Cover Story: Writing a New Chapter

Bicycling the length of Japan, a Cincinnatian learns to tame the beast with one back and two wheels

Geoff Raker

Writing A New Chapter

From August 2002 to August 2004, I was a teacher in the small town of Murakami, Niigata, Japan. I taught 17 classes to 500 students a week, helped plan new employee orientations and attended countless local drinking parties called enkai.

I'd love to say I was able to survive and indeed began thriving right from the beginning — but overblown self-aggrandizement leads to other more unwieldy delusions of grandeur and definite embarrassment down the road.

Inevitably, at each event, conference or drinking party, a local would make a point of illuminating me about foreigners' inability to use chopsticks or speak Japanese (all of which was said to me in Japanese while I was using chopsticks).

Japan, they often said, is unique. So is North Korea, I thought to myself.

Over time, I grew angrier at having to endure these kind of comments. I was tired of exclusion from people I'd come to see as so much like myself, perhaps not in culture but most definitely in nature.

I was tired of people who wouldn't listen to my questions because, after seeing my white face, they assumed I couldn't speak Japanese. I was tired of children and adults who pointed and said gaijin (foreigner) in the grocery store or businessmen who made lewd comments, assuming that I couldn't understand.

The anger changed me. Eventually, looking in the mirror, I didn't know the face glaring back.

Anyone who's lived in a foreign country will tell you it's not easy. Depending on one's ability to change habits and re-evaluate cultural responses, your level of success can vary greatly.

I absolutely adored many things about Japan. I loved the politeness and the kindness I was sometimes shown by perfect strangers. I loved the food. I loved the heightened importance of a sixth sense for aesthetics. I loved my students, every last one of them.

It was because of my intense love for Japan — at least as strong as my frustration — that I knew I'd have to do something positive before I left to allow me to put a capstone on my two years there.

That was when I decided to join the "Bicycle for Everyone's Earth" project. Each year a group of volunteer cyclists takes two months to ride Japan — almost 2,000 miles from top to bottom — stopping in communities along the way to teach about viable methods of sustainable living.

In 2004 we continued the Bicycle for Everyone's Earth tradition of excellence. During the course of our ride we hosted numerous presentations — in Japanese and in English — to teach about the importance of living simply and riding bicycles as alternative transportation.

Our ride won the UN-affiliated 2004 G-ForSE Prize in Lahore, Pakistan, for supporting global sustainability. Our sponsors included such well-known companies as Specialized Biking Equipment, Patagonia Outdoor Gear, Tengu Natural Foods and People Tree Organic Cotton.

Among our core goals for the bike trip were to travel on land exclusively by bicycle to avoid wasting fuel and polluting the environment; to consume responsibly by eating low on the food chain and choosing organic and fair trade products whenever possible; to support local economies by buying local produce and avoiding chain stores, vending machines and convenience stores; and to leave places cleaner than we found them.

I was attracted to the message and the challenge. And over the course of the ride, with each rotation of the wheel, my frustration dissipated.

On a bicycle, you realize how many smells exist in daily life and see the small details that change the way we barrel through our days.

Since returning to Cincinnati, I often end up driving in a car by myself. The U.S. is home to only 4 percent of the world's population yet consumes 25 percent of the world's resources.

Why do we build neighborhoods miles from any store with no sidewalks and no public transportation? Why do we find it disagreeable to sit near people on buses, on ships or on trains? What can we do to become more connected to the smells, tastes and textures of everyday existence? What are we afraid of?

Having returned home, I'm surprised by the distancing that occurs within our society and I see that the ignorance I experienced in Japan wasn't so different from my own country.

This article is a collection of the group e-mails I wrote to friends and family while on the ride last year.

Let's start at the very beginning. As with all beginnings, it was also an ending.

July 27, 2004
I'm sitting in an empty apartment with only a bike, bike bags and this computer. ... Tomorrow I board a ship for Hokkaido, the northern-most island, to start a 2,000 mile bike ride from top to bottom.

Two years in Japan have come to an end.

