The first sign of Autumn as visible in the 1000m climb up to Lake Towada in the centre of North Japan. Due to the countries visited and the sheer time of outdoor exposure, for a long time I've felt in a relentless Summer and the change in the season felt like an internal landmark as much an external one. The autumnal colours in the trees and the red mountains off to the distance could have been Canada as much as Japan. Lake Towada, Lake Kuttara and Lake Toya were a series of three mountain lakes set in volcanic craters, each spawning their onsen resorts crowded around the crater and it's deep mountain side vents.
The sulphurous water of Noboribetsu was the aquatic highlight. Milky and steaming, you couldn't see your own legs through the minerals. The skin was left eased and silken afterwards. The relief of the Onsen tour was offset by the increasing stress from an evermore fraught relationship with Asli. After 10 long months of time apart and countless goodbyes, she was beyond the end of her tether and after hours relaxing in an onsen where I was uncontactable, I emerged into crisis management - likely undong much of the good work. She had last heard from me panting and sweating up in the mountain in knowledge of me swimming in a freezing volcanic lake, and she had found the surrounding area was called 'Hell Valley' by the locals. The demons of worry and anxiety began their rampage, she has few defenses now after these 10 months away. After bringing ourselves back together, a tour of Hokkaido's most famous Sake breweries and Whisky distilleries was clearly required to relax after the stress, even the hottest most sulphurous onsen would not have been sufficient here.
On the way into the onsen, I began chatting to a curious adolescent and his smiling father, we continued the conversation through the changing rooms and into the baths, they gave me a rundown of restaurants and choice parks (bedrooms) in their hometown of Muroran. It was only when I arrived at the what that I got the eagerly hoped for offer of hospitality. On reflection, the delayed response made some sense: when you meet someone for the first time in the nude, in some ways it is harder to invite them round to your houses, in others easier. And with a few notable exceptions, getting hosted in general in Japan was more difficult and rare. Trust is strong here - within the rules, but as Rob said 'if trust exists only with pre-defined expectations and situations, is it trust at all?'.
This same night in Muroran was the evening of the fateful Japan vs South Africa quarter-final, brought the story full circle, for this was the match where our hosts and their brave blossoms fell down in their valiant cup-run. Rob was down South spending time with Nadine, so I was left alone on Hokkaido, in the port city of Muroran. Whilst searching for a bar with suitable atmosphere, I had stumbled across a couple of individuals also looking for the same bon-homie. When I’d found the place, I cycled around downtown rounding them up, and delivered them to a grateful barman to set in for the game and the sake. The game wore on into the final quarter and as the Boks ran away with it, the locals around me steadily became more aggrieved and dejected. Their faces wore the look of utter loss, a look only possible when the cause is heartfelt, rather than disappointment at some passing fancy. Most of them had admitted not having watched a single game of rugby before the tournament, and yet here they were eyes moist and sake glass empty. This heartening sight of new followers to a sport I love was balm enough for the disappointment of the Blossoms loss, this transformation was the very reason for the cup being hosted there in Japan in the first place.
The following week was spent in a pleasant clock-wise meandering around Hokkaido. This started with a couple of first-rate onsens and bitterly cold camps on the shore of Lake Toya, the popping orange of autumn mirrored on the still, silver lake made a fitting background for my own internal reflections. This was near enough to the journey’s end so that the days remaining could be counted down on two hands, and the rearing question mark of ‘what next’ stood beside the mountains on the horizon.
Cycling across the raised volcanic heart of Hokkaido, the conic slopes were illuminated by a joyous sun in a cloudless sky. The mountains looked like a child’s vision of an erupting volcano, a carpet of bustling and bristling reds and oranges, an annual magma of leaves working their way down to the pastures beneath. Distance flowed smoothly, and I savoured the funeral days of a near-year long Summer. An appreciation for the sheer flow of cycling and of ceaseless movement swelled, my mind-body began to contemplate the comparatively dull stillness that was inevitable upcoming. These indulgent musings were only magnified by an exceptional game lunch, a Sake brewery in the woods, and an evening capped in the famous Nikka whiskey distillery and tasting rooms. The closer I came to finishing the more contentment could be tapped from each day.
