Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mountain Shrines, and Monkeys, and Villages, Oh My!

This post is a little late coming as I took the trip about two weeks ago, but better than never ne?

It occurred to me that morning, that though the snow melted many months ago, I have yet to go on a real gaijin adventure on my bike into the mountains in search of the mysteries of Toyama Prefecture. Back in February when the snow quality was slightly diminishing and epic snowboarding experiences began to lessen; all I could think about was when I could get on the bike again. However, a trip to Yakushima, visits from loved ones abroad, and other miscellaneous distractions have kept me from what it is I love most to do on fair-weather weekends. Well, that time came to an end as I rolled out of my futon with a slight hang over, had my standard weekend breakfast of a fried egg and two English muffins with blueberry jam, accompanied by just a little too much coffee, and saddled my mamachari (Japanese granny bike). That detail of the mamachari is actually pretty interesting because I upgraded happily a long time ago to a mountain bike, but somehow I'm left with only the mamachari at this time. There's a strange simple beauty about the mamachari compared to the mountain bike. Maybe it's because it only has one gear, is much heavier, and carries more rust. Maybe it has something to do with wabi sabi. Well, regardless, I'd actually very much prefer to be on a mountain bike; but whatever.

My destination that day was Kareisawa, a mysterious sounding town that I had only seen signs of before on earlier mountain adventures. Last year I rode (or rather pushed) my bike up an 800 meter mountain to the Kareisawa Shinrin Koen (Kareisawa forest park) on one of my most trying adventures to date. It was one of those instances where I looked at my maps and remarked, "Oh yeah, no problem. This looks like a short one today." However, I soon realized that I should invest in some topographical maps that could better warn me of incredibly steep inclines. It was one of those trips where I had been pushing my bike for a couple of hours in the sweltering humidity and somehow knew instinctively that I had hours to go even though I had no idea where I was. I got to the top and found a place much less epic than I imagined, and promised I would never go up that way again. Well, part of the way up I remember seeing a sign for this town of Kareisawa with a tiny windy road that descended the mountain, but away from the ocean and into a forested valley. This was where I decided to go. On my way up towards Shinrin Koen I planned to stop at the Niikawa Farm, a place famous in Niikawa (the eastern region of Toyama Prefecture) for friendly animals and tasty ice cream. It is about halfway up the mountain, and I wanted to take a back way that I hadn't seen before. So, off I went, flying towards the mountains with my sun hat and squeaky mamachari.

To be honest, this "back way" up to the farm was more of an idealized hope than something I knew for fact. Given this mindset and the places I usually try to go, it's some form of miracle I ever find these places. Anyway, I headed towards where I thought this entrance to the mountains might be on roads I had ridden many times before. My first distraction was a sign on the side of the road that looked as if it led to a park beyond an overgrown trail. The top of the hill looked like it wasn't too far away so I decided to park the bike and explore.

I jumped up the stairs that ascended quickly and came to a very muddy fork in the trail; one way going 90 degrees to the right, and the other in the complete opposite direction. Neither of these trails looked like they were going up in any fashion, and also didn't look like they had been used in years. I looked back and forth between the two, took a deep breath, and just picked the one to the left. The path was dead flat. After every turn I would keep telling myself, "Alright, if this doesn't look like it goes uphill after the next section, I'll go the other way." I said this to myself about three times, but finally after about 10 minutes I gave up and headed back to where I came to investigate the other side. Once I finally started in the other direction from the trailhead, my patience ran thin after only a couple minutes, and I eventually turned back and returned to my bike without seeing anything but endless overgrown paths through the forest. Every path leads somewhere for sure, but I really don't have time to go down every path, so it's onward to one that is a little more exciting.

I got to my bike and decided that that was my one aimless meander for the day and from here on out it was going to be straight to where I wanted to go: Niikawa Farm. But there was a bit of a problem. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn't really know how to get there. To the left was the monstrous super highway that would surely get me closer, but could still be difficult to find when trying to get off it, and would be hell with all the cars speeding past me. To the right were tiny farm roads towards the mountains. Ideally, there would be that "perfect back way up to the farm", but most likely there would be no road, and I would certainly not make it to my goal that day if that was the case. Well, anything is better than the highway, so into uncertainty I rode with conviction.

