Looking For Uchiko
The obstacle is the path. -Zen Proverb
Here there are no scenic photo opportunities of ancient castles or crumbling Shinto shrines. No magnificent selfies of sunsets nor cascading waterfalls in the background. No sign of any bustling Japanese pubs to quench my thirst.
Here, there's darkness and an empty road that winds up a hill. On either side are white cedar trees that stand so close together that foliage stretch up to the top of the mountain to weave a continuous carpet of wrinkly green pustules. From afar, it looks a lot of like a head of broccoli.
I've been biking now for the last five hours trying to find the village of Uchiko. It's getting dark and I am straining on the pedals to get up this mountain. A mountain that appeared out of nowhere. It's not on the map.
"There's a tunnel that goes through a mountain and some houses on the other side," said a friend who has lived in Uchiko now for a year, the one who said I had to see her village and the natural splendor it offered.
"You have to see my septic tank. You drop something in it and you don't hear it hit the bottom until like four seconds." At this point, I am thinking: 500 km to see a septic tank. It better be worth it, and I’ve seen my share of them too since coming to Japan.
I see no tunnels further up the hill, only more road that winds around to the right. Instead of going "through", I am going "over.” I got the prepositions all mixed up and it makes all the difference. It's the wrong mountain.
Uchiko is on the west side of Shikoku Island, just south of Hiroshima across the Seto Inland Sea, in Ehime Prefecture. Agriculture is the main industry here: Tended over by mostly aging parents and grandparents of children who have staked their fortunes in the city. The roads connecting the villages are mostly empty except for the occasional crooked-backed ancient working in the fields.
It's already dark and the only light comes from the glow of a town below and the half moon above. I turn my mountain bike around and coast down the hill. The sense of speed and distance is deceptive in the dark as the trees alongside the road whoosh by my ear like mosquitoes on the prowl. There's a tight bend ahead that I can't see. I begin my turn, but I am going too fast. I brake and the instant I get thrown off my bike, I am thinking I should've slowed down, and then I am thinking this is going to hurt.
If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are. -Zen proverb
The town of Uchiko is famous for its street displays on Star Festival (Tanabata) every year on July 7th. The myth goes like this: Altair and Vega fell in love. A God became jealous and separated them by putting them on either end of the Milky Way. They are allowed to meet only once a year on July 7th. To celebrate this day, the townspeople hang red, green, yellow and blue streamers across the streets.
I am thinking of those poor young start-crossed lovers as I am lying on my back with the trees around me and some bushes underneath me. I am relieved to feel only some stinging on my arms and legs. I get up slowly. The left shoulder is a little sore and I am able to walk. There's my bike crumpled on the side of the road.
It's time to stop fooling around and find this Uchiko.
There's a convenience store at the bottom of the mountain. I put my man-ego aside and ask for directions. "Koko wa doko desu ka?" I ask the clerk. Where is here? He points at a little dot on my map and tells me it's Nagahama. Unbelievable! The city where I am living is also named Nagahama. A full day's trip of riding the rails and biking up and down mountains and I end up back where I started.
I laugh so hard tears are running down my face. I am tired, hungry and banged up from the fall. Nagahama and Uchiko look close on my map, two dots separated by a tap of the spacebar key. But I know it's at least a couple more hours of biking in the stark world of mountains, windy roads and darkness.
But then light.
A couple in the store overhears my situation and offers me a ride to Uchiko in their RV. There's a pine tree air freshener hanging down from the rear-view mirror. After ten minutes of polite conversation, all three of us sit in silence. They drop me off at an intersection in front of a tunnel that goes through a mountain. It's through there they say and drive off.
Pale yellow lights run along the top of the empty tunnel. I can see faint lights on the other side. It's Uchiko.
I find the wooden house with the red shingles. The friend greets me outside as I ride over the gravel parking lot. As I enter the house, I smell mushrooms. The front door swings back to close and slams across my knuckles. I scream in pain. I am here.