The fox lay dead in the undergrowth, neatly arranged and parallel to the road. It’s eyes and mouth were closed, and someone had carefully arranged an embroidered cloth over it’s body from midway of it’s tail to it’s neck like a shroud, pristine white. This is Chichibu – animal spirits live in these hills and hundreds of shrines celebrating them are scattered deep in the forests. This was no simple roadkill to be left festering on the centre line. This fox demanded dignity in it’s death.
I had originally planned a short early ride up the Arakawa river, still feeling the residue of the heavy cold and fever I’d suffered as a consequence of last week’s 190km madness. It was dark when I left, my favorite time, when the first hour is spent anticipating what kind of sunrise will follow. Braziers burned red on the edge of the baseball diamonds spread along the river’s wide floodplain – obsessed parents, arriving far too early to set up for their sons’ baseball games later. Too distant to feel the heat; but just the smell of the burning wood and the sound of the crackle of the embers still warmed me a little. The sun came up – not bad, a little cloudy, but the pale orange and yellows were enough to convince me it would be a waste of a perfectly decent day to turn back now. The temperature was below freezing and the charcoal grey clouds on the horizon turned Fuji-san into an artful black and white sketching. I knew already that in days like this in the mountains, the Gods come out to check their domain. And, I knew, there were few better places for it than in Chichibu. So the decision was made.
A glorious crisp winter’s morning, chilling but clear of snow and ice – there had been no precipitation for well over a week and the only visible clue to the cold was the frost on the fields and the roof of their owner’s farmhouses. I rode deeper into the hills and climbed Sadamine Toge, deliberately taking it very easy – today would be another “long slow distance” ride, keeping my hear rate low. A Keiren rider leisurely overtook me, and we exchanged greetings: “Ohayo !”. He was tucked low into his handlebars, pushing a heavy gear at an excruciating slow and measured cadence. I tailed him for a while around the curves of the road before letting him go on. Later on, a family of “saru”, Japanese monkeys, descended the steep slope on my right, trotted one by one across the road and down into the thicket on the left, a few lingering to forage by the roadside. Drawn back lips and a mouthful of fangs greeted my attempt to take a closer look at the nearest one. He shoved his ripe red arse in my field of view and loped off.
On the second climb, Yamabushi Toge, an ambulance blazed past me, siren sounding, and soon after that I arrived at the accident scene – a motorcycle smashed beyond recognition, in pieces across both sides of the carriageway; the front of the car imploded, and both airbags deployed like failed parachutes over the dashboard. The scene turned my stomach (they always do) but the young man – a boy, really – was being attended to by medics, about five metres further on. He must have been flung there, I guessed, and I saw his eyes were open and moving – he was alive, thank God. I rolled my bike along the footpath, averting my eyes out of a kind of respect for the victim, and a bunch of rubberneckers had already gathered around the crash zone, feasting on the carnage, chatting and – unbelievable – even laughing a little. Show some fucking solemnity you ghouls.
Five minutes later a car overtook me – he had lost patience waiting for the accident to be cleared – and shaved by within twelve inches of my shoulder, at speed, on a wide and empty road. When I am King, I growled, one in every hundred airbags will be replaced at random with explosives. When I am King.
Descending a timber mile of saw mills, the aroma of freshly cut timber hauled me out of my temporary distress, and I pulled in to the Shrine of the Holy Fountain. It’s been too long, I thought, and flicked a coin through the slates of it’s weathered wooden door and yanked the rope back and forth, jangling the bell above to summon the spirits. Take care of that guy, I asked, and keep me safe on these mountain roads.
And I prayed for the fox as well. But I’m sure he was already watching me by now.