Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adventure Weekend Part 1

I've been reacquainted with teachers and students at school, returned to Aikido, met gaijin friends for poker, but there is one great big giant thing I needed to do to be properly settled back into Japan, and that's a bike adventure ... and onsen.

I slept well after a bottle of wine and watching "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", woke up this morning for ritual Ravensbrew coffee and writing on the blog, and went rushing out the door. The image of the headless horseman leaping out of the tree from the movie, "Sleepy Hollow" comes to my mind.

Going into this trip I didn't really have a plan, but more of a direction. Today I would head north to Asahi, and then up a river into the mountains. One potential path would lead me to an onsen (hot spring) called Ogawa onsen. Asahi is two towns north of my home in Kurobe, the closest main town to the next prefecture to the north, Niigata, and is the sleepiest of towns that inhabit my Niikawa region in Japan.

Basically, there are three ways to get to Asahi. One is to take the Hachigosen (Route 8) which is the big highway that runs through my region. It could be fastest, but absolutley horrendous with traffic lights and huge trucks. I could also go along the mountains. This would be fast and scenic since it's where I'm going anyway (to the mountains), but maybe I should use the convenience for the ride home. The next option is along the ocean. Certainly the longest, but it would be beautiful, and one I've never taken far north before. So it was decided; sea route to Asahi, mountain route back, and no time for the Hachigosen.
From my apartment, I first headed west to the ocean to an area part of Kurobe called Ikuji. It's much older than the rest of Kurobe, and you can tell by the buildings. To a foreigner, it may actually fit one's image of Japan more than the rest of Kurobe because the buildings are so close to each other, and it still has a lot of old aged wooden buildings and shrines.
I love this area most because it's simply, the beach. Instead of the smell of manure from rice fields that sometimes frequents my front door, at the beach you have the ocean breeze instead. If I could choose to live anywhere in my region, it would be Ikuji.
Perhaps one of the most unique features of Ikuji is the large population of hawks hanging around the telephone poles or hovering in the sky just above the shore. It's rare to see one. Instead one often finds 3 to 6 of them together dominating the sky. For an area so densely populated by people, the sight of hawks here always surprises me.
I have a great respect for hawks, but after coming to Japan, I realized what annoying pests they can be. A little further south from this part of Ikuji is our favorite place to barbecue. It lays in a small grassy area in the woods next to the ocean, which also happens to be the hawks' home. Well, when there's fresh meat on the grill, guess who often takes the first bite? The hawks if they can get away with it. More than once I've sat at the benches around a grill, beer in hand and deep in discussion, when a hawk swoops down less than a foot away from me to snatch my meat. I now realize they are much bigger than they look in the sky. You can really imagine how sharp their talons are when they swoop down so closely to you. It would be a pretty mean joke to put a piece of meat in the hood of a buddy's sweatshirt when he's not looking.

Anyway, I could spend all day at the beach, especially considering the heat, but I have a lot of ground to cover.

Speaking of the heat, this had to be the hottest day I have ever experienced in Japan, and there I was, just setting off at 11:00 as the day really begins approaching it's climax of heat. I'm beginning to think I have some sick fetish with sweating as much as possible after so many similar bike trips, nights practicing aikido in the oven of a gym we have, and frequenting onsen in the middle of summer. After a half hour of riding, I could already feel slight affects of heat exhaustion, and chugged a bottle of vending machine water as I headed to Nyuzen, the town between Kurobe and Asahi.

I haven't spent much time in Nyuzen, because there doesn't seem to be much going on. It comes across as a pretty sleepy town. But I would be foolish to base my opinion on this generalization. Nyuzen has beautiful communitiy centers, parks, and shrines, and many quant neighborhoods. As I'm floating through, I see a sign that sparked a memory of an interesting place recommended by my students. Sugisawa no Sawasugi. Sugi means cedar tree, which is enough to get my attention. Apparently Sugisawa is a grove of cedar trees that is partially growing in water right next to the sea.

Enter, my first side trip: Sugisawa no Sawasugi.

