Saturday, May 31, 2008

Go West Young Man

On the very last day of Golden Week, May 6th, I decided to get the mountain-bike out again and go for another ride, along the coast to the west this time, from Akashi, to wherever it feels good to turn back. I have heard that there is a nice cycle path along the coast, well away from any road traffic and it is this that I go in search of.

I first head south, heading down the valley-side through a patchwork of terraced newly-irrigated rice-fields and various other cultivated tracts, past a white-washed Zen-dera and finally emerge on Route 175. This is the main thoroughfare between Akashi on the Pacific coast and Maizuru on the Japan Sea and, as usual, is stiff with traffic. There is no choice now but to stick with it till I reach Route 2 so I put on as much speed as I can on the bumpy pavement, always wary of the unexpected--like old ladies stepping out from behind bus-shelters. They are remarkably good at that kind of thing, unfortunately.

Route 2 is reached without mishap and thankfully crossed at the zebra-crossing which ‘cuck-oo’s at me as the cyclist/pedestrian light illuminates in green. As I head towards Akashi Fishing Port, the world becomes a nicer place, as the hum of traffic gradually recedes in my wake. After crossing the San-Yo railway line at the level crossing, the streets become narrower and even a mountain-bike seems like an excessively large vehicle to be on them. This is the _old_ part of Akashi and probably has not really changed much since the early 19th century, in terms of street layout.

I emerge onto the coast road and am immediately confronted with the evidence of fishing-industrial-man. Old hawsers are piled up at the side of the road, along with fishing nets, trawl cables, octopus pots and sundry tackle. The road is pot-holed and all the buildings have a scruffy look about them. Deja-vu--it is just like Obama, but there are no hordes of jeering urchins to contend with, thankfully. I pull into the harbour to see if the cycling path leads out of it. Lots of moored fishing boats—but no cycling path.

I proceed westwards past a man waving red & white flags to guide traffic past some roadworks, where they appear to be repairing a gas main. Soon the road turns to the right but the cycle track begins dead ahead, by a stand of gnarled pine trees backing on to a beach of white sand. There are families picknicking and barbecuing and groups of young people simply hanging out in the sunshine on this fine but hazy day, with Awaji-shima just visible in the distance.

I have been well-informed—it is a pleasant ride along the beaches. Here and there I come across some kinds of working activity—not everyone is on holiday. There are men waist-deep in water with chest-high waders wielding wicked looking rake-like implements as they harvest the shallows for shellfish of some description. At the point where the river Akane meets the sea, there is a man out in the water driving a power-shovel, heaping up berms of silt and sand. I watch him for a while, but am at a loss to understand why he is out there.

The cycle path continues for another couple of kilometres, until it merges with a normal two-lane blacktop. There are some palm trees here and a small fishing port, but no signs to indicate the name of the place. So, in my best polite Japanese, I make enquiries to three pretty young ladies who are having a beach picnic.
Me: Er, Suminasen ga... Kono tokoro wa doko desu ka? Mich ga mayou desu kedo...
Excuse me, can you tell me the name of this place? I’m a little bit lost...
Them: Hora gaijin da!
Look, it’s a foreigner!
Me: Sigh. (Repeat question)
Them (Giggle) Eigo wa wakaranai kedo
We don’t understand English
Me: Nihongo wo hanashiteimasu! Kiite! (Repeat question)
I’m speaking Japanese! Listen!
Them: Ah so desu ne. Mezurashii desu ne. Gaikokujin to Nishongo wa... Kochira wa Ei ga Shima desu.
Them: It's true! Unusual eh? A foreigner and Japanese... This is Ei ga Shima...
Me: Arigato gozaimasu. So desu ka. Kore wa sanzui hen to Edo no E to ido no i desu ka (draws kanji in air with finger)
Thank you. Is that so! So that’s the water radical with the E of Edo and then the i of ido is it?
Them: So desu yo. Heiiirr-- gaijin wa kanji dekimasu... (giggle)
That’s right. (Sound of disbelief) the foreigner can do kanji...

I thank them again and cycle off up the road to where I know I will meet the Sanyo railway. This place is only 25 miles from Kobe, the oldest international port in Japan, but we might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Hick towns are the same all over the world it seems. I know it well. My home land in perfidious Blighty is full of them. For sure...

I stop to take a look at a nice old Shinto shrine called Sumi-yoshi Jinja (West Ei ga Shima) and decide to thank the gods for keeping me safe.

I rattle the bell rope and say my piece, but am then unable to locate the offertory box to deposit my ¥10 votive offering. I finally give up and leave it on the step beneath the bell.

At the Sanyo railway I turn right and follow it back towards Akashi, but before reaching there I drop in at Choh-koh-ji, a Buddhist temple overlooking the sea.

It has a nice old gateway and inside, a rather splendid statue of Fudo-Myo –O

"Fudo is the Buddhist divinity of wisdom and fire. He is the principal deity of the great kings. Fudo is often called upon for protection during dangerous times. He is said to live in a temple on top of Mount Okiyama. Fudo is often shown to be an ugly old man surrounded in fire. He has a sword in his right hand to sever material connections and a rope in his left hand, that he uses to tie demons with. His sword is also used several times a year at Akakura in a healing ritual. Anyone who goes to see him is said to be punished with blindness. The most famous legend of Fudo claims that a young girl, named O Ai San, prayed to him for 100 days, naked under a waterfall near his shrine at Ohara in the province of Awa. Once she had returned home, her father, whom she had prayed for, was cured of a lingering illness.

