‘warehouse’, and is shorthand for any building that uses wattle and daub – ie. wooden latticework covered in dried mud or clay. ‘If you go outside you can see where it cracked in the earthquake, but we can repair that, and it’s warm in winter.’
The closer to the Japan Sea coast you get, the more extreme the winter weather becomes, and as well as kura, since Lake Inawashiro I had seen more and more totan-yané (トタン屋根 / tin roofs), which are lighter than the tiled variety, and less likely to collapse under the weight of large amounts of snow. This one was even fitted with heating elements, presumably to melt the snow before it has a chance to build up.
Ignoring the above sign (‘How about eating some wild boar meat?’), I stopped for lunch in the village of Miyako, which declared itself as soba-no-sato (そばの里 / the hometown of soba noodles), and where thirteen of the thirty households are in business as soba restaurants. As the first customer of the day at Kawamaé, I naturally ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, although when my set meal arrived, there was enough of it to feed a whole family, including a limitless supply of noodles, mushrooms with grated daikon (大根 / daikon is a big, white radish that English-speaking vegetable lovers will know as mouli), tsukemono (漬け物 / pickled vegetables), konnyaku (こんにゃく / devil’s tongue – a weird kind of calorie-free vegetable jelly), nimono (煮 物 / boiled vegetables and fishcakes), soba-flavoured green tea, and a cup of what is essentially diluted soy sauce, into which you dip your noodles before eating them. There was also grated wasabi and diced spring onions to be mixed into the sauce, and a separate pot of soba-yu, the still-warm and starch-y water in which the soba has been cooked, which the waitress told me to add to the sauce and drink at the end of the meal.
By mid-afternoon I had reached the Agano River, whose water was light brown and completely opaque: the same colour as a proper cup of tea, now I come to think of it. On first sight it looked as if there was a drought, as the river was lined on both sides with a wide band of bare earth, but as I cycled along, it became clear that rather than subsiding from its normal level over the course of several months, the river had risen suddenly, washing away almost everything in its path.
Just over three weeks before, parts of Niigata and Fukushima had suffered their heaviest rainfall in thirty years: in Aga Town just downstream, 50mm fell in the space of just ten minutes, which is a national record, and elsewhere there was anything up to 700mm over the course of three days. In the resulting floods, four people lost their lives, seven were seriously injured, and 173 people had to be airlifted to safety after they were stranded at a local school. In places the water level rose by an incredible 24 metres, and both of the dams along the Agano overflowed – this one was thankfully back to normal, although you can still see some of the mud that was left behind.
The aftermath of the flood looked eerily similar to images of the 11th March tsunami: countless trees had been felled or washed away, dunes of sandy mud – now hardened and cracked – had been deposited on the forest floor, clumps of foliage and rubbish were lodged in the roadside crash barriers, and bulldozers were at work clearing away the wreckage.
‘You’ll be lucky to find a campsite,’ said a shopkeeper in the town of Tsugawa, who had stopped me to ask where I was going. ‘Most of them have been washed away.’
He was wiry and tanned with grey stubble on his chin, and wore a baggy white vest with a pen clipped inside the collar, and we were joined by one of his customers, who had an almost full set of silver caps on his teeth, and eyebrows so black and bushy they looked two Groucho Marx moustaches.
‘There’s a campsite in Kanosé which is quite high up,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘Actually I’ve just come from there. I was thinking of carrying on to Mikawa instead.’ ‘That’s next to the river, isn’t it?’ ‘You could be right,’ said the customer. ‘Plus it’ll be getting dark soon, and if it’s going to rain’ – a few spots had begun to fall as we were chatting – ‘you’d be better off finding somewhere near here.’ ‘I can’t really see anywhere on the map.’ ‘How about near the station? There’s an onsen behind it that only costs 300 yen, and you could stay in a bus shelter. They’re not very big but at least you’d be dry, and the buses finish early so no one will bother you. Better than getting stranded halfway between here and Mikawa.’
The shopkeeper gave me a bag of chocolates to send me on my way, and as the heavens opened an hour later, I realised that I should have heeded his advice. Conditions like this called for four walls and a roof, although perhaps not the four walls and a roof of a bus shelter, so I ducked into the nearest shop and asked the couple who worked there if they knew of a cheap place to stay.
‘They’ve got vacancies tonight,’ said the husband, after calling a hotel called Yuu-ando-yu (You&湯, which is a rather corny pun on the English ‘you’ and the Japanese yu, meaning ‘hot water’), ‘and it’ll be cheaper than the other places around there. Shin-mikawa is an onsen resort, you see, but Yuu-no-yu is run by the local council.’ ‘How much is it, though?’ I asked. Evading my question, he proceeded to give me directions to Yuu-ando-yu, and on the way I spotted what appeared to be the campsite I was originally aiming for. The sign at the entrance was hard to decipher, and as I was reading my way through the list of facilities – which included a ski slope, among other things – a car pulled over next to me and the driver wound down her window.
‘Are you on your way to Yuu-ando-yu?’ she said. ‘Er, yes. How did you know?’ ‘I work there. I was just going home and I heard there was someone on a bicycle coming to stay. Do you want me to guide you in?’ A few minutes later I was standing at the Yuu-ando-yu reception desk, filling out my details on a check-in form. When I’d finished, the receptionist handed me a key and said, ‘I’ll show you to your room now.’ ‘Er, just one more thing,’ I said. ‘Um, would you mind telling me, er, how much it’s going to cost. For one night, that is. I’m on a bit of tight budget, you see.’ ‘5000 yen,’ he said. ‘5000 yen?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, looking out of the lobby doors at the still pouring rain. ‘I see.’ ‘If you’ll just follow me.’
Setsu-den (節電 / saving electricity) has been the watchword in Japan over the past six months, although the management at Yuu-ando-yu didn’t appear to be too fussed about such trifling matters as a national power shortage. The tea urn in my room was bubbling away at 95°c, the cooler was pumping out air at 23°c (bizarrely, it was several degrees cooler outside), a fridge full of beer and soft drinks was set to the highest notch on the dial, the heated toilet seat was on full, and all four bulbs in both ceiling lights were lit up. Half-board at Yuu-no-yu would have set me back another 3000 yen, so once I had turned everything off or down and collected what I needed from the bicycle, I took the receptionist up on his offer of a lift to the nearest convenience store to buy some dinner.
‘Was the hotel flooded?’ I asked as we headed back towards Mikawa. ‘The water came all the way up the valley and stopped at the car park. Some people weren’t so lucky, though. You see these houses on the left? The first floors were completely underwater – some of them will have to be knocked down and rebuilt.’
In the onsen a little later I got talking to Kanezuka-san, who made his living as a piano tuner. ‘My wife teaches the taishoh-goto in the building next door,’ he said, ‘and if the weather’s bad I give her a lift from Niigata City.’ ‘What’s a taishoh-goto?’ ‘You’re not busy, are you?’ ‘Not at all. I was going to go back to my room and eat a Cup Noodle in front of the TV.’ ‘Well, I’ll take you along and you can have a listen.’
As soon as we got to the classroom I was sat down in front of a taishoh-goto (大正琴), which is a modern version of the koto, a stringed instrument played horizontally like a lap steel (as opposed the shamisen / 三味線, which looks and plays more like a banjo). Mrs Kanezuka unearthed an English language song – The Sound Of Silence – and I was relieved to discover that I didn’t have to be able read music to join in. Rather than frets, the taishoh-goto has numbered keys, so all you have to do is strum its closely bunched strings with a plectrum, and press 2 2 3 3 5 5 4 / 1 1 1 2 2 4 4 3 (or numbers to that effect) for ‘Hello darkness my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again’.