I followed the first sign I saw for it easily, but eventually came to a turn with many different possibilities, and no sign directing one to the site. This is beginning to be one of my pet peeves about Japan: having one obvious sign for a popular sight-seeing spot, but none afterwards when there are mazes of paths to choose from. In this instance I was fortunate, because I searched out the biggest of the groupings of trees I could find next to the ocean, and easily found it. But in the past, this phenomenon has often led me astray in the mountain forests.
Sugisawa no Sawasugi had a wonderful information center. Inside was a lot of information about the site, but unfortunately of the kind I still don't understand in Japanese, so I took a quick look around and just headed to the trees.

It was a maze of wooden pathways through a grove of cedar trees that were growing in streams that flowed to the sea. The cedars were not particularly large, but they certainly had their own specific magic. To see such a wondrous tree like the cedar like this seems to be pretty rare.

I could see a lot of places were the creeks and streams were low, and began to wonder if this place may be more interesting during wetter seasons. Or, in the winter in snow.
Well, full of coffee and eager for the mountains, I departed Sugisawa quickly, but with intent to return again one day.

From there it was straight to Asahi, well, while snaking back and forth along one way roads through small neighborhoods; anything to avoid the cursed Hachigosen. I've said this in earlier posts, but if you ever want to go directly somewhere new, don't go with me. All of my trips are at least twice as long as they should be, and even oftentimes never make it to the destination. Alas, no plan is the best plan, and the gems I have found in my tangents have been priceless.
After 30 minutes or so I reached Asahi. I've mentioned that by living in Kurobe, I couldn't be closer to the mountians, but that is a lie. Here in Asahi, the mountains literally come all the way to the shore in some spots.

I immediately began looking for food. Anything would do, and yet I had a very difficult time finding anything at all to eat. Last year in the Fall, I went to Asahi one night to meet a fellow gaijin for dinner. I met him at the train station after dark and went to a restaurant in the town center and couldn't believe how quiet it was. It was probably 6:30 at night, and you couldn't hear a sound. Just walking quietly through the empty streets lit up by eerie green and yellow street lights that made you feel like you were in the Matrix.

Walking down what were labelled "main shopping streets" in English, I saw four elderlies on bikes, 90% of everything closed, a few souvenier shops, and only one place to eat. The sign made it look kind of hokey, but once I opened the door I was very surprised. Beats of Jay-Z played through a very hip and modern bar stacked with a wide variety of popular foreign liquor. On one side was an area of tatami mats for large groups, and on the other were booths. Inside on a TV was a Tokyo variety show and sitting at the bar were two middle-aged men and a girl waitress way too cute to not be in one of those Tokyo variety shows.

Looks from all around reminded me I was a rare sight. I stayed to myself drinking water faster than the girl could bring it and trying to wipe the sweat off my face, neck, and arms with a small towel I had brought. I ordered some of the best seafood pilaf and tomato soup I have ever had in my life, which came as another nice surprise from Asahi. After I had finished when I was moments away from leaving, one of the men at the bar decided to try and communicate with me. It's instances like these that reveal how far I've come in Japanese. A year ago, any such conversation would have quickly ended after one or two confusing minutes or so. Now, I could talk with this man for as long as he could take. In this case, it was about 20 minutes. He said he knew the ALT in Asahi, which is no surprise, and I told him we were good friends and would be playing poker later that night. I then told him I was headed towards Ogawa onsen, and he searched through his bag to find three free passes which he gave to me. I tried to refuse, but he assured me he had plenty more, and then gave me three more.

It was a great surprise to receive these gifts, but actually, in hindsight, it doesn't surprise me at all. The generosity of the small town locals around here is enormous, especially towards foriegners who try and talk with them. Every interaction I have with the Japanese here results in some kind of gift, be it physical or informational in form.

