miércoles, 21 de septiembre de 2011

Wasabi, Snow Monkeys, Mr. and Mrs. Uenoda and my latest epiphany

I Spent a total of three days in Matsumoto. My campsite at a small neighborhood park situated on the top of a hill as to command a view of the valley below proved very comfortable. To sweeten the deal (pun intended), I soon discovered a bakery and cake shop that unknowingly provided an all-you can eat buffet of daily bread and donuts, which I was able to share with a couple of Japanese bike tourists I met that weekend. I also got a good deal of drawing and writing done. But the road calls. They only give Americans sans visa 3 months in this country and I've already used up 1 of those months just in Tokyo; and I've still got a lot of riding to do. The next few days prove to be just that, lots of riding, interspersed with plenty of tourist attractions.

My first stop was Hotaka, home to Japan's largest wasabi plantation, the Dai-o Wasabi-Nojo, which attracts tourists by the bus load. The sprawling grounds host restaurants, ice cream parlors and beer halls, everything wasabi flavored. Wasabi is a waterborn root vegetable and looks much like ginger if it were green. You've never had wasabi until you've tasted it directly from the root itself. The plantation is located in a river valley, the river of which has been diverted into labyrinth-like channels all but invisible under the wide green roof of wasabi leaves and black protective screens. Picturesque wooden bridges and boardwalks connect a shrine, to a cluster of restaurants, to a viewing area. After a beer, an ice cream cone, and about a million and one free samples I had my fill and it was back on the bike.

Nagano prefecture must be something like the bread basket of Japan. Fields of golden wheat, rows of vegetables, and fruit trees that spill over into the roadway in such a way that all I have to do is lift my hand from my handlebar just a little bit and voila, an apple, a bunch of grapes, kiwis, figs, and plums. Unlike the wasabi farm I visited today, most of the farms appear to be small operations that diversify their crop.

After so many kilometers and so much stolen fruit, I finally arrived to Obuse late at night. Obuse is known for chestnut-based deserts and the famous Ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai (The Great Wave), who lived and worked here when it was a major Edo capital and not the backroad tourist destination it is today. There is a also an excellent Sake brewery here, which distills its signature IO in traditional gigantic barrels made from oak boards held together by bamboo twine.

Next on the tourist agenda was Yudanaka's Jigokudani Yaen-koen, or Monkey Park. I arrived at sundown and found an abandoned trailer park at the forest entrance to pitch my tent. In the morning I took the 1.6 km wooded trail to the park and onsen, where sure enough, live plenty of Japanese snow monkeys. On the way back to my bike I stopped at a gazebo along the trail to have my lunch. I was soon joined by an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Uenoda, who were visiting from Fujisawa (South of Tokyo), where they live just a few kilometers from the beaches of Segami Bay. When asked about Japan's reliance on nuclear power, both emphatically answered at once, "Japan must close it's nuclear plants." Mr. Uenoda did most of the talking. "There is a concern about terrorists" he explained. This is an understandable concern for the Japanese in particular and especially for someone who experienced first-hand the second World War. Mr. Uenoda was 15 years old when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and he remembers it well. I asked him if there is any relevance between the recent Fukushima disaster and the Hiroshima act-of-war some 66 years ago. "Many politicians argue that it is different, I on the other hand don't believe that it is". In addition, Mr. Uenoda feels that the radiation poisoning from the destroyed power plants in Fukushima is of equal concern as if an atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Mr. Uenoda is of the belief that nuclear power will never be safe and Japan should close its nuclear plants. Is it realistic? Will there be enough energy to supply all of Japan's industrial needs? "It must be. We use far too much energy and we must find alternatives."

While the rest of the world is conspicuously silent on the subject, in Japan everyone is talking nuclear. People are impassioned and many are calling for an end to Japan's reliance on nuclear power. My conversation with the Uenidas was illuminating and I had the following revelation: I will dedicate this bike tour to the good fight and to gaining a deeper understanding of the Japanese experience living with nuclear catastrophe both past and present. I will bike from Fukushima to Hiroshima, and I will record my impressions through sketches and writings here, on BikeSketch.

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