Saturday, May 30, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: Day 6

Day 6
May 5, 2009
Start: Nara
Finish: Kyoto
Distance: 70 km
Departed: 6:30 a.m.
Arrived: 12:00 p.m.

A few days back, at a stop somewhere in Shikoku, I read a very juicy rumor on the internet. Apparently, there is a riverside bike path that goes all the way from Nara to Kyoto. Fifty kilometres of car-free cycling. It would be the perfect way to end the trip.

The only problem was I couldn't find anyone in Nara who was able to confirm the rumor. No one had heard of the bike path. Not the woman working at the youth hostel. Not the senior citizens sharing my dorm room. Not the boy stocking shelves at the grocery store. Nope, never heard of it, they all said.

I looked at four different maps. The bike path wasn't marked on any of them. But I was determined to find it. Anything to avoid riding along crowded, congested Route 24 -- the main road linking Nara with Kyoto.

All I knew was that the bike path ran alongside a river (don't ask me which river, the internet only hinted at "a river") heading north all the way to Kyoto. I figured if I crossed every river in town, I would eventually find it.

It was a half-baked plan and I'm not sure I would have ever found the bike path had I actually followed through with it. Luckily, I crossed paths with a group of Japanese cyclists immediately after setting off in the morning.

They were stopped at a red light and I figured if anyone in Nara knew where the bike path was, these people would. So I asked them if they knew the way.

Fortunately, they had heard of the bike path. Unfortunately, they didn't know exactly where it was.

The bike path doesn't technically start in Nara, they told me. You have to ride about 10 kilometres north to the town of Kizu first. And then you can get on it from there. But they didn't know where it was exactly. They couldn't be any more specific than "somewhere in Kizu."

Before I could thank them and figure out how to get to Kizu on my own, they offered to lead me there. Once again, I was rescued by the kindness of strangers. (The kindness of strangers was a recurring theme of the trip. There wasn't a single day where someone didn't go out of their way to help me. I swear I must owe, like, half the population of Japan a drink by now.)

The three spandex-clad roadies set off with me in tow. They were going about 30 km an hour and I was working hard to keep up with them.

After we reached the town of Kizu, they told me if I kept going straight, I would probably hit the river. Probably. Maybe. They weren't entirely sure.

I thanked them and we went our separate ways. They had gotten me to the town of Kizu but they had left me nowhere near the river. I simply couldn't find it. I went straight and backtracked a couple of times but there was no river in sight.

There was, however, a 7-Eleven in sight so I pulled in to ask for directions. (Asking people who work at 7-Eleven for directions was also a recurring theme of the trip. Even if they don't really know where you're trying to go they will not give up until they are sure they have pointed you in the right direction. They will pull out maps, make phone calls, consult with management. Whatever it takes. No matter how long it takes. It's just the way things are done in Japan. This extreme attention to detail and dogged determination to find the right answer can be annoying when you are in a hurry but it's a lifesaver when you're truly lost.)

Fortunately, the woman working at the 7-Eleven knew where the bike path was. Unfortunately, she refused to tell me how to get there.

This happens quite a lot in Japan. You'll ask someone a question (for example, you approach a random stranger on the street, point to your map and say, "I'm trying to walk to this restaurant. Do I turn left or right here?"). But instead of giving you an answer, they'll give you advice ("You shouldn't walk there. It's better if you take the subway."). I know they mean well but all of the unsolicited advice drives me crazy. Just answer the question!

Anyway, the woman working at the 7-Eleven told me she knew where the bike path was. But she refused to tell me how to get there.

"You shouldn't take the bike path to Kyoto," she said. "It's too far. It's better if you take Route 24."

I told her I didn't mind the extra distance.

"Well, it's better to take Route 24. It's faster."

I told her I wasn't in a rush.

"Well, it's a long way to Kyoto and you might get tired if you try to ride there on the bike path," she said.

I told her I would probably be fine.

"Well, you might get hungry and you won't be able to find a convenience store on the bike path."

Oh, god. This wasn't going to end. Please. Just. Answer. The. Question.

Sensing that I wasn't going to give up the bike path in favour of crowded, congested Route 24, she finally caved and told me where it was.

Her directions were bang-on and I found the trail easily. The only problem was I wasn't sure if I should turn left or right when I got to the river. I asked a guy who was out walking his dog for help.

"You're going to Kyoto?" he said. "You should take the highway. It's much shorter."

Here we go again.

Why do so many people in Japan feel compelled to offer advice instead of giving a direct answer to a direct question? And why do they always think the path of least resistance is the best option? It's a cultural divide I'm not sure I'll ever be able to cross.

I had to repeat the question a few more times before the guy gave me a straight answer (turn left).

I'm glad I didn't give up on my quest to find the bike path. It was a wonderful way to end the trip. Fifty kilometres of car-free cycling through a lovely river valley.

It was also good practice for my Japanese. Not only did I have to speak Japanese throughout the trip, but I had to read a lot of Japanese signs and maps too. I still have a long, long way to go before I can master the language but I can actually read this sign. It says the left side is a walking path and the right side is for bicycles. Of course, any idiot can guess that's what it says but I could actually read it. It was kind of exciting.

Other signs were a bit more difficult to understand. Apparently, there is an evil, raging river somewhere behind this sign. (Also, who knew rogue waves wore braces?)

You can put flowers on an outhouse but it's still an outhouse.

I had to leave the path after reaching the outskirts Kyoto as it started to veer sharply west and I needed to go east. Fifteen kilometres of city cycling later, I was finally home.

It took six days to ride more than 500 kilometres across Shikoku and up through southwestern Honshu. But I did it. And I did it all by myself.

I know it may not seem like a big deal, but, for me, it was. It was an accomplishment I was hugely proud of. More importantly, it was a reminder of something I needed reminding about -- if you change your beliefs about your limits, your limits themselves change.

Before I left, I wasn't entirely convinced I was physically capable of doing such an epic bike trip. And I was a little nervous about doing it alone. But I love a challenge. I like pushing myself physically and testing myself mentally. I need to test my limits every now and then. The more I test them, the more they disappear. Impossibilities become possibilities. It's a good feeling, this feeling of limitlessness.

But it's not nearly as good as being on a bike with nothing to do all day but ride.

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