Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Two Days of Wisdom, pretending to know what I'm talking about

I was able to snag a bit of time, so here's what riding a bike everyday (for 2 days) feels like so far:

Places to go, but nowhere to be

I must say that the strangest part about it is the feeling of having a place to go, but no particular reason to go there. At times it can be somewhat scary, especially with questions like: "Where will you sleep?" Overall, though, it is a truly exciting and new feeling to set off from one town on your way to another, with so many unknowns along the way. I am not sure if that is what "adventure" feels like, but it is pretty neat so far.

On the feeling of distance

The difference, mentally, between my first day and second day was pretty astonishing. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting from riding my bike from place to place, but it certainly took WAY longer than I thought it would. I suppose any time I had ever ridden anywhere by bike, I would usually arrive at my destination no more than 30 minutes later. 

Obviously, this is not true on a bike tour! However, once I had a chance to change my mindset and try to enjoy the surroundings a bit more, everything became easier. Though I had only traveled 45 km or so on the first day, it felt like I had gone for some unbelievable distance. When riding a bike, the added amount of sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts make the journey quite interesting.

Sometimes, a man CAN be an island

For anyone who had done a backpacking trip, they can relate to this feeling, the sense that you are you're own, self-contained bubble. Everything I have with me right now is everything I will have with me for every day of the trip. I am my own ecosystem, my own island chugging along winding mountain roads, and also drying my laundry!

My current setup. Bandana and Towel didn't dry fast enough, so they got the strap treatment.
As it stands now, I am still terribly excited about doing this whole trip, and my motivation has only increased (let's hope it stays that way!). Finding good, cheap places to sleep, I predict, will remain a troublesome and persistent issue, but that's all part of the adventure, right!? 

At least someone here has a sense of humor...

A cycling computer, it can tell you the time AND laugh in your face (7:07 a.m. for those who couldn' tell)

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Best Worst Beginning

A quick word before recounting the beginning of the trip. Hopefully later I will have the time to tell the full story, but for the sake of background I must explain the importance of Kawasaki san. Since the first night I met him, him and I have become quite good friends, and have met about 3 times a week every week since being in Japan. This has afforded me countless nights of precious Japanese practice, as well as an insurmountable sum of free, delicious dinners (I swear I always offered to pay!).

To be perfectly frank, Kawasaki san has done more for me than I can ever repay (both in money and kindness), and as such the only thing I can do from here is try my absolute hardest to fulfill this crazy dream of mine to ride across all of Japan. So without further adieu, let's see how I've fared thus far.

There I am, just chillin' out on the southernmost point of mainland Japan. NBD.
How did I get there? Well first of all, Kawasaki san decided it would be best if he personally escorted me down to Kagoshima in the south. We would travel by bullet train, rent a car and then figure out the details. Upon renting a car, again it was decided that the best course of action was to take the care by ferry across Kagoshima bay and just drive all the way down to Cape Sata (2 hr drive), where I could just start riding from there.

This plan was significantly faster than my initial thoughts, which involved riding from Kagoshima to Sata in a 3 day (or so) round trip.

So after arriving, seeing the sights and taking some pictures, I unload my bike and nervously set up for my 80 km day (50 miles). After a short argument about who would leave first, I was off on my 6-8 hour ride back to Kagoshima. Excitement was high and blood was pumping after I descended a short hill and climbed another. My body felt solid and my legs strong as I pedaled and pedaled, each stroke bringing me closer to the beginning of a once in a lifetime trip. The humidity was high, but I didn't care because I was living the dream, baby! I was on a bike, flying down a hill without a care in the world, about to blaze my way across an entire country and I BOOOOOOM! My tire hits something hard and the bike wobbles for a moment. "Well that sounded just plain awful, I hope everything is ok" I say to myself.

I didn't actually have time to finish that thought, because my tire had gone completely flat before I was able. Contrary to the length of the description above, this all occurred in just under 5 minutes, within the first 500 meters of the trip. As fate would have it, the winner of the "who would leave first" argument was Kawasaki san, and about 2 minutes of walking later, he comes rolling up to ask what was wrong. Luckily I still don't have enough Japanese to convey my feelings of embarrassment/defeat for having a minor failure so soon, so as I loaded my bike into his car, smiles and small talk were really the only options.

I wasn't able to repair the tire, because we had left my bags in Kagoshima, thus I had only a patch kit and some tire levers with me (which are surprisingly ineffective when dealing with a burst tire). Therefore, Kawasaki san and I just drove all the way back to Kagoshima. Upon arriving, Kawasaki san and I have a party with some of his oldest friends from elementary school in order to celebrate my first day. After I finished explaining that celebration wasn't necessary, we proceeded to have a wonderful time as planned.

Dinner (which consisted of fish that my host had caught on the same day) with some more of the nicest people I have ever met!

