Friday, March 28, 2008


A poignant little clip here that turns two regular sights (at least in SF) on their heads.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Road Warriors, Part Two

Ah, where did I leave off? At the Marine Culture Center, right. This aquarium/education center/hostel is one example of Japan's many many pork projects that inject great deals of money into certain municipalities as an economic band aid for maybe a decade or two. It's not a bad place though--quite the contrary, it was a very fun place to spend a comfortable evening after a hard ride. But word to the wise, don't drink more than two beers when your metabolism's running full steam. Gets right on top of you quick.

Now for day two, the so-called Hell Day. You can't tell it by looking at anything but a quality contour map that Highways 388 and 122 that run along the coast out of Oita into Miyazaki is a very challenging bit of tarmac for cyclists. This is not coastal plain happy land, it's more like Big Sur in that it's rocky, twisty, rises and falls quickly and towns are either at the top or bottom of cliff walls. Only recently have the Japanese--who love doing it by the way--started punching holes through mountains with some almost-sea level tunnels, but I avoided all but one of these on alternate routes. One of those routes was entirely by accident and wasn't, I found out, an approved alternate, however there was something about that burning scrapyard (no, really) the map said I should ride through that didn't hit me as kosher. Better take the 400 meter pass instead and go a few kilometer and half an hour out of my way.

Scenes from Highways 122 and 388 along the coast. Beautiful until you think that one has to pass over all those mountains.

I caught up to the other "real" cyclists across the border in Miyazaki's Kitaura-machi and hung with them for a bit until I ran out of water and stopped for a break. They went ahead and I didn't see them until the end of the day. After another excruciating few-hundred-meter pass in Kitaura I dropped down into the merciful flatlands of Nobeoka--the only flat stretch of the day at around fifteen kilometers. Still, I had to lament the beautiful places I'd just passed. I was a man on a mission this day, but plans are already in the works to return for some beach camping and cycling with some of the folks I bonded with this trip.

I stopped for a very quick bite in Nobeoka at what must be the Japanese equivalent of Whole Foods or Trader Joe's called "San Live". Not to be confused with the "Sun Live" chain of stores in Japan, this place was amazingly well-stocked and modern--so unlike the sterile, bland (in appearance and selection) markets I've visited here. Getting back on the road was some kind of hell though as two opponents came at me simultaneously to make the rest of the day's ride an exercise in pain suppression. First is that my body was protesting the previous 150 kilometers it had ridden in the past day-and-a-half. As I said before this is the longest ride I've ever done and now it was also the most climbing I've ever done in such a short period so my knees were starting to ache, my ankle was sending shooting pains when I bent it certain ways and my arms were jumping on the wagon also since I was putting weight on them for prolonged periods. The second opponent was nature, specifically wind. I just don't get the wind patterns in Kyushu--there wasn't a day when we weren't riding into a bit of a breeze, at least. This day though it was like a typhoon battering against your chest making you give twice the effort to gain the same ground and normal. Just horrible.

But you can't fight Mother Nature on such things, just curse her name in your sleep. Other things though, like the human practice of taking wrong turns, they can and should be helped. Unless you're me on a bicycle, that is. See, part of the appeal of cycling for me is that it's my form of meditation. The rhythmic peddling and controlled breathing that dictate pace, these things clear my mind and allow me to think clearly or to just be. Despite the gusty winds I was enjoying the riverside ride our route guides suggested out of Nobeoka, but they neglected to mention that one must be vigilant for the Highway 326/10 split, with 326 being the one I wanted. From the river it was hard to notice it and in my bliss I kept on keepin' on Highway 10...for another five kilometers. A railroad crossing that I know shouldn't have existed on 326 tipped me off I was going the wrong way, but I'd tacked on an extra ten kilometers to the ride by that point.

Highway 10's riverside bike path is gorgeous and a joy to ride. It just happened to be the wrong way...

