Sunday, August 30, 2009

Day 67: Cape Sata!

Sunday, August 30, 2009
  We made it!  It took us 67 days to ride our bikes the length of mainland Japan: almost 3,000 miles from Cape Soya, the northern most point of Hokkaido, to Cape Sata, the southern most point of Kyushu. 

We slept last night in a small hotel in Minami Osumi, about 22 miles away from Cape Sata.  We started riding at 8:30am and enjoyed stunning ocean views as we pedaled up and down the challenging coastal road.  It was a sunny day, 90 degrees, and we were drenched with sweat when we reached the cape.  Akira Saito, a friend we made in Hokkaido, rode with us and took the attached picture.

Sho was nonchalant about the whole thing.  As we stared out over the beautiful, sparkling ocean from the cape, I asked him if it had been hard to bike across Japan.  He shuffled his feet and said, “Kinda.”

We’ll take a train back to Tokyo on Sep 1 to be reunited with my wife Eiko and 2-year old daughter Saya, and return to NYC on Sep 5.  It’s been a great adventure!

Day 66: Kushima to Minami Osumi

Saturday, August 29, 2009
  Biked 70km (43 miles) from Kushima to Minami Osumi with our cycling buddy Saito-san.  Stopped at the Kanoya Air Base Museum, which includes a collection of photos of the 800+ kamikaze pilots who took off from Kanoya during WW II.  The collection of final farewell letters to their families is moving and a sad reminder of the insanity of war.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Day 65: Miyazaki to Kushima

Friday, August 28, 2009
Sho and I biked with Saito-san 90km (56 miles) from Miyazaki to Kushima, taking side trips to beautiful oceanside shrines in Aoshima and Udo Jingu.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day 64: Hyuga to Miyazaki

Thursday, August 27, 2009
Sho and I biked with Saito-san 70km (44 miles) from Hyuga to Miyazaki.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day 63: Saiki to Hyuga

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Biked 85km (53 miles) from Saiki to Hyuga with Saito-san. Hilly ride through some beautiful mountains. Sunny, 85 degrees.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Day 62: Beppu to Saiki

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Rode 80km (50 miles) from Beppu to Saiki with Saito-san.

Day 61: Taketazu to Beppu

Monday, August 24, 2009
Rode 80km (50 miles) from Taketazu to Beppu with Saito-san. Stayed in a ryoukan traditional Japanese inn with a great onsen bath.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Day 60: Entering Kyushu

Sunday, August 23, 2009
Biked 60km (37 miles) from Iwakuni to Shunan, then took 2-hour ferry to Taketazu on Kyushu. Sho and I walked over the Kintai-kyo Bridge and saw the albino snakes of Iwakuni in the morning. We met up with our friend Saito-san in Shunan and rode the ferry together. The three of us are staying in a youth hostel, and had fun shooting off fireworks together.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Day 59: Miyajima and Iwakuni

Saturday, August 22, 2009
We rode from Hiroshima to Miyajima, taking a ferry to visit Itsukushima Jinja Shrine. It was a hot day, and we threw the ball in the ocean underneath the huge orange torii gate in front of the shrine. We continued on to Iwakuni, where we spent the night.

Day 58: Hiroshima

Friday, August 21, 2009
  Sho and I spent the day touring Hiroshima with our friend Saito-san.  We spent an hour and a half at the devastatingly sad Peace Memorial Museum, then cheered up at the Children's Museum and Planetarium.  Details coming soon.

Day 57: Onomichi to Hiroshima

Thursday, August 20, 2009
Biked 80km (50 miles) from Onomichi to Hiroshima on the busy and hilly Route 2, joined by our friend Saito-san. We stayed with Miyuki Nomura, who graciously hosted us in her home in Hiroshima.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Day 56: Shimanami Kaido

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Biked 90km (56 miles) from Imabari to Onomichi, along the incredibly beautiful Shimanami Kaido cycling route. Tomoko Sagara flew in from Tokyo to ride with us for the day. It was the longest she'd ever ridden a bike, and she did great! Also, Saito-san, our friend we met in Hokkaido 6 weeks ago, caught up with us, and we rode together all day.

Day 55: Matsuyama to Imabari

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Biked 60km (37 miles) from Matsuyama to Imabari.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Day 54: Kochi and Matsuyama

Monday, August 17, 2009

Itami-san drove us to Kochi, where we spent the morning playing on the beach at Katsurahama. Sho and I biked 110km to Matsuyama, from 1 - 7pm.

Day 53: Toyohama Friend

Sunday, August 16, 2009
Biked 60km from Takamatsu to Toyohama. Met Junji Itami, who let us sleep in his community center.

Day 52: Naruto Whirlpools

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Biked from 110km from Tokushima to Takamatsu, with a side excursion to see the whirlpools under Naruto Ohashi Bridge.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day 51: Ferry from Wakayama to Tokushima

Friday, August 14, 2009
Rode ferry from Wakayama to Tokushima. Sho and I danced the night away in Tokushima's famous Awa-Odori.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Day 50: Koya-san to Wakayama

