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.

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