The road had a slight but steady incline, which becomes a great task on the chari. Here there really is no turning back. If I decide to put the effort into the climb, there's no way I give it up halfway just to find another path just as uncertain. As I go further to the mountains, it's all wide farmland, mostly rice fields, and the occasional lone standing house with the typical small white Japanese farmer truck parked in front. I saw where a couple roads led up to the right in the direction of the farm. Certainly such a road could lead to the farm, but to be honest I was only about 20% sure things would work out in that direction. I had to make my decision to head into the mountains at some point and so I did. As the ascent became slightly steeper, I still trudged onward pedaling on my bike. Sounds of civilization dwindled and I was able to start looking down on things.

Eventually, the farms ended and the tree line began. As I entered the forest, all sounds disappeared; in fact everything did but the walls of green forest on either side of me, and the pavement single lane before me. My pedaling gradually became slower until I came to a complete stop. From there on out as long as there was such an incline, I'd be pushing the bike up the mountain. Up ahead came a fork and it seemed I would be given news about where it is this road leads too. News I received, and extremely good news it was: about 4 kilometers away was Niikawa Farm! Turns out I did find my secret back way up to the farm.

A rush of elation carried me up the hill through the forest for about 30 minutes. But then I encountered my first mental block along the way. That point where I find myself pushing my bike up a lonely road and I realize I will be doing it for maybe the next hour or two. It was hot, and even though I was under the cover of the trees, I was sweating profusely. My legs like pistons were pushing me up the hill; my hands on the handlebars in a forward lean; my head for the most part hanging to give me a good view of the asphalt I was covering. My sweat stank. I could smell the rank of coffee and alcohol and other toxins being squeezed out of my body. I could feel my legs working asymmetrically, maybe because one ankle I had sprained skateboarding about ten years ago never healed the same. In the middle left side of my back, a usual ball of stiffness came, maybe from a collarbone broken in rugby five years earlier. Though my imagination was clear and dwelt deep within me, it was covered by this stinky fleshy existence on all sides; absolutely completely enveloped by this weak temporal frame.

With my head to the pavement, visions of my insides began haunting me. Who knew exactly what was going on inside of me? What kinds of parasites, bacteria, or cancers were festering inside of me? In what kind of shape were all those organs and tissues that were so generously given to me in my mother's womb?

But at that time, all of those things seemed not to belong to me. I never asked for them, and surely I wouldn't have them for much longer. I really can't do much to control their condition can I? I mean really; those fleshy pieces ever in flux. However, there was something different about my bones. Those white solid unflinching columns atop which all else settled. No matter what sweat came out, or how much I huffed and puffed, my bones where there just the same. It seemed like forever they would be as they are. I wanted my bones to shine in the sun and be free of my fleshy case, but that is just not how things work. I started thinking there must be some kind of sacred space separating my bones from my flesh. No matter how small that space was, there was a distinct separation between my bones and flesh. Maybe it was similar to the space between my fingernails and my skin, or the space between a copper nail submerged in wood.

You may investigate these things yourself and find no space, but I do, or at least did at that time. I saw the surface level where the majority of society deems me a normal and healthy and functional human being. On this level I wake up, do incredibly boring errands, cram food in my mouth, pass over without giving proper respect many things that may deserve it, and shower and go to sleep. There is my blonde hair, pink skin, human language speaking smiling self. But below that things are much much different. Underneath the skin hungry hungry fleshy desires fester and desire satiation. Little hungry demons that cry when they're not tended to. Though I belong to a society that makes indulgence so convenient, these demons can only be kept at bay for a while. At least until you start wondering why it is you have to do so much as far as maintenance for the shell. Here I am hungry for food and water. I need to be loved by family, friends, non friends, people who don't even exist. I need to be assured that I am worthy and needed in this world. I drink coffee when I'm bored at work, drink booze when I'm alone in my apartment, and gorge myself with food so I'm so full I can't think of anything else. I get angry with people who don't meet whatever standards I deem important at whatever particular times. And all of those demons who whip with fire these fleshy desperate desires, seem able to change and grow and disappear in a matter of seconds. What it is that is always so desperate can easily be forgotten in a second. That food I craved so much, I can't even remember what it is. That taste for beer I wanted so badly disappeared once I distracted myself with some TV show. At one point when I thought I couldn't live without some kind of love, that feeling became nothing when a car almost hit me in the street.