Thursday, August 13, 2009
Biked 60km (37 miles) from Koya-san to Wakayama.
Sho and I awoke at 5:55am, just as we did yesterday, a monk steadily hammering away at a gong inside the temple to let everyone know it was time to get up. Interested in another round of Buddhist chanting, we shuffled sleepily down the long temple corridors to the ceremony hall to observe the 40-minute ritual with about 15 other guests. The chanting was mesmerizing, and Sho sat snuggled in my lap, enjoying the unusual experience. Afterward, Soeda-san gave an identical talk to the one he delivered yesterday, repeating the story of Kukai’s endless meditation in a nearby cave and culminating with the insistence that this belief was “super rational.” I imagined that Soeda-san must see this daily interaction with tourists as only a mild distraction from the real work of the temple, and an excellent source of income. Perhaps it led to a few converts from time to time.
After our final breakfast in the temple, I used a 1-pound mobile Internet device to upload recent pictures from our ride to an online server run by TV Japan. They were putting on a TV news update about our ride on Saturday and had requested pictures in time for the airing. Sho and I were supposed to check out of the temple by 9am, and the Internet connection in the mountains was weak. I felt pressed for time as the images ever so slowly were transferred over the ether, and as 9am neared, I had to stop before all the pictures were loaded, vowing to try again tonight.
As we climbed aboard our loaded bikes and pushed off, the monks at the temple gave us a hearty farewell and good wishes to complete our cross-Japan ride. A young trainee marveled at our adventure, shaking his head as he walked with us to the edge of the temple and whispering conspiratorially, “I’d love to do something like this!”
After stocking up on snacks in town, Sho and I started the long descent from Mt. Koya toward the coast. Today’s destination was Wakayama, about 60km (39 miles) away. The mountain weather was fickle. It was sunny and hot as we began to ride, sweat beading on top of our sunblock-slathered skin, but soon after we had started the descent, a sudden downpour began. I stopped the bikes and pulled rain covers over our panniers. It was so warm that Sho and I didn’t bother with jackets, rain pants or booties, as we had so often when it started to rain in the cooler weather of Hokkaido and the Japan Alps. It was refreshing to get a good dousing in the 90+ degree temps, and we let ourselves get soaked. I kept a careful, firm grip on the brakes as we made our way down the twists and turns of the wet alpine road, keeping close to the side to let cars pass every minute or two. These mountain descents were the most dangerous part of the ride across Japan, when a slight miscalculation could lead to a scary fall over the edge. I understood the risks and let my hands go numb gripping the brakes in order to keep our speed well within my control. About every 10 minutes, I had to stop briefly to rest my forearms and shoulders, and to shake out my hands until feeling returned. The regular ordeal of managing the heavily laden bikes had taken a toll, and the tips of three fingers on my left hand had been numb for the past few weeks. [It wasn’t until 2 months after the trip was over that I recovered full feeling in those fingers.]
The squall was over soon, replaced by the pounding summer sun, its intense heat combining with the steady downhill wind to dry us off quickly. Small rivulets of rain water trailed down the road’s edge, gurgling softly beside us for a few minutes before evaporating in the heat. Suddenly, I heard a strange sound coming from the rear wheel.
“You got a flat!” Sho announced, and I pulled over immediately.
“At least it’s not raining anymore,” I grumbled, trying to keep a positive attitude despite the annoying, unwelcome delay. There was a pull-out just ahead with plenty of space to work on the bike out of traffic. And the view was stunning, forest-covered mountains stretching out into the distance, painted over by shadows from dramatic cloud formations in the yawning sky. Sho took the delay in stride and started searching for interesting bugs in the brush while I turned my back on the vista and went to work.
This was the tenth puncture of our ride, every one of which occurred on my back tire, made vulnerable by the burden of my weight and the two heaviest panniers. The front tire of my bike and the single tire on Sho’s bike made it through the entire journey without a single flat. Early on, I patched the hole in the tube each time. But after a while, I realized that the weight on my back wheel was simply too heavy for the patches to manage, requiring me to pump up the tire too frequently. I had brought along a number of spares, and half way through our ride, decided simply to replace the tube every time I got a flat. The process was still laborious, as I had to remove the 4 panniers and handlebar bag from my bicycle and disconnect Sho’s trailer cycle from the rear rack before getting to the wheel. Happily, today’s flat tire on Day 50 turned out to be the last one of the 67-day trip.
The heat steadily intensified as we descended Mt. Koya. The cloudy weather we experienced on the mountain was replaced by direct sun and oppressive, humid warmth. We turned west to ride along a river toward the coast and soon spotted an inviting rest stop. We pulled in, navigated around several monstrous tour busses and came to a stop in front of the bathrooms, dripping sweat that quickly evaporated on the steaming concrete. Sho begged for ice cream from a nearby vending machine, and I sent him off with enough money to get one for me too. As I leaned our bikes against a wall, I felt a tickle on my right calf and looked down to see a large, multi-colored, long-legged spider clinging to my skin. About 2 inches in diameter, Sho and I had seen many of this type of spider throughout our ride. Their intimidating size made them excellent subjects for Sho’s photo collection, but I had no interest in finding out whether or not they are poisonous. I quickly, but gently, flicked the creature onto the sidewalk, and watched it scramble away toward the women’s rest room. When Sho returned, I pointed out my new friend.
“Daddy, he’s awesome!” Sho exclaimed, and we spent the next 10 minutes studying the spider and protecting it from being stepped on by visitors, many of whom didn’t seem to share our interest in the big little fellow. Before continuing on, we made sure that the spider had made it safely up a wall, where he could peek in on the ladies.
The Kii Mountain range faded behind us as we made our way to Wakayama, arriving by 4pm. I was interested in visiting the town’s historic castle, but Sho convinced me to go bowling with him instead. Yes, it was unlikely that we would ever get the chance to see Wakayama’s castle again. And yes, we could easily go bowling any time we wanted when we were back in New York. But I suppressed the urge to lecture and tried to empathize with the experience of an 8 year old. And yes, we had a blast.
We would take a ferry to Tokushima the next morning, and I found a cheap single room in a business hotel near the terminal. The clerk tried to make us pay for a double room, but I explained that we usually slept in a tent, and that we considered sharing a single bed to be a luxury. He smirked, annoyed at my quirky logic, and gave us the cheaper room.
Later that night, after Sho had taken a bath and written in his journal, I read to him in bed. One of the effects of biking for many hours each day is the powerful need for a good night’s rest. By 9pm, I was exhausted and started to fall asleep while reading out loud. Sho elbowed me several times, as I lost the text and slipped into groggy babbling. My body ached for sleep, but tonight I felt the pressure of commitments and had to stay awake. I got Sho to sleep by 9:30, then crawled silently out of the bed and settled behind the small desk in the narrow room. I turned on the mobile Internet device, connected to the Internet, and spent the next hour and a half uploading the rest of the pictures I had promised to TV Japan.
Once that was finished, I logged on to the United Nations Environment Programme’s website. Sho and I had been asked to respond to questions for UNEP’s Climate Heroes today, and I worried that there would be a list of a hundred e-mails from around the world waiting for us to respond. But there was only one question, asking whether we were encouraging people to ride bikes even in bustling cities in developing countries, where it could be very dangerous for a cyclist. I answered that staying safe is the most important aspect of choosing where and when to ride. The question reminded me of my experience training for this adventure with Sho. We had spent the previous year riding all over New York City and the northern suburbs of Westchester County. I had been surprised to find that I felt safer on the crowded roads of Manhattan than in the suburbs. Drivers in Manhattan, while often aggressive, were accustomed to the heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and their speed was checked by the many lights and traffic jams. The secret was to follow the rules (don’t bike the wrong way on a one-way street, wait for the light to turn green), be patient (go at a reasonable pace that gives you a chance to react to an unexpected situation, don’t try to do a quick maneuver without braking or checking the traffic behind you to squeeze by a turning truck), and keep an eye out for people opening doors of parked cars. But the suburbs were filled with drivers on cell phones, driving 60+ MPH on narrow roads without a shoulder. The variables in the suburbs felt much more difficult to control.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought excitedly about tomorrow’s plan. It would be the first time for us to visit Shikoku, one of Japan’s major islands that was often neglected, but offered some wonderful surprises.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Day 49: Koya-san

