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.