It's like watching a sports game and screaming and crying at the small people's actions on a TV screen while you cram yourself with junk.

This is not me. This is not what I wanted; it's not what I want now. It wasnft here when I started, and moves on quickly after it comes. However, its nature envelops me, and there is no way to escape it. Below I take refuge in my bones where I can sit beneath my flesh and watch the demons fight each other. As if I'm sitting underneath the ocean, I just look at all the fish in the blue with innocence. Some may call it a "beginner's mind". It is what I felt when I was a little kid and went out my front door to dig in the dirt of the forest next to my house. It's the same feeling I got when I rushed out of my apartment on my bike. That is still there, here with me now, underneath that plague of flesh.

For some reason I looked up and saw a sedan parked strangely on the side of the road where a rusty piece of metal acted as a bridge over a concrete guided stream. The bridge headed nowhere in particular it seemed.

The road wound steep up to the right and rose quickly. I kept my eyes to the woods in the direction of the car and sure enough I saw an old man walking through the woods about forty yards away. I kept on pushing my bike up the hill with my eyes glued to him. He noticed me, and halfway sneakily crept behind a tree to avoid my gaze.

Anyway, I rose above the majority of the forest and things flattened out a little bit, revealing pastures that probably used to be grazing ground but were now just overgrown grass and wildflowers. After an uneventful half hour I arrived at the ranch.

I have visited the ranch before a few times and wasn't surprised at the company of farm animals and local families and oldies. Niikawa ranch is THE place to go to for a half day getaway. Parents take their children here, and retired folks gather in tens and order shuttles to take them up the mountain. The place is also famous for wonderful views over the flatland of Niikawa and the ocean and even the Ishikawa Peninsula far in the distance. It was fortunate success to make it here first to the Niikawa Farm, but my destination lay much further ahead.

I started the steep climb ambitiously by pedaling instead of pushing my bike up the hill. After about 2 minutes my speed had decreased significantly and an older man on a mountain bike fully decked out in spandex high tech gear passed me on my right at a steady speed. I leapt off my bike, wiped the sweat of my upper lip, and resumed pushing my mamachari.

So, in my mind Niikawa Farm was about 1/3 of the way to the top of Shinrin Koen, the top of that particular mountain which I visited a year ago. I predicted the sign and turn off for Kareisawa would maybe be 2/3 of the way to the top. Now, after 2 years of exploring this area on my bike, I knew better than to try and print out maps of where I was going. For one thing, the two excellent maps I have in my apartment which I consult before such trips are slightly different from each other, so something is a little funny there. Also, I know better than to expect to just get straight to where I wanted to go. At this time, the worst case scenario would be missing the turn off and going all the way to the top to Shinrin Koen.

This stretch of road is rarely used and extremely windy and steep. I was either pushing my bike up an impossible incline or straining my hands on a brake while flying downhill. On this part you start to get closer to the real mountains of Toyama. Snowcapped peaks loom closer and on either side may be deep forested valleys with rivers like veins pumping from the heart of the mountains out to the extremities of the shore and into the sea.

I got to where I thought was about 2/3 of the way up and no sign of a turn off. Well, there's no turning back here.

I kept on for about another 30 minutes from a waterfall on the side of the road where I filled up my water bottle. Just after that I found a turn off! But for Kareisawa? I don't think so. Some other strange town perhaps. Would it take me to Kareisawa? Probably. Ideally the road I would take would be a long steep road taking me to the deepest towns along the rivers inland. At the worst, it would just be a road that would take me quickly back to the oceanside towns I was more familiar with. I remember a year ago seeing specific signs for Kareisawa, and this was not it, so I kept on.

I soon came to another turn off, again with no mention of Kareisawa. I didn't remember there being so many of these. They seemed to be in the right direction, but not exactly what I was looking for. Did all these roads meet up and lead to the same place? I have no idea. Still onward and upward.

A slight ironic frustration arose as I passed landmarks I remembered from a year ago. The same thoughts were passing through my head as had before. Actually, that's not true. Last year I desperately wanted the destination to be just around the next corner. This time, I had enough experience to know such thinking would only curse the next turn as well as my patience, and was just generally unlikely. However I did see my first monkey on this particular trip.

Eventually, I finally came to a sign with characters resembling Kareisawa, but it wasn't quite what I remembered in my mind. Surely I was getting closer, but this was still not it. I intuited that there was another road higher up which was the road I wanted to take, but it probably linked up with this road just below this point. Regardless, I was feeling good at the time and decided just to keep on up. I knew that once I decided to head down, it would be 100% down from then on, so I wanted to use what little energy I had left for the adventure up.

About 15 minutes later, I found my road. I think I made it about 95% up the mountain. This is hilarious considering my sense of timing and direction. In my humble opinion, I usually have a great sense of the direction I need to go, but completely underestimate and distort times in my head. I'm just lucky I confine my adventures to day trips in relatively safe environments. I would have to make some serious changes if I was to head out into true isolated wilderness.

I knew Shinrin Koen was just a little further, maybe ten minutes away and I decided to make it to the top just to say I did. But then I stopped after 10 paces, remembered how disappointing it was the first time, and elected to just begin my descent into mysterious mountain towns. I tried to think of what could possibly be at the top which would make me regret turning around. ... dinosaurs ... anything less than living breathing fighting dinosaurs at the top of the mountain, and I could care less. So down I went.

The road was surprisingly small and unkempt and it surprised me the road warranted a sign at all. It was steep and littered with brush. My hands were sore for days afterward from holding the breaks the whole way down. At times I held the brakes down completely only to find a very slow deceleration. I thought whatever it is that gets in my way will certainly be unhappy about the condition of my brakes. I also thought a thought that comes through my head a few times a week when I'm riding my bike at high speeds: how good is my ukemi? (Forward rolling that we usually do in aikido) If I flew over my handle bars down a steep hill at 20 mph, would I be able to roll out of it with no harm done to my body? I don't know.

The road was small and trying, but it was a great downhill ride and soon took me around cliffs that looked upon the ocean sunset view that was descending on the towns I have for two years called home. Just as I had hoped, the road led down deep into the mountains, back into the forest. A sign appeared and civilization again encroached on my view. But there were rundown shacks. In the woods I saw what was a medium sized home with a chimney smoking. Then a large stone torii, gate signifying the entrance to a shrine appeared before me. Just what I was looking for! Strange mountain shrines. Sure enough, two weathered guardian statues were on the side of the small road and led up stone stairs. I walked up to find a very old shrine. For small shrines in the country this one was impressive, but barred for some reason. Was it to keep out uninvited guests? Maybe it was under construction. As usual, I had no idea, and just marveled at the architecture and the Chinese characters I couldn't read written on the stone statues.

I went further down the road and found a large tomb of sorts. This was really impressive, but what was it doing in the middle of nowhere? What kind of person would be buried here? A farmer? A priest? Most likely the tomb was for a family instead of a single person.
The trail of civilization stopped after the grave for ten minutes until I began seeing rice fields. In tiers upon tiers so deep in the mountains, it really does give me the feeling like I'm in some kind of fantasy story. Closer to the sea around the main cities there are uncountable amounts of rice fields. One would think that such small and secluded ones like these in the mountains would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, here they lay, tended to with the hard labor of Japan's aging population.

As I rode down I heard rustlings in the bushes around me and knew immediately that this was monkey territory. Further down the road I saw a few in the road, and a few on any concrete forms around the rice fields. Then more monkeys. About 50 yards ahead of me were probably 30 or 40 monkeys. By far the biggest monkey party I've ever seen. I took a few pictures, but they noticed me quickly and more of them dispersed every second I watched them. When I rode by them, all the young ones scattered, but the old ones would just stand their ground a safe distance on the side of the road and watch me pass by.