Endings are so strange and saying goodbye never seems real, but I'm going to miss my apartment and surrounding rice paddies.

Saying goodbye to my students was also strange. I looked out at a thousand faces seated in neat rows in the gym and remembered many things. ... There was the basketball team captain with the sheepish smile and the girl who sat next to him, giggling hysterically; the kids who tried hard and who didn't try at all; boys who made obscene gestures throughout my introduction speech two years ago; and the boy who brought a book to class with a full nude of Dennis Rodman on the cover just to see my reaction. "You like to read books by Dennis Rodman?" he had asked, grinning.

Anyway, it's over now.

I will be in Japan for two more months, then back in the States.

Boarding the southbound train at Murakami station with only a bike and two side bags, I felt an inexplicable relief. I was on the road.

On Aug. 4, I set off with three other female team members from Wakkanai, Hokkaido, the northern-most city in Japan. The "Wakkanai Men's Cycling Team" came to see us off, and more than a shadow of doubt played across their faces as we said sayonara and peddled away. Four women cycling the length of Japan? Impossible!

"They obviously don't know what stubborn bitches we are," said our team member India, laughing.

Safely through the first five days, we arrived in Sapporo.

Aug. 9, 2004
Been on the road for five days and made it to Sapporo. The weather has been awesome and rained only once.Have met some interesting people: a little old man in a bike shop who tried to help us while hammered out of his mind on something like strong sake or gasoline, and another family whose beach-side food stall we camped next to.

Welcomed to their BBQ, we stuffed ourselves silly and amused them with our faulty Japanese. Luckily, after imbibing a bit on the local brew, one of our members was able to showcase her astonishing ability at blowing hand farts, which got the whole campsite good and jolly.

Camping outside Sapporo tonight and will meet with four other team members tomorrow morning to do a community presentation.

155 miles down, and 1,800 to go!

Hope you are well and not nearly as smelly as I!

Before leaving Sapporo, we took a photo outside the motorcycle shop/hostel. The owner, a man of 50 with arms covered in tattoos (a sure sign of the Japanese underworld), introduced us to his son, a large crucifix shaved into the side of his hair, and his wife/girlfriend, who was missing the top of her little finger (traditionally cut off when a mafia member has committed a shameful act).

They were born-again Christians, lovely people, and even let us stay at a discounted rate once we explained our purpose. As we cycled out of Sapporo, however, I was happy that we'd never come into disagreement with our new friends.

Aug. 14, 2004
Here's the third e-mail; more sunburned, bug-bitten and weatherworn than the last.

On Aug. 8, we continued south down Hokkaido from Sapporo. It was a long day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 90 miles.

Unfortunately, halfway into the day I broke a spoke on my wheel and decided that the best course of action was to eat soft serve ice cream as soon as possible. Having eaten enough ice cream to kill a pony, I stood to the side of my lop-sided cherry-red limping steed muttering to myself.

Luckily, the terrain was flat for the final 45 miles and we made it to the ferry terminal just in time to board a night boat bound for Aomori Prefecture at the top of Honshu (the main island).

The next morning, after fixing my wheel, we started off and have spent the last few days cycling through the apple orchards of Aomori Prefecture and into the pine-forested mountains of Akita.

We've made it to Akita City. We'll stay here tonight and, after doing a radio broadcast in the morning, continue along the western coast towards Yamagata and Niigata prefectures.

We were cycling through Aomori Prefecture when the Japanese holiday O-Bon began, signaling the return of relatives to their hometowns to pray for their ancestors. The smell of incense wafted through the air, and offerings lay on the graves in the graveyards.

One night we came to a small town. It was getting dark and a light drizzle had begun to fall, so we hit the public bath before setting up our tent in a field outside of town.

We explained to the owner of the bath/inn (ryokan) our goal of cycling from the top of Japan to the bottom. To our great surprise, he invited us to stay the night for free.

