Monday, October 16, 2006

Toyama, Japan

Friends: I did as many had before me and left a yen coin at the temple atop Ono-gam, a 600-foot high rock at the tip of Sado Island, and was immediately blessed. Ono-gam is one of the three largest rocks in Japan and it was a steep and somewhat treacherous hike to its summit. The Japanese like to group their exemplary sites and events and other items in sets of three. It allows them to spread the credit and not to give exception to one single item. Rather than identifying a rock as the largest in Japan, it is called one of the three largest. The same goes for other superlatives--the three biggest limestone caves, three most delicious types of chicken, top three festivals, most famous hot springs, waterfalls, spirit mountains, etc. etc.

It wasn't the rock that drew me to Sado Island, the second largest after Okinawa of Japan's nearly 4,000 secondary islands besides the major four that comprise the bulk of the country. Rather it was a gold and silver mine dating to 1601 and was in operation until 1989. At its height of operation in the late 1600s, it rivaled the Potosi mine in Bolivia as the most productive in the world. It was laced by 250 miles of tunnels, some that are now open to the public.

Presently the most fascinating aspect of this Japanese mine is that its many exhibits are staffed by robots performing the chores of the miners--hammering and chiseling and draining and eating and engaging in a ritual celebrating the discovery a new vein, hoping it will be a productive one. The robots are very life-like mannequins, who also grunt and talk. Wherever they are sound, they are accompanied by a sign in English and Japanese warning, "Do not touch the robots."

The mine was just a mile-and-a-half from the Sea of Japan, up a steep incline from the town of Aikawa, about half-way around the 125-mile perimeter road starting from the main ferry terminal. There was hardly any traffic on the road, making for truly idyllic bicycling on narrow roads along a coastline. It was a two-and-a-half hour ferry ride out to Sado, barely discernible in the haze from the main island of Honshu. Sado was formerly a place of exile for politicians and others who fell into disfavor. I could have been perfectly content spending days going round and round the island past all the small fishing villages and patches of agriculture. There are just a couple of roads that intersect the mountainous interior of the island. There is so little traffic that tour guides stop their bus or van in the middle of one-lane bridges for the tourists to gaze over the edge and out to sea. There are many stretches where the cliff sides are so steep, and a tunnel has yet to be cut through, that the road is just one-lane wide.

I had a couple of strokes of good fortune after my pilgrimage to the top of Ono-gam, where a deity resides according to local lore. When I returned to my bike I found my cycling gloves in one of my front panniers. I thought I had left them at the last Internet Cafe. It had been the most expensive of the trip at 700 yen for an hour. The presumed loss of my gloves there made it even more expensive. Finding my gloves 24 hours after I thought I had lost them was good luck. Later that day I experienced a genuine miracle. As I was setting up my tent in a baseball field just a couple blocks from the ferry at Akadomari, a tent pole I lost over two weeks ago mysteriously reappeared. It had somehow slipped over another pole and had remained hidden there for two weeks. It was a major disaster when it turned up missing, almost enough to make me double back 75-miles to my previous night's campsite to retrieve it.

I had splintered the end of one my poles in the middle of a stretch of ten of them that were all connected by an inner cord the night before its disappearance. I had to cut the connecting cord and piece the poles together each night. Somehow I managed to lose one of those ten poles and had to make do with just nine. Not all the pole segments were the same, so it was tricky finding the right order when I went to piece them together each night. For over two weeks I had to endure a lop-sided tent with one ten-pole arch and the other nine.

I thought I had experienced a semi-miracle the night I discovered I was a pole short, as at that campsite I found an industrial-strength hard plastic straw that just barely fit over the end of my poles and lengthened it a few inches. It was the night I camped with Eelco the Dutchman at a campsite I never would have chosen on my own--in a meadow in the open on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Eelco had had tent pole maladies himself when his tent was scrunched in the flash flood in China. He had reinforced his poles with chopsticks. I tried doing that myself, but my poles weren't wide enough to accept them.

With my improvisations my tent was no longer free-standing. If I camped on ground too hard to prevent me from staking it out, it wouldn't hold together. Luckily I hadn't had such a campsite until last night, the night after I discovered the missing pole. I was on a prolonged stretch of rugged coastline with one tunnel after another. It looked as if I'd have to be very creative in finding a nook to place my tent. But then after one of the tunnels there was an open space. It led to the former road that wound around the cliff before a tunnel had been carved through it. The road hadn't been fenced off, but there were posts barricading cars and also a sign warning of
bears. I didn't take the bear warning too seriously, as the terrain was straight up and down. However, if there had been a bottle of urine nearby, I would have sprinkled it in the vicinity to mark my turf. Instead, all I had were smelly socks to dangle from my bike to emphasize "Human present."

I've had a few bear encounters on my tours, one along the Alaskan Highway as I was wild camping and another time in British Columbia when I inadvertently camped near a small town's dump and some dump bear came by my tent when I was gone and nosed his way in
through the mosquito netting and bit into each of my water bottles and my Tupperware bowl hoping to find something good to eat. When he didn't, he plopped down on my tent, collapsing it and pretzeling all my tent poles. Another time as I was camped alongside the Alaskan Highway a passing bear came ambling toward my tent. I passing motorist happened to glimpse it. He roared to my rescue, blasting his horn. He scared off the bear, but he stood guard until I had disassembled my tent and gotten back on the road.

There were quite a few fallen leaves on this former road. I gathered them up and laid them under my tent to soften my sleeping pad. I was happy to have just regained the free-standing capabilities of my tent to erect it on the concrete. It turned out to be one of my better campsites. I was far enough from the road to insulate me from the sound of traffic. All I heard was the rhythmic crashing of the waves several hundred feet below.

Toyama is one of the handful of medium-sized cities that has kiernan bike racing. Unfortunately, the next match isn't until Sunday. The snow-covered Japanese Alps await me inland. Then its on to Mount Fuji.

Later, George

No comments: