Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: Day 1

Day 1
April 30, 2009
Start: Sakawa
Finish: Tosa-Iwahara
Distance: 110 km
Departed: 7:30 a.m.
Arrived: 3:00 p.m.

To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced cycling more than 500 kilometres across rural Shikoku and up through southwestern Honshu was a good idea.

I was about to set off on an epic bike trip in Japan with almost no preparation or training. Up and down mountains twice as high as the ones in Vancouver. On roads that resemble coiled intestines. For five days straight. Solo. On a bike I hadn't ridden in almost two years. The enormity of the challenge in front of me suddenly seemed overwhelming.

I was plagued with self-doubt. Was I in over my head? What if I couldn't make it up the mountains? What if the chain broke? What if my knees gave out? Panic and anxiety were corroding my confidence. I was tempted to call the whole thing off.

The six-hour trip by bus and train from Kyoto to Sakawa didn't help either. I was forced to see exactly how far I had to ride. Five hundred kilometres was no longer just an abstract series of lines on a map. It was a long fucking way.

I spent most of the bus ride feeling both intimidated and exhilarated. I would look at the mountainous terrain outside the window and feel a rush of terror one moment and a shiver of excitement the next. Would I really be able to ride up and down those mountains all the way back to Kyoto?

My starting point was Sakawa, the town where I used to live. I spent the night at my friend Miho's house. She and her husband had organized a small barbeque party to send me off. There was beer and endless bottles of sake. I drank until my jittery nerves were numb.

Yoko popped by to drop off my old bike. I took it for a quick spin around the block. It felt horribly uncomfortable. The handlebars, the pedals, the seat. It was all wrong. This wasn't the same bike I remembered. How was I going to ride this thing all the way back to Kyoto when I could barely ride it around the block? I moved the seat up. And down. And then back up again. Nothing helped.

Back inside the house, Miho was studying my map and shaking her head at my planned route out of Sakawa. I had picked the shortest, most direct route to Tosa-Iwahara, where I would spend the night after the first day of riding.

You shouldn't go that way, she warned. It's too dangerous. The road I had chosen was a major highway that would be rammed with cars and trucks traveling at high speeds.

Miho pored over the map for an hour and finally came up with an alternate route. It would add about 30 kilometres to the trip by taking me on a wide loop west before heading northeast to Otoyo on winding back roads. It would be longer, steeper and harder but safer and relatively car-free.

I was worried about adding 30 kilometres of hilly riding to my first day but in the end decided to scrap my original route and go with the quieter back roads. Anything to get away from the cars.

I spent the night tossing and turning. What had I gotten myself into? I told myself it wasn't too late to back out. I could leave the bike behind in Sakawa and hop on the train back to Kyoto. But I didn't want to give up before I had even begun. It was an adventure. A challenge. As soon as I started pedaling, my fears would melt away. Or at least that's what I told myself.

I managed to fall asleep for a few hours and woke up the next morning tired and hungover. I was feeling too queasy to stomach the huge breakfast Miho had prepared. I only managed to nibble a tomato and sip a bowl of miso soup before hitting the road.

It was only 7:30 a.m. but the sun was already warm. The air was still and there was nothing but blue sky in all directions. Perfect riding conditions. After a few adjustments, I got my bike to fit me exactly right. My anxiety and panic completely disappeared after the first few pedal strokes.

I turned back to see Miho waving goodbye before she grew smaller and finally disappeared. I rode out of town on familiar streets that used to be mine. My confidence returned and my entire body vibrated with excitement. I was really doing this! I wasn't just biking to the grocery store. I was biking all the way to Kyoto.

The route Miho suggested turned out to be great. There were almost no cars. Just me, my bike and the open road. The steep hills she warned me about turned out to be gentle rollers. I got into a good rhythm and really started to enjoy the ride and the scenery.

After a few hours my stomach finally settled down and I stopped for a mid-morning snack at a roadside sushi stand.

Cold beer or hot coffee? You can't go more than 25 feet without running into a vending machine in Japan. Even in the middle of nowhere.

The route was pretty straightforward but at one point there was a major fork in the road and not a single sign in sight. I pulled off to the side of the road and puzzled over the map. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pinpoint my exact location.

