Thursday, 24 June 2010

One wheel on my wagon

One of the most touching and improbable moments of my first year in Kanyamamachi was the moment when groups of children drifted out of the shadows of the sports hall and across the baking grit of the playground. Improbably and delightfully they were all holding hands and riding unicycles. The ancient dark of the woods loomed behind, crowned with the hidden earthworks that are all that is left of the harder times when a castle was needed. The contrast  with the dreamlike moments of happiness sparkling under a cloudless sky was perfect. Wheeling and turning in patterns, the children smiled as their parents clapped. It is the miraculous high point of the school sports day each year.

In the year since that day my son has learned and proudly invited us to a private showing. I was duly proud in return, especially when I had tried it and found out just how hard it is.

The school is split into two halves for sports day, the red team and the white team, which then engage in day-long gladiatorial combat spread across more than twenty events. This year one of them was another innovation designed to inculcate the smooth if competitive team working that is central to Japanese culture. It involved a kind of hyped-up leapfrog, with each member having to jump their team-mates in turn. The loosing white team's last boy began running over the backs in a desperate attempt to keep up, producing a beautiful leap as a final, if loosing, flourish.


Sunday, 13 June 2010

Mikagura Dake and Honna Mikagura

A 1386m (4,547ft) mountain in Kaneyama Machi, Fukishima-ken, Japan

The view NE from the top accross Nishi Aizu towards Mt Iida in Yamagata

You can climb this impressive, remote and rugged mountain (replete with free hut) from either the north or the south, but climbing it from the south is far superior, as the people are much nicer (as everybody knows through this typically reliable blog). You also get to arrive by steam train (on a few selected days) on the stunning Tadami line should you so desire. Get off at Honna station - there are a couple of small grocery shops in the village for provisions.

It is 10-12km on an unmade road through a beautiful dramatic valley to the start of the footpath. This follows the river on it's right bank NW for a while, passed a lovely waterfall which is climbed to the right on a narrow path above a drop with a small chained crag to negotiate. Through a small but perfectly formed gorge with another chained bit, you continue by the river, which has some sections of flat rock beds and is crystal clear. The path begins to climb, and then turns right directly up a steep pine covered ridge, making for a hard slog up a staircase of tree roots until you reach the left turn along a gentler ridge which leads eventually to the summit of Honna Mikagura (1,266m). You pass the mountain hut on the way, which is visible just off the path (but you could miss it heading south), and there is a bigger chained crag which requires more care in the wet beneath the first summit. The little local mountain guide estimates an adult walking will take at least 4 hours or so to climb Honna Mikagura from the start of the footpath (doesn't include the road in). It estimates at least 2 hours 40 minutes for the descent. Getting to the bigger top takes longer.

Looking S from the chained crag on Honna Mikagura back down the approach route. The mountain hut is hidden in the trees on top of the ridge

This week I met a neighbour and his mates on the way down after they had spent a glorious spring night in the hut. "Were the stars very beautiful?" I asked. "I don't know, we were drinking sake, so we didn't see." All that way, just to do what they do every other night of the week!

The bigger of the two tops is Mikagura Dake itself (1,386m) further on to the north, but the path needs time and care as it is overgrown with bamboo, and you feel it with your feet more than following it with your eyes. It is worth it, if time and fitness allow, for the panoramic views that the bigger top affords. The little local guidebook puts the round trip to the bigger top from the smaller top at at least 1hr 40mins (walking).

Looking S on the 'path' between the tops. It is in the scrub somewhere...

Given good weather this is a wonderful top as it is the highest for some miles and you can see 50 miles in most directions. 