326 is, as major highways in Japan go, not a bad road to ride by any means. There's plenty to see and wide lanes, as opposed to the narrow, barely-two-laned 122 and 388 of earlier in the day. The only issue I guess I have with it is that going north into Oita and Ume-machi (today's goal) it is entirely uphill. Steady, yes, but all of it for almost twenty five kilometers never sees any respite from the climb. Two things broke the monotony though, first being the group of three American riders from Colorado I met who'd started two days earlier in Kagoshima and were biking all the way to Hokkaido--the entire length of Japan! Simply astounding. Second was our four Japanese riding companions who had somehow got in front of me and were resting at a convenience store. How did they get in front of me? If you look at the map from my last post you'll see a small twisty bit of road above the map edge, where it says "Kitaura Town". Yeah, they cheated and took that, cutting about forty kilometers off their ride. Oh, I'm not angry or anything, I just found it amusing.

Me. The finish line. My precious bicycle. Am I not like some beautiful ballerina in those riding pants?

With acid running through my veins, aching ankles and a crotch chafe that I'll have to talk to a therapist about some day I pulled into Ume-machi and the "Umeria" campground, which sounds more like some rare jungle disease than anything else if you ask me. It was 2:30 PM and the 85+ kilometer ride had taken my six hours including breaks. I rode about for a bit looking for the support cars or just anybody in our group and didn't find anyone. Was I first? I couldn't believe it given the detours I'd taken. I kinda lounged around in the shade wearing my full biking regalia scaring locals for a while. Good times. When Mike, Oita's resident Ironman Mormon and the previous day's leader, pulled in at 3:15 PM on his bike saying he'd been riding like to hell to catch me I knew it was true--I'd won (this non-contest)! Time for a celebratory soft serve ice cream, blueberry/vanilla swirled mix! Mmmm...the taste of victory.

Mike was followed fifteen minutes later by Guy, Joe and Alaska, then the Japanese cyclists, then Moe and Daniel from South Africa and everyone else spread out over the next couple of hours. The cabin we all crammed into was the scene of much laughing, storytelling and philosophizing that evening and it stands as one of the best nights of my life. There's just something about shared physical exertion that brings everyone together, you know? The running gag/game of the night was to find the best movie title that could be following by "...between your legs." Dinner was salad, spaghetti and cookies from (OMFG!) Fukuoka Costco. Sleep was sudden, deep and absolute.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Road Warriors, Part One

We came, we rode, we did it for The Kids!

This past Thursday, March 20th saw the start of something I've been waiting through four months of miserable winter for--the annual Oita Prefecture JET Charity Bike Ride! Three days, about 275 kilometers, several bananas, thousands of feet of mountain pass climbing and only my brain to keep me company. If that's not a recipe for hijinks I don't know what is.

The completely unremarkable Sakanoichi Station. If I lived in this part of Oita City I would almost certainly turn to crime just to add some spice to life.

Ostensibly this ride was to support Room to Read, the charity of choice for we Oita JETs that funds school construction in third-world nations, but for me it was a test of pretty much everything I've done with cycling for the past four years. I think most of you know the story: I started riding in Japan four years back just to get to and from school, which then morphed into recreational cycling at all hours around Oita. When I returned to America and my motorcycle ran into problems I adopted the bicycle as my primary means of transit, going virtually everywhere on it and making friends by it. It became a lifestyle. But still, I'd never gone further than runs down the Peninsula to visit friends in Palo Alto and that can't be more than thirty miles of mostly flat terrain. This trip was to confirm that I had it in me to do a serious bike tour.

The ride route is the green line. I couldn't find one of this quality that also went down into Miyazaki and Nobeoka City so just imagine that the line goes off the map another few inches.

