Saturday, January 22, 2011

The bears are asleep. Day 1-Kii/Shikoku pilgrimage

Day 1 Jan 29th. Toba, Mie-ken to Gojo, Nara-ken 165km

After fighting the wind, the breath of god, to get to the little minshuku at the tip of the cape, I slept heavily and I dreamt of Maggie. Fighting, wrestling all night. She jumps, I block. She gets hold of my shirt, my leg, she drops down, ears pinned back, yellow eyes watching me for weakness, ready to jump again.
I hold my ground. I keep my voice calm. That's enough ‘chica bonita’. It’s fight but it’s also not. I pull her off me. We are ready for another round. It’s a dance. It’s playing. But it’s also serious. It's love and it hurts.
She makes another lunge. I counter. All night, in circles I dream of being attacked over and over by this Bolivian puma. Yet I wake up still full of love for that restless cat. Overflowing love. What a miraculous thing, that. And so, rather than waking exhausted from battles, I wake refreshed and ready to ride.

I catch a ferry across the bay to Toba in Mei prefecture and begin
what I know will be a long day. I try to keep up a good pace-- I know
I have over a hundred miles till the hostel-- but the little ups and
downs and the lovely sun make me lazy.

It is a beautiful winter landscape with brown fields and long views
through leafless trees. I can see the mountains in the distance. In
two days I will cross three prefectures-- the entire peninsula. The
mountains wait. I am getting there in my own sweet time.

I love this about touring. I love looking into the distance and knowing that everything I see I will slow spin myself towards.

Often, the first question people ask when I tell them about my trip
is, Did you go with friends? and I tell them, no. I rode alone. This
time I tried to recruit... but other people's vacations, family
commitments, and enthusiasm for winter weather didn't quite sync up
with mine. So here I am again. Me and my lovely Six. (my bike is called Six)

I-like-red-because-it's-fast is my new favorite pet phrase. (Red bike, winter coat, iPhone, headphones, ….) Not that I'm really all that fast these days. I like riding with company but I enjoy my own pace as well.

There is, indeed, still wind. but as I'm riding inland it isn't nearly as
strong. My legs are more tired than they should be but I'm learning
to love this feeling of the wind.

One of the lovely things about being in the Kii peninsula are the tea plantations (I'm told it's ice tea) ordered like baby shrubs for mazes. The more I travel in Japan the more the mountains resemble each other but the tea plantations make this place quite special.

The ferry landed 9:30am-ish and by 3pm, I’ve covered about 100km. I am in the mountains and the sun has slipped behind their snowy peaks. I have yet to cross the highest point of the day. The temperature is dropping with the sun so I put on more layers.

I am very nervous.
I feel very intimidated.

But this is what I wanted right? This fluttery, will-it-be-ok feeling in my chest. Mountains to cross. The roads are dry. Beautiful scenery…

Yes, this is what I wanted. I had hoped to make there before it got too dark though.

So I keep going. Indeed, it is my only choice. One thing that touring by bike has taught me over and over again: You rarely get everything you want.

A boyfriend once told me that I was the only person he knew who loved nervous anticipation as much as I do. Where other people would love a sure thing, I love not feeling 100% safe. I love the focus, the resourcefulness, and inspiration that comes from being in questionable circumstances. And in the end, I love calm of knowing, not just hoping, that I can do this too.

So up I go, into these mountains, playing with a metaphor in my mind that they, like beautiful women in impossible cocktail dresses holding colorful drinks may try to try to intimidate me with their cold still glances, but my strength will pull me straight past.

Or so I hope.

Unfortunately, this particular road, though beautiful, does not have convenience stores in any convenient sort of frequency. The michi-no-ekis (road stops with food) are closed for the holidays or the season. I’ve already eaten most of the food I had with me. As the road winds its way up, I see a small restaurant and despite the fading light decide it’s a better idea to eat. I have at least one pass and 60+ km to go. At 3pm and a lower altitude, a road side thermometer showed 6C. It’s not getting warmer as I go up. More fuel is needed.

The nice old man and woman are surprised to so me, decked out in my cycling gear and so very white. They ask where I’m headed and I tell them vaguely. I know they wouldn’t approve of how many kilometers I have left to go with so little daylight. They tell me that there is snow on the pass, which is a long tunnel at the top of Mt. Takami. I nod my head. There’s not much I can do… it is between where I am and where I need to go.

