Hey all, it’s been awhile. A lot has happened. A year has passed since the loss of my uncle and other ironically inter-related events drastically changed my outlook on things – my perception of humanity and relationships and myself. Last month was the anniversary of his death. This month, I turn 32. I just found my very first white hair, gained here in Japan. I guess it’s proof I was a little stressed now and then during the last two years. 😉 It has been an especially somber, reflective couple of months, and now I’m ramping up the activity for my last two months in Japan. Every weekend is already planned out. All spare time allocated. I won’t have time to think or to write between now and my flight out, so this is it, folks. I’ll post more stories of my Japanese adventures after I’ve had time to readjust to living elsewhere.
So, what’s been going on since my last post? I went to South Korea and stepped into North Korea a few steps, I saw the relics and ongoing effects and opponents and perpetuators of war, I realized that I made the most fantastic friends just in time to leave them behind, Prince died, Fort Mac burned, I went on another long bike ride, and I put my headphones on to Mogwai and realized that if my heart ever wakes up again, it will be to the sound of the guitar. I know that now. I’m certain. Life is great and the world is beautiful and it’s only people who can change that for us – if we let them. I wonder how many people who think they’re humble are really that way. I know I wasn’t, despite what I and others thought. I’m definitely more so now. (Oxymoron alert!) Perhaps to the other extreme. Self-esteem is overrated anyway in a world full of me-worshipping selfie-snapping blog-obsessed tech junkies. 😉 (See what I did there? Extra points for counting the number of times I write I in this post.)
Here’s the interesting thing about living in cycling paradise – despite the idea that the extra tourists cycling through the small islands will funnel money into the local economies, that doesn’t really seem to be happening. The fit cyclists can ride from one end of the Shimanami Kaido to the other in one day, so their accommodation and shopping money is generally spent in the two cities at either end of it. The settlements on the little islands along the way still seem to be hanging on to existence by their fingernails. If you really look around while you whiz past on your sleek bike, you’ll see that the shops are closing down and the houses, falling down. After living here for awhile, the Shimanami Kaido feels pretty mainstream to me. So I wanted to try something less popular but still accessible during my last Golden Week here. (Golden Week is a string of national holidays the entire country takes off together, so that hotels can fill their coffers with gold by scamming everyone with sky-high prices. May or may not be true.)
Cramming onto the Shimanami Kaido with hundreds of others was not my idea of a relaxing holiday. But just a hop, skip, and jump away is the Tobishima Kaido, another string of islands joined by bridges, also a cycling route marked by that ubiquitous wide blue line along the shoulder of the road. The entire length of it is only about 30 kilometres. Too short, said I, and I was right. So I decided to go along to Kure, on the main island of Japan. That added another 20 kilometres. Perfect, said I, and I was right. But that didn’t account for the bit of Shimanami Kaido I had to do to get there. Add about another 30 clicks to that. Still, only 80 kms. Perfectly doable when it’s just you and a nice road bike, flitting along the perfectly-manicured-even-in-the-middle-of-the-inaka-roads. But of course I had to make things difficult for myself. I decided I’d go bike camping again. Because now that I’ve got a road bike, things will be sooo much easier. Ha. Haha.
I started out with my tires at recommended pressure, and nearly died of exhaustion getting to the next proper pump on the next island. Pumped those suckers up to near-rock and suddenly the bike was rideable again. Great! On to the next island, Omishima, and heading along the “Island Explorer” route. No problem until I get to the hills that make Kei cars groan…I was pretty worn out before I even reached the start of the Tobishima Kaido, but no worries. I had all day after all, and was planning to camp at a campsite midway through the TK. Of course I was too late for the mid-morning ferry and too early for the mid-afternoon ferry, but I had a snack and napped a bit. No problem. I was on holiday after all. It turns out there were about 200 people hospitalized throughout the country for heat stroke, to give you an idea of the blissful weather I cycled in. 😀 I thought it was perfect at the time, if a bit hot!
