Tooling around Maruseppu in Penelope the AZ-Wagon.
I don't know how to start this one with anything other than a simple A = B statement, like a thesis, everything I learned this weekend (admittedly not considerable) packed down into a little sentence: Maruseppu Town is a weird place.
Most of the strangeness is probably somehow related to the construction of the Asahikawa-Monbetsu Highway, that great concrete snake lying out between Asahikawa and Maruseppu (the short story is that it's supposed to run to Monbetsu, but the whole project has been bookshelved, in Development Hell, so beyond the Maruseppu exit is strewn little more than a connect-the-dots of unpaved overpasses and big stripes of felled trees halfway to Monbetsu). The highway has pretty solidly robbed all of the surrounding roads of all traffic, a feedback loop rolling down into total geographic abandonment -- viz. no one comes, so we abandon our business; we abandon our business, so no one comes. The effect is a little jarring: on the gentle slopes of the valley walls is this shiny concrete string, chain-link fences tinkle in the spring wind, cement dry in homogenous gray planes; and below, the highway farmhouses molder in the sun and the post-snow sogginess -- and it really is below, the highway towering on pilings above the landscape for no other ostensible reason than to assert its superiority over the rest of the land, some disfigured king, some engineering-ocracy, some highway-archy. It's like one of those post-apocalyptic upstairs-downstairs situations, the gleaming togetherness of the present above the forgotten half-dissolved of the past. The highway itself even reinforces this juxtaposition, raising wide translucent panes of plastic or concrete gunwaling between the highway drivers and the wasteland around them, between the smooth black road and the dirt and wet and rock and one-farm-per-five-clicks emptiness below.
The sky is plastered over, as well. I can't think of a better way to describe the color and texture of the sky than plaster: soft and porous, drying out, splotchy, like a poor mixing job, a dash of "Prufrock's" etherized-patient jaundice.
And so I'm down in it, and I'm sitting in Penelope with the window open, on a staid, geometrical bridge fording the Yubetsu River, way up in the boonies where the Yubetsu River is little more than a stream among pulverized rocks and boulders left over from the last ice age -- and Penelope's engine is whirring, making a very fast colorless sound like shick over and over, like a knife swung quickly through the air on the end of a rope -- and the Yubetsu River's coming up to me in sounds like shuggle shuggle, like a gurgling at either the back of your mouth or the top of your throat -- and the air around me is full of ambient warmth but is totally still -- and I've just come back down from the hills on a road that hasn't been driven in a long time, because you can feel that undisturbed non-motion just everywhere, like the trees and the birds and the whole of the world is staring right at you, wondering like what could have drawn a human back here on this road up into the woods on a day like today. This is the reason I turn back, eventually -- that, and that I couldn't see or hear the highway from where I wound up, which doesn't sound as eerie as it really is, even to a dumb kid in a kei car in the forest what cut his teeth riding the Interstate, but just trust me.
I've come this way before, and if you've ridden in Penelope chances are you have as well, but from within a car, with the heater going and something primly semi-indie like James Blake or the Arcade Fire on the speakers, the whole outside complex can't get inside, and there's really nothing to worry about. It's when you open up the windows and you come to a stop and you pause for a second and let the outside, knowingly or otherwise, ooze in over the rubbered sills -- it's when, in short, you stop where you are not meant to stop, that things get weird. You start looking over your shoulder, looking in the rear view mirror, peering up ahead around the corner, as if Nature knows that you've come to a stop and is even now sending its agents for you. I don't know what I keep looking in the rear view mirror for. Call it a feeling.
At some point I find this signage that I remembered from the last time I was here.
I had been for some reason convinced that the obsidian outcrop was a tourist destination, a cheap-to-maintain lure away from the highway in some attempt to regalvanize the area. Economic stimulus. When I see the road up to the outcrop I realize that I am dead wrong: it's little more than a dirt path, six or eight inches wider than Penelope (who doesn't carry that much junk inna trunk, both literally & axiomatically), threading under the highway (the path) and up around a bend into the woods. I sit in my car by the side of the road battling myself over trying to take Penelope into the woods.
I heave the wheel around and like that I’m in the thick of it.
The trail doesn’t extend very far before cutting sharply back onto itself and reclining on the mountainside, a scraggly, rocky path along the edge of a sheer slope that I don’t feel comfortable navigating in my car; besides, there’s snow ahead and I’ve already put the summers back on Penelope’s rubber feet. I seven-or-eight-point-turn Penelope back around but all of a sudden I’m face to face with another vehicle, a Mitsubishi Pajero Mini that evidently followed me in. The driver doesn’t appear to be a Figure of Authority — there’s a kayak on his roof rack and the back of his kei truck is filled with brightly colored nylon sports equipment (or so I can only guess), but the stare stranded between his car and mine is a bit more intense, a bit more deeply curious, than the ones I receive at the local 7-11 and I decide to hoof it out of there. Curt nod as I pass in the scrubby turnaround.
As I cut back under the highway — from below, totally silent — I catch jostling navy blue in my rear view mirror — the Pajero Mini is following me. Eyes back front and I catch a third sign, blown sideways by wind, pointing back up the trail, only visible to those on their way out. I’m moving pretty quickly at this point, and the Pajero Mini is catching up, so I don’t look too closely at the sign, but I catch first a distance — 6 km — and then a single word in the blur: ruins.
By this point I’m back on the road with Penelope’s shicking engine aimed back at Yubetsu — the Pajero Mini hasn’t emerged from the trail, for one reason or another. I realize that I tell this like James Bond. In the moment, I feel like James Bond, a little bit. Jason Bourne. I blame it on the atmosphere. Afterwards I’m a little ashamed of my nerves.
When I get home I look up the words on that sign, this time in Japanese. Google Translate holds my hand unto the conclusion — anyway the short answer is that there are the ruins of a Stone Age town up there with those obsidian cliffs, evidently of no interest to anyone but geologists and anthropologists — and stupid kids with kei cars and free weekends.
You can bet I'm going back.
Ed. note, 1/10/2022: I never went back. Although I did go to a related obsidian museum in Shirataki on a field trip with Kaisei Elementary; and I think that this museum runs excursions up to Ajisai Falls, though I never took advantage of them.