Friday, November 23, 2007


What is it about cold weather? For some reason my pleasure in life rises the lower the temperature. There's something about knowing the outside world is near freezing while you are inside next to the heater or with legs under your kotatsu (as mine are now). When I'm outside, I'm happy for the brisk air, but also I'm looking forward to getting home and having some hot soup and getting under the kotatsu.

Along with a general enjoyment of the winter months, I am excited about the opportunities cold weather provides for cooking: I like new things, and the tubers and squashes available now are fun to play around with. And mushrooms! Japan is the place to be for mushrooms. Frying and long stews are more acceptable during cold weather, too, when heat from your cooking food heats the house as well as the nimono (vegetables stewed until the stock is gone, sealing in the flavor) on the stove. This combination, as well as a decline in the interest in being outside that moves me in the summer months, makes winter months a great time to stay inside and cook.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the US, and today is Thanksgiving to Workers day (in other words, Labor Day) in Japan. I didn't have yesterday off, so I'm doing my Thanksgiving meal today. My plan is to really do it up, making vegan lentil loaf (like meatloaf), maybe some gravy, and the big finale, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) pie. Unfortunately I didn't plan well enough to have folks to share it with this year, maybe next year; I'll just have leftovers for a while. In any case, I'll post my recipes and results at my food site, Tokyo Organic.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nagano, Final Chapter

Two months later, I'm finally going to finish up.

Really, the best part of the trip began after my last entry ended: when I went back to the campsite I first saw after climbing to Kiri ga mine, I found a welcoming, party-like atmosphere. The main area of the extensive campgrounds was a large, communal space common in Japan: instead of being separate spaces surrounded by brush or trees, there is a large, open area where anyone can plop down a tent. You could, conceivably, be next door neighbors with another camper, and while the idea was repulsive when I first passed the grounds, this time around it didn't seem as terrible an idea. Children were running around, families were cooking lunch together, and though it wouldn't appeal to outdoorsmen or -women wanting to rough it, it was pleasant enough. Not to say I was ready for planting my tent next to a family with several crazy kids eager to say "Haroo" again and again to the scruffy-looking gaijin, and I was luckily able to secure a site a bit separated from the main fairgrounds. But I eagerly accepted when a Japanese man with good English pronunciation invited me over for some beers, food and conversation with his Japanese friends. If the trip taught me anything, it is that I really am a social person, hindered by anxiety around others and a consequent crankiness, but a social person nonetheless.

I took an inordinate amount of pleasure in having water to wash my clothes and myself a bit. I borrowed a hammer from my new friend next door and solidly pitched my tent. With my garish bicycling clothes hanging from lines attached to the trees next to my tent site I felt like I had a semblance of home. Taking the borrowed hammer back, I headed over to join my new friend's party.

He had introduced himself as Hide; I found out later this was for Masahide, and the difference caused a bit of confusion. For continuity's sake I'll call him Masahide (that's mahsahheeday, for those keeping score). He and his friends had assembled from all over the country to enjoy their summer vacation in the cool Kiri ga mine highlands. Masahide himself was from the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, which meant he was an "old-school" Tokyo resident; now, though, he lived in Matsumoto, in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. He is, actually, the sort of rugged mountaineering type that would normally steer clear of a place like Kiri ga mine: he told me stories of camping in Kamikochi in the middle of winter and climbing the "alternate" paths near where I stayed the first few nights in Yatsugatake, places where you have to have mountaineering equipment. He had considerable experience, and I gleaned a little of this knowledge in Kiri ga mine and, later, when I stayed with him and his family in Matsumoto.

Masahide and his friends had a comfortable setup composed almost entirely of Mont Bell (a Japanese camping equipment company) products: Masahide had once worked for Mont Bell and apparently had a great deal of faith in them. We sat under a green tarp while they cooked up rice, tempura, and curry. We ate and drank well into the rest of that afternoon, and the fare was quite a bit better than the rice gruel and packs of tough freeze-dried rice I had been eating.

On one of my many trips to the bathroom, I ran into a group of campers who had set up near the bathroom due to lack of other options. One, I could see in the failed light, was not Japanese, but he spoke a strange language to the other campers, all apparently Japanese. I thought perhaps they were speaking Brazilian Portuguese: there are many Brazilians in Japan. Warmed up after a few Japanese beers, I felt brave enough to attempt speaking to them: he was in fact an English speaker (from Australia?), and I found out later he was speaking Mandarin Chinese. Have to work on my differentiation of languages. I invited them up to take a look at my friend's telescope, and though they never came, it did begin another friendship.

The telescope was a humongous and expensive monster that one of Masahide's friends had brought for friends' enjoyment during the Pleiades meteor shower. Of course telescope is fairly useless during a meteor shower, but it was an excuse for him to get his friends to look at the sky. The barrel of the scope was precisely controlled by a motor. He started to show off various planetary bodies and clouds once it had gotten dark. However, the images were black and white and absolutely miniscule, and I found it difficult to expand them in my imagination to stars and planets. My first sight of Jupiter through a telescope was interesting, but views of other, unknown galaxies often felt like I was looking at a stereogram: my focus constantly shifted and yet I couldn't see the magical image that I knew must be hidden in the picture. In fact, at one point I did find the magical image, some body I can't remember. It was not so much that the image was so fantastic, more my mind finally recognizing that what I was looking at was incomprehensibly, sickeningly far away. The bit of awe passed quickly. More fantastic were a few surprisingly large meteorites I happened to catch with my naked eye; we spent much of the early night searching the skies until one person said "There's one!". Everyone would look where the speaker was looking, but of course the meteorite had disappeared by then. Then the famous fog of Kiri ga mine ("Kiri" means fog) settled in, and we were unable to see what was supposed to be the peak of the meteor showers. I went to sleep soon after, exhausted by days of strenuous travel followed by rich food and beer. My friends left early the next morning, though I had gotten Masahide's information before I went to sleep.

The next day I traveled to a nearby wetland meadow. Unfortunately, as usual I was unable to catch the beauty of the landscape: I've become quite incompetent with photography. Use your imagination! It was a pleasantly relaxed hike with few fellow hikers, over in a couple of hours. I was quite happy with returning early for a bowl of ramen, maybe an early night.

When I returned, though, the group that was near the bathroom had moved into my friends' old spot, and they, too, invited me over for food and beers. Couldn't they leave a poor traveler alone? I planned to leave the next morning, and wanted an early start. But of course I was curious about them and wanted more conversation.

Matthew (called by his friends "Ma-Shu" or something along those lines) had met the other campers in China, where they all lived for several years in a tiny town. They all seemed to speak fluent Mandarin, and since neither Matthew's English nor the Japaneses' English was as fluent, they often switched. Luckily I speak both Japanese and English, so I was able to catch most of the conversation not in Chinese. It was an interesting mix of culture. And their stories about China were fascinating (though at this late date I can't remember much of them!).

Matthew and his girlfriend live in Shizuoka, where Matthew works for a... competitor. He seems to be pretty well set up there, and they seem quite happy. He occasionally makes it up to Tokyo; hopefully they'll get in touch next time.

After a few too many happoshu's (a concoction that somehow cuts out the carbohydrates of a beer without completely destroying the flavor; I think they must use arsenic or something--kidding of course) I went to sleep, still naively hoping to get an early start the next day. I did actually get up early, but this was not a good thing: sleepy and hung over, I was cranky, and, in the end, the lack of sleep really ruined the rest of my trip. I had a terrible time packing my bag and getting it on the bike. After a few shouts and pleading I finally got the bag back on and headed off around 10 am (I had gotten up around 7) I said goodbye to Ma-Shu and his friends, and then moved on to try my luck again. I was headed for Utsukushigahara, another highland area with a promising name (Utsukushii means beautiful). It felt fantastic to be back on my bike after a couple days' rest, and the first part of the trip was very pleasant. I worked myself hard getting up a few hills, then it was all downhill for perhaps twenty kilometers. It felt great. I noticed several bicyclists coming my way, and soon found out that they were part of a "Tour de Shinshu", a tour of the Nagano area I was riding through. It made me feel proud to be riding up and down hills that were being used to test these athletes' endurance. I was obviously quite out of shape in comparison, but I was pushing myself.

