Chapter Twenty: A Ride with the Kitakata Crew

During the summer Obon festival, I had haplessly wondered into a bicycle shop and been invited to join a group bike ride the following week. The time and date had been jotted on a piece of paper for me, but no details as to the direction or duration had been given. As this mystery ride started early in the day, I made certain to eat a hearty breakfast.

The cyclists who gathered in front of the shop that morning were not quite who I had expected. I was disappointed to learn that Midori, the young woman who had encouraged me to participate, was not joining us, and I began to feel even more enisled upon realising that all the other riders were men averaging an age between forty and fifty, with the exception of a teenager who just happened to be one of my students. Not wishing to mortify the poor boy, I exchanged few words with him following a cursory and awkward greeting.

The cheap road bike on which I rolled up had been purchased online following many weeks of searching for a decent bike in the local area. My efforts to find a machine which had more than one gear and no flower basket proved fruitless; every contraption looked like it was designed for an eighteenth-century Dutch lady to ride around the village selling tulips. Finding no drop-bars, no light frames and no thin tyres, I concluded that professional bikes did not exist in Japan. I was very wrong. Every member of this group was equipped with slick road bikes, sleek helmets and cycle clothing. Most of them wore the matching green and black kit of the ‘Kitakata Crew’ with a winking frog face on the chest and ‘Pyon!!’ joyously written in English on the arms. This all contrasted embarrassingly with my ill-fitting second-hand exercise wear, unimpressive bike, bulky rucksack and lack of helmet due to lack of funds.

We set off along smooth concrete roads in the summer heat, and I puffed along behind this troop of tanned enthusiasts and their bulbous calf muscles, acutely aware of myself as the pasty, unfit, mal-equipped, ethnic and gender minority. Although some genial members tried to engage me in conversation, operating in a second language while doggedly peddling was a challenge. At one point they were trying to tell me an English word, which I could only interpret as “sanfuru.” At length, I realised they meant ‘sunflower,’ but was still at a complete loss for context.

There was one man who seemed a little older, a little less fit, and a little less kitted-out than the others. As we rode along, he got my attention by calling “Sensei! Sensei!” and I felt a surge of pride to be addressed as a teacher, although in reality it merely masked the fact that he didn’t know my name. He demonstrated that bicycle peddles should be pushed with the ball of the foot rather than the arch, and I adjusted accordingly. Instantaneously my metatarsals felt transformed into those of an agile quadruped, and ever since this revelation I have felt compelled to evangelise to every inefficient peddler, but am usually prevented by an intrinsic inclination not to sound like a wanker.  

We cycled through mercifully flat countryside under an optimistically clear sky, skimming past greenery and rice paddies. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch … at 10am. Having loaded up at breakfast I was not remotely hungry, but being still ignorant of the schedule, I waited outside the restaurant with everyone until the small establishment could accommodate our band of twelve. During this pedestrian interval, I remembered that I had not yet attached the back light to my bike, and so started pulling the miscellanea out of my backpack to find it. Having rocked up to this adventure with little idea of what to expect, my bag was swollen with snacks, water, a jacket, and other pragmatic assets. As various belongings were unceremoniously regurgitated by my rucksack, my peddle teacher compared me to Doraemon; a famous children’s cartoon character dating back to the 1970s. Although resembling a blue bipedal marsupial seal, Doraemon is defined as a robot cat from the future whose pouch can produce all manner of magical item, including a door that will lead to anywhere and jelly that makes the masticator multilingual. I was quite pleased to be likened to a comedy character who has been popular for decades. Once I had unearthed the light, the man insisted on helping me attach it.

Wikipedia / The Walt Disney Company

Eventually we were beckoned into the eatery and I sat in the middle of a long table, awkwardly drinking tea and unable to crowbar myself into any conversation. Once everyone had finished eating, I queued up to pay for my beverage. To my extreme embarrassment, it was free. Outside we stood in a circle while the bike shop owner announced that there was another event in two weeks. He then thanked everybody and the riders dispersed. I followed those going back to the shop because not only had I left my cumbersome DSLR camera in the care of Midori, I was completely lost.

I had expected a full day of cycling, and instead was home before midday. Still itching for adventure, I threw my bike in the back of the car and headed over to Hibarako, the lake I had cycled around recently (Chapter Eighteen: Lakes and Mountains). While eating a ramen lunch, I plotted a route that went along the Goshikinuma trail (五色沼自然探勝路 ) and skimmed past Lake Akimoto (秋元湖) before looping back along the Bandai-Azuma Lake Line (磐梯吾妻レークライン). The paper map indicated that the Goshikinuma trail was a walking track with a strippled green line, and I accepted that I would likely have to push my bike along this brief first section.

Goshikinuma translates as ‘Five Colour Lakes,’ although in reality there are more than five lakes and not necessarily that many colours. The series of volcanic ponds formed after Mount Bandai famously and catastrophically erupted in 1888, and the mineral deposits have rendered each body of water a dizzyingly incandescent colour which will alter with the seasons.

