01 April 2010

Into the Heart of Coldness

"I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness." (1)

And so our trip to Chichibu began on that fateful day of March 31st in the year of the Lord 2010 as we assembled along the shores of the river Tamagawa. The air was humid and cold and despite several layers of clothes wrapped around our moribund bodies we froze as if we had entered eternal purgatory.

Considering the conditions of the roads, we made good speed along the Tamagawa until we reached this hotbed of modern decadence, the sixties Saigon of Yamanashi-Ken, the city called Ome on the fringes of metropolitan Tokyo, this last outpost of civilisation before time comes to a final, sudden and grinding stop.

Luckily our friends and loved-ones did not catch us red-handed as we engaged in an orgy of absolute evil at Aurore bakery. Shamelessly we indulged in the indifferent consumption of "Royal Milk Bread"; the only king we are loyal to being the master of pain in the upper calves, waiting for us behind the passes into foreign Chichibuian land. But we needed to fill our stomachs thoroughly, as we would enter civilisation again only after a long journey through the impervious jungles and hills of the land to the North of us.
We mounted our trusted gear the next morning and after a while we reached the holy fountain, a place where mysterious powers would emasculate the prejudiced riders.  A group of young riders from a minor educational institution (Waseda Univ., that is) came back from a trip surveying the edge of the known world and greeted us heartily.  Never will they know the horrors of life, until after graduation.

The first test of manliness awaited us at Yamabushi Pass. A German expedition led by Colonel Manfred von Holstein has conquered this hill some time ago and their unbelievable deeds have been engraved in the cornerstone of cycling forever (in plain language: see Togebaka # 12 to the right). Jerome, our svelte French cook, Dominic, the ruthless colonel of the aborigine regiment, David, the American maverick of unequivocal lineage and myself, all (seven) of us charged ahead with full speed:

"Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred:
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
" (2)

Even after I had climbed up for what seemed to me an endless amount of time (15 minutes, to be precise), I could still feel the warm breath of Jerome blowing in rapid convulsions against my neck. I gave all I could and conquering the last bends of the road I was finally on my own and arrived at the lofty heights of Yamabushi in respectable time. So did Jerome, Dominic and David as well, as they are brave and respectable fellows indeed.

But in the cold no break could be made: the sweat we produced so plentiful during the climbs became solid slabs of ice on our bodies within no time. There was no choice but to continue to the next hill of Shomaru Toge. A strange place where coffee is served (but no tea) to the travelers who bode no ill. Where water is a priceless commodity, photos celebrate the visit of Prince Takamatsu and Princess Chichibu in 1953, and people hover over bare holes in the grounds to get finally rid of the remains of Royal Milk Bread and other lustful offenses of the past.

Again, down into the valley of the death (route 299) we charged while the cold got almost unbearable. And up again we clambered towards the heights of Karibazaka, a place talked about in whispers on stormy nights when the one-legged and the crazies gather around the fireplace to tell the lore of times long past (in plain language: see Togebaka No. 17 to the right).

A yellowed photo taken on the pass may give the curious reader an impression of the hardness the men endured.
Along the ridge we proceeded until we came to the hedonic temple of Takayama Fudo and again made a charge into the valley of the death (Route 299). As the strain of the journey mounted, the men were beginning to show their nerves: "It is the 10th birthday of my daughter today - I must go home!" cried one of them in an uncontrollable rage, before jumping through the bushes into the wild never to be seen again. Or perhaps he made it indeed, but as the distance to home was long, he surely did not make it before the 11th birthday of his little princess.

What remained of the men, now reduced in strength by illness and desertion to about 3/4 of their former and full force, continued along the road and then made a fateful left turn towards the center of hedonic worship: The temple of Nennogongen, guarded not only by two fierce deities but also by steep slopes with ridiculous gradients.

"Surely the way straight is shorter and will lead back to civilisation. I must go there!" uttered one brave man when finally faith abandoned him. With all earthly powers spent and not one grain left to keep him away from his foolish deeds, he disappeared in front of our eyes up the road toward doom. Our once glorious platoon had by now lost 50% of its men, and the thin French cook and I readied ourselves for a last, long and dangerous climb up to the temple awaiting in the mist ahead.

After a while the Frenchman showed his nerves as well; aimlessly he was wandering from the right to the left and barely could he keep his gear under control. I did all I could to keep him away from fate, telling him stories about the beloved left behind. How surely wonderful the places must be that we were certain to reach at any minute. Waiting for us behind that last curve. That turned out to be the second last curve. No the third-last. Not even this. And with the last drop of power almost spent, we arrived at the parade ground in front of the temple and rode up the last few hundred meters. Everything that was told about the place is true. The curious reader may wish to find out for himself.
Now riding down in small numbers the bends of the unbelievably steep slopes, we headed for the last and ultimate goal of our journey: The temple of Takedera, where according to our secret assignment, Mr. Kurtz was supposed to hide.

What seemed to be quite an enjoyable ride along a stream turned out to be a hellish ascent for the last 500 meters. Who would have thought that this would prove to become the most difficult part of our journey? While we Christians are punished for our earthly deeds after death when we are judged by our lord, the pagans are punished already on the way to their places of worship.

Arriving finally at this wonderful place we were informed that we were too late: Representatives of the colonial powers of Singapore and Australia have already come and taken samples of the place. Surely it was a most beautiful place and the climb up to the Honden provided us with some compensation for the things we have been through. But nothing was left but to return to our world after we have seen:

"The Horror! The Horror!"

So brought to senses by the foolishness of the things we were chasing after in vain, we made the run for home. Just like speeding human bullets, faster than ever before did we rode along the roads that would surely bring us back to civilisation. There, finally a light along the road. No, this time it wasn't a fee fire but the illumination of this wonderful place called Tamajiman where only too soon more social events will take place.

And there, to our great joy, David greeted us, holding out for the last few days he had even managed not to touch the remaining two slices of pizza lying so temptingly in front of him, and bearing the names "Jerome" and "Michael".

Yes, we all made it back into the lap of civilisation, with its warm toilet seats and glass washing basins, and I am here to tell you the story of our adventures. The rest is shortly told: In the darkness we rode back along the shores of the river Tamagawa and all of us arrived between 7 and 8pm that evening at home. Great was the joy there when we could re-unite with our loved ones (unfortunately 2/3 of my loved ones were at the ice skating rink and the remaining 1/3 experienced a sudden and powerful attack of puberty- one may think about reinstating proven, good traditions).

More than 200 km of riding and far more than than 2.000 meters of climbing (excluding barometric tolerances).

PS By the way, in many ways this was also a very classical Positivo Espresso ride. We started very fast, slowed down considerably and were equally fast in the end as in the beginning. The only non-classical element was, that 50% of us stuck with the original riding plan.

(1) from "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, 1902
(2) from "Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1854

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