The nationally renowned seafood bowl (japanese name) of Otaru fit this ethic, the waters here are cleaner and fresher here than anywhere in Japan and quality of the fish and fruits here match their ocean, but the price remains that of a provincial outpost. The town itself has squeezed every last drop of historic value from it’s buildings. Otaru is in parts pretty and has a strong merchant heritage, what is more, there are tourist signposts translated into four languages detailing the history and past occupants of every building on the highstreet and almost every warehouse on the canal. The effect is at first a nerdy helpfulness, but eventually you question what lengths local officials will go to attract moneyed tourists. It has worked though, and the place seemed the most visited destination on the whole island.
The island’s major city of Sapporo was the final stop before Rob was to rejoin, when we would make the final, and primarily symbolic, push to Nemuro and Cape Nozipo - the far eastern edge of Japan. There were a few things that distinguished Sapporo for me, and all of them involved my host Phil.
I had been put in contact with Phil through two young English english teachers on an exchange scheme, who I had met in Lake Toya. At 30-odd, Phil was the ‘old man’ of the foreigners scene round Lake Toya. Alongside a similarly introverted childhood friend, he had built up a fascination for modern Japanese culture. The seed had been planted in video games, initially the Nintendo classics, but then the deeper and more artful fantasy games. Translated anime films and manga comics blossomed the interest into a near obsession, before the food and possibly the feminine aesthetic had sealed the deal. Phil and his friend promised each other that ‘when they grew up’ they would go to Japan. The friend then got a girlfriend. A rather distracting if not dominating girlfriend, and so his twenties flew by and he never made it to Japan. Phil though, after an emotionally turbulent time, arrived in Japan a lanky, scrabbed backpacker with a few hundred dollars, and a smidgeon of video game japanese.
When I met him outside the century-old Hokkaido government building he wore the uniform of the salaryman, spoke fluent Japanese, and was on the payroll at the State Bank of Sapporo. He still retained some of the after-effects of his geekier youth, but these same interests and behaviours were precisely what made him one of the most interesting and interested hosts of the whole journey. We only had a few hosts in Japan, but because of his 7 year stint in the country, held the best balance of knowledge of Japanese society and enough (i.e. perfect) spoken English to transmit that knowledge. Over a few beers on the miniscule mezzanine floor of a tiny izakaya, set in a rabbit warren of other izakayas and stairways, I probed him over some of the more complex and sensitive topics within Japanese society.
The Kuril islands, North-East of Hokkaido, were a natural place to start having been shown a few covert protest signs inside the garden of the old government house. These islands were seized by Russia the day the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and have remained under Russian control to this day. The WWII peace treaty between Japan and Russia was not signed due to the dispute, and so the two nations remain in a technical sense in a paused state of war. Japan had only begun to settle the islands in 1875, and when the Russians came all the residents were expelled. Many of the current 30,000 strong population are either military or involved in the extraction of valuable resources found there.
Current Japanese society defies this reality however. Phil told me a story of an english lesson he was giving, he was teaching geographic terms, and asked the pupil for the most Easterly point of Japan. Rather than say Cape Nozipo, near Nemuro - our final destination, the pupil calmly answered with the furthest Kuril island. Phil corrected her in front of the class, but the girl pointed to her japanese textbook, which supporter her answer. Russian ownership and Japanese ownership are two incompatible narratives, but due to the power of propaganda and the prevalence of doublethink in the Japanese psyche they coexist fairly peacefully. I was told the issue is as unknown in Russia, as it is anywhere else.
The island of Okinawa, far south of the larger Japanese islands, have a parallel here. Although still owned by Japan, 40% of the island is a gated American military base, also set up in the wake of WWII. There have also been calls for the ‘foreign power’ to relinquish the territory, but in the current context of a rising China, these will certainly fall on deaf gun-metal ears.
