Monday, March 30, 2009

Oh, Gravity

I wonder what real bike touring enthusiasts would think of the route I planned—Sunday larf or masochist's delight? Well, like I said before, beauty and a challenge were my goals and luckily the two go hand in hand around Kyushu, with its propensity for swift and brutal elevation change around the mostly mountainous northeast/middle. But most Oita JETs don't know this and the first half of the first day was deceptively undemanding. Oh my, if they only knew...

We started the day from the Nanasegawa Nature Park in Oita City, a lovely little oasis of riverside delight surrounded by shopping malls, big-box stores, chain restaurants and used car lots. If the area didn't have a Starbucks at Wasada Town and that burger shack owned by a lunatic then I'd never visit this part of town for anything else. As expected, the group started an hour late and even then some stragglers were still showing up, but such is the way with the herding of cats (who ride bikes). We rode south to where the Ono River begins to enter the hilly surrounding towns south of the city before turning west on the mostly flat route 57. This road meanders through farmland and past a lot of green nothing, but sometimes that's precisely what hits the spot, particularly when the mercury's passing twenty-degrees and the sky is a gorgeous shade of blue. Sometimes things just come together right.

I stopped for a 45-minute lunch at a michi no eki and rode the junk food express with stopovers in Fried Chickensville and Bluberry Fro-Yoburg. Little did I know that Owen, the man I'd given (in a very kind gesture he tipped me 2000-yen afterwards) my refurbished Giant hybrid to, had passed me while I enjoyed a banana. That man is a machine, I swear. His philosophy in these matters is to push as far as possible without stopping and I don't think he took more than a 5-minute food stop as his “lunch” any of the three days. Still, I caught him after a few kilometers, but didn't manage to shake him until the big uphill into Kuju. By that point I didn't want to shake him though. It's such a rare occasion when I meet JETs that I can stand without having to resort to alcohol, let alone ones I actually like on the merits of their personality. Geez, how much of a jackass does that make me sound like? Also, he was riding a bike that up until two days previous had been my bike and I felt a halo of pride hovering about that of the two lead bikes one I was riding and the other I used to ride...before leaving it out in the rain and snow for a year and letting it rust to a fine crap brown (Crayola, I'm sure you have your best men on making that color?) and then spending two weeks to get it back to tip-top condition. Anyways, we finished together.

Our lodging for the night was awesome for several reasons, the primary being that the campground's boundary backed up just about to the foot of the Kuju Mountain Range in all its splendor. The cabins were also impressively spacious and well-stocked, even coming with—gasp!—built-in heaters. But before checking in, indeed before even seeing the cabins, what most impressed me was the cafe truck parked in the lot open for business and the soft serve ice cream shack on the side of it with the always tantalizing kurogoma (black sesame) flavor. I opted for a iced cafe au lait at the roach coach and found the woman to be shockingly serious about her cuppa joe. Not only did I get a pre-prep battery of questions, she also stringently advised me about how to drink the dual-layered beverage afterwards. “Stir it before drinking to properly mix the milk and coffee.” I did as told, but it wasn't good enough for the coffee lady—I'm guessing nothing in life ever is for her. “Stir it more!” she loudly counseled and with an accompanying wild invisible cup and spoon gesture. The hassle finally did have its pay-off. That was a damn fine cup of coffee.

The remains of the day weren't without issue entirely, however. After I checked us in the management informed me that they had overbooked the campground's cabins by about twenty people for the night and since we were the single largest party the futons would be coming out of our supply. We were comped a bit, but I don't think it was twenty-people-sleeping-on-hardwood-floor's worth. Drama reared its ugly head after dinner as well when it was discovered two volunteers in their support car split off the route for about an hour for parts unknown and left riders in that section without help. They were tongue-lashed so severely by the volunteer coordinator that one went home then and there. It's a circus out here, folks.

