Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Preparing for snow

This tells you two things: these are well-loved shrubs; and the snow is going to be deep.

The rice is in, the weather is patchy, and snow is coming in a month or two. It is time to prepare with an attention to detail commensurate with the scale of the coming problem, and that is considerable. A metre can fall in one day, and Aizu has one of the heaviest snow-falls in Japan. But people have time. The eighty eight actions it takes to produce rice have been accomplished, and it has been a good year - wetter than usual, but dry for the important two weeks needed to ripen the grain after it had formed. There is a relaxed relief in the air, people smile and laugh even more now that the rice, that most central foundation of life, is secure and in store.

Piles of rice husks are everywhere, to be used in their turn for many things

The cycle of seasonal crops continues to the death of the year, growing and drying, preparing and hoarding, squirrelling away for the hungry months to come. Old habits, ancient habits, die hard, and who doesn't feel better with groaning cupboards when the storm howls outside? So we all have cars, the roads are ploughed, the Co-op delivers and the internet brings all to our door. Is that any reason to get lazy? We remember real hunger, and that is not a game. And who can make food like our food? Everyone knows that ours are the best rice, the best beans, the best vegetables - the supermarkets are full of stuff from China. Who knows what they put in it over there? When everything on your table comes from your own hand, you know where you are.

Husband and wife digging the good stuff from the ground: sweet potatoes

Marching stooks and tripods of grass on stubble or bare earth push back the green to outposts of winter cabbages and leeks. Each village has it's own pattern, it's own way of doing this, some in fat bundles, others stacked around trees, still more in ingenious arrangements all tied up with themselves like POW s on role call.

People love their gardens too, and protect their shrubs and trees before their houses. Yet another use for the indispensable long pine poles is to create wooden spires above each one. They pin the snow in place and keep it from slumping onto the beloved with crushing indifference, a careless wrestler flopping his vast white belly down to sleep. Later we can make sure the house is OK.

They say that the Kusai-mushi ('stink bugs'), that clamour for re-admittance to the same houses they left in the spring, know when it is going to be heavier winter snow than usual. The more there are, the heavier will be the fall. They only want the same as us, to be buried under a pile of futons and blankets, pooling our heat, huddled together under a safe roof to wait it out. The same beetles that flicked and scuttled at speed in the spring sun, evading the stabbing chop-sticks of their human hunters, to live a life green in the woods, now stagger slowly, befuddled and old, heading for any nook or cranny that will  have them, and are easy prey. We don't want to share our winter quarters with them, picking them out of our socks and underwear, hopefully before putting them on....Though I suppose to them we don't smell too good either.

Late October, and it is the turn of soya beans to be dried


Thursday, 22 October 2009

Vegetable givers

Part of today's haul - not easy to manage on bike handlebars

The unstoppable generosity of Aizu people, like smallholders the world over, is amazing to behold and receive. Any thought of trying to refuse, guiltily aware that you cannot respond in kind, is bulldozed by the realisation that it is more likely to offend and confuse the giver rather than relieve them of an obligation. What If giving and sharing are indeed founded in the dry and cold machinations of the selfish gene, a way of bonding social obligations in times of surplus and a mutual protection in hard times? It is also a way of expressing pride in your abilities to grow and to find food, and a way of touching stranger and neighbour alike that needs neither language nor explanation. If only the scale and suspicions of city life did not frustrate this most basic social act.

At first I thought people gave us so much because we were new and my wife's family are from the village, and that it would stop once people realised that we were not able to give as much back. But no, it appears they expect nothing in return, being happy that we have brought a child to this, one of the fastest ageing communities in Japan. "I love to hear the sound of children playing, and your son being here brings the other children to this part of the village to play," said the mayor's wife as she dropped off yet another offering. And yet it is enough to be simply passing through.

Yesterday I took my lens for a short ride in the last hours of slanted sunlight, meaning to reach the top of a pass before returning. I stopped to look at one of the Gaudi-like iron fire towers that each village has, with bells and a small precarious platform perched above rusting ladders. Distracted by the light glinting off a rail-crossing mirror, I moved into the allotments, to be greeted by the man working there behind his house.

