Monday, 30 November 2009

An abandoned village

San-Jo, in a remote offshoot of the Tadami valley, was left to the woods thirty years ago.

That most private of places now open to the elements: someone's bath

It is the graves that tell you there was once a village of twelve houses in this beautiful, hard place. The valley entrance is guarded by tall crags, breached only by an unsurfaced road in need of constant attention to stop it falling into the river a hundred feet below. From the concrete bridge that now skirts the cliff you can still see the crumbling remains of the old track that was cut into the vertical rock face.  Originally the route over the hills would have been the quickest way to the next village in the main valley. Before cars this would have been at the least a four hour walk, and in winter much longer in snow shoes even after them. In the four months cut off by snow, the twelve houses would have been their all in all. Then each small village would arrange a temporary school for the local children - if there were any.

The literal meaning of San-Jo is 'the place of three', and whether by coincidence or not, there are three large standing stones by the road, now near a collapsing shed and an up-ended fridge.

Three stones by the track at San-jo

They have the look of placed monoliths, rounded and unusual in that they are without any markings. They and the gravestones will outlast everything else, and the long-gone people. Some of the gravestones are dated from two hundred years ago, in the Edo period, and many are much older, worn and crumbling into the ground. The ground around them is kept clear - respect for the dead is one of central pillars of Japan, but there are no offerings or flowers. Even an outsider can feel the pain of this evidence of bloodlines ended or scattered far into the cities, with no-one caring enough to return. I have been in cleared Scottish glens with the same atmosphere and a palpable sense of the lives of others in the land.

The fate of San-Jo foreshadows what may come to many villages in Aizu. In our own, half of the houses are already empty, and the average age is seventy. Some of the graves  go untended, signalling that the family has moved away to the cities. It may be that the current generation of older people working the land and gathering wild food in the woods are the last to live in this ancient way here.


Saturday, 28 November 2009

Bad day on Bandai-san

A farce, just on the right side of tragedy
Bandai-san (1819m/5,968ft) is a volcano in Aizu, Fukishima-ken, Japan, just north of Lake Inawashiro.
Bandai-san in November. Quick shimmy up there, nee bother
I'm not sure I should tell you. Really. This is a highly embarrassing story, more chastening for me than entertaining for you. I'll remember it long after the scratch in my palm has healed. Long after the burning of my raw shins, which feel as if they have visited Mistress Whackam's House of Correction, has eased. But I'll take a quiet moment to share it with you because I like you, and it might prevent you making a similar mistake. Don't tell anyone else though, eh? Sit down by that pile of damp gear, and I'll begin.

First mistake
It is always dangerous to simplify a mountain in your head. Try and make it match your idea of it, instead of remembering that it is a huge complex mass formed by inconceivably strong geological forces, against which you are less than nothing, and it will bite you hard and deep. If you escape with your technical fabrics on your back and sufficient life in you to feel mortified, you are lucky. I had Bandai-san down as a tourist's mountain, tamed by ski slopes, with obvious motorway paths and a structure simple enough to remember. It looks exactly like the triangle of brown sludge that I painted with my first ever set of oils - a child's idea of how a mountain should look.

Bandai-san earlier in the year, in April
And yet this is the mountain that claimed more than 450 lives in 1888. The eruption in July that followed a series of earthquakes blasting an estimated 158,700,000 cubic feet of rock from the top of what was once a much bigger mountain. Some slid to the north, obliterating villages and blocking rivers, and some was blasted into the air, causing boulders to rain down up to nine miles away. Ash fell from a towering plume of smoke sixty miles long, and lava flowed to the south east. The hurricane force down-draft of air that rushed down the mountainside flattened the surrounding forests. It has been likened  to the more recent catastrophic explosion of Mt. St Helens in America. There is a short story by a Japanese writer loaded with foreboding that follows a team of tax-collectors into the remote villages to the north in Urabandai, which were inundated.

Second mistake  
I never go up a mountain without a map. Never, except this day. Injury had kept me on the bike and off the hills most of the year, and I was keen for a run up Bandai-san before the snows came. Good Japanese walking maps are a closely guarded secret. I had searched bookshops for years - nada. Even the visitor's centre a few miles away from Bandai-san had no map of it. Never mind, it would be well signposted up clear paths. What could go wrong?