I left the restaurant full of nourishment and headed off into the mountains in search of Ogawa onsen.
Working off the vague images and names I tried to ingrain in my mind earlier from maps in my apartment, I had a little trouble getting on course. I followed small dirt roads that stretched beside streams and rice fields, trying my best to sense how to reach my destination instead of brave the large highways. With enough time and patience, this method always works (most of the time). The mountains in this area are dense. By that I mean that they are steep and have many waterways that have formed canyons and paths that lead deep into the mountains. Lately for these trips, I just decide which one of these I will follow. If there's trouble, it's because I find myself in a different one than I planned.
I found myself heading where I wanted, and began following a small one-and-a-half lane road along a river. Buildings and rice fields become less as the mountains rise closer and closer to you the farther you go inland. Each path I have taken like this reveals it's own specific treasures, and so I've gotten into the habit of keeping my head up and eyes open as long as I am on them. As I had this particular thought while I was riding, I looked up to find something that really kept my attention. I halted abruptly, slamming my stomach against the handle bars, turned around, and began investigating. What caught my eye at first was a blackboard against a wall inside of a large garage that had the dimensions of a bear drawn on it.

In the middle of this garage was a giant cage with extra large food and water dishes on top.

My eyes went back and forth between the blackboard and the cage. I then noticed a large sake bottle resting in front of the blackboard.

I've talked a lot before about my interest in traditional Japanese culture like tea ceremony and bushido, but perhaps cooler than doing any of those, would be hanging out with bear hunters in the mountains. Or maybe at least trackers or conservationists. The mystery of the this garage remains burning in my imagination.

Well, onward I go. Pedaling, sweating, pedaling, sweating. The further I get the steeper the climb, and the more tired I become. These bike rides in the Japanese summer have shown me more pours to sweat out of than I ever imagined existed. I am also discovering a threshold I have for the heat here. Since June I've enthusiastically embraced the heat and humidity, despite it's often uncomfortable nature. But lately, I'm really yearning for autumn. I may have to wait another month or so though.

Pedaling, sweating, heat.

Hot, pedaling, sweating.

Uphill, sweating, pushing the bike.

Back on the bike, pedaling, sweating, heat.

I had two small bottles of water in my backpack. This would be fine if I got to Ogawa onsen as fast as I predicted, but somehow I often forget that I can't just pedal my bike at max speed the entire way on these trips. So my trips become much longer than expected.
But alas! Reprieve from the heat looms ahead! A concrete half-tunnel in the side of the mountain is guaranteed cool shade. At this point, I am pushing my bike through any uphill I come across, grinning just thinking about the downhill return trip. As shuttle buses pass me with "Ogawa Onsen" written on their sides, I gaze with apathy. I can't even comprehend what it would be like to have a 20 minute shuttle ride instead of this 5 hour bike ride in the sun. I chose this path happily anyway.

Through the tunnel, the road gradually rises, making the river below become farther and farther away. Eventually the tunnel emptied me out to an enormous dam. It looks like it could easily be in a James Bond movie. I looked at a map and saw that the onsen/hotel was only one more kilometer away, so I explored the large concrete beast of a dam before me.

I happily resaddled my bike to ride across the flat of the dam's top. Looking all the down the side of the dam, all I wanted to do was slide down to the bottom of the refreshing looking pool. More realistically, on the other side of the dam was a large part of the river that looked amazingly delicious to swim in. After riding for so long in the heat, I couldn't think of anything better than to dive in, but I looked around all of the banks to the water, and they were lined with steep grades of bushes and such. This was a popular tourist spot with picnic benches and informational boards, but no way to get into the water. Here was a wonderful place for the Japanese to make the water accessible, but no, of course not. Someone might drown because "water in nature is scary." My frustration was peaking, but soon subsided as I reasoned the onsen was close and I was immersed in exploring the dam.

On the other side of the dam was a series of ladders that lead all the way to the bottom, and only had a low gate barring entry. "Mmmmm" I thought. Just below the top where I was, there was a door that led into the dam itself. I looked around, saw nobody, and quickly jumped down one level to jiggle the handle. Locked. Of course. I quickly climbed back up, and gave up on any James Bond activity for the moment.

I looked down the road and saw a bridge, leading to a tunnel that went into a mountain to some unknown desitination. I certainly wanted to follow it, but if I went down every strange road in the mountains, I would need another 10 years in this area of bike adventures every weekend. Those similar such roads I've followed before have rarely ended, and seem to be for other dams or powerlines.

