The road out of Nagasaki smelt faintly of semen. I kept an eye out for a likely culprit among the commuters in their cars and on the trams but the smell followed me for miles until I was well outside the city. Before I felt the need to drag myself off to the bath house for a good scrub I thought I’d ask the internet. It turns out the ornamental pear tree, of which this road was lined on both sides, is famous for its distinct smell, which has been compared to the smell of rotting flesh, chlorine or semen. (Chlorine being in the list then got me worrying about what they actually put in swimming pools.
After getting out if the peary smog the ride was wet but straight forward. I pulled up to the iconic Kumamoto Castle at around 5 o’clock, just as the rain had packed up and beggared off.
Japanese castles are, to a large extent, all the same. 6 or 7 story wooden structures with all the classic defence facilities like holes for dropping things on the enemy. Kumamoto Castle however us as sprawling a complex as I’ve seen and the one remaining original gate house feels like it’s seen a lot of real action, not just the barefoot tourists of the last 50 years. If you’re ever in town it’s worth a look.
Now, my host tonight is the result of my first dive into the world of couch surfing. Toshinobu is a retired civil servant who lived in Germany for 3 years where, he tells me as he throws my bike into the back of his son’s K-car, he tried them all: weed, crack, LSD, the lot. His English is slightly worse than my Japanese but he insists on trying. Every other word is ‘so’ but I get the gist. He laughs hard and looks a bit like Golem as he beats the steering wheel.
But he also nearly brought me to tears. Sitting with our feet in the well beneath his kotatsu he starts to tell me about his trips abroad and he asks me what kojiin is in English. I have to look it up but we discover it means orphanage.
‘I spend all year collecting unwanted toys and clothes from my neighbours and then I make a trip to give everything to an orphanage.’ His voice cracks and his eyes become glassy. ‘I’ve been to Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. This year I’m going to Myanmar.’ He looks at me as though he knows I understand. ‘Children have such beautiful eyes. The children have such beautiful eyes. So I go to them and give them clothes and shoes and make them smile.’
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