"May Peace Prevail On Earth"
- Signpost found at many Japanese Temples.
In the summer of 1992 I started going to the bar called Abbey Road more regularly. It was just down the road from the coin laundry I used, so I would have a beer and something to eat while I
waited for my clothes to dry. The "Master" as the owner of such places is called, was an interesting guy who enjoyed talking to his clientele, especially those who were foreign. It was a very
small bar, with about six seats at the counter and four or five small tables. There was one big table at the back, where all of the Pioneer group would gather on the occasional Wednesday evening.
Anytime I went alone I would normally sit at the counter, and join in the conversation that would be going on between the master and the other regular customers. Since the range of topics was
unlimited, and the group consisted mainly of single and married men in the twenty to fifty age group, I learned a lot of Japanese that they didn't teach me at school. At first I would only go
there when I was waiting for laundry at the Laundromat, but as time went on I started going a lot more, because it was a lot more interesting to go out and talk to people than sit at home alone
watching television. Eventually I would be eating out there almost every night, since I worked late most nights, and gradually became too lazy to cook at home. Since the bar was always closed on
Sundays, I would go to another bar in town called "Simple Simon". This became a regular pattern, and one weeknight when Abbey Road was full, I went to Simple Simon instead. As soon as I walked in
the door the master said "What are you doing here? It's not Sunday?
Over the years my allegiance shifted to Simple Simon, because the atmosphere of the bar was better, (brighter lighting, better music, younger and more female clientele) and the food was better. The owner of Simple Simon and I were to become firm friends in the future.
One January morning I came down out of my apartment to go to work, and found that somebody had tried to steal my bicycle. There was a lock picking tool jammed in the lock I had on it, and they had also tried to cut through the wire of the lock. There was so little of the wire left intact that I just bent it a couple of times and it broke in my hands. I had another lock of the same type, but at the weekend I went and bought a strong padlock and a thick chain. When one of my co-workers saw me putting the chain on my bike at the factory, he quickly admonished me by saying that I did not need such a big lock because there was practically no crime in Japan. When I told him the reason I had bought it, he was speechless.
In May of that year, I, Grant and Jason went to Hong Kong for three days. Jason had a girlfriend in college who came from Hong Kong, and he somehow got back in touch with her. We went on a package tour, which meant in Japan that you follow a guide around like a herd of sheep, and they take you to the places that practically every Japanese tourist who has visited the city is taken to. They also take you shopping, since all the branded goods that are so expensive in Tokyo are much cheaper there. Even though the risk of them being fake is also much higher, Japanese people were buying with abandon. The tour we were on took us to a shop that was selling some kind of snake extract as a health drink, and as they passed around samples, I refused to even touch it based on the reactions of those who had drunk it before me. On the second day, we told the tour guide that we would look after ourselves. He seemed a bit disappointed and tried to talk us into continuing with him, (presumably because he was getting kickbacks for every customer he brought to those shops, this was common practice at the time.)
We met up with Jason's friend, and she showed us around the town. We had a very enjoyable two days there, with the only hiccup being our near miss in getting the wrong train. Rather than get the subway back to the city centre, we almost got a train for the Chinese mainland, but luckily noticed something was amiss when we were asked for our passports at the ticket gate. In the evenings, Grant and myself were left to our own devices while Jason and his girlfriend caught up on old times, which took all night. After we got back to Japan, Jason ran up a 140,000 yen phone bill in one month, by phoning his girlfriend every night. It was not long before he quit Pioneer and left to be with her in Hong Kong.
I began to take an interest in physical fitness, using the old and rusty barbells at the factory gym to work out two or three nights a week. They had been bought by the football team, and years of being abused, misused or unused had rendered them into a sorry state, but they were still heavy, and that is what mattered. I would go up to the second floor of the gym after work, run a couple of laps around the auditorium to warm up, and then start lifting. There was one security guard who, when he came on his nightly rounds, would take a break and work out with me. He would put down his torch, take off his shirt and then put practically every weight plate there was, totalling about 130kg, on the bar for his bench press. After ten repetitions, he would put his shirt back on and be on his way, continuing his rounds.
I bought a racing bicycle off Grant, even though he assured me that it was damaged. He had a collision with a car which caused structural damage to the frame, and he warned me that the frame would need to be replaced. I paid him no heed, assuming that he was exaggerating, but when I took the bike to the bike shop where I bought my mountain bike to get some parts, the owner took one look at it and said that I needed a new frame. I decided that I would dismantle it, buy a new frame and use the other parts to build a completely new bicycle for myself. This ambitious plan never got off the ground, and after several years of letting it gather rust on my balcony, I threw it out. I had only myself to blame.
My mountain bike, on the other hand, saw great distances. There are a series of temples in the mountain town of Chichibu in western Saitama which are popular among hikers as a series of pilgrimages. Visitors to each temple can receive a stamp and written message in a book, and there is a special medal for those who complete the pilgrimage to all the temples. Pierre, Alex and myself decided to do this pilgrimage on our mountain bikes. Getting to Chichibu from Kawagoe requires crossing the mountains at the Shomaru Pass, which means a twenty kilometre uphill ride, followed by a perilous ride through a two-kilometre tunnel, with trucks and cars speeding past you in the surreal orange half-light of the tungsten lamps. Once you get out the other side, there is a fierce downhill stretch on which I have reached over 60kmh, and then a few more kilometres to reach the town of Chichibu. Since the temples are considerably spread out around the town, we had to space our pilgrimage over several days. In the courses of the first summer we made about half a dozen trips, cutting our time to reach the Shomaru tunnel from over two hours on the first trip to just under one hour on the latter trips. As autumn turned to winter, the altitude made it uncomfortable to cycle, so we completed the pilgrimage the following summer. The temples were beautiful to a fault, set out in plush green hillsides. Each one had a pole near the temple building with the Japanese phrase "Sekai no Jinrui wa Heiwa de arimasu you ni" and the equivalent English; "May Peace Prevail On Earth". I got into the habit of placing my hand briefly on each of these poles as my way of joining in the prayer.