I woke up early on Saturday and immediately sprung into action in what was to become my somewhat-begrudging role of Tour Bike Mechanic. As the bringer of “The Crate” (a milk crate filled with my own bike tools, chemicals, rags and spare parts) I instantaneously became that guy who will fix your bike when you've finally ridden it into the ground. I recently read a great article written a few years back from National Geographic Adventures about an explorer who set out with two Inuit men to take a look see around Baffin Island only to have their outboard motor fail too far out to paddle back. They found an island and spent a few days taking the engine apart and putting it back together several times before finally sealing the fuel line with kelp. Kelp. I felt similarly. One rider had an exploded tube and tire along the way (the tire walls had literally exploded out) that he was able to replace himself (with my $50 Vittoria kevlar road race tire—one of the best in the world), but somehow he had lost his axle and the bike had to be tossed in a car for my inspection later. Well, I found him an axle that would work, the problem being that it was on another bike. So I stole the entire wheel from one completely beyond help bike, put it on the second bike with a workable axle, stole that axle and put it on the first bike with my horribly expensive tire. Got all that? This kind of parts juggling act, not to mention seat and brake adjustments, chain work and gear inspections went on until the end of the trip.

Due to repairing bikes I was late getting on the road, but that didn't matter much since I'd passed everyone after about 10km/45 minutes. I did enjoy riding with Mike, a genuinely nice guy and excellent rider who works at the Oita International Plaza, but at some point after the topiary sculpture place (tens of them, lined up and of varying sizes) I turned around and he was gone. It wasn't too long after that interesting landmark that we all ran into a rather frightening impediment to our ride.

Controlled field burning (noyaki in Japanese) is a fairly common practice around this time of year, just prior to planting season. When we saw smoke rising from the direction our route would take us I don't think many of us thought it was anything but farmers readying their plots for the annual hot dog tree planting frenzy. To the left and right for many many kilometers one could feel the heat from barn-sized walls of flame licking your sweaty skin, some as far as a hundred meters away, some as close as the road shoulder (I put my outstretched foot through some flame, it was that close). And the it blinded the eyes and stuck to everything. A day after the ride ended ride participants received an email from Ryan, the ride coordinator, saying the thing we rode through wasn't noyaki, it was a full-fledged out of control grass fire! How were we allowed to ride through it without the road being closed? Why were people allowed to park on the side of the road, meters from flames, to film the spectacle? Why were there no fire trucks on the scene, the only suppression response I saw consisting of elderly men an women with back-mounted water sacks and bamboo rakes? Madness, I tell you.

Powering through Oguni, past Tsuetate Onsen and into Oyama before hitting Hita I was definitely making fantastic time, but a well-timed flat in town had me stopping off at Oharaya, a restaurant owned by my friends Luchi and Eriko, for lunch. Fixing the flat and enjoying lunch took the better part of an hour and I was resigned to losing my top spot, but just outside of town I caught Owen finishing up one of his power lunches at a Lawson and we rode on together. The final 10km of the day was almost entirely uphill and much steeper than the long slope from the previous day. Unlike that one though, this slope between Hita and our goal in Yamakuni contained absolutely no flat respites and after a while it really seemed like it would never end. Spotting the love hotel and tunnel at the top of the pass was one of the best endorphin rushes I've felt in quite some time. It was all downhill from here to the cabins—a flat-out bomb that would end up costing me dearly.

I tucked into my “aerodynamic” riding position (as aero as you can make a brick like me) and shot past Owen down the hill. Gravity kills, as they say, but now slipping its surly bonds after that climb I was grateful for its embrace. Tucked in I passed a Porsche. Occasionally I'll put my head down to check...I don't know...something on my bike that I think will fly off at these speeds, and it was with my head down that my bike leaped a foot in the air and my rear tire exploded with a report like a gunshot. Slowly apply brake, keep bars straight. Don't panic. Owen arrives and I'm checking everything over: Both my rims are bent and the braking surface distended, the result of impacting a fist-sized rock at, oh, 70kph. As my bike's revenge the rock got split in two, at least. What's worse is that I have to call a support car to take my unridable bike and I the final two kilometers to the goal. Humiliating.

The stock Shimano WH-500 wheels that came with my Cervelo aren't anything special, but I wasn't planning on replacing them. This is going to cost me at least a couple hundred bucks for some new wheels, probably some cheap Fulcrum Racing 7s in red. Well, I do like red.

