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.

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