Thursday, September 15, 2011

The End

 Today I wake up around 8 to the sunlight pouring through my window. I slowly pack my things, leaving behind those items which I wont need for a relatively short ride like today's. I begin riding with a surreal feeling that I have a hunch will be with me for the entire day. This is it. No matter what happens, I am on the home stretch. Even if my bike spontaneously explodes, I am within a days walk of my goal.

Again I am blessed with an astounding tailwind that carries me effortlessly on my way. I eat some breakfast with some fellow bike tourists that are just starting a little vacation around Hokkaido. They are amazed when I tell them where I have come from and inform me that they will be waiting for me at the Cape. I do not want or expect great praise for my accomplishment, and something about people who know nothing about me waiting for me to celebrate with me makes me uncomfortable. I would rather accept the end of this journey as I have lived it, with just me and my bike.

At any rate, the day is gorgeous and the riding is easy. So easy that there is really nothing interesting to report, except for the last kilometer or so.

I had a general sense of the distance to the cape, as well as the layout of the land. I knew that Cape Soya was around a bend and (obviously) the furthest point north. Each time I came to a curve in the road where I couldn't see anything further north beyond it, my heart would skip a beat. To this day I still can't quite pinpoint what emotion(s) that amounts to, but it seemed like I was feeling every emotion at once.

Then it came, the last bend in the road. I knew this was it. At this point something strange happened, though I guess I could've seen it coming. I began resenting this glorious tailwind, pushing me on and almost forcing me to finish. Honestly I didn't even have to pedal and I would still be moving forward, such was the strength of the wind.

Throughout my ride, I would often be frustrated at my bike's gear ratio. Since it was more of a road bike than a touring bike, it's lowest (easiest to pedal) gear wasn't quite as low as it should be. This meant that on grueling uphill climbs, even the most 'laid-back' gear would still have me huffing and puffing in no time. More than any other day, though, I wanted more than ever to have that lower gear. I wanted to inch my way as slowly as possible to the finish line. I could see my goal before me stretching out into eternity, basking in every feeling, thought and emotion the experience had to offer. I knew right then and there that this feeling, whatever it was, could never be replicated, even if I took another bike tour that was exponentially longer and harder.

So there I was, pedaling as slowly as my ability to balance would allow, making my way to Cape Soya, 2,000 miles from where I had begun. My mind was racing with what I can only describe as everything. All at once I felt happy, sad, angry, calm, nervous, confident. Furthermore, my desires were equally out of whack. I felt like boarding the next plane to America and going home while also wanting to buy land in Japan and live there forever. It was messy...but in a good way. All this time I was thinking about what it would be like to dismount from my steed and meditate on Japan's northernmost point. I would've never guessed that the most meaningful part of my trip would actually be the 0.5 km before I finished it.

Having spent the last 53 days pedaling along, always in motion, it felt somehow unnatural to enjoy Soya while standing or sitting. It was still a powerful experience, but riding a bike every day instills in oneself a restlessness that cannot be appeased easily.

I spend a few hours there, taking pictures, making calls and eating a bowl of Ramen at one of the little touristy restaurants they have there, but after that I figured it was time to move on. For the first time in 53 days, I begin to ride south.

As another first, I decide to listen to my iPod while on the ride back. I am categorically against such reckless behavior, but ever since my ride into Haboro, I have learned that the sound of the wind blowing against you is much, much worse than music in terms of robbing your sense of hearing/sanity. I am immediately shocked and endeared by the song that begins playing first as I start my ride, Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind. Needless to say, I ride with a big smile on my face.

Though it takes about 3 times longer to return to Wakkanai than it did to get there (it turns out tailwinds only help you in one direction at a time), I didn't mind at all, because it was a great opportunity to reflect and enjoy the end of the ride.

The rest of the day continues in a blur. It becomes miserably rainy, so the party that Miki-san had planned at his restaurant was attended by me and about 4 other people. This was actually much better because whenever more people are around it is harder for me to enjoy myself as I am so conscious of trying to speak good Japanese and put forth my best face. I can be much more myself in a more intimate setting, so in a way it was the perfect party to end my trip. Tomorrow, Miki-san has offered to give me a ride to the airport in Wakkanai, where I will take a few connecting flights before I reach home back in Fukuoka.

Now that it is all said and done, I have wracked my brains with exactly what I wanted to say to “cap it all off.” To that effect I have not fared very well. To me, accomplishing his has taught me so unbelievably much about people, success, failure, the world and countless other things that I cant imaging saying anything that speaks to it specifically. On the other hand, any general words of wisdom I can give have been said and written a thousand times before in motivational books. I suppose the difference between the specific and the general is in the middle, where the life is. I can't tell you something that you don't already know (unless it is a question about bike touring in Japan), so all that's left to do is to get out there, make some mistakes and spend entirely too much of your savings chasing something that is important to you.

It brought a tear to my eye to see the name of my goal, printed in real life!

In the flesh, at the end

My wonderful host, serenading his guests

Before going to the airport

Learning to cook Japanese style

Miki-san's hilarious wife

My final picture, a simple thanks

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Northlands!

Woke up in my dorm-like room feeling very business-like today. Unlike my goal 2 days ago when I really wanted to cover 150 km that day, today I must ride 140 km. Rain, wind, or shine nothing is stopping me on this day.

I stroll into the dining room where the Okaa-san tells me that breakfast will be ready shortly. My 2 touring companions are already seated and we make some more chit chat about things to see and routes to take for the day. My motorcycle buddy from Kumamoto turns his laptop towards me to show me a weather map showing that the wind for today will be blowing from the south. I almost yelp with delight at the prospect a tailwind, the holy grail of bike touring. I cannot stress enough how preferable the steepest mountain is to even a moderate headwind...but I wont get back into that again.