Just thinking about shelling out more cash than I already am in my daily life is boiling my blood, so I'm going to end this already-too-long post here for the day. Tune in tomorrow to find out if I get back on the road for the final day.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

With the Wind

It's Friday morning now as I begin writing this and I'm sitting in the Board of Education offices drinking a Georgia-brand canned coffee against my better judgment. The concept of canned coffee in a cornucopia of flavors, hot and cold, from a machine was somehow so awesome to me I think a fuse would blow as a thread of blood extrudes from my nose if I tried to recall and express how I felt when I plunked my first 100-yen coin into a machine almost seven years ago and got...I don't remember, but who cares. However, like so many other things in Japan, the flavor has turned acrid in my mouth. The coffee is shit. It's filled with sugar and, in fact, I'm not sure how much actual coffee is in it at all. Maybe none? The can is made of steel instead of aluminum, maybe to withstand the heating process in the vending machine, maybe to prevent corrosion by coffee, and I can't help but wonder what greater good it could—no, should—be doing in the world. The guilt of gulping it down is more than I can stand. Oh, and don't bother thinking I should switch to sugarless canned coffees either. Remember in Alien(s) the blood of the flick's namesake? The Japanese have canned it for you to buy at a buck a pop.

And, of course, there's still the strangling Steel Can Guilt.

But in the end I still love The Land. The cherry blossoms are in bloom outside right now and it's only going to get warmer. Gloriously warmer. So it's with joy that I set out on my bike around town, around the natural world surrounding town, pushing back the boundaries every outing of where my bike and I have been. And it's with joy that I took part in another JET 3-day charity cycling tour around Oita, this time of my own design (though that part wasn't as joyous).

The route was as simple, elegant, gorgeous and challenging as I could conceivably get away with. Day one took the riders southwest of Oita City into the Taketa countryside before climbing into the town of Kuju. The second day climbed a bit more from Kuju before descending into Oguni on the Kumamoto Prefecture side of the border, north through Hita and over a pass into Yamakuni. The final day was a dead sprint home to Oita—after you got over the double passes in the way that is. Total distance: about 250 kilometers. Total climbing: I don't know, but a few thousand feet, at least.

Not only do these odd little sculptures stand proud and weird for themselves, they're also nearby where parts of Detroit Metal City was filmed. KRAUSERRRRRRR!!!

If the participants from the greater Oita JET community reads this I think they'll be just a tad angry, but I had three primary motivations for planning the route how I did. The first was as a reflection of the plight of the people we're raising money for. Pardon me for sounding sanctimonious, but I doubt many things in the participants' lives are as rough as what the kids in Laos that our charity is building a school for have gone through, so fuck you if you nearly take a swing at me for placing a (weak) mountain pass between you and the goal (an event that actually happened on the second day). Second, I wanted to show my colleagues that there is life outside The City and, whether they believe it or not, they're living in one of the most beautiful places in this country. Sure, beauty is subjective to an extent, but I think the people who say that have never been to the Kuju Highlands or Yabakei. So I'll just shove it down their throats and they'll enjoy the beauty, damn it, even while gazing upon it though sweat-stung eyes.

Ah, Kuju in the dawn at the border to our campground. Magnificent.

The final reason, and the one most likely to boil the blood, is that I did it for me, to challenge and assess myself. How far had I come from last year when both my legs and ass told me to stop—for Christsake, stop!—at the start of the third day? How far when that tour's aftermath consisted of two weeks of functional paralysis, of being just this side of ambulatory and taking a good two minutes per flight of stairs?

Nothing refreshes a weary rider like an iced coffee from a truck at the goal. More about the proprietor of this van later.

It's five days on now and the verdict is in: Everything's changed. No, I'm not talking about pro-level performance, but I'm firmly in a place of fitness that my chubby, bike-pushing, 13-year-old self could never possibly imagine. Each day's course was between 75-85 kilometers plus included at least one serious uphill segment of between 8 and 17 kilometers in length and I finished each in 4-5 hours—and that's factoring in long lunch breaks too. My legs and knees are fine too. I was late to meet Maia in Oita after the ride and ended up running from my car a couple blocks to the Starbucks where she was reading outside. Running! I couldn't ride my bike further than the Sonoda Supermarket across the bridge here in town for almost a month last year due to a sharp stabbing pain in my ankles. This year I'm back on it immediately, no delay. After those three days of protests and cries for help and attention from riders it's fantastic not to have one's own body doing the same.

