Saturday, 18 December 2010

Now that's what I call a bike ride

This Compost by Walt Whitman

Christmas, birthday and New year rolled into one for our neighbour: The joy of muck

Nothing gladdens the heart of the vegetable grower anywhere more than a great steaming heap of muck. And in some ways there appears to be a yet smaller gap than usual between people and nature here. At the level of feeling at least, the relationship between the two is understood to be symbiotic rather than simply exploitative - though plenty of that goes on at the behavioural level, especially by organisations.  Shinto and its pantheon of animistic nature spirits with which people are linked by comfortable habit and tradition, rather than belief in the western sense, frame the world differently from monotheist religions that place the world entirely at the disposal of the chosen ones - people.

So it is hard to imagine that Walt Whitman would have written the poem "This compost" if he had grown up here, up to his elbows in earth and matching his activity to the seasons and the weather. 

This Compost
Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper'd corpses within you?
Is not every continent work'd over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv'd,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through
the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person--yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on
their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the
colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in
the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata
of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which
is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited
themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that
melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once
catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless
successions of diseas'd corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings
from them at last.

Walt Whitman 1819-1892

That knocked my socks off when I read it as a teenager, and re-reading it living here throws a new light on it. His poem, as well as separating man and nature also is profoundly uneasy with death and illness, humans offering nature only the "sour dead" and their "foul meat" in return for its "prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops." Apart from the fact that he was probably a bit hazy on soil biology (aren't we all?), is this based in the Christian split between what, at its worst, can be seen as the sublime soul and the disgusting body, overlaid with his experience of seeing field hospitals in the American Civil War?  Strange, given his celebration of the living body elsewhere in his work - or perhaps natural as a reaction to the betrayal of the body in death which ends all that sensual pleasure.

I'm guessing Whalt Whitman didn't grow his own food

In pick 'n mix Japan, weddings are Shinto, but funerals are Buddhist. In Buddhism ancestor veneration means that your beloved deceased are still literally part of the family, receiving gifts, photos and partaking in family meals via offerings on the Butsudan, a shrine in cupboard form. Bodies are cremated, and in a hard core form of closure which must help the grieving process if it doesn't traumatise you altogether, relatives together place the charred bones in a box with chops sticks. "Mum, could you just give me a lift with Dad's skull?" This explains both the look of shock on a Japanese person's face if you clash chopsticks with them while eating, and their more integrated attitude to death, so hidden in modern western society until it crashes down on your head.

John Barleycorn - or whatever those little oil seeds are - must die. What of it?

Lacking mains sewers means that in our village we also have a closer  relationship with bodily corruption than is completely comfortable. In summer the smell gets cheerfully brazen at times, beating you around the head like a blast of sound as you pass a particularly ripe septic tank. Everyone ignores it.

Those who know me will have known this figuratively for some time, but as I write I am also literally full of shit. Water is leaking into our toilet, and the tank is overflowing. In an estate agent's nightmare, the air in our house does not, sadly, smell of coffee and fresh-baked bread, but I deal with it by re-imagining it as garlic. My wife, whose nose is preternaturally sensitive, is not happy.

I grew up seeing the corpses of sheep melting into Pennine hillsides, and always felt that it a natural thing that I would be doing in due course. Whitman seeing us as part of this compost is a wonderful insight, it's just a shame he wasn't as at peace with it as my neighbour - but now his pieces are.

But what do you think?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Cycling back to the north

 Crossing the Arakawa bridge at 4.30am

My ballroom dancing, distance swimming and hard working mother in law, god bless her merry soul, is irrepressible and naturally cheerful in almost any circumstance. I put this down in part to her physically and emotionally healthy upbringing in our small village in Aizu. She had to leave home at 15 to seek work in Tokyo, as after the early death of her father her household could not support all its children in the hard times following WWII and preceding the boom years.

She sent me off with an untroubled smile at 4am on a bike ride that reversed this journey, from her current home in Kawagoe in Saitama-ken near Tokyo, back up north to Kaneyama-machi. It was a journey from the pre-fabricated convenience of a modern city of busy strangers to the organic and slower kindness of a community where even the policemen say hello.