Day 1: 0.5 / 3200 km ridden

Day 2 actually held a bigger surprise. This blog needs to be a full disclosure description of my many experiences/successes/failures. As such, I must admit that I wasn't able to practice riding with loaded panniers for even one minute before beginning day 2, a projected 90 km (56 mile) day. Thankfully, it turns out that riding with panniers (bike bags) in traffic is TERRIFYING when you don't have a sense for their weight. Call me blessed, but the presence of a torrential downpour the moment I began riding also sweetened the deal.

Needless to say, I pulled over, waited a bit, spent 30 minutes doubting myself and generally freaking out when I decided that two things are true about my current plan. 1.) quitting is not an option, unless thievery or injury prevents continuation. 2.) as long as I finish the trip generally around 55 days from now, I'll be just fine. Since Kawasaki san already saved me 3 days by driving me to and from the Cape, I have a bit of time to spare.

So day 2 was instead a mental prep day. Japanese people are really good at keeping you busy, so I really hadn't had time yet to take in my current location and mental state. Furthermore, an opportunity to get some tune-up work done on my bike and, most importantly, practice riding with loaded panniers, was too good to waste. Finally, checking into a hotel and renting a laptop (for free!) would be a great way to catch up on some much needed blogging.

Rather than make an real distance on the trip, I waited out the rainstorm, my girlfriend helped me find a cheap hotel and then I spent the whole day riding around with loaded panniers to familiarize myself with the feeling. Overall, a quite successful, though technically unproductive day!

Day 2: 55 km ridden, 0 km progress made.

Total distance covered: 0.5 / 3200 km (totally badass, I know)

I truly truly hope that I am able to continue finding enormous Buddhas  just chilling out in open fields

Tomorrow will be the real test, though. 80 km and no idea where to sleep will surely give me a sense of the adventure I'm looking for here!

And So It Begins...

On the off chance that those who read this aren't just friends and family, let us begin with a proper introduction.
        So that's me, staring dumbly into the camera with some admittedly beautiful flowers in the background. My name is Dylan Jacoby, I'm 24, and I am going to ride my bike across Japan in order to raise money for the 赤十字 (Japanese Red Cross). I will begin my journey in mid July and it shall end roughly 2 months later. Why am I doing this, you might ask? Let me get right into it, then:

     Suffice to say I have always had an interest in coming to Japan. After graduating college with degrees in Computer Science and Philosophy (like peas in a pod, those two), I taught in a high school for 2 years and then jumped ship and came to Japan. I've been here since the end of January, studying in an intensive language school for 6 weeks and then traveling with friends and my girlfriend until just recently. On May 9, 2011 at 12:34 a.m., I decided I would ride a bike across Japan to raise money, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

     On March 11, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake in the Tohoku region of Japan causing horrific amounts of death and physical damage to the area. Like many Japanese and foreigners in Japan and abroad, I felt the general desire to help by either sending money or trying to actually go there and help out (since I was in Japan I though: "Why not?"). However, as time passed and the news showed more and more of what was actually happening, I progressed past the "Gee I wish I could help out" stage and started to really weigh some options. Here's what I learned about my situation: I have little money, I am young, fit, occasionally intelligent and I love Japan.

So, obviously the only thing I can do is plan a bike ride from one end of Japan to the other, right?  Right.

     Though I am indeed doing this for the benefit of the Japanese Red Cross, I would be lying if I didn't hope to have an unforgettable experience and some stories to tell along the way. I'm actually hoping that the acquisition of stories will make my foray into social networking a more effective fundraising tool. 

     BUT, and this is a big BUT (hence the excessive formatting), there are a few obstacles to overcome before I get on the road. Most importantly, since I didn't plan on this bike ride before coming to Japan, I don't actually have the tools to accomplish this task (i.e. a bike, or any of the other gear), but this is something that I will overcome.

     I was hesitant to begin this blog in the early stages of planning, and even more hesitant to let anyone know that I was writing it. But here you are, anyways. In my life, aside from whatever successes or failures I have been responsible for, none of them have felt particularly rewarding or upsetting. The reason? I've never really done anything risky or terribly important to me. Whenever entering into a situation, I usually knew my chances. Therefore I'm wasn't surprised when I succeeded and it wasn't too painful to fail. But this, my friends, this will be different. I have about 1,000,000 things to do between now and mid-July to make this ride work, and I don't know if I will be able to do them, but I guess that's the reason I've started down this path. I will need to work harder than I ever have starting from now until I am standing on the northern coast of Japan to even hope to accomplish this. My hope is to take some of those that are reading this along for the ride.

     I hope that this blog will be a way for people to hear my story, donate to my cause and maybe have a good time looking at some pictures. Like these one:
Posing with the infamous Banana Man and Friends

I'm not sure I got the pose right...
     Like I said, I am hesitant to begin this blog so early in the stages of development, but now I have pigeon-holed this blog into one of two scenarios. 

