Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gateway to Nippon

Today I had my greatest bike adventure to date. When I stepped out of my apartment and saddled myself upon my trusty bike, I started rolling but didn’t know exactly where. I’ve found that the two best directions to head are either across the highway towards the mountains, or towards the beach, and on this day it was the former. I was actually initially thinking maybe I’d go to one of the neighboring towns I haven’t been to yet by bike, and headed in that direction. But I kept being pulled towards the rising mountains and unknown forests. Here in Kurobe Toyama, the highest mountain range in Japan just shoots straight up about a couple of miles inland, and stretches for an absolute complete panoramic view. It is incredible, and makes Kurobe a convenient outpost to access the mountains, but it is still separated a bit. On the coast of a long plain, the land is covered with towns and rice fields, which is nice, but it’s not like walking out your front door and into the mountains. The Japanese wild of forests and mountains has its own unique qualities, and one of them could be called mysterious. I say this less so because of what you may infer from being in them, but more so of their view from the outside. In Japanese society it is usually very clear what you are supposed to do and what you are not supposed to do. Moreover, what is safe and what is dangerous. I think for the most part to the majority of Japanese people, the wilderness is perceived with first a lot of wonderment, but also fear. The Japanese are generally nature lovers, and will venture out of town sometimes, but 99% of the time it would be a short day trip on a very designated and more likely touristy path. Though there are these towering mountains with endless forest, there is really only one trail I know of as being popular and accessed by the general public: it is the path to the second tallest mountain in Japan, Tateyama, and even for that they have a cable car that takes you up most of the way so it can be summitted by just about anyone in a couple of hours. On summer holidays, this trail is packed, as everyone gets their wilderness outing desires quenched. I’ve often, with fairly weak attempts I must admit, tried to penetrate the unknown wilderness around here, but to no avail. Well, today I got a little closer, and found a socially acceptable entrance to the Japanese wild.

So I was on my bike, and kind of headed toward the neighboring town of Nyuuzen, and kind of headed toward the mountains, when all of a sudden a police car comes up next to me and tells me to pull over. I was extremely surprised, but also the night before, when I was on a beer run on my bike in the middle of poker night, I saw a police car pull over three young males on their bikes. I was shocked, annoyed for the kids, and scared because if I had been pulled over and if the cops had realized I had been drinking, I could have been in a lot of trouble as it is illegal to ride a bicycle intoxicated. As I pulled over, I realized I was doing nothing wrong, so decided to approach them as genki (energetic or lively) as possible. I’m sure they were nervous about dealing with a gaijin, and I certainly only confused them more by approaching them in such an outgoing spirit, which is not how the Japanese usually communicate with the police. I surprised them with my Japanese, and it ended up that they only wanted to make sure my bike was registered, which it is. While in conversation they asked me if I was headed to Unazuki … mmmmm … Unazuki. I said maybe, and they recommended I go to the onsen there. Onsen in Unazuki … mmmmm. Unazuki is the town inland towards the mountains, and is the outpost for the train that heads into the mountains and through the Kurobe gorge which is home to the famous Kurobe dam. And the town is famous for its onsen. “Sure, yeah, I’m headed there,” I said. They said great, and that it would probably take an hour by bike. Great. I was on my way.

Unazuki was certainly in my realm of dwelling, but I never expected to get there by bike, it seemed a bit too far away. But now I realized it certainly was possible, and the mystery of it fueled me forward on my one-speed granny bike.
The first sign of something wild was the Kurobe river. There are many small waterways and streams through Kurobe, but this river is quite large and impressive. Here there was a small dam to the right in the picture, and to the left you can see it flow to the sea. On the side of the road next to a bridge going over the Kurobe river was this strange structure that looked like a castle out of a Mario Bros. video game.
It is about 40 feet tall and ten feet in diameter at the bottom. It didn't look like there was any entrance inside, but as you can see, there was a spiraling staircase around and up to the top. It was clear that you weren't supposed to make an ascent as there are bars blocking the way up the stairs. But nobody was around; can you guess what happened next? I climbed it, and after stepping over the bars, my heart beat a little harder for the thrill, and because the stairs were probably only a foot wide!

I got to the top, looked nervously around, didn't find Bowser, and decided to climb back down and resume the adventure.

The road ran parallel to the river, and from here on, I started to head inland towards the mountains. The houses and rice fields became less and less frequent, and the land rose up steeply on either side of me, much of which was concealed in mist. I biked through a small congregation of buildings, that may have been considered a part of Unazuki, and kept on. Eventually as the transition was being made into the mountains and I had biked through a couple tunnels, I found a shrine to the left that looked down onto another area with houses and the Kurobe river.

At this point I realized I was approaching the gateway to the Japanese wilderness; the gateway to Nippon. In Japanese, Nihon is the term most often used for Japan, but Nippon holds and older more noble quality. I use the term Nippon in this description because this is a Japan older than bullet trains and anime or even samurai and geisha. I began to see a Japan both mysterious and terrifying. A Japan where humans were a small part of the whole, and spirits dwelt in the woods with monkeys, foxes, crows, and bears. This is a Japan not many people "see", but it is there indeed, untouched and unimpressed by human concerns or judgements.

Here is even a sign warning against bears. I've seen some of these signs on the edge of towns like Kurobe, and have to laugh a little bit because it seems so very unlikely that there are bears around so close to town. And yet, here the sign lays, and as I look up into the wilderness, I begin to heed its cautioning.

