For once I woke up and it wasn’t raining. I had a wash in the stream and cursed myself for over sleeping and missing the early morning waves. I was so tired the night before I had forgotten to set my alarm. The beach I was camping on was wild with corral that hurt your feet. Rocks and shells strewn all over the place, tiny cliffs strangled with foliage and odd shaped trees that grow with wavy trunks like the smoke from a fire. The sky was a bright blue I hadn’t seen for days and the low tide still hurled its waves against sturdy rocks that stood proudly out in the ocean. Some of the rock was a sandy color and had split like slate does, flat and straight, creating a floor for each swell to sweep clean. After cleaning my teeth I just stood naked in the stream and let the sun rest on my body and it felt good. A boat passed close to the shore. Out to sea a great many freights drifted along. I had felt a little lonely camping on this beach but when the sun was out this feeling disappeared. I walked gingerly over to my tent (I had cleared the rocks, corral and creepers to pitch it) and slipped on some shorts.
I got my knife and a coconut I had found washed up the day before. I had sharpened the blade recently and it cut into the husk smoothly and I ripped it off. My wrist was still hurting like hell so I tightened the bind with my teeth. I pierced one of the three weak spots on the top of the nut and tipped it up to drink the milk. Rancid fluid filled my mouth, bitter with the taste of decay and faintly blue in color. I spat it out, cursed, and hurled the nut down the beach. There was still some rain water in my pan and I swilled my mouth out with this but the taste remained so I used salt water from the sea and felt better. I sat in the sun for a bit happily observing my surroundings. Due to the weather I had spent a lot of time reading in my tent. Shell crabs scuttled around pieces of onion; “they really do look like drunks” I thought to myself. Their shells like lob-sided berets. I went through the routine of packing up camp and in about twenty minutes slipped my board into its case, shouldered my pack and set off up the beach.
My tent had looked good on the beach with my board next to it. I had put a rock on the latter to stop it blowing away in the wind. It felt good to have trainers on and I took pleasure in crushing the corral mercilessly beneath me. Brightly colored shells stuck out here and there. I scrambled up the thin, slippery path through the steep jungle, pack digging into my shoulders, board clumsy and awkward. Huge great leaves sometimes three foot long were still dripping with moisture. The light came down in green shafts. Occasional glimpses of the blue of the ocean, lighter and darker in places. When you stand in the shallows on a sunny day the sun creates a mosaic of light on the sea floor and at night the algae is phosphorescent when it is disturbed. I finally reached the road and headed for the bridge. This crossed a large ravine with a tiny hidden waterfall somewhere in the jungle and below was another tiny beach. I followed the road with the sea on my right and soon fell into step. I rolled up the sleeves of my white T shirt.
I followed the road for about an hour. Now and then cars passed but I didn’t want a lift. I was happy walking. I got to a fork in the road and couldn’t remember which way I had come when I had hitch-hiked a few days before. I set my pack down and stared blankly at a road sign map but didn’t understand the kanji. A small white van with an open back came up and I stuck my arm out and he stopped beside me. I asked the farmer where the bus stop was and he said it wasn’t far and would give me a lift. I slung my stuff in the back and hopped in next to him. Went through the usual routine of explaining where I was from, what I was doing in Japan and I asked him about his farm. He had very brown tough looking hands and big widely spaced teeth. I liked him and gave him a wave when he dropped me beside the road. I sat on my bag and read. I was so absorbed I didn’t realise the bus had pulled up and hastily dumped my stuff and showed my ticket. I sat by an open window and watched the hills and mountains roll by. Lots of farms, palm trees and a water refinery.
I arrived in the town and headed to the surf shop where I knew the pretty girl wouldn’t mind if I left my board there for a day or two. I chatted to her for a bit but ever since I told her I was twenty one she had treated me differently. She was twenty six. I thanked her, went to the dock and bought a ticket for kloushima. I fancied a bottle of red wine and had to run as my boat left in forty minutes. After fussing, looking in numerous shops with sweat on my forehead, I found a cheap bottle of Spanish Tinto. I ran back to the dock, grabbed my bag that I had left at the office and went to wait for my boat. The dock was packed with people bustling about, waiting and asking about boats. I sat down, unscrewed the top off the cheap bottle and took a long pull. I watched the people go past. Lots of farmers and old women, small families and friends in twos or threes. Everyone’s clothes were very simple and often dirty. A man went past in a suit but you could see his body move underneath and the symbol was lost. Just a man.