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
At 5:55 in the morning, a monk hidden somewhere within the temple began to beat a gong in a slow, steady rhythm.
Bong… Bong… Bong…
The intense, enveloping sound echoed through the quiet morning, sound waves bouncing off of the meticulously crafted sand sculptures and manicured trees of the temple garden.
Bong… Bong… Bong...
The reverberations cascaded through my body, shaking my bones and pulling me out of a deep, exhausted slumber. I rolled over on the futon to see Sho groggily smiling at me from under the thick folds of his soft comforter.
Bong… Bong… Bong…
The sonorous noise drifted out of the mountain valley and dissipated among the surrounding peaks of Mt. Koya.
“Ready for some chanting?” I asked Sho.
“Yep!” he said with enthusiasm and pulled himself up from the futon, hopping around on one foot on the tatami mat as he pulled on his pants.
We shuffled quietly down the long, hard wood corridors, converging with other guests emerging groggily from their rooms to participate in the morning Buddhist ritual. We passed by an opening leading to a beautiful garden in the center of the temple, and felt the warm summer morning air envelope us and hint at the oppressive heat to come. After navigating several turns through the large complex, we left our slippers at the entrance of the ceremony room and quietly found a place to sit on the tatami mats with about 15 other guests. The room was dimly lit and adorned with Buddhist images and paraphernalia, the smell of incense wafting over us. Nine monks with shaved heads and flowing robes sat on mats in the front, legs folded easily beneath them, and each holding a book of sutras. Ryusho Soeda, head of the temple, sat in the middle and led the ceremony, his impressive robes wrapped comfortably around his frame. The chanting began immediately.
Sho sat enthralled throughout the 40-minute session, as the monks intoned with a deep, hypnotizing rhythm. Every so often, one would strike a gong or a clanging symbol or bells. Sometimes one monk would start to drone out the beginning of a new section of the sutra, and the others would join him after a few seconds, their voices merging together powerfully. I closed my eyes and let the chanting envelop me. My thoughts drifted over the past month and a half of riding, and I marveled that we had made it this far without any serious sickness, injury or mental breakdown. I opened my eyes and looked at Sho, who was sitting close to me, attentively taking in the fascinating morning ritual. He was already changed since we began this trip. He had grown stronger and bigger, less apt to complain about minor inconveniences, and patient enough to sit through 40 minutes of Buddhist chanting.
When the monks had finished, they filed quietly out of a side door, except Soeda-san, who turned toward the visitors in the room. His round, middle aged face was serene, and he moved slowly and with purpose, exerting a calming presence over the room. He paused as he silently took in our faces and smiled gently. Accustomed to foreign guests, he spoke in heavily accented English, describing his religious beliefs and the story of Kobo Daishi, the posthumous name for Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Kukai chose Mt. Koya as the site of the the sect’s headquarters over 1200 hundred years ago, following a voyage to China, where he studied with a well-known Buddhist master. Followers believe that Kukai is still alive, meditating in a big stone cave underground and watching the world.
“Perhaps it must seem very strange or absurd for you that the one who lived almost 1,200 years before can keep meditation inside underground walls until today,” Soeda-san smiled. “The reason why such an irrational belief could survive for so many years is that still today, many people can experience an encounter with Kukai, mainly in the crisis of their life, physically or psychologically. Kukai has been believed to send his supple body not only to the believer, but also to the unbelievers to make them aware that they are watched by Kukai. So these repeated experiences encountering Kukai over the time and space make this irrational belief [pause for effect] super rational.”
As he spoke, I realized that he gave the same talk every morning to tourists staying at the temple. I wondered if he were bored by it all, or found it mildly interesting to see the attentive wonder in people’s eyes as they heard this story for the first time. Perhaps it felt simply like an extension of the chanting ceremony, but without the promise of transcendence...
Soeda-san concluded his brief comments with the observation that, “the ultimate truth is never static, but dynamic.” Just as I was contemplating the implications of that thought, he abruptly shifted to the mundane, noting that our breakfasts would be ready in five minutes, and that we should reconvene in the dining hall.
“What a cool way to start the day!” Sho commented excitedly, as we shuffled out of the ceremony hall.
After breakfast, Sho and I hopped on our bikes, ridiculously light without our 75 pounds of gear, and explored the town of Koya. We visited the massive Daimon gate that had welcomed us the night before. It was impressive, but in daylight did not have the same mystery and power of the evening before, when its brilliantly lit, towering orange beams represented salvation from our exhausting bike ride up the mountain in the dark. We sat in the shade of the massive structure and talked with Eiko and Saya on the phone for a while, before continuing on to see Koya’s impressive mix of temples and tombs.
Many followers in the Shingon sect choose to be buried at Okunoin, a sprawling collection of many thousands of graves spread throughout the dense forests surrounding Kukai’s mausoleum on the outskirts of Koya. Sho and I hiked along a beautiful, flowing mountain stream, passing countless graves. The varied headstones were everywhere, competing with one another to proclaim the previous existence of the entombed. Some were nothing more than a simple, modest stone marking the spot, while other gravesites were over-the-top. My favorite was a 20-foot tall towering stone rocket ship pointing skyward and threatening to blast off.
“This guy must have really loved outer space!” Sho laughed.
No one knows how many burial sites there are in Okunoin, but Sho did his best to visit every one, running back and forth along the main path ways, then challenging me to find the most creative route through myriad trails that disappeared into the surrounding overgrowth and uncovering yet more graves.
Throughout this ride across Japan, we have passed many grave yards. Usually, they are modest collections of beautifully carved and meticulously cared-for headstones, nestled into a forest by the road or carved into the side of a hill. Early on, I remember pausing while biking up a long climb in the countryside and glancing down to enjoy a sprawling farm stretched out below me, rows of neatly arranged crops covering the land all the way to the base of a set of hills a few miles away. At the edge of the farm, a lone, bent figure moved slowly between two headstones that stood aside from the crops on a small raised plot. The old man gently cleaned the area, lit incense in front of the graves and stared in silence, as Sho and I peered from above. It was a touching scene.
“What is he doing, Daddy?” Sho asked.
