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Japan The Narrow Road by Janick Lemieux and Pierre Bouchard

“Everything about me was bewitched by the travel gods, and my thoughts were no longer mine to control. The spirits of the road beckoned . . . .”

“Everything about me was bewitched by the travel gods, and my thoughts were no longer mine to control. The spirits of the road beckoned . . . .”

Matsuo Basho set out from his Edo (modern-day Tokyo) home in the late spring of 1689 on a trek to the northern provinces of Honshu. He walked, along with his student Sora, some 2,400 kilometres in 156 days, propelled mostly by a desire to see the old places about which the old poets wrote. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a poem-filled travelogue of the journey, became the best-known work by the haiku master. The trek was a gruelling and dangerous endeavour, albeit a romantic one. We decided to pay attention to Basho’s trail as we pedaled toward the volcanoes of Japan’s Tohoku region. “So many things that I remember . . . these cherry blossoms . . . .” Other than crossing from Siberia to Alaska during summertime, one important geographical-positioning worry we had had since starting to cycle around the Pacific Ring of Fire in 1999 was to be in Japan for sakura season. At the end of March, approximately 20 kilometres out of Narita airport, we set our tent up under a blooming cherry tree. Groups of salarymen and whole families stormed the public park where we had taken up residence, laid blue tarpaulins over the wet grass, ignited potable hibachis and ate to celebrate the pink petals until well after 10 p.m. We had just witnessed our first hanami (flower-viewing party).

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“Everything about me was bewitched by the travel gods, and my thoughts were no longer mine to control. The spirits of the road beckoned . . . .”

“Falling mist . . . the day when Mount Fuji is unseen, most fascinating!” A short warm-up ride to Japan’s holiest mountain and most-recognized trademark was in the cards before heading toward the northern provinces. Gaining 1,000 metres of altitude within a 13-kilometre teeth-grinding climb to Lake Yamanaka took springtime right out of the landscape. Bare trees, brown grass and gray clouds were awaiting us on the volcanic plateau of the Fuji Five Lakes or Fujigoko. Ninemillion visitors come to visit the scenic area every year, a big chunk of them also attempting the hike up to Fuji’s 3,776-metre-high summit. In April, though, there are no hikers, no traffic, no line-ups and no views of the holy volcano! In Fujiyoshida, eating a scrumptious breakfast of pancakes and the first crop of strawberries, we sat by Fuji Sengen Jinja, the historical starting point for pilgrims climbing the mountain and agreed that three days riding under a low ceiling was enough. We packed our dishes, climbed on the bikes and started the long downhill to Saitama Prefecture. “Sprigs of deutzi adorn our hats — formal dress for the barrier.” Leaving Greater Tokyo — and its 35-million inhabitants — we cranked it up to Nasu-Yumoto, renowned for its seven hot springs. At the beginning of Volcano Highway, one of Japan’s many scenic toll roads, we learned the meaning of kaze. At 5 a.m. in the morning, we had to move the tent and all our gear to a sheltered public toilet because the kaze was threatening to blow everything away! Mount Nasu itself was snowed in, clouded over and very quiet and not the perfect combination for excitement. Still, we rejoiced at finally being in the mountains and knowing that we would stay there until we’d reached the northern tip of the island. “Spring passes and the birds cry out — tears in the eyes of fishes.” Not wanting to miss the last moments of a late-night hanami, we found ourselves camping in the garbage-collecting area of Tsuruga-jo Park. Approximately, 1,000 sakura trees are found around Tsuruga castle’s main tower in downtown Aizuwakamatsu. Spotlights strategically placed to illuminate the weeping trees, the castle stone walls and moats and schoolchildren running around in uniforms trying to catch swirling blossoms served to turn our surroundings into a manga fairyland. Early the next morning, the maintenance crew grimaced but remained gracious when faced with our trespassing while they meticulously unloaded garbage bins filled with pink petals gathered from the ponds as we packed the tent and bowed a great deal! The next evening, a very fit and glowing elderly woman informed me that Golden Week was just beginning. We had climbed on the Gold Line to the southern edge of Bandai-Asahi National Park and were soaking in a magnificent onsen warmed up by Mount Summer 2008

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Bandai’s geothermal power. In 1888, Bandai-san erupted on its flank, destroying villages and killing hundreds of people. After offering to scrub my back, she mentioned “all Japanese holiday.” She wasn’t kidding. The next day, we parked the loaded bikes at the start of the Goshiki-numa nature trail and followed the busy line of tourists on the level four-kilometre hike through a cluster of coloured volcanic lakes. City folks were thrilled to roam the wooded area and cheered every time the gutted volcano came into view. Children made sure their white sneakers didn’t get soiled, teenage girls were careful not to catch their stiletto heels in a crack and some old folks cruised by with touring boots, walking poles and barbells! “Both sword and satchel shown for Boy’s Festive Day, when paper banners fly.” The last three kilometres to the Zao Highline were a 1,600-metre-high parking lot. Cars, motorbikes and tour buses were stalled on the road, waiting their turn for the viewpoint on Okama, a revered crater lake. Our lungs in pain from the 20-kilometre climb in dry air, we overtook the parade under a wave of gambate — do your best! Okama was frozen solid and three-metre-high snowbanks lined the road. An exhilarating downhill on the Echo Line — we guessed all the city folks had come down the way they came — was waiting for us at the pass. It was hardly necessary to complete one full pedal cycle to reach the city of Yamagata. We’d seen carp windsocks flying everywhere since Tokyo, foreshadowing Children’s Day. Golden Week’s last day is dedicated to prayers of prosperity and health for the future adult generation. Formerly known as Boys’ Day, the carp represents each boy in the household. Downtown Yamagata roads were closed and crowded with policemen, firefighters, road workers, paramedics and so on. Children were welcome to mount a patrol motorbike, ride a fire truck crane or operate

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a bulldozer. We joined the families at the numerous food stalls. Bright red and yellow hot dogs, okonomiyaki, yakitori, takoyaki, crepes and ice cream are always part of a Japanese celebration! “I cannot speak of Mount Yudono _ yet see how wet my sleeve is now.” Highway #112 was an easy ride toward Okoshi Pass _ a wide paved road reaching a tunnel before the actual pass, the definition of a modern Japanese mountain road. A cute, economical, compact police car stopped near the tunnel where we sat for some “climb reward snacks.” An even cuter stocky policeman stepped out of the car. The door wasn’t shut behind him before he was already crossing his forearms in a perfect cross, the Japanese pantomime for dame — forbidden! Unbeknownst to us, Highway #112 was closed to cyclists and to keep going or to turn around were both dame! Before we had time to find an honourable solution to the gaijin — outside person or foreigner — inconvenience for this discomfited agent of the law, a van had pulled up, a driver jumped out and said, “I’ll take you and your things to the other side.” Cold sweats were wiped from the officer’s forehead . . . and ours too: not going through the pass would have meant a three-day detour on a road miles away from Mount Yudono. Our saviour Adachi was heading to the Sea of Japan for a twoday outing on his sailboat, but generously offered to drive us up to Mount Yudono-jinja Shrine. The sacred area contains an earthly representation of a Shinto God revered by the Shugendo sect. When Basho walked to the shrine in 1689, he wasn’t allowed to talk or write about it. Three hundred years later, it is still a hallowed land surrounded in mystery, so I, like him, will censure myself and stop talking about it now. “Mount Chokai popped up the sky, its image reflected in the water.” Twenty-two uphill kilometres from Highway #7 and the Sea of Japan, up on the slope of cone-shaped Mount Chokai, the fog was so thick and the wind so strong that the Chokai Quasi-national Park’s gift shops and restaurants were closing down and the staff was being evacuated. Everyone was heading down on the Chokai Blue Line, the toll mountain road we’d been slugging up. At the visitor centre, some


remaining kiritampo — rice grilled on sticks, an Akita Prefecture specialty — were stowed in our panniers before a ranger showed us the way to a mountain hut where we could weather out the storm. The next day, Pierre woke me with an off-key Happy Birthday song. I lifted my head from the tatami mat and stared out the window. Mount Chokai’s 2,236-metre-high snowy summit glittered on the sapphire blue sky and black volcanic rock encircled our shelter. On the western side, the conical shadow of the volcano stretched down to the Sea of Japan. No fog, no rain, no wind. Just a birthday-gift descent to Konoura Hot Springs. “I forgot the hardships of the road, and was moved to tears.” In Basho’s footsteps we had traveled on the narrow road through cities, samurai towns, visited castles and temples, soaked in countless onsen, enjoyed cypress forests and windy seashores, rode in spring rains and slept under starry skies. The path led us to Mount Sore’s Bodai Temple in the middle of the axe-shaped Shimokita Peninsula. According to Japanese tradition, Mount Sore is where the souls of the dead gather. Not so much a mountain, it is a barren wasteland of hissing volcanic vents, bubbling mud and sulphur haze adorned with statues of the guardian deity Jizo. In the eerie calm of the afternoon, we got undressed and slid into Bodai Temple’s hot baths. Had Basho returned here on his way to an afterlife? His journey has inspired many, his words resonate deeply into our wanderlust selves: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

TVA

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The Narrow Road - Tohoku  

Article published in Pedal (Summer 2008)

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