Yokota-san and his wife Uriko-san - they'd give you veg as soon as look at you

We shot the breeze in stuttering chunks, manfully and politely ignoring the mangled mess of my barely existent Japanese. Where was I from? Where was I going? Where is my house? We managed to get as far as establishing my village and house, and he was delighted that not only was I actually living here, but that I had a child at school - that really cheered him up. He wanted to know which of the many families in the area with the same name my wife's mother belonged to - we struggled with that one. Then came the magic words that opened the vegetable floodgates. Looking across his well-stocked allotment full of healthy and big plants, I said "Sugoi yasai des - kileh, neh?" (Great vegetables - beautiful aren't they?). Works every time. "Ah! Choto mateh!" (Wait a minute!) he said, and bustled around, clipping here, cutting there, uprooting in another corner. i knew better than to try and stop him.

His wife came around the corner and joined in on the act, cutting some beautiful greens with small yellow flowers.

Eaten within the hour

She was getting carried away, in her element, looking around for what could be next, bringing out a big cardboard box. "No, no, he's on a bike!" Yokota-san cried. "What, no basket on the front?" she gestured. How strange. I teetered home on my shortened but enriched way, a large plastic bag with a big cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, broccoli, and greens endangering my steering. "Come again!" he called, enjoying the break in routine and the chance to be appreciated by someone other than his neighbours, who all have the same prodigious growing skills, and therefore probably take it for granted.

I arrived at the house joyously, like a hunter home from the hill. "Look what I've got!" "Oh, yes, said the big M. "Aunty dropped off some sweet potatoes, and M-chan's mum sent some cakes round too." That's my thunder stolen, by Thor. Wouldn't you know it. Upstaged by the neighbours, vegetable givers every last one. Last time I went next door to borrow some pliers (charmingly called 'Pinchi') I came back with a bag of wild mushrooms for goodness sake. Ah well, you can't fight it - might as well eat it... And we gave the cabbage we had previously bought to a mum picking up her child: serves 'em right.

Flippin' sweet potatoes


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Early autumn, Aizu

Come the autumn, come the seeds, the first blush of red and brown on the mountainsides, the high grass and the rice harvest drying on the tall racks.

Bandai-san above the last unharvested rice on the plain

The temperature is sweetly comfortable, the light softening and golden towards evening which draws down with a new coolness. Time to check the heaters and sort out some extra bedding.

Pumpkins are on every step: these are ours

The garden still provides most of our vegetables - here's supper

Chestnuts are everywhere, drying on doorsteps or lying ungathered in the road, though the best ones will have fallen to the industry of the busy locals, who are out there every day. They keep the grass short under their own chestnut trees to make them easy to find when they fall, so don't take these. They - chestnuts, not the locals - are eaten roasted, steamed, or cooked with rice to make Kuri-gohan (chestnut rice). Their shining brown goodness hidden in fleshy green-spiked balls is one of the highlights of the year.

Chestnuts as they are found in the woods

Drying on a doorstep

Autumn is nearly here: above the Tadami river

Sunflower seedheads ready for harvest

Two metre high grass stooks nod like waiting courtiers....

In the court of the crimson king


Kawagoe festival

Although Ok-Aizu (deep Aizu) is seen as one of the remoter areas of Japan, it is still only four or five hours by car or train from Tokyo - or 13 by bike! The great thing about living here and visiting there rather than the other way round is that you always travel against the greater flow of traffic and avoid the worst of the jams, which are huge on holiday weekends. We took the beautiful route south through Showa and Tajima for the first time, and the beginning of autumn brought uncharacteristic gasps of delight and pleasure from passenger number one.

We were heading for Kawagoe in Saitama-ken to see the boy's grandma and to hit the festival along with an enormous number of other people due to pack the streets to bursting. All the more so this year, as a popular soap is set there. All available land suitable for parking was fast filling up as we headed out and joined the streams of people on even the side streets.

Grandma's Cho (neighbourhood) is too new to have a Dashi (festival cart), as they are hugely expensive to make and run, being lavishly decorated with wood carvings, rich fabrics and elaborate traditional figures. It makes do with a small children's one so that they can feel a part of it.