“Paying respects to family members who died.”
As we pedaled away, I mumbled to myself, “That’s where you’re headed,” exercising the presumably uniquely human trait of anticipating my own death. Actually, I said that to myself every time we passed a graveyard on this bike ride. Seriously. Not out of a macabre sense of despair, but more in an attempt to provide some context for this crazy adventure. Knowing that I will die, sooner or later; meditating on that truth; appreciating that every day, no matter how full of mundane routine, is precious; sensing that each moment is potentially remarkable; feeling the constant passage of time and moving through life’s phases – I used to know myself only as a child, but now I am the father? All of this provided the context for a grand adventure across Japan with my 8-year old son. Each moment is precious and finite – how do you choose to spend it? If I am only here for a while, I reasoned, I might as well try to do something extraordinary!
Our visit to Koya was obviously getting to me. :-) What I needed was time to meditate. We returned to our temple lodging at Renge-Jo-In and re-entered the ceremony hall where we had observed the morning’s chanting session. Sho had enjoyed the chanting and was eager for the next new experience.
“Do you think I’ll like it, Daddy?” he asked excitedly.
“I’m not sure, but please do your best not to make any noise, ok?” I responded, wondering if it was a good idea for him to come along.
This time, there were no gongs, no symbols, no bells. There was only silent sitting on tatami mats in the darkened room, led by the mindful, passive, settled presence of Soeda-san, wrapped in the smell of incense and shared with a dozen others listening to their own heart beats. I settled into a comfortable seated position, focused on my breathing, slowing it down until it was hard to tell whether I was inhaling or exhaling, and descended into a barely conscious state. At first, a stream of random thoughts and hidden worries intruded unhelpfully: images from yesterday’s monster ride up the mountain, the spooky bike light casting strange forms into the black night, Sho’s well-being, my priorities, a thousand years of history, graves, aching muscles, could we complete the ride across Japan on schedule, missing my wife and daughter, lingering Sumo wrestling injuries... Gradually the thoughts dissipated, evaporating into the stillness, until all that was left was my breath, still moving in and out, but barely perceptible. A kind of mental opening was occurring. A letting go. A mindfulness. A sinking into the eternity of the moment.
I felt a tug at my sleeve. “Dad!” Sho whispered. I ignored him. “Dad!” he whispered again, and I could feel the collective annoyance in the room at this unwelcome intrusion into the magical silence.
I opened my eyes and gave him an unhappy look.
“I’m going outside to play my DS, ok?” he asked.
I nodded, and he crawled across the tatami mat floor, and slowly creaked open the wooden sliding doors. Then ever so annoyingly, he creaked the doors closed again. Each sound he made reverberated like a bomb dropped into the middle of the room, and I winced at the rude intrusion on my fellow guests’ meditations. Soeda-san sat impassively at the front of the room, unbothered by the commotion, unmoving and serene. The other guests, not nearly as practiced at meditation, shot us annoyed looks.
That evening, Sho and I wore comfortable cotton yukata robes down to the dining hall, a large, tatami mat room near the temple entrance that could easily hold over 100 people. About twenty guests sat on the floor beside one another, appreciating lovely lacquer trays full of miso soup, mountain vegetables, hot tea, rice, and a delicious flavored tofu dish. Only one guest was Japanese, and he was seated by himself separately from the group for some reason that was never explained to me. The rest were friendly tourists from Germany, Italy, Canada, the U.S. and France. Happily, they were too well-mannered to ostracize us for the disruption of the meditation ceremony, and we all chatted politely about our experiences traveling around Japan.
After a while, Kiyomi Soeda entered the room. The 89-year old matriarch of the temple, she wore a brightly colored kimono and exuded self-confidence and vigor. She looked much younger than her age and professed to have enjoyed excellent health throughout her life. “Only recently, I have begun to have difficulty hearing, and my legs feel weak at times,” she lamented. We all munched our food in silence as she settled down comfortably in front of a microphone and told us her fascinating story.
Until around 1880, women were not allowed to live in Koya, which was meant to be a Buddhist retreat far away from the temptations of society. Priests were not allowed to marry and heads of temples chose their successor from among their disciples. This changed not long after the Meiji Restoration, a tumultuous period in Japan’s history when the country, which had been rigidly closed to the outside world for over 2 centuries, was compelled to modernize by the threats and opportunities posed by the U.S. and Europe. Priests on Mt. Koya began to marry, and their succession became hereditary.
Born in Koya in 1920, Kiyomi was a restless youth and left the isolated mountain top community in the late 1930’s to study English at a university in Tokyo, a much more stimulating location. When World War II began, she returned from Tokyo and her friends asked her suspiciously why she had “studied the language of the enemy.” But after the war, when knowledge of English was a useful skill, the same people praised her far-sighted wisdom. During the war, the Japanese military used the temples in Koya to support the war effort. When the U.S. military sent soldiers to look for weapons caches among the temples, Kiyomi’s rare English skills made her suddenly extremely useful in her community.
She married the head of Renge-Jo-In Temple in 1946 and told us about the sorry state the place was in when she moved in. The ceiling of the beautiful room we were sitting in had a leak that they could not afford to repair, ruining the tatami mats.
“Where you are now, you would be sitting in the middle of a mud pit,” she joked with Sho, who giggled. “We had to lay down wooden slats to walk across this room. There wasn’t enough food either, so we all grew sweet potatoes. Because of the lack of sun up here, they were stringy, skinny things that had little taste, but it was better than starving. When we ate rice porridge, I remember being able to count the number of grains in the bowl, it was so meager.”
She went on to tell us about Kukai, going into much more detail than her son had following this morning’s chanting ceremony. She told us of Kukai’s decision to study esoteric Buddhism in China, of his prodigious intelligence and ability to find a famous teacher in China and become his chosen successor after only a year and a half of study, and other accounts of his exceptional abilities. I noted the importance within many institutions, from politics to religion to business, to ascribe phenomenal exploits to their founders.
Sho wasn’t worried about the implications of hero worship, however. After we had eaten our fill and returned to our room, he was happy to snuggle up with me in our comfortable futons and fall asleep recounting the details of one of our most interesting days so far.

