Monday, April 27, 2009

The American Dream...and Tits

It's a well-known fact that Maia and I are hummus junkies, and it must have been our collective desperation for it that drove the two of us to journey over an hour to Dazaifu and brave (well, what she considers) the scorching weather all to take the plunge into Deepest, Darkest Exported Americana at...Fukuoka Costco. Certainly curiosity had something to do with it. Would that stereotypical Japanese spirit of wa induce all the shoppers to pilot their oversized carts up and down the lanes single-file on the left and right, or would the spores of frenzied bargain hunting gain purchase in their minds leading to pileups of twisted metal and mass insanity? Would the quantities be pared down to fit Japanese sensibilities and the store restyled to look less like a wharf side warehouse? That's what we wanted to go find out, but first a little culture to immunize ourselves in case of the worst.

We once again made a stop off at the Kyushu National Museum, this time to see an exhibition of treasures from Tibet. I really like this museum, in case you didn't get that idea from the two or three other times I've written about going there. Its permanent collection is top-notch (even if the description cards fronting each display are in atrociously bad, hilarious Engrish), everything is immaculately displayed and the traveling shows it receives I'd pay to go see anywhere in the world. You can scam cheaper entry with a college ID despite not actually being a student also, but that's merely a happy bonus. Oh yeah, it's attached to the Tenmangu Shrine too, home of the best soft serve ice cream shop (it's a window, really) I've come across yet. At the exhibit itself we were treated to hundreds of Tibetan artifacts, some over 1,300 years old. In my opinion the star of the show was a thousand-arm Kannon statue that actually had, believe it or not, a thousand arms! I know because we did a rough count on each side and came up with a figure close to a thousand, so we probably missed some arms along the way in there.

Costco was a ways out of town from the museum and we took the entirely unremarkable local roads to get into the general vicinity. I say “general vicinity” because we actually didn't know exactly where it was other than being somewhere on the outskirts of Fukuoka and Dazaifu in the town of Hisayama. Really, the place can hardly be called Fukuoka Costco at all as it's something like twenty kilometers outside the city center, practically halfway to Kitakyushu. Regardless, we found it, and after witnessing the shopping center this Costco sits in I don't think anyone would ever say small and efficient are the only way the Japanese know how to build: The complex is so massive and sprawling it occupies two lots on either side of the road, has overpasses connecting both and a bus system that makes a circuit of the lots! You have got to be joking me.

After filling out the form, pating the obligatory 4,000 yen and getting a really really terrible head shot taken I had a member's card and was set loose inside with an altogether too large shopping cart. It's really been years since I stepped foot in a Costco for anything other than prescription glasses so I never noticed that the variety of goods isn't that great, there's just a lot of certain things. It's probably due to that quality that we never did find the hummus we came all this way for, instead settling for a huge block of cheese, angelic frozen cheese/spinach raviolis (how many years has it been!), green olives, coffee and a tub of salad greens. Altogether it cost something like 8,000 yen.

The shopping denizens of Fukuoka Costco are, I think, not so much different than those that frequent the Mother Stores: Big families, big helpings of soda and snacks, big asses. Yes, being a trashy slob is an international phenomena. Their cart driving is as annoying as America only with the Japanese twist that folks here treat this activity like they treat driving their cars, i.e. unbearably slow progress along the aisles and carts are left abandoned in the rows at awkward angles for everyone to navigate around. Really, if I wanted this I'd stay in Kusu and circle the town in my car.

Leaving that circus behind we made for the other side of the shopping complex for a shabby dinner and movie. I mean, only the dinner was shabby (sub-sub-par Italian), the movie was top-shelf stuff--Oppai Bare. Keep in mind that the sole reason we wanted to see this movie is because it was filmed in Kitakyushu, near Maia's former 'hood. I want to make that disclaimer because the name translated means "Tits Volleyball" and you may be wondering just what kind of couple we are. The movie's about a bunch of JHS class rejects who get all hot and bothered for the new teacher and exploit her emotional vulnerabilities in order to extract a promise that she'll strip naked for them if they can win a tournament. This movie embodies so very much that is wrong with Japan today, most especially that these kids can make any ridiculous (and illegal) demands they want and get away scot free, and that a teacher would allow themselves to go along with it. Eventually she develops a sort of Stockholm Syndrome about the situation, smiling and encouraging the boys to work hard in order to see her naked flesh and even declaring to her suave, Mr. Perfect ex-boyfriend who seems genuinely to want to be in her life again that her breasts "belong to their dreams". Why didn't I think of this brilliant plan in my youth? Wait, perhaps it's because none of my teachers were former swimsuit models.

Just when you think this country can't toss any more weird at you it glorifies underage teacher-student striptease pacts on the silver screen. God Bless Japan.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Dreams I've Had

A while ago...

I'm in Kusu and coming out of the breakfast buffet at the massive Mori JHS student dorms (which doesn't exist) when my cousin, Manuel, suddenly shows up. There's a Renaissance Fair/flea market in town and we both walk over to see what's for sale. In one of the tents they're showing the preview to the next Harry Potter movie, which is much more raunchy and Porky's-like than I recall the previous HP flicks being. There were women at bowling alleys being attacked by wacky cursed vibrators if that gives you any indication for what the preview was all about. After the preview we walk around the fair until an Andre the Giant-sized nerdy  shopkeeper cheats my cousin out of some money and I start arguing with him, finally laying into him with a folding chair.

Then the alarm.

Last week...
I'm in some seaside condo Yuppieville kind of place with Maia and Vania, an ALT in Hita who hails from New Zealand. Not sure what we're doing there, but all of the sudden Vania tells us that she used to be a big child movie star in NZ and the three of us get launched into a black and white flashback to the exact scene she was famous for--at the beach, in the rain, child-Vania stumbles into a sandy depression filled with washed up seaweed and begins to cry. After the flashback we all drive somewhere, like, just around the corner and when we get out of the car again I accidentally ding some douchebag's Lexus with my car door. Said douchebag, sensing his car has been wanged, exits a condo complex in a tizzy and kidnaps Maia, tossing her into the back seat of his douchbag friend's waiting Humvee. With Flash-like speed I dash over and hop in too. In addition to Maia the back seat is occupied by a couple of skanky blondes, but I ignore that and proceed to choke the shit out of the driver.

Last week also...

Some gangsters killed my "good friend" (I don't know who he was really, just that he was my "good friend") and I'm devastated. Looking for solace I try converting to the Jewish faith and attend synagogue. By the way, at some point I track down the man or men who killed my friend before attending synagogue. While there I notice that there are many black Jews in the congregation, but they're all sitting in the back. The Jewish faith is somewhat racist in my dreams I suppose. Well, I interrupt everything and call the rabbi down to tell him what's up and he asks if I know who did it, to which I respond 'yes'. (The following is in that sterotypical rabbi's voice we see in the movies so often, i.e. Benicio DelToro at the beginning of Snatch"Well, why didn't you say this before, let's go kill the the bastards. You know, it's Thursday and to us Jews it's OK to kill on Thursday."

Last night...

World War II wasn't fought in the Pacific against America and Japan, it was America vs. China somehow, and America just won. Though I vaguely recall something about seducing a female Chinese general into giving occupying forces some bit of data that's not really the important thing. As I stride through the streets of devastated Shanghai a triumphant Richard Nixon runs up with two matching plastic buckets, hands me one and starts running down the street flinging the contents into the non-crowds of Chinese people yelling "Sanity has returned! I have meat business cards for everyone! It's OK again because meat business cards are here!" Naturally I join in the flinging of said meaty cards.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hey, She Had Keg Of Beer There

Now is that giddy transition period between winter and spring in Japan and oh boy, let me tell you, does it do wonders for the human psyche forced to to live through that most horrible of the four seasons. It's like the feeling you'd get after passing out from a night of binge drinking Bailey's Irish Cream with the graduating class of the Tijuana Sub-basement Beauty College and being handcuffed to a steam pipe while your pockets are picked clean (even the lint!), but then waking up to find you've been blessed with super-strength and -stamina, a kick ass video wrist phone and, in fact, you own the only breeding pair of unicorns on the planet. And for that reason I'm glad that Lisa unintentionally delayed her beach birthday party until last Saturday, even if it turned out to be a sort of comedy of errors for me.

