I ended the last journal with tears in my eyes, and it's pretty much how I'm starting this one...tears of joy, gratitude, day dreaming on my bicycle as I left Dana Village to head to Niigata city. I'm meeting a piece of Dana village, Jess and Kim, there on the same day (June 10th) for a dip in the big city, onsen, hipster coffee places, pizza and other delights showered with delicious regional sake (also renowned, Niigata being the prefecture that has the most sake breweries) . That makes for a soft parting, spreaded throughout a few days. In the few hours that it took me to ride to Niigata, I met some wonderful people which makes me eager to start living from my saddle again. An old lady wearing a lama mask chats without caring anbout social distancing and invites me to her home (sadly I must decline, as J and K await). A racing biker overpasses me and gives me an energy drink, others come to talk, curious to know about my journey. It's a pleasure to be back on Japan's roads and paths!
2 days in Niigata with my favourite Australian women was beyond my expectations, and I couldn't begin to tell it in details: inside jokes simply can't be explained! Jess, Kim...THANK YOU! Innovative concept at Niigata station (Japanese train stations are worth a visit...nothing to do with our boring stations in France): sake tasting. For 500 yen you get to taste 5 different nihonshu, self-service, in the back of a nice shop. There is plenty of choice (about 100 sakes, from the region), the sake is delicious, intoxicating! It was the beginning of a lovely crazy night.
June 12th... Goodbyes, again, on the hotel's street corner in Niigata! I am goign to the Alps, with Kim and Jess in my thoughts...we shall see eachother soon again. I'm roughly 200 km (about 2 days of biking) from Nagano, my next stop. To be more precise, I'm heading south of Nagano, in the mountains where lies Yamashinden, a small village nested in apple, peach and grape trees.
I pedal out of Niigata, rice fields are everywhere, as well as lotus fields. Now I know where all this sake rice comes from! The first part of this short trip is flat: perfect for action meditation and digesting the many changes that occured in the last few days... That's until my bike's noises wake me up. Back in Fukushima I had noticed an unfamiliar sound around the crankset and was planning to wait for Nagano (and a decent bike shop) to take care of it. I presume riding 300 km between Nishiaizu and Yamashinden might have been a bit ambitious. On June 12th, in the middle of nowhere (in the middle of rice fields really), I started to feel really edgy as it looked like my crankset was coming loose... No internet, no big town: I tried to go easy and save as many pedal strokes as I could until the city of Nagaoka, where I entered the first bike shop I chanced upon. One crankset dismantled, cleaned and reassembled later, I felt good again, quite certain it would be fine, and camped next to the Shinano river. Too good to be true: 30 km into the next day it started again, this time in the mountains under strong rain! It was impossible to ride for too long, bottom bracket needed a replacement... I decided to take the train (thanks Japan for train stations in super small villages) and was really happy that I had been carrying a rinko bag with me for so long! While waiting for long hours (there might be stations but not many trains), I searched the internet for a good bike shop in Nagano. Once there, I pay the bill that solves the problem..Ouch! In all likelihood, my bicycle and I are still suffering from our idiotic yet spectacular fall in April ... I hope to make good use of my weeks near Nagano to make us feel better!
Nagano is surrounded by farms, gardens and orchards. I head out to climb (that's the correct word) up to Yamashinden where Naomi, Roly and Kaito are waiting for me. As I start my climb the rain stops, getting closer to Yamashinden feels like entering a cloud. After the rain, smells of yomogi and dokudami are over powering, sweet olfactory memories of Dana village. You know you've spent time at Dana village when it's impossible for you to take a look around without spotting several wild plants!
I can see Nagano spreading from up there... I learnt that 70 years ago in Yamashinden, people started to plant apple trees as a replacement to tobacco farming that was increasingly becoming China's monopoly. I am going to learn a lot about apple in the next few weeks as my hosts have about 100 apple trees and actually need volunteers to take care of it.
Coming to Nagano prefecture is kind of a detour in my Summer plans as I'd like to mostly cycle in Hokkaido, if everything goes well. The reason behind this detour is that I was supposed to meet up with Gaspard in Nagano before spending the Summer together but, for corona reasons, there is no Gaspard waiting for me in Yamashinden. I didn't want to bail on my Yamashinden hosts so I came here anyways: it's also an excuse to have a taste of the Japanese Alps.