Too hard. When I was hanging out with Ma-shu, I mentioned that I had ridden up the hill from Suwa, and one of his friends said "That's why he has such fat legs"--meaning it as a compliment. I said I was just fat, and we laughed, but I noticed my lower calves were quite a bit larger than I remembered. I knew there was no way I had built up muscle that quickly; I felt them, and they felt hard. It worried me, but I let it go.

But on those hills to Utsukushigahara, my energy soon flagged, and it was clear something was wrong. I could hardly keep my eyes open, and it began to take every ounce of my energy just to keep the pedals moving, even on flat ground. I found a wonderful camp ground--free and with camp sites separated from each other on terraces on a hill and ventured off to find a place to eat, hoping a good meal would cure me of this strange illness. I felt a tiny bit better after eating, but on the way back, a hilly climb that I mostly took on foot, I once again flagged, and I went to bed as quickly as I could.

Then the strangest thing happened: what sounded like electronic notes, perhaps from some trance album, burst through the air. I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. The sounds were mostly regular, constantly changing pitch but at a regular beat. Occasionally, though, they would stop. Anyone who has experienced such an almost regular beat while they are trying to sleep knows it is a fairly extreme sort of torture: just when you are about to fall asleep to the regular sound, the regularity disappears and wakes you up again. It went on literally for hours, and I really thought I was going to go crazy. But it finally stopped, or I fell asleep. I still have no idea what caused the noises.

Looking back now, I'm having trouble discovering what order I did what. In any case, I spent two nights in the campsite described above, beneath Utsukushigahara. During that time, I hiked up to Utsukushigahara--a large pasture area used for cows and thus extremely interesting to city-dwelling Japanese and dull to a boy from Kansas--then went to Matsumoto and back--a grueling but necessary ride to get sunscreen, as my arm was bleeding from exposure to sunlight. Though it was cool in the highlands, Matsumoto was near its peak temperature for the year, and I went through two bottles of water on my way back. When I finally reached my campsite again, I had to beg for water from fellow campers (they were extremely nice to me, giving me more than I should have taken) because there was no clean water available in the highlands. It really makes sense in hindsight that I felt so terrible at this point.

And I did feel terrible. In fact, I think that the "fat" legs Ma-Shu's friend noticed in Kiri-ga-mine had more to do with dehydration and sunburns than my musculature. I gave up. It had been a week in what I had planned would be a two week trip, but it was over. I went back to Matsumoto, entertaining the idea that I might search for a campsite a bit north and perhaps slowly head toward Hakuba, a mountain area about a day's ride north that Masahide had recommended. But I couldn't push myself up hills anymore, and even though it was only about ten kilometers to the campsite after I reached Matsumoto, I decided that if I couldn't get a hold of Masahide that day, I'd head back to Tokyo that afternoon.

While I waited for an answering email from Masahide, I rode around Matsumoto and took a look at Matsumoto castle. It is a starkly military castle without any of the refined beauty of other castles: white walls with large, simple ceiling beams. The only part that showed any sign of artistic sensibility more common in the peaceful days of the Tokugawa period is the moon viewing room, open on all sides for enjoyment of the moon. Its starkness, though, is part of its appeal. Still, its focus is on the muskets and rifles used at the castle, and though they did have a unique style, I just am not very interested in guns.

I knew Masahide would just be returning from visiting relatives for the Obon season, but I also was cranky from so many days of being dehydrated and pushing myself too hard, and I felt like I couldn't stand anymore difficulties finding campsites. He did get back to me, and thankfully I was able to stay with him and his family that night. I felt I would be an imposition, but he and his family showed no signs of the weariness I would expect from several days with the relatives, and they really treated me well. We talked into the night about hiking, English, and our responsibility to our (or his) children's generation.

The next day he and his family took me to Kamikochi, where I had planned to cycle. It was so effortless in a car, but I would have turned back if I had been on a bike. The only way I know of leads through narrow tunnels that just are not safe for bikers. There must be another way, but it would surely have taken several more days. We spent a couple of hours, first eating soba noodles and then lying and relaxing under the sun. He rushed me back to the train station just in time to meet the Tokyo-bound express.

I was the happiest I've been in a while to be home. I took real pleasure in Nishi arai and the area that I haven't since the very earliest days that I lived here. I enjoyed the trip, and I don't think it was a real unhappiness about the trip that caused me to be so pleased to be home; I guess I kind of missed the place and felt a bit as if I'd returned home.

The trip was an education. Certainly I won't attempt such a tour again until I'm in better shape, though I think I could manage a trip that included a few less hills.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pythagoras's Switch

I sometimes wonder why I'm here in Japan. I love it here, there's a great deal to say for the country, but my original purpose, learning more about the language and culture, seems to have fallen by the wayside. But then I see things like this and I realize there is a good reason I am here.

I remember seeing this video at a DVD store, and once I started watching I had a very difficult time looking away. I've always loved Rube Goldberg's old cartoons, and I find these creations absolutely fascinating. Language note--at the end of every setup, they say "Pytagora Suichi," or Pythagoras's Switch, I guess referring to the ancient mathematician. The little sign that always ends the routines has that written in Japanese.

More information is here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nagano, Part III

[Started August 12]

It's been a rough couple of days. Honestly, if I'd gotten more sleep or given myself a day to rest, I might have taken things a bit more lightly, but as things were, I think I'm not much cut out for this sort of travel.

The climb to the top of Kiri ga Mine [the hill I mentioned climbing in my last article about Nagano] was grueling, and I cried a bit when I finally reached the top. Dehydrated and exhausted, I never wanted to see another slope, but since it was fairly early and I'd only gone about 20 km horizontally, I passed the first campsite and went on to look for a more primitive site about 5 km on.

This meant climbing more hills. Normally they wouldn't be that bad, but I was utterly worn out. I stopped at the tourist-trap shopping mall and got water and tea, then kept going. I walked up the hills, then rode down, then walked up. I missed the turn the first time, then realized I wasn't to turn off the highway, but needed to actually go under the highway to meet up with a hiking route marked on my map. I jumped off the road and waded through shoulder-high grasses for a while until they cleared and opened up to reveal a visitor center. I filled my water bottle then moved on. The campsite was at the end of a long, very long gravel path. There were three buildings behind a wire fence, and I saw no one. Fearing the worst and yet still hoping, I searched for any sign of a caretaker; finally I saw a sign reading, in Japanese, "This campsite is closed at this time. Please use another campsite."

I broke down here, just completely overwhelmed by what happened that day. It really wasn't far to the previous campsite, maybe another 30 minutes or so. But I couldn't stand it anymore. I considered staying in the large, open field across from the three buildings that had obviously been used for camping before, but I'm a bit timid to do something like that without provocation. So, uncertain what to do and not really interested in doing anything, I sat there, trying to look pleasant when hikers coming from a nearby meadow path passed by.

Then a savior of sorts came along on his 250cc Yamaha Virago. Actually, "catalyst" is a better word, I guess. He didn't register me at first, but when he got off his bike and looked at the sign on the entrance to the open-field campsite and said "What, it looks like it's closed," I thought he was talking to me. In fact, though, he was talking to himself.

I talk to myself, but I'm usually fairly discreet about it and never knowingly do it in front of other people. I'm not of the "first sign of madness" mindset, as I've done it for 32 even years and have yet to go (completely) insane. It seems a bit more socially acceptable here than in the US, and I have several Japanese co-workers who talk to themselves publicly, especially when busy (which is nearly all the time). I recently read somewhere (I'm afraid my source is somewhere in the ether) that people who talk to themselves are more likely to be able to think through things more thoroughly (I'll let the alliteration stand), though again I am proof against that. In any case, I think it is more a sign of loneliness, or aloneness, than of madness.

Still, it is a bit unsettling to see, I know, and my biker friend was having a much more involved conversation than I am accustomed to, and at a louder than conversational volume. Finally he noticed me, and we complained to each other about the closing of the site. He said he'd been there many times, and that he really liked the place. Then, after a bit of public consultation with himself, he decided to stay anyway.

He was obviously a drinker, with rotting teeth that came to points and a generally dirty appearance (though of course I wasn't exactly spotless after three days without a shower), but he was also obviously a kind and friendly person who had a bit of trouble relating to "normal" people. Very often the two go together.

As I said, he was a catalyst, and I decided, after some quiet and private thought, to follow him. We agreed that threatening clouds encircling the heads of Yatsugatake were a good excuse in case police came out. We avoided much conversation as we pitched tents and prepared our separate dinners. When dinner was ready, though, he invited me over for conversation and some extra food--he guessed rightly that I wasn't able to carry much of a variety of foods on my bike. I declined until he offered some cooked ham--protein sounded pretty good at that point, and it was something I had very little of.

Our conversation was almost entirely in Japanese--occasionally he groped for an English word to explain a Japanese word I didn't understand. Because of this I'm not completely sure of the accuracy of my interpretation. But we talked a bit about camping and the growing number of roads in Nagano after the Olympics, and how difficult it is to get away from city lights in Japan. Even where we were, 1400 meters about sea level, away from even the small population of visitors to the mountains, mostly concentrated in a small area, even there the lights of Suwa city below lit up the western horizon. It was difficult to see the Milky Way, such a brilliant feature on dark nights on Mt. Shasta or in the boonies in Kansas.

We talked about languages, then his hobby, listening to shortwave radio for broadcasts from North Korea by any Japanese abductees. As I said, sometimes I didn't fully understand the conversation, and here is where it became most difficult to follow. From what I understood, abductees have made shortwave logs of their daily lives, and there are volunteers who listen at certain times of the day for these logs and register the results to some website.

He later brought out his liquor, saying one of the reasons he came to the camp was to drink. Can't say that I blame him, but alcohol is terrible for any physical activity and I haven't been much interested in it since the beginning of my trip. I tried a shot, though, and it was good--it had a spicy flavor, as if made from jalapenos, a new flavor in liquor for me.

Suddenly a deer barked nearby, and my companion told me deer had increased in the area. He said he'd been there in fall when the bucks' antlers begin to itch, and at one point had been woken up by the startling sound of antlers being scratched against a fence near his head. He then started talking about an insect, or animal--what it was I didn't understand at first. But as he continued, talking about deer's hooves and eggs dropped on the ground, I figured out he was talking about ticks and Lyme disease. He suggested that it might have been fear of Lyme disease that had closed the campgrounds. I had first seen a tick earlier in Yatsugatake, then another in this field as I was putting my bike away. Sitting in my shorts and flip-flops, I suddenly became very nervous and checked everywhere for the stupid things. I didn't find any, but the thought disturbed me until I left the next day.

I slept poorly. I blame the liquor, though I didn't drink much. I set up for breakfast. Hikers passed by, and I noticed one in particular who seemed to be well equipped, a veteran hiker. He sat on a rock nearby but behind me, and I forgot about him: I had more important matters to consider. My camp espresso machine, exactly like one I used on my trip from California to Kansas a couple of years ago, had broken, and after the frustrating day before I had a short fuse and threw a fit as well as the espresso maker. I'm sure I looked like a buffoon to the park ranger, the man who was sitting on the rock behind me. He came over after I'd settled down to trying to light my stove. He asked a few questions, was fairly friendly, but I sensed he was holding something back. He asked me a couple of times how long I planned to be in the area, then we sat in silence for a while. He wished me luck and walked off. Just before I left, my friend from the night before woke up and poked his head out to say goodbye.

I was uneasy about the whole deal, ticks, and trespassing, and all, but when I came by around noon a couple of days later, there was a camper who had actually taken down the fence and parked their car in the camp site, and they seemed to have had no problems.

[End of my short journal]

That was longer than I expected, so I'm afraid there will be a part four. The next one will have pictures!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

An Organic Interlude

I will post my final article about my Nagano trip soon, but life has intervened a bit and I haven't yet sat down and put it all down (or up).

But I want to write a little about my new hobby--cooking, in particular cooking organic, almost Macrobiotic foods.

Because of my dad's influence, I grew up eating Macrobiotic food, though only occasionally and not with much zeal. However, I learned a lot from the experience, and now, as an adult with high blood pressure and more mature taste buds, eating a stricter diet appeals much more to me. I generally try to eat organic foods, more for philosophical reasons than concerns about pesticides, though I do find organic foods taste better than conventional (sometimes much better, for example peaches and tomatoes). I always buy shade grown, fairly traded, organic coffee also for philosophical reasons, but more than anything because it just tastes better. But I've spent the last year eating primarily processed foods from the local supermarket, mainly because of laziness, I suppose. Once in a while I'd stop in at a ramen shop or Matsuya (Japanese-style fast food, with pork over rice), or even a curry tonkatsu, or fried pork cutlet. No wonder my blood pressure has risen.

Because of concerns about my health, because of some odd stuff that happened at the end of my biking trip, because of concern about the environment (livestock contributes more to global warming than automobiles), I decided last week to cut back on the processed food and try my hand at cooking some real food from scratch.

Before I continue, I should note that I am using the word "Macrobiotic" in a very loose way here--Macrobiotics is not just about being vegan or cutting sugar and salt, it is a whole way of life that I do not participate in. I actually know very little of the philosophy underlying Macrobiotics. I use the term basically because the cookbook I am using is called "Macrobiotic Start Book," and I want a better word than "vegan" to describe what I am doing.

In any case, using the book I just mentioned, I have made almost every meal from scratch, entirely with organic foods. I'm not going to claim any miracles have happened--if my blood pressure has gone down, I haven't measured it; I haven't lost any weight; I still need more sleep than I would like. What I'm interested in is the taste--four or five out of the five or six meals I've cooked so far have been really, really good, much better than I have eaten before. They were filling, more filling than most foods I eat. And I feel better about what I am eating--I know where every ingredient came from and how much I put in. So I also know I am eating a much wider variety of foods--until last week I probably ate a main dish consisting of salty sauce, some kind of meat, and perhaps one vegetable. I did often eat salads, but at best that was lettuce, avocado, tomato, onion, natto, and mushrooms, and recently I had settled on lettuce, natto, and onions most of the time.

Here's what I've eaten this week:
daikon (Japanese radish)
mushrooms (maitake and shiitake)
burdock root
kuzu (arrowroot)
sesame seeds
green onions and their cousins, nira and naganegi
pickled plums
lotus root
Japanese pumpkin (kabocha)
red pepper
Japanese seaweed (nori, wakame, and, in stock for soup, kombu)
Japanese cucumbers (kyuri)
Japanese eggplant (nasu)

Most of these are included in every meal (I mean dinner). I haven't included the wide variety of nuts, the tofu, or brown rice.

And I'll tell you what. It's good. It really tastes good. The best miso soup I've ever eaten came from my kitchen, and not because I made it. It just was made with high quality ingredients in the right proportion. I just ate an excellent curry, and perhaps my favorite dish so far was the first one, mabodofu, a spicy Chinese dish of tofu often made with pork. It was fantastic. It really pleased me that I had made it, but more than that I was happy to be eating something that tasted so good!

Honestly, an important part of the change was shifting from eating processed foods to cooking from scratch--using quality ingredients improves the flavor a hundred-fold, I'm sure. But the simplicity of vegan ingredients makes it enjoyable as well--when it tastes good. If it doesn't taste good, I won't bother eating it. I've had a couple of flops so far, but the rich flavor of the other foods have made up for those bad meals. And it would be pretty difficult to go back to processed foods, though I haven't sworn off them completely yet.