After performing a couple of songs they had been working on, the students plied me with snacks and drinks, and by about 8 o’clock, Kanazuka-san noticed that I was looking sleepy, and wished me luck before I made my excuses and went upstairs for that Cup Noodle.
I awoke at ten past six to the sound of muzak drifting in from the hotel corridor, and while the weather outside had improved since the previous evening, it was still very much on the moody side.
Pretty soon I had left the mountains behind me, and riding through the suburbs of Niigata City was relatively straightforward, as they were full of rice fields and flat as a pancake. The only problem was that after just three days on the road, I had begun to develop saddle sore. Saddle sore is a funny thing (funny peculiar, that is): on my first tour I went for six weeks without the slightest hint of it, but on my second I had to buy an extra-soft, gel-filled seat cover to stave off the symptoms. With less money to spare this time round, I ventured into a chemist’s and asked if they had any cream for…well, you know, for…
‘Do you mean…?’ said the assistant. ‘No, it’s more a kind of…’ ‘And does it…?’ ‘A little bit, yes. But it’s also…’ ‘How about this one. It’s good for…’ ‘What if you…?’ ‘That too. Although you might want to try this instead. If it’s…’ ‘I don’t think it’s going to be…’ ‘Well, so long as you’re not…’ ‘No, I should think that’ll be fine for…’
I ended up buying the smallest tube of the cheapest cream they had, and the fact that it contained steroids may have helped me through the rest of the trip in more ways than one.
Passing this sign along the way (I don’t know about you, but I quite like the idea of living in a town whose name – Sakaya / 酒屋 – means ‘off-licence’), I reached the ferry terminal just in time to buy a ticket for the 12.40 departure to Sado Island.
‘Your bicycle goes free,’ said the cashier, ‘so that’ll be 2320 yen, please.’ This was a pleasant surprise, as the ferry company’s website had listed the fare for one-adult-plus-two-wheeled-non-motorised-vehicle as more like 3400. I handed the cashier a 5000-yen note, and in return got my ticket, a receipt and the change: a 1000-yen note and some coins. With just a few minutes before the ferry was due to leave, I rushed outside, unlocked my bicycle and wheeled it on board, and it wasn’t until I was up on deck that I realised I had been short changed.
Part of the problem with learning a foreign language is that you can never be one hundred per cent sure of what the person you’re talking to has said, and partly because of this, partly because of my congenital mathematical ineptitude, partly because I was in a hurry and partly because the price was cheaper than I had been expecting, I didn’t notice the discrepancy straight away. (Having said that, would I have noticed if I was in the UK and we had both been speaking English? Possibly not.)
I went up to the information desk to explain what had happened, and about twenty minutes later my name was called out over the PA system. ‘We’ve checked with the ticket office,’ said the man behind the desk, who a few minutes earlier had been banging a kind of dinner gong to signal the ferry’s departure, ‘and it would appear that you were correct. One of the tills had a surplus of 1400 yen. Please accept our apologies, and here is your money.’
While I was almost certain the cashier had short-changed me by 1000-yen, I was almost equally certain that it hadn’t been by any more than that. But seeing those four extra 100-yen coins in my hand, I decided to keep quiet: after all, I was poor, I was hungry and I had just noticed from the menu in the cafeteria that a bowl of soba cost exactly 400 yen, so that was what I had for lunch, with a comparatively clear conscience.
Apart from this unexpected cash bonus, easily the most diverting aspect of the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Sado was the large flock of seagulls that followed us out of the harbour. No doubt through years of experience, what these canny – and hungry – birds have realised is that if they fly alongside the ferry, excited tourists will feed them with as many reconstituted potato flour snack products as they can eat. Some people hold their crisps aloft and wait for a seagull to swoop in and grab them, but most simply throw them overboard, where they will be expertly intercepted and gulped down in mid-air.
As I was brushing my teeth in the gents after lunch, a bespectacled man in a check shirt came up to me and said, ‘Strasvutchié.’ ‘Mmgmhm?’ I replied with a mouthful of toothpaste. ‘Strasvutchié.’ ‘Ngmhmgm!’ I assumed he was saying hello in an impenetrably broad Niigata accent, and said hello back as best I could without dribbling onto my t-shirt. After a couple more attempts at communicating, he bowed apologetically and left, but I caught up with him in the lobby a couple of minutes later. ‘Sorry about that,’ I said. ‘I was trying to say hello but you probably couldn’t understand me.’ ‘That’s OK. Where are you from? America?’ ‘England.’ ‘Ah. There are quite a few Russians in Niigata, so I was saying hello in Russian: strasvutchié.’ I learnt the merest smattering of Russian when I was at school, but not enough to recall it in such an unexpected context. As it turned out, though, N-san’s English was even better than his Russian. ‘I studied it in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘Is that where you live now?’ ‘No, I live in Tokyo. How about you?’ ‘Ibaraki.’ ‘I went to university in Chiba.’ Part-suburban and part-countryside, Chiba is sandwiched between Ibaraki and Tokyo. ‘Ibaraki is a bit like Chiba, isn’t it?’ ‘How do you mean?’ ‘Quiet.’ ‘Ha ha! Yes, “quiet” is a pretty good way of describing it.’ I couldn’t help thinking of Ford Prefect’s entry for the planet Earth in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: ‘mostly harmless’. ‘Do you know Constable?’ continued N-san. ‘The painter, you mean?’ ‘Yes. I really like Constable.’ ‘Me too. His paintings are very English.’ ‘I went to the National Gallery once. I also went to Newton’s birthplace – I studied physics, you see, so I had always wanted to go there.’ ‘Ah, the apple!’ ‘Yes, the apple. Do you know anything about Sado?’ ‘Not much.’ ‘Have you heard of Charles Jenkins?’ ‘No.’ ‘It’s ironic, because he’s probably the most famous person on the island, and he’s American.’ Jenkins (thank you, Wikipedia!) defected to North Korea during the Korean war, and ended up staying there – not necessarily of his own volition – for the best part of forty years. Over the past few decades, the North Korean government has intermittently kidnapped Japanese citizens, supposedly for intelligence purposes, and Jenkin’s wife Hitomi was one of these unfortunate few. The two met and married in North Korea, and during a period in which relations between the countries had cooled off ever so slightly, were allowed to visit Japan with their children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never went back. ‘How about the toki?’ N-san pointed to a photograph of a toki on the lobby wall. ‘It’s called the crested ibis, although the Latin name is Nippon Nipponia. “Japan Japan” – you can’t get much more Japanese than that! They disappeared from Japan, though, so now they’re having to re-import them from China. What are you going to do on Sado, anyway?’ ‘Well, I wanted to cycle all the way around the coast, but now I’ve seen a proper map, it looks bigger than I thought.’ ‘Yes, it’s probably 2 or 300 kilometres.’ ‘Really? I’d rather have some time off from riding the bike, I think. How about you?’ ‘My sister lives here with her son, so I’m staying with them for a couple of days. They live in Sawata, which is not very beautiful. In fact, it’s probably the least interesting town on the island.’