Even though I'm still kicking myself for paying so much to stay at this Ryokan, I am continually surprised at how wonderful they are at taking care of their guests and the home-cooked breakfast leaves little to desire. I suppose a place that caters to people who are touring all day knows exactly what kind of food to cook for the tourists body, be it motorcycle or bicycle. As I am leaving, the owner gives me a gift-wrapped nut from a tree that only grows in this part of Japan. A gift that some might find cheesy or inconsequential, yet for me it is the perfect symbol for remembering this part of my journey.

I set off in the mid-morning light, showered with unexpected but appreciated warmth from the sun. Very quickly I began to feel a certain invincibility in my body. The hills were quite up and down, but my legs never felt tired on the climbs and I was overtaken with just how beautiful this day was in every conceivable day. Usually I don’t much like sounding like a hippy when describing things, but I realized early on that this was easily one of the greatest days of my entire life. This epiphany occurred around 10 a.m., but let me assure you that the rest of the day only got better from there.

Another word of advice I received from my biker-bud from the Ryokan was to take a small frontage road that forked off from a small village. I had initially planned on following the main, marked roads, as they have rarely led me astray during my trip. With profuse wavy movements of his arm (the kind you make when the car window is rolled down) he assured me that I will be climbing and descending hills the entire way to Wakkanai if I chose the main road. Deciding to trust again in the good will of the Japanese people, when I came to the fork I took the frontage road and what followed was simply the best 50 km of riding that any person has ever ridden...ever.

First of all it was flat. I had a tail wind. The temperature was perfect, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I had the ocean to my left and beautiful fields of rice bowing from the weight of plump grains on my right. Thought it baffled me, the road was also immaculate. Typically these types of roads are used only by the junky pick-up trucks of Japanese farmers and are paved only once every 1,000 years. I must've been right on the millennial timing of these roads because it was like riding on a baby's bottom.

I rode for hours and hours, with nary the need or the desire to take a break for any reason but to use the bathroom. One such break placed me at the last michi-no-eki on the way north in Japan. Honestly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by windblown fields of tall grass, this lone roadway station stood as the last bastion of civilization before I reached the great, wild north of Japan. I sat down for a delicious meal of curry and rice, accompanied by some world famous Hokkaido milk. As I drank this wondrous ambrosia, I was struck by how strange it is that milk isn't served with every meal of Japanese curry. Not that it's too spicy, the flavors just complement each other so darn well.

As I came back to saddle up and ride out, I noticed fellow bike tourists (Japanese) taking a break in the shade. We went through the normal chit chat and as I prepared myself for the usual praise and amazement when I tell them where I've come from, I'm met instead with an exclaimed “watashi mo!” (me too!). Excited by the news that someone else has made the exact same journey, we take a few moments to talk shop and recount our accomplishments. I do a sort of double take when I ask him to repeat when he started his ride, because I thought he said August 22nd (about 1 full month after I began my ride). Turns out he did say August 22nd, at which point I bow down to him because I am clearly not worthy to share the same tailwind as such a speed demon. I'll admit that I could most definitely have gotten this far much faster than I did, but a full month ahead of schedule would've likely killed me. Though I am impressed with his speed and ability, I must admit that I would not change a single thing about my ride up until this point. The people I've met and the things I have seen have too deeply changed me to think that having stronger legs would be a fair trade.

We say our goodbyes and I set out knowing that, if this heaven-sent wind keeps up, I will not only make it to Wakkanai on this day, but I will be about 3 hours ahead of schedule. I'll be honest, I was whole-heartedly expecting Wakkanai to be a somewhat desolate village-type place where toilets were a luxury, and electricity was intermittent at best. What I found was actually a full blown city that was apparently a hot tourist destination for many Russians (which was geographically quite close, a mere 6 hour boat ride away). As I rode around in awe at the Russian/Japanese signs and familiar shops like the 100-yen store and McDonalds, I call my host for the night, Miki-san. I follow his car to his house and, for the first time, I am confronted by the wind that had been helping me so much throughout the day. I assume that this ferocious beast is asking only for a toll for the good tidings I had received and I payed it gladly (though with teeth gritted and legs straining).

As it turns out, Miki-san owns a successful Izakaya in Wakkanai called (NAME HERE!!!), and he has a few rooms above the restaurant that he occassionally rents out. Currently he had a vacancy, and this is where he put me up for the night. Suffice to say, this was easily one of the coolest places I have stayed and I was elated that I had such comfortable lodging on one of my last nights. Miki-san told me to rest up, shower up and come down to the bar for dinner whenever I felt like it, and I couldn't help but feel notice that the day had still managed to get even better.

After showering I headed down to the bar where I was met by Miki-san's wife, a jolly Russian/Japanese woman. Knowing that she would be hosting an American, she had done her absolute best to concoct an “American” style meal for me. This amounted to some amazing French fries, three of the largest fried chicken breasts I have ever seen and a rice and cheddar cheese mixture that tasted quite a bit like risotto. My heart was unbelievably warmed by the kindness of these people who just 24 hours ago didn't even know I was coming to stay with them. I rallied my fortitude as best I could and managed to eat and drink everything that was put in front of me, including some leftover offerings from other patrons. The smile on Miki-san's wife face as I devoured her wonderful food made it all worth when later it felt as if I had several food babies incubating inside of me.