One final note--one big reason I've started this whole business was to reduce the amount of packaging I throw away because of processed foods. I haven't kept a tally so far, but I imagine the difference is pretty pronounced. But my biggest problems is drinks--I drink a lot of water and juice every day, and plastic bottles add up extremely quickly, and though I can recycle the things, plastic recycling isn't the most pleasant process from what I hear. I filter my water and try to bring a bottle with me wherever I go, but juices are a much bigger problem. At some point I'll probably start making my own fruit juices, but for now I'm very happy with my latest concoction: Tangy Ginger Water(TM). I cut up some ginger, throw it in a teapot and boil it, then add apple vinegar and honey. I let it cool to room temperature, then throw it in the fridge. It really tastes great, and would be ridiculously cheap if it weren't for the honey (it tastes good without it, but I prefer a bit of sweetness in my drinks), as it is mainly water. I just wanted a little bit of a healthier drink, and it turned out pretty well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Nagano, Part II

[Written Aug. 11]

An adventurous couple of days. The day after the last entry, I went for a hike. I was hoping to climb Akadake, the highest of the peaks in the range of Yatsugatake, but time quickly became a factor. I started a bit late, tired after a strenuous day, and soon got lost. I assumed a sign reading "hiking course" in Japanese meant that was the way to go, but after about twenty minutes of descent--into what looked a lot to me like trespassing on the villas I'd seen the day before--instead of the ascent I expected, I decided I was off. I hiked back up and took a fork the other way. Not five steps on, but still difficult to see from where I'd taken the wrong road, was a sign showing the direction I wanted to go. I laughed.

The first part of the route was rather long and strenuous. I thought at first I was just out of shape or maybe tired, but on the return trip I realized it really was a fair hike. Still out of shape, though.

After finishing the first part, I began to give up on climbing Akadake. That first path, with the little side trip, had taken two hours, at that rate I would have to spend a couple of hours on my way back in the dark, something I've learned to dislike doing. But I kept up hope until I saw Amidadake, an intervening mountain almost as tall as Akadake (Amidadake is named after Amida, the Buddha presiding over the Pure Land who allows entrance to anyone who speaks his name enough times). If I could climb that, I would be quite satisfied: it looked impossible. But I did make it and I am satisfied: the view from the top was fantastic. Rather better than from the top of Akadake as I could see Akadake itself as well as Tengudake with its dual crown, the other, lesser peaks of Yatsugatake, and ol' Fuji-san himself, so incredibly imposing from any viewpoint. Here there were the thin, horizontal clouds covering Fuji in strips that I recognized from woodblock prints of two centuries ago. My camera doesn't do it justice, but...

Yesterday was a wash, and yet in the end I guess I'm glad it worked out as it did. When I began riding, a noise that had begun a couple of weeks before began to really sound like trouble. I decided to continue to ignore it, but I couldn't ignore the fact that one of the brake pads I had installed the day before the trip was digging into the front tire. In trying to fix that, I tore the cable connecting my wired computer to its speed and cadence meters, effectively turning it into a watch (it shows the time when not connected to the meters). I knew I should have gotten another wireless computer given the practical realities of a folding bike, but I didn't like the other options. Oh, well. I somehow remained remarkably calm about the computer, most of my angst focussed on the brake pads and the slowly growing creak coming from the front of the bike.

Finally, after about a half an hour of fiddling, I got the brakes in line and headed out, but the noise wouldn't go away, and it began to feel like real trouble. I thought it was the stem (the vertical part that holds the handlebars) complaining about the extra weight from a bag I had installed--in fact it was a set of ball bearings in the front hub. I didn't learn this until later, though--all I knew was that the hub was shimmying up and down and that I had to get it replaced or my ride was over. Instead of heading for my next destination, Utsukushigahara (say that ten times fast) meadowlands, I went for a city called Chino, a city in the valley.

I was angry and a bit worried, and really had no idea where to begin to look for a bike repairman. Tokyo has one on every corner, but they are usually only equipped for shopping bikes. Chino didn't seem to have any--I searched for an hour or so before I decided to try my Japanese on a stranger. I asked a gas station attendant where one was. "500 meters that way," he said without pointing. I went in the direction he was facing, but found nothing. I sailed past him, going the other way, to ask the next person. I went to a convenience store to get some food and ask for help there. This saved the day--I had passed the perfect shop just seconds before.

I was heartened to see Dahon folding bikes there, as this meant they would very likely have parts available to solve my problem. I was correct that a normal shop would be no help: I found out later that Dahon front forks are narrower than regular ones. Whether this means non-Dahon or non-folding, I don't know, but I was lucky in any case.

But before we started talking about hubs, he showed me the problem--my front bearings had been turned into powder. I don't know why it happened, and so, of course, am worried it will happen again, but in any case it would require either a couple of days or a quick fix replacement of the front hub with a non-quick-release one. I opted for the latter, of course. The owner put all of his other work aside and quickly replaced it for me, charging me only for parts.

The shop owner's name is Iida, and he was extremely helpful and an interesting man. He had travelled the Tokaido road (a historical road that connects Tokyo and Kyoto) from his home to Tokyo by bike just this May, watching for the markers spaced 4 km apart along the way; he had been in a downhill mountain biking race just the month before; he was in his sixties. I hope to be as healthy as him at that age.

After he painstakingly fixed the front wheel and reset the brakes, front and back, then aired the tires to 70 psi, as they should be (they were at 30!), we chatted a bit, and he offered me some tomatoes and cucumbers from his organic garden. I had only had freeze-dried meals for two days, so fresh fruit and vegetable tasted fantastic. He told me that, though it was officially forbidden, I could stay in the park lining the Suwa Lake just a bit north. I hoped it wouldn't come to that, as I wanted to get to a campsite on my original path before the end of the day, but I filed the information away as a last resort.

I tried my best to get to the campsite--for two hours I struggled uphill, sometimes walking, sometimes riding (my homemade chainwheel change, reinforced to avoid my Nikko troubles, has definitely come in handy, but on some of the steeper hills I get winded walking). When I met up with a road taking a more scenic route I had skipped on the way up, I decided to give up and take that road back down. I'd check out the park there; then, if I couldn't find a good place to camp there, I'd head down to the lake and look for a site to sleep. It had a great slide, one of the longest I've seen

In fact there were some nice spots at the park, but I felt uncomfortable at this point, and ended up riding down to the city of Suwa. It just happened there was a fireworks display that night [in fact the display was one of many that week, in preparation for a huge display later in the month], and I was treated to a Taiko drums session just before that. After, I headed to the far side of the lake to find a spot, ate a convenience store meal, spread out a sleeping bag, hoped the somewhat ominous clouds to the south would dissipate, and fell asleep after a couple of hours listening to the cars whizzing by about 20 meters away.

Despite all that, I feel pretty well rested--today I hope to attack that hill again, then make it a bit farther to a place I might have made it yesterday had luck been a little kinder.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Nagano, day one

This is the first entry from my trip to Nagano, from August 8.

Today worked out very well. I took a route I hadn't planned on, it ended up far better than I imagined. I'm writing now from a site adjoining a yama goya or "mountain hut", though "hut" is inappropriate for some of the elaborate halls that line the tops of mountains in Japan. A stream is rushing by very near the site, and I have a perfect rock to sit on where I can write and watch the flow.

A 6:30 train meant an early start--for two days in a row I've woken up at 5:30. I'd packed the night before, and most things were ready. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get anyone to take care of two new plants I'd bought just a week before--we'll see if I come back to brown stalks [the plants were fine, and one was even unfolding a new branch when I got back]. I strapped a weatherproof bag packed with my tent, clothes, and dry camp food onto the rear rack, clipped in my front bag, climbed into a larger than expected backpack, and headed out at 6:20.

Yes, 6:20. It takes me about 7-8 minutes to bike to the station, but 2-3 minutes to package my bike (trains require that bikes be covered to avoid damage to the car or oil smudges on fellow passengers). So I missed the train--though my phone said it was exactly 6:30, there was no evidence of the train when I passed the ticket gates. Indeed, the train must have left seconds earlier.