Naturally, Sawata is exactly where I headed once the ferry had arrived at Ryotsu port, as it was less than an hour’s ride away and had a campsite, whose caretaker really did have an impenetrably broad Niigata accent. ‘Did you slvg oind qpidknc odiioa?’ he said when I poked my head around the door of his office. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Did you come for the xlirnhce?’ ‘What was that?’ ‘Did you come for the festival?’ ‘What festival is that?’ ‘The Zoqedk Festival.’ ‘The what?’ ‘The Earth Festival.’ ‘I didn’t realise there was one.’ ‘Well, you’re too late anyway. You’ve missed it.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘How pqigld oidowg lneq?’ ‘Pardon?’ ‘How long are you oshgecm?’ ‘Er…’ ‘How long are you staying?’ ‘One night. Maybe two. I haven’t decided yet.’ ‘You have to decide now.’ ‘Do I?’ ‘Yes. I won’t be here tomorrow. It’ll be a different person, so you have to decide now.’ ‘Right. OK. Er, one night then.’ ‘That’ll be qpondg hdii dnclk.’ ‘Excuse me?’ And so on and so forth.
Despite the rather terse service, the site was in a lovely spot – in a grove of pine trees and just across the road from a sandy beach – and after visiting the local onsen for a bath and and the local convenience store for dinner, I was lulled to sleep by the sound of chirping crickets.
I had my morning carton of coffee, microwaved hotto cakey and fruit-cocktail-suspended-in-jelly on a bench overlooking the bay, and was soon joined by a man out walking his dog. He looked to be about sixty, and wore large-framed spectacles, a floppy hat and a fishing vest, while his labrador had a pronounced limp and the biggest, dangliest pair of dog’s bollocks I had ever seen. I was disappointed to find out that the dog was called Park (as in, er, ‘park’), and not something more befitting of his prize assets, although despite being twelve years old, Park was no slouch. ‘We walk along the beach for about four hours every morning,’ said his owner, ‘and this is where we normally take a break.’ As the man reached into his rucksack and fished out a newspaper, a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of water with a special fold-out, bowl-like fitment on it so that Park could have a drink, I wondered if a dog’s bollocks become bigger and danglier with age, or if Park’s acted as a kind of counterweight to balance out his limp. ‘Where are you from,’ asked the man. ‘England, although I live in Ibaraki.’ ‘I went to England a couple of times. The first time, there was a bus that took us into London from Heathrow, and I was really impressed with the suburbs – each house on its own separate plot of land with a garden.’ ‘Are you from Sado?’ ‘I’m from here but I lived in Tokyo for a long time. Then a few years ago I made a “u-turn”, as they say, and moved back. Best thing I ever did.’
Back at the campsite, the kitchen-stroke-barbecue area looked like a bomb had hit it, and a couple of young lads were packing up ready for the drive back to Tokyo, which they told me would take about seven hours from Niigata. Apparently they had cooked themselves a meal in the middle of the night, and because they made only a cursory attempt to clear up, once they had left I instigated a one-man souji-jikan (掃除時間 / cleaning time).
With the barbecue area looking a little less like an episode of How Clean Is Your House? and my washing hung up to dry, I also took the time to give the Rock Spring a service (Rock Spring, I should say here, is by no means a famous brand name in mountain-biking circles – in fact, it’s probably just a couple of words plucked at random from a dictionary by some Chinese factory workers). I pumped up the tyres, oiled the chain, tweaked the gears, re-secured the saddlebags, cleaned the paintwork and adjusted the brakes – the brake pads themselves had worn down to about half the thickness they had been when I set off from Ibaraki, due at least in part to an emergency stop that just prevented me from hurtling into some bushes on a hairpin bend near Aizu-wakamatsu.
After lunch I caught the bus to Aikawa on the north coast, where the backstreets were lined with temples, shrines and attractive old buildings with white plasterwork and wooden façades, and where even the vending machines were done up in the heritage style.
This one was beside the rather wonderful Sado-hangamura-bijutsukan (佐渡版画村美術館 / Sado Woodcut Village Art Gallery), which was founded by a man called Shinichi Takahashi. After retiring from his job as a high school art teacher, Takahashi took it upon himself to teach printmaking to local people, and alongside woodcuts by more renowned artists, this gallery is where their works are displayed. Having studied printmaking in my teens, the woodcuts of Hokusai and Hiroshigé were one of the reasons I came to Japan in the first place, and if I had the means to carry them home I might have invested in a couple of originals. The most impressive exhibit, though, wasn’t for sale, and came in a limited print run of just one.
Earlier this year, around two hundred members of the Sado Woodcut Village Association created a wall-sized print to mark the 25th anniversary of Takahashi’s death. Made using fifteen or so separate wood blocks, it’s called Shimabito-no-yorokobi (島人の歓び / Joy of the Islanders), and depicts life on Sado, its landmarks, history, culture and traditions. While this blog about the making of the print is in Japanese, the photos give a pretty good idea of how the project evolved.
The population of Sado has amost halved in recent decades, one of the main reasons being that after more than four hundred years as its primary industry, gold and silver mining finally ceased in 1951. The remains of the Sado-kinzan (佐渡金山 / Sado Gold Mine) are just down the road from the Village Gallery, in a valley that winds its way into the hills from Aikawa, and which used to be one long production line. Somewhere beneath my feet were around 400km of tunnels, and at its busiest, the mine produced 400kg of gold and 40 tons of silver a year.
Alongside great concrete constructions that looked like something from a Siberian labour camp, the brick building in the foreground of this picture – which used to be a coal-fired power station – houses photographs of the mine in its heyday: of the railway tracks, the heavy machinery, the workers, their families and their festivals.
At Aikawa bus station, I wasn’t sure exactly which bus to catch or which stop to catch it from, and asked the station master for some help. ‘I was looking to catch a bus back to here,’ I said, and pointed at what I thought was Sawata bus station on the timetable. ‘But it looks as though there are only a couple a day.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘The next one isn’t until 6.50, right?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘And it definitely stops here?’ I pointed at the same stop again. ‘Yes. At Sawata hospital.’ ‘Sawata Hospital? Where’s that?’ ‘Probably about 20 minutes’ walk from Sawata bus station.’ ‘Oh. I wonder if there’s another one I could catch… Wait, this is Sawata bus station, isn’t it?’ This time I pointed to the stop before Sawata Hospital on the timetable. ‘Yes.’ ‘Ah, I see! So all of the buses go to the bus station.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘And I can get on the one that leaves at 4.50.’ ‘Yes.’ The station master was now looking slightly confused. ‘So, er, what was it you needed to know exactly?’ ‘Well, nothing, I suppose. That was all I was worried about. Oh, hang on, what stop does it leave from?’ ‘Number one, just outside on the left.’ ‘Thank you very much!’ I said, before going outside and getting on a bus at stop number two that was going in completely the wrong direction.
Fortunately a fellow passenger pointed out my mistake, and I made it back to the campsite in time to ask the substitute caretaker if I could stay another night. ‘Certainly,’ he said. ‘That’ll be 1200 yen, please.’ ‘Really? Your colleague wanted me to book in for three nights straight away.’ ‘Don’t mind him. He says what he wants to say and doesn’t listen to anyone else.’ ‘So it’s not just me, then?’ ‘No, not at all. He’s like that with everyone.’ ‘To be honest he was rather difficult to understand as well, which didn’t help.’ ‘That makes two of us. I only moved to Sado six years ago, so I’m still having trouble with the dialect. It’s expensive here, too. One or two companies have a monopoly on what comes in and they keep the prices high. Then again, the rest of Japan is the same – oil, food, we have to import almost everything.’
