As my stay in Nagano and Matsumoto drew to an end, I could feel a kind of sickness creeping in on me around the edges. Whether from fatigue, the growing night time chill, or my urban-optimised physiology being simply overwhelmed by natural beauty I don’t know, but I set off on a hazy Thursday morning wrapped in a fug of softly pulsating cotton wool with occasional knives.
Reacquainting myself with the Shinano River, I found her now going by the name Chikuma, and we travelled together for a while with the sort of embarrassed politeness of the morning after, eventually parting ways as I entered the highlands that led towards Karuizawa.
By this point, I’d done more than my fair share of hills, but I’d studiously avoided the scariest looking mountains. The Karuizawa highlands are deceptive though, looking relatively benign on a map, but rising hundreds of metres quite rapidly. My body soaked in sweat, the persistent roar of heavy trucks filling my ears, and the constant haze closing in the world around me, I felt my chest tightening as a sense of claustrophobia took hold. There were sections of road where I simply couldn’t keep going and had to get off my bicycle and push, while every promised downward slope revealed itself to be no more than a dimple in a relentless uphill trajectory.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” started to jump more and more rapidly to my lips. I’d pour liquid down my throat only for my skin to transfer it directly back out into my shirt. The trucks kept on roaring by, forcing my to crawl along bumpy pavements, each judder sapping the feeble strength that remained in my legs. I was forced to conclude that no, I am not a cyclist.
Karuizawa is a beautiful area, but upon checking into my hotel I was in no mood to enjoy it. I just needed to shower, eat and collapse into bed.
I was haunted that night though. The whining skreeeeeeeee! of a mosquito and vague but anxious dreams about the next stage of the journey collaborated to make my sleep fitful. My dreams often manifest themselves as a semi-suburban riverbank, a small town and a railway station lying just beyond. While usually little more than a stream, snaking its way through the stones and clumps of long grass the river is prone to flooding, making a cluster of tall apartment buildings the only safe place to be nearby. I’ve visited this place often, each time populating it with more details, adding bridges, parks, shops, even a Chinatown. I visit it again, an eerily silent backdrop for whatever the main action of tonight’s movie is, before the keening of the mosquito brings me away again.
I said before that these interludes between towns serve a number of functions, particularly in view of putting the places I visit in context. As someone who spends a lot of time around music, they also provide a rare environment for me over which I have no control of the sound. Given only the aural experience the environment provides me, I’ve gradually found myself paying more and more attention to it.
The sounds I hear when cycling range from the ambient near-silence of birdsong, buzzing insects and the quiet clicking drone of my bicycle wheels through various shades of white noise to the ferocious, disorientating roar of mountain tunnels. I remember the bizarre MultipleTap silent film of experimental and noise musicians that I saw in Yamagata, and it’s possible to superimpose the sounds I hear as I travel over that. Travel in the outdoors makes its own music.
I wake inside a cloud.
At 1,000 metres above sea level, Karuizawa is often shrouded in mist, and this did nothing to alleviate my anxieties over how I would navigate the mountain pass between here and Takasaki. Google Maps strongly recommended that I take the bypass, but the old man at the hotel front desk insisted that the older Usui Pass was better. Google Maps had fucked me in the ass enough times already on this trip that I took the old guy’s advice.
As soon as I turned away from the karuizawa Bypass, the sound of the traffic dropped off. One of the sonic effects of mist or cloud is to dampen sound, so it was in near silence that I cruised through the town towards the pass.
With visibility at only a few metres, I had serious misgivings about taking what looked like a very old, narrow, winding path, and as the road began to tilt upwards, I hoped I was stringer than yesterday. For a little under a minute or so, I pushed uphill, then the slope crested and I was heading downhill again.
For the next twenty kilometres, the only time I needed to even touch my pedals was to kick off again after stopping to take a photograph of the eerily beautiful scenery and abandoned relics of Victorian railways. The road was empty of traffic, the mist enveloped everything in silence, and only the whistle and roar of the wind and the patter of wet tarmac against my tyres as I hurtled ever downhill provided today’s soundtrack. Suddenly, even in the middle of nowhere, I had a measure of control over over the sounds I was hearing, and by tilting my head or adjusting my speed I could make the noise wax or wane.
I emerged from the pass and out into the roads of Gunma Prefecture. The trucks rejoined me, but the eerie sense of emptiness continued. The riverbank and apartment blocks from my recurring dreams even made an appearance at one point, as if to underline the sense of unreality I was experiencing – generic buildings in extremely common Japanese suburban scenery providing a nonetheless accurate reproduction in real life of the dream geography I had constructed from fragmented memories of the Tama River from years before.
I arrived in Takasaki, drifting through sparsely populated lunchtime streets. You can get on a single regular train from here and be at Shinjuku Station in one hour and forty-five minutes. A sign reads “Tokyo 106km” – the same distance I cycled in one day from Hachinohe to Aomori, back at the start of this trip.