Full out of my mind and a bit drunk I try walking about the town for a little while hoping to speed up the digestive processes. I refelct on the night and Miki's words as I left the bar: “Tomorrow, we celebrate.” Assuming that tonight wasn't a celebration...I assume that I will certainly die at the “party” they have planned. After about an hour more of walking, I lay myself down on the floor of Miki-san's spare room and pass out into the deepest food-induced coma in medical history. Tomorrow, I reach Cape Soya.

Ryokans can be expensive, but I guess you get what you pay for. Definitely one of the best breakfasts ever.

Me, in Shadow form

The happy faces of windmills

Another of the best meals ever. Curry and Hokkaido milk

There's my trusty steed, always waiting for me

The end is in sight

Hilarious form, bravo.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

3 Days to Go...

I wake up in Takikawa exponentially more excited than the day before, knowing that I am now just a mere 3 days away from completion. Unfortunately I am also starving, as I neglected to feed myself anything more than a bread bun filled with bean paste the night before (sounds gross, but darn those things grow on you!). I set out at 6 a.m. in search of a convenience store breakfast and an Italian with a questionable sense of his Japanese geography.

I have a Japanese cell phone, and he has an American one. Both of our phones are extremely powerful and effective in their own way...but neither of our plans allows for the phones to call one another. Relegated now to awkwardly browsing Facebook and sending messages back and forth I find a road that should be the only road on which Fabio could travel to continue on his journey. I hunker down with my egg and rice bowl and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. I am not sure if I mentioned this earlier, but even though I am 3 days from my goal, I have only 3 days to complete it. While assuming the ride will be flat and easy, where it lacks in hills it will make up in distance. I was hoping to cover 150 km (95 miles) today, but every minute I spend waiting for Fabio is a minute close I could be to completing my journey. With a heavy, frustrated heart, I decide to set off and try to make up for the hour lost waiting for the Italian Stallion (A good name for his bike, whether or not he named it), and set off for Rumoi and the western coast.

While riding today, I learned just how much the rarity of something can account for the awe it inspires in people. For example, we have dragonflies in Colorado, but seeing them is usually dependent on a certain season, and even then sightings are somewhat rare. Riding along today I had the inital pleasure of seeing small groups (flocks?) of dragonflies buzzing along next to me and I was momentarily struck by the beauty of nature around me. Immediately after I was struck in the face by another flock (pack?) of dragonflies heading the opposite direction. I looked up to see what amounted to a cloud of hundreds of dragonflies to my left and right all buzzing around in the pastures next to the road.

What I thought was a rare and cherished sight soon became a vicious game of dodge ball with a tactical squadron of insects. Down from the main formation they would swoop, heading at me with unmatched grace (or clumsiness). Bank left, bank right, up, down SWOOSH by my ear. Here comes the next one, flutter back, dive forward, barrel roll, SMACK in the chest. On and on for miles, the dragonflies and I play cat and mouse. All in all, it was a hilarious and unique way to spend an hour and a half of riding, but as I rode into the final set of hills the swarms petered out.

Finally, the roads were becoming less congested and the scenery becoming as beautiful as ever. In the midst of my appreciation of my surroundings I hear my phone ringing from my bag. I pickup and it is my ever watchful guardian, Kawasaki-san. He has called to give me an particularly amazing piece of news, that he has worked out transportation for me from Wakkanai (the northernmost city) to Fukuoka by plane. This is great news, because I hadn't actually planned out how I would be returning triumphantly to Fukuoka, though I knew a decent ferry system existed in Japan. Once I managed to pick my jaw up off of the asphalt and thank Kawasaki-san profusely I asked him how much I owed him for the ticket. In classic Japanese form, he told me not to worry about it. At that point I just didn't even know what to do in the face of such generosity. Here is a man to which I owe almost all of my life in Japan, yet he never ceases to amaze me with such heartrending kindness.

Kawasaki-san and I finish our conversation and I continue on my way, gliding as if on a cloud through the winding valleys of northern Japan. As soon as I reach Rumoi, I am initially buoyed by the excitement of reaching the previous days goal, I soon learn the true pain of a strong headwind. I would like everyone to take a moment and perform an experiment. You will only need 1 or 2 things, either a fan or 2 friends. If you are using a fan, put it directly in front of your face and turn the fan on full blast. With friends, have each one blow strongly into your ears. Now really take it all in, the incessant blowing. Cant hear anything else? Great. Annoying to feel it on your face constantly? Perfect. It is through this headwind that I now intimately understand how torture works. Pedaling for miles and miles with a constant wind blowing in your face is annoying by itself, but when it is also actively slowing you down, prolonging its contact with you, it is enough to drive you nearly insane.

I have chosen a town called Haboro as my resting spot. Mostly because it is just barely at my threshold for the maximum distance I wanted to travel tomorrow, and I am entirely exhausted from all this wind. For the first time on my ride, I decide to try a Japanese style Ryokan (mostly because every other place in town was full or wouldn't take me in for some strange reason). A Ryokan is like a hotel, but it is usually run out of someone's house, and is a much more intimate experience. Usually the hosts will make a bath for you and cook your meals, somewhat like a home-stay. It is much more expensive than I would like ($65 for the night, dinner and breakfast, still not too bad), but it is an experience that you can have only in Japan, so I will appreciate it.

There are only 2 other guests there that night, so I have a dormitory style room all to myself, which is a welcome comfort. At dinner we go through the usually rounds of small talk, talking shop about our rides and tips of the road. One of the cyclists gives me an alternate routing suggestion that sounds like it will really pay off.

I am very tired and worried about the long day I have ahead of me in the morning, so I am quick to say goodnight and head to my room. Tomorrow will be one of the longest rides of the trip and I sorely hope the wind is blowing in my favor!