My planned starting point at Inawashiro ski centre was covered with cloud, so I made a last-minute change and went to Alts Ski Centre instead - the guidebook had said it was the most popular starting point as it was shorter and less steep. I hadn't paid as much attention to the thumbnail diagram of this route, but not to worry, hardly worth bothering with - I'd just knock it off in a couple of hours.

There were no obvious signs to the path from the centre, and no shop open to ask someone. I picked the grassy ski-slope that pointed most directly to the top, figuring there would be a path from it up to the the ridge that sloped from the left up to the sunlit top on the right. I'd be enjoying those views in an hour.

Third mistake 
There was no path at the top of the ski-lift, and the scrub trees and creepers made an impenetrable barrier. I cut back to the small road nearby, by this time getting a bit frustrated. There was a decrepit metal fire sign and red spray paint on a tree indicating an entrance to the woods. It looked a bit unused, but it hadn't looked far to the ridge, and there was a line of red marks following a stream in the right direction. I took it.

By now I was into the snow line. It was soft and shallow, but as the slope kicked up steeply it began to get more slippery. I considered turning back as the bamboo got thicker, but the search for another path meant going back and running up the road, and there might not be one. The ground looked clearer of bear bamboo above the gully the stream was in, so I climbed up to it, hanging on to roots and stems.

Fourth mistake 
I continued up, and became aware of more animal prints in the snow. They were circular, about 10cm accross,  with occasionally claw marks at the front. There were dark brown stains from scent marking with urine. In several large trees the remains of platforms of sticks and leaves were above me. I had wandered into a very active bear area. By now in the middle of it, I decided it would be as quick to continue up out of it as go down - I still planned to reach the ridge path which must be nearby. I took my bear spray in hand and climbed quickly on, looking around carefully and making a lot of noise.

I felt to be out of their home patch now, but now the ground was getting steeper, and the bamboo was much thicker. Weighed down with snow it pointed down the hill, making every other step a slide downwards. Only by kicking into the dense tangle and heaving myself up with my arms could I make any progress. This was going to be tough, but the path would appear any time now, so it would be worth it.

I reached a ridge, but there was no path. It was narrow and covered with dense scrub, with the occasional mocking red mark on a branch to show that someone had once, some time ago, thought this would make a good route and cleared it. The mountain had long since claimed it back, and the tracks of a Kamoshika (Japanese Serow) in the snow emphasised how much better adapted it was to this terrain than me.

The most frightening part now began. Instead of reaching the main ridge, there now opened out a flat area, where no flat area should be. It was a marshy plateau, filled with tangled vegetation so dense it was hard to see how it could be got through. It didn't make sense. The mist had come down, and the thick cloud prevented any views that would help to identify the structure of the land. Going back would mean at the least a struggle back down the slope and through the bear's front yard, and if I went wrong I could become crag-fast. Going sideways to find a path risked crossing dangerously steep ground. It seemed the only reliable option was to continue upwards to the north east until I reached the ridge or the top, where I knew there were definite major paths that would be quick to follow down.

I started across the marsh, floundering around tangled in the whipping stems, enmeshed with snow-covered trees. To my horror strange large holes filled with slush and icy water began to appear in the ground, some of them deep and ten feet across with a canopy of vegetation hiding them. Falling into one didn't bear thinking about, and getting out looked difficult or impossible. I didn't know it at the time, but the eruption of 1888 was in the running for another victim. I found out later that the holes were the created then, whether by falling rocks or by steam vents the contemporary scientists couldn't agree. Keeping to the thickest arches of bent over bamboo, holding onto dead branches and hoping for the best I forced away through and made the base of a steep slope. I was glad to get out of there.

By now I was tired from the exertion, and wet from the snow. I was still warm from the last hour of fighting scrub, but it was now one hour away from darkness, and though I had a sack of gear with me I knew it was imperative to find a path and get down quickly. If I stopped moving I was in trouble, glad to have the fitness to manage it. If anything this next section was harder than before - very steep, with the spiky branches of dwarf trees tearing at me and bamboo wrapping round my legs, sometimes as if someone had hold of my foot and was dragging me down. 

I felt like a prince tackling the enchanted brambles round Sleeping Beauty's castle. Not the good looking one with golden hair and excellent teeth. One of the pathetic ones who didn't make it, whose sagging tights got ripped and whose silly head was ripped off by the evil fairy. I thought of the Japanese soldiers living for years in the jungle on their own after the Second World War had ended....I thought of my family. I swore at it all, and at my own stupidity, pulling and lunging, slipping on the slick stems and swearing again, forcing a way upwards for another interminable hour, slicing my palm on a leaf edge. I didn't understand what I was doing here, or how the ridge hadn't appeared, but if I kept going upwards the top had to appear eventually, surely. Either that or my bones would be found some years later, the evil fairy's laughter cackling round the raddled cranium as my ghost struggled up through the snowy web....eternally.

