Rather excitingly, I went on a mystery tour this weekend. A local travel agency had advertised a couple of days away and as my wife and I wanted to go away but couldn’t be arsed deciding where, we signed up. It was just a one-night, two-day affair and the only things we knew were that it would include an onsen and tabehoudai dinner. Well, what more convincing would you need than that?
When we got on the coach, however, my spirits fell somewhat. I almost turned round and got straight off, thinking I had accidentally boarded the care in the community annual outing bus. For sitting there, gazing into space with various degrees of disconnect, were most of the people responsible for bringing Japan’s well-known life expectancy up to such a high level. If mothballs, hair oil and drooling is your thing, you were in for a treat!
My wife and I took our seats near the back of the bus, behind two fellows who were well into their one-cup sakes already. It was not yet 9:00 a.m. The larger of the two, the one without the hunchback and dyed hair, proceeded to hack up so much phlegm that I feared he was attempting to cough up a lung. Then he spat into a tissue and examined it. He did this several times before producing a plastic bag and, after his best hack yet, spitting forcefully into it. Maybe that was a special one he wanted to take home and show the wife.
Anyway, we travelled along, elderly people sharing unpleasant noises as we went, and ended up in Matsumoto. I’d been here before, but not on such a pleasantly warm afternoon, and not when there was a craft beer festival happening in the grounds of the castle. Matsumoto Castle is famously black and one of Japan’s finest. A rather lovely vermilion bridge stretches across the wide moat. Swans swim on the water, fat carp under it and, today, all along the banks people were getting slowly pissed in the sunshine. My wife and I joined them for a while, enjoying the scenery next to a young man who had turned up with a pet owl. I know, it seems weird, but just a few weeks ago I had happened upon a chap with a pet toucan in the streets of Tokyo, and, frankly, odd avian pets in Japan were losing their surprise factor.
We left the castle and walked up the road a little, discovering a wonderfully ramshackle bookshop, all brittle pages and dust, tilting piles and forgotten bundles. There were also some ukiyo-e prints haphazardly jettisoned, which the owner eagerly showed us. He was as a ramshackle bookshop owner should be – unruly white hair, longer than usual on an elderly man, glasses, and the dress sense of the most tweedy and old-fashioned of university lecturers. We bought two prints and then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to leave the shop as this delightful owner’s enthusiasm for his products bubbled and frothed and he insisted showing us some of his personal favourites.
The hacking and coughing on the bus was replaced by snores as we carried on with our mystery adventure. I suspect the crimson pallor of some of my fellow passengers meant that they too had discovered the beer festival. We stopped at a shrine where the hunchbacked chap enjoyed stroking a big cock, and then reached our hotel in the mountains of Nagano just in time for a soak in the onsen and the keenly anticipated dinner.
As the bus pulled into the hotel car park, though, the fellow in front of us pulled out his plastic bag again and vomited into it. I’m sure he had by now created the world’s most disgusting cocktail, but the tabehoudai dinner had lost its appeal somewhat. My appetite was diminished further still when I found myself next to a man who could slurp tempura and chew soup.