A few minutes later, a woman on a scooter came to a stop beside me. She asked if I needed help. I told her I couldn't figure out whether the main road branched left or right. She asked me where I was going and pointed me in the right direction.

Surprised that I was able to speak Japanese, she ended up asking me a whole bunch of questions. Where was I from? How many days was I planning on riding? Where would I be staying? She told me she thought my plan was amazing. And then she told me to wait for a minute while she rummaged through the trunk of her scooter. She pulled a plastic bag out of the trunk and thrust it in my hands.

"I don't know if you like this sort of food but please take it," she said.

It was her lunch. Two salmon rice balls, an omelet and a strawberry-filled bun. I tried to refuse but she insisted. I thanked her profusely and watched her drive off.

Her lunch, by the way, was delicious.

I was riding light and fast with just a backpack. There was nothing in it but a waterproof shell, a fleece jacket, fleece pants, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a pump, some food, money and a first-aid kit.

I stored a set of tools, a spare tube and a patch kit in a small bag fastened to the rails under my seat. I kept the map and fuel bottles in my basket for easy access. The only problem was that whenever I hit a bump at high speed, the bottles would launch out of the basket and fly all over the road. I had to stop my bike a few times to recover the airborne bottles. But, generally, it was a system that worked well.

The riding was spectacular all the way to Otoyo. Unfortunately, once I reached Otoyo I had to get off the back roads and ride the main road to Tosa-Iwahara. There was no other option. Tosa-Iwahara was located in a deep river valley carved between the mountains and there was only one way to get there.

I'd have to ride Route 32 for about 17 kilometres. Route 32, as I quickly found out, was a busy two-lane highway with no shoulder. I'd have to ride on the road with trucks and cars whipping past me at high speeds. Making things worse was the fact that the road was winding. This meant I would be practically invisible the whole way. Trucks and cars would have almost no time to react to my presence on the road.

They wouldn't be able to see me until after they whipped around a corner. And then they would have only a few seconds to register and react to the fact that there was a bicycle on the road ahead of them. And because it was a two-lane highway, they couldn't veer too far around me because they'd cross into the path of oncoming traffic.

It was incredibly dangerous. If I were rear-ended here, it wouldn't just be a trip-ending injury; it would be a life-ending injury.

But there was nowhere else to go. I couldn't go back. I could only go forward. Even if I wanted to give up and put my bike on the train, I'd have to ride on Route 32 to get to the train station. I was going to have to ride on the highway whether I wanted to or not.

I took a deep breath and turned left onto the highway. Just put your head down and hammer as hard as you can for the next 17 kilometres, I told myself. My heart leapt into my throat each time I headed around a blind corner. The trucks behind me were hugging the tight turns to avoid the cars in the oncoming lane. I knew they might not have enough time to swerve around me. So I pedaled furiously around each turn.

It was a white-knuckle ride the whole way. I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I finally made it to the turnoff for Tosa-Iwahara. I had to get off my bike and sit down for a few minutes just to calm my rattled nerves.

After my heart rate returned to normal, I made my way to my home for the night. I was staying at an old guest house high up in the mountains. It was run by a pot-smoking Japanese hippie named Teru.

I met Teru outside the tiny Tosa-Iwahara train station. He threw my bike in the back of his pick-up truck and drove me up to his house. During the 15-minute drive, Teru told me he used to live in Kamloops, working as a ski instructor. His eyes shone as he spoke about B.C.

"That was the first time I smoked weed," he said.

He told me about his one-man campaign to legalize pot in Japan. He wasn't having much success.

Originally from Gifu Prefecture, Teru moved to Shikoku 10 years ago. He bought an abandoned house in the mountains, converting one half into a hostel and the other half into his home. When he isn't renting out rooms in his house, he guides rafting tours through the river that snakes its way along Route 32. He uses the money he makes to spend the winters kayaking around the world.

This is Teru's house and the view from Teru's house. If you look closely, you can make out Route 32 winding its way between the mountains.

After a long, hot shower, I cooked up a huge pasta dinner and ate until I was stuffed. I was about to climb into bed when Teru dropped by to invite me to a party at his friend's house. I wanted to go but had to decline. It was only Day 1 of my trip and I was already exhausted.

I needed to conserve my energy for the serious mountain climbing that was about to begin the next day . . .

Next day | Photos

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