He is typically depicted with a sword for subduing demons in his right hand and a rope for catching and binding them in his left hand. He has a fearsome blue visage and is surrounded by flames, representing the purification of the mind. He is often depicted seated or standing on a rock to show his immovability. His hair commonly has seven knots and is draped on his left side, a servant hairstyle in Buddhist iconography. He is frequently depicted with two protruding fangs. One tooth points down, representing his compassion to the world, and one tooth points up, representing his passion for truth."
(Quotation from Wikipedia)

I take a left turn and head toward the township of Nishi-Akashi, thinking to add a little variety to my route back. Some dodging through back lanes brings me out onto the rice-paddies which line the Akashi River, though some of them are being dug up for housing development (if I am reading the signs right).

Last stop before home is the human gas station again.

This time I try the pork & cheese burger, a recent addition to the menu. Nice--but a tad spicy, so I drink plenty of water before setting off on the last lap. Water is free at McDonalds...

Ei ga Shima made is not as much of a challenge as the Suma-Dera run, but it’s a pleasant ride out.

Gets the heart going a bit...

I’ll do it again quite soon.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Anno Domini

On Tuesday 6 May at 02.03 BST (GMT + 1) an event took place which keenly reminded me of the passage of time. My niece Caroline gave birth to a beautiful baby girl making my sister and brother-in-law grandparents for the first time and me a Great-Uncle. A wonderful happy event for our respective families of course, but one which made me realize that our time here is limited and I still have not achieved all that I wish to during my time on this mortal coil.
Ella Louise weighed at 8.12 lbs and was remarkably good-looking at birth, just as her grandmother was and unlike her great-uncle who was decidedly simian in appearance, by all accounts. Some would argue that nothing much has changed in the interim period...
She arrived here with us 12 months after her mother’s grandfather had passed away, due to a heart attack--almost to the same hour--which strikes me as uncanny...
Behold—Ella Louise.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Grand Day Out

In Golden Week, as is our wont, Akira and I went on a long motorcycle day-trip. This time we headed north and east a bit with our destination set as the town of Obama which has been in the news of late.

We set off at 7 am under cloudy skies with a bit of wind. The sun comes out about an hour later and warms things up a bit. Our trip north through the mountains of Kyoto Prefecture is relatively unimpeded, as the typhoon damage of a few years ago has now been repaired and the roads are relatively quiet.

At about 10.30 we pull up by the harbour of Maizuru and enter a coffee shop advertising Moh-ningu Setto which is bacon and eggs, toast, jam and a nice cup of Joe with a refill if okyaku-sama feels like it. Maizuru is the home base of a substantial portion of the Maritime Self-Defence Force and the harbour is full of military boats of all classes. The most impressive vessel is an Atago-class guided missile destroyer, equipped with the Aegis weapons system. These are relative newcomers to the MSDF and are supposed to be able to knock out incoming ballistic missiles, specifically the Taepodong 1 of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. One of these frightful things was lobbed without warning over Northern Japan a few years ago, its third stage landing in the Pacific Ocean, fortunately without hitting anything. The official line from Pyongyang was that they had successfully launched a Sputnik type satellite, which was now broadcasting patriotic music to the world.

Japan’s response was to build two more Aegis-equipped destroyers, the Atago and the Ashigara in addition to the four Kongo-class vessels already deployed. As might be expected, Pyongyang took this as a provocative act, and unleashed a storm of virulent invective, ‘seas of fire’ and all the rest of it. Quite charming chaps are the North Koreans. I take a photo through the shop window, rather than risk arrest for spying if I take one close to the water. The Aegis system is no doubt good at what it is designed to do, but that did not prevent one of these vessels from ramming a fishing boat last month, near Yokosuka, with the loss of two lives. The bodies of the skipper and first mate will probably never be recovered.

After repast we take a short look around the Museum of Bricks which is quite an interesting experience for me. My first paying job after graduation from university was as a muscle-worker in a primitive old-style brickworks and the memories come flooding back to me.

Then we set out on the 35 km final leg along the Japan Sea coast to Obama. It takes us about an hour as the narrow road is clogged with my favourite type of vehicle, farmers in little white pick-up trucks, jabbering away with the mobile in one hand and smoking with the other, presumably steering with the knees. No sooner do we pass one or two than more of the horrid things are ahead. They appear to hunt in packs, so I am very relieved when we turn left into the city of Obama. This place has become quite famous recently, because of its support for the Democrat Presidential candidate-in-waiting, Barack Obama. Normal people would call this place Kohama, but this is Fukui Prefecture, the ‘backside’ of Japan, and they have their own way of doing things.

The road leading to the sea-front is pot-holed and messy with crushed drink cans and fag-packets littering the gutters. Most buildings seem to be in need of a lick of paint but in contrast the beach is wide and white, free of trash with crystal-clear seawater. After all, it is a fishing port and that is what they care about most. As it is May Day, most places are closed, but we do find a fisheries co-operative market open where we partake of some excellent sushi and I buy a bottle of local shochu hooch as a souvenir.

We go for a walk on the beach where I am accosted by a horde of local urchins who treat me like an extra-terrestrial, though they are quite friendly with it. At the car-park I take one photo, just to prove I have been here.

I have seen enough and we return to Kyoto and thence to Hyogo via Route 162, which is an excellent road for motorcycles with fast sweeping curves and fabulous scenery. It was fun going to Obama and fun coming back, but I have mixed feelings about actually being there.

Our last stop before home is in the city of Kameoka, at an Oh-sho restaurant, where we have some of their famous fried chicken, Chinese dumplings and spicy noodles. Just the job on a day like today.