Saturday, October 28, 2006

Narika, Japan

Friends: I began my assault on Tokyo at 6:15 yesterday morning, setting out 32 miles from the Imperial Palace in the heart of the city. Even at that distance I was already deeply ingested into its dense sprawl. I felt fortunate to have found a place to camp, and, in fact, seized a spot at three in the afternoon, two hours before dark, the earliest I had curtailed my cycling other than to attend the kiernan racing back on Hokkaido. I wasn't sure if I was being a coward to quit so early or if I was wisely listening to my instincts. My instincts were right again.

I hadn't seen any likely camping for miles, as I was swallowed up by the sprawl much sooner than I anticipated. It was only looking bleaker and bleaker as I closed in on Yokahama, population three-and-a-half million and 20 miles from the Imperial Palace. I was tempted to keep going to Yokahama with the possibility of free Internet in the lobby of the Landmark Skyscraper, the tallest in Japan. It was only ten miles further, but if I succeeded in finding the Internet, it would most likely be dark when I resumed my riding. Once previously I jumped on a surprise Internet outlet an hour before dark in a good-sized city and still found a place to pitch my tent in the dark alongside a golf driving range, but I didn't care to put my angels under pressure in this urban environment. I know cats have nine lives, but I'm not sure how many miracle camp sites a touring cyclist can count on.

My campsite this night was one of the more marginal of this trip. It was on a wooded hilltop in suburbia beside a fenced in power station tower. It was just above a children's playground. It was a bit cool for children to be out playing. It was a steep push to reach the top of the hill. It wasn't totally secluded so I waited until dark to pitch my tent on the less than flat nook that amounted to the summit. But it served its purpose. I had a good sleep, interrupted only a couple of times before and after midnight by hard-working salarymen returning home.

I was awoken at daybreak by squawking crows on the power lines above, provoking me into the early early start I wanted. There was considerably less than the bumper-to-bumper traffic that I was engulfed in the afternoon before. I was only slowed by a couple of train crossings, one of multiple tracks. The nearby platform even before seven a.m. was packed with hundreds of people, all wearing the same black suits. It was the most horrifying site of the day. I had to wait several minutes for three trains to pass.

The traffic gradually thickened. That didn't concern me so much. My biggest worry was that the four-lane highway I was on would turn into a superhighway with no bikes allowed, forcing me to find side streets. That could turn my route into a nerve-racking maze. There was a nearby superhighway, so this one maintained its bike-access, though it wasn't the most optimum of biking. It had a sidewalk/bikeway that 99% of the bike commuters and school children were on. There was just an occasional crazed bike messenger-type who joined me on the road. The cars and trucks maintained a tolerably safe speed and only rarely squeezed into my sliver of a shoulder. I just had to get used to the speeding motorcyclists who would come out of nowhere brushing past me and even occasionally turning sharply behind me coming from the opposite direction counting on me to maintain my speed. It was as if it were karma payback-time for some of the pedestrians I have startled as a messenger.

I clicked off the miles one by one, celebrating each as I closed in on the Imperial Palace. It was a relief that I could stay on this nicely-marked highway leading into the heart of the world's largest metropolis. My throat and nostrils cringed at the air--the foulest I had breathed in Japan. I'd had occasional whiffs and gulps of noxious fumes before when a poorly-tuned truck or bus passed. I could simply hold my breath for a moment or two till it had passed. When I resumed breathing the air had improved. When I tried that here the air was no fresher.

As I penetrated deeper and deeper into this morass with less and less concerns that it was going to be the nightmare I feared, I could let my mind wander to other rides in great metropolises and almost shrug this one off. Bangkok was miles and miles of gridlock. The streets of Bombay and Calcutta, other cities of more than ten million, were obstacle courses of refuse and ruts, while this was perfectly smooth-going. Mexico City and Rio de Janerio were chaos, while this was perfectly predictable. Manhattan is always intense and super-charged with speeding taxis.

I could gauge my progress by the train stations I passed, as they were all marked on my map. I was putting off breakfast as long as I could, happy to knock off as many miles as I could before the traffic thickened too much, but it actually seemed to lessen the closer I got to downtown Tokyo, as most Japanese commuters wisely take the train rather than drive. I had gone 25 miles before I stopped at a convenience store for my customary chocolate milk and packaged pancake breakfast.

By nine most people were at work. There was a significant lull in the traffic. I was able to stray a few blocks at a time from my main artery to do a little exploring, though I didn't want to be too brave about it. I did take a couple mile detour to meander around Ueno Park, where several hundred homeless have an encampment and buskers flourish. I spent a couple hours relaxing there and was mildly tempted to put up my tent for the night alongside one of their semi-permanent, heavy-burlap tents.

My next celebration came when I came upon a road sign for Chiba, a city 25 miles away on the northern outskirts of Tokyo. If I could follow those signs my escape from Tokyo would be complete. It, however, turned into a dreaded "no-bikes allowed" superhighway. By that time I was already well out of the heart of Tokyo, though I still had miles and miles of urban mayhem to negotiate. I happened upon a straight roadway that kept going and going for another 30 miles and got me out. Those 30 miles led to patches of agriculture. Beside an apple orchard, I found a small bamboo forest I could disappear into.

Tomorrow I am homeward bound, arriving just in time for the end of the Bears game. Japan has been enough of a pleasure I may just have to return next month and make a circuit of the warmer southern half of the country and island hop down through Okinawa into the tropics.

I am already looking forward to any Japanese film that will be playing at Cannes, so I can be reminded of how much I have enjoyed this country and its people, and learn what lurks behind their calm and considerate and seemingly content demeanor. I know that to a degree they have adopted a Buddhist resignation to their fates, repressing their longings and despairs. But that doesn't prevent them from being incessantly helpful and polite and diligent in all they do. They behave as if they were in a make-believe ideal world. It has been heartening to be among such people.

Later, George

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