Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet so many interesting people on the road. This is the third in a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals. Enter your e-mail in the 'Subscribe' box on the right and you will be notified of each new blog post.
In 1984, at the age of 26, I travelled to Tokyo, eager to discover what I had heard was a beautiful country and a fascinating culture. I knew it was expensive and that I would need to find work in order to stay. Nearly all the money I had, had been spent on the airfare. I got off the plane at Narita airport with around a hundred pounds and discovered that half of that was needed to take the coach into the city. Fortunately I had an address for a cheap working-men's hostel. When I arrived there I had £40 after currency exchange commission. A dormitory bed in the hostel cost around £8 a night. I felt sure, however, that something would turn up.
The friendliness of the elderly hostel staff was an immediate boost to my natural sense of optimism. The hostel used to cater for Japanese workmen but more recently had started to take advantage of the foreign backpacker market. I understood very little Japanese and they very little English. The manager, who was affectionately known to western residents as Mosquito San, knew one or two phrases in English. The most memorable of these being "Mosquito drive away!" uttered with cruel intent as he roamed the dormitories in the evenings with a pump-up spray bottle. He was weird, but by no means the strangest person living in Okubo House. Within a day I had encountered quite a motley selection of long-termers who furnished me with invaluable information:
A US Vietnam Vet who told far-fetched stories of living underground and in trees in the Vietnam jungle and who ranted in his sleep. Israeli draft dodgers who knew all the best ways to live on minimal income in Tokyo and how to find temporary work such as in model agencies or film studios. A Russian shot-putter who hid men (or women) in her bed when they climbed in through her window evading curfew, and a timid New Zealand Irish alcoholic who ranted and raved around the house when he got drunk and was eventually barred. But there was one man to beat them all.
Okubo House - Traditional Japanese Hostel (taken in 1998, now demolished)
Okubo House ran on military order. Mosquito San had clearly served time in the service of his country. There were posters around the place about cleanliness. The fact that these posters were in (comical) English (Rule 1. Never sleep the kwilt no pyjama), indicated that they were aimed at foreigners (since the Japanese are obsessively clean themselves). One was required to attend the communal bath every evening. Mosquito San kept a check. However, he was aided in this task (unsolicited) by a very odd young German. Peter would appear by surprise through a doorway and ask in a most accusing Orwellian voice "Are you clean?" This happened numerous times on a daily basis. New residents were petrified by the experience. Mosquito San and the other staff could never understand what the resulting hilarity was all about.
Myself and a few of my newfound friends were fascinated by Peter. He was a little strange. We had each tried to engage him in conversation at various times and were left with the sense that he was mad. One evening we heard him in the foyer (this was a traditional Japanese building made of a wood frame with paper walls) having received a call on the house phone.
"Jah, jah this is Peter Wurst."
Peter spoke English but it was not good English and he had a very strong German accent.
"Jah, I am English of course. My parents are English und now I am come here to living in Japan. I am liking to work as English teacher in one school like you language school. Jah, jah, I am having university certificate, naturally. When can I begin?"
There followed numerous other calls involving laboured conversations of a similar nature. Although most people running these language schools were Japanese, most spoke good enough English to spot that all was not correct with Mr Wurst's English.
"My accent," I heard him say once, "jah, my accent is English of course, but maybe because mein father is von Scotland."
Peter told us he was an honest man seeking to earn an honest day's wage. Clearly his idea of the truth was somewhat different to most and it irked us that he might teach Japanese people to speak English like him. I was even suspicious about Peter's surname. Peter Wurst (Sausage) seemed a little too obvious for a man who told us he had been in Tokyo for two years working as what he termed a "Stick-man."
"If you want earn big money in Tokyo my friend," he told us, "you need to find work as stick-man. Are you a good stick-man my friend?"
Peter's hand gesture left us in no doubt about what the job of stick-man entailed.
"There are much old women here who like the young western man for boom boom, jah? If you are good stick-man you can make much money. I do this for two years but now I am tired. I can give you phone number for agency, jah?"
He went into great detail about the type of clients one could expect and the nature of their usual requirements. In the interest of international relations and common decency I shall not relate the lurid details here, but suffice it to say that his descriptions were hilarious.
Mad times in Tokyo 1984
Helped by advice from the Israelis, I managed to survive on noodles and All You Can Eat Shakey's Pizza for two weeks until I found a teaching job. But Peter didn't forget about my interest in his previous work. On his nightly visits around the hostel enquiring about personal cleanliness, he would always ask me "did you find some stick-man work my friend?"