lunes, 26 de septiembre de 2011

Cold Rain, Warm Hospitality, and Hot Springs

It was already late afternoon by the time I got started and I had a mountain to climb. Between Obuse and Kusatsu lies Shiga Kogen, a grouping of mountains that make up Japan's largest ski resort and one of the largest in the world. The terrain up till this point has been mild; Shiga Kogen is the exception. There are virtually no tunnels. The road is closed after snowfall, after which time, the only way up is by gondola. Ski lifts pass directly overhead and I feel as if I'm biking up a small ski trail, rather than a busy highway. I wonder if in fact the road is used as such after the first snowfall. The scenery is breathtaking. The road makes a dip with the contours of the mountain and an asphalt horrizon gives way to a vast pine forest. Red tree trunks lacquered in the late afternoon sun and the infinite shades of evergreen peaks scale the mountain like the scales on a Hokusai dragon. In the diffused light every detail is illuminated. I'm tempted to put up my bike and sketch the trees from the roadside as I see them - without a horrizon line, just trees with every painstaking detail, their bare trunks and thickly bristled arms, which begin at the midriff. These trees are unique to Japan and I've only seen them previously in Japanese art. I'm reminded of the anthropomorphic trees of legend. But it's late and if possible, I'd like to get to Kusatsu before dark.

Kusatsu has been a famous onsen (hot springs) resort for well over a century. The water is especially rich in sulfuric acid and is believed to be a panacea to all sorts of medical ailments. The town has literally been built around the source and a Yubatake, or 'hot water field', occupies the plaza. The Yubatake is comprised of countless wooden conduits that cool the water (which comes up from the ground more than 70 degrees centigrate), before it is diverted to the various ryokan and public baths in its vicinity. Kusatsu is a small city and its center is comprised of mostly historic buildings in both Japanese and German style. The area has had much German influence and a major thoroughfare of Kusatsu and the surrounding valleys of Gunma-ken has been dubbed Strasse Romantische. It was on this roadway I arrived to the city early the next morning, cold and wet after a 15 km descent and the first thing I did was make my way straight to an onsen.

Baths are an important part of Japanese culture and you can find an onsen in virutally every village town or city. Even in Tokyo, hot springs are pumped from deep below Tokyo bay. The admission price of a public bath typically range between 500 and 1200 yen ($6-$15). There is no reentry, but inside there is everything one might require - restaurants, lounges selling refreshments that include beer, and resting areas. The onsen I chose to spend the day even had free wifi. I was the last patron to leave at 9pm, closing time. Not ready to go to bed, I decided instead to hang out at a convenient shop, drink a beer and read my book. I was soon interrupted from my reading by a curious cocker spaniel that jumped into my lap. The dog's owners were a white-haired couple in matching yukata (a type of bathrobe in which people freely walk) and engaged me in conversation about my travels. We were soon joined by another lady of middle age who was equally impressed by my loaded bicycle. She asked me where I was to sleep this cold and rainy night and was shocked when I responded that I would be sleeping in the city park. She insisted I follow her car with my cycle the short distance to her house where she had an extra room that I will spend the night.

Yuuko lives in the apartment complex she owns in a working class neighborhood not far from the city center. She comes from an old Kusatsu family of property and her position as a landlord enables her to live a life of leisure, in which, in her words, "everyday is Sunday". We spend the evening and a better part of the following day in her living room, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and talking over the chatter of a television set that was always on. But, that's not all we did. Yuuko took great pains to show me her city and leave me with a taste of "true" Japanese culture. I can't help but laugh at the irony of this, as Yuuko is so atypically Japanese. She is the black sheep of her family, of whom I learn that both her siblings have corporate jobs and families of their own. Yuuko on the other hand, lives alone in a sparse three bedroom apartment. When I ask her about the state of Japan after the Fukushima disaster, she becomes morose. "Japan is broken and I'm not sure it can recover", responds Yuuko. I sense a deep sadness in her. Later however, walking the drab streets of her lackluster neighborhood,Yuuko in juxtaposition, is glowing. She is well acquainted with her neighbors and speaks with everyone. Yuuko, in her pretty flower-patterened dress, stands out. Despite her years and the beer and cigarettes, her beauty hasn't begun to fade. I almost believe her jubilance and she appears to me an anomaly in this small traditional mountain town.

