Thursday, 12 May 2011

As unreal as snakes and snow

Japanese four lined rat snake or 'Shima-hebi' (Elaphe quadrivirgata)

A two metre long snake was not what I was expecting on a windy day after a stiff walk over snow and the debris of winter up to the ridge. But the sunshine was warm on the narrow edge, with the wind hitting the mountainside and shooting straight up, leaving a pool of stillness on the rocky edge and heat sufficient for reptiles to wake up from their winter sleep, along with their prey. The winter is so long that at the first hint of spring everyone, human, animal, plant or otherwise, leaps to make the most of every minute.

Head bottom left, tail top right

This 827m (2,713ft) mountain above Yokota in Kaneyama-machi, Fukushima-ken is one of those that, while unremarkable in itself, offers great beauty, a village laid out like a toy at it's foot, and wild expanses of space and light. I cycled to it's base and up the winding road that leads to abandoned homesteads, changing into running shoes for the top half up a forestry track and onto the final slopes.

The first flush of green above snow holes warmed by tree trunks

The path was covered in snow, so I lost it and ended up thrutching through the tangle of trees destroyed by the heavy snow, some of them big but with their trunks snapped anyway. Where the snow had melted on the steepest slopes the thick stems of tall grass and bamboo had been plastered down and combed directly downhill, making for slippery going on their smooth stalks.

A classic Okuaizu view from the ridge

I gained the ridge path and began scrambling upwards, shreds of plastic rope rotted by the sun on the ground. The snake and I surprised each other, and it lay stock still as I seemed to be neither small enough for lunch nor dangerous enough to bother moving away from. As I moved in closer it suddenly shot straight forwards past my leg and threaded like an arrow the undergrowth that had slowed me so much. That must be the speed that enables it to catch frogs, lizards, insects, mice and small birds, and I was very glad of my size at that moment.

The top, with no leaves to obscure the view

It was lovely to be up here alone, surrounded by space, with the sunshine, the snow, and the first leaves of spring all to myself - or my ever changing bundle of narratives, if you prefer the modern approach. Bundle of nerves feels more like it these days, with many of our comfortable assumptions having taken such a battering from nature and human folly recently. A lot of those personal and national narratives are having to be hastily rewritten on ragged scraps of paper with broken pencils.

Native beeches, looking south east towards the Tadami river

I spent some time pottering around, breathing in the air and feeling the burgeoning life of the hills, trying to get some comfort from greater perspectives of time and space than the house, the television and even the internet can afford. It worked, as usual, though there has been more to overcome since the March disasters. I mean, the net is great and all, and during the hours we spend in thrall to it it certainly feels significant, like right now,  but in the end we are just sitting there alone in front of some glowing metal and plastic, aren't we? Current company excepted of course - I am really here, talking to you now, you aren't alone in a darkened room, your face lit from beneath by your screen. Isn't there a hill you could be going up? That seems more real. The Romantic narrative about it has got a bit of a longer history anyway, and I am buying into it, big time. It is cheaper to buy into than a laptop, that's for sure. Wordsworth wouldn't have written half so much or walked half as far on the fells if he'd had the internet.

Looking west towards Asaksa-dake. Definitley real in a romantic kind of way

I wandered lonely as a blogger, until at length it was time to descend the ridge again, being a little more alert for wildlife this time, and better able to see where I had mistaken the path on the way up. Below, the cerulean blue roofs of Yokota surrounded the wonderful primary school, where I have run art and songwriting sessions in the course of teaching English. It has a special atmosphere amongst the children and staff - that Okuaizu magic, and is in an idylic position, full of light and life. What a tragedy that it is at risk of closing due to falling numbers. I mean, look at it for goodness sake!

Yokota school and village in it's majestic setting

Thursday, 5 May 2011

And still they came

It takes more than mere disaster to keep Arai racing club away from Aizu.

Many people have cancelled their bookings for this area, and businesses in Oku Aizu are really struggling by association with the rest of Fukushimna, even though levels here are relatively low, similar to natural background radiation in many parts of the world. I wondered therefore, whether Arai racing club would make one of their regular trips up from Saitama this Golden Week. They could be forgiven for staying at home.

Four of them came anyway. Hoshi-san (giving the thumbs up above) said that he sees this as a safe zone, and anyway, he doesn't like to necessarily do what everyone else does. "I do things at my pace," he said. He recently suffered a bereavement - he crashed his lovely new full carbon Giant in a tragic blossom-gazing incident and snapped the frame. Ouch, expensive. Get a steel bike. Now he is working overtime to save up for a replacement.

Yoshida-san on 401, Showa-mura

He works in ICT in the middle of Tokyo. Now he is listening to birdsong

Yoshida-san likes his sweet bread...a lot

After a sociable ride up 400 to Showa-mura, and the beautiful snaking slopes up 401 to a pit stop in Minamiaizu, we chain-ganged along 289 to Tadami, where we stopped at the nice little restaurant that does my favourite risotto. It's cheesy, very cheesy, and you can't say that for much food in Japan, delicious though the diet is.

Too classy for a bunch of scruffy sweaty cyclists? Not at all sir.
Ahhh, risotto! Good value at ¥850 for this plus tea or coffee

Hilariously, though the guys were happy to brave a radiation scare, they were horrified by the heavy rain that started falling while we were eating. They always hate rain, and avoid it whenever possible, as they are made out of tissue paper and would obviously melt into a soggy pulp at the merest drop. I had been waiting for this moment, as they were all riding stripped down carbon race style bikes, as is the dodgy fashion. I ride a training bike with mudguards, something that is seen as quaintly old fashioned, but I see as a no-brainer for anyone who wants to ride in comfort in all seasons, especially in the mountains. I laughed. A lot.  I asked them how the road tasted? Were they nice and warm with great splatters of dirty water up their arses? Apparently not. That'll teach 'em. Their enthusiasm and speed was thoroughly dampened, with Hoshi-san in particular frozen to the bone. To be fair, it was 7c, and they are used to Saitama, where it is currently a whopping twenty degrees warmer.

Hoshi-san cooking up a storm

Still, it was nothing that a soak in Nakagawa onsen couldn't put right. Hoshi-san bore me no ill-will despite my churlish dry-posterior-based gloating, and cooked a massive multi-course meal for us all, including vegetarian specialities for me like tofu fritters.  We finished the day satisfyingly bloated and snoozy round Shigemura-san's wood burner.

As is becoming traditional, they refused to ride the next day. I think the club needs a new name: Arai Dry Eating and Onsen Club. It was good to see them though. Although we are not out of the woods yet with the power station, and it doesn't change that, it makes all of us who live in Fukushima feel a whole lot better that people still want to come. Thanks Arai.

The snow is nearly gone

Photos from April. Speeding up the melt by hand is hard work

The snow is finally leaving us again after four months and a winter that lasted longer than usual.

A neighbour calls in the big guns to speed things up - snow from her allotment.

A heavy duty council snow machine clears the pavement

Evaporation above Oshio - one of the famous views of Japan