The boats were quite small with powerful engines. They could hold about forty people. I watched them pull out on the amazingly light blue water and slowly turn and head out to sea. They were low and looked a bit like space ships but ‘star cruisers’ sounded better. The surrounding buildings had strange angles with outside concrete staircases and were mostly a dirty white or grey color. Flat roofs; on one was a clock that nobody looked at. My boat came. I walked through to the back where there were four shabby benches that you could sit on outside and I chose the one furthest back. The boat pulled out and the engines roared and whined below me. I started to drink some more wine and could feel the effect fast as I hadn’t eaten anything that day. I passed the concrete harbor with a light at the end and people fishing. The engines really powered up and I was surprised at the speed we were making. The sound was defining. A few men came out to smoke cigarettes and I was glad for the noise as I didn’t feel like talking.
We passed small seemingly deserted islands. I started to feel rather good about everything. Water was churned to white in the enormous wake. When I arrived at kloushima I walked up to where I could see rough constructions for the festival the following day. I asked a guy who was cleaning his bike where would be good to camp. He went into his house to ask an old woman who was watching NBA basketball on TV. After some discussion he pointed to a road and said that down there was a beach. I thanked him and set off. I passed a house and fields with cows and white cranes in them and found the beach after a right turn but settled on a patch of ground just up from it surrounded by trees and plants that would give some shelter from the wind. I pitched camp next to a wide tree with large crevices at the base where I could put things. Many of the plant’s roots would break a foot off from the ground and spread out down into the sand. I went down to the beach and finished my wine looking out at another island maybe five miles distant.
It would be dark in an hour and I walked back to the dock to get some water. I met some kids who wanted to talk. After they asked me how old I was I asked them. One of them lied and said that he was twenty but immediately regretted it and told me he was really sixteen. I followed them to a spot where they could smoke without being seen and asked them about island life. They told me the island was seven kilometres in diameter and there were no shops. I didn’t feel like staying long and said I would see them tomorrow. I realised I hadn’t brought my pan to get water and chose the lazy option of buying some from a vending machine. This was the first and I vowed the last time I would do this. Back at camp I put the water to boil over my tiny gas cooker in one of the hollows of the tree and cooked up some soba. When it was done I took it off and placed my pan over the heat and threw in the last of my meat, onions, large Japanese cabbage and ‘enoki’ which is a very delicious small mushroom. My oil had leaked into my bag and I had chucked it on the boat. I used soy sauce to fry it all. When it had reduced I added the noodles, hot spice and some Chinese sauce that my friend had given me in Miyazaki. On second thoughts I put in a lot more spice as I knew the meat wouldn’t last another day. When it was cooked up I took it down to the beach and ate in the dark and washed up in the sea.
I dried my feet as best as I could, lay on my sleeping bag and zipped up the mosquito net. For one reason or another I slept very badly that night. My mind went back to lots of places I had been and people I had met and I thought about my friends. Towards morning I finally settled into sleep and got maybe four hours. I awoke to the sound of rain on the tent. I checked the time. It was nine twenty. The festival didn’t start until ten. “Ill be damned if I’m going out in this” I thought and stubbornly picked up my book. At about ten the rain eased off. I went down to the sea to wash. The wind was biting and I was very cold. I was surprised how warm the water was but couldn’t fully wash as there was a man in a raincoat with a fishing rod and I didn’t want to offend him. I was aware that everything I had (including myself) was rather dirty and needed a good clean. It was about a week ago I had last been to a hostel. That was in Okinawa. I went back to my tent in the drizzle and dressed in muddy jeans, trainers, tee shirt and jumper. I had left my jacket with an old woman on Ishigakijima along with a load of other stuff I would collect later; I decided that I would head back that afternoon and find somewhere to stay. At that moment I was rather bored with camping.
I could make out some noises from where the festival was and headed that way feeling vaguely embarrassed about my appearance. I entered a large muddy area with well trodden grass. All around the edges stalls had been set up and there was a big stage with the most horrendous torrent of sound coming from it; without a doubt the worlds worst production of ‘Power Rangers’ was being staged with badly timed sound effects and too-loud microphones. One guy was dressed as a power ranger and was fighting a big dragon monster. His comrades consisted of a pig and two cows, all costumes full body with oversized heads. It was painfully obvious that they could barely see each other. I stood away from the crowd in mud where people were milling to and fro with a drizzle beating against my face and watched. The action music and explosion sounds beat into my head. It was too loud to ignore. At least I didn’t have to worry about my clothes as everyone was muddy and wearing rain macs and seemed to be ignoring the show. Was I hung-over? I couldn’t tell. “Oh dear” I thought to myself, “this might turn out to be rather dull”.
I took a walk around the stalls. They were selling roasted cow (it was a cow festival) and alcohol. In the middle of the open space rough tables had been set up where you could stand with your food and drink on them. I decided on some pretty rare cow, garlic bread and a glass of red wine for breakfast and stood in between two groups of people with my food on one of the tables. The sky was grey and completely overcast. After a seemingly endless losing battle the power ranger was victorious due to some amazing secret advice from the pig and after much arm swinging, explosions and fighting that looked like advanced petting his foe was vanquished. “Thank fuck for that” and I gulped down some more cow. They bowed and went of stage. The dragon seemed to have made up with his nemesis in the end. The group in front of me were aware of my presence but I didn’t want to intrude and be a pain. I noticed at the entrance there were what looked like three or four Americans. One guy had dark glasses on and big blond frizzy hair. In Japan foreigners stand out like a sore thumb. I couldn’t see any other foreigners in the mass of two thousand eight hundred people (I saw it in the paper next day). If the worst came to the worst I could speak to them but that would be a bit silly. I knew the girl from the surf shop was coming and another girl I had met at a beach but they were only acquaintances. Oh well no rush; just relax and enjoy the weather.
One healthy looking chap in front of me in a red jacket caught my eye and raised his glass. “Kampai!” “Kampai” and we touched glasses and drank. The group immediately turned to me and the usual round of questions and answers ensued in which I explained I was a student, what country I was from, this was my spring holiday etc etc. They congratulated me on my basic Japanese. There was a woman not yet forty in a black jacket with rather grey gums, a nice face and a red stud in each ear. The man standing next to me of perhaps fifty years had a coat done up all the way to his chin and a round hat pulled down low, the brim floppy in the wet. This type of hat always reminds me of SAS frogmen. He had a heavy dialect and I found it very difficult to understand him. There were a few other men but I forget their faces. There was another woman also in a red coat who was younger and prettier and talkative. I found out that they were from different parts of the country but now all lived on a neighboring island called Iliomotejima and hence were friends and had come together. The man in the red jacket was a farmer. They all had very brown skin and were drinking shouchu, a clear strong alcohol, in plastic cups and sharing variously cooked pieces of cow, bought in plastic containers, lying open on the table.
The lady in the black jacket asked me if I liked shouchu and i replied that I liked it immensely and preferred it hot. No sooner had I said it than she was off and promptly returned with a cup for me and some more for others. I thought this was surprisingly generous seeing as I hadn’t even finished my wine and told her so. “Oh don’t worry, its free” she replied. And so it was. There was a stall that handed out free shouchu for the duration of the festival. “Maybe this isn’t going to be so bad after all” floated through my mind. We all ‘kampaied’ and I drained my glass and was offered another. The hot alcohol in my belly felt very good and I could feel my spirits lighten. A man with large limbs and long, loping movements came up. He had a pronounced jaw and a scraggily mop of black hair on his head. He had a young boy on his shoulders. He put the boy down. I shook his hand. He asked my name and I told him. Everyone then told me their names which I immediately forgot. They pushed the boy forward. I bent down, shook his hand and asked him how old he was. He was six and told me his name and I immediately forgot it. In Japan, when someone tells you their name chances are immensely slim that I have heard it before and so it is in fact a new word to be learnt. Instead of awkwardly making everyone repeat them several times I just give up as this rather tedious. I picked up the kid and gave him a shake and he giggled. He asked to sit on my shoulders. I lifted him up and put him on my shoulders. He was wearing bright blue wellies.
Two more healthy men joined the small group. They were young and looked fit. I introduced myself and found out they were both rice farmers. The first had a wide easy smile with strong teeth and longish hair down over his forehead. His name was Yuki, I remembered it because it was the name of an American friend’s girlfriend. The other man had on a white T shirt with a multi-colored striped jacket over it that was finely made with thick, heavy material. In my mind I called him Joseph but never asked again to learn his real name. He had long curly dark black hair and was in bare feet. Most of the others were wearing wellies. They were drinking fast and encouraged me to join them. I forgot about the weather. My Japanese became more animated as it always does after a few drinks. I talked a bit about England and they were interested. When you call Kent the ‘Garden of England’ it sounds rather grand. I told them I had worked on some farms in Spain. A recent word I had learnt was ‘mokuzai’ which means ‘to be made from wood’. I went into a rather long narration about how castles in England were always made from stone but that in Japan they are always made from wood and so have a tendency to burn down and although they are always rebuilt it means the castles in England are always older. Maybe I was rambling but they were listening and I was just pleased to deftly slip in my new word. It’s a battle of inches.
I put the boy down and slipped away to the side to watch the show properly. It had had half my attention the whole time. Now there was good music and some boys dancing hip-hop style with white flannels tied round their heads. They weren’t just good; they were brilliant. Their timing was perfect and it really was a great show. After them some girls came on and did a sexy dance to more good music. I looked over at Yuki, he saw me and gave me a wide grin, I grinned back. I was standing next to a guy dressed in cool Tokyo fashion with a string hat, smart low jacket and glasses. It turned out he was a farmer too. The boys came back on and danced a finale with the girls, all in sinc in a long line. I was clapping and cheering with everyone else. I was having a good time. A rock and roll band came on. Me, Yuki, Joseph the boy and his father went to the front after picking up some more booze on the way. It turned out Yuki and Joseph were more drunk than I had thought. No sooner had the band started than they were hurling each other about and rolling in the mud. Teru (the boy had told me his name again) was back on my shoulders and I was dancing at the front of the crowd and he was laughing. Joseph kept stealing his wellies and throwing them away and I would chase after them and bend down so Teru could pick them up. It was a good game and soon he was whacking Joseph with them. Yuki did a great Klinsman slide in the mud and almost knocked over a television camera. I was glad I had met these guys.
The band were pretty damn good and when I went to get more alcohol for everyone Joseph threw his at the band. It was very rock and roll. When they had finished we went back to our table to restock on drinks and have a rest. It was very interesting to watch everyone. Everybody was eating and drinking in groups and laughing. When a more traditional band came on dressed in kimonos with drums and shamisen everyone was dancing. We were soon back in the fray; Old women waving their arms like a Hawain Hula, lots of steaming cow soup being passed round and people shouting. The people in front formed a line and all danced waving flags, flannels and anything they could get hold of. I saw an old man with a long wispy white beard like a Chinaman. Girls clapping and men pretending to flirt with the old dancing women. Teru had taken a liking to me and I played with him lots and tickled him. Lots of children were running about and they and some of the people were wearing cow hats with little horns and a smiling cow face. I decided I wanted to buy one for Teru. I bumped into the girl from the surf shop and asked her were I could buy one but she didn’t know. I asked Teru if he wanted one and of course he did so he jumped back onto my shoulders and we went running around to find the stall. Lots of people smiled at us as we ducked under guide ropes and jumped over puddles. Lots of people were sitting on the wet ground now in circles, always bottles of shouchu and awamori in the middle with bright flashing labels. We found the stall and bought a hat and cheap watch in a pick and mix. We went back and carried on dancing.
The next two hours are a bit of a blur of constant refills and back-slapping when I brought more drinks for people. Joseph gave me one of his cigarettes and it was so strong my head went spinning. The man in the SAS frogman hat told me he worked on a ship that netted black pearls. Some of them are worth two hundred and fifty pounds but he is still poor. Yuki taught me how to say “eat shit and go to bed” and asked me if I knew how to swear in Japanese. I confidentially rolled off a string of obstinacies dutifully memorized in Miyazaki and watched his eyes brighten with understanding and mirth. Numerous band changes; all in kimonos singing songs about the islands. I could catch words and parts of sentences here and there. One guy played the shamisen like an electric guitar. The girl with him banging the large drums and singing in a high soft voice with wavering notes, the sound of the sea, long lost love, grass skirts. They cleared the front of the stage with a rope to create a wide space. They brought in a great cow with small horns draped with red cloth lined with gold and I thought they were going to kill it but they had a tug of war instead. Six or seven people always hopelessly dragged across the ground by the cow. I wanted to try but people had reserved in advance. Joseph and Yuki failed to do any better than the rest and Joseph cut his arm on the ground and had to go to the doctor and get a dressing. More shouchu, meat, mud and singing.