In order to keep track of my own dwindling finances, I had made a list in my diary of what I would need to last me until the end of the trip:
Izakaya – 2000 yen Bus pass for tomorrow’s sightseeing – 1500 yen Souvenirs for Mrs M and the in-laws (incl. postage) – 5000 yen One more night at Sawata campsite – 1200 yen Ferry back to Niigata – 2300 yen Extra soft gel-filled seat cover (if I can find one) – 3000 yen Food and camping for last four days – 10,000 yen
Total – 25,000 yen Total cash remaining – 27,500 yen Emergency funds – 2,500 yen
Izakaya (居酒屋) are the closest thing you will find in most towns and cities to a western-style pub, and I had passed a particularly enticing looking one on my way to the convenience store the previous evening. So, after a cold shower at the campsite (a hot one would have cost 200 yen, and the weather had at last warmed up to something more befitting of a Japanese summer), I treated myself to a proper night out.
While an izakaya will normally have a few tables, the place to be is at the bar, where you are more likely to get talking to some interesting local characters. As it happened, I found myself talking to some interesting out-of-towners instead: O-san, who ran a kimono company, and S-san, who had just begun a three-year stint as manager of a shop that O-san supplied. O-san was originally from an island near Kagoshima way down in the south-west of Japan, and could have passed for a westerner, as he was tall with strong features and curly, greying hair.
‘Why did you come to Sado by yourself?’ he asked me. ‘My wife wouldn’t want to cycle through the mountains for eight hours a day,’ I said. ‘But you could go on holiday together – to an onsen resort or something.’ ‘Well, yes, I suppose I am being a bit selfish, but this is what I like doing best. Some people are obsessed with their cars, some people are obsessed with their motorbikes, I’m obsessed with my push bike. In English we call it a mid-life crisis.’ ‘In Japanese we say yaku-doshi (厄年). How old are you?’ ‘I was forty this year.’ ‘Ah yes. Yaku-doshi lasts for about three years. When you’re thirty-nine your body starts to break down.’ ‘Break down?’ ‘Yes. But once you get to forty-two, things begin to improve again.’
O-san smoked incessantly, and supplemented my two beers with a couple of shots from his bottle of shochu (焼酎 / a cheap, vodka-like spirit made from – among other things – potatoes). His version of yaku-doshi involved taking plenty of business trips and having ‘lady friends’ in various parts of the country, while S-san, on the other hand, was teetotal and still single at thirty-six.
Upon hearing this the izakaya’s mama-san was genuinely surprised, and sat down beside him to get the full story. She was probably in her late fifties, and managed to keep her hair, her make-up and her pinny looking immaculate for the entire evening, despite running the place by herself, serving all the drinks, cooking everything on the menu from scratch, and making sure that none of her customers was short of someone to talk to. Rather than calling last orders and kicking everyone out at eleven thirty, izakaya tend to stay open until whenever the last person at the bar gets up to leave, so she had been working until two the previous morning, although we called it a night at about ten thirty, and I left with a promise from O-san that he would treat me to dinner and drinks tomorrow night if I kept him and S-san company again.
After the morning commute, there is a period of about four hours during which most of the buses on Sado are idle, so sleeping late rather scuppered my plans for sightseeing. After studying the timetable in some detail, I decided to head for Futatsugamé at the far north-eastern tip of the island (seen from above, Sado is shaped like a kind of laterally elongated figure of eight, with four corresponding ‘corners’), and after catching the bus from Sawata to Ryotsu, had to wait two hours for the bus along the coast towards Iwayaguchi. Not only that, but the last bus back from Futatsugamé to Ryotsu departed at 2.30, which meant a ratio of five and a half hours’ travelling to just one hour of sightseeing.
It was well worth the trouble, though, as Futatsugamé – not to mention the scenery along the way – was enchanting. The further along the coast we travelled, the narrower and more circuitous Route 45 became, and at Futatsugamé itself, there was a hotel, a campsite and very little else. From the bus stop, a path led down through the trees, and arriving at a headland at the far end of the campsite, this was the view – and the sign – that greeted me.
Based on its double-hump-backed profile, the name Futatsugamé (二ッ亀) means ‘two turtles’, and particularly on such a fine, still day, the narrow sand bar leading out to an idyllic island looked positively heavenly: like those metaphorical depictions of the afterlife in which one crosses over from the real world to an ethereal paradise. A few fellow tourists were relaxing on the beach or swimming in the sea, but I just sat in the shade of a tree and took a few photos, before climbing back up to the hotel, buying a drink from a vending machine and getting back on the bus.
Sitting across the aisle from me was Johannes, who I recognised as the same person that saved me from heading the wrong way out of Aikawa the previous afternoon. Johannes was gangly and almost hippy-ish, with thick-framed spectacles, a bandana and a long, frizzy ponytail. Originally from the old East Germany, he now lived in Kyushu and earned his living as a freelance writer.
‘This may sound like a stupid question, but what language do write in?’ I asked him. ‘English,’ he said. ‘I went to university in America and I used to show experimental films in a kind of road show. We travelled all over the place and I ended up writing a book about it. I had a proper job before I came to Japan, but now I write full time – I’m about to have a book published about North Korean cinema.’ ‘I didn’t even know there was such a thing.’ ‘That’s partly why came to Sado, to interview Charles Jenkins. He starred in a few North Korean films after he defected.’ ‘You mean propaganda films?’ ‘They were proper feature films, although he was always cast as the evil western bad guy. North Korea was part of a group of what used to call themselves “non-aligned” nations – they all made really boring films and showed them at each other’s festivals. I went to a festival in North Korea myself recently, although even now the western films they show are very “safe”.’ Johannes often writes about Japan for japanvisitor.com (you can find a brief biography and a selection of his other articles here), and with the eye of a true travel writer, as the bus wended its way back along the coast, he spotted a village with the intriguing name of Kuro-himé (黒姫 / Black Princess – purely out of curiosity, I later Googled the name and found out that in 1651, Kuro-himé had an official population of just six people, and even now is reputedly home to various ghosts and goblins). Back at Ryotsu, Johannes wished me luck with my own writing and went to catch the ferry to the mainland, while I waited for yet another bus to Sawata.
In keeping with my remedial grasp of mathematics, I had only just realised that I had five rather than four more days in which to make it back to Ibaraki (I left on the 21st and had to return on the 31st, which means ten days, right? Wrong!). Reasoning that it would be nice to have a day off before going back to work on 1st September, I booked in for just one more night at the campsite, and while I didn’t realise it at the time, this would prove to be a very wise decision indeed.
I was at the izakaya by eight o’clock as planned, and by way of indicating that I was the guest of honour, O-san me at the end of the bar and to his left, which was flattering but at the same time less than ideal, as it placed me downwind from an almost continuous fog of cigarette smoke (O-san was one of those chain smokers who is so anxious to start their next cigarette that they stub the previous one out when it is only half-finished). Presently we were joined not just by S-san, who sat at the opposite end of the bar, but by another S-san – let’s call him S-san II – who as O-san’s junior and S-san I’s superior, sat between the two of them.
S-san II was in his late forties or early fifties and what you might call well-groomed: he had a suspiciously flawless tan, his hair was dyed black and permed into a kind of semi-bouffant, and when he was pouring a drink he had the ladylike habit of extending his little finger away from the bottle. When he talked, though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Finchy from The Office: the nightmare sales rep and unreconstructed MCP.
