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.