Morning wonderland/Windy rain-streaked night seaside/City streets between
(photo by Jason)
The morning is misty and the forest hushed. All present, flora and fauna and human, have been cast under a spell. This place hangs motionless in time. Jason and I move through it with wonder. There is no discussion of schedule or our plan for the day. We make coffee on the camp stove and walk the short path through the woods to the pond’s edge. We are drawn to it, the source of the vapor which hides the landscape in layers and then reveals them piece by piece as we proceed. I watch Jason fade away as he reaches the water and then reappear as I join him, blurry edges sharpening with each advancing step but never completely. The only way to see detail is to get very close and so we do, discovering spiders, flowers, and fungi.
(spider and white mushroom photo by Jason)
I cannot say how long we meandered through the morning because time did not exist in it. Eventually the campground attendant materializes and we pay him ¥12000. We tell him a bit about our route using just the names of places we have been and are traveling to. We nod and smile when he speaks but do not understand the words, just the warm smile and body language. Breakfast is ramen and the pears gifted to us the day before. We take our time breaking down camp. Jason retrieves our electronics which he left in the bathroom overnight to charge. We brush our teeth.
Back on our bikes we head to the entrance where there are trash receptacles. It is difficult to find public trash cans in Japan so when we see one we take advantage. Most often trash is divided into the following categories: combustible, non-combustible, plastic bottles and cans, glass bottles. If it is rare to see public trash cans it is rarer still to see one that is not divided into these categories. I did see a list posted once of what is considered combustible. Styrofoam was on there. I have many unanswered questions about waste disposal in Japan.
Not long after we leave Hokuonomori Park, we spot a large bird soaring overhead. We see this type of bird frequently. They are remarkable and always grab our attention. Their wing span is impressive and markings distinct, brown with white. They are a bird of prey but we never make a satisfying identification, perhaps a type of common eagle or buzzard, we’ve certainly seen both. Either way, we never tire of spotting them and exchanging looks of awe.
There are few stops on today’s 40-mile ride. We are eager to get to the coast and so we eat our lunch from a convenience store, as do we many meals. The convenience stores are truly something and I miss them. While I wouldn’t eat food from the warmer at a 7-11 in the United States, in Japan they have nikuman (tasty flour steam buns often filled with pork or beef—niku means “meat”) and many fried things that are crisp and tasty. A Japanese convenience store on this trip, of all places, is where I tried my first corn dog. Unfortunately the packaged food, while interesting and often tasty, puts equal emphasis on packaging as it does food. The Japanese are gift-givers and traditionally wrapping is as important as contents; presentation shows respect. This custom trickles into all things. Most items that we purchase, whether it be expensive retail or street food, comes in a box in a paper bag in a plastic bag and, when appropriate, with plastic utensils and condiments and napkins and chop sticks and the list goes on. We quickly become good at preemptively, and politely, turning down the superfluous packaging. Even before you get to the counter, however, packaged food is contained in at least one level of packaging more than you would find with comparable items in the United States. The real riddle of it all is that public trash cans are quite hard to find—unnecessary amounts of packaging, nowhere to throw it out. The madness of this fact grows for Jason and I as the trip progresses, culminating in an ERI (Eggshell Related Incident). You’ll have to read this whole gosh darned blog if you want to hear more about that.
(photo by Jason)
Akita is 40 miles from last night’s camp. Thirty of them include climbing out of the remaining foothills and riding through small agricultural villages. The last 10 are through rainy, gray, crowded Akita and its suburbs. We don’t love Akita. In fact we’re cursing it most of the way. The roadway is four lanes through the city with no shoulder so we resign to taking the sidewalk. It is wide and used by local commuters but it is littered with dips on and off curbs at each cross street. This is a tedious way to travel the miles. It is pouring. We share the route with school children in raincoats and back packs on bikes, no helmets. We rarely see a helmet. They giggle as we join them at an intersection.
We are finally crossing the Omono River by bridge which may be our shelter for the night. The river has a foot path beside it below this bridge which will take us to a park we’ve identified and hope will be viable for our needs instead. We find the ramp down and chase the river along its banks. We share its destination. The path is well-paved and winding and jet black in the rain. I am happy to be off of the sidewalk and enjoying the rainy adventure. I am moving swiftly and efficiently. I feel wild. The entire way there are large overgrown grasses bridging the path beneath the weight of the rain. When it opens up there is a windmill and covered structure to our left which sits in watch a 1/2 mile from where the Sea of Japan crashes into the coast. We set up our tent in the protection of what becomes our Robinson Crusoe home for the night.
(photo by Jason)
While Jason rigs tarp walls and clothes lines beneath the wooden roof, I am tasked with hunting for dinner. It is dark and still raining. Rather than go on the path I decide to take a road that snakes off behind our camp. There are no streetlights. I take the first turn that leads to civilization but is not busy Highway 7. I am in a small neighborhood. The homes look like bungalows and the streets are narrow. I can smell dinner being served behind darkened windows. I come upon a small shop and enter. I look but do not find any camp meals, just produce and frozen fish. A woman emerges from behind a curtain and I ask her if she sells alcohol. She says that she doesn’t and points down the street perpendicular to the one I came from.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t imagining getting lost and never finding my way back. It is complete darkness with no street signs and a maze of a neighborhood. I go over the turns I make again and again in my head to keep them fresh. I see light glowing through glass double doors ahead. I lean my bike against the outside of the building on deserted street. I find a space the size of a home’s entranceway. It contains two coolers of beer, baskets of packaged foods on low tables in the middle of the room, and walls of sake. The crack between two curtains at the back of the room reveals the kitchen of a home. I see the legs and feet of two people sitting on a couch. I grab the last 4 tallboys of Kierin beer from the cooler and a small bottle of sake before I am noticed. A middle-aged man and, who I am guessing is, his mother come out and we exchange greetings. I find a basket of stovetop meals. In our broken languages we confirm together that I will be able to warm them on my camp stove. They are entertained by me and my enthusiastic flurry of collecting items for purchase, I narrating my plan for each out loud as I go along. I pile the alcohol and camp meals and chocolate and jerky and potato chips onto a tabletop and give them $18. I tell them “Jitensha [bicycle]—Sapporo, Aomori, Akita, Niigata, Tokyo, Gifu, Kyoto, Osaka”. They follow me outside and watch me load up my bike. They smile and gasp in understanding. They are waving and yelling “Gannbatte!” (this is the correct spelling for “Go for it”, not “Gambate” as I previously wrote) as I ride into the night. I am full of positive spirits and the feeling of human connection.
I find my way back to our site. Jason has set up the Bluetooth speaker with some Dolly Parton and has his feet up with a whiskey in hand. We warm our meals in a pot on the camp stove and spend the next 4 hours listening to music, drinking, and catching up on the first US presidential debate as the waves crash and the wind beats against the tarps. We spy headlights on the beach as men fishing from the shore leave one by one, their vehicles passing by our fort until we are alone. I like our camp. Perhaps Akita has redeemed itself.