I like iron and steel bridges. They are linked in my mind with Iron-mad Wilkinson, buried in an iron coffin and instrumental in the world's first iron bridge (1779), and pride in growing up near Skew Bridge (1841) which carries the Manchester and Leeds Railway at an acute angle over the Rochdale canal near Todmorden in England.  After four hours of riding, this splendid blue bridge in Tochigi-ken signalled that I was leaving the flat hinterland behind and would soon be back in the valleys and hills leading north. But not quite yet. I like my travel simple, but there are those who desire a certain  panache and √©lan, whose dreams burst out in whatever undistinguished hole they find themselves. Behold, white van man has dreams too.

How to get stopped by a traffic cop - but probably worth it

Born into an entrepreneurial family in industrial Britain, they might have designed an iron lighthouse in the shape of a swan. Born on a struggling farm in Japan, they still defy the ordinary. Only a silver jumpsuit, platform boots, and insect eye sunglasses could be worn to emerge from that van with due reverence.

The piercing belligerence of this monkey also transcended it's banal site on a warning sign in a tranquil valley near Kanuma, always a favourite part of this ride. The road follows a meandering stream between low wooded hills, with idyllic small farms with flower-filled gardens, not isolated, but with room to breath and hardly any traffic at all. The monkeys are a pesky nuisance to farmers in some areas, though I can't help loving them. All the produce left lying around the place must be a terrible temptation - like nipping down the shops for us.

Accidental beauty: Kaki and soya beans  drying in the sun near Kanuma

Popping out of the top of the valley I whipped past the busy and messy non-descript architectural detritus just south of Nikko at top speed, all supermarkets, outlet concessions and failed restaurants. Fortunately, for some reason there is always a following wind on this 10km of dual carriageway, and hammering out a big gear after 6 hours of riding is exhilarating.

I stopped for noodles at a canny business that took people down the river by boat, then deposited them to await a bus back with plenty of time to spend some money at the stalls and shop. The owner's daughter was keen to use her good English learned whilst travelling through South East Asian and Australasia. She was looking forward to her trip to Thailand and Malaysia as soon as they shut up shop at the end of November. ¥100o (£7) a day including accommodation and food is a cheap way for her to escape the snow and the strictures of life in Japan. I was glad that I hadn't stroked the Corgi that was making kewpy puppy eyes to be let in from the cold  - true to reputation, the little blighter doesn't like being stroked and bites if more than one person touches it - only natural in the House of Windsor perhaps, but probably something of a liability in a tourist pit stop
Kinugawa Onsen is also best ridden past quickly without looking too closely at all the bankrupt hotels, but it is the gateway to the wilder mountains towards Aizu, and once I get there, I know I am well on my way home, and beauty rears up on all sides.

This river bed is one of my favourite places on the route, and the colour this day was tremendous, shimmering in the crisp light.

The long drag up to the border with Fukushima-ken over, I drifted down to the same noodle stall I had used on the way south three days before, and the lady was still friendly, kindly remembering how far I was going and exhorting me to be careful on the road over to Showa-mura, there being only a few hours of daylight left.

Finding a new minor road to avoid some more traffic I found myself amongst groups of children on their long walk home from school to their houses tucked against the hills. The oldest child in each group was responsible for the younger ones,  and they chatted to eachother and chased stones kicked along the road, with a particular atmosphere bewteen them that I have only seen here. And every child spontaneously called out "Konichiwa!" as I rode past, a stranger from another planet made to feel that I was truly returning home. This is why I feel privileged to be able to experience living in Aizu, why I am so pleased my son can learn this way of relating to other children and people, and why Mieko, my mother in law is as unquenchable resilient as she is. And it only started happening as I hit Aizu. There is something about this place...

As dusk approached and I tried to get over the mountain before dark fell, I found the only cow I have seen for miles around, and the first I have seen on Honshu that was not being factory farmed in deplorable conditions. I don't think cows should be kept on their own, but this female could at least get outside her shed, though clearly missing the herd. Naturally curious and sociable, she came to have a good look at me, and her melancholy lowing followed me up the road as if reproaching me for leaving her behind.

Looking back towards Tajima from the beginning of the last climb

Something between a dragon and an Oni guards a bridge

With that warning from the supernatural inhabitants not to take the mountains lightly I climbed towards the frost line. This road will be closed in a few weeks when the snow comes. A car heading the other way through one of the long tunnels faltered to a halt and the driver got out, worried that my flashing light was signalling some disaster. I was in bad shape, but not that bad, sir.