‘I was out drinking the night before last,’ said S-san II, ‘and we ended up at a karaoké place with these girls. I can’t remember much after the first couple of songs because we were so drunk, but on the way back to the hotel I fell into a bloody rice field! My suit was absolutely covered in mud – I had to wash it in the bath – and I had my laptop with me as well. Lucky I didn’t drop that too.’
When S-san II found out that I was from England, he told me about a homestay trip during his student days. ‘I stayed with a family in Bournemouth,’ he said. ‘The worst thing was the hot water – you had to wait for it to heat up!’ ‘I should think it was good for your English, though.’ ‘Sort of. I could understand the children I was staying with, but I had no idea what their parents were talking about at all. A group of us hired a car and drove up to London – we went to that place…what was it called? You know, the one with all the strip clubs.’ ‘Soho.’ ‘Yes, Soho! We drove to Edinburgh, too, and it wasn’t as far as I thought – only took us about five hours.’ Somehow I had the feeling S-san II didn’t go to Edinburgh for the architecture, and as the evening progressed, I was worried that the three of them might decide to introduce me to some of their hostess friends and keep me boozing until the early hours. As it turned out, though, they were tired after a long day at work, and at 10pm O-san paid the bill as promised, and left me with his business card and a promise that he would be in touch the next time he visited the Hitachi branch of his kimono company.
The hard-to-understand and hard-to-deal-with caretaker was back from his holidays, and had been collecting rubbish on the beach with some colleagues of his from the local council. They had been up since four in the morning, he said, and I realised as I was packing my gear onto the Rock Spring that in my eagerness to clean up the barbecue area a couple of days earlier, I had thrown away their toothbrushes, having mistaken them for the lost property of a forgetful camper. Not wanting to hang around in case the caretaker cottoned on to my mistake, I was on the road before seven and at the ferry terminal in Ryotsu by eight.
There I got talking to another cyclist from Ibaraki, who had a fancy-looking racing bike and had stayed on Sado for just one night. Resisting the temptation to ask him for a lift back – his car was in Niigata – I went upstairs to buy my ticket and check out the souvenir shops, and on the way found this farm produce vending machine (garlic – 200 yen, onions – 200 yen, potatoes – 200 yen, odourless garlic – 300 yen).
The seagulls had worked out that while there was no point in going to meet an incoming ferry – most of whose passengers will have tired of handing out crisps and snacks by the end of their journey – a whole new set of people will be on hand when the same ferry heads back to the mainland, so by the time we set sail, the MSG feeding frenzy was already in full swing.
This was the view back towards Sado – or the southern half of it, at least.
And this was the view as we pulled into Niigata port, where muddy flood water was still flowing into the clear blue of the Japan Sea.
The temperature hit thirty for the first time on the trip, and as I headed south from Niigata City my forearms felt like doner kebabs, basted in sunblock and almost visibly turning a darker brown in the harsh sunlight. Route 8 was long, straight and flat, and with a tailwind to help me along, I felt refreshed and ready for the journey home. In other words, something was bound to go wrong, and not long after passing this graveyard for broken bicycles – a bad omen if ever there was one – it felt as if I was cycling over corrugated iron rather than smooth tarmac, and a kind of rubbery slapping sound started to come from the back wheel.
It was, of course, a flat tyre, and I’m proud to say that I didn’t panic. After all, it was just last year that I completed a six-week bicycle maintenance evening class at Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre, and I was carrying all the necessary tools to instigate a speedy repair. Sure, the back wheel is always trickier to deal with than the front, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle, so I found a shady spot in a supermarket car park and went to work.
Panniers off, bicycle upside down, 15mm spanner, unscrew wheel nuts, disentangle back wheel from chain, remove back wheel, unscrew valve nut, prise off tyre, remove inner tube, re-inflate inner tube, listen for escaping air to locate puncture hole, realise that rather than having a single puncture hole, inner tube has worn through…
I’ve had a few punctures in my time, but I can honestly say that I’ve never had an inner tube disintegrate on me before, and as a consequence, I hadn’t bothered to bring a spare. Looking at the tube, two areas on either side of the valve looked like the knees from a particularly old pair of jeans, and both were bigger than the repair patches I was carrying with me. I did my best bodge job, re-attached everything to the bike and cycled off down the road, but the tyre went soft again almost immediately. A nearby hardware store didn’t have inner tubes in the correct size (700 x 35c, in case you were wondering), so the staff there directed me to a shop called Koidé-jitensha (漕いで自転車 / Pedalling Bicycles).
When I walked in, a man in his eighties was repairing a shopping bike in that leisurely, unhurried fashion that only a professional of several decades’ standing can properly carry off. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘but would you happen to have a 700 x 35c inner tube?’ ‘Hang on, I’ll just go and get my son,’ he said, before disappearing through the front door of the house over the road.
The son had soon located a stockpile of 700 x 35cs, and just in case the front one went as well – which was a distinct possibility on such a cheap Chinese bike – I shelled out 1900 yen for two of them (this, I decided, was the emergency for which I had set aside 2500 yen of my remaining budget). The son didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t afford to have him fit the tube for me, so the two of them looked on as I did the job myself, in that fumbling, inept fashion that only a rank amateur (or an alumni of Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Education Centre) can properly carry off.
If you’re not particularly interested in the whys and wherefores of bicycle maintenance – a description that I assume encompasses pretty much everyone who reads this blog – then feel free to skip this next bit, as it’s a list of the various pieces of technical advice they gave me:
– Don’t screw the the valve nut too tightly against the wheel, as this can damage the tube – If, on the other hand, the valve isn’t sticking out very far from the wheel, this means the tyre isn’t properly inflated – Spin the wheel before you re-attach it to the bicycle to check that it’s regular and bulge-free. If there’s a bulge in the tyre, this means the tube has become pinched between the wheel rim and the tyre – When you put the bicycle the right way up again after completing the repair, re-tighten the wheel nuts
I realised as I cycled off that this could just as easily have happened when I was in the middle of nowhere, and while getting a puncture was bad luck, getting a puncture within five minutes’ walk of a specialist bicycle shop was good luck of the very highest order.
It wasn’t long before I had reached Ohzaki-yama Park in the hills above Sanjoh City. As well as a campsite, the park had its own mini-onsen, although this was about to be over-run by a party of about fifty school children, so I bathed and shaved in about five minutes flat.
‘Can you use a Japanese-style toilet?’ said the receptionist when I arrived back from eating out in Sanjoh. ‘I can, although it’s a bit hard on the knees if you’ve been cycling all day.’ Squat toilets are still quite common in older buildings and public washrooms, and while I can use one in an emergency, my entire lower body tends to seize up in the process. ‘That’s OK,’ he said. ‘The side door is normally locked, but I’ll leave it open tonight in case you want to come in and use the western-style one.’ Now that’s what I call catering to the needs of your customers.
I woke up at about 6.30, got dressed, rolled up my sleeping bag and camping mat and unzipped the tent flap, only to find myself completely surrounded by school children. There was a sort of Mexican stand-off moment where we all stood and stared at each other, before I broke the silence by whispering a polite ‘good morning’ (somehow it didn’t feel right to raise my voice) and almost tip-toed my way to the car park to start loading the bicycle.
‘That was amazing,’ I said to one of the volunteers who was supervising them. ‘I didn’t hear a thing.’ ‘Ah yes, that’s an activity where we ask them to explore what’s around them and write about it, but without talking to each other,’ he said. ‘This weekend is a kind of nature adventure, so last night we watched the sunset and lit an avenue of candles on the hillside, and later this morning we’ll be hiking into the woods and looking for plants and wildlife.’