In the gloom of the darkening  interior of the cloud I could finally see the edge of the wind-shrunken scrub. It held on until the last second, when with a final curse I dragged myself  out of it's witchy clutches and onto the deeper snow beyond. Unbelievably, I had come out right at the summit itself. I had climbed the whole of Bandai-san through tangled vegetation. Remarkable in a way, but also monumentally dumb. It was cold up there by the emmergency shelter, so I threw some extra gear on, took a photo 'lest I forget,' and got the hell down.

Pillock at 1819m
Having made some serious mistakes, my decision for rectifying it had worked eventually, and the run down the path was quick and simple. Bandai-san had one more twist to add to this tale, though. In choosing the safe option of using a path on a bearing that would get me quickly off the right side of the mountain, I ended up at the wrong ski-station, as I had anticipated. That would mean a run along the roads across the base of the mountain in the dark. Never mind, I had a head torch and food. I'd get there. As I reached the lower edge of the cloud an orange glow of setting sunlight created an unearthly cataclysmic light straight out of a biblical painting by John Martin. OK, OK Bandai-san, I get your point. Very symbolic. Nice touch.

That's not the twist though. This is: after half an hour running on dark roads, full night put paid to understanding how the hell, amongst all these un-signposted turn-off's into woods and to pensions and onsens, I was going to find my car again. Bowing to the inevitable, I called at a house for directions. After the nervous old couple had understood that I hadn't come to rob them, a comically ineffective  attempt to explain my needs followed. This was not helped by my crap Japanese and their incredibly strong local accents. The essence of the Aizu accent is to throw lots of zeds and zuzzes in there, and slur a bit as if you are cheerfully drunk. Even with M-san on the phone helping, it took a while.

The upshot was that these delightful people were going to turn out on a cold night and drive this perplexing foreigner to Asts ski-jo ("Oh, you meant Zahhddzzzuu Dzzzki-Djzo? Now I underzzztand, so da beh, heh, heh!). This was especially kind for two reasons. Driving in the dark is something I know that older local people try and avoid. And the old gentleman had suffered a stroke, could only move slowly, and drove an adapted car. His sprightly wife, with touching deference, didn't interfere at any point, though he seemed unable to see the left hand side of  the road. Consequently he drove very carefully on the right side, just swerving back to the left side when something came the other way. The car began steaming up alarmingly, so I apologetically put the fan on. He stopped the car to turn if off.

I was so glad for this lift. As it turned out, it was a complicated half hour drive further down the lower slopes, then right back up again to the ski station, and, oh bless you, you polluting  lump of metal and rubber, my car. That would have been hard in my parlous moral and physical state. After forcing some petrol money on them, they drove off, their car misting up again nicely.

In summary
So let's see: I turn up to a major mountain too late in the day with a bad attitude but no map; go 'off piste' when I know that is a really bad idea in Japan; compound bad decisions with stubbornness and have to flee a bear infested wood. Then I narrowly avoid becoming victim to a volcanic explosion that happened a hundred and twenty one years ago; start pitying and aggrandising myself at the same time, and have the effrontery to spout some 'Wiki' history that somehow equates a terrible tragedy with my own self-inflicted flailing. When that is done with, I, a strapping chap skiving off on a working day, finish off for good measure by being glad of help from a stroke sufferer, who is then left to drive home in the dark with limited vision and a misting up car. Let me see....Yes, I think that is about it.

Just turn the light out as you leave will you? Thanks. I feel a little out of sorts. I'll just sit here on my own for a while, and, you know....think.


Detailed maps of the whole of Japan are available to print out here....I now realise.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Woman up a tree

Our neighbour, who is quite young for the village as she is possibly not yet seventy, was up a tree on the steep bank above the houses. No harness, and no-one on a rope to ensure the trunk didn't kick back as it fell. Did she need help? No, no, no, not at all, she was perfectly all right, thank you. Was she sure? It wouldn't be a problem, be glad to. No, no, no, anyway she couldn't allow it, it was too dangerous. Really? Her saw looked a little small for the job. Yes, it was a bit small, but she was fine. She was just cutting the Kaki tree to make it shorter - it was too big now. How long had she been at it? Oh, only about four hours. Please don't stay, it is dangerous for you. Lower down, the marks from where she had tried to fell the whole thing were apparent.