At last the inevitable happened. The stall stopped serving alcohol. I felt this was a good time to leave and said my goodbyes. It turned out that the large fellow wasn’t Teru’s father at all and that the woman with the red earrings was his mother. She wrote down her address and asked me to come and visit them. I accepted gladly, shook many hands and weaved my way back to my tent. I packed up my wet things, and headed for the dock. Suddenly I was exhausted. I bought a ticket and slept all the way back on the boat. I found a hostel, dumped my stuff in the dorm and collapsed into the shower. The hot water beat down on my head and I had a good wash. I took off the binding, my wrist was still slightly swollen but it was getting better. I lay on my bed but couldn’t go back to sleep. I read for a few hours. I could hear some people in the hostel commune having a party but I didn’t fancy new introductions and the usual questions. I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. My body felt limp and I had reached an increasingly depressing point in my Maugham novel so I decided to go out. I slipped back into my dirty clothes and out the front door. I figured I would go to a ramen yasan and battle through my book in front of a steaming bowlful. I wasn’t particularly hungry but I just felt like it. I stuffed the book into the back of my jeans and walked down the road.
I turned the corner and my fatigue left me instantly. It was like a silk shroud had been pulled over me and taken all my tiredness with it. “Christ, if that’s not fate I don’t know what is!” Yuki, Joseph, the big guy and some girls were stumbling towards me. We greeted enthusiastically and they said how they had just been saying it would have been good if I was with them. I figured they were too drunk to lie so quickly but you never know. They had missed the last boat to Iliomotejima and were staying in town tonight and getting the first boat in the morning. I checked that Teru and his mum had also got a place to stay and they said they had and were asleep. The girls left and I realized they were with a guy I had seen dancing earlier. He wore too-tight jeans that showed his woman’s hips with a big marijuana buckle, a great big bone necklace and a sleazy moustache. I thought he was a complete dickhead. He was exceptionally drunk. We all piled into an izakaya where if you pay five pounds you could drink as much alcohol as you want. We mostly stuck to beer. The sleazy guy was loud and annoying and started to harass the girls sitting at the next table. I told him to shut up and sit down. Fortunately within twenty minutes of entering the place he was so drunk he fell asleep in the corner and we didn’t bother to wake him. “Eat shit and go to bed” I told him and everyone laughed. The izakaya was nice with big long and low tables of dark wood and we sat on tatami mats. The beer was refreshing and we fell to talking with gusto and much laughing.
We had all sobered up a bit and felt related and comfy. Outside it had started to rain again. I got out my notebook and they taught me many new words and I taught them some English. I told them how me and my friends would toast each other with three clinks; the top of the glass, the bottom and then the whole lot. “Never above, never below, always the same”. They took to it and told me something of themselves although the big guy was rather quiet. We talked until the place closed, ordering more beer every fifteen minutes or so. We finished with a bowl of soba each. After eating the noodles we lay down our chopsticks and drunk the hot oily soup from the bowl with our hands. Yuki and Joseph had the best laughs I think I have ever heard. Time to leave, quick goodbyes, Yuki also gave me his address. We only woke up the sleeping guy so he would pay his share. Outside again in the night I walked back to the hostel and fell into bed.
I had paid for two nights. I woke up with a terrible headache and lay in bed dozing for a few hours. It felt good to be in a bed. I went out and bought bacon and eggs and cooked them with bean sprouts and drank coffee. I went to the surf shop to get my board and talked to the girl for a bit. She really was pretty. I asked her if she would come out with me on Thursday night and she said yes but later cancelled. I sat around reading some surf magazines for a bit but left soon. When I’m tired language comes slow. Another night of luxury then back to the lonely beach with the good reef break, silence, rain.