Over the top, topped up with banana and chocolate, and now sure to make it with only thirty kilometres of dusk and dark until home I allowed myself to imagine a good soak in a hot bath, then being tucked up under the Kotatsu chatting with my family.

Work is still scarce in Aizu, but I am hoping that, like Mieko-san, my son will be able to stay here long enough to absorb that indefinable something that is in the water, the air and the food and bounces between people's eyes, and ends in a laugh come what may.

230km Kawagoe to Kaneyama-machi, 2 bowls of noodles, 4 or 5 Combinis, full panniers, 13 hours and 1 Englishman.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Enlighten up, can't you?

Two hours of sleep is not the best preparation for a 230km ride, but some last minute changes to the work I was commuting to present made it necessary. All that can be said for it is that it is better than no sleep at all, which I have also tried. This time of year requires an early start (aargh!) in the dark to reduce the dark at the end, when you are tired (eeurghh). Feeling half-human - not a bad proportion - and an eighth awake I headed into the dark flashing tunnel of LED light, with a wary eye on the roadside allotments for the bears that are trying some last stocking up before their winter sleep. Eating, then sleeping. Sounded good to me.

The day reluctantly prized open a blearily beautiful eye near Showa, which is always colder than everywhere else, because deeper in the mountains and higher, as the road climbs alongside the river in a valley pinched with dramatic crags that opens out into rice fields, now empty. The charcoal burner's hut in it's pungent isolation, banished to the last spot before the pass like the smelly kid in class, created cathedral shafts of light through the trees. But I would be in no mood to enjoy anything much until I found some downhill and it warmed up a bit. So I took photographs instead, which are a kind of deferred looking. See, now we can look at them without being really cold or with legs that aren't at all interested in getting a heavily laden bicycle up a hill:

Hot soba noodles from a friendly lady at a roadside stop busy with Korean tourists after three hours got me past breakfast time on the body clock, and feeling more fully human -  but don't worry, I managed to contain the greed, irrationality and violence this can sometimes entail. OK, so I still felt a tad grumpy, especially when I again passed the beautiful river bed being despoiled for it's gravel, a shameful profanity which probably provided the road surface I was riding over. A flash of colour at the roadside near Kawaji brought me up sharp.

A Buddhist temple was dressed to the nines in paper flowers and stuffed with monks who could be heard chanting inside. It was a deeply moving, ever-evolving, timeless and  transcendent meditation on the four noble truths, a sonic evocation of the eight-fold-path to enlightenment. However it sounded like "Weeblewomblegummyjummywarblewibblezibbledoooo..." This may well be what enlightenment sounds like, but I am no judge. It is bound to involve cycling though, isn't it?

As I rode on my oh so ironic way, a group of elderly ladies were just making their way towards the temple, chatting in a way that suggested that they had known each other all their long lives, and that if their lives were drawing towards their end, what matter? They were on their way to the temple on this diamond of a day, going just as generations of their families had gone before. I was just cut adrift aboard some cleverly shaped aluminium and two rubber tyres, making it up as I went along.

Later came something you couldn't make up. Ten hours into the ride, jaded and bored with the traffic and concrete heading through southern Tochigi-ken, the road was blocked by police in Tochigi City. Thankfully they were letting cyclists through. A few yards down the empty main street I came across something completely unexpected that made me laugh out loud.

It was a matsuri, a festival procession of large carts full of drummers and musicians, each pulled by teams of people hauling on long ropes. On seeing me whip my deferred vision apparatus out, the foreman controlling this behemoth shouted out "Stop!" and the whole thing ground to a halt. After I had taken the picture he yelled "Go!" and the whole thing jerked forward again. We all laughed. Precious.

No doubt it would all kick off when night fell and everyone finished work. In the meantime they had time for the weird foreigner in tights on a bike, and for photographs. 

Unbidden, a man came up and gave me a wooden token with the name of this neighbourhood dashi burnt into it. I carried it on into the setting sun and into the dark plains of Saitama-ken to do battle with rush hour traffic for a couple of benighted hours. The lights on my bike may well have been the most enlightened thing about me (and if the behaviour of the drivers in Koza was anything to go by I had transcended my physical existence and become invisible), but a small corner of this traveller's heart at least was lit up.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Children's art

From the great kids around the village...

Oh you busy fingers

How many different arts and crafts can the 600 or so in habitants of very small area in the mountains of Japan produce? To give you some idea, the cultural day exhibition included this small selection: