Saturday, 7 November 2009

White moon, red moon

Winter paid us an advance visit this week, snapping on the heels of an unfinished autumn.  It dropped 20 degrees celsius in a day, and after two days of cold rain in the lower valleys and the first snow of the season higher up, we really knew it had arrived. In the gardens flowers still bloomed, the hillsides were glorious with orange and yellow, but then on the mountain tops, a dusting of icing sugar.

It was fresh in the pre-dawn dark, as I headed for a second time on the 150 mile (250km) bike ride south to Tokyo. The moon played peek-a-boo with clouds and the tree-lined skyline behind me,  rushing to keep up.  Now that the rice is all in, it seems that people are finally out and about a little later, and leaving just after five am it was the first time that no-one has been about before me - not difficult at the best of times. The first ba-chans and o-gi-sans weren't out until six, the lazy nonagenarian buggers. They are very sensibly tucked up a little longer inside their futons (bedding) and kotatsu's (heated tables), which tighten their fuggy grip on the stoutest heart.

Route 400 south from Showa

By Showa there was snow on the ground, and heading for the pass over to Tajima the mountains closed in,  heavy-laden trees arching over the road beautiful in the growing light. The rising road bloomed with frost and bands of ice. Higher up the footprints of something big crossed from the right and into the empty woods on the left, shuffling snow accross the road. It could only be a bear.

The sun finally dragged itself over the lip of the mountains, but did nothing to raise the temperature. Another month and the road will be closed, despite the new tunnel at the top. Even well wrapped up, the gingerly taken descent was as cold as a statesman's smile, and it took another three hours for the layers to come off.

In places the sudden cold had dropped all the leaves from certain trees at a stroke, making glowing green and yellow circles at their feet. Jack frost, ever the joker, had dropped their trousers and they stood caught short with their hands still in the air. Through what passes for rush-hour in Tajima and over the rise south on 121, it would be mostly downhiill then flat the rest of the way. Like a well made omlette I whisked briskly down the long winding valley towards Nikko. As if going backwards in time the colours gradually graded back to autumn. By the Kanto plane, the trees would still be green, and in the fields the growing season still eking out a few more weeks than Aizu can muster.

The Yokokawa river north of Kawaji Onsen

In front of me a the strange sight of a professional Keirin track cyclist out training swung onto the road. Nose to the back of a speeding van, he was dragging a car tyre along, a kind of resistance training - well I would resist it anyway. Whilst looking somewhat surreal, it must work, otherwise no-one would inflict that Sisyphus-like labour on themselves.

Heading into Saitama prefecture I had a confusing potter round the complex of tiny roads and farm tracks between huge arterial routes, using the sinking sun and the faint outline of Fuji-san to navigate. A woman who was a hundred if she was a day hunched over the controls of her three wheeled mini-tractor pulling a trailer. Nothing was going to stop her being active and useful until the last gasp, which looked like it could arrive any time.  A woman of about eighty on her trike was anxiously revving her legs, waiting to overtake. Farm women of Saitama-ken, I salute you!

Into the hinterland

In the film-noir gloom of this dusty no-man's land, stripped rice fields like unshaven skin between the ragged teeth of failed workshops and garages, there were children. Solitary small children making their way home from school, fending for themselves on the vastness of the plain, innocents rumaging along, dolls in someone else's story.

Not an omen

Rolling the last dark mile, the moon that had sunk white and cold behind the mountains of the north, now rose red and hot with smog over the teeming impossibilities of Tokyo.


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