Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: Day 4

Day 4
May 3, 2009
Start: Tokushima
Finish: Gojo
Distance: 75 km
Departed: 6:30 a.m.
Arrived: 5:00 p.m.

Day 4 of my bicycle trip can be summed up like this: Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

I got completely and utterly lost, but didn't realize I was completely and utterly lost until I had cycled in the wrong direction on the wrong road for two hours.

After I finally found the right road, I ran over a nail and got a flat tire. After I patched the flat tire, I found out my pump didn't work. After I found out my pump didn't work, I had to push my bike down the road for an hour. After I pushed my bike down the road for an hour, I found a grumpy motorcycle mechanic who agreed to fill my tire with air but not before letting me know it was a huge imposition on his precious time. After my tire was inflated, I forgot to apply sunblock and ended up with painfully pink thighs.

It was an epic day. And not epic in a good way. It was epic in the kind of way that leaves you with a deep desire to throw your bike off a cliff or drink enough alcohol to stun an elephant.

That's not to say the whole day was a washout. Day 4 actually got off to a great start.

I left the Tokushima youth hostel at 6:30 a.m. sharp. I was planning on catching the 8:15 ferry to Wakayama but had to ride 15 kilometres to the ferry terminal first.

I arrived with just enough time to park my bike and join the queue for walk-on tickets. Because it was a national holiday, the ferry terminal was rammed with Japanese tourists heading to the mainland. There was a long queue for tickets and it took 20 minutes to reach the front of the line. I handed over my cash but was told by the woman working behind the counter that I couldn't buy a walk-on ticket.

"You have a bike, right?" she asked me in Japanese.

I told her I did.

"Did you take it apart and put it in a bag or are you taking it on-board as it is?"

I told her my bike was in one piece.

"Well, then you have to line up with the cars and go through the drive-through ticket window," she said.

Line up with the cars? I didn't have time to line up all over again. If I missed the 8:15 sailing, I'd have to wait two hours for the next ferry. I wanted to get on the road early in order to make the most of the daylight in case anything went wrong (little did I know how true that would turn out to be).

So I resorted to the one fail-proof tactic I was sure would speed my way onto the ferry. (All foreigners in Japan have a special "get out of jail free" card that they can use in case of emergency. The secret weapon? English.) I got amnesia and forgot how to speak Japanese.

"Sorry," I said in English. "I don't understand."

I saw a twinge of panic cross the woman's face. She explained the rules again, in Japanese.

I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. I figured if I kept up the clueless tourist act, she'd cave in and sell me a ticket. But my plan didn't work. The ticket lady waved a male colleague over. He walked me out the door, motioned for me to get on my bike and then showed me where I needed to go to get to the drive-through ticket window.

So I rode my bike to where the cars were lining up to buy tickets. I pulled in behind a silver minivan. A huge transport truck pulled in behind me. It was all very surreal.

After the driver of the silver minivan ahead of me bought his ticket, I rolled my bike up to the window. The guy working inside the booth assured me I would be able to make the 8:15 sailing. He took my money, printed off a ticket and told me to merge into Lane 8 with the cars.

So I rode into Lane 8 and parked my bike with the other vehicles waiting to board the ferry.

Anyone who has ever taken a ferry in B.C. will appreciate the absurdity of this situation. Cyclists in B.C. don't line up with the cars to buy ferry tickets. And they certainly don't merge into Lane 8, waiting to board the ferry with the cars.

B.C. Ferries regards cyclists as a kind of two-wheeled pedestrian. You have to buy a walk-on ticket and you have to wait in a designated waiting area. You either board first or last (depending on the destination) and you have to dismount and push your bike onto the ferry.

It was a completely different story in Japan, and it was awesome. I didn't have to dismount and push my bike. I waited until the crew motioned for Lane 8 to start boarding. I followed the cars ahead of me and actually got to ride onto the ferry. Safety be damned!

It was incredibly exciting. Riding up to the drive-through window, lining up in Lane 8, cycling onto the ferry with the cars. I experienced the same kind of euphoria mountain climbers must feel when they summit Everest. It was a highlight of the trip, for sure.

The other big difference between Japanese ferries and Canadian ferries is the food on board. You can't buy a Triple O Burger on a Japanese ferry but you can buy a bento box. This was my on-board breakfast.

I found a quiet spot on the upper deck and settled in for the two-hour crossing back to mainland Honshu.

I was sad to be leaving Shikoku. I knew the second leg of the trip through southwestern Honshu would be anti-climactic. There would be no more mountain climbing, no more rural towns, no more spectacular scenery. Just the soul-deadening monotony of cycling on roads hemmed in by never-ending sprawl and jumbled power lines.

Apartment, store, power line, store, store, store, traffic light, store, house, store, power line, apartment, store, house, store, traffic light, store, power line, store, traffic light, apartment, store, power line, traffic light, store, store, store.

This is the landscape of suburban Japan, multiplied by infinity.

So long Shikoku.

Hello Honshu.

The second I set foot on Honshu, the magic of Shikoku's mountain roads disappeared. The ferry spit me out on the outskirts of a big city, which I had to ride clear across in order to get to the road that would take me 60 kilometres east to Gojo, my destination for the day.

