South for Winter

We headed south, skirting the Tokyo skyline, past the strange, rounded green tea bushes of Shizuoka, shooting through Nagoya as the sky darkened and the city lit up. Turning off towards Lake Biwa, we went down a kilometre-long dead-end street a few inches wider than our car, backed out of it and checked into a business hotel. The next morning my 63-year old friend went to the front desk and got his three hundred yen refunded because the porno channel was fuzzy. Then we stood in front of something that looked like a castle and took a photo and looked at something else and thought oh maybe that's the castle and took a photo of that. Then we drove down south alongside the lake and then got back onto the expressway and by mid-afternoon we were in Mukaishima, where our friend Yukio lives.

Mukaishima is one of the sharp, rocky islands scattered around the sea between Honshu and Shikoku. A few decades ago it was bustling and prosperous, but now the old industries are in decline and it supports nothing more than a few ailing shipyards and couple of mikan farms. In the evening we drove up to the top of the mountain in the middle of Mukaishima and looked out. The setting sun cast its grey, wintery light across the sea. On the mainland, the town of Onomichi snaked along the coast, To the east, other islands stood forlorn and half-deserted. Down on the shores of Mukaishima, a few lonely fisherman stood perched above empty stretches of sand or in the shadows of the rusted metal shipyards where sixty British prisoners of war were worked to their deaths.

The next day a friend of Yukio's showed us around Onomichi. Since retiring from English teaching, he had become an "International Exchange Volunteer", and provided extremely detailed and extensive tours. He had entertained former British POWs earlier this year when they came to Japan to press their claim for compensation, and remains in regular contact with them. Mostly, however, he is confined to translating Japanese songs into English and recording them in Karaoke booths. Samples of his hundred and seventy completed bicultural cover versions are available on request.

I went off on my own, while my friends drove back to Mashiko. I had originally planned to hitch-hike across the bridges which link several different islands spanning the entire distance to Shikoku, but Yukio pointed out that two of them hadn't been built yet, so I got the ferry. There are two kinds of youth hostel in the world, and the one in Matsuyama is the good kind. They have carpets, generous opening hours and lots of alcohol. This one also had free internet access and, table football and scooter rental. It is also just up the hill from Dogo Onsen, which is very old and has something to do with Natsume Soseki.

Then I went to Kyushu. In Kyushu I hitch-hiked. If you want to hitch-hike in Japan, I very much recommend the book "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Japan" by Will Ferguson. Admittedly it's not that good to read, but it has "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Japan" written across the front in big letters. I got offered my first lift while still on the ferry from Shikoku. Later, after a five-minute wait, I got a lift from a doctor who was so overcome by the whole experience that he ran a red light and nearly killed us both. I went to Mount Aso and checked into the youth hostel there. This was the bad kind of youth hostel. It had no carpets, an eight-o'clock curfew, absolutely no alcohol and smelt of wee. It also had the regulation Bad Youth Hostel Mad Old Man, who can be guaranteed to sleep like a baby, which is to say in short, twenty-minute bursts punctuated by bed-wetting and screaming for mummy.

The hostel manager suggested a four-hour walk up the mountain, but I chose to hitch. It was only half past seven in the morning, so I had to wait all of fifteen minutes before I got a lift with a very nice family from Fukui-ken. The air was amazingly clear, and we could see all the way across the enormous flat, steep-sided plateau that stretches, immaculately circular, around the base of the volcano. Mount Aso was once even bigger than Fuji, until it erupted and blew most of itself away. It remains active, the site of various natural phenomena more commonly found in Geography textbooks. We hoped to reach the summit and look into the crater, but it had been closed off that day on the feeble pretext that it was spewing vast clouds of deadly poisonous gas.

Further west is the city of Kumamoto. Kumamoto Castle is renowned for its labyrinthine defensive walls and embankments. The modern-day visitor is able to experience precisely the same feeling as rebellious Christian Daimyo did hundreds of years ago. Namely, "How the hell do I get into this place?" Admittedly nobody was trying to pour boiling oil on me, but at least the rebels weren't distracted by lots of Japanese tourists asking a foreigner for directions for the first time in their lives.

Then I hitched to Nagasaki. I got a lift with a retired Major in the Japanese navy who spoke to me in the broken English he'd learned during his three-years training in Texas. He insisted on taking me all the way into town, even though he wasn't going there at all. I felt so obligated I even broke my two-month long Talking About Food Strike. Doubtless sensitive to the needs of men posted in distant lands, he decided to pick up a couple of girls for me. Now you might well think this a futile endeavour, especially at five-thirty on a Monday afternoon, but that would be to underestimate the tactical cunning of a Self-Defence Force veteran. He drove me directly to the Kencho, and told me to wait in the car. His strategy became evident when he emerged with two attractive young receptionists who had just finished work and offered to show me around. One of them called her friend Ai, who worked for Daihatsu, and we ate Chinese food then drove up to the mountains above the city in an extremely little car. The lights of the city, crammed into the webbing between great fingers of rock, huddled around its bay, lively and welcoming, were almost as beautiful as Ai-chan. This is way too corny to publish. If only I had more contributions... I stayed in a capsule hotel near the station, and next day me and Ai-chan went to the Peace Museum and Glover Park, built by a Scotsman who brewed Japan's first ever beer and started the Kirin company. We went to a movie and sung karaoke. It was cool.

I was running out of money, so I headed back north. And after a record-long 20-minute wait to get onto the expressway I got lifts with a lorry driver driving a car, an army wife who said her husband would run away if there was a war and interrogated me about child seats, and a single-mum photographer who took me all the way from Yamaguchi to Kyoto in her squealey little k-van with her daughter and a very smelly dog. The next day I went to the only temple in Kyoto within 20 metres of an expressway entrance, then on towards Tokyo.

A builder from New Zealand took me shooting through Nagoya. He was on his way back from Lake Biwa where he'd been looking at a boat he planned to renovate and send back to the southern hemisphere. I am now in a position to reveal the answer to the deepest mystery of Japanese life: Why isn't my apartment insulated? I often meet Japanese builders for some reason, and I always ask them. Some people have told me it's because Japan has four seasons so you have to let the air through. Other people have said that it's because the summer is humid, so insulation materials would rot inside the walls. I once read a libertarian magazine on the internet that said you can't get insulation in Japan because of government housing regulations. But now I have the definitive answer from someone with long experience as an independent sub-contractor both here and abroad, and claims to have insulated his house so well he hasn't needed to turn the heating on yet.

A care assistant with a surfboard took me past the strange, rounded tea bushes of Shizuoka. A law student from Oyama took me skirting the Tokyo skyline. By seven-thirty I was back in Moka, satisfied to have the answer to Japan's greatest cultural riddle.

My apartment was built by a wanker.