From Morioka to the next base of operations in Sendai, there was a little under 200 kilometres to cross. Breaking it up into three sections the first stage to Mizusawa in southern Iwate was relatively easy, on good quality roads, little in the way of hills, and the autumnal smell of burning in the air.
The following day saw the landscape and roads become more and more deserted, hills rising up and an eerie silence hanging over the scattered settlements. Japanese people use the word “countryside” to describe places that are in no way at all actually countryside, but Japanese municipal governments use the word “city” to describe places that are not cities by any stretch of the imagination. As I crossed the border into Miyagi Prefecture and entered the city limits of Kurihara City, I found myself enveloped in the kind of stillness that rang in the ears. The sound of silence is deafening, and I had to stop my bike and take it in for a moment.
It was only for a moment though. I’m not constitutionally equipped to deal with such a deafening absence of anything making claims on my aural senses.
The town I stayed in on the second night, while nominally part of Kurihara City, was one of those halfhearted nowhere towns that reminded me of the desolate Bristol suburb where I grew up. Walking the streets at night in desperate hope of finding somewhere open selling food, the dim, orange streetlights, the damp chill in the air, and the silence interrupted by occasional drunken shouts was like being at home again.
If this is what I ran to Tokyo to get away from, what does it say about me that this is what I ran away from Tokyo to get back to? What this constant, repetitive flickering by of images recalling the English suburban/rural fringes, alternating with faded reflections of Tokyo, probably says most about is my insistence on processing things through my own limited frame of reference. That and a constant sense that there is greener grass on the next revolution of the wheel.
The last section of the journey wasn’t going to submit easily though. As I pushed on through Miyagi, the burning in the fields growing more pervasive, more insistent, my mischievous satnav took me through more and more esoteric paths, like an electronic equivalent of one of those relatives who always knows a shortcut or insists on taking the scenic route. As the trucks rumbled by ever more aggressively, it made a change from the roaring monotony of Route 4, but it took a toll on the structural integrity of my bicycle.
Spang! There went one of the rear spokes, and as the first day of the trip had so elegantly foreshadowed, an hour of walking around Furukawa once again threw me at the mercy of bike shop workers’ kindness. The first place was closed, the old guy at the little shop nearby sucked his teeth, pronounced it beyond his little shop’s capabilities to remedy but helpfully provided me with directions to Aeon Bike, where the guy sucked his teeth again and said he could have it fixed by tomorrow. Not good enough. Where else can do it? Right back the way I’d just come was a guy in possession of the mystical silver spokes and the power with which to wield them. 30 minutes and a thousand yen later, “Take care, yeah?” Yeah, right.
On, through acrid clouds of smoke, I pedalled furiously back onto Route 4, the trappings of civilisation becoming more and more frequent. The delicious curry smell of Coco Ichibanya, the cut-price Italianesque cuisine of Saizeriya, the reassuring concrete of an endless urban sprawl. As I entered the biggest city in Tohoku, my satnav had a last, mischievous little surprise for me, sending me down an interminable tunnel beneath the city streets, but even that couldn’t faze me with my eyes on the prize. Back lights on, my fluorescent yellow jacket flapping in the wind, everything about me screamed, “Get back, trucks, buses, deceptively loud Priuses! I have arrived and you shall not stop me!”
I was in Sendai and it looked a lot like Tokyo. The wheel had spun again and things were the same as before, just a bit further along. The smell of burning had stopped, temporarily.