Handing out goodies at a small neighbourhood side display

Although a festival with dancing in Kawagoe is much older, it began in this form with carts in 1648. This year there were 10 less than the the full compliment of 29 of these impressive Dashi, another result of the recession. Fewer people in each of these older cho had been able to make the donations they depend on. It was still crammed on the famous street of fireproof clay shops.

Two Dashi face off at a junction

The high-rise carts are full of musicians and with a traditional character as gesturing figurehead, helpers hanging precariously and casually over the drop to the road below. When they meet they face off and try to out drum and dance eachother, swivelling on their bases to face eachother in the narrow streets. They are towed on thick ropes by people from each neighbourhood, controlled by shouting men and officious policemen. As they lumber heavily along, people scurrying in barging scrums on either side, men with iron bars lever the iron-shod wheeels to crudely steer them. This looks, and is, dangerous. I saw one young man fail to remove the iron bar in time. The cartwheel slamming it to the ground with several tons' force on top of it. If he hadn't moved his fingers in time they would have been left on the road, unattached to his hand.

Tenko, the fox spirit

My son was nearly satisfied when he has seen Tenko, his favourite, the snapping albino fox that has scared and fascinated him since he was little. To be bitten by Tenko is considered good luck by parents, and probably terrifying by children. All that remained was to find the candy floss he craved, and to escape the crowds at last.

We drove back on Sunday, and sure enough, the traffic travelling south back to Tokyo was backed up for miles, the cost of all going to see the first autumn colours in the north at the same time. For us, it's home.


Japanese Cyclocross Worlds selection race

Kosaka-san (Suwata Racing), Japanese cyclocross champion and  winner of the category 1 race, booking his place at the World Championships in the Czech Republic

On a weekend in Kawagoe my clubmates in Arai Racing Club suggested that I might like to watch a cyclocross race by the Arakawa river at Yoshini. Expecting a small event I could hear a crowd shouting on the other side of the embankment as I rode up. This proved only to be a somewhat hysterical teenage tennis tournament, howls and shrieks greeting every shot. Oh the pressure. I could see distant cyclists beyond, and made my way over to the quiet side. That's how I like sport - everyone doing it rather than just watching - the opposite of football.

Winner of the women's cyclocross race, a Peking Olympics MTB rider

I'd missed the third category race, which was won by an Arai member who is S category (shit-hot?) on the road and had showed his class on the club ride the day before.

The children's ride made me wish I had brought my son who was joyfully slobbing out at his grandma's house. It was great to see these pocket rockets tackling the tricky bits, and especially to see a commited dad sheperding his son along after doing his own race.

What fatherhood is all about

The first and second category races ran together, for an hour and for forty minutes respectively on flat but in places technical course. A place in the upcoming World Championships was on offer for the elite winner. The men's winner put the hammer down from the gun and rode at an impressive speed, attacking everything hard and brilliantly on every lap. He is clearly in a class of his own leaving good riders well behind.

The two Arai club members in the race showed well.

Waka Takeda (18) of Arai Racing Club  well up in the women's race on the first lap - they didn't stay this clean! She is a strong road rider new to 'cross.

Arai cyclist giving it his all

But there was no catching Kosaka-san

Cyclocross: gardening with a bike

A Japanese friend said that the standard of cyclocross in Japan is not high compared with the European scene. The distance from the elite international scene and the expense of competing is prohibitive, so unsurprisingly there are no Japanese riders in the top 140 UCI rankings fro 2009-10.

However the achievements of Yukiya Arashiro and Fumiyuki Beppu  in the 2009 Tour de France show what can be achieved. Having ridden with some very fit club riders who have the incredible strength to weight ratio that the slight Japanese frame affords, I feel sure that it is only travelling distance, and the lack of a structure for building young riders and taking them to race in Europe, that is stopping us seeing, for example, a Japanese King of the Mountains in the Tour. Remember Luis Herera out of Colombia?


Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Magic on the mountain

With legs and thorax of uncannily human proportions something jumped, arcing an impossible parabola like a mini superhero leaping a forest. The grasshopper spread it's wings at the peak of it's trajectory and soared, leaving a myth in it's wake. It was huge, not just because of it's size, but because of the shock of it's instantaeneous transformation, from dull, owl-mottled hider in leaf mold, to stellar creature of the air.