1.) I will not accomplish what I have set out to do, and I will (hopefully) learn from it and be stronger for it.

2.) I will chronicle the story of someone who had no idea what they were doing and then accomplished something pretty neat.

Maybe I'll throw a poll up here and see what you guys think ;)


Donate to the Red Cross:

     First and foremost, donate to the Red Cross! I would like to keep track of donations in my name, but that will come later, I would rather someone donate now, if they are willing. The benefit to donating to the Red Cross instead of the various "Earthquake Only" charities that have sprung up is that, on the off chance that too much money is sent to Japan on behalf of the earthquake, the money will be put towards the various other humanitarian programs they are running (more on those in a later post).

Donate to the Japanese Red Cross by clicking the button at the top of the page!

My Japanese Language School

For anyone interested, I had a very nice experience with the school I attended here in Fukuoka, Japan. So here's their website:

Genki Japanese and Culture School

Saturday, July 23, 2011

And so it begins!

On Sunday, July 24, 2011, I will begin my long and arduous journey across Japan. I'll start out at Cape Sata and make the 60 mile trek to Kagoshima in just one day. 

Here goes nothing...

Japan = Reality > Expectations

Right after this post, I promise I will jump into the actual beginning of my trip. It is very important for everyone to know where I have been to really understand where I am going. Also, sorry for a math-y title.

Where were we last? I believe that I, armed with my 2 year-old-level Japanese, was about to go to dinner with some high and mighty Japanese businessmen. I had first met them on a Thursday and they invited me out the following Tuesday, so I had a good 5 days to fret and worry and feel astoundingly foolish/nervous about trying to struggle through another few hours of conversation. I immediately began to think of ways to avoid meeting them. Unfortunately, the usual tactic of making an excuse doesn't work when you can't speak the language in which to craft the excuse, and after that I was out of ideas.

Ultimately, I decided that I would go. What was the worst that could happen? Worst case: a total stranger asks me to leave a building that I have no intention of ever going to again. I might feel silly...but at least I would know for sure that drunken promises are to be taken lightly in Japan.

As it turns out, any promise ever made (ever!) is to be taken lightly in Japan. The very first person I saw when entering the office building, who was indeed a stranger, called me by my name and asked me to follow her before I even had a chance to say anything. After I recovered from the initial shock of this, I settled into the nice feeling that a wonderful opportunity to practice my Japanese for a bit was coming my way. Needless to say, I was even more surprised when, instead of coffee and chit chat, they had instead planned a "Welcome Party" for me at a nearby Yakitori restaurant (grilled meat on a stick). So they ushered me on over there to be met by the welcoming stares of another 30 Yomiuri business men and women, all apparently there to say hello to me. Considering my Japanese level at the time, I will probably never really understand that night...but it was a ton of fun!

Kawasaki san on the left and Ikemoto san on the right. Truly wonderful people.
As the night drew to an end, Kawasaki san, the head honcho of sorts, invited myself and the president of the online newspaper division to continue eating and drinking at the restaurant where we had first met. It might sound like a date, but it turns out that Kawasaki san's apartment is right above the bar, so he eats there quite often. As THAT part of the night drew to a close, the vice president of the online division, Ikemoto san, personally walked me home from the bar to my dormitory (also not a date).

I am sure the language barrier is to blame, but I am constantly amazed by the difference between my expectations in Japan and what ends up happening. I expected coffee and a one hour chit-chat. Instead it was a 5 hour drink/eat marathon that ended with an escort home by a guy who kept calling himself a "small Yakuza."

Kawasaki san again. Do not try to sit on a bench with a guy in a thong. Either it isn't allowed, or they just aren't that friendly

Thursday, July 14, 2011

When David Met Goliath

Before coming to Japan, I enrolled in the Genki Japanese and Culture School for a 6 week intensive course on Japanese. My goal for coming to Japan was to become an English teacher, but learning a little Japanese probably wouldn't hurt my ability to enjoy the country. I wanted to get the most out of my time at Genki, so like the technologically reliant boy that I am, I Googled “how to learn Japanese in Japan.”

As a quick aside, I just wanted to note here that I literally Google everything (how to organize a refrigerator, how to do laundry in cold/hot/warm water, really basic things). I don't do it because I don't know how, but usually you can improve your own methods based on the suggestions of others. I highly recommend it.

Anyways, back to learning Japanese. Amongst suggestions to hit on as many Japanese women as humanly possible to obtain a girlfriend, there were many more legitimate ideas. Most notably, go to izakayas (Japanese bars) by yourself. Japanese people are very shy, but once they've had a bit to drink, they become much more open and willing to talk to foreigners because, honestly, the chance to talk to foreigners doesn't come by often for the average Japanese person.