A note on safety
I wouldn't myself take children on the southern approach to Mikagura Dake without ropes for the two or three exposed sections. Anyone going on their own especially should take their equipment, first aid and food choices seriously and make sure someone knows where you are. As with most Japanese mountains, and especially those in quiet areas, should anything go wrong on a quiet day you would be a long way from help. Also, as with most Japanese mountains and wooded areas, there are black bears in the area. I wear bells, shout, and carry a bear pepper spray. Most mountain areas in Japan can also have Mamoshi (poisonous Japanese vipers), so look carefully as you walk. If a hornet approaches, I have been told it is best to keep still and not wave at it, but I don't know for sure! Please do your own research and err on the side of safety.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Old road, new camel

Newly planted rice above Kawaguchi

Having unexpectedly been lent a mountain bike by my road club captain on the express condition that I find some good routes, I dragged myself out and up the hills on a fine late afternoon in the first days of June in an effort to deserve it. Having been beaten back by spinning wheels on the steep gravel on my road bike there, I decided to go up the crumbling old road straight up the hill behind the school. It is only used by forestry workers and whoever has these rice paddies now, and is in disrepair. The old routes were made for foot transport, and were therefore much more direct and steep than the graded roads that replaced them.

The Tadami river with Nakagawa village in the distance

It was worth the climb as it (nearly) always is,  the Tadami valley opening out below me, much prettier than my style as I tried to get accustomed to the rolling lurch of climbing on a full suspension bike. Are these wheels round? No doubt I'd appreciate it on the way down.

Past the sixth century samurai grave mound, I skirted the plateau of soba fields on tarmac and headed for a path I had only snow-shoed before, which lead up to the rim of our (currently) friendly neighbourhood volcanic lake. It was ride-able all the way, and it was strange to arrive on wheels to a point on the ridge I had only reached on foot before. Taking a machine of any description domesticates places somewhat, don't you think?

On the one hand it's a mountain, on the other,  I seem to have parked a bike in someone's kitchen

I didn't really trust the paths marked on the map that seemed to offer a contouring escape from the climb up to the next top on the ridge, but decided to be wilfully naive and go anyway. Sure enough, arriving at the base of the hill after a sporting skitter on the switchbacks, they had disappeared, leaving a choice between going back the same way (what am I, a yo-yo?) or slogging up the steep hill pushing and dragging a lump of temporarily useless metal and rubber to get to the access road off the top (what am I, stupid?). You know the answer to this, don't you?

Yes, but an idiot in a beautiful place

I still don't know why I photograph bikes in different places, then show people the photographs, I mean what's the point? Is it a kind of visual scent marking? Mind you, you are looking at it and reading this, so you are encouraging me.

I chose a very steep (25% ish) zig-zagging concrete track off the mountain for my first experience of disk brakes. They began squealing as I kept them on, developing into a deep throb with whining overtones that, were I not concentrating on avoiding going over the edge, I would have analysed in more detail to ascertain why it began to sound like an early German experimental electronica track. I am sure the wildlife was making the self-same connection and wondering how all those old analogue synths were managing to slide down the hillside so gracefully, yet so far from Berlin. Do disk brakes always do that, or is it just the 12" vinyl extended picture disc singles?

Somewhat more darkly, form a practical point of view, was the fact that after finally stopping, I pulled on the front brake lever and it went right to the handlebar - the brake seemed to have completely failed. I decided to ride carefully home on roads, even when for no apparent reason it started working again. Do disk brakes always do that? I decided that riding an MTB when you are used to road bikes is like a jockey being presented with a saddled up camel. They look really well suited to desert survival, but it might take a while to learn how to actually milk one.


No cold, no heat, no tiredness

Now that the leaf canopy has arrived to soften the snow-mauled mountains, cloaking their winter wounds in green flames, it can seem even more as if they are empty. Looking at these precipitous wooded slopes you could be forgiven for thinking that yours are the only human eyes at work.
Aekichi-san in May on his daily rounds looking for sansai (wild vegetables). He is in his seventies

Yet every day, in every area, beneath the secretive trees scores of eyes are bent to the ground from the early morning. Gradient, undergrowth, bears and snakes are no obstacle. When you have been doing the same thing for fifty or sixty years, why worry? It is as natural as breathing for the inhabitants of Aizu to collect wild vegetables. It is almost an automatic response to the colour green to try and match it to one of the many shapes and forms that spell 'food.' They are not hunters, but they are certainly gatherers. And they do it with a passion and focus that equals any animal hunt.