I've been in Yamashinden for a few days now and have been introduced to the art of APPLES Japanese style. Apples in Japan is a serious business, premium, mostly sold individually. I spent Monday in the trees, clipping young apples to leave more room for the prettiest...it's cruel apple world!
Everything has been going smoothly and I've been lucky that Naomi, who is a midwife, also practices Bone Movement Therapy. She practiced on me with good results. A few days on the bike made me wish for more and I'm eager to ride away in the sunset (or sunrise, or whatever). For now I'm preparing by looking at maps, and enjoying my surroundings, the views, the forest paths and their bears, boars and monkeys. Today's hike, up to the top of 若穂太郎山 (Wakaho taro mountain) was beautiful and almost scary: bear's footprints and steep incline which was both impressive and tiring... I came home in one piece without seeing any bear (thanks to my bear bell on my backpack)...Surely they saw me!
June 26: 2 weeks spent in Yamashinden in the mountains, surrounded by apple trees, living next to Roly, Naomi and Kaito ... it went by fast! This weekend I hit the road after a change of plans in order to add Tokyo to my itinerary, for the purpose of seeing an osteopath there. It's my Summer whim: seeing so many old Japanese people bent in half prompts me to take care of my own back. I must say I also fancy taking a dip in the city, Tokyo especially, before spending a Summer dedicated to nature, riding across Hokkaido!
My current plan (see the map) consists of:
- Riding to Tokyo, which is about 250km from Nagano, over the mountains. My panniers are beyond full (sake from Nagano, chocolate received from France...) which promisses to take a toll on my legs for the coming climbs!
- After Tokyo, ride to Oarai (about 130km) to take the ferry to Hokkaido. On the way, stop by the city of Mito, a city close to Oarai that happens to be the capital city of natto (fermented soybeans) which I love
- Ride Hokkaido, South to North to East to West, as much as I want!
Volunteering in Yamashinden has been a drastic change in rythm after 2 months at Dana Village, it's been a relaxing stay - the work, the long coffee breaks spent talking with Roly, living with less people and having more time to myself... Life is peaceful here, in synch with apple trees... I actually never knew a tree could produce so many apples. It's impressive! Some apple trees are actual mazes...
Since I arrived, the temperature and humidity have increased a lot... Sweating has become my main activity, a straining and sticky activity! Our eagerness to work has taken a toll even if we managed to do all the tasks that Roly had planned for my stay. Cutting apples to remove some weight of the trees and leave room for apples to get big, gardening, cooking (apple pies and delicious food by Naomi), the numerous coffees, running errands in Nagano, English lessons for kids and adults, and lots of chatting together!
I spent my free time reading, writing (I received many letters recently which made me really happy!), walk in the mountains, make accessories for my bike strip, day dreaming while looking at the map of Hokkaido, and exploring Nagano by bicycle. It particularly enjoyed Zenkoji temple and its park. It's an important Buddhist temple in Japan as it's the home of the first Buddha statue to have ever been imported to Japan (VI th century). This statue is hidden and a copy of it is shown to the public once every 6 years. Of course, that didn't happen on the day I visited.. they even changed the next showing date due to covid-19. Life made it up to me with a sake brewery that offered tastings in a small street near the temple....Sake, amazake, umeshu, all from Nagano, before riding back to Yamashinden with a tough last 5km of climbing! The nihonshu was delicious, especially the junmai nama genshu ( I am starting to know my tastes, thanks to the teachings of my sake sensei Jess and Kim!), but didn't make for an easy ride.
We also took advantage of one of Naomi's day offs to drive to the Togakushi shrines, about 30 km from Yamashinden. Happy coincidence, it was on June 21st, the Summer solstice! I was planning to cycle there but driving was a perfect, and easier, alternative. We took the small road that I wanted to follow by bicycle, a road both Naomi and Roly didn't yet know. It's a beautiful road, winding uphill and crossing small villages up until the highlands of Togakushi and its fields of flowering buckwheat. Really beautiful! The sanctuaries of Togakushi, at the feet of the mountain of the same name, are deep within the forests and mountains, some cedar trees are more than 800 years old. It's a mystical place, with many legends, a former lair for ascetics. We celebrated the Summer as we should, motorized pilgrims! With all this buckwheat around, there are many soba houses (buckwheat noodes) and we all have zaru soba (a special of cold soba noodles): a refreshing Summer dish!