I'll include more pics, trip details and why the tour will end up costing me hundreds of dollars more than I originally intended, but for now I'll end here and slag off from the town hall for a few hours. I've nothing really to do here and nobody cares where I am, as long as I'm in my desk chair at the start and end of business hours. Ah, these weird days of spring vacation sinecurist life...

Clutching my clothes thinking "Please let me change and not have to pose for more pictures. I'm filthy."


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Of Graduations and Skeezy Burger Joints

Ah, next week wraps up another school year in Japan and thank goodness because that means the psychopathic 3rd graders of Mori JHS are gone! Still, that leaves the 1st- soon-to-be 2nd-year students sporting a head full of bad juju to deal with in a couple weeks. Will their newfound seniority (at least over the incoming 1st-years) tame their wild streak or inflame it? Time will tell.

We had a lovely little graduation ceremony at Yahata JHS though, as I can attest to. These kids were quiet and sheepish when it came to English, but in comparison to the town's other schools of comperable or larger size they were angels and I was sad to see them go. The class also contained two of my more interesting students, Saki and Maki, a pair of identical twins who liked to bust a move with mad hip-hop dancing skills and sometimes showed up to class in full on cornrows. I'd like to say that they have a bright future in entertainment, but Saki (shit, was it Maki? I can't tell them apart!), I witnessed, is exceptionally good with kids and will probably end up teaching at the local preschool upon HS graduation. Oh well, knowing the Japanese Media Monster I can plausably see the twin thing being spun in either a good or evil direction, so perhaps it's for the best the act end sooner rather than later.


I've been fixing up an old hybrid bike to sell to an ALT named Owen for the past couple weeks and finally got around to delivering it yesterday evening in Oita City. We met at a shopping mall called Wasada Town and did the exchange before shooting off for some grub. A few weeks ago a  friend of mine, Betsy, told me about a nearby burger shack that sounded fantastic and I'd been wanting to try it out since then and almost did on one occasion. Owen and I tracked it down not too far away and got into its unique vibe right away: It really is a tiny little shack plastered with baseball paraphenilia, a few plastic lawn chairs for seating, no tables and a garden faucet in lieu of a sink to wash ones hands in. Oh, and next to the lawn chairs was a big experimental Kyushu Electric wind turbine.

The burgers were ridiculously cheap and even with a side of fries I only paid 680 yen--virtually highway robbery in Japan. And my god, what a massive hunk was! The beef patty was over-seasoned, but I think it was designed to help season all the rest of the lettuce (maybe a quarter-head's worth), onion (half of one, I'm sure), tomato, mayo and ketchup. And then there are the inexplicable toppings of a fried egg and a bite-sized bit of breaded, fried pork. Actually, the egg is a sort of staple of Japanese burgers, but still. And neither of us had taken but two bites of our burgers when the proverbial shit hit the fan.

A woman and her two kids fresh out of baseball practice pull into the stand's dirt parking lot and order two burgers to go. The woman says something about going to watch TV in her car (the proportion of cars with GPS/TV units is much higher in Japan than in the US) and retreats back there. The owner of the place, a stocky, surly looking dude is pissed at her for something, neither of us know at this point why, but goes about making the burgers. When he's done he calls her over to come get the burgers and she tries to abscond with them back to her car without paying while his back is turned--the classic dine-n'-dash. The owner catches her doing it and she tries to play it off, saying she has the money and is going to eat in the car first. Nope, this guy's not buying it.

Some other customers arrive and the owner is out of the stand approaching the woman's car. Between shouting expletitives at the woman he tells the customers to leave because this will take too long. Dutifully they hightail it. It's reaching a weird fever pitch now where the owner is shouting at her rolling his consonants like a Yakuza and the woman is speaking extremely politely to him, but laughing at the same time. Neither of us had ever seen anything like this. His fury continues for nearly twenty minutes before the cops arrive in unbelievable force. Five patrol cars roll up, more than I've ever seen anywhere in Japan at once...and that includes a police station.

Not wanting to get involved and answer questions we quietly slip away and leave the cops to mop it all up. I do so love dinner theatre, but this display leaves me queasy and reminds me that I really do live in the Mobile, Alabama of Japan.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Moist Discomfort

I went swimming Monday night at Kusu's one and only health/sports center, B&G ("Blue Sky & Green Sea") as part of my preparations for next week's charity bike ride. It was too damn cold to go riding that night and the B&G pool is heated to something like 35C. It's almost too hot for real swimming, but it's a fantastic reprive from this, this betrayal by Mother Nature what with the cold snap and the running out of kerosene at my apartment and the upcoming freezing rain. Like I said before, what a tease.