Well, back on track for the homestretch to Ogawa onsen. One way would be to take a nice small overgrown road around the mountain, but it was roped off. The other way was an enclosed tunnel instead of the one with an open side that I ascended earlier. These tunnels are not fun to pass through. They are dark, the sidewalks are barely wider than my handle bars, the pedestrian paths are raised a foot from the road, and have steep curving concrete walls on the side. The sound of even a single car thunders deafeningly through the whole tunnel. It takes the utmost relaxation and trust to keep pedaling straight ahead as cars pass only feet away. Usually these tunnels are not heavily trafficked, but I surely get through them as fast as posibble. They are probably the most dangerous part of my bike trips. One interesting thing is that these tunnels are always extremely damp. Puddles in the road, dripping water from the cieling, and containing very cool air. I imagine it's from clouds/fog/mist that is trapped in there.

Ah finally, Ogawa onsen. Or at least the Ogawa onsen hotel. These moments have become priceless for me. The satisfaction of reaching the destination is momentarily accompanied by the shocked gazes of passerbys. In this case they were vacationing Japanese relaxing in the ambiance of nature and comfort of onsen. But then comes me, a disheveled, smelly, hairy, sunburnt gaijin stumbling off his bike in the parking lot. I think I used to be self conscious about these kinds of things, but that's not such a good feeling to express because often times Japanese will meet you with equal if not increased awkwardness. But now I just smile, bow, and give a hearty "konnichiwa!" This is also usually met with equal enthusiasm. This is actually a great example of a gaijin's experience in Japan. If you are scared, nervous, and self conscious, the country will close in around you with uncomfortable looks. But if you embrace the concepts of genki (energetic/enthusiastic) and ganbaru (persevering/giving effort) with a big smile and nod of the head, oceans will part before you with the applause of the Japanese population.
The man who gave me the passes to the onsen earlier mentioned there were two onsen at Ogawa. One was a nice modern one which he praised, and the other which was an old boring one he squinched his nose at. So I continued along the road to scout out the area. I reluctantly climbed some stairs into the trees to find this large Buddhist statue, and found a sign leading to the old onsen. One path was gravel, and another was grassy, but again roped off. If you haven't noticed, this is another pet peeve of mine with Japan. The number of unneccesary ropes and signs prohibiting entry to perfectly fine areas is really inhibiting my adventurous nature. To the Japanese, it seems that someone has made a safe clean road to be shepherded conveniently on, so you had better use it.

I stepped over the pathetic rope anyway.

My path followed maybe 10 feet away from the safe one, which was along a very refreshing looking river that I would love to get in, but there was no clear path through the brush to it, and there were signs telling people not to swim in it and had pictures of drowning children and monkeys. All I want to do is get into some cold natural water before the onsen, but it's just impossible if you follow the rules around here.

I grumbled along the path and found a shack with signs that looked like the "men" and "women" curtains that usually hang before the changing rooms to onsen. I looked up to find a small pool that went slightly into the side of a rock cliff. It was obviously natural due to the effect the water had on the rocks. But I was confused because I couldn't tell if you were allowed to go in. Men? Women? Both? I poked around and heard and old woman attendant walking around with a cleaning bucket. She saw me look into the men's side of the changing shack, but when I came out and she saw me again, she leaped back absolutely surprised to see me. I also used to be nervous talking to older people because the language barrier can be so wide, but hesitation only results in increased confusion. I comfortably enter these conversations expecting each participant to only understand about a quarter of what each other are trying to say, and I use as simple and direct Japanese as possible.

"What is this place?"

"blah blah blah blah Buddhist blah blah blah."

I look over towards the steaming water and see incense and a small Buddhist statue. I look back at the "men" and "women" curtains.

"Is this an onsen?"


"Can I enter?"


I saw a rocky path that climbed up and around the onsen.

"Can I go up there?"

"blah blah blah cannot blah blah blah."

"Uhhhh ... OK."


