After arriving back in Tokyo from a weekend in Nagano Prefecture’s mountainous Minami Shinshu region last month, I was greeted by a series of news stories about a ruckus outside a convenience store in Shizuoka Prefecture.
Japan had just achieved an unexpected win against Ireland in the Rugby World Cup and some Irish fans had started acting up. Video footage of the inside the store lingered on the “horrific” aftermath of their antics; corn dogs had been eaten but condiment packs and skewers had not been put in the trash. The collision of different standards of behavior was striking.
My weekend in the mountains had been spent biking and hiking on a two-day tour organized by American Lucas Badtke-Berkow’s magazine Papersky. The trip had been full of geniality and wholesomeness, two things that usually make me very uncomfortable. The Marie Kondo-like finger-wagging of the TV news pulled me right back into my normality after having been temporarily entranced with the idea that yes, dammit, I could also be healthy and good-natured, and not just a fat, bolshy complainer.
Papersky’s Tour de Nippon project has been running since 2011, and combines cycling with other activities, such as gastronomy, hiking and craft workshops. On this particular trip the first day would be a 28-kilometer cycle ride from Komagane to the Seiryuen spa resort in Matsukawa. Dinner would be an open-air barbecue in the Fruits Garden Kitazawa apple orchard. The second day would revolve around a six-hour hike up and down the nearby Mount Kohachiro.
Building relationships, whether it is between people, or with other businesses, is an important objective for Badtke-Berkow. The minivelo-type bikes Papersky rents out, for example, are made by a small custom workshop called Bruno, which in turn advertises Papersky and Tour de Nippon on its website. The evening barbecue we have on our first night is a mix of people who have cycled together that day and people who live in the area.
In the context of Japan’s rural depopulation, connecting the city and the countryside is a recurring theme over the weekend. Badtke-Berkow’s view is that it’s a mistake to think we have to choose one over the other; surely the solution is that we should be able to enjoy both.
On a food stop during the first day, cycling along the Tenryu River, we meet Eiko Yoneyama, who runs an Edo Period farmhouse that has been in her family for seven generations. When she was younger, she resented the traditional country life and dark house full of antiques. Setting out slices of homemade brown bread topped with chunks of honeycomb collected from nearby hives, she says that she now has a much greater appreciation of the family home and its accumulated history.
The thick, dark honey, made by Japanese bees, is unlike any I’ve had before. The amber honeycomb has a flavor and texture that is deep and rich; biting into it is like eating an autumn fruit. For comparison, they also have honey from Western bees, which is much lighter in color and more floral in taste. A member of the local Yohojoshibu (Girl’s Beekeeping Club) tells us that Japanese bees are much less aggressive than Western bees. “You probably won’t be able to taste honey like ours anywhere else,” she adds.
When we get back on the road, I cycle alongside Yudai Kubota, another participant on the tour. Like Yoneyama, Kubota is also a Nagano native. He used to work in the marketing department for Yamaha, living in Shizuoka and West Africa. He recently quit to start his own business as a hiking guide. He says he’s optimistic about young people coming back to work in the countryside.
“There’s less competition for jobs and the quality of life is better,” he says, as we cycle past the river that sparkles in the sun, the Japan Alps on either side of us.
The next day is also glorious, but tougher. Tour de Nippon is based around cycling, but on this particular trip there is also a steep hike up Mount Kohachiro to one of its subpeaks. Our guide, Yoshiaki Katagiri, is in his late 60s and tells us that, like Kubota, he’s a local and used to be a salaryman before quitting to become a mountain guide. He tells us to take it easy and walk at a steady pace.
Through my asthmatic wheezing I ask Badtke-Berkow his story as we climb. He tells me that his mother is a retired circuit court judge, and that his father is a bluegrass fiddle player. He came to Japan straight after graduating from college without knowing anything about the country and, in 1996, co-founded Tokion, an arts and culture magazine. Since then he’s become more interested in how nature and culture fit together. The quickest way to explain what Papersky is about, he says, is that they use Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map, a projection in which there is no “right way up.” Fuller wanted to create a view of the world without cultural bias, something Badtke-Berkow aims to promote through the magazine and the group tours.
When the trip comes to an end, I drive back toward Tokyo. The traffic is backed-up with people returning to the city after the preciously rare temperate weather of early autumn. The car navigation system reroutes me through the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, an area of Japan I’ve never visited before. There is a brief few minutes of a rosy pink sunset before a storm comes in and lightning flashes over a landscape that is extraordinary and unexpected.
Papersky is published three times a year. Each issue focuses on a short trip by the Papersky team, which is then offered as a tour to groups of 20 to 25. The Minami Shinshu bike and hike trip cost ¥37,000 and included three meals, snacks, insurance and an overnight stay at the Seiryuen spa resort. Bike rental cost an additional ¥3,000. Participants received a goody bag of designer accessories at the end of the trip. The author had his participation fee waived by Papersky.