The following morning was blue skies. We took advantage of the change in weather to go see some of Kusatsu's major tourist attractions. At the top of a nearby mountain peak, we followed throngs of tourists up a stepping stone path to a viewing area, overlooking a brilliant aquamarine lake. Yuuko waited for me while I stepped over the partitions and away from the crowds to render a sketch. Afterwards, we drove to the Yubatake, where Yuuko introduced me to her grandmother, who runs a small shop adjoined to the townhouse in which she lives. We toured the grounds of a shrine surrounded by ancient pools. Yuuko then showed me to an outdoor onsen surrounded by virgin forest and waited for me as I bathed. That night Yuuko made dinner, a typical Japanese dish from the region known as Skiaki. She had a special hotplate for the purpose, which was placed at the center of the table. First the pan is greased in fat, then vegetables of bock choi, a root vegetable known as gobo, Konyaku noodles, and thin slices of beef are added. Yuuko placed before me a bowl with raw egg that constituted the dipping sauce. For dessert we had Manju, a local speciality - a wheat-based pastry, colored with brown sugar and stuffed with sweet red bean jam. I slept soundly that night.

Early the next morning Yuuko had errands to run and I decided it was time to leave Kusatsu. With a tinge of sadness I bid her farewell and made my way to town for a quick breakfast before heading out. I asked a young couple for directions and soon found myself engaged in a long conversation, unhindered by the reemerging rain clouds. Yasuko Iokawa and her partner were visiting Kusatsu from Kawasaki, Tokyo. Her family is from Fukushima and when I asked how they were coping with the recent disaster, Iokawa is overcome by grief. She worries about her family's safety. They live close to the destroyed nuclear energy facilities, where she believes they are at risk of radiation poisoning. Iokawa regrets not being able to invite her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to live with her in her small apartment in Tokyo. Her family has no choice but to remain in their homes in Fukushima. She says her family believes the government that the nuclear energy plants have been contained with little damage to the environment, but what choice do they have, she conjectures. Iokawa just wants to see Japan close all its nuclear plants. She believes Japan should commit to a 50 year plan to phase them out.

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.

domingo, 18 de septiembre de 2011


Sunday. It's a beautiful day, though a little on the warm side. I hit up the supermarket dumpster before heading out of town and score enough ham for pound-thick sandwhiches for two days. A brief climb, then through a mother of a tunnel and it's nearly 30 km downhill. When it comes to cycling, my favorite part about the uphill is the inevitable proceeding descent. In the Japanese Alps however, much of the hard stuff is eliminated with tunnels. Where there would be a killer pass, instead the Japanese have blasted a hole clean through the mountain. But, I'm not complaining, my legs are still sore as hell from Mt. Fuji and it's nice to have a break from any serious climbing. Traveling along on route 20, north to Matsumoto, the road follows a large river valley. There is a bike trail between river and road. On the road side, rows of golden wheat fields (buckwheat perhaps, Nagano prefecture is Soba Country after all) are decorated with scarecrows like manga dolls and black plastic bags fixed to poles flutter in the wind like animated birds. On the riverside, the foliage has been left to grow wild and creeping vines with broad leaves threaten to swallow the trail. In the modern age, highways have replaced rivers as lifelines connecting civilization. In this surreal example, even farms seem to gain subsidence from the road.

When I arrive in Matosumoto it is early afternoon. I leisurely bike around the historic center when before I know it I've joined an anti-nuclear protest. Men woman and children of all ages carry signs and banners, bang on drums, play flutes and other musical instruments, and march in defiance to Japan's reliance on nuclear power. A beautiful woman of middle-age in a witches cap, hobbles with cast and cane; she is holding a megaphone to her lips chanting something in Japanese, of which the crowd responds in unison. The procession ends at Matsumoto Castle, a solemn looking building of black and white, which has earned it the moniker, "Crow's Castle". The music continues for only a short while before disbanding. People stand around socializing and I take the oportunity to make the acquaintance of some of the protesters. Pretty soon however, everyone goes there separate ways and I'm left alone to explore the city by myself. Matsumoto is a major metropolis, but the historic center is walkable and quite charming with its old buildings interspersed among skyscrapers. Behind the ultramodern City Museum (which has a great permanent exhibit of Yayoi Kusama, who's dot motif is right up my alley) reminded me of the Japanese version of a creole cottage. The mud stucco had fallen off in one section exposing a lat system of sticks and twine.

martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Goodbye Tokyo, Hello Japan

Destination: Mt. Fuji. I'm accompanied for the first leg of my journey by Takashi, one of my roommates of the Shared House in Kunitachi. This was Takashi's first time leaving the city on bicycle and he'd never climbed Mt. Fuji, but he had three days off and was thirsty for adventure. After a week of rain, the clouds had finally parted and it was blue skies. This is my third time traveling route 413 from Tokyo to Fujikawaguchiko and each time I notice something new. For instance, I hadn't realized just how tall the bamboo alongside the road is. Viewing them from above, thousands of small pointed leaves host a colony of tiny birds like shadows on a green field. Bamboo stalks descend some thirty feet to the river below; which, after all the rain this past week, has transformed into a white monster; her roar echoing through the valley is our constant companion. In grotesque harmony can be heard the desperate mating call of the cicidas, an eerie screeching, two short and one long. I have seen them many times referenced in manga, but I never before understood their significance. It is their season and several people have mentioned them to me with pride, including Takashi on this trip. Cicidas live underground three years and when they finally do emerge from darkness they have just one week to find a mate. Is it poetic justice? their entire lives cicadas prepare for light and love as if it is one and the same, just to die shortly thereafter. Well you know what they say...

