Niigata, where I arrived from Tsuchiura to take the ferry to Sado-ga-shima, is a big city. The small map in my Lonely Planet guide was not a great help and I emerged from the station to a confusion of traffic and crowded streets.
Inspiration struck as I passed a large hotel. I nipped inside where the receptionist kindly provided me with a good city map, and showed me where I was. After that it was easy to work out a route to the ferry terminal, a mile or so from the city centre. Once again the Brompton came into its own. I had a few hours before the ferry and I had plenty of time to ride out to the terminal, buy a ticket, ride back to town and have a meal and a good look round before cycling back to catch the evening ferry. On foot I would have seen very little of the city and been much less flexible, especially with luggage to haul.
As elsewhere in Japan, the city sidewalks were full of cyclists and there was no problem in getting around. The ferry terminal, as these places are, was in an empty quarter with little human life in evidence so I headed quickly back to town to see what was on offer.
The centre of Niigata is much like any other modern shopping centre and I soon stopped looking for a Japanese cafe, settling for a coffee shop which provided much the same snacks and coffee that I might get at home, a small familiar respite before heading out into the unfamiliar territory of Sado-ga-shima.
In the following hour I was able to explore much of the central area, which was generally undistinguished in the evening light until I turned off the main road into an area of broad traffic-free covered shopping streets and suddenly found myself in an arcade full of exotic young men. Decked out in a kind of gangster chic – big hair, big overcoats, big ties, sharp suits – they were doormen/touts for the night clubs that were concentrated in this small area.
Fascinated I cycled up and down and watched them perform, posturing and lounging in small groups. Middle aged men on bicycles were obviously not on their radar and I felt quite invisible for once. Their prey was groups of less confident teenagers looking for entertainment and, presumably, impressed by their extravagent style. To my outsider’s eye, they looked more likely to sell you adulterated cocaine or a dodgy loan than guarantee a good time but what did I know?
Soon enough it was time to go for the ferry. For the first time I was really confronted with the physical difference between Japanese and Western daily life. On the street, in buses and trains and offices, everything looks much the same. Restaurants may have an area of ground level seating as well as western chairs and tables but that feels more like a quaint reference to tradition rather than part of everyday life. On the ferry however everything changed.
Because there was a lot of space in the ship (unlike a train or bus) there was no reason for space-saving upright seating. There was no seating at all apart from the cafe area, the rest of the ship consisted of large carpeted lounges where everybody took off their shoes and stretched out on the floor, helping themselves to blankets and pillows.
Bill Macher gives an enthusiastic description of Japanese ferries, including some photographs of the sumptuous lobbies of the Sado ship that I used, and he clearly values the opportunity to stretch out and sleep during his cycle/camping tours. If I had been equipped for camping, with my excellent lightweight Thermo-rest self-inflating mattress that converts to a ground level armchair, I might share his feelings. Instead I was painfully aware that my middle-aged joints had ossified into very different patterns to the Japanese norm, I was desperate for a backrest and the carpets were laid directly onto the hard steel deck – quite unlike the resilient effect of tatami matting.
Like many forms of public transport this would be of little import on a sunny morning when you are wide awake (and can enjoy the fresh air on deck) but in the late evening we all start to fade and being comfortable is a priority. I was glad to get to the end of the longish trip and cycle off through the empty midnight streets of Sado City to find my hotel.