Japan Bikepacking, or perhaps more accurate to call it allroad touring, traverses roads in the densest cities with glinting rolling boxes and chirping screens and orderly crosswalks as if from a polished wood future, roads swaying up peaks into greys greens with pavement reflective from recent or hinting rains, some roads that are hardly intact anymore, forlorn tracks between trees. We find sustenances of the spiritual kind, but also mundane in cups of convenience store noodles.
Mt Fuji is behind us now, we head north and a little west to circle the highest peaks of the Central Alps. Instead we’ll meander over a mere shoulder during our approach to the Kiso Valley. The dirt track is as much a time machine as it is a passage. When we turn south, we are along an ancient postal route with towns with restored architecture and cobbled lanes. We stop at a marker indicating that Bashō was there.
We sometimes put up our tents in a city park, not hidden from view but placed at the edges and with an intentional regard and respect for the fact that we’re guests. In the morning our things remain close at hand, a show of our resolve and acknowledgement
Satellite images that we looked at back home suggest that there is a road through the hills, we commit to it enough so that when it evaporates into leaves and crickets we push the bikes to emerge later in an orchard. We exit with care.
With a river serving as a lodestar aesthetically, kinetically, Kyoto buzzes through dreams during the day and then crack sparkles after dark. We huddle at a table with our hearts for this place pressing against the sky and the potential it shows for a humane place where the ring of ridgetops and the towers and coffee shops, hand-in-hand lovers, cul-de-sacs with a shrine or a modern building not so tall as to put the temple in shadow.
No day, not even a June one, seems long enough for the stopover here. But the motion that we’re in, circular breathing symmetry, that bicycling motion is cast correctly against the groundedness of Kyoto. It remains a fixed point for us in memory, an anchor against which our passage becomes intelligible. On the way out of town we pass symbolically through orange gates.
Days, then, in the mountains. Finally Takamatsu shines us with its serene loveliness as we pedal into it near sunset.
We board the first ferryNaoshima, it is a short crossing with jolly tourists holding their guidebooks and notes on the art. We spend a span of time in the Lee Ufan museum, transfixed in the Encounter Room on the repeated patterns of material degrading to a suggestion of its earlier presence, re alighting in a stand in for life itself at micro and macroscopic scales.
Another ferry, riding onward along an industrial coast with the first real traffic of the trip so we tip our chins down a bit and pedal in a racing style, sometimes together in a line for efficiency, sometimes by ourselves to try legs against the modernity.
The contrast to the days that we spent on Shikoku with the mist making contemporary Japan a phantasm is complete. We can still well see those peaks across the watercourses, the binocular rivalry of one story or another, both essential.
The Shimanami Kaido bike route links painted border bike paths with bridges over swirling glass water. Riders on all manner of bicycle pedal enjoying the rhythms of all day riding with stops for ice cream or meals. We spent the night before in Onomichi in a historic inn at the top of 300 stairs. Raised glasses with locals in laughter and stories.