Day 48: Climbing to Koya-san

Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Biked 90km (55 miles) from Nara to Asuka Mura Village, then up the mountain to the Buddhist town of Koya-san. Biked for 7 hours total, including 3 hours up the mountain, the last of which was in the dark. Spooky!
We said goodbye to Nara in the mid-morning, retracing our steps from yesterday's ride to Horyu-Ji, then continuing on to Asuka Mura. A candidate to become a World Heritage Site, the quaint village of just over 6,000 residents boasts a pleasant Buddhist temple and some unusual ancient granite stones. No one knows the origin of the mysterious, colossal rock structures, which may have been ancient burial sites, or places for communal worship, or the result of a group of early Japanese stone cutters with plenty of time on their hands... We visited Ishibutai Kofun, where Sho used the massive stones as a launching pad for some impressive leaps.
Rice fields stretched around us. Mountains loomed in the distance. And one of those, Mt. Koya, waited for us. Today's destination was a collection of over 100 Buddhist temples in the heart of Mt. Koya's 8 peaks. The base for the Shingon Buddhist sect, the town of Koya was founded almost 1200 years ago by the monk Kukai, after he returned from a spiritual journey to China. Many temples offer lodging for visitors, and Sho and I had a reservation at one. We looked forward to the unique experience of participating in a few chants and meditation sessions.
But we had to get there first. I knew we had pushed our luck by staying in Asuka Mura until mid-afternoon, and I pushed the pace as we got underway. Unfortunately, the route was hilly from the start, and the muggy 90 degree weather sapped our strength, so we plodded along at a modest pace, despite our best efforts.
I had actually been looking forward to another challening ride up a mountain. I was confident that we could make the long, steep climb up Mt. Koya without too much difficulty, after our successful week of riding over the Japan Alps. The main question today was, Can we make it before night fall? We rode hard over the rolling terrain for 2 hours from Asuka Mura before reaching the base of Mt. Koya at 5pm, where I nearly made a significant mistake. We came to an intersection with a sign that pointed us in a different direction from the route my GPS said we should take. Assuming that there must be two alternative routes, I ignored the sign and followed my GPS's instructions. After a few minutes of riding, I realized that I'd just forgotten an important lesson from this trip: when in doubt, ask a local. So I did just that.
The old man raised his eyebrows and murmured, "Wow, look at that!", ogling our connected bikes as we pulled to a stop in front of his house.
"Is the temple town of Koya this way?", I asked, as he took a closer look at Sho's bicycle.
"Nope. You're headed to the highest of Mt. Koya's summits. There's nothing up there but forest. The road is narrow, steep and has a lot of debris from rock slides on it. The temple town you want is back the other direction."
I had entered "Koya-san" in Japanese into my GPS, which is the name of both the Buddhist temple town and the mountain, and the GPS had chosen to send us to the mountain top! Relieved at having caught the potentially awful mistake, we turned back with a grateful thank you to the man who had just saved us from an unplanned overnight stay on an exposed mountain top. He gave Sho a hearty "Gambatte!" ("good luck") as we pulled away.
The first hour of climbing through the forest covering Mt. Koya's lower reaches was beautiful, but a bit disappointing. Full of modest ascents followed by easy flat and down hill sections, I murmured to myself, "This will be a piece of cake," happily ticking away the miles at a solid clip. But at 6pm, with just over an hour of light left, the mountain got serious. No more easy slopes and refreshing downhills. The real climbing had begun with regular doses of long, winding 10% grades mixed in with the "easy" sections at 6 - 8%. Instead of zipping along at a healthy clip, we were now trudging up at a crawl, sweat dripping down to sizzle on the hot pavement. We pushed down hard on the pedals, struggling to maintain forward momentum up the steep, unforgiving, narrow road. My body protested at having to work so hard at the end of a day of riding. Sho complained that he was ready to stop for the day. And most annoying of all, cars constantly passed us from both directions, headed to and from the popular tourist destination. Unlike the deserted climbs through the Japan Alps, where we could swing out and back on the empty road to generate momentum, the traffic forced me to maintain a straight line squeezed to the far side of the road, allowing little room for error next to the sheer drop off a few feet to our left.
Another hour of hard pushing up, up, up, and we were still climbing. The sun's rays faded away behind the mountain's forest canopy, and we were still climbing. We turned on lights at the back and front of our bikes to make sure the cars could see us. The traffic was dwindling, and we experienced long stretches of riding through the oppressive darkness, intensified by the overhanging tree cover. My front light cast out a constant stream of strange, spooky shadows as I jerked the bike back and forth with each heavy pedal stroke up the incline. Eery sounds emanated from the darkness and echoed across the black expanse just beyond the road's edge.
"Dad, this is really spooky. I don't like it," Sho complained.
"I don't like it either, buddy. We'll get there soon," was all I could offer in response. I began to talk to the mountain and to myself, annoyed at my hubris in thinking we could make it to Koya before dark. And we pushed on. Despite his complaints, Sho didn't give up. And despite my annoyance at my overconfidence, I knew that we had a safe place to stay waiting for us at the top. We pushed on.
And finally, after another of a seemingly endless series of steep switchbacks, we rounded a corner and came upon a huge, brightly lit red Buddhist gate. Called Daimon ("big gate"), it glowed against the dark forest background and offered a hearty welcome to tired wanderers. We had made it to Koya! An hour after dark and completely spent, but we had made it.
We found our way through the compact mountain town to Renge-Jo-in, the temple where we had a reservation. Thankfully, they had saved dinner for us: a collection of delicious flavored tofu, miso soup, mountain vegetables, rice and hot tea. Famished from the exhausting ride, we wolfed down everything while still in our sweat-soaked biking clothes. Lounging in the temple's hot onsen bath afterward, our bellies full and memories of the spooky alpine ride already fading, we smiled at one another.
Sho laughed, splashed me with water and said, "Another day, another adventure, huh?!"

Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 47: Nara and Horyu-Ji

Monday, August 10, 2009
Rode 30km (18 miles) from Nara to Horyu-Ji and back. Spent a second night in Nara in order to wait out a typhoon that was passing through.

The rain fell steadily outside, as Sho and I debated what to do today. A typhoon was barreling along the eastern coast of Japan, and we decided to stay a second night in Nara, rather than bike towards it on our planned route. We wanted to visit the World Heritage Site Horyu-Ji, an ancient temple complex and the oldest wooden structure in Japan. It would require riding about 30km (18 miles) in the driving rain, but we decided to go for it.
"We've been wet plenty of times on this trip. Might as well get wet one more time," Sho reasoned, as we rolled out into the mess.
We found our way to Horyu-Ji, where Sho played "see how far I can jump" from the top of the temple's broad entry steps. He also played "see how wet I can make my hair from this stream of water pouring off the temple roof," and I appreciated the fact that we could enjoy most of the sights from the outside. We were so thoroughly soaked that I would have been embarrassed to track wet footprints inside.
After we had our fill of temple touring, we dried off enough to have lunch in a nearby udon noodle restaurant. Sho folded the thin, rectangular paper chopsticks holder into a triangle, and we played "football" on our table until the food arrived. This is one of Sho's favorite ways to pass time in a restaurant, and he has become skilled at flicking the paper ball just to the edge of the table without falling off, and thus scoring a touchdown. His field goal kicking has also gotten quite good, but can be a problem when the ball flies into the lap of people sitting at an adjoining table...
On our ride back to Nara, I accidentally entered a bypass that transformed our annoying, but acceptably busy road into an alarming and unacceptably dangerous highway. I realized my mistake about 100 yards in, and we carefully waited for a break in the traffic zooming by, turned our bikes around and walked against traffic as close to the guard rail as we could.
"Whoops," I said, once we were safely off the bypass.
"That was not good, Daddy," Sho keenly observed.
We returned to Todai-Ji Temple in Nara to re-visit the deer Sho had courted the day before. The greedy, assertive beasts were pleased to see their generous friend return and chased Sho all over the temple grounds, gobbling up the pellets he dropped over his shoulder while running and giggling.
The towering Buddha inside Todai-Ji Temple is a wonder to behold, a gargantuan statue that is barely contained by the cavernous temple. 15 meters (45 feet) tall, it is Japan's largest bronze statue. The main hall holding it was built in the year 745 and, according to my guide book, is still the world's largest wooden building. Throngs of visitors surrounded me as I stared up at the Buddha's meditating form looming over us all. Its serene visage was mesmerizing, and I contemplated the passage of time, the absurd oddity of our existence, life's meaning and nothingness for about a minute before Sho pulled me over to "check out this awesome thing I found." One of the temple's attractions is a broad column with a relatively small square hole running through it. Those who can crawl through the tight space are said to enjoy good luck. Sho stood in line behind other kids and skinny adults, then made it through easily.
"Now I'm all set!" he rejoiced after passing this impressive Buddhist test.
The rain had tapered off by the time we rode back to our hotel, where we changed out of our damp clothes. As we did, I decided that I'd had enough of my beard and mustache. I hadn't shaved since we started riding on June 25 and had grown a full, if not particularly impressive, set of hair on my face. Early on, it had represented a kind of letting go from my professional identity, a celebration of the freedom to explore the world as an adventurer. But over time, I grew tired of the intrusive mess of hair, finding it less and less comfortable as the weather warmed. Today, I'd finally had enough.
I used a small pair of scissors from my medical kit to whittle down the tangled fuzz. After 30 minutes of work, it was short enough for me to apply shaving cream and start to work with a disposable razor I'd bought at a convenience store. I got a fair number of annoying cuts in the process, but it felt good to get rid of the rat's nest.
Sho had grown used to seeing me with a beard and mustache and gave a surprised shout when I emerged from the bathroom. After contemplating my new clean-shaven look, he concluded, "You look stupid and cool. 50% stupid. 50% cool."
We balanced out today's cultural experiences with visits to 2 game rooms after dinner. Sho observed that playing in the game rooms was "almost as fun as being chased by deer."