I will not be intimidated. I have no choice.

I eat quickly and head back out. They sky is beautiful, turning soft pinks and salmons, reflecting onto the snowy mountain tops.
It is a beautiful climb and easy to stay warm. With each small tunnel, I think I might have made it to the top only to find… no…
In the end, the approach to the tunnel is unmistakable and a crazy piece of civil engineering, curving and doubling back. The views of the valley below, fantastic but no good to dwell on. Sure enough, there is snow on the sides of the road, but the main parts of the lane are clear. It appears that at least one other skinny tired cyclist had been up recently, tracks in the snow.

The tunnel is two and a half kilometers (the map misreads it as me going over the whole mountain, km mark 170ish, but the reality of cutting through the tunnel is, thankfully, much less steep) and the other side brings me to Nara-ken.

Nara-ken is colder.

I now want to get off this mountain as fast as possible.
But not too fast because there is much more ice on the road.
It’s about 5pm and will soon be very dark.
It will only get colder.

Using every bit of grace and cunning I can muster, I descend as fast as seems safe.
Something about the beauty and ridiculousness of this moment. Something about the cold and dark. Something about using all of my bike handling skills with 100% focus. Something about this moment, makes me smile, knowing that whatever I came out here for--which I still can't really put words too--I'm finding. I'm finding in this cold crazy descent off this mountain.

I do not stop to put on extra gloves, toe warmers or anything to make the experience warmer. I just need to get down.
Curve by curve, judging where the ice might be and making sure that I do not need to slow down or turn while I am on those dangerous spots, I loose a few hundred meters of elevation before putting on more layers.

Indeed, most of the rest of the distance left to cover is downhill. There still seems to be an awful lot of it. Front and rear lights on the bike. Check. Headlight. Check. Toe warmers. awww. happy girl.

Ready. And so the evening continues. Eventually, I get off the main highway (166) and take a shortcut (Rt 16). A beautiful little road that follows a river. The winter stars shine down, crystal clear, reflect off the river, twinkling in the cold. This not Tokyo. This is lovely. However, as there are almost no cars on the road, I soon remember stories that cyclists tell about meeting bears...

And so begins my inside-the-head-mantra’s.winter.the.bears.are.asleep…..

and so, because I’m tired and as much fun as this is, I’m ready for bed, because I’m scared of bears, because this is absolutely ridiculous trying to go as fast as is safe on completely pitch black country roads..

I sing.

And I sing as loud as I can, with as much tone and beauty as I can muster. I sing songs that my brother and I used to listen to on long road trips. I sing songs that my SCA friends would sing around campfires. I sing the wake up songs from the camp in Bolivia. I sing from musicals. I sing whatever comes to mind.

I sing as I look at the river shining in starlight. I sing as I look out for the moving shadows of bears. I sing as I fly through the small towns and the little old people stare at me.

It’s lovely and it makes me happy.

And sure enough, after a few wrong turns and a frustrating moment when I realized that I wasn’t 5km off but rather 35km from where I needed to be, I arrive at the hostel, which appears to have no other guests.

I am grateful for food (my fourth meal for the day…) and a long bath. I realize, a bit to my chagrin that despite covering 165km, I have drunk less than 1liter of water.

I sleep with starlight and songs wrapped around me and prepare myself for more adventures to come.

Map of Day 0,1,2

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Into the wind. Day 0- Kii/Shikoku Winter tour

The journey starts on a Tuesday. Dec 28, after a weekend filled with Christmas parties and teaching lucky/unlucky students about ocean acidification and 'arsenic bacteria.' The point? We may be killing the world but something will always survive.

And with those thoughts mixed up with some confusion of whether Christmas really just happened, I pack a small bag. Rain gear, pajamas, maps, cell phone charger. I bag the bike and take the train about an hour and a half south of Tokyo to Toyohashi, Aichi-ken.

An old friend used to live here and I glance around wondering what it would feel like to have this as a home town. From first impressions, it's like many mid-sized Japanese cities at night, neon lights and convenience stores surround the station--good for packing last minute emergency provisions--but soon highways lead to vegetable fields.

But not right away. I start off, cautious of traffic that might not be as used to crazy cyclists as Tokyo drivers. There are flashes in the sky, clouds flickering like spastic strobe lights. I think to myself that it must be an awfully quirky airport flood light. And then there is the thunder. Aw... well, there was almost no chance of precipitation... I'm not worried.

