The Journey Home

The morning after we reached Tokyo, I lay in my hostel bunk listening through an open window to the city street noises muffled by heavy rain. I began to regret the large quantity of celebratory sake that I had consumed the previous evening.

We had put together a laundry list of things to do in Tokyo, the last stop for us before leaving Japan, but for the next few days, most of our energy went into winding our bodies down from the ordeal of the journey.

We did manage to accomplish some tasks, however. We made a pilgrimage to Blue Lug, a famous bicycle shop, and shopped for souvenirs for our friends and family. We relaxed in our hostel and caught up on much-needed sleep.

A few days later, Amy’s cousin Jenn arrived from America on a work trip. A seasoned traveler, Jenn was a fantastic source of the touristic energy required to kick us out of our complacency.

The next day, Jenn, Amy and I began with a tour of the Japanese National Gallery.  I had been excited about looking at the famous katana collection housed in that museum – many of which are considered national treasures. However, I was dismayed to find I responded quite negatively to the cold, unmounted steel blades before me, kept sharp and polished despite their extreme age. Alien, almost identical, I wondered how many people had met their end at the hands of these well-designed obelisks of death. Far more interesting were the painted screens – beautiful arching landscapes of drooping wisterias and gilded waterfalls, and the wood block prints of the late Edo period. The museum was a restrained and focused tour through the history of Japan from the perspective of its art.

After a lunch detour to the famous Tsukiji fish market, we found ourselves walking through the tall cedar trees of Yoyogi park towards the famous Meiji Jingu shrine. The atmosphere here was almost rural; a seven foot long snake poked its head out from under a park bench before scurrying into the underbrush. The shrine was full of foreigners, but like most Shinto shrines, it functioned more as a park for one’s spritual and emotional well being than a mark of belonging, and we didn’t feel excluded as we purchased a wooden block to write a blessing on.

As we walked towards the center of the shrine after ritualistically washing ourselves, we heard the muffled silence of tourists as a traditionally dressed Japanese couple processed with their relatives into a private courtyard, surrounded by preists, on their wedding day.

I looked at Amy and was reminded of how we had grown closer to each other on this trip, which began with our own wedding almost a year ago. It was with a great sense of purpose that Amy, Jenn and I wrote three messages on the wooden block and hung it on shrine to be ritualistically burned the next morning.

We descended from the peace of the shrine to the busiest area of Tokyo, Shibuya.

The crush of people in Shibuya was overwhelming. We headed towards the famous Shibuya Scramble. The scramble  is a huge intersection that is shut down for people to cross in every which way between the multiple train and subway stations under the road.

We joined the crowd and crossed the street to admire the statue of the famous dog, Hachiko, who was kept company by two live, immobile cats perched between his paws. Suddenly, we encountered our friend Justin, who Amy had met in San Francisco, and who had given us many pointers on traveling to Japan. What a strange coincidence to run into a person you know in the midst of the busiest place in the densest city on earth!

The following day was our last before our flight.  This was the day that we had to take our bicycles, which were a method of transporting our worldly possessions, and convert them into two very large, ungainly boxes. Our possessions, and boxes, would then somehow have to get to Haneda airport, which was not reachable via bicycle. We said goodbye to Jenn, and began the all-day process of packing our things.

Our strategy was to pick a location that was walking distance from a cheap hotel, a bike shop (to obtain bike boxes), and an ‘express bus’ line to Haneda airport (which would have the under-cabin storage we needed to transport our ridiculously bulky and heavy bike boxes).  We succeeded in finding a lovely bike shop, who not only gave us boxes, but brought us cold tea, and successfully packed our bikes over several hours. What we didn’t consider was that walking a distance on foot, and walking that same distance while hauling four fifty-pound boxes with no wheels, are two different concepts. Perserverence, and a dolly from the hotel, saved the day, and the next morning we found ourselves at Haneda waiting for our flight.

Both of us felt that it was time to leave Japan. Japan had been amazing, beautiful, and wonderfully kind to us, but we had seen enough, experienced enough. It was time to go somewhere different.