The pool at the gym is outside and under a massive sealed tent. Opening the sliding doors and taking that first step inside I knew it was all wrong--you could almost hear the needle skipping off the LP in a flurry of static. Perhaps anticipating low numbers of swimmers in what is essentially still the off-season for the sport the staff had left all but one lane uncovered. The warm water steaming out of there, however, was enough to coat the tent's cieling with countless dew droplets, many of which were dropping in a constant stacatto of water meeting plastic sheeting or the exposed pool surface.


 It's a creepy noise, really. It was all the more creepy considering I was alone save for the lifeguard. The lifeguard. The trusty lifeguard. The (t)rusty 70-something-year-old lifeguard. I respect my elders greatly, however I question whether this woman could haul a man of my girth out of the water. Honestly though, I'm not going to drown in a pool with a depth of 1.5 meters, but maybe she'll bore a hole in my brain with her stare. Indeed, she did not stop staring at me for one solitary second. In a way I feel honored to be more interesting than the book placed neatly in her lap the minute I came in.

And that's how it continued for the next thirty minutes until I got out to face the horrible reality of this cold, dead night. The cherry blossoms were fooled a bit by that recent spat of fair weather a few weeks back and began to open up prematurely, but will they continue with the weather dropping into negatives come nighttime now? My big worry is for next week's bike trip and whether or not I'll be layering to ride. I hate that...really hate it.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Talk


The number of times I'm being asked to teach at elementary schools is on hitting an all-time high. This week alone I'll be spending part of three days at them. The government here really rushed into implementing their English-for-elementary-school-students scheme and did a shoddy job on the curriculum, by which I mean there is no curriculum. No school wants the same thing and there are no materials, leaving me to make it all up as we cruise along. So far only one school has a teacher with the English comprehension to teach it and I haven't heard how the extra load will be shouldered. One more teacher at each school? Already overloaded JHS English teachers to teach classes at adjoining or nearby elementary schools? Little ol' Matt roving around like a ronin? I would like to emphasize once more that I am not and accredited teacher, only an assistant. Like it matters...

I had one such class yesterday at tiny Hiju JHS's attached elementary school—a school so small they actually had to bus kids in from another school to bolster their numbers...and even then there were only fifteen kids! Thankfully these kids are pretty darn great and they knew me from past games of kickball and other lunchtime shenanigans. Most of these kids are also residents of the rural Onobaru neighborhood located literally across the street from the JSDF aerial bombing and artillery range, having grown up with the sounds of bombs, machine guns and tanks just outside their front doors. But anyways, all went well and there was back-patting all around the teachers room.

While I was teaching the young'uns though, back at the JHS the real “action” was happening. My students got “The Talk” from their teachers.

I'm a bit irked I wasn't able to see this momentous occasion. I wouldn't say it was even remotely one of my goals here to see/hear how Japanese schools deliver the sex ed spiel, but from a sociological standpoint I'd love to be a fly on that wall. Another sticky trophy on my mantle, if you will (eww...). I'm the only teacher who eats with the students in the library room and the meal was abuzz with talk of the upcoming spectacle. You know the chatter: six kids bullshitting loudly, all trying not to let on how paralyzingly uncomfortable they are with the subject matter to come. I pretend not to understand and just let the flies fall into my web. Will they teach us about how to do it? asks one. Yuki will be able to do it with so-and-so from EXILE (a horrible boy idol band) says another. Has Matt done it? asks a third. Don't ask him that!

The Talk, I'm sure, comes not a moment too soon for the kids of these small mountain schools. In California, in somewhat-rural places like Red Bluff, Sonora, Oroville and the like, I've had the opportunity to meet young representatives of the local color who all assure me that languid nights in their respective towns means fucking, drinking and/or drugs. Mix and match the order as you please. In Hiju, Yamaura, Kogo and all those backwoods villages that hardly merit the smallest dot on a road map, where drugs stronger than aspirin are considered the devil's own tic-tacs and there isn't a liquor store—or any store—around for 10km in any direction, options for Saturday night are quickly being exhausted and the weather's heating up nicely...