I returned with the two bigger hand saws that are in our house. Would she like to use one? Oh yes, that is much better. Oh-ho, it's sharp isn't it? Ho, ho! Amazing! She was clearly tired by now, resolute though she was, so after the requisite number of further refusals, and reassurance that it wasn't the first time I had been up a tree, she allowed me to take over. With a wrenching crack the heavy trunk eventually gave way. It fell onto the footpath, blocking it. It was going to be a big job for her to clear on her own, so I fetched my obliging mate Shigemura-san, and we set to. With much laughing and more thanks she began collecting the hundreds of  Kaki that, attached to the smaller twigs, glowed orange on the ground.

The following morning I could hear her talking and laughing in the entrance to our house. Sure enough, there were some of her Kaki spread out in the hall - she had so many, there were plenty to spare. They were the small kind, not as sweet. People don't eat them fresh so much these days. She was going to dry the others, we could have some when they were ready. No, she didn't need any help with that, ha ha, no, no! No, she couldn't ask for help with anything in the future, it was too dangerous for us, but as for her, it didn't matter, ha ha!


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Five males working alone

Electricity worker high above the Kaneyama landscape

The Sika stag stepped onto the road in front of me. We both stopped. It was a fine creature, with big antlers. A moment more and it leaped off the side, crashing down through thick scrub on the steep hillside. He had his shaggy grey winter coat already, and had probably finished rutting, unless his females were nearby, or he had lost them to another male. Sometimes fights between male deer can be fatal. 

Mushroom growing

I had stopped to photograph the logs, stacked in grids to grow mushrooms by a lonely mountain road. A white K-van drove past, a man at the wheel, turned round up the road and came back. I knew that I had made him uneasy. It isn't unheard of for thieves to come in and take valuable crops of fresh Shitake mushrooms. It is unheard of for strangers to be photographing your mushroom logs for any other reason. I bowed as he came past, but it didn't work. He got out and walked pointedly into the patch, returning my 'Konichiwa' with a grunt. It is a lot of work to be taken from you.

Kaneyama elder cutting bean supports for next year

An elder was cutting saplings half way up the mountain. His van was already full of them. He was from the valley below, and was preparing supports for his beans next year. He cut them into the shape he wanted with the heavy oblong chopper that many people carry here. He was going to be ready, there was no reason to sit at home doing nothing. When his beans needed supports next spring, he would have them.

Clicking and rasping noises fell out of the air. There was a distant voice right above, where no voice should be. And then I saw him, a tiny figure attached to the mighty cables that strew the mountains carrying  power from the hydro-electricity dams to the cities. His life hung by a thread. Whatever he was doing, it would need to be done very carefully. Every now and then he moved his harness up the cable a little further, occasionally talking to the man on the ground on whom he depended. It began to rain.

I stopped under the eves of an empty holiday house past the lake, put on my remaining cycling gear and covered up the camera. It was nearly dark and too wet to photograph what I had originally intended to, but those four meetings were enough. Pressing up a long incline between dripping firs I could see a gang of men in front of me, staring up at a telephone pole. There were fifteen of them, their safety gear flashing in the light of my LEDs. They parted to let me ride through.


Saturday, 21 November 2009

Takamori-yama, frosty dusk

Takamori-yama is a 1100m (3,609ft) top, 5km south of lake Numazawa in Kaneyama-machi, Aizu, Fukishima prefecture. In the little local mountain route booklet, available from the council offices in Kawaguchi, it is given a 'medium' difficulty rating. That equates to a rugged Scottish mountain, with some exposure to big drops and narrow ridge sections. As with most wooded mountains, the trees mask this , giving it a deceptively innocuous appearance from afar.

Takamori-yama hiding it's dodgy bits in the first frost of the winter

Having managed to get my Achilles tendon going just in time to nab a few hasty tops before the heavy snow arrives, I decided on a late-afternoon run up Takamori-yama. Not having time to explore a route from the valley I headed for the lower of two possible starting points on the small mountain road that snakes around two sides of it mid way up.

