Thursday, 24 February 2011

Threading the Tadami River

One of the many streams that come down to the Tadami river  

The grey valley road and the now dark Tadami river are woven together through the long valley between Yanaisu and Tadami itself. The third strand of the braid is the great Tadami railway line, a very determined mole with a one track mind bobbing in and out of the mountains in numerous tunnels. It is now hibernating beyond Kawaguchi . The road crosses many bridges, swapping sides whenever convenient like a career politician. Slightly warmer temperatures had warmed the tarmac enough for it to shed it's customary winter coat of a few inches of compacted snow and ice. Bike ride! 

Island in the Tadami river

These are places I haven't seen for a couple of months. With remarkably effective 'stud-less' snow tyres it is quite possible to travel more or less as normal by car - something that came as a surprise to an Englishman. England rolls over on it's back and whimpers pitifully at a few inches of the white stuff. Tokyo usually furnishes some entertaining news items showing slick city hipsters slipping onto their arses in even slicker shoes on any spot of unaccustomed snow.

While people here are perforce equipped for metres of the stuff , life naturally compresses into a smaller area, so it is great to be able to get the sanity machine out and pedal out of the domestic zone and into the know, yonder.

Now breathe...

As you well know if you come from a childishly dualist tradition there are two sides to any road, street, idea, whatever: the sunny side - relatively free from patches of ice, and the dark side - shadowed and dangerous. Whilst Luke Skywalker (and various other archetypal fictional characters in stories so basic they only have two sides) may have had a choice, on an out-and-back bike ride there isn't one, and it takes a lot of care not to end up up-ended.  There is always a bit of shadowed ice around. Through the villages there were a few patches of snow to negotiate where householders had chucked their snow onto the road to clear it from their roofs and doorways. And in the shadows of the six foot walls of snow all along the road, stripes of ice.

Bird footprints on floating ice

It is important to hit the warmest couple of hours of the day, and on the way home it is a race against freezing point which returns rapidly with dusk even on sunny days. You are never quite on your own with the cold in Aizu, though. Getting back to my village and getting very chilly even with everything on, the cheery ba-chan in the shop was keen to know where I had been and how long it had taken. Outside a truck driver had stopped to get a coffee from the vending machine. I had never seen him before, he was just passing through, but without missing a beat he offered to buy me a hot drink. It is just what you do here. It almost makes you want to move somewhere cold, doesn't it?

The cold coming back to snow-jet and avalanche chutes near Showa. My bike looks small and worried. It's not a person it? I knew that

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Snow festival giant

Every house should have one: our 2.5 metre snow giant

It's Nakagawa snow festival at the weekend, and having missed the more famous Tadami snow festival once again through being in Tokyo, I decided to get with the programme and do something with the snow other than shovelling it away from the entrance. I shovelled it back towards the entrance.

There's a bit of a "Roy Wood and Hagrid meet that guy with the octopus beard in Pirates of the Caribean at Karl Marx's gravestone" kinda thing going on here don'tcha think?

Tadami festival apparently had a Taj Mahal with arches and arcades you could walk under made by the army, sorry, Ground Self Defence Force. My son and I decided to make do with a more modest one for our first go, though you can sit on it if you are under 10. He was a big help with gathering the snow, although much of it arrived in the form of big chunks tossed in the direction of my head - entirely accidental I'm sure. He made the hands and feet though, before reverting to the aerial bombardment. Where are the GSDF when you need them?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Nikko, The Three Monkeys and coincidence

Improbable autumn perfection in Nikko

Nikko is a World Heritage Site, and only two hours away. It is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyesu, the Shogun who unified Japan and ended the battle period, ushering in the Edo Period when foreigners like me were not welcome unless they were arms dealers. Stupendous as Nikko is, I am satisfied with the living heritage woven into the small community I live in, so it took nearly two years to get round to seeing it, and I was punished with a very disorientating coincidence, if you believe in that kind of thing - punishment and coincidence I mean.

I prefer the small scale to the bombastic, accidental beauty to the grand scheme, and in my view tiny local shrines that a few families have visited for centuries are more connecting than those that have become a major business.  By the same token, the light and life you experience on a hill is more important than its height. In any case, thanks to nuances of weather and season you never go up the same hill twice.  Travelling deep is better than travelling far. Live by the aphorism and you will die by the maxim, I say, and you can misquote me on that.

Aphorisms don't travel well, or at least they change as they go. Take the three wise monkeys, for example. In the west seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil suggests a kind of selfish avoidance of noticing anything bad in case you have to take responsibility for doing something about it. In Japan it is amongst other things about keeping yourself pure and avoiding spreading evil. From it's origin, probably in China, it has changed it's meaning as it has spread and been appropriated, gaining a power that is more paradoxical than any single interpretation. Like many symbols that at first seem simple, it is, in the end mysterious.

The Three Wise Monkeys, the famous 17thC wooden carving at Nikko

On our return home from Nikko last autumn I left a web radio station playing upstairs and went down to chat with my wife. We fell to talking about the three monkeys and their meaning for a few minutes, until I went back upstairs to continue working. As far as I am aware - which may not be very far as it turns out - I had not thought about the three monkeys for a very long time -  at least for a few years. Having just talked about them for the first time in memory, I re-entered the room exactly on cue to hear an old R n' B song playing. The singer asked me "Have you heard the one about the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil?" Exactly on the nail, as I came into the room, as if it had been timed for maximum effect. As I said, mysterious. It freaked me out I can tell you, and sent me scuttling down the stairs.

Anyway, I must go now, I have just thought about someone I haven't seen for years - that will be them on the phone now.

Now tell me your freaky coincidence story...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Road running in the Japanese snow

Iwabuchi-sensei elated at the end of the road

I usually avoid road running like a black plague, but when the road is not black with mind and leg-numbing tarmac, but white with ploughed snow and surrounded by mountains it is another matter. Walking isn't possible in this two metre deep snow until it hardens up, so it is great to discover (thanks Richard!) that some of the minor roads are ploughed and, with only a handful of shocked and bemused drivers to deal with, they make for great running.

Running through a remote village, with its population of elders busy shovelling snow

Trail shoes and a cap to keep the snow out of your eyes are a good idea. Studs with metal inserts would be even better. It feels like a trail run, or running through sand, as the resistance, slippiness and roughness of the snow pull you around as you run. Excellent. Care is required, as there is a lot of ice around, sometimes hidden under a few inches of powder. The snow ploughs do a great job of clearing the road, but seem to polish the snow surface. This makes for some amusingly bad free-form dancing when attempting to stay on your feet. Running in the deeper snow at the edge, or keeping to chained tyre tracks helps.

Road running Jim, but not as we know it. River near Tamonashi

Of course it is being out amongst mountains that makes it really special. Iwabuchi-sensei has a full marathon this weekend, so it was good to get out for three hours ata reasonable pace on Sunday, and we even made a full circuit of Numazawako - who knew those little roads would be ploughed? The people who live there and need to get about, that's who.

Children in their mountain village just off the school bus

When running a valley road with Richard we bumped into some of the children I had been teaching earlier in the day, no doubt wondering what on earth we were doing. What a place to grow up. Anonymous suburbia it is not.

A bit heavy on the icing sugar

The snow is at it's height now - what am I saying, there is more forecast this week. The extraordinary forms it takes, and it's transformation of everything, is a great pleasure - look, it even turned me into a 'road' runner.

Run Rudolph, run!