Words: Vincent Flanagan | Photography: Shu Takenouchi, Kei Tsuji | Date:
Kyoto, home to numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines, quiet narrow streets and busy boulevards. An intriguing place to wander and wonder about the stories that could be told. There is a mixture of the ancient and modern in the fashion, food and feel. Mountains surround the city on three sides, providing an almost kaleidoscopic vista. Be it the season, the light, or the time of day, it is always compelling. Floating between the ridge lines, like cotton candy tossed by a playful child are small puffy tufts of clouds. Etched in the hillsides by annual bonfires you see large kanji characters pointing the way for ancient souls to return to heaven. All these scenes replicated on scrolls and sliding doors and passed on through the ages.
I’ve been riding the roads in this part of Japan for over 20 years and still marvel when I find a new unridden road. I am always amazed that I can easily leave a city of over a million people and ride unhindered by traffic, chasing dogs or swooping magpies. The scenery in the narrow valleys is never constant, the roads twist and wind following the contours of the land. Sometimes engineering intervenes with tunnels and on virtually every corner there is a convex mirror giving you a warped eyed view of the future. I have heard people talk about the wasteful spending on construction and meaningless roads. To the contrary it gives us another nice place to pedal and no reason to complain. I never tire of riding these roads and all the better to share it with others.
Today the lads are my guests, I’m proud to give them a sample of the some my favourite roads. I will take them on a loop through Miyama, which is deep in Kitayama. Mountains which continue all the way north to the Japan Sea, ridge after ridge like a herringbone blanket tossed across the landscape. We take an easy way out of town following the Kamo river upstream. The river, a shallow but swift flowing stream, clear and translucent, fish and fowl are plentiful. It’s wide banks in town play host to many form of recreation including our two wheeled ambulation.
Within a short time we leave behind the numerous houses, streets and cars and find ourselves among endless stands of slender, strong and silent cedar trees. A slow cadence as we find our rhythm, a still chill in the air as we go from sunlight to shade meandering up the forested valley. In a schoolyard hang some lonely unicycles, no sign or sound of kids. Across the road a small tori gate dwarfed by massive trees marks the entrance to a local shrine.
The size of these trees seem incongruous with all others in the valley. During the Pacific War almost all of the country was denuded of trees in order to supply energy. There were trees within the grounds of shrines and temples which were considered sacred and thus spared the axe. They continue to grow and many are hundreds of years old. Since the 1950’s all hillsides have been replanted and vast swathes of conifer and broadleaf forest cover all the hills and mountains.( Kitayama is renown throughout Japan for a particular cedar tree which is used as the central and ornamental pillar in traditional homes)
In short time, above us is our first pass for the day, Mochi-Koshi toge, a cheeky climb, 200 meters in 1.5 km. As we begin the climb we pass a bent backed woman chopping and gathering wood. She is someones great grandmother and we all admire her tenacity and she is bewildered by our recreation. In short raspy breath we attack the climb and from the pass we look back down on the village, from this vantage point everything looking miniature like a scale model. Onward we push, to swoop down into another valley and flow with the contours of the river. On either side of the road are small lumber mills processing the trunks, stripping away the bark, exposing the raw, gnarled wood. Not smooth but rutted and rough, as if a giant had picked each one and left his finger prints embedded into the trunk surface. It is this characteristic that gives each long post a certain beauty and value.
Countless trees standing, exposed trunks reaching high, topped like a green hairy lollipop, a weird symmetry that is so unnatural yet beautiful. Patches of broad leaf species, just bearing buds and new leaves offer a myriad shades of green. This natural carpet is so verdant so vibrant, soothing the eyes and easing away any pain one might expect while moving the pedals in our own symmetrical way.
Into a long slightly uphill tunnel, I reflexively increase the pace and feel the eyes behind pierce my back, “it’s too fast too soon”. Who want’s to hang out in a dark damp damming hole? The light at the other end beckons…… Another quiet back road and we encounter an atypical garage with numerous 1960’s Austin minors, a 1950’s Ford Thunderbird, a citroen DS. An eccentricity of character that has brought this place into being.
Wherever the land is flat and broad, rice farmers have begun tilling the soil for the annual crop of rice. Planting begins in April, flooded fields reflect the mountain side and sky, sown seedlings mirror the plantation trees through the summer and has the stalks begin to bend under the weight of grains in autumn their browning colour match the turning leaves. A cyclical pattern following the harmony of nature.
We come into Miyama village, nestled deep within these mountains halfway between Osaka Bay to the south and Wakasa Bay to the north. Dotting the valley are numerous thatched roofed houses, some centuries old, fighting to ward off modernity, in their gardens you might find a pine tree a branch extended 10 metres along a trellis. A reticent rumpled faced woman stooped from years of toiling in fields tells me, the branch grows 10cm a year. The tree is a heirloom like the bonsai plants surrounding the small Koi filled pond. Passed down through the generations.
Nearby rows of tea bushes are visible, their leaves plucked, stems cut and dried and roasted. Now steeped and warming us as we wait for lunch. Nearby patrons sit cross legged on the straw matting in front of a charcoal hearth, smokeless heat warming the room. In the fields across the way, in the shadow of a waterfall, buckwheat is grown. Then harvested and milled, the flour is kneaded and rolled to becomes handmade slender succulent noodles. Our noodles are topped with herbs and shoots gathered nearby and served in tasty steamy broth.
Along the hilltops, a late season snowfall leaves pockets of white amongst the trees. We are now far from the maddening crowds of city life, a road sign says road closed for the winter, our route takes a forest road over another mountain, very little chance of traffic. A long long pause while Watanabe fixes his puncture, this part of the route is seldom used by cars. Rock and tree debris lay strewn across the road. Yano and Uchike presciently joke about,” What if a rock falls”? Kabang! Down comes a small boulder bouncing right beside them.
Long Shadows cover the road as we creep up through the moss, snow and rocks. A constant flow of water covers the road surface. We reach the pass, pause and look out over that blanket of ridges to all points of the compass. Yano is next to puncture and he being last in the group, leaves us all wondering the worst during our wait at the bottom. The descent is slowed with so much debris and leaf litter scattered by wind across the surface.
A side road but actually the old road, takes us between road sides houses and rice fields. The village is bypassed, giving people back their space and time not to be interrupted by intercity interlopers. A nicer place to pedal and observe the surroundings. We cut across the main road onto another back road which slaps us all in the face again with it’s short but steep passage to the pass.
The other side we form a pace line and like spawning salmon we work our way up alongside another stream. There is one last obstacle in our path. We have the 10 km climb over Hanase pass before we can return through Kurama and down into Kyoto. The climb is on the gentle side of Mount Kurama, partners in crime we slowly forge our way up and we soon splinter. The last of thatched roofs disappear as we climb back into the forest. Legend has it, Mt Kurama was home to Tengu, long nosed demons who would come down and terrorize Kyoto. We didn’t linger at the top for long not wanting to meet with these shifty characters. A wicked shaded descent down through Kurama and back into towns.
We end our ride back in Kyoto. Next stop a visit to a neighbourhood bath house, an old institution dating back centuries. In the past people did not have hot water or bathing facilities in their homes. You would visit the community sento. Here your standing in society is put aside like your clothes and you become equal. We are ready for a good hot steamy bath with a small sauna on the side. Time to soak away the weariness and savour the memories. I look across at tired but smiling faces.