I was overwhelmed at the luminosity of the waters, each one a distinct and seemingly impossible colour. Unfortunately, the four-kilometre rugged path was a much longer trek with a bicycle in tow, and to make up time I marched along, failing to appreciate the ponds as I should, and growing increasingly enraged at my kickstand which kept springing down and scrapping the jagged terrain.

The Goshikinuma path is a popular walk and, in passing legions of sightseers, I learned that if I wanted to exchange a perfunctory salutation, rather than being oggled as the unhinged white lady pushing her bicycle down a nature trail, I needed to offer up a greeting first. I therefore chirped a cheerful hullo to almost every ambler, who were all absurdly surprised that I could manage this basic level of Japanese.

At long last I reached the end of the walking trail and hopped on to ride around Akimotoko. The road was smooth and the scenery was magnificent. Immersed in bliss, I took a sharp turn on a narrow road and slipped on a patch of dust, leaves and pebbles. Falling violently, my body skidded along the concrete, scraping skin from my right knee and knuckle. Perplexingly, the end of the handlebar managed to jab me in the throat. Stinging and coughing, I hurriedly dragged myself out of the road before a car could round the blind corner. I sat on a roadside boulder to collect myself and assess the damage. Having calmed down and concluded that my injuries were not serious, I set off again, with something of a dampener on my mood.

The road soon became rockier and the trees more dense. I came across a small clearing for cars to park and beyond it the road was shut to vehicles with giant concrete blocks. I attempted to cycle through the narrow gap between the barriers, lost balance, and landed squarely on my bum atop one of the slabs. This did nothing to improve my already damaged optimism. At that moment I noticed that to the right of the road, further down the mountain, there was a stream and a slender gap in the vegetation leading to it. I left my bike leaning against a signpost and headed towards the water.

This was when I discovered paradise. Standing on a pebble beach, a glass-clear river ran past me to the lake. At its deepest it was a vivid blue, and in the expansive shallows it bubbled consolingly over smooth rocks. There were fish about five inches in length, and I found tadpoles which scattered at my approach. Pulling of my footwear, I paddled in the perfect stream and became viscerally happy. Although I could not help wondering, as I waded alone in this remote place, if there were any Japanese river sharks that I didn’t know about.

Gently washing my wounds, I felt instantly restored. Everything I had read about well-worship and well-dressing in old English customs at once made sense to me. As the remedial liquid soothed the bloodied grazes, I understood the compulsion to venerate water as sustaining, curative, and magical. I basked in the solitude and sunshine on the smooth stones as the brook babbled by.

Feeling revivified, I climbed back up to the road and carried on along the Nakatsu River Valley Path (中津川渓谷探勝路). It was long, and soon I was pushing my bike up the increasingly steep, rocky and frondescent route. Intermittently I passed uprooted trees and other chunks of the mountain that had fallen onto the track. The stony banks of the river gradually plunged into a gorge with shallow waterfalls. The crystallinity of the water was such that, even from several metres above, the riverbed was sharply visible.

At length I reached an area where a number of people were playing on the other side of the river, below steep steps leading to a car park. I walked along bridge that did not look well-used and, rather than crossing over to the more populous side of the valley, found myself walking through a forest. On I plodded, with the gradient of the path continuing to rise. Midges and mozzies plagued me, flying in my face and buzzing about my ears. When I looked down and found three of them insolently drinking from my skin, I was livid and doused myself in insect repellent.

Sheer inertia pushed me on, but I could see no signs, there was no GPS signal, and I appeared to be heading up a mountain. What had been marked as a path on my map was failing to materialise. Eventually I decided to head back, jumped on my bike, and coasted down the bumpy hill.

When I reached the bridge again, I could see a couple and their dog on the stone beach across the valley. Awkwardly I clambered down with my bike in the hope of crossing, and perhaps finding a more benign route, but the river was too wide to traverse. I got the attention of the couple and tried to ask where exactly I was and if there was a way to cross the water, but they did little more than pull concerned and sympathetic expressions. Much to my chagrin, I was going to have to backtrack. I dragged my bike back up to the path and began the return journey.

My mood again sunken by my failed circuit, I encouraged myself to focus on the glorious nature around me. Turning a corner in a single-lane road, I saw a macaque sat on the sunshine-soaked tarmac. I slammed my breaks and hurriedly pulled my camera from my bag. There were four males, all eyeing me with haughty suspicion as they made their way slowly along the road in the direction from which I’d come. One of these males sported impressively large and dramatically red testicles.

I followed the monkeys along the road for a while, fascinated and trigger-happy, although I was quite clearly irritating them. I heard a car approaching, and in my giddy happiness I flagged it down and gleefully told the driver that there were monkeys in the road. Calmly and courteously, he advised that I be careful.