Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wannakai, Japan

Friends: Rain and a thick, low cloud cover yesterday darkened the skies enough that the red arrows with the night-time blinking lights that overhang the highway every ninety yards (twenty to the mile) pointing down at the road shoulder to keep motorists alert and on the road were triggered, brightening the miserable, gloomy conditions. They were an exotic sight, a traffic safety measure unlike any I've ever seen, giving me some cheer as I headed north into even more sultry weather.

Those arrows are just one of the many unique features of Japan that make me fonder and fonder of traveling here. They are one of many devices that make driving here probably safer than anywhere. There are also blinking lights on guard rails on sharp turns to keep drivers attentive. On descents when the road curves the pavement is a different color to warn motorists to control their speed. The speed limit on the non-interstates is pretty much thirty miles per hour. The obedient, law-abiding Japanese rarely exceed it, even by one mile per hour. With the restricted speed no one seems to be in any rush to get around a bicyclist, if there is approaching traffic.   They'll slow and wait for it to pass and then pass me.

There is hardly a need for police. I go days without seeing a police car, though the small community police stations are a common site. I have seen one motorist pulled over, someone who had just passed me at a seemingly normal speed. The officer didn't bother with his siren, just ordering the motorist over with his loud-speaker. By the time I had caught up to the pair of them, the motorist, a respectable-looking young man, was out of his car bowing profusely. Its the only time I haven't seen a bow responded to with a bow. Bowing is most certainly the custom. I am bowed to whenever I enter a store. I am bowed to by the flagman at the many road construction sites along the road. It feels totally natural to give a bow, or nod back.

I am presently thirty miles from Cape Soya, Land's End. Less than forty miles away lays the Russian island Sakhalin, an island that the Japanese do not contest. The Russian-held islands that the Japanese do want back are off to the east of Hokkaido. The signs in Wannakai, the largest city of the north, are now in Russian along with Japanese. There are two islands that are part of a national park two hours away by ferry from here. One island is comprised solely of a 5,000 foot high volcano with a 35-mile road around it. I had considered making a circuit of it, but with the weather not entirely hospitable and $60 for the ferry round trip, I am going to skip it. I have many volcanoes ahead in two other national parks that I can ride around, and I am eager to start heading south. I am hoping to have enough time to bike beyond Tokyo to Mount Fuji,  85 miles further--more reason not to indulge in any unnecessary side trips.

If I were in no rush, I would have lingered in my tent yesterday morning as the wind and rain buffeted it, as my Dutch traveling companion chose to do. I had met Eelco the day before and we had a delightful sixty miles together, riding shoulder-to-shoulder, gabbing non-stop. He had been on the road for fourteen months and had just passed the 10,000 mile mark of his trip, an average of 700 miles a month, a fairly modest amount. He was taking two years to make a circuit of the world before beginning his work as an intern, having completed medical school just before his departure. One reason he was reluctant to leave his tent is that I had given him the September issue of the English publication, "Cycle Sport," a fat 168-page issue entirely devoted to this year's Tour de France. Floyd was on the cover with the word "Guilty" and a "?" after it.

Eelco is a devoted cycling fan. I couldn't have given him a greater gift. He had been in China during The Tour and was able to only minimally follow it. The year before he was busily studying for finals during The Tour. He allowed himself a study break at 4:30 every afternoon to watch the final half hour of each day's stage. He has a friend who races professionally just below its highest level. He competed in this year's Tour of California, a one-week stage race down the coast of California won by Landis. Eelco said that whenever he asks him about the prevalence of drugs in the peloton he changes the subject. Eelco grew up with the sport and knows it intimately. He has been touring since he was fifteen, when he and his parents and his younger brother spent six weeks bicycling Indonesia, his father's dream trip. They biked Norway the following year, fully infecting Eelco with the desire to bicycle tour. He's gone off on a ride on his own every year since.

Eleco expanded my diet by two items--a rice flour cake with sweet beans and a fish wiener wrapped in cellophane that doesn't need refrigeration. I introduced him to poly corn, a sugar smacks cereal type of snack. I also alerted him to the wide disparity in caloric content in the noodles. He hadn't looked closely enough at all the Japanese mumbo-jumbo to notice that there is a caloric number to be found on it.

Among the many lessons Eelco has learned is never to camp in a dry riverbed. He made that mistake in China and it nearly cost him his life. A sudden night-time downpour sent a wave of water down the riverbed, sweeping his bike and tent and much of his gear away with it. He didn't find his bike until the next day with the help of others, buried in a pile of debris. He had it entirely overhauled, every bearing regreased at a cost of two dollars. He can give a testimonial to Ortlieb, as his panniers survived the submerging and the dry clothes helped to save his life. We could have easily biked together for a week and not exhausted all the bicycle experiences we could have shared, but we caught each other at a time when he was glad to have a rest day and I was intent on riding.  If it hadn't been raining though, we no doubt would have been off together and probably continued on for a few days.

Later, George

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