The plan, as I understood it, was deceitfully simple: Get from Kusu to Sumie Beach in Miyazaki Prefecture (the beach I and several other ALTs went last summer), stopping along the way at the astounding coffee otaku's mobile caffeine dispensary in Kuju and Bungo-Ono City's Harajiri Falls to finally rectify a shameful sightseeing oversight. Departing my apartment at noon, the fabulous weather, really excellent time we made over to Kuju via the scenic Yamanami Highway mixed with Maia's Icelandic synth-pop and bossa nova CDs to equal a recipe for the perfect road trip.

I've been visiting the Kuju area quite a bit lately and the magnetic attraction is, I feel, completely justified. The area is jam packed full of hot springs, cafes and wide open spaces, which are three things I seek out when the craving for relaxation overtakes me. The mobile cafe we visited this day may not be the best cup of joe in the land, but their variety, quality and price beats the ever loving hell out of virtually all cafes in Japan, stationary or with wheels. I ordered an iced Vienna coffee and was floored when it came with really real whipped cream—thick!—and a single coffee bean for decoration on top. Before she willed the coffee to life I got to specify which type of coffee and how strong I wanted it. Now that's service! It was so tasty I completely forgot about that bean until I damn near lost a tooth and control of the car when I bit down on it hard.

The michi no eki at Harajiri Falls (yes, another one down!) was hopping to say the least. There was a tulip festival going down and we couldn't find parking in the normal lot so I decided to just toss the car illegally onto the sidewalk and call it parking. Don't worry, there are no consequences here. The tulip fields were impressive, like a walk through Holland only without all the best bits, i.e. the hookers and drugs, but the real attractions of the place were the bridge and waterfall. The bridge is a traditional wood plank-lashed rope span with steel cables slyly underpinning the whole thing. Still, when you're walking on it with fifteen other people going both ways it feels about as stable as the bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Harajiri Falls, which is best viewed from the center of that bridge, is like a micro-Niagara in that it's long and low, however you stand a much better chance of surviving a jump from this one (go back to the old wine barrel days!). Above the falls, perched in the waters feeding them, is a large torii. The whole package viewed together must be spectacular in the sunset.

It's so low I just want to jump off it so badly. If only there weren't sternly worded signs to stop me.

East to Mie and south over the mountains towards Nobeoka, we're retracing parts of last year's charity bike trip and I can't help but think how it took us a day-and-a-half to make it over this hump while we did something like this every day of this year's. Whoops. Anyways, nothing much exciting happened until we arrived at Sumie Beach, home to Deus Ex Cibo, my nickname for possibly the single most enigmatic chef in Japan (well, he's in the running with the chef of Hita's Orange). When I came here last summer I marveled at his Thai vegitable green curry and told Maia about it who patiently waited nine months to try it out. She was awestruck. And so was I, for that matter, but with my fried rice of all things. Fried rice: The stuff is about as basic, cheap and forgettable as you can get when it comes to Chinese cuisine and yet this beach bum Miyazaki Prefecture senior citizen can mix it with his ancient blend of herbs and spices, fold in some mountain greens, dry salted pork and fry it up into an entirely unique flavor experience. Oh, and it wasn't oily either! Never doubt the power of back country folk cooking.

We kicked around the beach for a while waiting for others to arrive. A cryptic phone call from Lisa in which she said she had to run home for fifteen minutes to get some stuff should have tipped me off earlier that something wasn't quite right. Sumie Beach and Tsukumi are more like an hour and a half apart by car. It wasn't until we actually wanted to go see which cabin we'd stay in when it hit me—we were at the wrong beach.

Heading to Sumie Beach wasn't a complete washout by any stretch. Maia got her longed for green curry, I got my Karate Kid on...

Ultimately the fault for such a colossal mistake lay on my shoulders and seeing as how it was nearly six I peeled out of there north, aiming towards the mountainous coastal roads. Just before the spot where Miyazaki becomes Oita the main road linking the two prefectures' seaside towns turns from two-lane well-paved thoroughfare to rutted winding horse path. To give you an idea of how rural this road was I'll tell you that I almost hit a wild monkey that leaped off the road just as I turned a bend. Well, no matter how humiliating and time-consuming this mistake was at least we can say we ate some of the best beachside food in Japan and saw a wild monkey.

...and we both engaged in antics with an abandoned child's wheelchair. Fun was had by all!

We did finally end up reaching the cabins where Lisa, perhaps the kindest among all the 2007 incoming ALTs, was waiting with a heart-shaped balloon. The rest of the night went off without a hitch...mostly. I can't pour my own beer from a keg to save my life, Maia and I made WAY too much salad and somehow Nobu's ladyfriend's two JHS-aged kids played beer pong with us (no, they didn't drink any). Somewhere around 2:30AM I fell into a comfortable inebriated sleep.

I was awoken at 6:00. Maia had been vomiting into the toilet all night thanks to (probably) some bad mushrooms we grilled up and I had to get her to a hospital. Nobu and Lisa were great in helping us find one that was nominally open on a Sunday morning and though a fairly cranky doctor had to be called and woken from bed to treat Maia the job got done. Seriously, a far cry from the hospitals in Kitakyushu. Feeling like I was straddling the line between consciousness and Hunter S. Thompson-esque hallucination, and with Maia fully conked out after a night bent over the loo the weekend was over for us. A rather funky ending for a weekend that ran the emotional gamut. We'll get back to Sumie this summer for a real weekend of sand and swim at that beach...and, of course, my magic fried rice.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Holy Land (of Fish)

I've never understood how Japanese business works. All the way back to my college days when I would get bored, drink a beer and putz around the city center on my bike looking for more beer I peered into fantastically overpriced, perpetually customer-less shops and wracked my brains to figure out why their business model didn't see them quickly and soundly collapse like the house of cards they appear to be built on, as would happen in any other market economy. Believe it or not, some of them remain to this day!

Where am I going with this again...?

Oh, right, sushi. Kappa Sushi is a new player in the kaitenzushi (conveyer belt sushi) wars of Hita, and I have no flippin' clue why it's set up shop here. The polar opposite of the previously mentioned failed business models, Kappa is such a shining light of fabulousness in the dining abyss of Western Oita Prefecture that after tasting from their Well of Infinite Delights I fully expect the citizens of other nearby municipalities to riot in the street, clawing and tearing at the eye sockets of police and elected officials as they wonder why--why!--haven't they one in their town. Now, Kappa is a pretty famous chain of kaitenzushi shops from the Tokyo area with (now) three shops in Kyushu, the other two being in Fukuoka and Dazaifu, and it's precisely that hipness and regional rarity that has me so confused--just what the hell are they doing in Hita?

Two seemingly simple factors make Kappa so utterly fascinating: the ordering and delivery systems. A trip to a normal kaitenzushi shop might have you scanning the approaching or even distant items on the ever-moving belt for tasty morsels, sometimes leading to disappointment when some jackass at the table just upstream of you takes the plate you've been waiting for, like, two minutes for. I hate them. If nothing appeals to you then there's always a sushi chef to yell orders at, but then there's the soul-sapping guilt that comes with brusquely ordering around another human being. Kappa does away with the human element almost entirely with a touchscreen ordering system that has all the sushi categorized in menus by type and then alphabetically arrayed. Not long after inputting your order--and this is the part you need to be sitting down for--an OMGWTF miniature shinkansen bullet train comes shooting out of the wall and stops at your table with the goods for you to pluck off and chow down on! Holy Bejeebuz!