Y-kun, 8, terror to all things insect, the diminutive Ghengis Khan of the village, was almost in tears that he hadn't seen it on account of it's camouflage, as the giant ones are quite unusual. It was his first mountain walk, and he needed some compensation for the effort involved, which must have come as something of a shock, poor wee blighter. That treat came a few minutes later, when my snake-wary eyes noticed a writhing motion as I tapped the ground ahead with the long stick I always carry for the purpose when walking with children in Japan. It was a beautiful four-foot long Shima-Hebi or Japanese four-lined rat snake (Elaphe quadrivirgata), I think.  See  for a list and photos to help identify Japanese snakes.

Our Japanese four-lined snake taking a serious view

They are not poisonous, and feed on frogs, lizards, insects, rodents, small birds and their eggs, and it did not seem much afraid, giving us time to admire it before finally moving off. No doubt such predators are the reason for the grasshopper's Olympic jump.Y-kun was satisfied. Surprisingly, for one who terrorises in intimate detail every square inch of his grandparent's allotment and garden, imprisoning and maiming at will, this was the first snake he had ever seen, and he had to be restrained from grabbing it.

It is often the unpromising mountains that give you the best surprises. I chose this walk because it was suitable for children (always a relative term in Aizu!), was near the road, and wouldn't take too long. It followed the line of pylons on the north side of the Tadami river from Nakagawa dam, so looked very unprepossessing. After parking on the far side of the dam we edged round the initial broad path which has a drop to the river, and crossed the metal suspension footbridge that leads to the climb.

And yet once we had climbed a short way up the path it was clear that there was magic there. 

With frequent stops we climbed the zig-zags, taking extra care in the places, inevitable in this terrain, where there was a drop masked by the vegetation. It's a good idea to have an adult for each child under ten, and it was great to have Y-kun's dad along. Every time we turned around the view opened more, and the cars on the valley road became tinier, ant cars and ant houses, and an ant train trundling through.

I was armed as always with a bear pepper spray and bells, and my boy enjoyed blowing his whistle, himself tooting along like a small train by the Reverand Audrey. We know people in their eighties who have lived here all their lives and have never seen a bear, but it is well to be careful, especially with children along. For the first time we came accross what may well have been an old bear platform, one of the beds they make to sleep through the heat of the day.

Note the broken branches hanging down and accumulation of leaves in the centre
We turned around at 600m after it became clear that the ridge path, although flatter, was full of ferns too high for short legs. But what need was there to go higher when the panoramas to the south, and the views into the complex offshoots from the main ridge which follows the north side of the Tadami river for miles were more than enough.

Three hours from start to finish, we arrived back at the footbridge, and went beneath it so the children could mess about by the side stream for an hour. I checked the map to make sure there were no dams upstream that might release water. 

The pleasure of this was sure to overwrite memories of hard work, in fact what could be better? Children + water + stones + sticks = happiness squared. Multiply by a lunch of soba at the Nakagawa visitor centre and ice cream and you have it all.

Un shopping mall de tête

Kid heaven - parent's hell

"Lets's go to Apita!"

From the sublime to the ridiculous, yesterday I spanned the extremes that Japan can offer. Having indulged in a beautiful bike ride in the morning I decided to pay my family dues, and foolishly asked my son and his friend if they would like to go out somewhere, "Anywhere you like." I should have known this lamentable lack of parental direction would only end up one way, in a visit to a busy modern shopping centre.

These four words, that are merely unappealing in themselves, become downright horrible when put together. This particular BMSC (say that to yourself as an acronym and you will get the picture), seems to be the font of all that is wonderful to children around here. It exercises a Pied-Piper like fascination beyond anything that is actually in the building. Having once broken with thousands of years of agrarian tradition, this generation has gone the whole hog and fetishized modernity. Apita seems to have become the family outing of choice for the under 50's brought up on TV advertising.

Escape pod

To be fair, you can see the attraction for those who are in the mountains all week, eating traditional food day in, day out, working at construction or road maintenance, or small-scale farming in all weathers. The blaring distractions of the BMSC are as different as can be: a screaming illusion of vacuum packed freedom and limitless choice, as effective a myth of redemption and immortality as any tinpot religion. All that is not in the valleys seems to be there.