Twenty-seven years earlier he'd ridden a bicycle from his small northern town to Tokyo. Having received great kindness during his journey, he wanted to return the favor and was excited to learn that our team came from Japan, Canada, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. We amused one another with bad jokes until his wife came and dragged him, smelling strongly of the drink, back to the family gathering from which he'd escaped.

And that was when the typhoons hit.

Continuing down the coast, the skies became darker and the locals began to warn us about the coming storms that would soon be sweeping the country. On the third day, when the rains came, we pushed into falling sheets of water as though through painful curtains of wool. Needles, stinging our cheeks.

One morning, riding into the worst typhoon weather we'd seen thus far, cars splashed us with dirty water and the typhoon gales along the coast were so strong that our bikes tilted to the side as we struggled to cycle against the wind. That was the day I had my first accident.

I was riding, wet and tired, along the coastal highway toward the Niigata City ferry terminal. One minute I was pumping hard, trying to stay close to the edge of the narrow highway, and the next thing I knew my front wheel caught in a rut, my bike flipped and I was skidding on my side in the road.

When body and bike came to a stop I was stunned but quickly thought of the first thing: not getting run over. I tried to pull myself from under the bike but couldn't move my leg. The rest of the team was ahead, but I cried out to the teammate I'd been riding with, then looked behind me and saw a truck, not 30 seconds down the road, barreling full speed ahead.

Still halfway in the lane, I would be directly under the truck's path if I didn't move fast. I dragged myself from beneath the bike with my arms and sat for a few seconds on the side of the road, re-centering. Damn it, Jennie, I thought, pull it together!

I took two deep breaths, leaned down — wincing at the sharp pains in my quad — and grabbed the frame of the bike with two hands. With the next breath I heaved it to the side of the road, and the truck roared past.

After a few minutes we picked up our bikes and I stood, testing my weight. We were under a time constraint, with our ferry leaving in less than two hours.

We rode the last 22 miles slowly, stopping every few minutes to stretch, and arrived just in time to board a ship bound for Sado Island's Kodo Drumming Festival. The sun came out as I climbed the afternoon stairs to the top of the boat. I lay on the deck under a cloudless sky.

It was then that I had the first inkling that I was going to make it through the bike ride. I was going to finish, despite everyone who had doubted and envisioned my chickening out halfway through.

Seagulls were swooping close to the deck to catch the peanuts that passengers threw into the wind. They hovered above us suspended, riding on swells of air.

Aug. 23, 2004
Fourth e-mail and counting. This one is rain-soaked and smelling slightly of mildew and chain cleaner.

Just came back to the mainland from the Sado Island off the coast of Niigata. Sado is the home of the internationally renowned Kodo Taiko Drummers.

Our group had a volunteer booth during the three-day festival where we sold re-usable chopsticks and T-shirts and ran the recycling station.

From here we head through the mountains of Niigata and into Gunma Prefecture. It remains to be seen whether we've worked up to crossing the Japanese Alps. ...

Have had good luck so far and only one wipeout, from which I received a kick-ass bruise and torn-up elbow. All in all, these first 750 miles haven't been so bad. Hoping for dry days.

Our group had become close during the first few weeks, and when push came to shove we understood that in order to make it all the way we'd have to stick together. We had learned one another's rhythms and idiosyncrasies. We knew when to tiptoe and when to let loose, and we accepted that each of us had a different way of dealing with conflict.

We continued into the mountains and the hardest riding we'd seen thus far.

Sept. 5, 2004
They say that what goes up must come down, but some days it just goes up and up. That's how it felt crossing the Japanese backbone, the mountain pass separating West from East.

In the famous (and rather boring) historical Japanese novel Snow Country, written circa 1900 about the outback of Western Japan and the tunnel under the mountain pass, the first line says: "Once you pass through the tunnel, you are in snow country."

So what happens when you're riding a bicycle in the dead heat of summer and can't gracefully "pass through the tunnel" because the tunnel is only for cars and trains? Answer, boys and girls, is that you go over the mountain.

Some will tell you that the road over the pass isn't all that steep, but I tell you that it wrung me dry.