And then it starts sprinkling. I debate whether it's worth stopping and putting on rain gear, which will likely leave me sweaty. The drizzle picks up to a pitter patter so I pull of under a street car stop. The pitter patter turns to a *clink *clink and suddenly hail is pelting down from the sky. The street turns white and the locals yelp as they take cover.

I stand under the shelter and watch in amazement and slight horror. It's nearly 7pm and I have about 50km to get to the minshuku. After about 10 minutes the hail relaxes into downpour. I curse a cyclist called YellowGiant who sent me a message just before leaving saying:
"Just a quick, "wishing you well!" message. I hope you have a great time, and it doesn't rain (too hard - you need a little bit of rain to make the stories interesting), and you get back safely with heroic tales of battling the roads & elements."

A little incliment weather I was prepared for but not within the first 15 minutes of my tour! But there is nothing else to do. I gear up. Rain pants, rain jacket, head light. The street car comes and goes. I garner many looks of disbelief. It will not be the only time this trip.

After another 10 minutes the downpour relaxes back into a drizzle and my hotel isn't getting any closer so off I go. Navigating the city isn't difficult and the sky seems to have exhausted itself for the moment but puddles plus cars makes for some excitement. I am grateful there is no ice.

Quickly I'm out of the city, heading for Rt 42 and the southern edge of the Atsumi Peninsula. The center of the sky has cleared and the lights of the city have faded. Vegetables fields lurk in the darkness of my periphery and clouds in the distance flash with lightning. I'm reminded of the nights in Bolivia when we could see the sideways lighting jumping between the clouds. Silent sky and crystal clear stars above. The smells of mud and sweat and rain. We would fill those strange weather patterns with fortunes and prophecies. Sideways lightning brought mixed blessings. And thus we chose to make sense out of our crazy situation.

And here I am, wet, winter night, biking into the darkness. Smells of cows and winter fields, the painted while line disappearing into the night ahead of me. How do you make sense of these crazy situations? These choices to give up my warm bed and familiar roads to throw myself into this winter night are full of that small question: why?

Soon I hit the coast and head west towards the cape. The road is a little inland, thankfully, but the wind is a force to be reckoned with. It comes in pulses and there is nothing to do but hunkers down into the drops and push. Spin by spin, I make slow progress. It is a fight and I chose this. Why did I chose this? I concentrate on all that I am grateful for and push one slow pedal stroke at a time.

Before, it took a couple of days to get the pondering of "Why have I done this to myself (again)?" There is no honeymoon period this time. Whatever awakening, whatever clarity, whatever mental or spiritual journey I'm seeking starts right now. Why am I here, fighting this wind? (and loving it, mostly)

There are people who think I'm brave to put myself in this situation and I enjoy the flattery but I can't accept the compliment. I am not brave. I simply mix a willful naivete with stubbornness. I love falling in love with the idea of something, and once there, I'm unlikely to back down. Cultivated self deception plus pride is not exactly the same as bravery or courage. Though, I'm grateful it appears the same from the outside.

So that's part of it.

Perhaps, we all live in fear. Some fear the cold or being poor or being unhappy. I fear being weak. I fear being boring. I fear that I will wake up one day and feel completely unspecial, unaccomplished, a life unlived. I fear that complacently will leave me soft and unable to survive the apocalypse. I fear that if the moment comes to stand up and fight for what I believe, I won't be strong enough.

So here I am. Proving to myself that I'm strong enough, defeating one gust of winter wind at a time.

It's cold, I'm hungry, I still have a long ways to go. Though my rain/wind gear is pretty good, my feet are soaked and freezing. The dark country road rolls into a small town with a convenience store. I drink a hot lemon drink and buy a fresh pair of socks. Two plastic bags please. The clerk obliges with a poor poker face. And then there I am, in the parking lot, off comes the shoe, then the sock. First goes on the dry sock, then the plastic bag, then the soaking wet shoe. Heaven. But the wind picks up and soon, there's me: chasing after a plastic bag, one barefoot, one cleated shoe, curious clerks staring through the window. Crazy gaijin girl laughing as she clomps around chasing what other people regard as trash. This is my life and I'm in love with all of it. Wet feet, already tired legs, wind, stars and all.