The return back to America was a blur.  We spent a week getting over jet lag and slowly unpacking our bikes while residing on our friend George’s couch in Brooklyn. Next, we took the train to Boston, and spent another week with Joan and Wayne, Amy’s parents, in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Finally, on the weekend of June 10th, we took our bicycles out for a three day tour that we’ve done every year for the past three years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. The ride took two days, and we were joined by a dozen other people. We camped as a group just 
over the Bourne bridge in Shawne Cromwell state park, and again the next night at a campground in P-Town. Some of the riders were old friends, like George, that we’d known for a decade, and the rest were new friends that we were happy to meet and share a bit of scenic beauty, suffering and glory with.

One of the most memorable moments of the ride occurred during the middle of day one, when we had stopped for lunch as a group at a park overlooking a massive wetlands. We watched in horror as a huge snapping turtle (two to three feet long (no, at least five feet!)) emerged from the  swamp and began slowly crawling towards us. Between us and the swamp was a road with a fair amount of traffic. We feared for the turtle, but feared more for our fingers if we tried to move him. Suddenly, an unidentified hero in a baseball hat stopped his truck, grabbed the turtle by the base of its shell, and dragged it out of traffic, as its claws audibly scraped the asphalt.

We reached Provincetown the evening of the second day, and enjoyed a celebratory party with friends new and old.

Amy’s grandparents planned to retire on the Cape in Truro, and they built a small house there in ’70sthat’s still in the family. After a night in P-Town, we biked a few miles back up the Cape 
to the house and parked our bikes. We spent a month relaxing there. Amy painted and baked bread, while I volunteered and worked on projects in the basement. When it was time to leave, we rode much of our trip in reverse, and ended up back in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Osaka to Tokyo, the Nakasendo

Since the last blog post, we made it to Tokyo, and returned from our trip abroad. During the past month, we have been slowly adjusting to a stationary life.

Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. We’re both healthy and temporarily residing in Truro, Massachusetts. Amy is baking bread and making art, and I am working on carpentry projects and reading books from the nearby transfer station.

This will be part one of a three part series.  Today I’ll cover the mad dash to Tokyo in more detail. The next post will detail the journey from Tokyo to Cape Cod. Finally, the third part of the series will be a post of reflections about our journey so far, and the psychological mechanics of returning.

The last blog post ended with us deciding to forego a leisurely few weeks in Shikoku in favor of biking through the mountains at breakneck speed back to Tokyo. This route would take us inland from Osaka, via Kyoto to lake Biwa, through Gifu, and Ena/Natsugawa, through Kiso to lake Suwa, then South and North again around the vertical scar of Mount Yatsugatake to Saku, then east to Shimonita, where we would enter the Kanto plain. We’d cross a large part of the plain to Koga, and then turn south along the Edogawa river levee path to Tokyo. This roughly follows the ‘Nakasendo’, or inland mountain route, used by travelers in pre-industrial Japan to avoid the numerous dangerous river crossings that would be entailed in following the coast.

On day one of the traverse, we crossed Osaka and worked our way inland, via the Kyoto region, to lake Biwa. The first half of the day was a slow urban crawl, then a speed up the river path. The second half of the day was a traverse through endless small cities.  Just as we were approaching sunset, we arrived at lake Biwa, the largest body of freshwater in Japan. We crossed a bridge at a narrow neck of the lake, took a bath at a strategically placed onsen, and set up our tent behind some shrubbery at an abandoned golf course which had been turned into a city park on the shores of the lake.

The next morning, we could see lycra-clad road cyclists shooting past us, as the circumnavigation of Lake Biwa is a popular bicycling challenge.  We joined the parade, and biked north and inland to Gifu. Gifu is famous for its cormorant fishermen, but we avoided the tourist area and stayed at a businessman’s hotel near the train station. After a poor nights sleep in a tent we were happy to have a full nights rest, but for whatever reason we didn’t sleep well, and it was only going to get worse.

After Gifu, we continued our traverse to Ena. at Ena, the elevation really started to pick up. We kept climbing, and despite our already significant elevation, we could see that we were surrounded by great mountains, crowding around us in a great ring. We chose to take route 19, even though we thought it would be a boring and high-traffic ride, since the alternative would have involved climbing 3000 meters in a single day or taking a 15 km expressway tunnel where bikes were explicitly forbidden.

Thankfully we were wrong about route 19. Even though it was a busy thoroughfare, with plenty of ‘japanamax’ trucks, the prefectural authorities had ensured that there was always a sidewalk paralleling the road. Thanks, bureaucrats! I think this had to do with its status as the historical Nakasendo route. Long distance inter city walking is fairly common in Japan, and they decided to make this route available. Given the mountainous terrain, route nineteen followed a steep river valley, first upriver, through a two kilometer tunnel to cut off the summit, then down again.

We desperately wanted to make it to Okaya before the heavy rain that was predicted for the next day at noon, so we went as far as we could on the first day, from just after dawn until after dusk, slept in the corner of a large, dark parking lot, then woke up before dawn, and continued our journey along the same road. It was with a great sense of relief that we beat the rain, which didn’t arrive until later that evening. We were safely ensconced in our hotel room by the time that the huge droplets of water came smashing down against our window, driven by gusts of wind.

Okaya was gorgeous, a mountain lake and the small city co-exist in a sizeable mountain canyon, drawing a lazy cresent shaped shoreline between them. We finally got the rest we had so desperately wanted in Okaya, and woke the next morning feeling refreshed.

The next leg of the journey was around the landscape of mount Yatsugatake, three or four mountain peaks that form a fence between Okaya and Saku. To get to Saku, we had to go south, along yet another river valley, then north again. We spent a lovely evening at the home of Tatsuya, his wife Izumi, and their noble dog Baron. Tatsuya regaled us with stories of his time as a wanderer in south east Asia, where he traveled on a folding bicycle through China, Burma, Thailand, including several months as a Buddhist monk subsisting off of rice alms at a monastery. He undertook this journey in his fifties, which left me with hope that I could be so healthy in my old age. His stories were embellished with home-fermented plum wine, all three of us squatting comfortably on pillows around a portable kerosene fireplace to keep out the alpine chill.

The next morning we climbed up towards the mountain so that we could more easily traverse around it, and restocked at a mountain themed gift shop! There was a mountain bakery with amazing rye bread and curry sandwiches, bento, and a jam station where we picked up some rhubarb preserves. The peak of elevation for the day, and probably for the entire mountain route, took place at a stock farm that was also a tourist attraction. From the southern slopes of Yatsugatake-yama we could see the pastures extending out and down, populated by happy looking livestock in the Swiss fashion. In the distance were the mountains that we weren’t climbing, the Japan Alps, still tipped with snow in late May.

After our lunch, we were propelled by gravity down the river valley almost all the way to Saku, then climbed back through another river valley, filled with enormous blossoming wisteria trees, through a helical series of tunnels to lake Arafune.

The following day was an onslaught of riding across the Kanto plain, through suburban, flat rice fields, for at least thirteen hours, ten of which was probably on our bicycles. At one point in the middle of the day, so tired that we were in danger of falling off our bikes, we lay down on the sidewalk and closed our eyes for fifteen minutes, before continuing. If we hadn’t booked our hotel for that evening, and if rain hadn’t been predicted for the day after next, we would have called it quits at some point in the afternoon. We got to our hotel in Koga at 9:45 PM and collapsed.

In contrast, the next day was relatively easy riding down along a river path to Tokyo. It was such a strange sight to see the skytree rising up out of the rice fields, reminiscent of seeing Austin rising out of the ranchland of central Texas; the city as an occupying force, usurping yet intimately affected by the biome on which it is situated.

We returned to the ‘Space Hostel’, where we stayed at the start of our trip, and the receptionists recognized us! They were happy to see us again, and we were happy to see them. Their warm welcome made our victory over the Nakasendo all the better.