I've been on the trail for so long the prospect of crossing a river that might swallow the front wheel doesn't bother me much. You could say I've grown accustomed to the wilds—even the fresh tracks of those big furred salmon-eaters I recently came across in Alaska provided me with a thrill that was more excitement than fright—and the only places that really make me nervous now are big cities. Tokyo, for example.
It's very large no matter how you gauge it. Depending on the number of suburbs included in the count, Tokyo has a population ranging from 13 to 30 million, and getting around there presents a great challenge to clueless travelers like me. It was easy enough at the airport though. The lady at the counter who sold me my ticket into the city spoke English. But after I left the train, which takes 1.5 hours to reach the center of Tokyo, confusion reigned. Finding the right subway station and figuring out the vending system for tickets to get me to my pre-booked hotel proved too much for me. Naturally, it's all printed in Japanese. So I decided to buy the cheapest fare and followed the lead of a local through the nearest exit. With more luck than skill I finally got where I had to go.
After a couple of days of strolling through the exciting city, I received word that my KTM had arrived. Glad to have the freedom of my own means of transportation back, I rushed to the airport to release the bike from customs. An easy task - Japan is a very organized country - with perhaps the only problems for foreigners being insufficient knowledge of the rules.
As soon as I leave the airport gates behind me, I bypass Tokyo as widely as possible, which isn't too difficult since the airport is 50 miles from the city center. Still I'm really surprised how quickly I pull away from the cosmopolitan glitter and find rural Japan. Suddenly I'm rolling past farmers in straw hats wading through their rice fields and planting by hand as their ancestors did 200 years ago.
While pitching my tent beside a small pond, in a place too beautiful and peaceful to pass by, I feel a relaxing calm settle in as all the city stress melts away.
Further east, the first wall of mountains rises before me in the morning, and the gate into and through them is the valley of the Kasuo River. Soon the way is too narrow for rice fields, which usually cover the tiniest corners of the land. So far, the weirdest placement of a field has been the one I saw in the middle of a huge intersection. Simply constructed of sheet metal and wood, the houses in this area are inconspicuous to say the least. However, the many flowering gardens around them really pamper the eyes. Even the forest is abloom in brilliant whites and pinks.
But the colors rapidly recede as I near Chuzenjiko Lake (alt. 5,000 ft). It's still winter here, and even the trees are bare. The main road goes straight on, but the map shows a route to the right in the lowest category of minor roads. After a few miles on asphalt barely wide enough for a compact car, I discover that "low" sometimes means "high" in Japan. A notch chiseled in the vertical mountain walls, this audacious road carries me past the Nataisan volcano to a remote valley. Along the raging river at the bottom of the chasm there are small inns, each situated near a pool fed by hot springs. The temptation to stop and indulge is powerful, but the road is too exciting and I continue exploring the long valley until it ends where the sun is bound, setting between high mountains. There is much hot water bubbling here as well and now, bone-tired, I'm ready for it.