First I'd like to fill you in on the parameters of this ride, where it was going and how it was being conducted. There were around twenty riders in all, mostly American, British and Australian ALTs, but with four Japanese riders who were teachers from an agricultural school in Mie (which we'd be passing through) and two ALTs from our southern neighboring prefecture of Miyazaki. Following the entire group were a rotating cast of support personnel numbering about ten. Among the whole group there were four hardcore cyclists, not counting myself: Guy from Miyazaki, Mr. "I don't eat chocolate or drink alcohol in a quest for a low BFI" (that's not a dig at Guy, he's a real upstanding, uh, guy); Mike from Utah, head of the Oita International Center; Creepy Joe from Yufuin, a forty-something man who hit on every woman in the group at some point; and "Alaska", a JET from Alaska.

The ride started in Oita City at Sakanoichi Station, an annexed suburb on the eastern edge of the ever-creeping urban landscape and seaside industrial blight. From here we headed East to Saganoseki and followed the seaside road down, down, down through Usuki, Tsukumi and Saiki until finally reaching the first night's lodging at Kamae-machi's Marine Culture Center. While the first day had only two challenging inclines, day two was virtually nothing but extreme inclines. The coastal road down to Nobeoka from Kamae is like a sadistic roller coaster that only lets up once you drop down to sea level in Nobeoka...only to have to climb back into the mountains for our rented cabins in backwater Ume-machi, back over the border in Oita Prefecture. The third day had less than ten kilometers of challenging climb as we headed over a mountain pass into Mie and then flattened out (somewhat) through farming valleys and pasture land. The final stretch was the twenty-five kilometers following the Ono River back to our start/finish point of Sakanoichi. The route isn't particularly done justice by the map above, what with all the twists, turns and alternate routes, but the days were 108, 85 and 75 kilometers, respectively. However, for me those numbers are highly fuzzy as you'll soon read.

Indeed I can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time!

Thursday started, literally, dark and ominous with a thick layer of rain clouds looking more and more like they'd fulfill the 10% chance of rain prophecy. And it was windy, oh my how it was windy. Bikes were being tossed over like bits of paper and the damn stuff never seemed to be at one's back. And I was going to need that too because a handful of us who brought our bikes by car had nowhere safe to park and ended up hunting for 45 minutes while the entire group started ahead of us. So much for group solidarity. I was delayed another handful of minutes when my pedals decided to fall off. Don't worry, I fixed it and was on my way without incident for the rest of the trip from them. Now, I know this wasn't supposed to be a race, but here I am with a badass roadbike, all done up in (sexy) riding gear and setting myself up to be last into Kamae. There were certain people who I especially didn't want to arrive behind as well so I stepped on it and sprinted down the coast to Usuki, passing two ALTs and the four Japanese riders, but seeing nobody else. Oh well, I resigned myself to fate and pulled into a Portuguese restaurant in Usuki I'd always wanted to try for a Guiness and some J-Portuguese fusion cuisine--you know, real biker food.

Leaving Usuki is one of the two challenges for the day, the double threat of a steep hill climb for a couple kilometers followed by a 2.5 kilometer long tunnel with no sidewalk and terrible exhaust venting. Thank you Twin Peaks, Buena Vista Heights and Potrero Hill for giving me the tools by which to fearlessly book up hills! In the level tunnel I was able to get a tailwind and tuck into the calm air behind some cars to keep up at a brisk 50 KPH or thereabouts. Descending into Tsukumi on the other side I discovered half the group stopped off at Lawsons for a quick snack break/lunch meaning the hill and tunnel had killed them. With a little time on my hands I went to pay my friend Lisa a visit and then went to take on one of the more inscrutable route choices of the entire trip.

Between Tsukumi and Kamiura heading south there exists a tunnel approximately two kilometers in length and with at least two bends inside of it. To reach the same destination without the aid of the tunnel would require a ten kilometer detour around a cape with unbelievably steep roads and frequented by armies of concrete and gravel trucks. So the tunnel is a godsend, right? Well, it would be's not finished yet. The trip's planners assured us that the surface inside was entirely paved and it was only the far end's entrance/exit that hadn't been quite finished yet and I had no choice but to believe them because there were no lights in there other than tiny, faint LED fire hose markers and I'd left my light in my car. Hey, I had to keep my CF frame light, gimme a break! What was very mysterious about the affair was riding blissfully past the construction crew working outside the entrance and them no caring that some American dude on a bike is riding into the blackness.