Back a bit. After returning from Sado Island, we began our slow ascent into the mountains. The first night we made it 25 miles and camped near a mountain hot spring. The owner let us stay under a covered area around back but warned that in the morning the old folks would be coming to play "gate ball" (a favorite among the over-80 set).

We took little notice of his warning until 6:30 a.m., when a herd of 50 "gate ballers" came tramping through the grounds. Somehow we'd managed to camp directly between two gate ball courts (gate ball resembles croquet with elderly Japanese in bonnets and geriatric pants).

"Oh my! Look at the foreigners!" they cried excitedly as we rolled over, burrowing into our week-old sleeping bags.

We packed quickly, ate and rode off into the mountains.

There was a point on the last day of climbing, I will admit, after almost four hours of uphill, when I felt as though it was impossible, when I thought of pulling over to hitch a ride in the back of a truck, when I thought my legs would hate me forever and my back was just a knot of sinews, each straining to tighten and go farther and finish.

And that was when I reached the top.

Just when I thought I'd given everything, I found I hadn't yet given anything and that I could have gone hours more.

Coasting down into the eastern hills, one month in and half-finished with the ride, I realized finally that the journey wasn't as impossible as I'd feared and that in fact choosing to ride had been the biggest hurdle. The rest was grit and patience.

We made our way to Mount Fuji and then down toward the eastern coast. The daylong ride down was one of the hottest days yet and long, 60 miles. We rode into a town called Fujieda where we did a river clean-up and group presentation. And finally a fever, which had been working its way up from inside me, came on full force and I had to rest for an entire day.

Last night as I slept, I felt the house rock from side to side and thought I must have come down with shakes and delusions. It was an earthquake!

Perhaps the earthquake shook the fatigue away or perhaps rest and aspirin were enough, but the fever broke this morning. I woke able to stand without swaying and ready to ride. We are heading out this afternoon. It should be a day of flat riding and only 35 miles.

This week we head south along the Eastern Thigh and down to the Southern islands of Shikoku and Kyushu. I will write again soon, farther south.

A week later we rode into Kobe and caught a ferry headed for Shikoku.

Sept. 13, 2004
Two days ago we arrived by ship to the fourth island of Japan, Shikoku (fourth country). It was achingly late at night, so we pulled out our sleeping bags and crashed on the floor of the ferry terminal.

The ferry accommodations (inconspicuous behind some potted plants) concluded nearly a week of sleeping in "interesting" places. Some of the more interesting included a police station lobby, the woods surrounding the Shrine of the Big Buddha in the ancient capital city of Nara and the floor of a local bar where we befriended the owner's family.

Last night we stayed on a small island off the coast of Shikoku called Ushijima (cow island). The current population of the island stands at 17 people, one car, two goats and some bicycles. If there were actually any cows, they didn't introduce themselves.

Upon arrival at the island port, the population grew by roughly 35 percent, causing a wave of interest among the locals.

Last night we walked along the coast and picked up shellfish by the handfuls, steaming them in salt water and making a superb shellfish pasta. Stomachs full and eyelids drooping, we fell asleep on the tatami-mat floor of a 160-year-old house, trying to ignore the palm-size spiders that scurried across the wall and into the rafters.

The local grandfathers told us that they were honored that all the most beautiful foreign women in Japan had visited their island, and we were happy for their kind words as we snuck off to the bushes to brush our teeth before the departure of the little boat the next morning.

Today is a rest day. I find myself with time to check e-mail, grab Indian food and nurse my aching body. This last week has been unkind. I was hit by a truck, which turned without signaling (bruises and scraped elbows only), and later was taken down by my own stupidity as I basically had an accident with the pavement and myself. But who's dwelling?

From here we continue along the northern coast of Shikoku. Tomorrow a television crew is coming to film us eating udon (thick Japanese noodles) and going to a temple. What this has to do with the environment we have no idea, but we're looking forward to the udon.

We are going to Hiroshima and then we'll head toward the southern island of Kyushu.