The sun sets over Yamanaka Lake as we trudge onward. By the time we arrive in Fujikawaguchiko it is already dark and we are exhausted. Before heading off to bed at the lakeside park gazebo, we stop at a restaurant for some Hôtô, a local specialty of pumpkin and miso soup. We also sample another regional favorite, basashi, raw horse meat - consistency of tripe-like fungus, but goes down well with a little soy sauce and a draught beer.

We awake well rested shortly after 7. No police bother us; on the contrary the parkgoers seem pleased to see a couple of travelers making use of their facilities and bid us good morning with a cheerful "Ohiô gozai mas!" I make breakfast - hot instant coffee, bread with blackbean jam (ubiquitous in Japanese deserts) and fruit picked ripe from the supermarket trash, when Takashi, who has wandered some 10 meters to the lake, calls to me with uncontainable enthusiasm. I rush over to see what the fuss is about and behold a majestic Mt. Fuji's single peak hovering over Kawaguchi lake, its ghost-like reflection glistening beneath it in dark waters. It is precisely this vision of Japan's most holy mountain that has attracted scores of pilgrims and tourists alike; and for me, it is a prophetic first sighting of the mountain that I plan to climb today.

The entrance to the historic Yoshida pilgrimage trail begins at the foot of the mountain at the Sengen Shrine just off Route 138. If you're not careful you can miss it. A sign in Japanese marks a small opening in a dense forest. We enter a dark corridor lined with ancient moss-covered lanters and tall cedars that block out the light. The noise of a day-lit urban sprawl grows fainter behind us as we walk deeper into the woods. Finally we come to a clearing in the forest, where the suns rays filter from above, illuminating ancient wooden temples. Sengen shrine has been the starting point for pilgrims climbing Fuji for more than 1,000 years. Takashi walks me through the ritual. We pass under the large wooden Torri gate, which is painted red, and make our way to a fountain, where we cleanse hands and mouth. At the main shrine we stand before a gold-leafed image of a tree branch and pray. I'm not big on religion and the entire concept to me is ludicrous; but nontheless, I have a certain respect for animism, more so than other religions, and I close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds of the forest. After a minute or so, Takashi instructs me to clap twice to awaken the spirits, and then off we are on our 19 km ascent of Japan's most holy mountain!

Takashi quit on me after only a few kilometers; which is a good thing for him, because there is no way he could possibly have climbed the entire mountain and returned to Tokyo to work early the next day. I on the otherhand push my self to the point of exhaustion - I have to get to the 8th station tonight if I am going to see this famous Fuji sunrise tomorrow. From Sengen's cedars, the small trail makes its way southwest through a forest of red pine. A turn due south up the mountain face and the ascent becomes gradually steeper. By fifth station the forest opens to the sky and beds of moss beneath dark pines are replaced with groves of white birch floating on a sea of thick grass. At 6th station, ends the forest and begins subalpine shrubs and lichen clinging to black and red volcanic rock; the atmosphere is thinner and perceptably colder. The view is obscured by a thick fog that wraps itslef around Fuji's midsection like a chastety belt. Past 7th station, alpine level, and the terrain turns extremely difficult up scags of black rock. By this time the sun slowly makes its descent behind the Western ridge and a shadow passes across the earth. The clouds below turn from hues of gold to blue with the passing light of the sun. When I reach 8th station I am exhausted. The black rock has turned blacker still against a sky of navey blue and the wind is bitter cold. An enclave of rock providing shelter proves too hard to resist and I plop myself down right there in the middle of the path. I fix a dinner of ramen, while sipping on a small bottle of saki that Takashi gifted me right before departing back to Tokyo. Most of the trekkers that pass me in their freshly pressed mountain gear, headlamps, and skipoles, have taken a bus to 6th station, bypassing the entire forest. They climb in the early evening just a few hours to luxurious cabins at 8th station, where they will view the sunrise the following day well rested. My presence, hidden in a crevice of rock, just around a bend in the trail, catches them by surprise and more than one shrieks in fright. Laughing, I apologize, "Sumimasen". I finally gather the strength to move to a cave off the beaten path, where I crawl into my sleeping bag and pass out for the night.

I awake early the next morning to the most breathtaking sunrise of my life. From my cave on Fuji's northface I have a perfect view of the sun over the Japanese Alps that appear like blue wrinkles in a blanket of clouds, which radiate orange from where the sun's head emerges from beneath its nebular sheets. Wrapped in my sleeping back, I boil a pot of cowboy coffee and begin my sketch of la vista chingón. When it warms up a bit, I make my way to the summit. I've never before looked inside a volcano and I'm ecstatic. In my mind I've entered the oral cavity of a mythic Japanese beast. The charred rock that circumambulate the outer rim compose her lips. Rows of icicles hang from her hollows like teeth on a shark. The sound of a gravel falling inside her is constant and animates the monster I've imagined.

The worst part of climbing Mt. Fuji is the descent. A slippery gravel road back to 6th station feels as if the only way down is head over heals. I find it easier to run. Not the type to maintain a large selection of shoes in my wardrobe to rotate with each ensemble, I've worn the same trainers for three years, of which have climbed pyramids in Mexico and more recently glaciers in the Indian Himalayas. That said, the soles are completely worn. By the time I made it the some 19km back to my bike at Sengenjiji, my feet were riddled with blisters and my legs were so sore I could barely walk. Lucky for me, peddling utilizes a different set of muscles!

lunes, 12 de septiembre de 2011

A Shared Responsibility


When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was struck by how many people on the street wear respirator masks. A few years back, during the supposed SARZ epidemic, the US media projected over and over images of Japanese pedestrians in masks at Tokyo's iconic Shibuya crossing. The SARZ scare has become distant memory, but many Japanese continue to wear masks for a variety of reasons, among them concerns of radiation poisoning from the recent Fukushima disaster. My roommate at the sharred house in Kunitachi, Maggi, cautioned me, "I don't advise foreigners to stay so long in Japan. Don't you want kids? Aren't you concerned about radiation poison and the long term effects it might have?" Evidently, Maggi is very concerned and she often takes extra precautions before going out, such as covering up any exposed skin, which includes wearing a respirator mask. However, I'm not sure we are safe anywhere and I hardly think a respirator mask is going to make a bit of difference. Maybe we should all walk around in Hazmat suits! There have been reports that radiation poisoning from Japan has traveled the wind currents to different parts around the globe. This is a delicate eco system in which we live and it is our shared responsibility to ensure its preservation. Fukushima is our backyard and likewise we cannot continue outsourcing our toxic industries to third-world contries and expect it will not effect us. This is our future, embrace or change it, but you can't run from it.

domingo, 4 de septiembre de 2011

Tokyo just wont let me go!

Well I did it. I finally left Tokyo, for a few days anyway. The ride from West Tokyo to Fuji- Yoshida (Route 493 to 138) is a pleasant 8 hour trip. The road winds along the side of a mountain river valley; crisscrossed by quaint wooden bridges, one can see the riverbed from the roadside as if looking through a glass. Wooden houses crowned with Edo-style tiled roofs dot the country side; small farms swelling with a myriad of fruits and vegatables; and a backdrop of rolling hills heavily forested in ceder, pine, and other varieties I'm unfamiliar with. The tall grass along the river is a buzz with the sound of crickets and cicidas. It was lightly drizzling when I left at 10 o'clock Tuesday morning and there was little traffic on the road. For all the bikes I saw in Tokyo, I only spotted a single cycler in the rain-drenched mountains. Just before sunset I arrived in Yamanakako-Mura, a small lakeside community just 10 km shy of Mt. Fuji's basecamp. The rain had ceased and I made my way to the water to rest and meditate on a sketch of the cloud covered horrizon. From the shore, the gold-specled scales of oversized fish gleamed in the water and black-necked ducks provided a surreal contrast with a large cruize ship buit in their image. Only a few minutes into my sketch and the rain returned in torrents. I quickly found shelter in a gazebo hidden in a wooded lakeside park. It is there I spent the night, on a picknic bench, my tent serving the duel purpose of tarp and blanket. There are two reasons I chose to sleep on benches rather than setting up my tent. First off, my tent is not waterproof. Do not shop at NorthFace! A higher price does not necessarily mean better quality, as most tents are made in the same Chinese factories. But more importantly, As I've previously noted, the Japanese are a very orderly people. Everything has a place. It is for this reason I am careful to park my bike in the designated spot. Leaning a cycle against the wall of a building is a feaux-pas. Likewise is setting up a tent in a public park. However, despite the apparent wealth in Japan, homelessness is endemic. Public parks are open 24hours and the proper place of a homeless person is on a park bench, which is where I try and pass unnoticed. So far it's worked.

The next morning I made the short ride to Fuji-Yoshida only to find that the mountain was closed to hikers this weekend until the passing of a forecast typhoon. Mt. Fuji, an active, but dormant volcano; the third tallest free standing mountain in the world, which has been the single most important pilgrimage destination for the Japanese people for almost two thousand years, is closed to trekkers after the month of October and I don't want to miss my opportunity to climb to the top and catch a glimpse of the epic sunrise from the famed 8th-station vantage point. Another weekend in Tokyo.