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.

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