Navigating my way out of Wakayama City was a nightmare. The main problem was that the streets on my map were numbered but the actual streets weren't. I couldn't match up the streets on my map with the streets I was riding though. It was a random mishmash of busy urban roads. I figured as long as I headed in the right general direction, I'd hit the main road eventually.

Unfortunately, I got completely and utterly lost. Even worse, I didn't realize I was completely and utterly lost until I had cycled in the wrong direction on the wrong road for two hours.

When the route numbers finally started showing up on roadside signs, I pulled over to check my location on the map. It turned out I had been heading south when I should have been heading east.

At this point, I had been off the ferry and on the road for almost two hours. I had managed to go a grand total of 40 kilometres -- in the wrong direction. I was beyond frustrated. I had no idea how to get to where I needed to go.

I pulled off onto a quiet side street to study the map. I must have looked especially confused because a Japanese woman driving a blue car in the opposite direction came to a stop in front of me.

"Can I help you?" she asked in English.

I told her I was lost and needed to find Route 24. She looked at my map and figured out how to get me out of the city and on my way to Gojo. It was clear she wanted to help but it was also clear she was quite the English conversation enthusiast who wanted to impress me with her vast vocabulary.

"Okay," she said. "I know how to get there. I'll drive slowly and you can follow me!"

She got back in her car and zigzagged through a maze of back roads (with me pedaling furiously behind her). After about 20 minutes, she came to a stop in front of the turn-off for the elusive Route 24. I don't know how I would have found it on my own. I couldn't thank her enough.

After two hours of backtracking, I was finally on my way. Albeit on a busy, crowded road hemmed in by never-ending sprawl. There's something vaguely claustrophobic about suburban Japan. I don’t know if it's the way the buildings butt right up against the road or the way the buildings butt right up against each other but it feels like the oxygen is being squeezed out of these places.

Eventually, old Route 24 merges onto new Route 24 and I wasn't sure if I had already merged onto the new road or if I was still on the old road or if I was on a different road altogether. I hadn't seen a road sign in miles and my confidence in my navigation skills was pretty much non-existent at this point.

I pulled into a convenience store to make sure I was going the right way (I was). But immediately after I got back on my bike, I rode over a nail and got a flat tire. Fuck.

It was the lowest moment of the entire trip. Getting a flat tire after being lost for two hours was like rubbing salt in the wound. With a sigh of resignation, I got off my bike, rolled it back into the parking lot and got down to the dirty job of fixing the flat.

Now, fixing a flat tire is one of the simplest and easiest bicycle repair jobs around. The only problem is that it takes me forever to fix a flat, so I had gotten into the bad habit of letting my male friends do it for me. My roadie friends can fix a flat tire with lightning speed. Watching them in action is like watching mechanics in a Formula One pit stop.

I let them do it partly because I don't want to hold the group back but mostly because I am lazy. Plus, whenever I change a flat tire it takes, like, a week for the dirt to work its way out from underneath my fingernails.

Let's just say my bicycle maintenance skills were a little rusty when I set out to change that flat tire in the convenience store parking lot.

Still, fixing a flat tire is kind of like bicycle-riding itself. You never really forget how. Turn the bike upside down, release the wheel, slip a lever under the lip of the tire, hook the lever to the spoke, use the other lever to pull the lip of the tire over the rim all the way around, pull the tire and tube off the rim, find the source of the puncture, pull out the offending object, inflate the tube, find the hole, patch it up, put everything back together and off you go.

The only hitch was that my hand pump wasn't working. I mean, the pump itself worked fine but it kept pulling the top part of the valve right off. I was able to fill up the tube with air but as soon as I removed the pump, the top of the valve would come off with it and the tube would immediately deflate.

The problem was that I was dealing with a Woods valve. My hand pump was compatible with both Presta and Schrader valves but I couldn't seem to get it to work with the Woods valve. I had to take the nut off the valve stem for the pump to fit properly but without the nut, there was nothing holding the top half of the valve in place. Which is why it kept popping off. But with the nut in place, I couldn't fit the pump over the head of the valve. There was nothing I could do.

I think this photo captures how I must have looked at that moment (crazy swirling eyes, furrowed brow and clenched jaw).

I pushed my bike down the road for an hour before I found a motorcycle shop that was open (it was a national holiday and almost everything was closed). Ironically, I was no longer cursing the fact I was riding through the suburbs. Had this happened in the mountains, I would have been SOL.

A very grumpy motorcycle mechanic agreed to fill my tire with air but not before letting me know it was a huge imposition on his precious time. I was terrified that the patch wouldn't hold or that I had broken the valve but the tube inflated without trouble.

What had started off as a major pain in the ass ended up being a minor victory. I fixed a flat tire all by myself, and my handiwork had held up. It may have been a small accomplishment but it was one I felt hugely proud of.

The rest of the ride to Gojo was blissfully uneventful. I almost kissed the ground when I finally pulled into the youth hostel. But I decided it would be more sanitary to get drunk instead.

Two of these was all it took.

I passed out immediately after dinner.

Day 4 couldn't end soon enough. I was looking forward waking up and starting fresh the next morning. I was planning on making Day 5 a stress-free and leisurely ride to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan . . .

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