Whooshing gusts threaten to knock us from our bikes. Even the seagulls seek shelter from the weather in the Kano River. What a ridiculous notion it is to go on a riding adventure on such a windy day. However, it is not unusual for me to have ridiculous notions and then, perhaps more ridiculously, carry them out regardless of the weather.
The goal of this particular adventure was to ride with my wife from Numazu City following the Kano River about 10km until it met up with the Izu Hakone line at Nirayama Station. Then we would take the next 5 stations to Shuzenji for lunch and a wander around this pretty little town before back tracking our train journey and then taking a short cut ride back via the Shimoda Highway. Sort of…
Numazu’s stylish stepped river embankment disappears behind us as we make our journey from the walking bridge. My wife and I have ridden this first kilometer or so of the river a dozen times, but it isn’t until now, with my adventure eyes on, that I realize the sheer number of bridges that cross this river. Just in this short stretch alone there are four bridges behind me and two in front. The last bridges large arch peeks around the corner like a rainbow tempting us to the pot of gold.
We journey on. Following the river we wind our way around Mount Kanuki, the beginning of the Numazu Alps. Once we reach the pot of gold we are ejected from the safety of the footpath and onto the busy road for about 600 meters or so. Being Japan, riding on the road is not such a frightening predicament, with drivers ever observant and as respectful of the rider as much as we are of their vehicles.
I sneak down a side road into some suburban streets with my wife trailing. We have been down this way before some years past and could not find a way around the knob of hill that rolls into river. However, this time I have done my homework and Google Maps tells me there is a footpath that can take us around this hill. Secretly I am hoping my wife will tell me that we can not get around the hill so I can quietly boast of my discovery. She does not fail. There is a small path that takes us past an equally small plot of vegetable garden. When first we were here we thought that this might be someone’s house and my wife reminds me of this. This was why we missed this path the first time. We ride down onto the path, my wife skeptical. I am not so sure either but onwards we go and my fear of riding up to some strangers front door is alleviated by a large cemetery resting midway on the hill and path ahead leading up through a darkened coppice of vine and bushes.
Down and out of the coppice and I am met by the sight of the river ahead. On the far bank creamy brown tall grass with its bushels glowing amber in the bright sun roll like flag in the wind. I spy all this through the leafless branches in front of me. They make out a living jigsaw puzzle of the river’s scenery.
A little further, along our path is blocked again; this time by a river. This will happen a few more times along our journey. It seems that this pathway is still under construct. Signs at regular intervals inform us of our distance from the mouth of the river but occasionally the path stops dead waiting for someone to extend it.
Another brief detour off the bank and into the suburbs and then we are again back on the river bank path. I miss the entry path up the bank and turn to see my wife making her way up and waving smugly; just desserts for my earlier gloating. I follow her onto the path and as soon as I breach the top I am almost blown off my bike by the wind. To my left down the bank is a team of teenage baseball player practicing, the hollow ting of their aluminum bat hitting baseballs reminds me of bullfrogs croaking by a stream.
Further along this path we spy scatterings of people play some sort of strange game. My wife posits croquet as an explanation. However, once we ride a little closer we notice that they are playing a type of mini golf. Not the mini golf I would first imagine with the fake lawn, impossible angles and possibly a peeling cracked fiberglass bear through whose legs I must putt the ball. Rather, this game was being played on a miniature 18 hole golf course, its lawns appropriately graded and its tiny greens manicured well. What made my wife predict croquet was the player’s use of large clubs and balls the size of baseballs. As we ride we watch gaggles of elderly players happily play their mini golf along the bank, but just as this 18 hole course leaves us we are again me with a dead end and another hilly thicket.
Recovering from our brief detour onto the busy road, we reach the bank to this time see tiny farming lots down in the bank by the river. We pass late autumn harvests such as cabbage, broccoli and lettuce. This is interrupted midway by a small grove of persimmons, their orange fruit hang in contrast to the dark branches and dying leaves. It is almost a morbid sight, though beautifully so.
Perhaps this sets the mood for this section of the river. We meet another dead end. There is a darkly shaded path to my left leading into another thicket. The way is covered by a few logs. This generally would not deter me and the dirt track looks interesting. I propose to my wife that this path may join to the proper path. She looks at me, looks down at her mama cherry grandma bike, and looks back at me with patient incredulity. I apologize.
Instead I ride down the bank and onto a street while my wife takes some photos. I stop on the corner of a small farm to pee on their tomatoes. I read in a science magazine once that tomatoes thrive with a little bit of pee fertilizer. Luckily for me and the farmer I needed to go. Temporarily distracted by relief, it was some moments until I noticed that I was being watched. Turning my head to the right, I am confronted with the balding pates of four children’s heads, staked at intervals along the garden. Their pale plastic cheeks weather bleached and their vacant blue eyes scanning the garden unappreciative of my efforts to cultivate their tomatoes. A morbid stretch indeed.
