To die in the country

From now on
I will become one voice with you
Singing about all those days we have lost.
Planting a single sunflower seed
on a barren land
I already call it my virgin field.
In a flash of a moment that my match is struck
I see an ocean through the thick fog
Is there a country for which I could give my life?
– Shuji Terayama
This is a bicycle
This is a bicycle

Instead of committing myself to a week of cycling over the mountains of southeastern Hokkaido to reach the port at Hakodate, I decided to take the relatively easier route directly south to Tomakomai to make my way to Aomori.

The whole road from Sapporo to Tomakomai looks like this
The whole road from Sapporo to Tomakomai looks like this

I quickly came to realise that my fear of being mauled to death by bears was overstated, as the entire 70km route took the form of essentially one massive industrial estate. Unless the bears shopped for their salmon at giant Aeon box stores, I wasn’t going to meet any on the way.

My other fear was (and remains) trucks, which were my main companions on the road – from beer trucks leaving the Sapporo Brewery to massive columns of military vehicles, rumbling along the main highway. By and large, they kept their distance.

Solar power is all the rage up north
Solar power is all the rage up north

DSC_3603So it was as easy and straightforward a route as I’m ever going to get on this trip, but I still found myself pulling up at a service area with just a few kilometres to go, with cramp in me left leg. Resting for a while by Lake Utonai, I made a sober assessment of my chances of successfully navigating my way from the port at Hachinohe to Aomori City.

House prices drop rapidly beyond this sign
House prices drop rapidly beyond this sign

The ferry didn’t leave until midnight, so I busied myself with some work and writing until it was time to go. The terminal was full of soldiers, Upon checking in, I promptly lost my boarding pass, blown out of my pocket on a gust of wind, and then my bicycle managed to shrug off one of my bags while ascending the ferry ramp. This is exactly the sort of clueless idiocy that I said at the start was going to get me killed, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.Ferry

BehaviourThe ferry itself was sparsely populated, with the large shared room I was in only hosting a dozen or fewer people. Rather than segregating passengers’ sleeping areas by gender, the ferry company seemed instead to have put the priority on keeping the truck drivers and “normal” people apart. The etiquette posters showing badly behaved blue collar trash and shocked middle-class nice people seemed to indicate an awareness that ferries were a rare meeting place of cultural groups Japanese society rarely provides with an opportunity to mingle.

It’s also striking the extent to which non-industrial uses of ports are in a minority. Growing up taking ferries from Portsmouth to St. Malo almost every year, the sheer industrialness of a Japanese port stands in stark contrast. The ferries may coddle their middle class customers, but step off the gangplank and it’s clear that they are very much guests in someone else’s territory.


HelicopterBy coincidence, my friend Takahiro from the new wave band NanoX was cycling north at the same time I was going south, and as we waited at the ferry terminals in Tomakomai and Hachinohe to make simultaneous trips in opposite directions, he recommended via Facebook that I take a detour to Misawa to see the Shuji Terayama museum. Under constant interruption from helicopters and F-16 fighter jets from the nearby Misawa air base, I made my way there.

Shuji Terayama was a legendary avant-garde playwright, poet and movie director, and his work in the late ‘60s and ‘70s played an important role in contextualising and fostering the development of Japanese underground rock music, with musicians like J.A. Seazer and Kan Mikami both closely associated with Terayama’s theatrical work as performers and composers.

Terayama, in some ways like the writer Kobo Abe, had an antagonistic relationship with the notion of the hometown. He wrote extensively on the subject “In Praise of Leaving Your Hometown”, developing ideas that came together in his play and 1974 film Den-en ni Shisu (“To Die in the Country”). In Terayama’s writing, the act of running away from a dreary, rural hometown was an explosion of energy next to the inner defeat that hometown nostalgia represented. Underscoring both positions, however, is the relationship between one’s hometown and death. By giving birth to us, the hometown also (like the mother figure) symbolically represents a reminder of our mortality. It is the dark stillness from which we emerge and to which we must return.

That Terayama, born in Aomori Prefecture and growing up in Misawa, should find his memorial permanently erected in the town he raged against with such passion is perhaps symbolic of the gravity and repulsion exerted by one’s hometown.

After so long in the city, the countryside of Aomori is eerily beautiful, but for a cyclist who doesn’t much care for even the slightest of gradients, the mountains that squat menacingly at its heart were something I was eager to avoid. To this end, I decided to skirt the coast, which with the diversion to Misawa included came to 105km in total. Given that 70 had nearly killed me the previous day, I scoped out a camping area about two thirds of the way with a view to stopping the night.

In the end, however, I found myself making much better progress than I had expected, and as the camping area approached, I was filled with a second wind. I struggled up hills at little more than walking speed and hurtled down the other side in terror, watching the highway markers cound 688, 689, 690 and on and on, indicating how far behind Tokyo lay. Past Hiranai the road widened with a broad margin at the side and for one ecstatic moment, as I cruised down a slope with the wind whistling in my ears, to see the late afternoon sun shining down on the glittering water of Aomori Bay, cycling for the briefest instant became fun.

That moment was shattered by my first experience of a tunnel. Narrow, with no pavement or margin for bicycles, and no extra width for vehicles to overtake, I was only in it for less than a hundred metres, but it terrified me. I never realised how much I relied on my ears to warn me of what was happening around me on the road, but with my hearing obliterated by the disorientating, echoing roar of traffic from all sides at once, all I could do was pound the pedals furiously and race for the light.

I made it to Aomori alive, after 105 kilometres in the saddle. If the countryside was where you go to die, I wasn’t going to die in this countryside: not now.Aomori


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