So, armed with this precious technique, I was off to Japan to do whatever it was I hoped to accomplish. Two weeks into my studies, with a bicycle as my steed, I would ride home every night to my dormitory in a zig-zag pattern through the city, looking for divey-bars that seemed inviting. Though this had become regular practice for me, the act of entering a Japanese bar is quite stressful for the less outgoing of us. For starters, everything is in Japanese (which I still can't read well). Also, all windows are frosted past the point of obscurity, so you cannot gauge in the least the amicability of the people inside. Despite this, after finding a bar, becoming scared, riding my bike around the block once (twice) I worked up the courage to slide open the door, walk in and...

Be met by the stunned looks of the only three customers, bartender and even the cook in the back. I would be lying if I said I didn't want to slowly back out of the bar and slide the door shut behind me, but I had already untied my shoes in preparation to take them off and was worried I would trip. So I stayed.

If my ability to speak Japanese has any strengths, I would certainly say pronunciation is my strong suit. However, I suppose the nerves got to me and I proceeded to sound like a babbling idiot that I'm sure no speaker of any language could understand. Despite this, I was effectively able to tell them that I like vegetables (none specifically, because I didn't know the Japanese for any at the time). Also, I ordered the only drink I knew of in Japan, which is the especially feminine plum-wine soda known as Ume-shu.

Apparently, I must have been endearingly foolish because everyone seemed to take to my presence pretty well, laughing and asking me the few basic questions I was familiar with. At the time, I was sitting at the bar, and the only other three customers were sitting at a table, obscured by a wooden pillar. They were asking me a few questions, but it was often interrupted by the series of head-jukes we had to perform to make eye contact with one another. That very day, I had learned how do use a verb and turn it into a polite request, so I rose from my seat, walked over to them and asked if I could sit down.

Even if they didn't want me to sit, Japanese people are too polite to say no. Luckily, I think they grew to like me, as I went through just about every single Japanese word, phrase or grammar point I knew in an effort to make conversation. Shortly, though, I learned that these three men were, in order, the vice president, the guy under him, and the guy under him for the Fukuoka city Yomiuri Newspaper.

Quick business lesson: The Yomiuri Newspaper has three branch offices, one of which is in Fukuoka. Also, it is the most highly circulated newspaper in the world, a bit more than double that of the New York Times. Sure, that's probably because they print papers twice a day, but it's still an impressive number!

Suffice to say, I just spent an hour having elementary school-level conversations with, arguably, the most powerful people I've ever met. Apparently, though, they saw something they liked in me, and decided to invite me to meet them for dinner the next week after work.

If only I knew then where that handshake would lead me!
I would love to share more of this story right now, but in the hopes that you've been interested up to this point, I've got to leave you wanting more.

If what you have read so far has made you smile, appreciate Japan or conjured any sort of positive emotion. Please consider donating to the Japanese Red Cross. The stories I am writing might not have anything to do with the earthquake or those affected (not yet, at least), but everything I am doing, I wouldn't be if it weren't for my desire to help the Red Cross. Donate and/or learn more at the top of this page!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pardon the Intermission

Whew, it has been quite some time since my first post! Thankfully, I'm sure those of you who read my blog in May are just friends and family, so I trust that you will stick with me now.

Much has happened since that fateful rainy night in May when I decided to embark on this journey, and I must admit that am pretty amazed and happy with the way things have turned out. Before I begin telling stories, for all of the overly curious out there: Yes, I am still going to ride a bicycle from Cape Sata to Cape Soya for the benefit of the Japanese Red Cross. The only difference is that things are a astoundingly more legitimate now compared to mere pipe dream they once were.

I would like to note here that in my blog I will constantly strive for illustration rather than documentation. This is my first bicycle touring trip, so I am sure the act of riding a bike every day will be new and exciting for me. However, I am equally sure that cobbling together blog posts from my daily routine would quickly bore everyone straight to death. “I woke up...early. I rode my bike for 4-6 hours *insert description of terrain* then I ate and slept in some order.” Riveting.

Now that we're at an understanding, I would now like to begin the Great Catch Up on what I've been doing for the past two months. The full explanation is a bit too long-winded for a single post, so I will break it into parts, the end culminating just in time for the beginning of my trip, which is actually next week! What follows will be a series of vignettes, if you will, chronicling the adventures of a highly inexperienced (read foolish) person in their quest to do something marginally meaningful.

Before I leave you, here's are some pictures!
This is the bike, soon I will be auctioning the chance to name her for a hefty donation
Thanks for all those of you who dealt with my long absence, and thanks to those of you who are just tuning in. As with all of my posts, I will now cordially ask for a donation to the Japanese Red Cross. If you'd like some information on why that might be nice, check out my Donation Information Page across the top! Or just hit the button at the top of the page.