Day 46: Seeing Family in Nara

Sunday, August 9, 2009
  Today's ride was an easy 45km (28 mile) ride from Kyoto to Nara, so we had some extra time in the morning to visit a few more of Kyoto's impressive sights before leaving.  Sho chose to play pool.  An impressive choice.
  We also stopped by a Takashimaya department store to buy him a new pair of shoes.  His old pair was embarrassingly beat up, worn down by a relentlessly active lifestyle and sporting a few holes that let in the rain.  While leaving the store, my brother-in-law, Aki Ikegaya, called.  He lives in Tokyo, but he and his wife, Akemi, were spending the weekend on the Ise Peninsula, a few hours' drive away.  He offered to meet us in Nara later in the afternoon for a brief visit before they had to return in the evening.
  We left Kyoto immediately and made our way along a busy road to Nara, arriving at 3:30pm.  There were less trafficked options, but I chose to take the quickest route in order to have as much time with Aki and Akemi as possible.  As we rolled into the JR Nara train station, the two of them jumped out of their car and gave us a hearty welcome and enthusiastic cheer.  It felt so nice to see family.  After checking into a nearby hotel and locking up our bikes, Sho and I hopped into their car and headed to the deer-infested park at Todai-ji Temple.  The deer are revered in the temple and wander around freely, mingling with the tourists.  Visitors can buy packets of pellets to feed them, but you have to be ready once you do.  The minute you buy a packet of food, the deer converge on you, aggressively shoving and nipping.  I was bitten on my waist, leaving a nice bruise, but Sho was too fast for the obnoxious creatures.  He looked like the Pied Piper, running up the long path toward the temple trailed by a line of hungry deer eating the pellets he threw over his shoulder as he ran.  
  We didn't have enough time to visit the inside of Todai-ji Temple, so Sho and I vowed to return the next day on our own.  Aki and Akemi drove us back to our hotel, where Sho and I gave them a reluctant farewell.  I felt lonely watching them drive off and looked forward to our arrival in Tokyo at the beginning of September, when we would see them again and be reunited with Eiko and Saya.  
  Sho and I ate udon noodles for dinner, then relaxed in our hotel's onsen bath before falling asleep by 9:30pm. 

Day 45: Kyoto

Saturday, August 8, 2009
  Kyoto.  Imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years.  A World Heritage Site endowed with sculpted gardens, awe-inspiring temples, shrines, palaces, theaters.  A city of mysterious, ancient traditions.  The menu for a visitor overflows with options:
 - explore the famous Kiyomizu Dera temple complex with its beautiful wooden terrace and commanding views
 - stand in awe before Sanjusangendo's impressive collection of 1,001 golden Buddhist statues, each one different from the others
 - Ogle Heian Jingu shrine's bright orange hallways, massive structures and and sprawling courtyard
 - Take a contemplative stroll along the peaceful, wooded Philosopher's Path
 - Seek inner peace at Ginkakuji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion, with its sublime hiking trails and stunning sand sculptures
  The list goes on and on.  So much to choose from...
  And we spent the morning bowling.  
  I was impressed by Sho's ability to convince me to prioritize a visit to a game center over Kyoto's more inspiring spots.  But I just couldn't say no to his puppy dog eyes, as he asked so fervently for "just a little fun on a rest day."  I decided that he deserved to get his way this time after a month and a half of intense riding.  Plus, it was good to see that his bowling skills were improving.
  After the game room and lunch, we hopped on our bikes, ridiculously light without our luggage, and explored Kyoto the best way: by bicycle.  We hit all of the places mentioned above, enjoying the impressive sights, despite the oppressive heat.  On the way to Kiyomizu Dera, we stopped to ask directions.  The helpful stranger pointed the way, adding, "It's a steep climb to the temple.  Might be a bit much to try on a bicycle."
  Sho and I smiled at one another.  "If we can bike over the Japan Alps, I'm sure we can manage this hill," Sho commented to me as we pushed off.  As we biked up the steep climb along a shopping street full of visitors pouring out of the temple, we finally had to walk our bikes, because of the crowds.  Sho ate a cucumber on a stick to cool off as we navigated our way through the throng.
  After a satisfying afternoon of culture and history, we ate okonomiyaki for dinner, Sho's first time to try the Japanese seafood pancake.  Returning to our hotel, I read to him and sang a few songs before he drifted off to sleep, visions of bowling pins dancing in his head. 

Friday, August 7, 2009

Day 44: Kyoto Fireworks Fiasco

Friday, August 7, 2009
  Rode 90km (55 miles) from Hikone to Kyoto.  

  It was muggy and in the low 90's as Sho and I started the day with a visit to Hikone Castle.  Ignoring the uncomfortable heat, we spent an hour and a half exploring the castle grounds and debating the various ways an attacking army might succeed in taking over the castle.  We both agreed that it would not be easy.
  As we biked for around 6 hours from Hikone to Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, we had to stop frequently to drink in order to keep from becoming dehydrated in the oppressive heat.  We hugged the coastline of Lake Biwako, enjoying beautiful views of the massive lake, which sometimes tricked us into thinking it was the ocean.  A constant stream of traffic passed by, keeping us hemmed in on the narrow road.  It was a relief when we reached the impressive Biwako Ohashi Bridge, which offered a wonderful view and a pedestrian way to keep us safe from the vehicles zooming by.  
  We made our way to Hama Ohtsu, a town on the southwest corner of Lake Biwako, then turned west for the long climb over the hills surrounding Kyoto.  We noticed many men and woman strolling around in festive kimono's, deducing that there must be a summer festival going on in the town.  As we rode out of Hama Ohtsu, we passed a line of cars caught in an incredible traffic jam coming towards us that didn't stop until we reached Kyoto an hour later.  We asked a passerby what was going on, and he explained that there was a major fireworks display starting at 7:30pm.  Sho and I thought that would be a great way to end the day and determined to return by train to enjoy the festivities.
  I had anticipated a hard push to bike over the hills surrounding Kyoto, but after all of our mountain climbing in the Japan Alps the previous week, we hardly noticed the effort!  After checking into our hotel, we quickly showered and rushed out to catch a train going back the way we'd come.  On the 30-minute ride to Hama Ohtsu, we excitedly anticipated the awesome fireworks display we were going to witness.  As we neared our destination, loud booms reverberated outside, and we joined others on the train straining to catch glimpses of the fireworks display through the windows.  When we arrived, we encountered a large number of police officers trying to control the impressive crowd of people.  It was difficult simply to leave the train station, as each exit we tried was blocked off, creating crowded pools of people milling around in confusion.  Flashes of light and explosions nearby teased us with the knowledge that we were missing all the action.  After 15 minutes of fruitless attempts simply to get down from the train station to the street, a friendly officer let us jump over a barricade, and we made our way to a nearby intersection full of onlookers.  Our view was obstructed by buildings, so we could only see the explosions high in the air.  Sho asked if we could go to the lakeside about a half mile away for a better view, but I had a bad feeling about this situation, and decided to stay put.  
  The show ended 10 minutes later, and immediately masses of people started to converge on the station, and nervous police officers started yelling directions.  Sho and I realized how insanely crowded it was about to become and raced up the staircase into the train station.  Many others ran alongside us, like people fleeing a natural disaster.  As we rushed along a crowded corridor leading to the turnstiles, we rounded a corner to find a line of police officers pulling up a barricade.  We were told to stop.  A mass of people closed in on us from behind, and we were soon trapped in a sea of thousands of nervous revelers.  The summer night's heat and humidity were oppressive and made worse by the press of people.  Sho and I nursed a bottle of water we that that was 1/3 full, wondering how long we would have to wait.
  Ever increasing numbers of people were trapped behind us and another barricaded entrance to our left.  Each group eyed the other, wondering which one the police would let through first.  The authorities held us there for about 20 minutes until a huge block of people amassed at the turnstiles had shuffled onto the waiting trains below, then gave our group the go-ahead.  Sho and I pushed forward and were caught again in a crushing standstill at the turnstiles.  It took another 20 minutes to squeeze our way down to the train platform.  Sho held on tightly to my hand and finished off our water.  When our train arrived, we were crammed in along with the rest of humanity, riding practically cheek-to-cheek with strangers until we reached the outskirts of Kyoto.
  By the time we returned to our hotel, we had been gone for 2 hours and had only seen 10 minutes of fireworks!
  "Now you know what the word 'fiasco' means," I joked to Sho, as we got out of our sweat-soaked clothes and cleaned off.  We snuggled in bed, happy to be safely far removed from the insane crowds of the Hama Ohtsu Fireworks Festival.         