"Excuse me. Sorry. Thank you."

"Excuse me. Thank you."

I turned around and waited for her to shuffle away. Then I looked back three seconds later and saw no trace of her. I peered around all corners and in all doors. Still no sign. She just disappeared.

Anyway, I took her "cannot" for, "you cannot help but go up there", and climbed the rocky path.

After being in Japan for a year and recently returning from a week in the States, my appreciation for certain nuances in Japanese culture have increased, but my respect for unnecessary limitations has dropped through the floor. I now play my "gaijin card" in any situation I deem harmless.

I climbed up and around and found an overgrown grassy flat spot with two Buddhist statues. One of which I recogniced as the deity Fudo, but don't know about the other. There was also a thin wooden ladder continuing up the overgrown hill, so I climbed it.

The path became more overgrown with every step and ended where a small concrete tunnel began. I peered in and saw no end. My feet had disappeared beneath thick bushes and shrubs, and the mosquitoes had been replaced by what I think were hornets, and that was the end of it. Any Indiana Jones-ing reached it's limit with the bugs and I hightailed it out of there as quickly as possible cursing and flailing my arms. I had to find one of those safe Japanese paths again.

I got back to the onsen, saw no sign of the attendent, and went a little further along the path. There was another onsen with a changing shack that only had a "women"s" sign on it, so I took an innocent look around. The attendent reappeared and said that it was only for women. I dumbly looked at the sign and said, "Oh sorry! I still can't read kanji well. I'm sorry, excuse me, thank you!"

That was the furthest point of my journey, and time to finally get in the hotel onsen. I would have gone in the natural outside one, but going straight from the heat to hot onsen water didn't sound good without cleaning off in something colder first.

The hotel was indeed very fancy and nice. As I made my way to the onsen through the immaculate halls, beautiful views of the mountains, and calming Japanese music playing through speakers, I was reminded of the serene counterpart to the 95 degree, super humid, bug swarming, roped off, difficult to communicate side of Japan.

I can't believe how lucky I am to have such journeys anytime I decide to ride towards the mountains in search of onsen.

Cheers to small town Toyama.

Any desires to chase images to Tokyo and Kyoto have been extinguished for the time being.

After a long soak, a beer, and a twenty minute session in the massage chairs, I slowly exited the hotel and climbed on my bike to take the long downhill cruise into the sunset.

But not without one more cause of excitement.

Instead of taking the closed tunnel back, I took the grassy route along the side of the mountain.

It was certainly much nicer to bike on a grassy path in the fresh air as I looked down at the river. I had my head down and started thinking about monkeys, pondering the chances of seeing them around here, when all of a sudden, I heard a rustling in front of me and saw two monkey butts disappear into the bushes below. I followed quickly to look for them, but only heard their rustling. Then more noise in the bushes above me to the left. I was surrounded by them! I slowly walked my bike along the path with eyes glued to the bushes and trees around. Then in front of me about 30 meters were four monkeys sitting in the road. As I got closer, two ran away, but two sat and waited for me to get closer before darting into the bushes.

It should be known that I suffered tens of mosquito bites on my legs for these pictures. I've always attracted an above average amount of mosquito bites, but the ones here in Japan are just vicious. My bites here swell up huge and itch much more than any I've had elsewhere. (This does not include sand flies though which are even a million times worse.) I guessed that a week's worth of itching hell was worth this short monkey experience.

This has become a regular Saturday for me, and each week I grow thirstier for such adventures. Sunday I usually write on the blog, relax, and hang out with friends, but I need another dose of bike riding this weekend.

On my way home, I'm already planning the next day's adventure.


  1. Boy, you're gonna' be in good shape with all that bike riding.

    A suprising lack of cars. do you wait till they pass before you take pictures, or are there just few cars?

    We had a b-day party at Shima Dojo for Corey last night. Everyone was there, including Jack and the Barbarian Brothers from Anacortes.
    Music, Pizza and Beer!

    Watch out for monkey butts

  2. "Anyway, I took her "cannot" for, "you cannot help but go up there", and climbed the rocky path."