When we last left you, the dashing Mr. Lomas and I had just been picked up by the Yamazaki family. Their warm car was a wonder after the drizzling shits of Nagaoka, and Mrs. Yamazaki was, admirably, drinking a cup of sake at the sun’s-definitely-over-the-yardarm time of 12.30pm. It seemed rude to allow her to drink on her own, so Ally and I cracked open some sake which we had been keeping by for just such an emergency. It turned out that Mr. Yamazaki normally worked in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture; another town to turn you to the bottle, and far enough away from his wife that she had got bored, and taken to drinking in the lonely evenings.
Alcoholism among housewives is nothing new in Japan – an increase in binge drinking in that demographic in the 1990s was caused in part by a television programme which asserted that housewives deserved `a treat` after finishing a bit of housework, such as a piece of cake, a cup of coffee or, in extreme cases, a small gin and tonic. Naturally, a number of housewives decided to try out this handy hint. Rapidly it became clear that much more fun could be had by concentrating on the latter `treat` while cutting out the housework part of the equation, and before long the interior of upper class Tokyo households came to resemble a Prohibition era speakeasy.
Not, of course, that Mrs. Yamazaki was anything like this; she was perfectly lovely, and having just come from the crushingly dull excrescence of Nagaoka she probably needed a drink to steady herself.
After an hour or so, we had reached Niigata. Like the Promised Land, the skies miraculously cleared as we approached the station, the sun showed itself for the first time in 24 hours, and a trip to the local tourist information office produced a delightful lady who booked a cheap hotel for us, pointed us in the direction of a sake brewery which was running tours to commence within the hour, and gave recommendations on the area`s nightlife. After repairing for a quick lunch, we set off in the direction of the Imayotsukashi brewery. Housed in an old wooden building beside a thundering six lane highway, it was something of a surprise to be told that the road used to be a canal, which was used for transport purposes in the old days. Such is the way of things in Japan, where so many rivers and canals have been concreted over that to send someone on a Japanese narrowboat holiday might be akin to sending the new apprentice down to the DIY shop for a tin of tartan paint.
The brewery tour went ahead, with two couples joining Ally and I following the master round his lair. As well as the usual outline of the sake brewing process, he also did a good line in nuggets of trivia. For example, the freezing point of an alcoholic drink is simply the negative of its alcohol percentage, so 5% beer will freeze at -5 degrees centigrade, and 40% proof vodka not until it reaches a chilly -40 degrees centigrade.
But enough of such minutiae! There`s tasting to be done! Going back to the on-site shop, the master lined up eight bottles of sake, and gave everyone a glass.
`Help yourself`, he said.
Help yourself? Ally and I looked at each other in confusion. Normally these tasting sessions are conducted with a carefully calculated largesse that ensures no more than a thimbleful of sake per person, so to be given free rein was an opportunity to be grabbed with both drinking hands.
Later on, having scrubbed up for an assault on Niigata`s nightlife, we ventured out to find a bar. After eating in a pleasant izakaya, a sign listing a healthy range of single malts attracted us to Bar Scotland. We entered expecting some light jazz and pleasant conversation, only to find the best advert for the Temperance Society I’ve ever seen.
Almost immediately we were assailed by a very tipsy woman at the end of the bar, and her entirely paralytic husband, an Oriental version of Father Jack who spent the evening shouting `WOMAN` and making lecherous noises. Ally nobly fended off his verbal assault, while Mrs. Jack espoused at great length about Americans, Brits, and all other nations whom she presumed spoke English (her list including Argentina, Norway and China). The barman looked on with a face that said `You think this is funny, don’t you. But I have to put up with it every single night. And it’s killing me`. A free flow of single malt kept us barside for longer than was perhaps necessary, but after a couple of hours taking part in this challenging piece of performance art, we took our leave in order to find drinking companions closer to us in both age and sobriety. Hogarth`s Gin Lane has a passable imitation in the backstreets of Niigata.
After a visit to a Hawaiian themed bar with bottled craft beers, the next stop was intended to be our lodgings. On the way to find a late night snack, however, we were stopped in our tracks by Bar Galicia, where the owner was using a projector to show a Fatboy Slim DVD on the wall of the facing Family Mart. Inspired by such innovation, we ventured in to find a splendid bunch of people merrily supping pints of lager. Their ability to form complete sentences showed them to be a beautiful Beer Street counterpoint to the Gin Lane denizens of Bar Scotland.
The next morning brought us to the third and last day of our hitchhiking adventure. Our main purpose being to reach Toyama by the end of the day, we decided to take the train out of Niigata as far as a station near a main road. The pleasant area around Uchino station was chiefly remarkable for a shop called Cosmic Farm, which sold an entirely unlikely array of foreign sweets, Spongebob and Mickey Mouse themed tat, risqué playing cards and toilet rolls with the design of a ten thousand yen note on them. What the level of demand was for these paraphernalia among the pensioner population of Uchino was unclear, but I do find myself doubting that the shop owner enjoyed a good relationship with his bank manager.
On the roadside, a sporty chap called Takumi soon picked us up and put us on the way back towards Kashiwazaki. He had a great interest in all things British, from the King James Bible to the Beatles, and his enquiries kept us talking the whole way.
After a ramen pit stop, a friendly off duty lorry driver offered us space in his car and barreled us back to Joetsu, from where Mr. and Mrs. Takase, taking a very lengthy detour from their original errand of going to the video shop, took us down the coast to Itoigawa. A thorough questioning from the loquacious Mrs Takase showed our appreciation of Japanese pop music to be alarmingly slim, and she kindly endeavoured to put this shocking ignorance to rights by presenting us with a CD by veteran J-poppers Exile – so named because that`s exactly where they should be.
It was dark, and while it seemed pretty futile to try hitching a ride, we had nothing better to do while waiting for a train back to Toyama, so we headed out to the main road. I shone a pen light on our sign for Uozu, and we waited. The penlight was as effective as a one legged man at an arse kicking competition, leaving us shrouded in darkness, so it came as quite a shock when Shinichi and Daiki, who had evidently been eating their carrots assiduously from a young age, hailed us from their car and offered us the last lift of the trip. In a testament to Itoigawa`s nocturnal entertainment possibilities, they explained that they lived locally, but were so bored that driving us to Uozu would constitute a decent evening. On arriving, Shinichi asked a policeman to take a souvenir photo for us (in rural Japan, police officers are so free from the burdens of preventing crime, there being none, that they instead offer a great range of other services like a one man edition of the Yellow Pages). We said our goodbyes, and were done.
Three days and four hundred kilometers had passed in a string of new acquaintances, partings, brief friendships and a fine range of intoxicants. I’m sure neither of us will ever meet any of our brilliant drivers again, but for a short time they brightened our lives with their kindness and charity. I hope we reciprocated the kindness in some part, and I trust that international exchange was further enhanced by one hour in a car with a Japanese person than in a week of form filling and stamping by the bureaucrats nominally responsible for Japan’s internationalization. Moreover, hitchhiking in Japan is fun, its cheap, it’s a great way to practice Japanese and to meet the kind of people who restore your faith in the kindness of strangers. Try it!