This was obliterated by a works site, however. What was a pleasant wild stream has just been concreted in, with weirs and 'landscaped' banks. It isn't near any houses, so why this was necessary wasn't immediately clear. Money for the contractor and work for someone, I suppose. I fully understand why a lot of effort has to go into making this region relatively safe from landslides, avalanches and flooding. And people need work. On the other hand it sometimes seems that hardly a stream remains free of concrete. These unassailable steps decrease the bio-diversity in the rivers considerably, as some species are not be able to cope. They are also ugly, and tourism is till this area's main industry. However, this area is less spoilt than most, and there is still an awful lot of unspoilt beauty here.

Mount I-ide (2105m) and it's range to the north in Yamagata-ken

Quickly riding my hobby-horse up to the other starting point on the south west, I headed up through the pines at the base and onto the steeper sections. It is only 3km from the road to the top, which the guide suggests takes 1hour 50. It was 3.10pm and the best of the light had gone. It would be dark before 5. I love this time of day, but it does require extra care, and I took any tricky bits very slowly. These are quiet hills at any season, but now there would be no chance of anyone coming by, and I didn't fancy spending a night up there, well equipped though I was.

Calling out 'Allo, allo, allo!' and jingling my way up to let the bears know a handy pre-hibernation snack was on it's way, I wondered if  this traditional English policeman's greeting had ever been heard among these cliffs and trees before. I had the feeling that if any arresting was going to be done, the mountain was going to be doing it.

Once on the ridge it became clear that, as always, this mountain had teeth. The path topped an impressive drop straight down to the valley below, and then became a sharp ridge less than a metre wide in places. Twice, trees that had grown bang in the centre had to be hugged like dear friends to get round them onto the path beyond. Several rock steps waited, slick with moss, and the path round a section of one consisted of vegetation which flexed underfoot. I considered turning back, but decided to concentrate more. A lot more.

It is always worth remembering that if you fall there is a good chance you won't be found, as mountain rescue is informal, they don't have search dogs, or use helicopters, which in any case can't spot you under trees. So as I was saying, I concentrated more. The sooner they get some concrete up here, the better. Oh...did I say that out loud?

Grow a pair: what the well dressed fell runner is wearing this season

As you can see in the picture, it was very cold, brass monkeys in fact, but those are bear bells on my chest, not simian testicles. Incidentally, that isn't necessarily a figure of speech, as I have seen  the wild monkeys that inhabit this area, all intact as far as I am aware. Maybe I spend too long alone in the woods, but whenever this subject comes up I call to mind the legend of Pope Joan, the female pope reputedly stoned to death while giving birth during a papal procession. This is supposed by some to have led to the tradition of checking any new pope's wedding tackle (probably not the best choice of words) by feeling them. An image to be treasured, I am sure you'll agree.

I also have a bear pepper spray in the green pouch, a sensible precaution that I would advise everyone to carry in the Japanese mountains.  Be staunch, be free, but don't be lunch is my motto. I got mine in Aizu-Wakamatsu at the small but well-stocked outdoor shop, as you can't import or fly with them. Expensive, but offering a little more peace of mind, having a young son to return home for. The chances of meeting a bear are pretty slim, as they tend to avoid you if they know you are around, but people have been attacked in all mountain areas of Japan, including Aizu this year. Think of them like Rotweilers wandering around in the woods on their own, only without an owner to call them off if they get testy. Despite deliberately making noise I have been surprised to surprise surprisingly hard of hearing dear, goats, monkeys, birds and snakes - so I guess it is only a matter of time.

The out and back 6 km took 1 hour 45, about half of the advertised walking time. That gives some idea of how much this ground can slow you down, with its combination of wet leaf mould, tripping roots, and exposure. In more runnable terrain one third of the walking time or less would be more typical for a mountain runner.

Before leaving the ridge for the now be-nighted woods below, I put my head torch on, just in case any stone-deaf bears had difficulty seeing me bungling along in their personal  night-time fiefdom, like a banished jester in a folk tale. In-authentically, it ended well.

Note: While I was writing this, the house shook with a small earthquake


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ishmael and the trees

Yes, mate, I know exactly how you feel

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off  - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." 
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

In my case, it's the hills I need to get to, at a run. And if the mood of the day answers my own all the better. All drawbacks to anthropomorphising nature aside, without metaphor we could have no romantic connection with landscape, and then where would we be?  In a valley with a wet thing going through it, and greenish lumps on the side, that's where. We need a grand setting for the playing out of our petty woes and triumphs, to enlarge and reflect them, to thrash them out. And at the last, to scale them back down to a wry, chastened smile at the end of a walk or run. Anyway, it actually is a damp, drizzly November, soul or otherwise.