This isn't an occasional pass-time - it is a serious part of everyone's diet, and the picking, preparation, preservation and eating of sansai is an important part of local culture, on a par with farming and vegetable growing itself. Special patches are closely guarded secrets, and it is a matter of great concern if outsiders, especially organised gangs, come and steal the locals' wild food. Each season provides it's own changing harvest, each with it's own taste and texture, but each with a sense of the mountain in it. Local people feel that there is a special kind of health to be had from sansai, as if the power of the mountain is somehow in it - and looking at them, who is to doubt it? It is certainly in your body if you are the one who goes and gets it every day...

Preparing zenmai, a complicated process. It is poisonous if you don't get it right.

Now that the growing season is here, aunty Siako-san is helping us in the allotment, as we know what is most accurately described as 'bugger all' about growing things. Hell, I can't even grow hair. She fits us in between her own rice fields and vegetable plots, always on the go now that winter no longer keeps her a prisoner in the house. Her and her husband won't stop until the rice is in now, always with a ready laugh and apparently tireless. "If you are a farmer," she said over a cuppa in our kitchen, "You cannot feel the cold, you cannot feel the heat, and you cannot feel tired." Then she laughed, and went out to do some more work.

Coming back from picking Kogomi (an edible fern shoot) with Aekichi-san in May, we crossed some small rice fields in the hills that looked as if they were still being worked, although there was no road to them. Further on, we met a wizzened little man in his eighties at the end of the nearest track, contemplating the snow that was preventing him riding further in on his moped. On the floor were some tools and heavy looking sacks that he obviously wanted to get through to the rice paddies. Hayasaki-san and he knew eachother and chatted a while, while I weighed up whether to offer to help or not - always a difficult decision with this elderly but extremely proud populace. Well, he was looking balefully at that snow, and he did look to be well on in his eighties. What the hell. "Can I help you with those?" As if prodded with a sharp stick he immediately picked up the bags and began walking across the snow.  No cold, no heat, no tiredness.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

These are the days

Arai Racing Club members having a Van Halen Moment

There are days of such radiant perfection that everything beats as one: your heart, the light on the mountains, the rhythm of the pedals, the swish of rubber on tarmac and the flash of sunshine on emerald water, and clich├ęs seem, if not expensive, just that little bit less cheap. Eee, but it's grand as they used to say in Lancashire. If Rose, who my daughter is named after, the old lady eking out her last days in a Rochdale nursing home , was here, she would sing. But then, she always sang.

It was a day when bursts of speed were interspersed with stops for laugh out loud wonderment. But then it is murder getting Japanese people past blossom trees at the best of times. You know you are in the grip of a cultural institution when a racing club stops in its tracks as one man.

I took them over one of my favourite mountain roads from Nishi Aizu to Yanaizu, which was just barely passable over the top, with some snow left and the winter's tree debris carpeting the road. And then on the way down, a landslide had inundated the road, and rocks and sticks made even the rest a little more sporting than usual. Though we stopped for the blossom, we didn't stop for that.

Or this...

Heading back in the lengthening light we split into two groups, and as usual I opted for the traffic free and beautiful option over the easier one, receiving a battering at the hands of the small chain gang that developed as we chased to catch back up, re-united over ice cream at our local visitor's centre that also does wonderful soba....

That night, over a great communal meal, with everyone tired and staisfied, I was handed a club jersey by Takeda-san, the club captain. There is no membership fee or paperwork in becoming an Arai member, but I had wanted one of those for a while to show solidarity with a group that had welcomed me so kindly.

And then, when I returned to pick something up, another two unexpected windfalls. Takeda-san had left his full suspension mountain bike for me to borrow, on the condition that I seek out some good routes for the club, and for good measure, Shigemura-san gave me a new short-sleeved jersey too. It was all nearly, but not quite, too much. That, as they say everywhere, was a good day.