Another quirky museum with cutting implements and stuffed bears

Authentic Japanese shack. The real way of life in Hokkaido hundreds of years ago

Snow Booties

Sea Arch

Monday, September 12, 2011

4 Days To Go...

I set off today from Sapporo feeling weary, nervous but unbelievably excited. I was so close to my final goal that I knew that nothing would stop me from reaching it, even if that meant commandeering the nearest child's bike and riding off into the sunset on my way. However, I still have about 150 miles to go and the weather is noticeably colder this far north. I begin my ride cautiously, knowing that a lot can happen in 4 days...and it's supposed to rain ALL day today.

My goal for today's ride is to make it to Rumoi, which as far as my topographical expertise leads me to believe, is truly the last stop before I am on the home stretch, cruising along 100 miles of FLAT, western Hokkaido coastline.

Most of the day is spent riding along the last truly industrial highway of Japan's north country, so it is remarkable only because the trucks here are actually larger than the trucks on the mainland. In retrospect this makes sense because Hokkaido is much more open compared to the mainland, and has room for larger roads, and thus larger trucks, but in my dreams I imagined the north country as a pleasant and persistent meadow, constantly peaceful and devoid of all vehicles which ran on gas. Some call me a dreamer.

The day was pleasantly interrupted by two nice occurrences, however. The first of which was receiving a call from my family on my cell phone. Knowing I couldn't answer whilst riding (on a highway, no less) I began looking for a quiet place to chat. To my surprise, I found the most quaintly furnished bus stop that I have ever seen in my life. The inside was carpeted and the walls were adorned with 1980's posters of the New York skyline. Furthermore, there was a potted plant and an old timey wicker broom hanging on the wall. Whether it was for cleaning or further austerity, I will never know. Had I ridden more than 40 miles already, I would've laid out my sleeping bag and called that place home for the night in a heartbeat.

Having concluded the conversation with the 'rents, I figured I might as well check my email and, to my surprise again, I found a message from a Mr. Fabio Barbieri, the other man my age riding a bike across Japan for charity. Since I had started in the south and headed north and he had taken the converse route, he suggested we meet up somewhere in the middle. It turns out the "middle" was going to be the small town of Takikawa, where we planned to meet up and exchange stories of the road.

So my plans were changed a bit, but it was for the better as I would be able to relate with one of the few other people who will soon understand exactly what it's like to try and ride a bike across a country. I begin my search now for a reasonable place to stay in Takikawa. I have recently abandoned the search for free accommodations, as a freezing cold night in a covered bathroom has taught me that the weather is no longer nice enough to offset the miserable conditions of sleeping near toilets.

After a bit of riding around and calling, I settle on a large business hotel just outside of town. As it turns out, this business hotel was essentially a large tumor that had grown on top of an extremely cozy mom and pop hotel that had once been here many years earlier. The new owners have kept all the cozy, log-cabin themed rooms tucked away in a wing, while building all of the other business-y rooms on top of them. The extremely kind girls at the counter, as well as the extremely empty hotel meant that I could have my pick of the litter when it came to room choices. I was so exhausted that I only managed to wander around the creepily empty halls and take in the atmosphere for about 30 minutes before I returned to my room and fell asleep to some Sumo in my "hometown" of Fukuoka.

I wonder if the Japanese here says "Pinnochio's Revenge"

Some old fishing implements used for cutting up fish. Saw this in a roadside museum and thought it looked neat

Dylan is a Columbine celebrity!

Dylan's faithful followers can see him featured in this weeks Columbine Courier - Sept14 edition!

Can't wait to see you home in a few weeks, way to go Dylan! Love mom, dad, Hana

Only 3 days left!!!

I can't even begin to describe how strange it feels to be so close to the goal of this trip. As I sit here now, in Sapporo, Japan, a mere 300 km (190 miles) and 3 days from reaching the northern tip of Japan, I am so darn excited that I want to just start riding now and not stop until I get there. But I suppose patience has it's place in all things, so I will pace myself!

It is also exciting to think of some things coming to an end. For example, yesterday was my last unbelievably difficult day of the trip. Unfortunately, it was also the most beautiful and nostalgic ride of the trip, through wonderful, mountainous, Japanese highlands. It was hard to enjoy the scenery while huffing and puffing up 20 MILES of climbing. That's right, ladies and gents, 20 MILES of non-stop, uphill climbing. The bright side? On the other side of the mountain, it was almost 20 miles of pure downhill!

Again, though I shouldn't really be complaining, because being here in the north of Japan, and especially in the mountains reminds me of my lovely old hometown in Colorado. Seeing aspen trees and feeling cold mountain air breeze by my face as I flew down the mountain was definitely getting me feeling a bit homesick for much of the ride. Bright side alert: now that my goal is physically within my reach (and the terrain should be relatively easy), I get to enjoy the last few days of this incredible experience without a care in the world. 

The unfortunate news for my blog followers is I won't have access to a computer for the last few days (my plan ride back to Fukuoka is on September 17th so you can expect something around that time). I'll still have my phone so be sure to be on the lookout for facebook posts. 

Well, I'm off to finish my grand adventure! Next time you hear from me, I'll be able to proudly say I have ridden my bike across an entire country! Shazam!!

In a few short days, I'll be proudly standing here!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The 10 Day Home Stretch!

I find that the closer I get to finishing this whole adventure, the less I believe it is actually happening. I suppose there are enough things to keep me busy during the day, that I don't have much time to think about where I have been or where I am going. According to some random guys math on a bike forum I was just looking at, there are about 280 pedal strokes for every mile traveled. That means I have successfully made about 440,000 circles with my feet so far. A lot can happen during so much geometry practice and it's tough to keep track of it all!

I must say, though, that I am a bit happy to be done with Honshu. Much of my trip was punctuated by small victories/accomplishments that made the distance easier to contemplate, but from Himeji all the way to Aomori, it was just a monstrous 950 mile trek! Oh, and the roads were narrow and rainy. But everything else was amazing. I am not sure if touring by bicycle just adds an extra spice to everything you do and everyone you meet, but it seems like the nicest people on the planet, Japanese and foreigner alike, live in Japan.

While taking an impromptu rest day in Hachinohe, I had the most wonderfully nostalgic time with my couch surfing English buddy Joe. Hachinohe is not a particularly large city, though it does have a bit to offer in terms of things to do and places to see. Though Joe had a bit of a knee injury to contend with, and work the next morning, we decided to venture out to some street-side bars and see where the night would take us. Probably not for Joe, but for me the night was headed straight for good old fashioned American and Japanese nostalgia.

I should first explain that one of the few things that I truly miss from America (aside from friends and family, of course) is cheese. Japan has some cheeses, though it is usually something less flavorful like mozzarella or processed beyond the category of cheese. Furthermore, any other cheeses are just too expensive to be an option. This is where cheese senbei comes in. Traditionally, I believe senbei referred only to a rice cracker of some sort. In modern times, though, almost anything that is relatively flat and about the size of a sand dollar can be called senbei, whether it's fish, seaweed, candy, bone (yes, bone) and others. That night I was able to partake in the joys of a cheese senbei. Basically, this senbei was just some fried cheese with more cheese melted on top of it. A heart stopping dish, both medically and emotionally.

It was too dark for a good picture, so imagine this with even more cheese!
After that nice delicacy, we walked out in search of a nice outdoor pub. We walked along a street that was literally lined with small lean-to shacks that housed tiny kitchens and could seat about 8 people each, which had a wonderfully summery feel to it. The place we finally settled on had a man from Miyazaki prefecture (southern Japan) that we were able to talk to. After I told him that I had come from an area near Miyazaki and that I very dearly missed Shochu (basically rice vodka), he insisted that we drink some together. I am not sure if I actually missed Shochu, but since 6 of the 8 months I have been here have included drinking Shochu exclusively, you eventually build up a taste for it. For the record, and those that know me well know this, I truly hardly ever drank in America...but if you plan to come to Japan and make friends with Japanese businessmen, well let me assure you that your main source of hydration will usually have some hard liquor in it.

At any rate, it was an absolutely wonderful night, and a further testament to the wonders of couch surfing and the kindness of Englishmen.

I have finally been able to make a Google map that doesn't look awful, though it is not yet annotated with my nightly stays, but I will do that when I get the time. At the very least, it is a true representation of almost the exact route that I have taken, as well as the exact route that I have left. So I start the countdown to Cape Soya right here and right now! T-minus 9 days until I have successfully ridden across this crazy, interesting country! Estimated date of completion: Friday, September 16th

View Japan Travels in a larger map

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wrap it Up like a Present!

Hello, everyone! It has indeed been a VERY long time since my last post and quite a bit has happened since Sept. 12. However, I wont spend too much time apologizing for my there is nothing I can do about it now. Except, of course, try my damnedest to finish with a little style.

Looking back across the past few months, I cant tell you how many things I would do just a bit differently if I had the opportunity. At the same time, I wouldn't really change a single thing, because if I had gone through this whole adventure and done everything perfectly, then it wouldn't have been much of an adventure! At the outset of my blog, I had these wild hopes that I could take a few days worth of travel and condense them into a sort of illustrative, thoughtful blog post that would encapsulate the true feeling of being on the road. I do not think such a feat is impossible. However, attempting to do so while on the road turned out to be impossible (for me). As such, I must confess that a day-by-day chronology is, in fact, the best way to recount a trip like mine.

Therefore, from here on out, the rest of my posts will be daily musings and anecdotes. My goal, after all, was to portray, for anyone reading, the feelings, trials and tribulations of someone embarking on a quest greater than themselves. It follows naturally that if you would like to give someone a daily sense of things, you must provide a daily account of events!

I haven't yet organized my pictures, so I will be doing that today so in my next post you may experience the full grandeur of a day in the life of a bike tourist (embarrassingly the first full day account yet provided!).

Monday, September 5, 2011

All but my spirits have been dampened, Typhoon Talas

I'll give it to ya straight, ladies and gents, there has been a lotta rain and bad weather. That doesn't really effect my spirits, but it has drastically limited the amount of pictures I am able to take, so I am just apologizing if this post is a little light in the visual stimulation area.

In other news, I have just been killing it on the road, for some reason. A good friend once told me that it is during our rest days that we become stronger. Perhaps this is true, because I have been riding like a madman, bagging three 80+ mile days in a row (82, 90 and 94 to be exact). I have been quite worried about some burgeoning pains in my knees, but apparently riding these long days hasn't troubled them too much, so I'll assume everything is just fine down there.

I must say that, since there is a fundraising aspect to this whole journey (even though I know I scarcely speak of it), I was surprised to actual witness the character of the devastation that was caused by the earthquake and tsunami. Essentially, I passed through all of the affected areas in a mere two days of riding and, frankly, didn't see too much damage. This is, of course, because my route kept me on the inland side and most structural damage along my path had already been repaired. Though this initially gave me the "Everything is Ok, no fundraising needed" impression, I quickly learned that along the coastline of Japan, there is still much work to be done, and many lives to be rebuilt.
As long as there are cars on top of 3 story buildings 300 feet from the shoreline, there is work to be done
Almost everyone I talked to knew many people who lost everything in the tsunami, and certainly everyone was effected by it. Unfortunately I was not able to spend as much time as I liked in the affected areas, but the best thing I can do is continue riding, blogging and hoping for more donations!

Also, if that isn't enough, Japan has recently been getting rocked by a typhoon recently, going by the name of Talas. Cool name, but not such a cool meteorological formation. I feel bad saying this, but in the midst of the unfortunate experience that a typhoon creates for many people...for a cyclist that is a bit out of it's path, typhoons can create some monster tail winds! To provide some perspective, I usually am going at about 20 km/hr each day. When it's almost totally flat, with no wind, I can bump this up to about 22 km/hr. However, with my good buddy Talas at my back, even with some tough mountains in my way I managed to pull almost 24 km/hr with 7 hrs in the saddle. Mind you, that's 7 hrs in the saddle, not travel time. Such an awesome day, and it was right in the middle of this beast (I am the red circle)

We had some good times, Talas...but that was really lame what you did to southern Japan.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The end is in's just really far away

Hey hey hey, I'm back again to report the latest on this wonderful journey through Japan. I am not sure if this leg of the trip has been less eventful, or that the general novelty and awe of my everyday experience is just starting to become more comfortable and familiar. In either case, I'll do my best to capture the ups and downs, both physical and figurative, of the last few days.

When I began riding, thinking about the end of the trip was a very difficult and possibly dangerous thing to do. It can be dangerous because some might find the thought of riding a bike almost every single day for a solid two months to be quite depressing. Therefore, it is better to just think of every day as it's own private adventure, independent of any broader goal. That kind of thinking has brought me cleanly through a solid 1,400 miles of riding, which I am quite proud of. However, now that I better know my physical limits and have gotten much better at planning my route, this knowledge has come with a sort of curse. I am now able to decide the exact day that I will finish this amazing journey. As exciting as that is, having every day planned out ahead of time removes some of the precious flexibility that has made this trip so amazing. Before I would just ride up until a certain distance and then stop whenever I felt like it. Now, I will need to reach certain cities by certain days if I hope to reach my goal in time, no matter what I feel like in the morning or how the weather is. This may seem like somewhat of a bleak outlook to have as I enter the final leg of my journey, but with it has come a wonderful realization that I hope to take with me into wherever life takes me next.

Though I still have 800 miles to ride, there is absolutely no way I will ever quit until I reach my goal. Such deadpan certainty came to me mostly in the absence of any good reason to quit. Granted if I receive some horrible injury, or my bike is stolen, it would be quite tough to continue, but other than that there is absolutely nothing that I can think of that will stop me from finishing what I have started. This, to me, is a good thing to learn about oneself; the certain knowledge that you know you've got what it takes to finish some grandiose plan that you started without knowing the outcome, is something I hope to carry with me always. I am positive that this is easier said than done...but I'll give it my best!

On to some stories! I don't mean to talk so much about sleeping and accommodations, but they are such a large part of a bike trip, when you think about it. I spend most of my days riding, eating and sleeping, and sometimes there just isn't much else to talk about. Luckily, the world of the Japanese internet cafe is pretty interesting to me, so let me digress on them for a moment.

The Japanese internet cafe is a mostly cheap place that is an ocean of cubicles, free drinks and an occasional shower room. After certain times, usually 8 or 10 p.m., they have good deals on 7 to 12 hour packages for people who either want to play video games all night, drunken business men who do what drunken businessmen do and bicycle tourists like me! What's more, they have a variety of room types, some of which are obviously suited to those who would like to get a little shut eye during their stay.

They don't much like people taking pictures, but here's the ocean of cubicles

Here's my space, all tucked in nice and cozy like!

The other thing I love about net cafes is their personality. The inside almost always looks the same, though the music differed strongly, but the outside is always good for a laugh, or in some cases a worldview.

Love, peace, music, people and Sonic the hedgehog. Is there anything else, I mean really?

As I mentioned above, I have gotten quite a bit more skilled at finding more pleasant routes to take during my daily ride. To be perfectly honest, that skill only involves looking at the highway, and picking a road that is relatively parallel to it (I know, I'm a genius). Sometimes these roads can be quite hilly, but the rewards are more than worth the effort.

Here's a canyon and the moron riding through it

Man made, but I thought it was a really neat waterfall
After taking a really long and frustrating detour, I came to this place. Japan can be a real jerk sometimes, but she usually makes it up to you
Not a country road, but I couldn't pass up the chance to show off Japan's willingness to mix cultural icons!
Lastly, I wanted to again address how interesting the concept of timing is on a bike trip. Though you are moving quite slowly through a country, everything happens so fast. For example, during a short, 1 hour period my golden chance to see Mount Fuji came and passed. Due to some clouds, the darn thing was SO close, but far enough way that I could only see the outline. So here I present what could have been one of the coolest pics of the trip, but is a bit poorly lit and is missing one of Japan's most important icons.

See the clouds moving over the top of that gorgeous beast!?

Slightly better. No bike though

My cell phone has been a bit on the fritz lately, so I will really try my best to write blog posts absolutely every chance I get, since writing from my phone is no longer an option. In other news, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I will reach the end of my trip on September 16th, 2011 where I will proudly stand on the northernmost tip of Japan and hopefully celebrate in some ridiculous, and not yet decided way!


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Wisdom gained and a week in review

Watch out, ladies and gents, knowledge bombs are coming your way. Not really, but I think I will do my best to share something I have learned and try even harder to avoid sounding like a motivational speaker. My biggest realization along this whole trip has come through a very simple change in perspective.

Understandably, when I was planning this trip, there were so many things that I was nervous about. Particularly, how I would handle disasters, big or small. Bad things happening are a guarantee on a bike tour, but you never know what those things are going to be, or when they will come up. The really tricky part, as far as life skills are concerned, isn't how you fix the problem, it's how you react when you realize there is a problem. Early on, I would be a bit cranky or frustrated at most things that came up. Flat tires, unexpected hill climbs (the worst!) and any number of small things that came up would just make me cranky for an hour or two. Quite early on, though, I had my big realization, and here it is (ready?).

Life is a lot like a bike.

How does that taste? Cheesy? Good, let's continue, then. Even though there are many things that can break, rust, wear down and fall apart on a bicycle, it actually takes very little to just keep the damn thing moving and keep on touring. Flat tire? Pump that shit up and check it with your thumb every hour! Road disappeared? Hoof it until it comes back! No use in spending a single minute being cranky about it, just laugh and move on! I have actually composed a flow chart illustrating the complex decision making process that begins each day after waking up. Please, if you hope to accomplish a bike tour successfully, follow this religiously.

For a small fee, I can provide an annotated version to further clarify the chart

But really, though, the simplicity of a bicycle is closely related to life at times. There are lots of things we encounter that are less than pleasant in everyday life, but very few of these things need to have any serious effect on how we feel. Bike touring occurs in a vacuum of travelling and fun, and there are so many positive aspects that it is quite easy to shrug off the negatives, but I will forever try and approach any of life's problems with the ease and comfort with which I have addressed most things on the road so far. Here's a picture from something that came up today. 40 km down a road and the damn thing just ends in gravel with no end in sight. I certainly wasn't back-tracking, so I just hopped off and decided to walk until things were ok again.

I guess this is the "where did the road go?" pose...

Some times you go with the bike, not on top of it.

Alright, time for a bit of recapping! We left off last time with the wonderful Mr. Yamaguchi saving me, taking me to Shizuoka in his car, and then taking me to meet his friends and eat some home cooked Sri Lankan food.

August 22: Some irony and "firsts", Numazu

Perpetually worried about my shoes becoming wet, and therefore unbearably stinky, I have recently done my best to keep them dry. However, upon coming to a road that was blocked by a truck, I decided to press on and see why the road was blocked, mostly because there was no other way around. I basically saw this, but with a bit less water.

Quite a bit less water, actually
I estimated that the water wouldn't really clear the path of my pedals, so I decided to just ride right through it. Deceptively, the water came up to my upper calves and I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that I spend the whole day trying to keep my shoes dry...and they became wetter than they have ever been.

Also, I had my first crash! It was raining all day, and while coming down a metal ramp, the front tire just slipped a different direction and everything came tumbling down. Quite anti-climactic, but I suppose that is how I would like my crashes to be.

August 24, 25: Tokyo at last!

In theory, big cities are awesome destinations to visit. There is a lot of truth to that, but I have learned that big cities suck while on a bike tour. They suck a lot. What I mean is that the riding is just awful. It is slow, filled with cars and hot. BUT, and this is a big but, they are also filled with the nicest people you'll ever meet, and some rare chances.

Three examples. First, a friend of Kawasaki san wanted to meet me, so we met up, had some awesome food and chatted about as much as we could, with whatever Japanese I could muster. The friend, Abe san, rode a train for an hour just to buy me some dinner!

Abe san on the right, and our waiter on the left.
Second, my host for the time was a man by the name of Christopher Lindstrom. This guy has got stuff figured out! An ex-peace corps man, who has been to more countries and places than I can remember and is currently on a International Rotary Club world peace scholarship to get his master's degree in Japan. How awesome is that? Furthermore, he was just the nicest and most generous host in the world. Having only been in Japan for 2 weeks prior to my coming, his kindness among the stress of moving to a new country was truly inspiring.

Me and my homie Chris

Also, of my friends from America that I have met in Japan, I am surprised that 40% of them have been named Matt. So, if there are any other Matt's that are looking to reconnect with me, apparently now is the time to do it. Anyways, the Matt that I met in Tokyo I knew from high school and, even though we hadn't seen each other in 6 years, the chance to meet up was too rare to pass up. Apparently a little Japanese goes a long way, because we ended up having a great time after wandering into a random Izakaya (Japanese style bar) and eating some raw horse and Japanese desserts!

A big, happy family

August 28: Long rides and funny things, Koriyama

I am not sure if this day's ride just had me feeling slap happy, or Japan is just a funny place when you're looking for laughs, but this day's story is best told through pictures.

What a strange and wonderful place this must be

Only one preposition away from making me giggle to death

No big deal it's just Ronald McDon...oh my god is that a butcher's knife?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Halfway There?

There a few thing one can do in a bathroom. There's number 1. Then there's number 2. I am not sure how the numbering works after that, nor am I sure that writing a blog is even enumerated, but here I am anyways, writing to my adoring fan(s) from my accomodations for the night.

You can't beat the price, or the bank vault of a door!
I stated from the very outset that I wanted anyone reading this to really get a sense of my experience, and I must say this is a pretty interesting experience. However, I have had the good fortune to stay with kind friends, and in warm beds for 15 of the last 17 days (thanks to my amazing sister and couch surfing), so one night in the loo isn't going to ruffle my feathers too much. 

In other news, it looks like I actually AM riding across this country. I still find it hard to believe, but the halfway point has already come and gone, just a bit before Tokyo. Furthermore, of the $2,050 I would like to raise, we have already reached $960! Thank you so much to everyone who has donated already, and I assure you that proper thank you's are coming when I am off the bike and have a bit more time on my hands.

Lastly (for now), I have recently noticed that 40 and 50 mile days are beginning to feel like pushovers, so I have decided to try and average about 80 km (60 miles?) for the rest of the trip. At that rate, with only a few rest days, I can reach my goal in a little over 20 days. How nuts is that?! My next post will be some more daily recaps, I just wanted to take a moment to connect from the bathroom :)
Just brushing my teeth, in a bathroom, no big deal

Sunday, August 21, 2011

All this luck is makin' me nervous

So I will start this off by saying that the past few days have just been absolutely...rainy. I actually don't mind the rain that much, because really it is just like taking a shower all day. However, in this shower the water has dirt in it. Also, there are a lot of cars driving through the shower, quickly, and very close to your body. Other than that, basically the same experience.

Seriously, though, my only real concern with the rain is that it is hard to dry my shoes out quickly enough to ride again the next day, and I would like to avoid becoming a human stink-bomb at least for another few weeks. If anyone has any suggestions/tricks to prevent shoe problems, lay 'em on me in the comments section!

Onto the real meat of the story. I think that the overall tone of this trip so far has been one of unbelievable luck. I would like to think that I am just really good at being optimistic and finding the silver lining...but I just don't think that is the case. Here are two of the most recent examples:

From where we left off last, I was on my way to Nagoya. Before I get into that, though, I must tell everyone about my "coach" for this trip. Since I had no idea what I was doing when I started, through the power of the internet I sought out those who could enlighten me. Among those I found was a complete badass of a Canadian, Corey, who did a monster bike ride through Japan in 2009. Since contacting him, we have emailed frequently and he has given me countless bits of advice and routing help that have saved me time, energy and have helped make my travels even more wonderful!

At his recommendation, I stopped at a bike shop in Gifu that he had touted as one of the best in Japan. As it turns out, the bike shop IS the best in Japan, as far as I am concerned. I have been riding on crappy tires since starting the trip, and I was looking for some good replacements. Not only did I get replacements, but I also got half-dozen small adjustments on the bike, some tea and an awesome T-shirt...all for free. Maybe, as a reader, you can understand why all this luck is making me nervous.

Me and Ken from Kurosawa Bikes in Gifu!

Following in the footsteps of giants. The same Ken, but picture taken from Corey's blog .

The next two days went by pretty quickly. I stayed in Nagoya with David Fox, another native of Colorado, which obviously means he was a cool guy to hang out with. I also decided to take an impromptu rest day, so I could do absolutley nothing in the hopes that my knee, which has been bothering me, would feel better. Best decision ever, I felt like a rock star the next day as I set off for Hamamatsu, the longest ride of the trip at 126 km.

The morning after arriving in Hamamatsu began wonderfully, with a delicious, authentic Hong Kong breakfast. I was couch surfing with a girl from Hong Kong in Hamamatsu, which was already pretty rare because single girls living in apartments hardly ever accept requests from single travelling guys. However, it turns out that Nikita (my host) was a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and probably could have broken my arms and legs without much trouble, if a problem should arise. The day was cloudy, and rain was sure to come, but I certainly wont be able to get to the north of Japan by not riding my bike, so I set off with 60 miles to cover.

Hong Kong toast! Hmmm...toast, peanut butter and I'll let you decide the rest
Me and Nikita. Sorry for the angling, picture was taken from the seat of a vespa.

The rest of the day was nothing but rain and headwinds, which would be pretty depressing for some. However, I tried my best to cope by improvising songs to capture my mood, plan my future and think about what to write about in the blog. Unfortunately, I must have been terribly good at the first part, because I had my own damn songs stuck in my head for most of the day and couldn't think about very much else.

Chugging through the day, the hours passing, legs pedaling, it was a gloomy, rainy day but at least I had a rhythm going. I began seeing 2 things that are good to note for cycle tourists. The first thing was a series of enormous mountains between me and my goal. The second thing was a series of signs indicating an upcoming tunnel. I thought to myself "Man, I hate tunnels...but at this point in the day, I probably hate climbing mountains even more, so I'll take the tunnel." Unfortunately, sometimes these choices aren't left to us, and as I approached the monster, 3.2 km tunnel I saw a big sign saying bikes were not allowed. Dejected, soaking wet, I pulled off to the side of the road at 5:15 p.m. and surveyed my options.

Not yesterdays tunnel...but maybe you can get a feel for it
Basically, back tracking 5 kilometers and then taking a mountain road over the previously mentioned peaks was my only entrance into Shizuoka, my goal for the day. However, since it was too late for such an endeavor, I decided to find a different place to sleep and call my host for the day and tell him that I couldn't make it. I made my call to Mr. Eva Yamaguchi and told him that I foolishly came to a tunnel that I couldn't use and that I wouldn't make it into Shizuoka that day. To my surprise, he insisted on driving all the way from Shizuoka to pick up myself and my bike and take the sodden pair into the city. Entirely too tired and surprised to refuse, I agreed and he came to pick the bike and I up!

The story doesn't stop there, though. Mr. Yamaguchi had planned for my coming by talking to a few of his friends, a Sri Lankan guy named Namal and his Chinese girlfriend Yanan. Namal thought it would be great to cook some Sri Lankan food for everyone and eat it over at his apartment, so that was what we did. What followed was one of the most delicious meals with some of the nicest people I have met on my trip. Sadly, in my tired haze, I forgot to bring a camera to Namal's, so we must stay friends only on Facebook and in memory (until I visit Sri Lanka, of course!).

My expectation for Sunday, August 21st: sleeping somewhere random, in the rain, waiting anxiously to climb a mountain in the morning. Reality: warm shower, dinner with friends and an unforgettable night.

Me and the man himself, Eva Yamaguchi!