Tired and easily irritated, I cursed my luck (not too loudly, there were plenty of passengers waiting for other trains who might hear me) and went to the platform. I had one unplayed card--I'd have preferred to take the private train I'd just missed all the way to where I could transfer to the train headed to my destination, but I also had the option of transferring a couple of times on the JR lines to go to the other side of town and catch the same train there. I had rejected this option because it would be early rush hour and I doubted I could get on the Yamanote (pronounced yama no te), a line that encircles Tokyo and has a daily ridership in its one route almost as large as the entire New York Subway system. Three large bags, one filled with a 12 kg bike, surely wouldn't fit?

To my surprise, both the Joban, a commuter train that drops truckloads of folks from Northern Chiba on Tokyo every morning, and the Yamanote had quite a bit of free space. Once in Shinjuku, I jumped on the Azusa rapid for Kobuchizawa, and I was off! I wasn't able to get a seat, but my bike makes a fair chair when folded. I was exhausted but couldn't sleep; still, the two and a half hours were over quickly.

I soon set out, but immediately found a problem: I am horribly out of shape. The slopes around here aren't quite as bad as on the way to Lake Chuzenji, but I was quickly winded and had to walk. I blamed lack of sleep, and that certainly must have played a part (as did the extra 40-50 lbs in baggage), but honestly, I am just not that fit at the moment.

I pushed on after walking the bike for a while, until I hit a turnoff for Kannon Daira. The name interested me (some may know the Chinese name of Kannon, Kuan Yin, better), so I stopped to check my map to see if I should push on or go up that way. I soon discovered that the plans I'd made just didn't make sense--I'm not sure why, but I had focused on the east side of Yatsugatake, never considering the west side. But since the other places on my itinerary were on the west side, I would need to go in an unnecessary loop up north and back west, since there are only hiking passes in the main part of the mountain chain. I didn't like this when I was planning, and I even considered carrying my bike up the mountain if that were possible. It somehow never occurred to me to just take the western road when it forked north of Kobuchizawa.

I quickly changed plans and headed back down the slope (a pleasant change after an hour of climbing hills!). When I turned the correct way, the whole feeling of the day changed. I had been thinking it would take 2-3 days of riding (especially at the pace I was going) to clear Yatsugatake and headed on to the Japanese Alps, and a stop for a day's hike added another day and a half. That burden lifted, I was now looking at maybe 3 days to clear the mountains, including hike! Of course, riding through Yatsugatake for two extra days wouldn't be such an awful thing, but I just didn't like it. The change improved my mood a hundred-fold.

Also, the steady upward slope of the eastern path was replaced by a far more enjoyable up and down. I was able to pedal with all my might, knowing I would soon get a rest on the downhill. And I made time. Even more, there were a good cluster of camp sites and mountain huts in this direction, so there was a good chance I'd find something quickly and for not much money. This was perhaps my greatest concern, and here it was resolved in a flash.

I decided to push my luck a bit--I headed for the mountain I'm currently staying in. The cluster of huts I saw were managed and had amenities like a hotel and cost similarly. There are campsites attached to the huts usually, and this is what I planned to head for; I noticed, though, an unmanaged hut (offering no amenities and thus free!) deep in the mountains. I thought I could make it in a couple of hours, and if my luck didn't hold out and the hut was occupied or otherwise unusable, I could still make it to the other huts before dark.

The road here was magnificent. After I passed (walking my bike up the steep hill) several rented villas, the houses turned into trees, and I could hear a river rolling by below. I was able to see the peaks of Yatsugatake through tree cover, and the view excited me all the more.

Along the way was a mizuba, a place certified to have clean water and good for filling up water bottles before a big hike. This is a great feature of Japanese mountain trails, though there were many times I really could have used more water!

Finally I reached the hut. The hut itself was a mess, and I don't think anyone has been inside for a long time. There is a tarp down the hill a bit where someone has chopped new wood to make a fire (and obviously failed)--I put my tent up there. Now off to an early bedtime!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nikko, part two

Okay, now I attempt to catch up with things that have happened the past month. I've just come back from a trip through Nagano, where I biked and camped for a week. It was quite an experience, and I have pictures and entries to put up here; however, that will have to wait. First, Nikko!

This was written mostly in the middle of July.

I returned to Nikko two days ago [July 16th]. I had been planning to come, somehow buying a new gear-ring for my bike to make climbing the hills a bit easier, but the time came closer and I had no free time to stop by a bike shop. But then nature intervened.

While having an after-class drink with students on Saturday, I received a call from Headquarters--the strong typhoon that had torn through Okinawa and southern Japan was threatening enough to call school the next day. For the first time in my life I had a typhoon day.

And I needed it. Besides the gear, I planned to get camp food, some better cycling clothes, as well as look at some other upgrades for the bike in the near future. But more than anything I needed that new gear-ring.

As it so often does in this city, it took all day to find the item I was looking for--you can find anything in Tokyo, but you need time to find it. I also bought a rear light and a rack for the bike, as well as bike shorts (I wear shorts over them!) and some great separable pants.

I ran into some problems with the chain ring that I'll explain later, but I it turned out to be a workable but flawed solution. I'll just say for now that I put the bolts on loose, never a good idea on something traveling at high speeds for any length of time.

Anyway, armed with my extra day, I was ready on Monday to head for my second trip to Nikko. I loaded up my new rear rack with a sleeping bag, then threw tent, water, food, cooking set, clothes, and other odds and ends in my back pack. It was a heavy setup for just a few days, the clothes being far heavier than I anticipated, but I managed the whole trip, even a particularly strenuous situation I'll explain later.

Pretty pleased with my preparations, but very tired, having only gotten about 4 hours sleep, I set out the next morning for Nishi Arai station. Once again I took a rapid train to Nikko. I decided to get off early--I wanted to get a camping lantern and decided to stop off in a town called Imaichi to look around for a sports equipment store. I didn't have any luck and decided to just continue to use the bike light I used a year ago in Okutama. I've used the same batteries as the ones I feared would run out on Mt. Mitake for a year and a half and they still haven't given out.

So I set out from Imaichi when it started to rain. Rain was a frequent, if not completely overbearing, companion. This time, as others, the rain was only enough to cool me a bit and didn't do much to my new pants or rain jacket.

I soon discovered a serious problem--one that might have ended the trip right there. It was the first of a triad of losses: I had lost two bolts from the chain ring I had replaced for the trip up the mountain even before I began my ascent. Under tension, the bolts had unscrewed and I was close to cracking the ring itself. One more lost bolt and I would have been in trouble--there are five bolts on your average chain ring, and though with three left I can make a triangle that will keep a tenuous hold on the crank, two wouldn't provide enough support.

There was no way I was going to stop, though, so I made my triangle shape and hoped for the best. Occasionally I checked the bolts and tightened them, and using this technique I almost made it to the campsite before it broke down again.

In the meanwhile, I worked my way up the iroha hill I explained in a previous article. It was true the smaller chain ring made things a bit easier though this time I was carrying a much heavier load. I didn't need to stop as much and the climb went much quicker. As I was struggling my way up, I was shocked to see first one, then another, runner puffing his way up the hill. It is something like 600 meters vertical distance over 6 kilometers, which is a fair slope. These guys were taking it at a good speed and passed me during one of my many stops. They reached the top well before me, and were on their way back down well before I got there. Quite impressive.

The camp site was indeed quite empty, and I selected a spot far back from the front gate, about 10 feet from Lake Chuzenji. I put up my tent, then headed for the town to pick up dinner if I could. I was happy to find a small grocery store just about to close. The owners were friendly, and I visited a couple of more times during my stay there. After a fifteen minute ride back to the camp and a meal, I was off to bed.

The next day I headed for a place I had marked for a climb--the main purpose being to hike to a camp site further into the park, in Okunikko. On the way, I passed through a meadow, Senjogahara, which reminded me a bit of Yosemite, and took a few photos. Though it can't really beat Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, it was nonetheless pleasant.

I started my hike just north, past Yunotaki, a waterfall being enjoyed by a number of elementary school students.

Across a bridge there is a nice, easy hike around a lake, and then on into a ski area. This begins the approach to Mt. Shirane. Not a particularly beautiful view, and the ski lift mars the mountain meadow. After passing the ski slope, the trail becomes noticeable steeper, until you are crawling hand and foot up the side of the mountain. This was not what I had planned for the day, and though I felt somewhat defeated, I turned back and returned the way I'd came.

I'm not much of a mountain climber, and it is really the mountain plateaus that I enjoy. I was led back to the Senjogahara meadow, where I found there was a path leading through thick meadow growth, and felt as if something had been throwing obstacles in my way to show me this place, where I really wanted to go anyway.

I lost the cheap map I'd brought with me, it somehow falling out of my jacket pocket on the way back to the camp, marking the second of the trio of lost things from the trip. My final day I decided to go for a short hike in the southern part of Chuzenji, and here I lost the last of the triad.

First, though, some explanation. I invented a new form of extreme sport, or stupid sport, or whatever, about half way into the day. I hoped to climb a hill on the hike, then ride my bike down a mountain road at the top of the hill. As you might guess, this requires carrying the bike up to the top. Being somewhat naive and masochistic, that is what I tried to do. I'd hoped the slope would be short and manageable, but I was quite wrong. It took a ridiculous amount of time to climb the hill, and there were many places where it was a bit dangerous to be lugging a 12 kilogram bicycle. I finally ended up giving up on the mountain road, and took another path down and headed back to Nikko city and home.

Along the way I lost my bike computer. I searched for perhaps thirty minutes for the stupid thing, but never did find it--I imagine it is still lying just out of view under the dense growth.

I enjoyed the trip, especially the second day. The meadows of Nikko are magnificent, and I hope to do quite a bit more hiking and biking there.

Friday, August 03, 2007

An Aside

I know I'm supposed to be providing pictures of my second trip to Nikko, but it's taking longer than expected and I want to talk about my day today. Since I'm leaving on my next trip, into the Japanese Alps, next week, it is unlikely the Nikko trip will posted soon...

Today was a pretty good day, as far as workdays go. I was assigned a sub shift, a sort of waiting shift where if something bad happens I'm ready to go replace a teacher or something. Very often nothing happens, and we are left with nothing to do for an entire shift. So most of the day I was able to plan my lesson for tomorrow, study maps for my trip, and watch the other teacher at the school teach kids. Only at the end did I take over for the regular teacher who was also there, so he could have some time off as well.

The real pleasure of the day was seeing one of my kids from last school year. Though she was somewhat of a trouble maker, she was that way because she is different, smarter than most kids her age (she's now six years old). So I had sort of mixed feelings when I taught her--she would cause trouble in class, but I could tell she was going to grow up to be quite an individual, and those kids are my favorites.

It was a real surprise to see how much she had grown and changed in just a few months. She was much taller, and she had become much more obedient in class (I hate the word obedient, but I can't think of a better one at the moment--I guess I mean more studious and less disruptive).

She was a bit shy at first, but she quickly let down her guard and was asking me questions (in Japanese) and laughing. I watched her class, and she would often turn to look at me and smile a big gap-toothed grin (there are windows looking in to the kid's rooms, a feature which absolutely horrified me at first but which really is good for the mothers and fathers, and the occasional teacher with free time). A couple of times she caused trouble in the class, then immediately looked my way, as if to show she hadn't been completely tamed. When she left, she waved, walking backwards toward the elevator, seemingly reluctant to go.

This is the real joy of being a teacher--the respect and love of your students. I complain a lot about my work, and to be honest the joys are outnumbered by the trials, but just barely. The kids can certainly be painful at times, but I have yet to meet a kid who really was trouble, who was unlikeable and who I just couldn't teach (I'm lucky). And then, rarely, I have these brief moments of recognition when I get, for example, to see the growth of a student I taught before and to understand that I have had some effect on her life (though I'm afraid her English isn't a whole lot better than when I taught her!). Unfortunately, I probably won't get a chance to see her again, but I wish her well. I felt from the first few days I taught her that she will have a hard life because she is different, but I hope I am wrong. I hope she remains different and yet is still able to make her way in the world.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nikko, part one

[Again a late post. I first went to Nikko last week for a day, then returned this week for three days. Part one I wrote while on the train back from my first trip, part two will come later, with photographs.]

Today was a satisfying day. I have had some trouble finding energy/time to get on my bike for long rides lately. Last week, I felt the weight of the last few weeks--trouble with a business class, interpersonal troubles, as well as a continuing, serious doubt about what I am doing here in Japan, have all taken their toll. While a couple of bike rides in that time have been enjoyable, one was frustrating because I got lost and didn't even come within 20 km of my destination, and the other was 12 hours long(!). They were good exercise and needed preparation for a planned trip over summer vacation, but were difficult to recover from. All this combined with a lack of sleep over the work week finally became too much, and I couldn't do anything last week but stay home. I had planned another bike ride that week, but woke up late and decided the 6 hour train ride for 4-5 hours of riding was just not worth it. Instead, I played video games and soaked up the feeling of not doing anything for an entire day. Though cycling is my favorite activity by far these days, another week without resting might have killed my enthusiasm for biking.

The rest helped. The panic I normally feel before class--something not alleviated despite a year of doing the same thing--was very much reduced this week, and though the business class was a complete fiasco for yet another week, it didn't bother me as deeply as it usually does.

Perhaps best of all, though, I was really ready for a ride this week. I rode my bike before work on Monday (btw--my days off are Tuesday and Wednesday, if I haven't said that before), and it felt like it had been a month. The feeling of being on the bike was fantastic. It hardened my resolve to go somewhere special this week: namely, Nikko.

I am planning to start my summer trip by heading towards Okutama and thus I have been focussed on that area. It is mountainous, and since I have little (no) experience riding in the mountains, I wanted to test myself. But it takes three hours each way, as I've said, to get there by train, and that's a bit much for a day trip. I decided to head to Nikko because I've never been there, though it is a World Heritage site and one of the most famous areas of Japan; it also has mountains. I was pleased, then, when I found it would only be a two hour train ride as I am on the train line that, ultimately, ends at Nikko. I managed to get up early and, despite threats of rain from the Internet weatherman, decided to pack up and go.

It was a pleasant enough train ride and surprisingly cheap. It did start to rain almost immediately after I arrived, but I unfolded my bike and headed out. I considered visiting the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the World Heritage site, but my main interest was in getting to the natural beauty of Nikko National Park and Lake Chuzenji; more than anything I wanted to try those hills. The 1300 yen fee was too steep for just a quick glance, so I passed on. The rain calmed a bit, though fog hung over the area the entire day.

The hills soon came. The roads in and out of the Lake Chuzenji area, my destination, make a pair called the "iroha hills". "Iroha" comes from a pre-modern method of arranging the Japanese syllables according to the order of a memorized Buddhist prayer instead of the modern ordering by pronunciation. It is as if English-speaking schoolchildren memorized "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" instead of the alphabet. There are 48 syllables in this older system, starting with "i", "ro", and "ha", and there are 48 curves, assigned rather a bit arbitrarily, on the paved roads. Thus the name.

As you go towards Lake Chuzenji from Nikko city (west, in other words), you gain altitude. The curves, and the syllabary, begin from there. Thus, curve #1 on the ascending hill is "i", #2 "ro", and #3 "ha", climbing to the 20th, "ne". The return, descending trip, goes through the other 28, ending with "su". I noticed there were a couple more hills than marked on this descent, and according to the Japanese article at Wikipedia, there were indeed originally 50 total curves, but the "official" number was reduced to neatly fit this system.