Thank you so much to Roly, Naomi and Kaito for welcoming me in Yamashinden! It was a short but intense experience, rich in sharing and moments of introspection. I take off to Tokyo with a happy heart, with advises and new friends to visit for the next time I find myself near Nagano. THANK YOU!
I've just spent an eventful week in Tokyo where I arrived on June 28th after riding 2 days from Nagano... The first day of riding was fantastic: 150km or rivers and mountains, eager to reach Japan's capital; and then, a second day of riding with pouring rain, yet motivated by music and my goal, Tokyo!
Tokyo for a week was an actual holiday... no bike, no volunteering, and a pretty different life rythm compared to what I'm used to. I was hosted near Shimokitazawa (thanks Jules!), a hype and hipster neighborhood yet with a relaxed vibe where I adjusted to a night owl tempo sipping on lemon sours, so refreshing in Summer! A few bike excursions lead me to the cat temple filmed by Chris Marker in his wonderful "Sans Soleil", and to the lungs of Tokyo in the Meiji-Jingu, dedicated to the emperor Meiji and the empress Shoken, a lush and quiet heaven nested between the busy Shibuya and Harajuku areas.
Lemon sours (and sometimes beer and nihonshu) were all shared in nice place and good company, with Jules, who seems to be doing quite well in his Tokyo life, and also Jess and Kim who were in town (a happy coincidence that wasn't really a coincidence!). It's been a week dedicated to friends, blessed to be so surrounded that I barely spent time alone...I'm sure the rest of the month will bring its dose of alone-time! Since leaving Tokyo yesterday I happily managed to finish my current reads.
As expected, I could visit the osteopath and thus deal with (or at least postpone a bit) the planned obsolescence of my poor body! Afterwards, a few days without riding to rest and instead, the great adventure of walking the meandres of Tokyo streets, where finding your way is about working your head around the numerous subway exits! Sober or intoxicated talks, a delicious ramen, walks (sometimes to find some sleep), a lady sushi chef in Akihabara (some may understand the level of suprises that this sentence comprises)... intriguing series of nights and days, interesting and tiring! In the midst of the chaos of all those lives that interact with each other, one starts to look at one's life from another angle, a strange experience that can be unsettling. I won't be the first person to come to the conclusion that Tokyo is a place to get lost, not find yourself, especially coming straight out of a few months spent with your hands in the dirt in the Japanese countryside.... I never tire of talking about the countryside, I boast about it to whoever wants to listen. Memories of Fukushima, in particular, are like an anchor, a link to something tangible that prevents me from drifting away. Coming to Tokyo made me feel like a bum on the road, which made me smile. I don't really know what I'm doing, but at least I'm happy to be shapping such a destiny for myself in place of joined the hords of Tokyo salary men/women. To know what you don't want is to know something!
Rainy season in Tokyo offers some breaks, and a especially hot and sunny day where Jules guided me in the town of Kamakura, city of Yasunari Kawabata, one of my literary heroes (which doesn't add anything to the getaway but makes me happy nonetheless!). Hopping between temples and gardens, we walk around Kamakura and end up on Enoshima island, from which you can see mount Fuji (barely seeable on my picture). I met Katsu, a friend of Jules's, and we hit it off! We would actually meet again later on in Tokyo for a night of lemon sours and, mostly, dancing!
I left Tokyo yesterday morning with a lighter bicycle, heading to Oarai in order to board a long distance ferry (18 hour journey) that is currently sailing me to Hokkaido. For once, I write from the ocean, the Pacific ocean! I'm reaching the coastal town of Tomakomai tonight, and will first head to Niseko, reknowed for its good ski, where I'll meet up with Katsu who is coming to Hokkaido for some days. Another lucky coincidence! I hope that my arrival in Hokkaido will mark the start of a fresh and introspective Summer in Japan's far North.
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