I did not grow up in an animist tradition like Shinto, where every rock and plant has it's spirit, it's ki to be respected and honoured. But anyone can feel that life-force at play. There are trees that demand to be reckoned with. They have a personality, a form, a history that stops you in your tracks. Not like people, no, like trees. They are unutterably different, and yet somehow they teach you something useful, they speak.

We like to think of ourselves as individuals. OK, our friends are individuals too, like us, but not as real.... our families certainly (well, most of them), and a few neighbours and colleagues perhaps. After that it gets a bit sketchy, shading into lumpen groups of one kind or another. There is a comfort in generalising others. As Charles M. Shulz said, 'I love humanity; it's people I can't stand.'

Depending on their cuteness - the more we know we can dominate something, the cuter we find it- we treat some animals as individuals. We don't usually allow it for plants however, barring the odd talked-to pot plant. Moving through these wooded hills, though, it begins to feel different. There are trees that were alive at the beginning of the Edo period five hundred years ago.

With their seedling delicacies, their intertwined dependencies and blasted old age it requires an effort not to call trees into play in your own human dramas while you are among them. And this is not an invention of the urban being, projecting wildly on...well, the wild, or of a few Lake District poets. Our deepest folk-memories and fables the world over are peopled with trees.

And in Oku-Aizu the houses and many tools are made of wood; special trees are lovingly protected, or grown for their associations by shrines and temples.  Graves, kept near, are nevertheless often placed under trees, under the skirts of the forest. Perhaps it is this unsentimental but symbiotic relationship that explains why there are more patches of virgin forest in this area than you would expect to find in a modern country.

Melville understood very well that whales (or trees), are at the same time unknowably themselves, amazing biological machines, and handy mythical players in our penny dreadfuls. Moby Dick is a wonderful binding of these three in a mash-up of literary forms, and a great answer to the miserabalism that attends so much post Darwinian polemic.

Whether I make play with their borrowed shapes or not, trees are more truly inhabitants of this valley than me. If I stayed the rest of my wing-beat of a life I would still be just passing through as far as they are concerned. My feet bite into the leaf mould, leaping off down the hill, back to my life. The hats of my neighbours are safe upon their heads once again - I'd rather be Ishmael than Ahab any day of the week, when I have the choice.


Friday, 13 November 2009

Last leaves, old rites

A run in the hills

A cold wind has begun stripping the trees fast now. Autumn lasted for weeks and weeks, then yesterday the hilltops suddenly seemed grey with branches, their pates seemingly changing in a night from a Celtic orange bristle to an old-man's comb-over. He has received some bad news, the colour is leaching from his face, and he won't be himself for months. Batten down the hatches, light the stove, and hold out for another flush of green in April. How many more?

In the garden the lacy mesh of the leaves reproach our lazy townie gardening. At night we can hear the caterpillars giggling. The last few insects are dragging themselves dazed with cold into the house, only to be further confused by the heat of the kerosene fire.

Time to risk the tendons on a run to really see the last of autumn. It is good to stand at your front door, breath the air, look at the sky, and not know at all where you will go until your feet turn to the left or the right and you find yourself with a need to see a particular hill or valley.

Finding myself across the river I visited the Buddhist statue in it's concrete bus shelter at the back of the village by the grassy railway track. I don't know, you wait all day for enlightenment, then a thousand shimmering diamonds arrive at once. It looked like it had a had a fruitful visit from the neighbours, looking spruce and chipper with a good spread of offerings and a new origami spray hanging next to it. A set of glossy embroidered baubles dangled. Delightfully, the eyebrows and other features looked to have been inked in with felt pen.
Religion: it's all balls isn't it?

This is a particularly luxurious and well-loved Ojizousama. These are  saints (bosatsu)  with a bit of the princess about them, who protect travellers and others from their wayside niches. We have one at the top of the hill into the village which slingshots thundering lorries past our house. Call me a cynic, but I have a feeling a speed bump might be worth a try as well.  Originally Buddhist in origin, Ojizousamas have been absorbed through the porous boundary with Shinto. This one stands next to a Shinto shrine, which had recently been garlanded with shapes made from rice straw. It's important to be wary of applying western associations in Japan, but did one of them look somewhat phallic?

Trotting up the track above a rocky river bed with allotments in any flat places, I noticed a small shrine up on the bank. Now come on, you're not telling me....

I don't want to sexualise everything - on the other hand...

The vegetable plots became more empty and abandoned looking, and although their may once have been houses up this valley it seems unlikely as usually the graves are still looked after, and I couldn't see any. The forestry track left the river and wound up the hillside for several miles. There, a long way from anywhere, was a shed with a tractor ghostly under plastic, next to a couple of fields with vegetables and a pit with evidence of a recent fire in it. Some of the vegetables looked to have been grubbed up by animals - it must be a sore temptation for them, being so far from a village.

It is interesting that people still keep up these isolated plots, when there is now spare land much nearer at hand. It may simply be an ownership issue, but family tradition also runs deep, people may do it as their family has always done it.

I'd been hoping to be able to make a circuit, but the road ended at an overgrown tarn, where someone had recently cut a lot of the tall reed grass. Perhaps it was the o-ji-san that I surprised on the way back by his K-truck. We probably found each other creatures from another world, me running for no useful reason through his patch, and him with his unfamiliar tools and equipment and solitary endeavours, but we smiled anyway.


Thursday, 12 November 2009

Festivals in autumn

Masks exhibited in Kawaguchi, Aizu, Fukishima-ken for National Culture Day

Festivals in Japan come thick and fast. The calendars that are hung everywhere (I counted eight in one front room) are peppered with seasonal days and celebrations, including the pitifully few national holidays that the embattled and hammered down workforce are entitled to. People throw themselves into these with a will, whether helping voluntarily or for a few extra Yen staffing one of the many food stalls that seem almost to be the main point of any gathering.

Nursing stew into life

Operating on an improvised breeze-block cooker

It's good to see everyone, children often included, setting to with a will, enjoying the banter and catching up on gossip over a big steaming pot of something. Remarkably each small village still makes it's own festivals rather than joining together into something bigger. This would perhaps be more rational, attracting more visitors to any one activity of performance, but somehow less their own, and besides, it's always been this way. Therefore for National Culture Day on 3rd November, there were three exhibitions, three sets of performances, and three lots of food to try - if you managed to scurry round them all.
The ageing curve in Aizu

The white heat of attention was on the vegetable stall

Gender roles are alive and well in Kaneyama

As with most things, It's even better if you join in and contribute something yourself rather than simply spectating. For us the main point of the cultural day was our Taiko performance - or rather three of them, one for each village. The boy, the wife and me joined the group whose purpose is to help children learn Taiko, though I had decided to stop after this, as the deafening noise is not the best for my bad ear. 

Our first go was at the splendiferous venue up the road, big and with great acoustics. The gravitas of our performance was somewhat lessened by my slipping on my arse between pieces as I rushed into place, foolishly forgetting to take my socks off for the shiny stage boards. The audience thoroughly enjoyed it though - no respect, some people. The second was outdoors by the council offices, and it stopped raining just in time. Otherwise I could have caused further merriment by whacking hell out of the rain canopies every time I raised my arms. 
Taiko with the Jomon period hilltop fort behind (photo Ichikawa-san)

By the last performance that night we had got into our stride, and I managed not to fall over or knock anyone else's stick out of their hand. The boy was beating thunderously on the huge drum centre stage with two other seven-year-olds. We worked ourselves up faster and faster, movements meshed with sound, louder and louder, beating back the mountains above us, until animals in the snow-dusted woods around must have paused in wonder, nosing off into the dark in search of food. Maybe I won't stop after all.


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Late autumn in Aizu

The usually soft purity of the Aizu air is besmirched with smoke in late autumn. From many points it rises, curling and rising to join a band floating across the valley at a hundred feet, each one the result of some activity mysterious to the uninitiated. Burning off, tidying up, making ash, smoking or distilling, pungent and drifting, these funeral pyres for the end of the season are part of rituals whose attendants have often vanished.

Smoke house, Showa, Aizu. Probably making charcoal, widely used for cleansing

Dinosaur still, Showa, Aizu
Wild mushrooms  are to be found in the woods now, if you know where to look - and the local people have always known. The kaki trees are heavy with fruit, and the bears are tempted into the villages for this treat, bright orange with big seeds. Tiny wild kiwi fruits are secreted in the woods too, sweet of flesh, or deliciously tart if you eat their soft skins. We were lucky enough to be given some. If we had an oven the boy and me would make a crumble in memory of the blackberries we picked and cooked every year in England, just as my parents showed me.
Our next door neighbour's wild mushrooms drying in the sun
Wild miniature Kiwi - perfect replicas the size of grapes


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A home to go to

Who was he, the boy asleep against a lamp post outside a closed garage at the crossroads? It was four a.m. on a Sunday morning morning on Route 12 heading north from Kawagoe. His hooded head was on his knees, his arms through his bicycle which he had propped over himself, either to stop someone taking it, or as protection from sudden attack. He looked nineteen or twenty. Was he one of the growing army of young unemployed and homeless people heading for the city with no money for regular accommodation and no internet café near to keep warm for the night ? Or was he just on his way home from a party, too drunk to wobble any further? It would have been rude to ask even if he had been awake, and ruder to have taken his photograph without permission. I wanted to wake him up and buy him a fatherly snack and coffee at a combini (24 hour convenience store) and make sure he knew where to get advice, but decided he wouldn't want to be disturbed - he might have as many questions of his own to ask about why a gaijin (foreigner) was cycling past at that hour.

I was heading home, with another 140 miles in front of me, but at that moment very glad to have one to go to. This was reinforced by another use for a bicycle I saw a few minutes later - as a swag wagon. An old woman stood at the side of the unlit road further on in the anonymity of the plain towards Kazo. It is spattered in turn with rice fields, houses, huge dark shopping centres, and vegetable plots. It was this last that she was interested in, peering over the fence, as it seemed casing it to see if there was any food she could take. Elder people have to pay tax until they die, pensions can be pitifully small, and if they don't have children to take care of them their situation can be dire. It is understandable if they take a few vegetables here and there. This happens to my mother-in-law's plot sometimes, as it is away from any houses. This is a tougher country than you might imagine to be poor in. Good luck grandma, I hope that dawn brought you a better day.

River marshes near Oyama, dawn

Crossing the river that bounds Saitama it feels that Tokyo is falling behind, the expanses of farmland take over, and you can find quieter roads. There are certain mounds and clumps of trees that dare you to plough them. Thanks to the farmers the world over who respect their loaded silence.

With the usual brilliance of an Englishman abroad, through Tochigi-shi, a big town and a marker on the way, I was trying to think of a way of remembering those syllables, so similar to so many other place names. Togishiki? Toshigigiki-i? Gishitotchigo? Now I've got it. Goshiotsi-kashi-moni-tochi-by the sea. See? Easy. No problem to a man who grew up with aluminium saucepans. English place names are so much easier for the Japanese, surely: Ribapew (Liverpool) and Rondong (London). Why does that seem funny, when it is deadly serious when you are struggling yourself? 

Tochigi-ken (I just checked on the map) must breed equanimity, as they build their traditional storehouses out of a famous local volcanic stone, called Oya-ishi. That is an act of remarkable calm in an earthquake zone, and a sign also of the pride they evidently take in these beautiful constructions, which in Aizu are made from wood, straw and mud.
Tochigi-ken storehouse
Mountains near Nikko: Mt. Nantai on the left

Once into the mountains of Fukishima-ken it felt like home wasn't far, though it was another 60 miles of roads winding slowly up the valley by tumbling rivers, cliffs and forest. Dotted along the road were garish failed hotels, thriving pit stops and men sitting in lay-bys selling the wild mushrooms they picked in the hills to townies come to see the colour from their four-by-fours.
Gratuitous bike shot with famous unfeaseably large saddlebag

Sing it with me now! "Get your kicks, on Route on a minute...." 
The road signs on this route are hilarious - and symptomatic of the Japanese approach to road numbering and signeage. A road can have more than one number - in this case three at once - a national number, a county number, and a local number. Roads can also change from one number to another without a junction, and there can often be two completely different roads with the same number  nearby and running in parallel with each other. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Maps often omit many route numbers in any case, or they have changed since it was printed, or there are now new roads, tunnels and bridges to completely disorientate you. Better to rely on rivers, mountains and the sun to orientate yourself - they don't change as much... or bring a compass.

Just follow Route 121 they said

I am becoming tuned into other signs too now: the netting and fences around crops, and barking dogs on chains outside in this valley mean it is an area where bears and monkeys come down on raids. As the old lady would tell you - when we are hungry, we are no different, and I am glad to be nearly home, I've just got to remember some place names and I'll find my way.