I personally don't know the order of the system, but luckily there are signs at each curve giving the number and the syllable associated with that number. Or unluckily--I hate running counts of my progress when I am exercising, and the excruciating slowness of the numbering of the curves as I struggled up the steep hills was particularly annoying. However, I was happy when I saw 17, "re", knowing the ascent would soon be over (though without any idea of how soon). By this point I was stopping every couple of minutes to take a breather or get out of the way of ascending car traffic. I don't recommend the rode to Chuzenji for this reason--the roads are narrow and closely walled on both sides, and huge tour buses spewing an unfamiliar amount of black air climb past one after another. Unfortunately, there is no other bikeable route available that I am aware of.

My bike help up quite well, but I sorely needed some lower gears. The grades were manageably steep and I think with a greater number of gears I would have needed less breaks. As it was, though, it took me nearly four hours to go 16 km and gain about 500 m.

The struggle was worth it. Chuzenji, in fact, was not as great as one might be led to think, but I hope to go back next week for a few days' trip, when I will camp and hike through the surrounding mountains. What was worth it was the feeling of accomplishment--though, honestly, 500 meters over 16 km is not such a great feat in the world history of bicycling, for me it is a new record. I felt extremely satisfied that I had come so far all on my own power, and even told the cars that passed me how proud I was as we descended into the Chuzenji area together.

I began to worry at this point that I might have trouble getting back. After four hours I knew there was no chance I'd be able to go hiking as I'd hoped, but I wanted at the very least to find the campsite I'd planned to look into for my camping trip the next week; however, it was approaching 4 pm, and I was worried I wouldn't be able to find the campsite and still be able to get back down the mountain before dark. I didn't want to race down the curvy return road with cars bearing down on me in the dark, and besides, I was shy of late returns after my experience in Mitake nearly a year ago. But I thought it a shame to come so far through so much effort and still not know if I would be able to camp there (which was, of course, the reason underlying my decision to continue on Mitake...). I proceeded on.

The campground was only about 15 minutes on, in Shobu ga Hama, a beach area on the northwest part of the lake. The attendant said there should be no problem the next week and I rode away eager to come back for a longer stay.

I started my decent almost immediately. I remembered reading somewhere to be careful of squeezing on the brakes as they would heat the rims to a point where it might burst the tube and cause a blowout. No doubt about it--after a minute of clenching the brake levers, the front rim was hot to the touch and might have heated the inner tubes to a dangerous temperature had I held on much longer. I ducked out of the way of passing tourist-carrying pollution-mobiles and let the rims cool, then continued. I did this several times, but still managed to get down to the last syllable in less than 30 minutes. I coasted almost the whole way to Nikko city, getting to the station just twenty minutes before the train I'd hoped to catch.

It truly was a great trip. I proved to myself I am capable of something (even if it takes four hours!). I also experienced the majesty of the mountains, something I have not tasted in nearly a year. Standing at a point half-way down the mountain, breathing and looking up at the green heads of the mountains, I remembered a half-forgotten and never fully understood feeling that there is a purpose to living, something so far from the inane life we city-dwellers lead without thinking. Something hidden not in huge mansions, safety-deposit boxes, or in the breast of another human being, but here, somehow here, high in the mountains.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Yesterday's News

[Note: this is from a few weeks ago--I wrote it on the train while I was traveling back from Southern Chiba, and have just now decided to file it. It's a cross-post from my bicycling blog that frankly gets a lot more attention these days]

Yesterday, I had a great day riding through the city. I had just finished Kurt Vonnegut, Jr's Cat's Cradle, and I decided to look for anything else I hadn't read in one of the few used bookstores that sell titles in English, the Blue Parrot, located across town in Takadanobaba.

I did a sort of rambling trial on my way home from the Earth Day ride a month ago. This time, I used my experience from that trip, as well as advice from a guidebook, to partially plan a more defined route. It worked quite well.

Though Tokyo, like every developed city in the world, is ruled by the automobile, there are many areas, hidden from the 6 lane thoroughfares cars mostly use, that are more pleasant for the bicycle or pedestrian. A good example is on either side of the Toden Arakawa light rail line--the only of its kind in Tokyo. The Arakawa line cuts across the northern part of Tokyo, and roads run on either side much of the way. These roads, because they force a car to cross the line's tracks if it wants to take a right or left turn, are left mainly to human-powered travelers, with the occasional local traffic. Best of all, the Arakawa trains are remarkably slow and stop frequently, so it is possible for a bike to keep up with it and benefit from the railroad crossings, which stop cross traffic and effectively give the bike rider a green light. I raced the train, and though I lost a number of times, I was always able to catch up at the next station, and finally ended up winning. A bitter victory, as the intersections were no longer mine to blow through... For nearly 15 minutes, though, every intersection was mine.

Though my area has succumbed a bit to the temptations of sprawl, many of the areas the Arakawa line travels through--Kita, Toshima, and Itabashi wards, are still blessed with tiny, winding streets that both conceal the secret magic of Tokyo and provide refuge for those on foot or two (or three) wheels. Though these alleys will slow down the more athletic biker, I usually make about 20 km/h, and I much prefer them to the seconds-from-tragedy feel of the major throughways. I still hit the big roads, of course, when I feel like covering some distance ;).

I remember, in particular, one of these "alleys" opening upon a triangular shaped park somewhere just north of my destination. The park forked the road, and to my left was a man pulling a loaded cart the size of a truck bed behind him as he walked, and to my right, commuters, dressed in suits and dresses, were headed home on their charinkos. In the park itself, mothers were gabbing and the whole area was full with the laughter of children. Honestly, it wasn't the most beautiful area--undeniably city, concrete and a playground covered in fine gravel, with little that could be said to be green or flowery--but the air of relaxed interaction struck me. "This is what they mean by community," I thought, moved, as I rode past.

The first time I discovered these old alleyways was, of course, on my first trip here. I've explained, in another blog's entry, some of the peculiarities of the alleyways of Kita ward, where I stayed for a month. Part of my trip took me through this neighborhood, to meet up with a walking path along the Otonashigawa, a miserable stream. The stream is miserable because it is always a trickle, surrounded by a huge fortress of concrete that is meant, I suppose, to protect the surrounding residences from its capricious flow. But if you can manage to ignore the sad canal, the tree-spanned walkway that lines it is restful and pleasant, and there are numerous parks to stop off in for a moment, including a maple tree park, cherry tree park, and a park with several waterfalls.

The trip down to Takadanobaba from Otonashigawa wasn't particularly inspiring.I was very happy, once there, to find two Kurt Vonnegut books. It was a good find in a small English used book market.

On the way back I took some recommendations from a Japanese biking guidebook I use quite often. Though I have the series of books to thank for some great rides, this was a loser. It focussed on ugly, dangerous streets that could quite easily have been replaced by smaller, more esthetically pleasing roads. The emphasis, I suppose, was on speed, but I don't think choking on scooter fumes while waiting for that 10th light you've shared with it is worth the higher heart rate. But I saw them through most of the way until they recommended a four-lane parallel to a more enjoyable one lane. I chided the authors, then took my one lane back to the Arakawa rail line, which I took home.

Yesterday was a whim, but today I finally took a trip I've been toying with for some time. Although I really like Tokyo, I've been wanting both to get on some less-used highways out in the country to get some speed going, and to see the ocean. I can't say today's trip really satisfied either of these hopes completely, but it was still worth it.

I've been primarily riding straight from my house to someplace and back, only rarely using the train. But to get into "the country" from Tokyo, you have to really travel, and the best way is by train. So I set out from Nishi Arai at ten this morning for a three hour trip deep into the southern part of Chiba, Southern Boso. Chiba is opposite Tokyo across the Tokyo Bay, but although it is fairly close to the city, many areas are difficult to get to because of mountains, and parts of Chiba are quite rural.

I got off in Tateyama, an ugly city with narrow streets packed with cars and lined with strip malls. I was able to get some speed up, but the early part of the trip was marred by sprawl and cars. Nothing I haven't experienced before, but it was something I was hoping to get away from.

