En Route: The Long Road to the Interior

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Photo by Jasohill.

When the famous poet Matsuo Basho grew dissatisfied with his city life in Edo and tired of the arts scene, he decided to walk northward into the mountains along one of the Edo Five Routes in 1684, certain that he would be murdered by highway bandits along the way. Out of this suicidal journey, however, came a sense of peace for Basho, a renewed vigor for life, and some of the best haiku written in the past millennium. Today these roads, much less hazardous than they once were, still offer refuge from Tokyo, as the city of Edo was renamed in 1868. The air is clear and the cars are few and far between.

While Japan’s bike culture is strong among students, housewives, and businessmen alike, road biking (called ‘sportsubiku’ in a shameless westernization of katakana) is for those seeking to explore broader territory. Despite the challenge posed by the ubiquitous mountains, one can get fairly far in Japan by cycle. Highways are small and winding but have wide shoulders for biking. ‘Nihon Isshu’ (‘once around Japan’) is a feat undertaken by serious cyclists of all ages with a few months to kill, covering the 3,500k journey down Hokkaido and the mail island of Honshu riding between 50 and 150km a day. Japan’s many rest stops and ‘comfort stations’ with bathroom and paved surfaces for sleeping can be hard to find and even harder to identify, their plainness often indistinguishable from from an empty parking lot.

Along the trails outside northern Tohoku, the rice paddies stretch endlessly, hemmed in only by distant mountain ranges. Rice fields are a constant in northern Japan’s landscape, landscape as common as grassy lawns in suburban America. While picket-fenced lawns stay more or less the same year round, rice paddies change dramatically with the seasons. Fall is the best time to see the transformation in action: from ripe fields with stalks laden with grain, the rice is cut and left to dry like hay in the sun. It is then gathered up in bundles and hung from poles lengthwise, or skewered on long wooden poles thrust into the ground. After it has been dried and collected, the fields are flooded, creating a grid of glassy mirrors reflecting the sky, landscape, and any particularly flashy passers-by.

I was, typically, admiring the reflection I cut skimming past when I was hit sharply in the face by a dragonfly, which seems noteworthy until you see them humming over the rice fields by the hundreds. By then I was surprised that it only happened once.

The Japanese words for dragonfly and rice paddy sound almost identical — tonbo (dragonfly) and tanbo (rice paddy) — and there’s really no seeing one without being prepared to get dive-bombed by the other. They’re not the only aerial distraction, either, as hawks will suddenly swoop low over quiet fields, flushing out flocks of sparrows hiding among the stalks in an explosion of small brown wings.

As the mountains surround and the roads get steeper, the cars thin out I’m left alone with my thoughts. Solo, I sing to myself to pass the time in the long, dark tunnels. On the other side of the mountain, the combination of the bright sun and yellow leaves make it a golden hour at two in the afternoon.

With everything is at its ripest, the autumn days are cool and clear, lacking the intense heat and humidity of summers. The leaves give the mountain-scapes a new richness and depth; walnuts, chestnuts and acorns are sold roadside and tucked into many local dishes. In every town people are out celebrating the colorful weekends and the precious warm days with festivals before white winter settles in. It’s nearly impossible to pass through without seeing a food stands with vendors standing at attention and festivals with food, children, the occasional farm animal tethered to a pole.

I camp out near one such festival, listening to music from my tent until the early hours. Sake is the celebrated drink, just one of the final incarnations of everyone’s hard work in the fields this season. Arising the next day to a cold October dawn is waking within a cloud, surrounded by mountains, shrouded in mist, easy to believe that this is indeed a floating world. Skimming the surface of the road with the ease of a water glider, I head away from the interior down towards towards one town, and then the next, and onwards until I reach my own.

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