In an attempt to both get fit and offer my neighbours the comical sight of a chubby fellow on two wheels, I have bought a bicycle. I don’t know much about bikes, so I just went to the shop and got one that I thought looked quite nice and was about my size. Today, as it was a beautiful day, I went for a ride.
I had no destination in mind, I simply set off and turned down any little side streets or alleys that took my fancy. I passed shrines and temples, old stone markers and immaculate cemeteries. I passed springy rows of green tea, their fresh leaves ripe for the picking. I rode under the highway and darted down a path next to a small river where three young children were wading in the water with nets. I rode further, away from the traffic until I was alone amongst fields which will soon be full of water and rice plants and the chorus of frogs. An elderly man was cultivating his field as four white herons stood nearby and watched. A snake slithered by. I stopped to photograph the birds and the snake, and the man in the tractor stopped what he was doing to come and chat.
He was a leathery man of minimal teeth. He asked where I was from and if we had rice fields in Britain. I said that we didn’t and he said, ‘Of course, it’s cold in Britain, isn’t it?’ I said that it was. I told him that we occasionally had days with weather as it is now, but that they were few and far between. He smiled and said that yappari Japan is the best place. I looked around. The weather was wonderful. I was alone in beautiful countryside having a pleasant chat with an old farmer. Elsewhere, on the highway I had passed earlier, people would be stuck in air-conditioned Golden Week traffic. I was in the fresh air, and free to ride off in whichever direction I fancied. The farmer was wrong. Japan probably isn’t the best place. But right at that moment, I felt he had a point.
I could get used to his cycling malarkey.
My morning began in a outdoor onsen in the shadow of Japan’s Yatsugatake mountains. There are worse ways you can start the day. Even the worrying spectacle of a fellow wearing nothing but business socks brushing his hair in front of the mirror in the locker room couldn’t dampen my spirits as I left the hot spring and set out to explore.
I’m on holiday and enjoying beer and bathing in Yamanashi. The air is beautifully fresh and tasteless, there is a delightful chill to the morning sunshine, and the highest peaks of the surrounding mountains still have small caps of snow. My wife and I weren’t sure where we would go after our bath this morning but headed out in the car and found ourselves climbing higher and higher as we chose to follow signs for a lake called Shibireko. The road was steep and winding but with every turn we were offered stunning vistas of mountains and valleys. Broccoli greens were interspersed with the lighter, brighter, yellowy hues of new leaves which perfectly exemplified the color the Japanese call kimidori. Here and there wild wisteria added a splash of purple, and above it all was a cloudless blue.
Eventually we reached a car park and unpacked our picnic box. A path climbing higher warned of bears, the one pointing downwards indicated the lake. We headed downwards. It was a short walk and presently we found ourselves sitting under a pink tree, in front of a quite beautiful small lake. Bungalows and campsites, barbecue areas and a couple of garish swan boats attested to visitors, but today we had the lake almost entirely to ourselves. A couple of lonely fishermen and a solitary camper were our only companions.
A narrow path allows you to walk around the lake, between the water on one side and the forested hills rising steeply to the other. We sat for a while and watched tiny fish in the shallows. There was not a sound. Just us and the water and the trees. I watched the gentle ripples and felt as though we were the first people to discover this lake. That is not easy in Japan. Today, however, was perfect and I was reminded that sometimes life here is wonderful.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to open a beer and sit in the hinoki bath on our veranda with just a book and the night sky for company.
Now, I don’t like to be a snob, but sometimes I can’t help it. You see, I buy my socks at Don Quixote, and when you enter Don Quixote you find yourself marvelling at the state of some people. You discover that Japan does have chavs after all, and they like to gather here.
Don Quixote is an odd land. It is a warren of garish narrow corridors where every turn leads to who knows what. Food and booze, shampoo and detergent, rubber chickens and ‘personal massagers’, adult-sized rabbit and frog character costumes, and lingerie sections which don’t so much say ‘I love you’ as ‘Cheap shit feels dirtier’.
When I go to Don Quixote I am worried I will turn a corner and find myself in a cosplay aisle staring at a schoolgirl’s costume with an accompanying advertising picture of it being donned by an unshaven cartoon man in a blond wig. I am worried because someone I know might see me. But I needn’t worry, for the other customers are not people I usually associate with in Japan. They have orange mullets and wear sweatpants and matching tops with big dragons or tigers on the back. Either that or they wear jeans, in the elaborately embroidered back pocket of which a Luis Vuitton wallet is attached to chain of such weight that it has dragged the waist of the jeans almost to the knees. Those are the men. The women attached to them have hair in every shade of brown or blonde, manga eyelashes, and curious collections of bruises on bare arms and legs. Although they are sometimes far too pretty for any man that has an orange mullet – admittedly not a particularly high bar – many have such a capacity to whine when they speak that you actually feel sorry for the boyfriend. ‘No wonder,’ you think, ‘he is loading up on the happoshu.’
But still, I can’t help but have a soft spot for these chavs. They are so much better than our chavs. Our chavs are scary. If they sense even a hint of my condescension they might beat the shit out of me. Here, even if I bump into one in a narrow aisle in Don Quixote, he might give me a small head-bow and mutter ‘sumimasen’. They look rubbish, but they at least still have some manners. Or maybe that’s just because neither of us wants to cause a scene. Not when we are pretending not to look at a ‘sexy police woman’ outfit.
Today, it was time for my wife’s family’s annual barbecue. This an occasion where I get to practice listening to old-man Japanese – mainly growls and grunts, as far as the most elderly uncles are concerned – and marvel at the quite frankly astonishing sounds some people can make when transferring food from plate to stomach. A mellifluous experience, it is not.
This year I was seated between one chap who brought his tongue out a good minute early in preparation for his very slow head-to-bowl descent, and a fellow who, when still a boy, had fought in China. I engaged in conversation with the latter, if only because the former didn’t bring his head back up for quite some time and appeared to have fallen asleep in his food. The chap I spoke to was lovely. He was knowledgeable and curious, open-minded and funny. We spoke of the war, we spoke of Margaret Thatcher – who he was fascinated to learn was not universally popular in the UK – we spoke of The Falklands, and we spoke of his love of painting. I could have chatted with him all day, but unfortunately we were interrupted by a much younger uncle, one who spied me eating fish and took it as an opportunity to ask whether we ate fish in Britain.
And that was it. My interesting day was hi-jacked and instead of a fascinating conversation with a worldly-wise old man I was back to what I am all-too used to: answering whether we have this, that and the other in my home country. I’d struggled with some of the Japanese the old fellow had been using. Now, I was having no problems. After all, repetitive practice serves you well.