Past the tunnel and into Kamiura the seaside fishing towns look like Hawaiian resort towns that have seen better days: winter-withered palm trees line the shores; souls are scarce anywhere around town; and the paint on all the fishing boats are peeling unchecked. I've been here twice in the summer though so I know it turns lively as the year gets on. Before I knew it though I was in downtown Saiki trying to find my way to the country lane that leads to the final climbing challenge of the day, but failing miserably and making a four kilometer unintentional detour until a super-hot gas station attendant set me right.

By this time in the day I'd gone over eighty kilometers and I had to admit it was all wearing on me quite badly. Climbing the hill I had to really concentrate on points in the distance and set them as mini-goals for the whole three to four kilometers of climbing. Bombing down the backside of this pass into the northern reaches of Kamae was one of the best feelings in the past few years of cycling as I was certainly breaking the posted speed limit.

Kamae is one of the most unique seaside fishing towns I've ever seen. Perched between the sea and nearly vertical cliff sides, the town is like a snake clinging to land trying not to be swept into the sea, contouring itself into and around several coves and capes for kilometers on end and never more than a two hundred meters wide. Following the snake for another forty-five minutes I finally came to the goal, Kamae's Marine Culture Center. Miraculously I was the third to arrive. I bought a cookie to celebrate. I earned it after all.

More hard road slog to come when I pick this up again tomorrow. Good night for now!


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Good Ship No Name

Graceful curves it lacks; high tech gizmos and fly rims too. Its engine is only 2/10ths of a liter larger than my motorcycle. It's an automatic and the steering wheel is on the wrong side. Still, I've bought a car to call my own in Japan!

The Honda Logo is a model we never got in the States in the mid-nineties, probably because it's only just a tad smaller than a Civic and fills a similar market segment. Surprisingly though it's a fabulous little car with exceptional acceleration, ride comfort and fuel consumption. The thing's a bucking bronco at red lights where I can out-drag aggressive Japanese drivers and torment old ladies trying to cross the street. The best thing about this buy though has to be its price--I snagged the bastard for only 100,000 J-bucks Less than $1,000) from an outgoing JET eager to sell, which was 1/4 what he paid for it a couple years earlier. He took great care of it and she's flawless other than the inevitable faded paint. Actually, that brings up another great thing about this buy, the paint job. Exposure has stripped the car of its glossy texture and now it's an absolutely perfect platform to paint on. Nothing huge, just doodles every here and there. Or maybe something huge. Maybe I'll turn it into an art car. There's a store in Fukuoka that sells Lego men so hey, maybe I'll diorama the roof. The possibilities are limitless and that's the way I like it!

Anywho, I took a day off today to head into Oita City and change the ownership on it, spending about an hour at the Japanese DMV, a.k.a. rikuunkyouka. Got that? I'm feeling pretty good about that whole experience despite how exciting your mind's eye might be picturing it. Sure, it's a dull, soul-sucking place (or places, actually) and process, but the guy who sold me the car played up the level of Japanese skill needed to complete the process and I seemed to pass the test well enough. Nothing like a trip to the DMV to stroke one's ego, eh?


Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Handa Kogen

I felt bad about not getting (acceptable) pictures of Kizuna Onsen for everyone and hatched a plan to go back there today rather suddenly. But I'd spent the previous night drinking beer and eating ridiculous amounts of okonimiyaki pushed on me by a couple of Japanese men much more drunk than I and was feeling, well, guilty about that night's unhealthy dietary choices so I took my bike along with my towel and shampoo.