Day 43: Seki to Hikone

Thursday, August 6, 2009
  Rode 90km (55 miles) from Seki City to Hikone.  

  We enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast prepared by Mrs. Kameyama, then loaded our bikes for a 90km (56 miles) ride to Hikone.  A reporter from another newspaper in Gifu stopped by to interview us and take pictures with our bikes and the Kameyama family.  At 10:30, we finished the interview, said goodbye to our gracious hosts, and rode to a nearby game room for an hour of electronic fun for Sho.
  At noon we left Seki City, where the Shimano gears on my Trek 520 bike are made, and made our way through a drenching downpour that later turned to clouds.  Since it was in the high 80's, we didn't bother with any rain gear, assuming correctly that the rain would stop, and the wind would dry us off as we biked.  We rode through ever-increasing urban sprawl and had to deal with constant traffic all day.  We passed through Sekigahara, scene of a decisive battle in 1600 at the end of a long period of civil war in Japan, that cemented Tokugawa Ieyasu's rise to power and ushered in over 250 years of a brutally effective totalitarian system.  Sho and I didn't dwell for long on the past, though, intent on making it to Hikone, where we found a cheap hotel, ate dinner at an izakaya and were snoozing by 10pm. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Day 42: Wonderful Hospitality

Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Biked 40km (25 miles) from Gujo Hachiman to Seki City. Interviewed by local newspaper reporter. Stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Kameyama, visiting onsen together and eating delicious dinner.

  Sho and I enjoyed a traditional Japanese breakfast in the ryoukan inn and took another soak in the onsen before heading out of Gujo Hachiman at 9:30am.  Today's destination was an easy 40km (25 miles) ride to Seki City on Route 156.  The road had more traffic than I was used to, after so much time on deserted mountain roads.  But it was generally a downward slope, as we steadily made our way toward the sea down the eastern spine of the Japan Alps.  We were done with the mountains!  A sense of relief washed over me, as I realized that we were now likely to complete the trip.  I didn't tell Sho before the ride started, but I calculated that we had maybe a 50% chance of making it all the way from one end of Japan to the other in 2 months.  Since we had never attempted anything like this before, I recognized the possibility that the extreme demands might be too much for Sho, or my legs might give out, or we might have a serious mechanical problem with the bikes.  But we had just completed a week of ridiculously hard mountain riding and were still going strong.
  "If we can bike over the Japan Alps, we can do the rest!" I told Sho.
  "Yeah baby!" he yelled out with pride.
  Kengo Kameyama was waiting for us along Route 156 as we entered the outskirts of Seki City.  I met his son, who directs the NYC office of the Japan National Tourism Organization, while preparing for the ride.  Mr. and Mrs. Kameyama offered to host us as we passed through their home town.  Riding a small moped, Mr. Kameyama led us to his home, where we met his wife and incredibly cute grand daughter.  Sho and I played games with the little girl, which reminded us how much we missed our own 2 year old, Saya.
  A reporter from the local newspaper spent 2 hours interviewing us about the ride.  She was particularly interested in Sho's perspective, and why a 41 year old would interrupt his career to do such a thing.  Sho said that it was all about sampling Japan's fabulous game rooms, while I tried to explain that this was both an attempt to celebrate life by doing something adventurous and a way to give Sho a deeper understanding of his Japanese heritage.
  After we finished the interview, Mr. Kameyama drove us to an excellent onsen, where we washed away our cares in a series of steaming, bubbling, indoor and outdoor tubs.  We luxuriated while enjoying views of the surrounding forests that encircled the outdoor baths.  We melted into massage chairs in the waiting lounge, my sore muscles making me grimace as the chair hammered, squeezed, rolled and crushed me into submission.  
  Although I could tell that we were supposed to  be back home for dinner, Mr. Kameyama consented to Sho's request to stop by a nearby game room, where we spent 45 minutes in computer-generated fantasy land.  While watching Sho play a game, I suddenly became light-headed and didn't feel well.  One of the consequences of riding a bike many hours day after day is a metabolism that demands constant sustenance.  I hadn't eaten for several hours, distracted by the newspaper interview and onsen visit, and my body was starting to protest.  I zipped over to a Mr. Donut across from the game room and quickly munched down 3 donuts, immediately feeling much better.
  Mrs. Kameyama had prepared an impressive meal of sashimi, fried chicken, cooked veggies and sukiyaki.  Sho and I ate and ate and ate, staying up late to relish the delicious food and wonderfully friendly company.

Day 41: Dancing the Night Away

August 4, 2009
Biked 85km (53 miles) from Shirakawa Go to Gujo Hachiman. Sho and I joined in the Bon Odori dancing - fun!