And yet when we arrived in the arcade section, the children seemed at a loose end, wandering aimlessly without playing anything. 'How about this one?' 'Nah.' 'Or this? 'Nooo daddy.' It seemed to be enough to stand dazed and confused immersed in the dinning babble of electronica beneath the flourescent lights. To be there, be seen, to be part of something, a badge of courage and belonging at the centre of the child universe. Groups of older boys blasted aliens with realistic machine pistols, and children hunched over baffling machines as if communing with new life-forms. A few furtive adults fed gambling machines with pots of change. M-chan fed the change machine with 1,000 Yen notes, and got through two (£15), with some fluffy toys, and a few impossibly cute video game goes to show for it.

Downstairs the other games section contained machines that appear to cost 100 Yen (80p). They spat out a gaming card for that, then ask for more cash before you can play a game. Neither the boy nor myself understood, with tense fathers and children of the zone breathing down our necks, craning to be at it with folders and stacks of cards representing a huge investment in hand. One child kicked his father for something, and it was clear who was in control, the parents cowed by the intensity of their children's fixations.

Not me though. An hour and a half left me with a splitting shopping mall de tête, and we were off into the night, with the only view of a BMSC I like - the one you get when leaving.

Bye bye BMSC


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Born to be mild

There are times in a man's life, wonderful though domesticity may be, that he has to get the hell out of the house, and yesterday was such a day. If you are getting the hell out, then Aizu is the very heaven you need to get out into. My particular golden cloud of choice was a lovely fast three hour circuit with a good pass in the middle, this day tinged with the first lick of autumn.

Looking back on the climb between Yokota and Fuzawa

I took a few minutes after the tension and adrenalin had worn off to stop at a sign marking the site of a secret Christian village from the Edo period when to refuse to stamp on an image of Jesus could mean a very inventive and painful death. It wasn't clear if the graves clustering at the edge of the forest were from the village or later. There were no Christian symbols on them, but no nearby later houses either - though there could well have been. The draining of young people into the cities since the fifties has led to a contraction from the less hospitable sites of habitation which is still continuing. If I were in fear of my life I would have chosen the slightly more hidden valley off to the side of the main valley, though even then it is hard to imagine in these close-knit communities that it was actually a secret. The local population must have known, but very sensibly did not want to pass it on to the kind of authorities that would do something horrible about it. Best leave them to it, eh? Just swop a few veg every now and then. I will explore on foot another day.


Or up here, round the corner and tucked away? Note the gratuitous bike shot.

The cobwebs were completely blown away by a fast descent into Fuzawa - and it's sadly closed down primary school - swooping through the hamlets and crammed-in paddies on the way down to the big valley that cuts south from Tadami. I had an entertaining race with an O-ji-san (elder) on a moped with something vegetable strapped on the back. I overtook him on a nice straight section, and hammered away, though the bugger caught me on an uphill, dammit. Sadly, I don't think he was aware he was in a race, it not being part of his normal universe to compete with a manic gaijin whilst taking the veg home. He is probably a demon at the gateball though, dog eat dog, no holds barred.

There are good roads both side of the river heading for Tadami, but I like the one on the east side as it is quieter...erm...even quieter and gives good views of the rock slabs that make up much of the riverbed. On 252 heading east, I enjoyed the strangely comical sight of a band of motorcyclists on extreme choppers coming the other way. Their hands were way above their heads to reach the lofty bars, which gave them the look of praying mantises or conductors about to deliver a huge orchestral stab. They may well have been fashion angels rather than hell's angels, salarymen on an expensive rebellion jag, but  if you actually drop out here, you don't eat, let alone buy custom bikes.

Their small front wheels were extended way out front, with lines of chrome lights up the forks. Very stylish, very post-modern Peter Fonda, but the prospect of negotiating zig-zags with a drop beyond the crash barrier with such a set-up is truly terrifying, and if they managed to teeter and wobble over 252 to the Niigata side, they have my respect.

Now there's a race I'd fancy, never mind the mopeds. Come on boys, it's just you on your bikes, me on mine, and 15km of downhill mountain road. I'll bring the veg.


Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The dead horse's wish

A free concert by famous Chinese musicians for children and the community

Yang Pau Yen (pipa or Chinese biwa) & Chi Bulgude (morin khuur or horse-headed violin)

Su Ho's white horse

A king once offered his daughter's hand in marriage to the winner of a horse race. But when the winner turned out to be a mere shepherd he broke his word. He took the mans' horse, and offered him money to leave the country instead of his daughter. The shepherd refused and went home. His horse broke free and ran for home, but the kings men caught it and killed it. The man swore revenge, but the horse appeared to him in a dream. The horse said 'Don't worry. Make a musical instrument from my bones, my hair and my skin instead.'

That, we learned today, was one origin in legend of the first two stringed Mongolian morin khuur, or horse headed violin. The most moving and haunting piece at Honna today was played by Chi Bulgude on a descendent of that first instrument . It was a tune written by his father, who was a master in his day, full of landscape, weather and a visceral, throaty beauty. (See for more information on this instrument).

To find world class musicians when  you are expecting something more local at a free concert for children was typical of the surprises this area springs on you. The musicians have between them played on the Oscar winning soundtrack for Bertolucci's 1987 film 'The Last Emporer', with major orchestras, and at the opening ceremony to the Bejing Olympics.

Hiroko Nagao (piano) & Jiang Juan Hua (ehru or Chinese violin)

The programme of tunes and explanation held the children's attention, full of changes of pace from that peculiarly Chinese jogging jauntiness, to meditative quiet, to explosive improvisation. A few crowd pleasing versions of Japanese tunes and classical favourites verged on Easy Listening hell, which is a shame, whether from the musicians taste or poor advice from Japanese producers.  These distracted from the beauty of the more purely Chinese sounding pieces, which with a 'world music' head on I was keen to hear more of. How good this more austere authentic playing can be was demonstarted by a remarkable display of chrystaline solo virtuosity on the pipa, a kind of lute, which sounded somewhere between a guitar and a mandolin. It needed nothing else.

Outside, the children's shoes waited for them to burst out of the hall with their own particular music....

We wandered home, dazed at our luck to be here, crossing the Tadami river, having just heard that. At the shop the door was open, and M's eldest auntie in the back chatting with the owner. Oooh no, she hadn't wanted to go to the concert. She doesn't understand that foreign music...By contrast, the grandma from next door was gutted: 'I really wanted to go, I love music, but all the others said we had to play gate ball as usual, I am so disappointed!' The group wins once again.


Can the can

Last Sunday morning from 7 until 9am was the twice-yearly recycling gathering in aid of the school. All the families with a child at the primary school (sho-gakko) or junior high (chu-gakko) provide two people to help, usually including the child. Everyone in the community saves bottles, cans, newspaper and cardboard so that it can be gathered and sold to raise funds. The parents and grandparents buzz round in their motley assortment of K-trucks and lorries from work, picking it up from doorsteps, then bring it to the collection points where others wait to organise it.

The boy and me were on bottle duty at the car park outside the village's improbably imposing modern community venue, which would not look out of place in a large town. It has a big stage, a bigger hardwood floor marked for sports and slide out ranks of seating inside a 'designer' shell which looks like a lady's bonnet. I take him to Kendo there every week, the children seeming very small peas in this huge pod.

As the loads kept arriving it was clear that the community spirit is well-oiled, with ordered ranks of beer bottles spreading out in stale columns sorted by make, only surpased by the tall dark sake bottles shouldering them out of the way. The citizens' olfactory sensibilities were confirmed once again by the regular cries of 'K'sai!' If they think that is a stink, it's probably best they stay in antiseptic Japan. It didn't even register in my large but fortunately insensitive conk.

It was impressive to see the natural way that the kids got on with helping. They did not need to be cajoled or shouted at, but set to with a will that you would probably see less of in England. They are brought up to feel responsible, involved and self-reliant. This takes some getting used to, as English children tend to have everything done for them. No doubt there is a point at which it can be a burden and re-inforce conformity, but on balance I am really pleased that our boy can learn and be a part of this. He seemed to really enjoy it too. This is also real recycling, not a little pretend project at school, and a chance for everyone to meet up and chat, swop gossip and, for all I know, flirt. In any lull in the work, the children were tearing round, playing tig and bugging eachother like kids anywhere, so it does not stop that.