Now we must negotiate a small breach between two rocky hills. This is made all the more challenging by vehicles cueing at either end, haphazardly attempting – in a very endearing, courteous Japanese way – to allow each other through the gap. It is the traditional bowing ritual artistically interpreted by cars. Add to this, bouts of driver apprehension and indecisiveness and you have the perfect opportunity to take advantage of the situation and scoot around cars and through the gap and cycle on with ease.
We meet the path along the bank again and enjoy the scenery along the river between threatening gusts of wind. There are so many birds along this section of the river. I notice a kite lazily glide in the wind as a brace of ducks fly further down stream. A murder of crows fight the wind to reach their perch before I run my vocabulary dry of collective nouns.
A once cherry red, now a lipstick chalky pink bridge appears and we cross the river. My wife stops to take a photo of the river, it’s waters rambling over rocks and emanating from the mountains in the distance. Perhaps a sister brace of ducks – surely not the same ones I enjoyed watching fly earlier- fly over the bridge. Just as I think that this would make a great photo for my wife I feel a few drops of liquid hit my ear and head. Instinctively I touch the wet spots and look at my hand; clean but wet. I choose to ignore the origin of the drops and continue on across the river.
My wife is getting tired so I suggest we stop for morning tea. We park our bikes on top of the bank by some steps that provide a little shelter from the wind. The view is not a spectacular of nature, but the backyard of a row of houses. In front of us is a brand new two story place with fake brick walls and safely two meters above the flood line post. Divided by a small stream is a rust darkened tin hovel 30cm above the flood line with every inch of the land covered in vegetable patch. We chat about these common residential contrasts we see in Japan hypothesizing on their nature, while we sip our tea.
Refreshed, though my wife in need of a toilet break, and no tomato bush in sight, we stop at a convenience store. I leave my wife to her business while I scout ahead for the nearest train station. I find the station easily and return to the convenience store just as my wife is exiting. Leading her to my find, I proudly point out the numerous strawberry picking signs I discovered on my earlier reconnaissance. I am suddenly self-conscious, I am like a cat showing off its kill to its owner while purring with self satisfaction. Not surprisingly, my wife responds in kind as a proud cat’s owner seeing the dead finch at its front doorstep.
We ride on a little way and another role play begins. This time, my navigation is challenged once more. My wife had asked the convenience store attendant for directions earlier and apparently our route was contrary to those directions. I bristle at this wifely comment, and with bruised manliness and compensated puffed out chest I confidently reassure her of my navigation ability. With the cliché complete, I direct us straight to the station, chest swelling the closer we get; though my wife chooses not to notice.
To our right is a handsome modern library. This is one of the few modern pieces of government architecture that has not followed the modern era’s prefab cement wall credo. Instead the burnish brickwork and angular design of the building is set amidst small lush gardens in order to break up the lines. Families wander through the gardens to various entrances.
We notice a map in front of the library that suggests Shuzenji is only a few stations away. I keep silent but recall that the Google Map I checked before leaving suggested a few more stations. I also keep silent because the map has encouraged my wife to ride the rest of the way. We will deal with the truth when it is discovered.
Onwards we ride beside the unfenced rail line. On either side of the tracks are plots of farmland some bearing late harvest greens while others are bare corrugated mounds of dark volcanic soil. On my right, large Roma Tomatoes maturing on the vine can be seen through clear plastic domes; no doubt spared the natural fertilizer I gave their cousin earlier.
The path along the track ends and I turn right towards the river again. I am confused by a large tributary temporarily thinking it is the main Kano River. To be safe I emerge onto the Shimoda Highway and follow it until we reach the town of Izuagaoka and meet up again with the Kano River. To be honest on such a clear day it is impossible to get lost with the fluffy white top of Mount Fuji at our back and the arrow pointed valley at our front.
We make an attempt to ride up to the river bank path with my wife in the lead. The chilly wind almost blows her back down. She has had enough. I am proud of her. This is the longest distance she has ever ridden, and on a mama cherry to boot.
Back tracking a little way to Izuagaoka Station, we park our bikes. After a quick toilet break, I return to find my beautiful wife buying some local craft beers. I love my wife. We hop on the train, take a seat and enjoy our beers as the train runs along the tracks that dance with the river. The valley we have been traveling into begins to rapidly close in and become steeper. Only four stations later we arrive in Shuzenji.
Shuzenji Station is not the town. Until this trip this was something we were disappointingly ignorant about. The sight from the station is like any other town in Japan. Bleak, dirty gray multi-storied buildings filled with restaurants, cafes, snack bars and offices bear down on the station courtyard. We waste little time here and head for the bridge across the river and the older, prettier part of Shuzenji.
Two things strike our interest just before the bridge. The first is a baker’s rack filled with drying freshwater fish, their fins shining bright yellow in the sun. My wife takes a photo before the smell sneaks upon us. The second point of interest is a strange stuffed mammal of anonymous origin wearing a miniature farmers hat with a sake bottle in one hand and the other hand is extended in some spooky carnival welcome. Its weathered pelt and apologetic eyes makes a mockery of the whole scene.
We carry on. The hike to the old part of town is longer than expected, but this gives our knees a chance to un-kink from our ride. Again we are following the Shimoda Highway. We follow the road around a corner and up a slope that parallels the Katsura River, a tributary of the Kano River.
The first sign of town is the classic modern day century post, the convenience store. Beyond this a town emerges with age blackened wooden buildings tenaciously clinging to the banks of the river as though the surrounding mountains threaten to nudge them into the icy flow below. This balancing act is an attraction in itself, and intentionally so. It seems that this town has managed to balance its natural and historical beauty with its need for tourist income. Many of the buildings such as guest houses, restaurant and souvenir shops have been built in the traditional style of the area with dark wooden features white walls and black tiled roofs. When there is a new building, in most cases, it has be built with complimentary taste, rather than some hurried fabrication slapped into place by a greedy careless developer.
The river rushes by us as we continue on. We occasionally stop to take pictures of the river and pretty little bridges that cross it. The early autumn leaves and red parapet bridges pair to contrast with the frothy while and topaz blue of the water making its way down stream.
We finally reach our goal; a foot onsen set in the middle of the river called the Tokko no Yu. This is a relatively recent renovation for the Town and the timbers are still fresh and light in colour. The onsen was based around the original hot spring that was formed, legend has it, by a monk who whacked his club against a rock and hot water came out. I don’t know about you, but I think the geological answer would have been far more fascinating.
We wander down a deck and cross a bridge, our shoes clopping on the wood as we go. This onsen was built upon a man made island of river boulders and cement, creating an attracting natural looking pool . Underneath the pagoda people sit around the hot spring feet dangling in the steamy water as the river churns past on either side.
After a quick lunch in a café nearby, we make our way to Shuzenji Temple. This Buddhist temple founded in the early Heian Period is entered by a stairway lined with yellow flowers. Your eyes are draw to the top of the stairs where the white walls support the main gate. Maple leaves blaze over the walls, their oranges and reds shifting in the wind like raging flames. Passing the gate I note to my left a massive bell set upon a stone wall and a backdrop of bamboo standing like dozens of tuning forks ready to sing to the bells melody.
There are people praying and throwing money into a box at the base of the main temple building. I don’t pray; it’s against my common sense, though I throw a little money into the box as token thanks for the beauty of the well kept grounds.
My favorite part of these temple buildings rest at the base of the roof and below the gables. Intricate wooden carvings depict picture of animals and tell stories of myth. On this temple, there is a dragon, forelegs curled up as if springing from one of the pillars as a crane flies by along a crossbeam. All of this is so intricately carved that I am awed, wonder over the time it would take to make such pieces.
From the main temple and to my right is a boulder with a large carving of a stone face grumbling out to any who would see. Perhaps it is disturbed by my lack of faith. I leave the stone simmering and head out of the temple grounds.
My wife and I cross the river at the Katsura Bridge and make our way to the Chikurin no Komichi. This beautiful little path wanders along the river. On either side of the path rises a bamboo forest that bows over the walkway like a cathedral arch. The bamboo leaves are rustling in the wind, ticking away like thousands of tiny clocks. Through this forest I glimpse the red parapets of a bridge and the motion of the water below it. We reach the bridge and admire the reddening maple leaves hanging over the river. I try to take a photo of the leaves by my camera looses focus with the flowing water below making the shot impossible for my little camera.
Standing on this bridge, elbows leaning on the parapet, I enjoy the scenery. My mind wanders over our day’s adventure, from our ride along the river to our meanderings through Shuzenji. I am distracted from my ruminations by my wife informing me that I have clumsily positioned myself between a photographer and her family. The family stood patiently the whole time while I ignorantly lounged around bridge. My cheeks redden like autumn as my wife takes my hand and leads me off the bridge.
We have run out of time for today, but there is much more to explore here. We take the bus back to the station, and then from Shuzenji station by train back to our bikes. I take us along the Shimoda Highway back through Mishima as a shortcut. The wind is not so bad along this way and we make good time home.
What started as a ridiculous notion turned into a success, regardless of the wind. We had followed two rivers and watched them change and influence their surrounds, the accumulation of which was Shuzenji, with its stilted building paying homage to the waters below. We were wind blown and tired but sometimes it’s the adversity of an adventure that contributes to the fondness of memories as well.