The volunteers were from an organisation called JCI (Junior Chamber International, aka Worldwide Federation Of Young Leaders And Entrepreneurs) and all worked for small businesses in Sanjoh. The Sanjoh branch of JCI calls itself Tsubamé, which means ‘martin’ or ‘swallow’ (as in the bird), and whose kanji has an attractive symmetry to it:
Although the Tsubamé Sanjoh website is in Japanese, you can see some pictures of the children’s nature adventure here – on about the fifteenth photo from the top of the page, my tent is just out of shot to the left.
Speaking of which, it’s time for a short commercial break:
If you’re ever thinking of purchasing a tent, allow me to recommend the excellent Snow Peak range. Since 2005, my Snow Peak Landbreeze Solo has accompanied me halfway around Japan without so much as a leaky seam, a broken pole or a ripped flysheet, and while I bought it primarily because it weighs less than two kilos, it is also easy to assemble, thoroughly waterproof and can be purchased with an inner tent whose top half is more like a mosquito net (this allows a through draft and keeps the inside from feeling like a sauna, as can often happen with cheaper tents on a summer’s morning).
Coincidentally enough, if I hadn’t taken a wrong turn on the way south from Sanjoh, I would have ridden straight past Snow Peak HQ, which as well as the company factory is home to a Camp Field, Natural Lifestyle Store and something called a Creative Room. Still, I didn’t go too far in the wrong direction, and passed yet more flood damage (bad omen alert!) before a mid-morning break at Tochio michi-no-eki.
Michi-no-eki (道の駅 / literally ‘road station’) are the Japanese equivalent of a roadside services, although imagine, if you will, how much more stimulating a visit to Moto or Welcome Break would be if you could buy locally produced fruit, vegetables, cakes, snacks and souvenirs. And imagine how much more value for money you would get if stallholders were allowed to sell takeaway food from the car park. Here in Tochio, as well as a gift shop with all manner of Niigata specialities, there was a van outside selling aburagé (油揚げ / deep-fried tofu), which like the best Belgian pommes frites had been deep fried not once but twice, and was the most delicious thing I ate on the entire holiday (not something you will hear anyone say after a visit to Watford Gap Road Chef).
‘Good, isn’t it?’ said a stallholder from a craft market that was also taking place next to the aburagé van. ‘A young lad passed through here the other week, you know. He was cycling the whole west coast from north to south. And a few months ago, when I turned up first thing in the morning there was a cyclist camping on the grass behind the main building. Are you going far?’ ‘To Ibaraki eventually.’ I dug out the Mapple and showed him the zig-zagging route I had planned, through the mountains and back into Fukushima Prefecture. ‘I’m pretty sure the road’s closed at Kanéyama because of the floods,’ he said. ‘That’s OK, I was going to turn right before that and head south east.’
I probably should have had two helpings of aburagé, as the road from Tochio led straight to a mountain pass. On the lower slopes I overtook a small tractor-trailer with a scooter on the back. Why didn’t the man who was driving it repair the scooter first and then ride it to wherever he was going, I wondered, only to hear the sound of the same tractor again about ten minutes later. He eventually passed me with a smile and a wave in what felt like slow motion, as by this point we were both travelling at approximately walking speed.
As I was admiring the view from the pass, two cyclists on racing bikes appeared wearing the full compliment of helmets, wraparound shades and matching lycra shorts and shirts. ‘That was quite steep, wasn’t it?’ said the older of the two, who didn’t even appear to have broken sweat on the way up. ‘About five per cent, I should think.’ ‘It felt steeper than that to me,’ I said between gulps from my water bottle. ‘Where are you going from here, anyway?’ ‘We live near Sanjoh, so we’re doing a round trip – probably about seventy-five kilometres in all. How about you?’ ‘I’m heading for Route 252.’ ‘We’re going to the michi-no-eki on 252 for lunch. I could be wrong, but I think the road’s still closed beyond there.’ ‘You mean because of the floods? Oh well, I can always take Route 352 instead.’
Sure enough, there was an automated sign above Ichihirosé michi-no-eki that read tsuu-koh-domé (通行止 / road closed), and one of the waitresses in the cafeteria was acting as a kind of voluntary traffic information guide. ‘Are you sure I can’t get through on a bicycle?’ I asked her. ‘I’m afraid not,’ she said. ‘How about Route 352?’ ‘That’s closed as well, unfortunately.’
My only option now was to head even further south and cross from west to east through Nikko, which would involve climbing to the Shiisaka Pass at 740 metres above sea level, the Mikuni Pass at 1076 metres and the Konsei Pass at a giddy 1880. Taking such a long detour meant that my mathematical blunder – of thinking that I had ten days before the end of the summer holidays when in actual fact I had eleven – was beginning to look like an inspired incidence of foresight.
Probably because they felt sorry for me, the two cyclists from the pass gave me one of their energy gels when they had finished their lunch (energy gels combine the taste of Lucozade with the texture of rice pudding, and are all the rage with athletes these days). They then whizzed off down the road, although I caught up with them several more times in the next hour or two – in fact, after saying, ‘Fancy seeing you here!’ for about the third or fourth time and being presented with at least two more energy gels, the situation began to get a little awkward.
_By the time I had shaken them off I was back on the plains, and so far south that I had to throw away my battered old Tohoku Mapple (originally given to me by Tokidoki Tokyo) and buy the Kanto edition instead. The scenery wasn’t quite so inspiring as it had been that morning, but I did see this man making rather novel use of the car wash at a gasoline stand (‘We come here at least once a week,’ he said, ‘otherwise the dog starts to smell bad.’).
Rather than trying to find a campsite, my aim now was to cycle as far as I could and pitch the Snow Peak somewhere inconspicuous, an activity that is known as nojuku (野宿 / literally ‘field stay’).
Many touring cyclists nojuku as a way of saving time and money, but I had only done so on one previous occasion, and while the rational part of me knew that no one would so much as bat an eyelid if I set up camp in the woods or in a disused rice field, the irrational part of me was worried that the local yakuza might burn my tent to the ground, throw the Rock Spring in the nearest river and set upon me with baseball bats.
By about 6pm I had reached Shiozawa, and in the TV room at the local onsen, asked the family at the next table if they could recommend a suitable spot for nojuku-ing. After some thought, the father – whose Japanese, incidentally, was as crystal clear and comprehensible as an NHK newsreader – gave me directions to the local park, which he said was quiet, spacious and had a toilet block that would be open all night. So, once the onsen had closed for the evening that’s exactly where I headed, although I suspected the toilets probably wouldn’t be western style.
This photo was taken at 5.30am, because, quite frankly, I was a bit anxious about the whole nojuku thing and hadn’t slept very well. For that added touch of surrealism, I had managed to pitch the Snow Peak directly behind Bokushi-dohri, a shopping street constructed in the Edo style as a kind of living museum, so there was some nice architecture to look at as I cycled off into the sunrise.
Stopping for my usual convenience store breakfast, I met a tall, smartly dressed man in a baseball cap, polo-neck sweater and chinos. ‘My son lives near here,’ he told me, ‘so I come and stay at least a couple of times a year. In the winter I go ski-ing and in the summer I play golf. I’m playing eighteen holes with a friend of mine this morning – he’s supposed to be picking me up in a minute.’ ‘You’re probably pretty good, I should imagine.’ ‘Not bad, although I’m eighty now, so I can only hit the ball about a hundred yards. When you get to my age you don’t have the flexibility in your shoulders to get a good swing.’ ‘What’s your best score, then?’ ‘About seventy-eight, I think, although that was probably twenty or thirty years ago. Nowadays it’s more like a hundred.’
Bokushi-dohri is part of the Mikuni-kaidoh (三国街道 / ‘Three countries highway’), which has served as a route between Tokyo and Niigata for several centuries, and which I would be following today on my way into Gunma Prefecture. At Echigo-yuzawa the Joh-etsu expressway heads into an eleven-kilometre-long tunnel – the longest road tunnel in Japan – while the Mikuni-kaidoh (aka Route 17) goes from flat to steep in a matter of moments, and stays that way for the next thirty or so kilometres.
After the first few hairpin bends I stopped in front of an isolated two-storey house, where a young man in a blue puffer jacket was starting up his scooter in the front yard. He introduced himself as Fueda-san and asked where I was from. ‘England,’ I said. ‘And what do you do?’ ‘I work as an ALT.’ ‘That’s what I was doing until April, except I was teaching Japanese at a school in China. I need to find a job so I can save some more money and go back.’ ‘Are you off to a job interview now?’ ‘No. It’s Hello Work, I’m afraid.’ Hello Work is the Japanese equivalent of a job centre, and from what I can tell, going to one can be a similarly dispiriting experience. ‘Do you want to move to China for good?’ I asked. ‘I want to live in Taiwan eventually. That’s where my girlfriend’s from – we speak to each other on Skype every couple of days, so I’m trying to improve my Chinese.’ Noticing that my water bottle was empty, Fueda-san told me to re-fill it at a tap next to the garage. ‘That’s fresh spring water straight from the ground, so it should be ice cold,’ he said, and we wished each other luck before he sped off down the hill.
Route 17 was lined with ski-slopes and high-rise hotels, which because this was off-season were practically empty, so for most of the morning I had the road to myself. When I stopped in a layby for another drink (it wasn’t until I had downed a bottle-full that I noticed a sign above the washroom sink that read Nomémasen! / Undrinkable!), it was quiet enough that a family of monkeys emerged from the forest to scamper across the road.
Although in case you’re under the impression this was a David Attenborough-style close encounter, here is the original, un-cropped photo:
I reached the Mikuni Pass at about midday, where the view was one of the lushest and most tree-filled I had ever seen (with so much natural forestation, I should imagine this is a good place to see the autumn colours).
Combined with an early start, the climb had completely wiped me out, and with the Konsei Pass on my itinerary for the following day, I decided that another night of nojuku was out of the question. The only thing for it was to break out my Emergency Cash Card, find a cheap hotel and get a decent night’s sleep. Mrs M wouldn’t be too happy when she found out that the trip had gone over-budget, but in the interests of a) my health and b) starting work again on 1st September, I withdrew another 10,000 yen from a post office ATM and braced myself for a stern talking to when Mrs M next checked our bank balance.
The first hotel I tried in Numata City was fully booked, but as well as having vacancies, the second – the Sasaya – was a fair bit cheaper and a lot more characterful. The woman behind reception was dividing her time between watching TV and babysitting her grandson, and when I asked where I could leave the Rock Spring, she told me to bring it through the main doors and park it among a collection of bikes and prams next to the drinks machine (neglecting to take your shoes off as you enter a building is considered to be bad manners in Japan, so wheeling a bicycle across a pile carpet felt positively criminal).
After checking in I went straight to the communal baths, where the sauna was mysteriously chilly. ‘This isn’t working, is it?’ I said to a fellow bather. ‘It’s working all right,’ he said. ‘They just set it to a low temperature, that’s all. It’s always like that.’ Most onsen will have a cold bath in which to cool off after your sauna, but that was empty too, so I assumed the owners were either keen practitioners of setsuden, or didn’t have enough guests to justify the expense of firing up the sauna.
Despite advertising itself as a wedding venue, the Sasaya was distinctly rough around the edges: the toilet roll holder in my bathroom, for example, was stuck to the wall with gaffer tape, there was a large cigarette burn on the shelf above the sink, and a hand-written notice on the ancient, free-standing air conditioner warned that it would leak if I tried to move it. Not that I needed an air conditioner, as the room itself was almost completely sealed off from the outside world. It was how I imagine being on a space station must feel, as I had no sense of the outside world whatsoever: there were no windows, it was eerily quiet, and even on a summer’s day the temperature remained at a constant 20 degrees.
When I arrived back from buying dinner at the local supermarket, an old man with fly-away white hair was sitting at the reception desk and peering at a newspaper through a magnifying glass. The Sasaya is about as close as you’ll get in Japan to Fawlty Towers (not for nothing does it score a whopping 2.62 stars out of 5 on the Rakuten Travel homepage), which made me feel rather at home, and I slept a lot more soundly than I had in the park behind Bokushi-dohri.
As I was passing through the outskirts of Numata City, Mrs M called to ask if I wanted her to come and pick me up. ‘I’ve got to work tomorrow,’ she said, ‘but I could drive to Nikko today and we could put your bicycle in the back of the car.’ I have to say that for a moment or two I was tempted by the offer, but male pride can be a powerful thing. If I accepted, I would officially have failed in my mission to get to Sado and back by pedal power, something I would probably have to lie about if anyone asked me how my summer holidays had gone. So I told Mrs M not to worry, crossed my fingers and carried on towards the Shiisaka Pass as planned.
About halfway there, a truck driver honked his horn, waved and smiled a cheery ‘Hello!’ in a manner that seemed to say, ‘What the bloody hell are you doing trying to ride a bicycle up this hill, you fool!’ and as if to emphasise his point, the next car to pass by was a hearse. I made it to the top unscathed, though, and after a quick freewheel into the Katashina River valley, it was time for today’s main event, namely the forty-kilometre trek to the Konsei Pass.
The lower slopes were comparatively gentle, and on the way I met Ishii-san, the first proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip. A university student, Ishii-san was wending his way back from Hokkaido (where during the summer holidays you will encounter a touring cyclist approximately once every five minutes) to Nagoya, and nojuku-ing along the way. ‘To be honest,’ I said, ‘I’m still a bit wary of nojuku.’ ‘I was too at first, but you get used to it after a week or two.’ ‘Did you come over the Konsei Pass from Nikko?’ ‘No, but I’m heading for this place.’ Leafing through his copy of the Kanto Mapple, Ishii-san pointed out the Shibu Pass in Nagano Prefecture, which at 2172 metres is the highest in the country. His bicycle appeared to be a good deal heavier than mine, laden as it was with panniers on both the front and back wheels, and – among other things – a full-size non-stick saucepan with a Pyrex lid, so if he could make it to 2172 metres, there was no excuse for me fail at 1880.
As well as its official title of ‘Japan Romantic Road’, Route 120 is known colloquially as ‘Tohmorokoshi (Corn On The Cob) Road’, so that was what I had for elevensies, at one of the many roadside stalls in Katashina Village. ‘Come in, sit down, take a break!’ said a friendly old woman in a patterned pinny and headscarf, before handing me some tohmorokoshi that almost surpassed the aburagé I had in Tochio as the most delicious food of the trip. When I was a child, my mum used to boil corn on the cob for about half an hour and smother it in butter, salt and pepper, whereas this, the stallholder told me, had been barbecued for just three minutes. It was soft, sweet and didn’t need anything to accompany it, although she still insisted on including green tea, pickled cucumber and fresh tomatoes in the 300-yen asking price.