The Yamanami Highway looking south and north, respectively. Yes, that's a smoking volcano crater. Yes, that's a dude ranch called "Rancho Grande".

In Japanese, kogen means "plateau" or "highlands" and is a common geographic moniker around the rim of the massive Aso caldera in neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture. Indeed, Handa Kogen is high, flat and breathtakingly beautiful--an ideal place to explore on two wheels. I started at the Otsuri Bashi, the highest suspension bridge in Japan and that goes absolutely nowhere, then rode up through the town of Handa, straight past my target of Kizuna Onsen and up a few kilometers of the Yamanami Highway. Sticking with the day's health conscious attitude I stopped at an all-tofu restaurant and got a massive and massively delicious lunch set. I think the most unhealthy thing in there was the rice.

It came with a tiny, cute little hibachi grill! How can one resist?

Kizuna was as wonderful as before and this time I got the pics...look!

The rotenburo at Kizuna Onsen. Perfect, iron-rich water and a breathtaking view to boot.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Five Stages of Grief

Geez, who's up for some pungent foods? Anyone? Anyone...?

Every generation lays claim to some traumatic historical moment that its members will never forget where they were and what they were doing: the Kennedy assassination; the explosion that destroyed the Challenger; September 11. On Friday night I had a bit of a traumatic moment of my own I don't think I'll ever forget.

I was writing an email on my computer at exactly 9:17 PM on February 29 when I got The Message from Lindsey who'd gone to visit Lisa in Tsukumi that night. The message read simply "The Trandor is gone! I almost cried." My eyes wide, heart pumping irregularly, sweat collecting on the brows, I stared at that message long and hard to comprehend its magnitude. Trandor. Gone. Inconceivable.

Need to plan a wedding but are just too lazy...or white? Call Lazy Cinderella's right NOW! The next one is a hair salon I've been meaning to take shot of for about four years now.

What is "Trandor" exactly? I think only my family that came to visit me in Japan have experienced its myriad intoxicating charms among the readers of this blog. Trandor is a bakery located in Oita Station that makes pastries, sandwiches, fresh bread and various other things that only marginally fall under the banner or "baked goods" for the city's commuters. When I was studying at Oita U. (if one took the train to and from school) Trandor was the reason you came and went to class--to hell with learning and edjumacation, gimme a shrimp roll sandwich and some cheese toast! As I'd mentioned before, any Japanese city worth a damn has a Trandor in their station...and now I would have to face the reality that the city I love would be, well, a neutered one.

I went into denial. "There must be some misunderstanding, a sick trick of the light or narcoleptic fit perhaps caused you to miss it," I thought as I emailed Lindsey for confirmation. "I wish it were, now I'm stuck with Mr. Donut..." came the reply. Angry at the situation I kicked the table in my room and hurt my ankle. Ow. Perhaps it was the pain, but I reverted right back to denial. I was heading to Oita for Lisa's b-day party the next day anywho and decided to swing by the station to see with my own eyes what the fate of Trandor was, hoping that if it wasn't there I could move on to the bargaining phase and start a petition for its reinstatement.

Duncan says he bought this shirt on 10-minute's notice for this party, but who really has luck that good? Next door Lisa and Nobu blow out the candles on the heavenly chocolate birthday cake Ippei bought.

That crack smoking sonuvabitch...Trandor hadn't gone anywhere. Its hot racks of curry pizza pitas, jam-filled buns and hot dog permutations were right there staring back at me with delicious eyes. Lindsey later explained she meant the Trandor at Hita Station, but that one's always been sub-par and I couldn't care less about it. I chewed her out properly at Lisa's party. The pink and black-themed bash was held at Redwood Bar and Grill just a few blocks from my old dorm/apartment in Nagahama and is always a blast to hang at. The owners are obsessed--OBSESSED!--with Texas and take vacations there whenever they can. Well, I won't tell them that there aren't any Redwood trees in Texas as long as they continue making tasty Tex-Mex and burgers.