If you don't like the normal fare circulating around the belt, i.e. this wiener maki, just look up at the touchscreen...

...and select the type of sushi or side dish you want to order and it will soon be delivered by... OMGWTF bullet train, straight to your table. Press a red button to make it go back to its hole in the wall.

I swear, if the place didn't close I'd never leave.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wish Upon A Star (For All The Good It'll Do You)

Well, it's official. Hopeful Star Trek fanboys everywhere, I hate to be the man to break the bad news, but it seems warp drive is in fact impossible. A group of physicists at an Italian university reviewed Miguel Alcubierre's famous spacetime distortion ("warp bubble") calculations from a bit over a decade ago and discovered that while such a thing still remains theoretically possible it would be highly unstable once light speed is reached and filled with deadly Hawking radiation. This is really unfortunate because for a while there it seemed like someone had actually come up with a mathematical model for tweaking the universe to attain FTL speeds and that is, needless to say, balls-to-the-wall awesome.

I don't think about space and the cosmos as much as I used to, which is lamentable. One thing to be said about growing up on the edge of that bastard suburb of SF, Castro Valley, was that the night sky visibility was much better than many other surrounding cities. I used to look up a lot more and just let the grandeur and majesty of the stars wash over me in a spectral wave. Try it some time; just look up and think about what you can see--so many pinpricks of light in the aether representing countless planets, whole galaxies--and know that it's not a millionth or even a billionth of what exists in the universe. Feel it pass though you and know that you are a part of it.

Yesterday Maia and I wanted to head to the city of Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture to watch a movie, pick up applications for the Japanese proficiency test held this summer and buy a few other odds and ends, and along the way decided to take a detour south into the mountains to the secluded village of Hoshino. Literally translated, the name Hoshino means "star field" and the village's mascot is, unimaginatively, a cute little star and its supposed offspring. Whether just a product of taking the village's name way too seriously or if in fact it's been known through the ages as a top notch star watching spot the village is home to just about the only astronomical observatory I've ever known in Japan.

The Star Culture Center's (sounds cult like, no?) pleasing facade belies the utter lack of anything to see or do there during the day. Next, a picture for you WoW players out there--step this way if you need any help leveling to 80.

Hoshino is a place off the beaten path for sure, and reaching it from our direction took us on some one-lane roads that reminded me of the rambling mountain paths that lead to some of my more back country schools. This road must be a popular spot for touge-running drift boys since each of the 30+ curves that thrust steeply up the mountain are numbered for easy reference. As it winds up and through the ridge we leave the familiar rice paddy monoculture behind and end up in another monoculture—tea. For as much green tea as Japan drinks you sure don't come across tea farming very often. I wonder if there's some prohibitively expensive start-up cost that keeps farmers in rice or potatoes or dirt farming or whatever keeps the government subsidy checks rolling in. Perhaps I just answered my own question there.

The observatory does offer gorgeous views of the foggy valley below at least. On the right, the tiny flame you can barely see inside this monument is an eternal flame brought by an area man immediately following the Hiroshima atomic bombing and has been burning since 1945.

I sincerely wish that it wasn't miserably drizzling rain that Saturday afternoon as the town seems like a genuinely beautiful place to explore, preferably on foot. We were disappointed again at the observatory, which online sources built up to be a museum but actually turned out to be a restaurant and sort of community hall or something. Sure there was a telescope, but it was daytime, rainy and I wasn't going to pay an admission fee to see it. We used the toilet and left.

Our destination from Hoshino was Kurume's YouMe Town shopping mall and the Starbucks nestled inside, but I managed to get us lost along the way thinking that there was a faster way than just going back over the pass we took to get there. It's not that we didn't reach Kurume, it's only that we both had hoped for a tamer, less white-knuckled road that left our stomachs intact for coffee. But coffee and juice we had, all while sitting on a second floor bench watching the freaks and fashion jokes mosey on by. I tell ya, people watching is an activity here that will pay dividends.