Through another tunnel, I finally made it to the main town of Unazuki at the end of the road, and the beginning of the wilderness.

It is a very small town, maybe about the size of Eastsound, but it is much more dense. As it is the beginning of the train through the gorge and home to many hotel resorts with their famous onsen, it is a tourist town with many gift shops and an ambience that is lacking in Kurobe. Actually, this is a bit more like the image I had of where I would live before arriving in Kurobe. This town of Unazuki definately had it's own magnificent charm, and was certainly removed from the rest of civilization. Reflecting now on where I live, I'm glad to live in Kurobe for it's convenience. But, it would be pretty cool to live in a place like Unazuki. There is no high school there, and any students who do live there usually go to the school I teach at in Kurobe. I would guess it's a half hour train or car ride from Unazuki to Kurobe. By bike if you were to not make any stops, takes about a hour and a half up into Unazuki, or an hour down to the plains of Kurobe.

Well, I had made it to my destination, and I had only to look around for a moment to find the onsen which would mark the climax of the trip. My stomach was crying for sustennance, but I realized I had one more leg of the journey to make as I looked up to a steep staircase into the forest behind some generic building.

Man's presence doesn't seem to get in Nature's way around here.

At the top of the stairs there was a small shrine. Shrines are ubiquitous in Japan, be it in towns or in the wilderness, and they run the range from clean and well kept, to dilapitated and infequently tended to. This one leaned more towards the latter. Personally, I think it adds to their quality, and even exhibits some quality of wabi-sabi. What I thought was really interesting though is this small wooden piece next to the door. I'm not sure what it says, but I was drawn to the simple drawings of these two wolves. I read recently that there were wolves in Japan a few thousand years ago, but had disappeared before man's presence on the islands ... I think. I find this question very interesting, but have never really had what I could consider to be a trusted source. It's always vague hearsay or my shaky translation of an exhibit in a museum. Anyway, this only reaffirms my image of an ancient Nippon.

Here is the shrine itself. Ha, just joking. But that piece in the middle looked a bit like some structures you may find in a Japanese garden. With the atmosphere, I think it stands better as a piece of art than whatever mechanical use it has.

To the right of the shrine, there was a semblance of a path that winded into the forest. It was definately a path, and I almost turned back because I thought it may lead to a walk for a couple hours that my stomach at this point could not sustain in it's empty state. But, I decided to give it a quick check. After two minutes, I saw what would in fact be the climax of my journey.
The path quickly led to this. I felt as though I was Link himself from the Zelda video game, wandering towards the entrance of a forest temple. I stopped in my tracks to drink in my first view of this scene, and squinted my eyes looking deeper towards to dam to see if there was some sword wielding nemesis I must face on that bridge just before the waterfall.

I was alone, but there were a couple covered picnic areas and barbecues. Check out this setup. Can you find these kinds of tables with grill capabilities in the center? Very cool. Ideal for some yakiniku, yakitori, and any kind of yaki whatever I suppose.

Here is the view with my back to the dam and looking down towards Unazuki.

I was feeling the giddy rush of adventure, wide-eyed and taking large gulps of this refreshing haven. I looked at a medium-sized patch of grass just next to and below the dam's waterfall, and thought what every good Tai Chi Chuan practitioner would think: time to do the form.
It was one of my best experiences doing the form on top of the experiences of the day. And yet, it was rank with distractions! I thought of the camera filming me which made me a bit nervous and shaky. I thought about how hungry I was. I thought about playing mariokart later that night. I thought about my girlfriend thousands of miles away. TOO MANY MIND! I thought later on if I died later on that day, would I have been happy with that form? I critically thought "no", I wouldn't. I must be more clear in order to give honor to myself and the form. I have a long way to go.

Well, it was time to descend this mountain I had found, get to town, find a bowl of tempura soba, and get in that onsen. The soba was delicious, and the onsen was great. I realized though that Unazuki's famed onsen are in the hotels around the area, and not the one I had entered in the town. The onsen I went to was absolutley tiny; only one hot tub inside about 25 x 10 feet. But it was just me and two other grunting scratching oyaji, so I had a wonderful time reflecting on my presence in ancient Japan. Though I must say, it certainly wasn't no Kintaro.

I emerged from the onsen red-faced, full-bellied, and relaxed, and started my downhill bike ride to Kurobe.
Back to flat ground where towns and rice fields meet the sea; back to my friends and belongings. I had been to Unazuki once before, but only very quickly before riding a train through the Kurobe gorge. I was amazed at it's charm then, but this intimate experience had changed everything. I have now received more proof that I need not travel to every region and famous site in Japan, but rather look more closely to the mysteries that lie in the largest mountain range in Japan, which is only a half hour train ride away. I've had a strong desire to go hiking in Japan, and I now know Unazuki will be where I will find the trail heads. As the weather is warming and access to the mountains is opened up, this was quite an ideal time to make this journey. Over the next few months, hopefully Gaijin Explorer will be full of such experiences. For those that made it to the end of this long post, I thank you for your time and wish you on your own journeys. Onward and upward!


  1. Well done! You see, sometimes even policemen may give a hint of advice.
    I'm quite fond of hiking myself, so I daresay, find a map, jump on a train, and go find some real wilderness!

    P.S. I'd have liked to see the photos at original size. The misty, dark-greenish atmosphere of the woods reminded me of scandinavia.