The trip got worse, however, once I reached the ocean on the other side of the peninsula. Chikura, the name of the region, has very little to recommend it, unless you like headwinds, viewing the ocean in tiny glimpses between shanties, or fishing boats. I don't like any of those things. I cursed the guidebook writers again.

However, the last 25 kilometers were much more pleasant. From Shirahama on, there are actual beaches, a tailwind, and wide views of the ocean. There are even short paths specially designated for bicycles that cut through tall grasses lining the beach. It was far more in line with what I had hoped to see, and I was happy to have done it. I probably won't come back any time soon, though.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Earth Day and cetera

About a month ago, I participated in the Earth Day bike ride here in Tokyo. I'm only now posting something about it because I got pretty sick the next day, and was sick for awhile. Earlier today I found a video of the event, and I thought I'd share it.

The ride was actually not much fun--the route chosen was through main areas of the city, in a well-behaved and rather somber procession alongside cars and their exhaust. It lacked any feeling of camaraderie, something I think is essential for these kind of community events.

But it gave me a good view of the city, and encouraged me to ride home once it was over. I took the train to get there because I live far away from the city center, but the slow 20k ride had me itching to go for a longer, more strenuous ride. I found a fair route home from Shinjuku, something I have been meaning to do since I got here, and ended up riding about 50k for the day, I think. Unfortunately, the weather changed during the day and I got sick. But it was worth it.

Anyway, here is the video. I appear about half-way through, at about 4:55. The video is pretty blocky and it is probably hard to make me out, but I'm the tallest guy in the bunch, high up on my silly folding bike's saddle. They cut out the part where I waved, though!

I also found this video of a ride somewhere in Japan (not sure where, I sure would like to find out!). It gives you an idea of what dedicated cycling roads are like here. This is what I like to do whenever I get a chance!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cherry blossom season is just about over, and I guess it is now time for the beginning of the spring rains.

I've been riding my bike around the area a bit, with a couple of lengthy trips punctuated by more frequent but shorter trips around my neighborhood. A couple of times I have been caught in cold rains that don't manage to dampen my enjoyment of the surprisingly rich variety of paths and sights to be taken in in Tokyo and Saitama. I am easily frustrated by the constant need to stop for "scooter barriers," on the one hand, and by being constantly threatened by the earth-destroying machines I have to share the road with (by that I mean the automobiles) on the other, but it is worth the aggravation when I find that tiny nook in the corner of this ridiculous city that convinces me this place is magical, somehow, though it doesn't know it.

On the way to Mizumoto park there is a random dirt path next to a river, lined with cherry trees and tall--tall some other kind of tree. There are outlets along the path, into places, usually playgrounds or small parks like the one below.

It feels almost secluded, though it is quite solidly in the Saitama-Chiba-Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis.

This is the entrance to Mizumoto Park from the west. The cherry blossoms are gone now, but it felt as if a welcoming party had been thrown for me when I arrived. I'm always afraid I will find a return trip to Mizumoto leaves me jaded and unfulfilled, but every time the park takes my breath away.

The jewel of Tokyo rivers (for cyclists) is the Arakawa. Though it is punctuated by the futile yet determinedly constant "scooter barriers" you can see to the right in the picture below, it is remarkably long and goes through a number of varied environments.

Yes, there are two cows on the side of the bike path. At first I didn't even notice--perhaps a throw-back from travels around Lawrence. Once you get out of the city limits of Lawrence cows are pretty common, though of course they aren't grazing next to the road but are behind barbed-wire fences. But this is Saitama city, and cows are quite uncommon anywhere but Hokkaido--there just isn't room for them to roam. But these two seem to be quite famous--they are pictured on the cartoony map of the Arakawa bike path that appears in a sign along the path.

Another bit of scenery along the Arakawa. This is the price we pay--though the bike path is for pedestrians and bicyclists only, it is because the land around the Arakawa is surrounded by industrial plants and warehouses. This occasionally (particularly along the beginning of the Iruma river bike path that connects to the Arakawa) means some disturbingly unsavory smells.

But then you look at the other side of the path, and see that, well, there is some green left in the world. For the moment.

These later pictures are from a trip up to Kawagoe, one of the cities in Saitama. It keeps up some traditional architecture, and is usually called the "Little Edo" (again, Edo is the old name for Tokyo).

It was a 50 km (~30mi) bike trip, and I left rather late, so I made it there just before dark, thus the dark picture.

Today was Earth Day, and I went on a bike trip around Tokyo with a group called Urban Ecology. I hope to write a short article on that as well, but I have been meaning to post these images for some time and will stop here for the moment.

Just a quick request--take it easy on your car, at least for the day. Ride a bike, take a walk, breathe the air. It's fantastic, freeing. Or maybe you'll find it boring--but at least you didn't contribute to the crap in the air for a day!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring and a New Beginning

It never really was winter here (though the past week has been the coldest I've experienced in Japan), the flowers are beginning to bloom in Tokyo.

Spring is officially far more important here than in the US--the first day of spring is a national holiday, school begins and ends in spring, and students graduating from college enter the job they were accepted for the year before (this is, of course, the most common scenario and there are exceptions). The first major "sign" of spring is the blooming of plum trees, which have been in bloom for some time now.

The flowers in the two pictures here are of the peak blooming period for plums in Saitama, north of Tokyo. I just got a book on bike trips around Tokyo, Chiba, and Saitama, and went for a 50 km (~30 miles) trip north along the Shibakawa and Arakawa, two major bike courses in Tokyo which I am lucky enough to live next to.

This clock is at the intersection of the two rivers.

I plan to start training this week for a longer trip over the Golden Week holiday in May.

I can start training because I am just now finally wrapping up my move to Nishi arai and away from a jerk of a roommate. It has taken a lot of energy over the last month or so, but I am finally almost done and can focus on other things.

I moved to a beautiful apartment in a slightly more developed neighborhood. For less than what I paid at my old apartment, I have more space and less (meaning no) roommates. I use one room for a "day room", where I keep my computer and table, and the other for a bedroom, though this will probably change.

The room is on the top floor of a three story building, and while the view isn't fantastic, at least there is a view. My old apartment faced an elementary school, and there wasn't much light.

The apartment has a few details that really add to the atmosphere of the place, such as this wood paneling that lines the tatami in the bedroom.

There is also tiling on the walls and floors of the bathroom (ie, where the bath is), and tiling in the toilet room.

There's also an enormous amount of storage space sectioned off by nice looking but flimsy sliding doors.

Perhaps the best part is the bath--going into my bathroom feels like going into some special hot springs bath. It has a control panel that allows you to turn it on, go do something else, and return about 30 minutes later to a perfectly warmed bath. A heater continues to heat the water while you are in it as well.

The one thing that is a bit of a shock to foreigners moving to a new apartment in Japan is that nothing is included, usually--no refrigerator, no heater, and no oven. I got an oven, refrigerator, and washing machine, though, in one day from a "recycle shop", and had it delivered, all for about $300. I'm very pleased, so far, with the appliances.

There are some complaints about the new place, though--most importantly, I am still woken up early in the morning, though not as early as before. My neighbor wakes up fairly early, and around 8 or so starts making noise. Her balcony seems to be next to my bedroom, and the sound of the sliding door is frighteningly loud. In addition, the heater for the bath/shower is quite loud, and wakes me as well. If I got home before 11 pm, and got to sleep before 1 most nights, that wouldn't be a problem, but as it is it is a little frustrating. But at least it is a more reasonable time to be woken up.

The one thing that didn't happen at the old apartment but that is very annoying about the new one has to do with cars. I live fairly near a large street, which is not such a terrible thing. However, whenever a large truck drives by the house shakes like it is an earthquake. Not a pleasant feeling, and I worry about what will happen in the event of a real earthquake.

I'm happy, though, to be away from my old place, and hope that I'll get used to the new place fairly quickly.