After wandering through Phil’s life story, the conversation took a racier turn to the bizarre economics of flirting in Japan. Here I had to get my head around the finely differentiated grades establishments from girl bar, to snack bar, Kyabakura, Lounge, and full-blown club. These places have different customer demographics, different prices and price structures, but all have women of various ages who will chat, laugh and flirt - but absolutely no more - with paying customers. Mostly the conversation will not escape the basic pleasantries or travails of man’s working day, the hostess are there merely to listen albeit attractively. This drew the first rising of eyebrows, when Western customers pay into these sorts of arrangements there’s usually a fair bit or a great deal more on offer. Such a standard conversation with a member of the fairer sex is too common to mention, and certainly not valued enough to shell out for.
Why these bars exist in Japan and dominate much of the nightlife here is anyone’s guess. Phil had read deeply on this and had discussed it with hostesses, but even after 7 years he was not a veteran of these sorts of places, and we tried to piece it together. Phil theorised that it was a cocktail of the world-renowned intensity and crushing hierarchy of the Japanese workplace, stirred with the societal mechanism that tries to minimise and automate interaction with strangers, with a dash of the patriarchy thrown in. My audiobook Musashi had centred on a couple of courtesan characters, who in their time were also not expected to give sexual favours to their patrons, but would either play the role of hostess or decoration. It seemed to me that Japan had preserved the classical courtesan and updated her to the digital age: flat screen tv’s outside some of the bars show flattering highlight reels and bios of the hostesses on duty. More worrisome than the causes of this phenomenon are its social effects. When intersex conversation becomes commoditised so, it follows that it becomes progressively harder to initiate ‘natural’ conversation and flirting. The less often and more difficult that becomes, the greater the demand for paid mingling, and so the mechanism spirals on and tears away at the fabric of flirtation - and crucially all that results from mingling. Japan has the world’s lowest birth rate for a host of reasons, I’ll say no more.
The various grades mentioned above have their quirks, snack bars tend to have older, more staid women as hostesses, we went to one where the maitre-de or ‘mama-san’ was a wonderful magician. Asli and I went to another where a hostess who spoke little to no English knew a large part of the Beatles repertoire by heart, purely from extreme karaoke exposure. Kyabakura tend to have younger girls often in ‘kawaii’ (cute) costume. Lounges and Clubs get exponentially more expensive, with guests often paying £70 or £80 per hour, still ‘the line’ is unlikely to be crossed.
This is the 21st century and there is a male counterpart to this in host bars. My first experience of this was wandering through the downtown of Sapporo, street beer in hand, taking in the change of the tide experienced each night. At this inflection point, the red-faced salarymen are milling out of the bars and obligatory afterwork drinks, whilst the somewhat androgenous party kids with cutting-edge hair, make-up and outfits are milling into the same area. This is the only setting, time and place where these two demographics could ever collide, they form a surreal cross-section of Japanese stereotypes.
Along the corner of a single office building there were two dozen boys-cum-men standing individually, like elaborate fence posts. Most of them were fixed in the eternal leaning rebel pose, attuned to the modern age by virtue of an impassioned stare at a smartphone screen. None of them had the genetically mandatory black hair, and all of them had long and often greased fringes pulled over their faces: trying to replicate BTS, but mostly failing into a nineties grunge look. The only word to succinctly describe their clothing was experimental. I was told by Phill this cohort were the hosts. If their
female counterpart the hostesses hail from the courtesan and not the prostitute, then these chaps could trace their lineage back to the dandy, and were a not-so-distant relative to the gigolo. I was utterly bemused by them, and a promo-girl seeing the look on my face offered an explanation:
‘Well they’re meant to be, girls come, hunks ask them on a date, and the girl pays.’
And sure enough whilst most of the K-pop scarecrows looked woefully unemployed, there were a couple who seemed mid-catch. This gender reversion of the traditional pay-for-favours (/flirtation) model could hint at growing equality of the sexes, or more likely a growing rift in Japanese society. If there were so many of these ‘hunks’ then there must be reasonable demand, and these paying women fall into the equivalent bracket as the male customers of snack/girl-bars. This suggests the situation is more than just a disparity between the sexes, that is more guys out and about for fewer girls. Instead the plentiful numbers of hosts and hostess points to a problem in connecting people of the opposite sex without using money as a direct lubricant. This is an issue for more than just the birth-rate, repression or rejection of sexuality is not a healthy state of affairs for a growing portion of any society.
