It’s September, a week after silver week and everyone in the countryside is speaking in hushed tones about their weekend plans: the best places to see the changing leaves, the fall festivals in this or that small town, the beginning of the new year for matcha. You exit your zen meditation at the local temple and your friend, the bespectacled and clean shaven Mr. Minagawa, invites you and your co-worker into the back seat of his Toyota sedan. You say goodbye to the temple parking lot and hello to the interior of the Toyota. You buckle up and try to ready yourself for, well, really you try to ready yourself for anything. There’s no telling where you are headed today.
You drive across town, Mr. Minigawa quizzes you on your origin, age, and hobbies. You respond in as little Japanese as you know and everyone is happy. “I’m sorry, but we must stop a moment.” “Alright.” you say; who are you to question this man who is kindly driving you into the unknown? He pulls under a carport and exits the vehicle. You sit in the car and talk to your co-worker and your new acquaintance, a similarly friendly and English speaking man who appears around your age. You exchange ages, origin stories and hobbies. Eventually the forty-year-old Mr. Minigawa springs forth from his house and bids you open the door. He shows you his aerial garden. He is growing giant grapes. He thrusts a full colander of grapes at you and says that, “We must hurry.”
On The Road
Sosuke, Mr. Minagawa’s twenty something co-pilot, explains the changing scenery as you travel the 78 kilometres (48 miles) to the Zao Dam. Your course leads out of Fukushima city and up into the winding mountain roads. “Sometimes you can see monkeys.” We don’t. “People drive to see the red leaves. But it might be a little early.” You are not driving. You are munching on freshly picked grapes and sitting in the back seat of a car while you watch brilliant orange, yellow, and red flutter by your window. You cringe as the road, which you had thought supported only one car at a time, suddenly produces another vehicle barrelling towards you. Mr. Minigawa and the drivers of these passersby slow, slow, slow, and you bite your lip as side mirrors gently brush the centimetre of space between cars.
Higher and Deeper
Your co-worker makes small talk with Sosuke and Mr. Minagawa as you concentrate on the growing concrete heights which spring up the sides of the mountains. Each tight corner reveals new hash marked stone secretions designed to fight erosion and maintain the integrity of the hills. As the vehicle gains altitude, the hue of the leaves and composition of the road flanking forest changes. You can feel the city left far behind, far below, straining to direct the car. However, Mr. Minagawa informs all that cell phone reception is, “Not so good,” up here. You watch as your LTE drops to 3g, then down to one bar, then to the dreaded, “No Service.”
Sosuke says something to Mr. Minagawa that you don’t quite catch, but piece together once the car slows and finally stops. Sosuke wanders up the hill into the woods as Mr. Minagawa distracts you with local lore and describes the small fountain burbling out of the cliff wall. You wash your hands, your face, and freeze yourself with the spring water. You cup your hands and sip, the past forty-five minutes have left you cotton mouthed, despite the grapes. You slurp at the clear spring until Sosuke wanders back and rinses his hands in the fountain. Mr. Minagawa splashes his hands in the water, dries them on his pocket handkerchief and hops back in the car.
The Majestic Zao Dam
The car begins to slow as Mr. Minagawa navigates its white bulk into a park space. Out the windscreen you see a low building between a surprisingly large gap in the heretofore narrow valley. Everyone evacuates the car, grabbing cell phones, cameras, and shoulder bags. Your co-worker rubs sleep out of their eyes and you look skyward, impressed with the vastness of the open valley. You walk towards stone crenulations. As you near the faint blue lip of the reservoir begins to peek out from cover. Its vast and wide, this gigantic river. Between mountains of red and gold sits a pure blue expanse of water. Clouds scud overhead and small swarms of insects’ buzz about the air. Your inner monologue quiets when confronted by the majesty before you. Someone is calling your name. You turn expecting to see your road companions.
Small stones grind underfoot as you pivot towards the summons. Your eyes see, the reservoir, the welcome centre, the parking lot, and, as they near 180 degrees, it seems the ground has dropped several hundred meters. Far below you is the road you wound up, cars, the river, a village and a parking lot. You stand and stare. A group photo is taken. Your horizons, both left and right, have been swallowed by opposing states, one vacuum and one surplus. Both seem wrong, but you cannot put a finger on what you would change. Both the glut and the lack of the river seem necessary and all around the leaves whisper with the wind that blows through the valley.
When you live in the countryside of Japan a car becomes a necessary tool. A tool, when used properly, allows you to find, experience and plunder the spaces between towns. You can reach famous places, scenic vistas, engineering marvels, and lose yourself in the placid nature of the countryside in under fifteen-minutes. Although we returned to the city before one in the afternoon, it seemed to all of us that day that we had experienced a perspective altering moment driving into and out of the mountains.
-Arthur Challenger Oemke
Bio: Originally from Michigan (USA), the author has been a resident of Fukushima-shi for two years where he teaches English at both High School and at a language school. He was originally inspired to come to Japan by the Just Japan Podcast and now spends his free time fishing, adventuring, and exploring the nooks of the vast countryside.
*Names have been changed