At the movies we saw Watchmen, which, at something like two-and-a-half hours, was certainly worth the 3600-yen I paid for the both of us to get in. Whatever people may say about the lack of any psychic squids there at the end the remainder of the flick was virtually identical to the graphic novels. Hell, I'd go so far as to say the excission of that ridiculous cephalopod and the addition of a surprise frame-up did the story a favor and I stand by that no matter how much Alan Moore and fans would probably like to put my face in an industrial fruit juicer for even thinking it. Anyways, afterwards we hit up perhaps the skeaziest kaitenzushi joint either of us had ever laid eyes on. (In their defense, I think Maia and I are ruined after having visited Kappa Sushi in Hita, a.k.a. The Holy [Fish] Land. More on that later.)  I doubt there was a customer in the place without a criminal record; their faces told the story of hundreds of liquor store smash n' grabs and dozens of senior citizen pension check defraudings. And the ranged from unremarkable to complete garbage. What a way to cap off the night.


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Soggy Finale

Waking up at the late hour of 8AM on Sunday, the final day, I felt like I'd been blindfolded and beaten with a sack of doorknobs sometime in the night. The futon I slept on was woefully inadequate to support my back for one thing, but mostly it was the combined feeling of having my wheels banged up worse than a junkyard Yugo and the current weather conditions of rainy and cold with an 80% chance of utter misery. I ate breakfast hurriedly and took some advice from my Miyazaki cycling friend, Guy, to try and bend the rim back with a crescent wrench, which took me a while to track down. The wrench offered me much more leverage than the pliers and screwdrivers I'd tried using before and worked in reforming the stiff aluminum walls back into shape...sort of. The braking surface of each wheel remained dented outward and with some rough patches, so I could expect my brake pads to be shredded by the end of the ride (they were on the right side), but I was back in business!

Still, by the time I'd wrestled my wheels back into a bare minimum of functionality, done some repairs/triage work on two other bikes, gotten myself together to ride (no time to take a shower—gross) and brief the volunteer drivers on the day's course, everyone had left the cabins, some as much as an hour before and I was pissed.

I put a good sized pass at the beginning of the day between Yamakuni and Kusu and it wasn't until I was cruising down the backside that I finally caught and passed a pack of riders. From there on out I didn't see anyone for the rest of the day, but even if I did pass someone it'd be virtually impossible to see them in the driving, blinding rain. While passing the Yatsushika sake factory in Kokonoe I contemplated popping in for a “tasting” and just finding a nice dark corner to collapse in and drink the day away. Truth be told, I will ride in the rain if absolutely necessary, but the double-whammy of getting my bike's components all wet and thus susceptible to rust leading to my trademark Complete Bike Disassembly and OCD Cleaning compulsion, plus my general hatred for being anything but dry (especially when the undies get wet!) usually pushes me to find alternate means of getting from point A to B or into shelter. The problem for this particular day of riding was that I knew this road, route 210, all too well from countless drives and rides towards Oita City—I knew its roadside luxuries and havens. Any of several hot springs, ramen shops and conbinis were sending out their Siren's Song.

From Kokonoe I began the final climb of the day and of the ride: the eight kilometer rise to the Mizuwake Pass. At the top my spirit broke down and I stopped for a fifteen minute power lunch at the junk food stalls run by an army of grandmotherly types and grudging teens. Reheated takoyaki and fried chikuwa were on the menu, the latter being comped by the employees impressed by where I'd come from that stormy day. While I ate one of the other riders, a Japanese man who had joined us only for this final day and I think had wanted to use his non-fatigued body to take the lead spot, showed up at the stalls and asked me if I was the “top shooter”. I told him Owen was probably ahead of me by a ways at which point his happy face sunk a bit, perhaps in the realization that though he may overtake me he could never catch the leader. Another day, another spirit crushed.

Cresting Mizuwake, I knew, was the big milestone for the day, because from here to Oita is entirely downhill or flat with reading off the “Oita City, Xkm” signs as they tick by being the most work a rider really has to do. The outskirts of Yufuin, Shonai, Hasama—their unremarkable roadside facades blow by as I barrel towards Oita and the Nanasegawa Nature Park goal. Still being pelted by rain I arrive a the park to find a lot empty of support cars or other riders, as usual. As I ride past a car and lean my bike against a tree to make a call to the lead support vehicle to check their position (I'd like some dry clothes after all) some lady and her insignificant other emerge from their car and come towards me. “You hit my car” she says. “No, I didnt” says I. “I heard a sound, a bump” she tells me. Her eyes are full of hate as I tell her I didn't touch her car again. She checks where she thinks I impacted, but naturally there's nothing there. Quietly the two jackasses get back in the car, never taking their hateful eyes off me for a moment while I make the call. Truthfully, I didn't get that close to her car—the lady's full of shit. One of the most annoying things about being a foreign resident in Japan is that people stare at you as if the Ghost of Christmas Past was hovering about in front of them and it quickly becomes uncomfortable. That these two are boring holes into my brain is getting to me more than usual and fearing that I might just lash out with a “What the fuck are you two people looking at?!” and actually start to bash in their car I leave to nearby Wasada Town for a post-ride, nerve-calming cuppa joe. Standing outside Starbucks I call Owen and find him at the Mos Burger a few doors down. Turned out he finished about fifteen minutes before I did, or about the same time it took me to eat that horrible junk food at Mizuwake. Disappointing, but you know what they say about getting that bear...

From the rolling grasslands of the Kuju Highlands to the breathtaking shading bloom of the cherry blossoms in Oyama to the Maple Cycling Road in Yamakuni, there isn't a minute that goes by on trips like this that I don't realize the splendor of Oita's natural world. How I'll miss watching it from the saddle of my bike come July when it's time to depart. Of course, I'll have the playgrounds of Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties to keep me fit and challenged, so it's a restrained sort of 'boo-hoo.'

And now I'd like to raise a glass to the cavalcade of extraordinary people (that can carry a good or bad connotation, of course) and/or their bikes that galloped or hobbled their way to the goal each day, and some of those that didn't make it.

  • Ryan, the ride coordinator, who officially is the most unlucky rider I've ever known and has bike trouble every year (last year I believe he went through two bikes) flew over his handlebars twice this trip, the first being while we rode from our parked cars to the meeting point at Nanasegawa. The second time, in Oyama, resulted in him nearly being crushed by a big rig and his rear dérailleur ripping itself and mounting from the frame. Short of welding it back on his bike is done for.
  • Single-Speed All-Star (SSAS), a man whose name I forgot, insisted for months before the trip that he was a serious track bike rider and his little fixie could handle all the ups and downs of the course. Part of me wants to chuckle about how each time I saw him on the road he was either walking his brakeless bike downhill or walking his gearless bike uphill, but in the end I congratulate SSAS for his tenacity in making it the entire 250km.
  • Tommy, a tiny, wiry tattooed man-boy ALT from Kumamoto Prefecture obviously didn't bother to train for this trip and brought a hopelessly horrible bike with beyond-help brakes that rubbed on the rim no matter what adjustments I made. On the final day he got lost and ended up drinking tea with some Kusu obasans while the volunteer cars looked for him for about two hours.
  • Tomo is a Bob Sagat-loving Japanese travel agent that did the entire three day trip on a mamachari bike! These are the throwaway bikes you see the majority of the people in Japan, China, Taiwan, etc. riding that can be had for as little as 2000-yen used. The funny thing is that his Soviet battle tank of a bike had absolutely no problems the entire weekend. Major props to you, Tomo, and hope to see you in California when you come to give frightened Japanese tour-goers bus rides in LA.