The talk with Phil in the attic encompassed some of this, a walk through downtown on a Saturday night covered the rest. Phil had had a Japanese girlfriend for quite a while, but like most foreigners struggled to connect with many of the girls he had met. Rather predictably Western men have a reputation with Japan for only wanting one thing, and that expectation doesn’t help with the genuine approaches of a Gaijin like Phil.
Phil lived right by the grand and green Sapporo University campus, to get to and from his house one cycled down the central avenue. Reminiscences and reflections on my university time, bubbled over when I cycled down the avenue for the final time, when leaving the city for the East of the island and indeed the country. There is a sensation of open potentiality in a good Uni experience, that is before the student graduates and begins to walk the way and see doors progressively close to them. In finishing this journey I felt an echo of that same potentiality: over the course of the trip we had contemplated what would open ahead of us on it’s conclusion, as a student dreams of their future atop the luxurious cloud of university years. This time away had been somewhat of a reset on my career and life path, and I was about to graduate from the experience. That same open potentiality would steadily become grounded in reality, decisions made and steps taken would now see some doors closing again. Now when concluding this final and self-inflicted stage of education, perhaps I knew myself better and could trust my inclinations and intuitions, where before glorified chance had reigned supreme.
I had a 3-day and 500km stint to Nemuro ahead of me, before a symbolic morning ride down the peninsula would bring the journey’s end. Rob would meet me at the end of the first day, having arrived back from Tokyo and the loving Nadine. The first of the three days was incredibly picturesque: dairy pastures and ice cream shops crinkled up into forested valleys, before leading me into the ski resort of Hidaka. Autumn leaves were hanging onto the trees by their last threads, and the Northern winds threw them up in the air before me, they glinted like shards of coloured glass in the cold clear sky. This was their very final dance before Winter, as the overnight storm gave the next day’s cycle a palette of brown and grey. Nature was calling time on us, nights were freezing now, and the chilling coastal winds all but ruled out camping. So in the best spirit of our year’s worth of impromptu bedrooms, we stayed in the ski resort bus-shelter and then a kindly hotelier's garage. For postal reasons, we had paid a hotel on the final night, this assurance encouraged us to sink a few jars of sake. A week away from each other was enough to refresh our conversation, although ‘the ending of things’ was the foremost subject. The locals here in Nemuro were of that specific breed of souls you find in end-of-the-road places, those who haven’t turned into grumpy recluses are jolly against all the odds.
The final day dawned, we had an hour and a half from Nemuro town to Cape Nozipo. In this season, the cycle to the peninsula had resembled the UK more than anywhere else on the whole ride, whilst this final morning’s ride was acutely reminiscent of Dingle peninsula in Ireland where it all began. This gave a strong feeling of a round-the-world journey, if not the reality but for the American continent. It was poetic from the land’s part, and of course we were sensitive to it at that time.
In the last few KM Rob had been taking a few photos, and as the lighthouse loomed I was half a KM ahead of him. I slowed down and enjoyed the shivers of meaning up my arms and spine, partly consciously I played through scenes in the trip in my head. The re-feeling of moments and places in my body’s subtle memory was less forced and more visceral than the mental cinema going on.
From behind me there came a heckling grunt, Rob rolled beside me panting and flushed in the face.
‘You bastard, for a moment there I thought you were going to turn this into a race after all. I had visions of you under the lighthouse leering at me’.
I was bemused that after the best part of a year and tens of thousands of kilometers, Rob’s ego could still imagine mine tricking and competing with him on this most important of all milestones. I had no desire for such an ignoble act, and besides I had already thought about the effect of it on our future friendship.
I can’t really remember the last few hundred meters, but on reaching the lighthouse, stamped past it and laid the bikes over the fence on the grass, as far as they could go without becoming part of the Pacific. We broke out the two bottles of sparkling sake, we had been given them as a present in Niigata and had saved them since. I was more emotional on finishing and felt the significance more keenly, Rob was determinedly nonplussed. At least until I asked to be my best man at the wedding next year, that certainly brought out the tears that were befitting of the occasion. I’m glad I didn’t race him to the finish after all.