A couple of hours saw it off, and as no activity in Aizu would be complete without a gift, someone opened up a cool box and dispensed cans of unfeasably fizzy drinks - ah well... more to be recycled next time.


Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Great Bonk Almighty

What is he doing ? Why is he snaking round like that…on the wrong side of the road?

Route 32 en route for Showa-mura

Being only a week after a biking to Tokyo and back – 250km (150miles)  in a day each way, with one day off inbetween, and that on top of several tough rides the week before, it’s fair to say I was still shagged. But, my mate S-san was up for a spin, so we arranged to meet at 9.30am. This allowed time for the boy and me to do our community duty and help out with the village recycling collection. This was revealing as it was clear just how much booze the village had quaffed in the last quarter – quite a lot as it happens, with Sake the clear winner – but not not as much as in the long snowed-in winter nights I’ll be bound.

S-san arrived in his K-van in case he could tempt me to an ‘Exciting route! new route, new route!’ which involved driving to Miyashita. He couldn’t, firstly because driving before riding is a drag, and secondly because I had been on an abortive attempt at this exciting new route of his that ended in a mountain-top dead end and involved a lot of climbing. Better the devil you know said my tired legs, and I insisted on going to Miyashita via Numazawako, then onto 59, theoretically the three hours I’d suggested.

He cleaned and oiled my chain for me, a common courtesy amongst Arai Racing Club members it seems, but one that leaves me feeling somewhat like a monkey being groomed for nits and salt. I belong to the ‘grease it up and leave it’ school. If it was good enough for English children to be slathered in goose fat and sewn into their underwear for the winter once upon a time, it is good enough for me and my bike.

I was more worried about my newly fitted mudguards – why anyone would put eyes on a frame that didn’t have clearance for full mudguards I’ll never know. The passing of the guard, much mourned by this all weather cyclist. You have to trust your gear absolutely on these mountain descents, and hearing rubbing noises puts one in mind of tyre explosions and crumpled metal rammed under headsets, neither oif which is condusive to free flight round the hairpins.

Sure enough the first jolts brought the tyre and guards into contact, and the first miles were peppered with futile stops to wrench them into a good position. In the end S-san lent me his front wheel with a narrower tyre, and that solved it.

The perfection of the weather soon banished annoyance, and as we turned up onto the staged climb along the valley on 59 my legs woke up, and began to spin more easily. We threaded through the blue roofed hamlets amongst their paddies bursting at the seams with ripe rice, golden green against the deep black of the shadowed woods. The fields were busy with elderly couples harvesting rice with their beetling machines, their sense of satisfaction palpable at this the most rewarding time of their farming calendar.

Rice ready for harvesting near Showa

After climbing and descending the jewel-like beauty of 59, which becomes a mossy and broken up but rideable single track through woods by a tumbling stream, we turned onto the long drag up 32. S-san, began to flag, and started loosing my wheel. He is very determined, or 'gambario,' and said nothing, but I slowed a bit. Later he dropped further, then dissappeared, though by now I was going slowly. He hadn't said anything, but when he appeared round the bend he was weaving accross the road, sometimes riding on the right - what was going on? The effect was puzzling and quite comical. Surely he would have said something before when I asked him if he was OK? Finally, after 15 minutes of this, he cracked and called out that he needed to eat - he was bonking, the hunger knock feared by cyclists where all your blood sugar is gone. He had had food with him, rice wrapped in leaves from the vegetable stall by the station. He is an experienced ex-elite mountain biker, so why didn't he stop before, or say something?

This can only be another example of the limitation of the often laudable Japanese sensitivity to group feeling - on three hour rides we don't usually stop to eat, and it might feel too self-centred to spoil someone else's ride by stopping or breaking routine. Me, I'm English, and if I need to eat, I eat, even if it means stopping the others...even if it means eating the others,  and I'd expect the same. He still offered me half of his food, which wouldn't have left him enough to recover, whereas when I bonk I look at my companions legs and wonder whether they can spare one, and even my saddle starts to look edible. You wouldn't want to be adrift in a lifeboat with me for too long - you might wake up minus an arm.