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