But once all sorted, off I go into the wind again. My feet are now warm and I'm feeling more game for what feels like it will take me all night. Slow kilometer by slow kilometer. I can see the mountains to my right but have little evidence that I'm so close to the ocean to my left other than wind. There is no let up. I feel I'm getting closer to the tip of the cape. The road splits, to the left it looks like just a parking lot at sea level and to the right the road narrows and heads up. My headlight swings up and hits a sign proclaiming 13% grade. no no no... the map said...
I must be on the wrong road. I'm so ready for bed. This isn't *fair.* I try to check the map on my iPhone. no reception. But this *must* be the road. There really is no other way but up. The palm trees thrash back and forth. A resort hotel sits on cliffs above me. I wonder how far up the road goes. But no matter, nothing will change with me just standing here shivering in the wind and staring at my phone telling me there is no service.

It's not a long climb but leaves me warm and as the road crests, the wind hits like a tsunami. I'm quite literally not moving forward. I unclip, stand and brace myself. I feel like I'm going to picked up like a kite and thrown to the rocks below. I wonder if the whole trip will be like this. I nearly fall as I dismount and have no hope of staying balanced on the bike in this gale. I push my bike 50m, leaning into the wind until I can continue. This is ridiculous. This was supposed to be the easy part.

I'm nearly there. The stars are beautiful. I'm scanning hotel signs for the name Egao (translation: smiling face) and as I round the cape the wind is now at my back. I'm so happy. I coast along with no effort looking... looking... I check my phone. I've over shot by 3 km. I turn back into the wind. The hotel had two names, the one on the sign was not Egao, so back into the wind I go. Slowly and steadily. Eyes forward, body streamlined and poised, like I'm stalking prey. Like I'm stalking prey very slowly. I reach the hotel and am exhausted. I wasn't expecting to feel this tired so early in the trip, I'm ready for a shower and bed.

The lady at the desk, the owner of the hotel is more than kind. She has a lilting infectious laugh and unlike most locals, thinks what I'm doing is wonderful rather than strange. She doesn't ask me the stupid question, "But isn't it cold?" I'm immensely grateful. This little old Japanese lady gets it.
I mention the wind with an apology that I'm much later than I'd expected.
Yes, she tells me. The wind is the breath of god.
She looks me in the eyes and I'm at a loss for words.
That must be why I feel so refreshed, I tell her.
She smiles. It's a good way to think about it. It's also kind of true. I feel a lot of the Tokyo grim and the lingering too-many-parties is slowly falling from me. 12 hours ago I was teaching middle schoolers. It seems like a lifetime ago.
I'm being blown clean by the breath of god.
She tells me about the angles. Usually only 6 come down to earth. This year there are seven. She tells me that for the last five years especially high souls have been coming to Japan, she insists I must be one of them. She tells me about the local gods and the mountains. She tells me that it is her purpose in life to bring joy and happiness to travelers and neighbors.
I'm woozy from ride and lost in her disarming laugh. She shows me to the bath and my room and I thank her. It's a wonderful way to start such a trip.

I am beginning a pilgrimage of sorts, though I couldn't tell you exactly what for. Though that's the thing, I guess. It's clarity I seek. It's the answers to the "what am I doing and where should I be going" questions that I'm cycling towards. Or at least I hope so. If the wind is the breath of god, then I am cycling into god's mouth, and isn't that where wisdom should reside?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cycling video

I do plan to write the story, as it is a good one, but for now here is a video.
The soundtrack is the same I was singing to myself.
Go, go, go.

the adventures continue

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Kii/Shikoku day 7

Catching the ferry back to Tokyo tomorrow. A few more temples to visit tonight. Happy I got to the Iya valley (in the picture) going up was fine. Coming down was cooolllldddd.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Kii/Shikoku day 6


Lots of nice people today. Ready to rest up for one last long day across the mountains tomorrow.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Kii/Shikoku day 5

First time into town before sunset ! Feeling stronger and hungry!
Beautiful beautiful day. Highs above 12C but still snow in the shadows.
140km. Avg 22.4kph.

Kochi Prefecture Tosashimizu

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Kii/Shikoku day 4

My "rest day" ended with a 50km short run for food. Oops. ;)
Beautiful coastline along the way. And the stars here are unbelievable.
Happy and sore.