We also went skiing a lot now that Damian had bought his car. He had convinced the company to let him have a navigation system for free so he could "study" it, and on one ski trip he used it to find a back road to the ski resort we were aiming for that avoided all the traffic. The downside of this was that the road was covered in deep snow, so we still had to drive slowly. I was sitting in the back, reading the brochure for the ski resort, when I suddenly felt that we were going around a very sharp corner. I looked up, only to see Damian and Kevin in the front seats looking at each other in shock, and then look back at me, still with their jaws dropped. I soon realised they were looking behind me, and when I looked out the back window all I could see was the mountain on the opposite side of the valley. The car had spun around 270 degrees on the snow and its tail was now pressed against the roadside barrier. Damian was considerably subdued for the rest of the journey.
Another trip we went on took us to a resort called Marunuma, where there was a different ski resort on the opposite side of the mountain. I discovered this by taking a wrong turn off the ski lifts, and skiing down the wrong side. While I was there, I went into a hotel to get a cup of coffee, and was greeted by two very amazed looking Russian girls in the lobby. They said they had been working there for almost a year, and I was the first foreigner they had seen in over six months. They were so delighted to see me that I got my cup of coffee for free in return for a little conversation. I explained to them that I had skied down the wrong side of the mountain, and they told me that since the lifts on this side didn't go all the way to the top, I would have to get a taxi back. Since I had left my wallet in the car, this meant I had to walk.
Walking around that mountain was a long trip, but it was nothing compared to the one we had coming out of a ski resort called Hunter Mountain. Hunter Mountain is one of four ski resorts on a hillside all serviced by the same narrow two lane road. We figured it would take a while to get out of the car park and back down to the nearby town where we had booked a hotel, so we decided to leave the resort a little early. We gathered at the car at about 1:30, and were ready to go by 2PM, but we didn't get out of the car park until nearly 4PM, because there was already a feed of vehicles coming down from the other three resorts. We phoned the hotel we had reserved and told them we might be late for dinner, because in Japanese hotels they work to schedules that suit the owners, not the guests. They said not to worry, because the food would be here waiting for us, (cold, of course.) In the end it took another eight hours to get down to the town. We passed several cars that had run out of fuel on the way.
When we eventually got to the hotel, after Alex and I had walked ahead, we were told there was no dinner, since it was past midnight, and the owner had thrown it out. We spent about twenty minutes arguing with the man at reception, but to no avail. In the end we went out for "ramen" noodles instead.
But the most unusual experience we had during our many ski trips was the night at a love hotel. Love hotels in Japan are hotels aimed at couples who want somewhere to have sex, be they married couples living with parents who are looking for a little privacy, or unmarried couples looking for a lot of privacy. On the way back from one ski trip, Damian's car broke down, and he had to get it towed off the motorway to a garage. I was asleep in the back of the car while all this was happening, oblivious to the world after a long, tiring day "on the piste", so to speak. Since it was too late to get back to Kawagoe, we had to find a place to stay, and a love hotel was the cheapest. Normally checking in is done by a machine, so you don't have the embarrassment of meeting a person face to face. But since this makes love hotels perfect places to commit murder, since no one sees you go in or out, the police now require that a security camera record all those who enter. We paid the money into the machine and went up to our rooms. Obviously someone was watching the security camera, because we were barely in the door before the manager came along wondering what four male foreigners were doing in his hotel. We explained the situation and assured him nothing untoward would happen, and he let us be. The room was standard love hotel fare, from what little I know of love hotels. Apart from the bed and a very large bath, there was a karaoke machine, and a vending machine for dildos. This provided an eerie nightlight, as one of the products was illuminated in a glass case on top of the machine. Damian and I shared a bed for the most motionless night of sleep I have ever had.
The next morning Damian stayed with his car to get it fixed, but the other three of us got a train home. When the train made a brief stop at a station, I stepped out to buy a drink from a vending machine. After I reboarded, Bart decided to do the same. He hadn't been in Japan as long as I had and was having trouble figuring out which button to push to get a can of hot coffee. When the chimes that announced a departing train started, he panicked slightly and pushed a button that said "HOT", and a can of Japanese green tea dropped out of the chute. To add insult to injury, the announcement was for a different train, so when he got back in the carriage we all had a good laugh about his mistake as he recounted his misfortune. We asked him if he was going to drink it, and he said that he didn't like green tea, so he just sat there holding his can, feeling like a fool. After a few minutes, the old Japanese lady who was sitting across the aisle from us reached into her purse and took out a coin. She pointed at the can Bart was holding, and held up the 100 Yen coin, apparently offering to buy the drink off him. Bart gave her the drink, and took the coin. She said nothing then, or for the rest of the journey. I found it to be a quaint little bit of international communication, rising above the language barrier by rising above the need for words.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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