At the bottom of the rice fields I finally saw the end of a small town that I assumed was Kareisawa. This was my goal, and it didn't disappoint. Other than the most famous old-style Japanese villages that are preserved as World Heritage Sites and removed from a normal functional life, this was the most old-fashioned village I have seen. I imagine the small town looked no different fifty or sixty years ago. The only differences were new cars parked in driveways and the occasional drink vending machine. The funny thing about the cars is that other than the small white farmer trucks characteristic to Japan, most cars are less than five years old. Maybe in the U.S. in a place like this you'd find lots of old trucks and beater cars, but it's completely different here. For an American, this is a pretty strange sight until you get used to it.

As I rode through town I saw a few people who were slowly working in the rice fields. People that wouldn't look any different a few hundred years ago I would imagine. With modern jobs and diets and hobbies and fashions, the Japanese body has changed considerably since the Meiji Era, and especially since the production of mass processed food, but that means nothing to the people living here. Perhaps they will be the last generation of such a lifestyle. I was welcomed with gaping stares, ones even more pronounced than I usually get in town, but that's no surprise. I wonder if I am the first gaijin they have ever seen in this area. When I first started going on these trips, I would return to my friends exclaiming the strange wonders I found in the mountains and was sure I was going to start a chain reaction of gaijin headed out to rediscover these oddities, but people usually lost interest after 30 seconds. I have never had a conversation longer than two minutes about these adventures despite my genuine efforts.

"Hey man, what did you do today?"

"Dude! I rode my bike into the mountains and saw some crazy shit!"

"Really? Where'd you go?"

"First I rode my bike up to Niikawa Ranch ..."

"You rode your bike up to the ranch?"

"Yeah, on my chari. Then I went up towards Shinrin Koen forest park in the mountains ... have you heard of it?"

"Uhhh ..."

"And then I rode down this tiny road and found gravesites and shrines in the forest."


"And then went down to this secluded town called Kareisawa in the mountains. It looked like something straight out of Last Samurai!"


"Kareisawa! Dude it's just inland from Uozu."


"Yeah, where you live!"

"Oh. Crazy ..."

Most gaijin here own a car, don't often talk to Japanese if they don't have to, and only know the main highway that runs through the prefecture along with its convenience stores and gas stations and cheap restaurants that run along it. I think most opinions from the gaijin community of Toyama are pretty low, because it is in the country and has crappy weather. Good thing I like the country and don't mind crappy weather if I can make these kinds of trips into the mountains whenever I have the time.

This kind of trip would usually end with onsen, but it was Saturday which meant aikido. I had little time before, but the last thing I ate was an English muffin and fried egg about 6 hours earlier that day, so I stopped to get a giant plate of chahan (fried rice) before practice. I was starving, thirsty, and exhausted and could care less about the impending stomach ache I was about to have after rolling around and being thrown by my friends. I did in fact make it to aikido, and did in fact get a stomach ache that I somehow managed to control until I returned home. I don't even remember what I did after that, but probably went out to a bar or went to play poker. I can't believe it's taken me so long to start these adventures this year, but you can bet I'll be doing whatever possible to keep them coming until the snows in winter.


  1. Damnit. I lived in a place called Monkey Capital (Sarugakyo) for three years and I never saw a damned monkey. My mother visits for a week and sees like three. Damnit. I wanted to see a monkey.

  2. Looks like we're moving back to Japan next year, so save a couple adventures for me. I don't even mind riding the mamachari...

    Your reference to bones was interesting. I often tell my yoga students to do yoga with their bones rather than muscles, as bones won't fatigue. Then I have them do reeeeaaaalllly long holds. Try it in aikido sometime.

    Also, I actually did do an ukemi over the hood of a car that hit me on my bike. Another time, I just avoided getting creamed by doing tenkan. Years of Aikido lessons paid for itself that day...

  3. SS: From now on, everytime I see a monkey I will do my best to take a picture of it and post it on the blog for you. Maybe we can call it "Sensei Strange's Wild Monkey Park."

    Ted: Back to Japan? REALLY? Back to Kansai? Do let me know when you arrive in and maybe we could meet up sometime in the mountains or bars.

    Really long holds in aikido eh??? Interesting thought. I used to practice my tai chi form at super slow speeds making it about 40 minutes instead of 12 minutes long. A great but trying practice method.

  4. Mountains AND bars sounds about right. Toyama beer fest, eh?

    The long holds were in yoga poses, actually...