domingo, 2 de octubre de 2011

Typhoon cycling, Dinner with Yakuza and merriment in Fukushima

I wasn't 15 km out of Kusatsu when the typhoon rains hit Gunma-ken. This is the way it's going to be for the next week, so I might as well get used to it. However, the weather's been getting consistently cooler and rain is no longer refreshing like it was a month ago. With the dusk I role into some one-horse town, I never learn its name, but it's got a side-of-the-road shrine that I can sleep in without being bothered and there is a restaurant where I can dry out for awhile. The restaurant is the only building anywhere around here with a light on. It's got a large red sign as big as a billboard with presumably the restaurant's name in white Chinese characters. I park my bike under the overhang, remove a dry sweater from a plastic bag and go inside. The place is modest alright; zero attempt at frill; besides the drab window curtains, no pictures, nothing. There is only one table occupied at the far end of the room. On a tutami stage three men are seated on the floor. They are talking over each other and their voices fill the empty room. They've obviously been drinking. One of the men gets up to greet me. I assume he's asking me what I'll be having to eat. There are no pictures on the menu so I order the only dish I know they'll have that I can say in Japanese - ramen. One of the other two men, still seated, calls out to me in English. Despite hand gestures from the one who took my order to ignore his friend, I immediately seize the opportunity to join them at their table. Pretty soon I'm passing around my sketch book, distributing stickers, talking a mile a minute about my travels here in Japan and they are obviously amused. Twenty minutes go by before it occurs to me that we don't speak the same language. The man who called me over doesn't speak English after all, but it doesn't matter and we go right ahead talking anyway. By this time I'm an expert in gesture communication, charades or what have you. Turns out the man who took my order is the owner of this fine establishment and the other two are bosses of I don't know what. They act like a pair of regular yakuza right out of a Kurosawa film and they're generous to boot. By the time my ramen comes out, I've eaten and drank so much of their food and sake I'm no longer hungry. When I start sketching their picture they soon forget all about me and eventually, they get up to leave without saying a word.

Rain, rain, and more rain. By the time I crossed the mountain pass into the city of Nikko, my break pads had all but melted away. I found shelter in a two walled gazebo in the center of town, where I sat out the typhoon for the next two days. The rain didn't let up for a minute, isolating me to my modest refuge. On Sunday morning, when the sun finally peaked its head from the clouds, I was eager to leave the confines of my gazebo and get the hell out of this town. It's unfortunate I wasn't in the mood for sightseeing, because Nikko is home to a World Heritage site. A 17th century sacred bridge that is lacquered red, leads to a cedar-lined path of the temple complex, which is perched on hills overlooking the city. My patience allowed only as much time as it takes to walk through each torri and I was back on the bike. The sun was teasing me. No sooner was I out of Nikko and the rains returned in full force. I biked the 100+ km to Aizu-Wakamatzu without stopping in an attempt to sweat away the cold. The first half of route 121 is stunning mountains, lakes, and waterfalls and the rain and fog had a mystical effect on the scenery. The second half of the journey felt more like a subway than a remote mountain pass, there are so many tunnels. I arrived to Aizu just before sunset and the rains had finally exhausted themselves.

Today was the second day of Aizu Autumn festival. I was awoken early in the morning to fireworks being shot off within feet of my campsite in city park, just opposite the castle, alongside a picturesque tree-lined mote. I followed the sounds of drums and amplified voices across an ancient bridge into the castle's inner courtyard, where I was soon greeted by an American working for the city's international outreach center. After a free history tour, I learned that this festival commemorates those that died in Japan's Boshin Civil War (1868). The festival is itself a history lesson, beginning at the castle, actors reenact stories from Aizu's past that span 5 centuries, and then they hit the streets in parade formation. Aizu, the historic capital of Fukushima prefecture, was, as I learned, on the losing side of Japan's civil war. My tour guide explained how even into the modern era's Meiji period, Aizu suffered for it's past political allegiance and it wasn't until the 1960s that Japan's central government permitted the rebuilding of Aizu's castle. It is often the case that poorer locales are chosen as sites for nuclear power-plants. I wonder how the disaster at Fukushima-Daiichi might tie into the prefecture's unfortunate history.
After sundown, a public dance is held downtown in the sectioned-off main strip. I began sketching the bandstand and floating paper lights when a lady I met earlier that day with her two young daughters grabs me by the hand to join the synchronized dancing.

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