  After an excellent breakfast of grilled fish, rice, mountain vegetables, etc. in the ryoukan Japanese inn in Shirakawa, Sho and I set off on Route 156 toward Gujo Hachiman, a small town famous for nightly traditional street dances during the summer.  We were looking forward to joining in the fun, but had to get there first.  We endured a 30-minute steady climb up a meandering hill under the hot glare of the summer sun until we reached the top of a dam system.  The rest of the day's ride was flat to down, a nice treat after a week of mountain climbing.  We rode along Lake Miboro Ko, whose waters shimmered in the bright sun.  Suffering from the 95 degree temps, Sho and I talked longingly of jumping into the cold water.  
  When the lake was formed by the dam system, four villages with 230 homes were submerged.  Some cherry blossom trees were transplanted from one of the villages to the lake's edge.  Every spring when the blossoms bloom for a week or two, then fall to the ground, it is said that each falling blossom represents a tear for the mourning villagers who lost their homes.
  Although we didn't take a dip in the lake, we did stop along the way at a small convenience store in a tiny town, whose owner took an interest in our trip.  We chatted for a while, and she pointed us to the modest post office next door, which doubled as a tourist information center.  The clerks jumped up when I walked in, perhaps surprised to have a tourist instead of a local drop in.  They gave me a map of Gujo Hachiman and told me where tonight's dancing would take place.
  Sho and I pulled in to Gujo Hachiman at 3pm, dripping sweat and ready to get away from the pounding sun.  We navigated through the pleasant village, crossing over stone bridges and along narrow alley ways until we found the neighborhood that would host the evening's dancing.  People were already putting up lanterns in preparation.  We interrupted one such group, who told us about a nearby ryoukan Japanese inn that had a room available.  As we entered the lobby, a large Golden Retriever peered at us from behind the front desk, feet perched on a chair and head cocked expectantly in our direction.  Sho offered a friendly bark, and he sauntered off to retrieve a human.  After checking in, we immediately changed into the yukata robes and slippers provided by the inn, and took advantage of the ryoukan's onsen, cleaning off the sweaty grime and soaking briefly in the hot water.  There was a separate tub full of cold water that we slipped into at the end.  Our sweat immediately changed to goose bumps, but we didn't mind.  It felt great to finally cool off.
  We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town, which boasted an imposing castle standing guard on a hill looming over the pleasant village.  A powerful river passed through, and we ate shouyu osembe crackers and pumpkin ice cream on the way to the water's edge.  Sho tossed stones into the rushing current and talked excitedly about how long a person might be able to survive, if they fell into the river.  "Not long, buddy," I observed.  "And let's not find out."
  We found a sushi restaurant, where we stored up energy for a night of dancing!  As daylight faded, the streets took on a festive atmosphere, and streams of people started to converge on our neighborhood.   Most wore festive outfits of colorful yukata robes and geta wooden shoes.  Although the sun was down, the heat and humidity were oppressive, and we all glistened with sweat.  Sho energetically ran back and forth in front of street vendors who sold food and enticed passersby with various games.  Sho enjoyed trying to scoop up plastic fish out of a cylindrical plastic tub of flowing water using a small paper net that immediately started to disintegrate after getting wet.  
  Then the dancing began.  A large float dominated the main dancing street, and a band perched atop blasted out a rhythmic traditional tune over blaring loud speakers.  The lead singer shouted out the lyrics excitedly and a long line of dancers snaked around the length of the street, steadily making their way around in a circle.  Local organizers helped to keep order, as the procession of dancers progressed from one end of the street to the other.  Everyone was encouraged to dance, and after watching for a few minutes, Sho and I dove into the mix!
  There were a series of dances that changed with the music, each one involving a collection of steps and hand movements repeated over and over.  Invariably, just as we finally got a dance down, the music changed and we had to learn a new set of moves.  No one seemed to mind our poor dancing, but some local teenagers took a charitable interest in us.  They patiently counted "one. two, three, one, two, three..." as they showed us the moves, and we butchered them.
  The dance finally ended at 10:30pm, and while Sho hung out with our new friends, I joined a group of young men pushing the heavy float into a parking lot at the end of the street to be stored away until next time.
  Sho and I returned to our inn, sweaty and exhausted, but excitedly recounting the fun we'd had.  "What an awesome way to celebrate summer!" Sho observed, as we snuggled in bed, ready for a good night's sleep.    

Day 40: Shirakawa Go

Monday, August 3, 2009
Summary: Biked 35km (21 miles) to Shirakawa Go and surrounding area. World Heritage Site with many old homes designed for heavy snow fall w/ A-frame thatch roof. Yesterday's weather was rain and 68 degrees. Today's was sunny and 90.

  I awoke at 5:45 to a bright morning on the mountain top, and decided to explore a bit, while Sho snoozed in the hiker's hut. Not far away, a tent was set up with information laid out on a table about a nearby hiking trail on Amo Pass. A collection of walking sticks were stacked by the trail's entrance. We had discovered a place intended to be helpful to the mountain traveler! I meditated on the beaucolic scene, appreciating the birds' morning songs and the gentle rustling of wind through the verdant forest. I gazed at the expansive blue sky above and felt a deep sense of peacefulness, as the rising sun's rays played off of the mountain chain stretching out in every direction.
Sho woke up soon thereafter, and we enjoyed a breakfast of pre-made pancakes and dried squid. As we were packing our bags on to the bikes, a mountain ranger pulled up in a truck. I asked if it had been ok to sleep in the hut.
"That's what it's for! I hope you were comfortable," he responded with a smile. "Your son rode all the way up the mountain too?" He looked at Sho with a mixture of admiration and incredulity. "Be careful on your descent. There have been rock slides, and the road is even narrower than the side you biked up."
We discovered right away that the ranger was right, and even though I did my best to avoid debris from the rock slides, the back tire, weighed down by two heavy panniers and my butt, got a flat 15 minutes into the descent. I rolled my eyes at the annoyance, and unloaded all of the gear from the bikes, removed the wheel and examined the punctured tube. I patched the hole and checked for any remaining sharp objects before re-inserting the tube, pumping it up and re-loading the panniers onto the bikes. The whole process took 30 minutes, and Sho sat patiently by the road, playing his DS.
Once under way again, we took it slowly down the narrow, winding debris-strewn road, staying well away from the precipitous drop-off. Only a 3-foot guard rail protected us from the fall, and we would have easily hurled ourselves right over it, if we lost control. My numb fingers and burning forearms protested as I squeezed the brakes hard, determined to make it down safely.
As we neared Shirakawa Go, we started to see the distinctive, thick A-frame thatched roof houses that have made this place famous in Japan. Designed to withstand the massive amounts of snow dumped in the heart of the Japan Alps, the houses represent the resiliance and ingenuity of the local populace. It was sunny and 90 degrees, and I had difficulty picturing the surrounding green fields covered in snow.
Our steep, mountain road ended abruptly, and we were suddenly in the midst of tourists tramping back and forth through Shirakawa Go's main street, snapping pictures of the village. They all must have come from another route, because we had not been passed by a single car on our descent from Amo Pass. We lingered for a while, appreciating the unique spot and pushing our bikes on small side streets through lush farmland. We biked outside of the town center to an onsen bath house, where we cleaned off from our mountain adventure and reveled in a deeply relaxing soak. An onsen always feels great, but it is particularly fabulous to deeply exhausted muscles after biking over a mountain.
We checked into a small ryokan inn, where we were served a delicious traditional Japanese dinner. Sitting on pads in a tatami mat room, wearing a comfortable yukata robe, surrounded by dishes of beautifully-prepared food served as a significant contrast to our lonely mountain experience the night before. Luxury!
We were asleep by 9pm, snuggled up comfortably beneath thick comforters on top of deliciously deep futons...