The islands of the TK make the Shimanami Kaido look veritably urban. I feel like I will be one of the last people to have seen those villages and buildings standing. I rode to the old port town of Miterai, where Korean envoys were hosted back in the day, and families gave their daughters to teahouses where they eventually became courtesans/prostitutes. After a brief wander through the (older) historical areas to check out the architecture and some museums in a town apparently all but deserted, I carried on, feeling empowered by the mystique of the experience to take the long way around that island. I passed an old man building fantastic ship models as he stared out across the road and beyond the sea wall to the sea. I couldn’t take his picture. It felt wrong. To explain is impossible but had you been there, perhaps you would have understood. I ate a fantastic meal that was grossly overpriced at the only restaurant open at 5 p.m. in a sleepy seaside town in the midst of national holiday season, and I felt good about paying that much. As I entered, the waitress asked me if I needed to use the washroom. She nearly floated on air when I stated I’d like to eat something if they were still open.
It means something to them when a cyclist actually stops and eats there. Over an hour later, as I sped down a steep downhill, sharing a lane with traffic, knowing that the slightest mistake would cause me to crash and go to hospital (or worse), a black boxy generic Kei car came whipping up behind me. Good, I thought, pass me quickly. But no – they slowed down to match my speed, trapping me between the six-inch cement curb and the black Kei reaper. A lady leaned her head out the car window, graying hair flying in the wind generated from roughly 70 kms/hr speeds, and yelled, mere inches from my face, “Arigatou gozaimasu!!!” It takes some nerve to hold your line steady when you’re having a heart attack, let me tell you. But I smiled and nodded in reply. And most importantly, didn’t crash, and also managed to recognize the lady as one of the waitresses from the restaurant – with her hair down.
Everything along the Tobishima Kaido screams for help. The bridges are nowhere near the glamourous Shimanami Kaido bridges, their silhouettes sometimes reminiscent of Tolkien’s descriptions of Argonath. Instead they are compact and practical. They don’t need to be more. The islands are close together and the traffic is sparse and slow. Most bridges don’t have a separate lane for cyclists – again, there’s no need. That lone car can wait thirty seconds to pass you until you’re off the bridge.
LITTLE BRIDGE TO NOWHERE. FOREGROUND: LITTLE CART TO NOWHERE.
I arrived in Kure the next day, after riding in the pouring rain for an hour or so. I visited the Yamato Museum, built in honour of a magnificent battleship full of new technology which Japan sent on a suicide mission near the end of the war. Of course, after basically being tossed in the bin along with its operators lives, it’s now a legendary, revered part of history here… I saw display after display of Japan’s shipbuilding history in Kure – of course largely focused on war, as that was the reason Kure became so important nationally. In addition to all the battleship models, there was a Zero fighter plane, manned kamikaze submarines, and small wave generator machine that I was pretty excited to operate myself. Yeah, I’m a nerd. Machines are cool, especially when they have big start buttons! 😀 I tried out Kure’s yatai in the evening. To say they are similar to Hakata’s would be an insult to Fukuoka. They are yatai, but just go in a proper restaurant when you’re in Kure…zannen. After that it was onsen and massage chair time back in the hotel. I sorely needed it. 😉
LOOKING OUT AT KURE PORT
The next day, I shipped my heaviest gear home and rode the 84 kms back all in one go. It was a beautiful day – overcast enough to filter out most of the scorching Japanese sun but warm enough to make my picnics enjoyable. Along the way I saw reminders like this that May 5 was children’s day:
How lucky children are, to be so curious and pure and humble and open for a short time. How lucky we are, to be able to influence them for good and teach them how to make things better for themselves and others. And how sad it is when they learn other things from us instead.
Note to self, note to all: Just you and the bike. Drop the tech and look around. See what’s around you, because it won’t be here later. In real life moments can’t be replayed.
Farewell Japan. Thanks to all the people here who made it what it is to me, and who will probably never read this. Love, RamblingMinoux.