From there onwards, Corn On The Cob Road became steeper and steeper, and just to make things that little bit more agonising, a succession of road signs counted down the distance to the pass in 250-metre increments. Depending on how you translate it, the expression hiza ga warau (膝が笑う) means ‘knees are smiling’ or ‘knees are laughing’, and describes the physical sensation of hiking up a mountain. But it can just as easily be applied to cycling up one, and my knees were laughing so much that by about lunchtime it felt as if they had watched the complete works of the Marx Brothers back-to-back.
I stopped for an extended break at the Marunuma Kogen ski resort, where despite the lack of snow, the lifts were still running and skiers and snowboarders were making use of a stretch of all-weather astro-turf. At the entrance to the resort there was a cast-iron hand pump dispensing natural spring water, and as I was filling my water bottle, a family got out of their car and waited in line behind me. When I turned round, the grandfather broke out into a smile, pointed and exclaimed, ‘Steve McQueen!’ ‘Pardon?’ I said. ‘Steve McQueen! What was that film again? Ah yes, Die Hard!’ ‘Die Hard?’ ‘Yes, Die Hard! Steve McQueen!’ ‘No, no,’ I corrected him. ‘ Steve McQueen was in The Great Escape. You must be thinking of Bruce Willis.’ As a white man with a receding hairline, I am often likened to Bruce Willis (who is currently starring in this commercial for Daihatsu), even though a receding hairline is pretty much the only feature we have in common. ‘Bruce Willis?’ The grandfather looked confused, and after turning the thought over in his mind for a moment or two, he smiled and pointed at me again. ‘Steve McQueen!’
Just as I was about to leave around an hour later, another potential Steve McQueen lookalike (and the second proper touring cyclist I had seen on the trip) coasted into the car park. Originally from Canada, J worked for an oil company in Egypt, and while this was his first visit to Japan, he had already taken advantage of his month-on-month-off shift pattern to visit most of the rest of Asia. As well as a Mapple, he carried an iPhone and a solar-powered GPS, and while his bicycle was, like mine, a kind of half-mountain / half-road hybrid, the seat looked as if it had been stolen from one of those old fashioned delivery bikes with a wicker shopping basket on the front. ‘I had some problems with saddle sore and I’ve tried several different seats,’ J explained, ‘but if you ask anyone in the know, they always say to get a leather one. It was expensive but it really does work.’
The break had restored my knees to something like their more sombre selves, and I made it to the pass just before three o’clock, where at the other end of a short tunnel there was a sign telling me I had entered Tochigi, my fifth prefecture of the trip. It was decidedly cool at this altitude, and as I changed into my waterproofs ready for the descent, one or two hikers were emerging from the mist, presumably on their way back from climbing Mount Shirané, whose summit was another seven hundred metres above us.
As well as mountains, marshland and dense, natural forests, the Nikko National Park encompasses a succession of rivers, rapids, lakes and waterfalls, the final one being the 97-metre Kegon waterfall.
From here, Nikko City itself lies at the bottom of the Irohazaka (いろは坂), two one-way roads that between them have forty-eight hairpin bends. Each curve on the Irohazaka is named after a letter from an older version of one of the Japanese alphabets – hence the name ‘iroha’, which means ‘ABCs’ – so in amongst the usual characters, you will find the now obsolete ゐ and ゑ (which are pronounced wi and wé respectively).
The Irohazaka was quite the most enjoyable downhill ride I had ever experienced – if they haven’t already, the people from Top Gear really should do some filming there – and by the end of it the Rock Spring’s brake blocks had worn down by another few fractions of a millimetre, its wheel rims were almost too hot to touch, and together we had clocked 56.7kph, a new fastest speed for the trip (eat that, Clarkson!).
Covering the fifty kilometres between Numata and the Konsei Pass – mostly uphill – had taken me the best part of seven hours, while the fifty kilometres or so between the pass and Nikko – mostly downhill – had taken less than three. It was almost dark when I arrived at Daiya River Park, which as well as a campsite has an athletics track, a bird sanctuary, a farm, a mini golf course, classrooms and a concert stage, although tonight I was practically the only person there. ‘Do you get many mosquitoes?’ I asked the receptionist as he was showing me to the campground. ‘Not really,’ he said, ‘although you should watch out for abu.’ ‘What are they?’ ‘They’re sort of a cross between a mosquito and a bee.’ ‘And do they bite?’ ‘Oh yes, although it’s not itchy like a mosquito bite.’ ‘No?’ ‘No. It’s just painful.’ ‘Right. Er, thanks for warning me.’
There wasn’t much light to see by in this secluded corner of the park, so I changed out of my cycling gear beneath one of the street lights that lined the footpath. Just as I was putting my shoes back on, a jogger emerged from the shadows, and while I bid her good evening in as friendly a way as I could muster, stumbling across a scruffy looking foreigner on a dark evening had probably given her the fright of her life, and she didn’t say anything back. Thank goodness she hadn’t run past when I was halfway out of my shorts, or I could have ended up spending the night in a police cell instead of the Snow Peak.
Even after leaving Nikko I was still going downhill, and the road to Utsunomiya was an unexpected treat. Route 119 is known as Nikko Suginamiki (日光杉並木 / Nikko Cedar Avenue), and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest tree-lined thoroughfare in the world. Way back in 1625, a local bigwig called Masatsuna Matsudaira began planting cedar here, and there are now more than 12,000 over the course of thirty-five kilometres.
The only downside to its 400-year heritage is that Route 119 is no wider than it was in the early 1600s, and with no pavement and a steady stream of rush-hour traffic, I had to be careful not get barged off the road and straight into the trunk of the nearest cedar.
As I was pondering the best way to get to the other side of Utsunomiya, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and tracksuit ambled up and asked me where I was going. ‘Ibaraki,’ I said. ‘Ibaraki? You should take the bypass, then.’ He pointed towards a busy dual carriageway that appeared to be a lot more dangerous than Cedar Avenue, and as he spoke there was a whiff of cheap shochu in the air – either he was on his way home from a big night out, or he had started drinking very early in the day (it was about 8am). ‘I’m not sure. I might head towards the city centre instead.’ ‘Oh well, suit yourself,’ he said, before ambling off again in a not entirely straight line.
I made it back to our apartment just as Mrs M was about to leave for work at one o’clock, and waiting for me in the fridge was one of two homemade fruit cakes I had posted to the in-laws from a gift shop in Sawata. I cut a generous slice for myself, made an extra-strong, extra-large mug of tea, and sat down with the Rock Spring’s Cat Eye trip computer to collate my stats:
Total distance: 847km Average distance per day (not including the two rest days on Sado): 90km Shortest distance in a day: 55km (Mikawa to Sawata) Longest distance in a day: 116km (Sanjoh to Shiozawa) Top speed: 56kmh Average speed: 14kmh
Quite frankly, Sado Island was further away than I had envisaged, and this, along with the enforced detour through Nikko, had turned the trip into something of an epic. The next day, Otoh-san described me as looking gessori, which means ‘gaunt’ or ‘disheartened’, and implies that one’s face has taken on the appearance of geso (squid tentacles), although bizarrely, I had actually managed to put on weight since 21st August. This could have been an improvement in my body’s muscle-to-fat ratio due to strenuous physical exercise, although I get the feeling it was more to do with the large amount of stodgy convenience store food and sugary convenience store drinks I had consumed along the way…