Some moments stay with you a long time, imprinted on your memory, hardwired into your psyche. I once cycled from the UK to Japan, eight intense months of sensory overload that have forged a unique place in my consciousness, molding my hopes, and perhaps my fears. But you don’t need to camp alone in the Gobi desert or dine with Uzbeki gangsters to be enchanted by ride… cycling in and around Japan has made good work of my bucket list in itself.
A Tokushima mountain road in early morning, sunlight filtering through the trees above as I tried to get my bearings for Temple #13 on the Shikoku pilgrimage route… the lone metallic screech of my brakes on a steep and winding descent through a darkening forest on the Kii Peninsula … a mountaintop village onsen in Aomori, shared with a half dozen giggling octogenarian ladies…
But one of my most enduring memories is that of the haunting cry of the Higurashi, the “evening cicada”, serenading me at dusk as I climbed my way slowly up towards the mile high Yanagisawa toge one summer. In fading light, halfway up this isolated valley that cuts through the thick range of mountains spanning Okutama to Yamanashi, the melancholy song of this tiny, tragic creature touched something inside me. A sound synonymous with late summer and – for me at least – a sense of rural Japan, unperturbed and untouched by the pace of modern life outside it’s mystical borders. A brief glimpse into my own shangri-la perhaps.
So I set off late one recent saturday, timing my ride to end up in a similar mountain setting as the light dimmed, hoping to recreate the magic of that moment so many years ago. At my usual hour of 5am the roads are empty and the air cool and clear… but today, at midday winding my way through traffic to the Arakawa, I breathed fumes of diesel with just a hint of ocean, carried by the wind upriver. On the river path, at speed, I swallowed mouthfuls of small flies, the hundreds of survivors clinging to my face and arms, swimming around my eyeballs, and I remembered why I wouldn’t usually start a ride at this stupid hour.
The floodplain was a lush tropical green, impenetrable in places but for the cycle path, aggressive foliage whipping my legs into order as I cycled past. On my left, beyond the levee, grimy office blocks and warehouses gradually gave way to farmhouses and rice fields, sometimes home to an ancestral tomb or modest shrine to the local deity.
A cacophony of insect sounds surrounded me; the high-pitched buzz of the regular cicada rising above all else in waves of tinny percussion whenever I might pass a likely looking thicket of trees… but still no sign of the Higurashi. Heading up the Naguri valley the shadows were now getting longer and I disturbed half a dozen purple butterflies, each the size of my hand, from a mossy hollow in the road. They fluttered lazily up into the trees, but the only sound I heard was the gurgle of the roadside stream as the water gushed over rocks and swirled in eddies. There was still no sign of the Higurashi.
It gets dark early in these mountains and I was almost at the top of the narrow Amamezasu Toge, thinking I should start turning back while there was still daylight, stamping my pedals and forcing the bike around another switchback, when I heard it from deep in the forest ahead: the clear “kana-kana-kana” cry of the Higurashi, echoing from tree to tree, before silence fell again. It didn’t sound a second time.
The Higurashi spends seven or more years patiently underground before it emerges for a few short weeks at the end of summer; this melody is it’s one chance to attract a mate before death overcomes it. I hoped this little fella would get lucky and find some insect lovin’ before his demise. Me, I had got what I come for, heard the Higurashi as I wanted to, on a deserted forest road deep in the mountains at dusk. But it wasn’t the same; it wasn’t the same at all.
See, you can’t stage these things, I realised, they happen once and that’s about it: that is the magic. It isn’t a movie, a gourmet meal or page seventeen of the Kama Sutra (alas…) – you don’t get to repeat it. Savour the moment when it happens – and happily ride on.