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.
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.
I got to the top, looked nervously around, didn’t find Bowser, and decided to climb back down and resume the adventure.
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.
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.
Man’s presence doesn’t seem to get in Nature’s way around here.
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.
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.
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.
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!