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?