The last few weeks of the bike ride were intense. We were hit by the magnificent feat that we'd accomplished but also with the sadness of endings and the uncertainty of the future. Some of us were staying to continue working in Japan, others were moving to new countries to start new lives. I was returning home.

A month before, we'd met a professor of Peace Studies from Hiroshima. He invited us to visit him and stay in his apartment. "It's very small," he explained, "but you are more than welcome to stay." Understatement. His apartment was tiny; one room no bigger than 15 feet by 20 feet, yet seven of us slept side-by-side like logs.

The day we went to see the Hiroshima bombing site, the laughter of children played through the late summer air. It wasn't until I was standing in the shade, reading the poems of the victims, that I fully understood the horror of the Aug. 6, 1945, attack.

Two hundred thousand people died because of the bomb we dropped. In the museum there are photos of people whose skin melted off and children who lay in beds deteriorating from the inside out.

With respect to World War II, most Japanese people I met believed that Japan was the ultimate victim. After visiting Hiroshima, one can understand why. But having also visited the site of the "Nanjing Massacre" in China, where Japanese soldiers killed 369,000 people and brutally raped and mutilated tens of thousands of women, I was struck by the universal nature of grief, anger, loss and denial.

I couldn't help thinking to myself: When the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by a small group of militants and religious fanatics, what was our reaction? Did we look outside ourselves? Did we ask why it happened? Did we look into the mirror at the face of anger glaring back?

Why, when loss is personal, is it so easy to justify retribution?

As we rode down the Eastern Coast of Kyushu through the surfing towns, hot springs and mountains, I thought of my country and to what I was returning — the convenience, the excess, the ignorance, the kindness and the passion.

Having finished what I set out to do, cycling six hours every day for nearly 60 days and faced with returning to my country, I knew that I would return not just as myself but as a stranger in a familiar land. After the ride, life would never again be the same.

Sept. 27, 2004
Yesterday, muscles ablaze, our team arrived in Kagoshima, Kyushu, at the southern end of Japan. Riding in from the eastern side of the island, the fatigue of the last two months clung to my legs, each rotation of the pedal seeming to whisper "soon, soon, soon ..."

At the top of the final hill our destination — the active volcano of Sakurajima (cherry blossom island) — became visible. She squatted in the ocean across the bay from Kagoshima City belching smoke and fumes and welcoming us to our destination, unimpressed.

As we headed into the local supermarket to buy congratulatory snacks and beers for the short ferry ride over to Kagoshima City, the group seemed stunned with the enormity of what we had accomplished.

Over the last two months we cycled nearly 2,000 miles. Along the way we held numerous media events and community activities. We met dozens of people, both Japanese and foreign, traveled exclusively by bicycle, used no convenience stores or disposable eating utensils and ate an almost entirely vegetarian diet.

Most importantly, we kept going.

My time in Japan is finished, and I'll be flying back to the U.S. on Thursday.

We stayed two nights in Kagoshima City taking care of extraneous issues. We shipped our bikes, called our friends and family and made travel plans.

What we'd started two months previously had come to a close. None of us were the same as when we had started the ride, and yet none of us could pinpoint what had changed.

When I looked into the mirror, I no longer saw anger. My face was dry and had exploded with acne. My body was fit but tired. My legs were tan and scarred, my feet were striped with the zigzag pattern of sports sandals and my hair had split from the beating sun. But the creature that glared out at me before the ride had disappeared.

I know now what's important: learning to look outside oneself, not in a detached way, but as a person integrally connected, whose decisions affect not only oneself but the ultimate course of larger events. After almost six months in the United States, I'm still re-centering.

Mark Twain once said: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

I suppose, in the end, I chose to ride because I was afraid. We all are.

And fear is the ultimate beast.

JENNIE TONER is a former CityBeat intern. Follow this year's BICYCLE FOR EVERYONE'S EARTH tour of Japan and see photos and reports from previous year's tours at Japan's KODO DRUMMERS will perform at 8 p.m. March 11 at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall.