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 sixty...er..hang 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.


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