Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle

I'm heading out on an epic 500-kilometre bike trip tomorrow. Up and down mountains twice as high as the ones in Vancouver. On roads that resemble coiled intestines. For five days straight. Solo. On a bike I haven't ridden in two years.

Peter Mansbridge is the spur. He's the reason I'm doing this in the first place. Night after night, all he talks about is how the Canadian economy is spiraling deeper into depression. He has me convinced I will be facing months of uncertainty and instability upon my return home next year.

So, rather than dragging my unemployed ass around in search of jobs that don't exist, I've been toying with the idea of cycling across Canada instead. Why look for work when there is no work to be had? I will hop on my bike and literally ride out the recession.

Besides, cycling across Canada is something I've always wanted to do. I've just never had the time. A year from now, when my stint at Kyoto University is up, I'll be unemployed for the first time in my life. I will have nothing but time. This might be the best chance I get.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Let's get back to the bona fide bike trip that's happening two days from now.

I figured I should take a test ride in Japan before committing myself to cycling from Vancouver to St. John's. I've done lots of riding in the past but have never toured longer than three days. I need to find out if I actually like cycling long distances for days on end. There's no point locking myself into a two-month ride if it's just going to be a suffer-fest.

(Although, I have to admit that suffering is half the fun. It's what makes the experience that much more rewarding. The easy stuff fades into the background. But the tough stuff -- those times when you pushed yourself beyond your limits or were left broken and sobbing on your way up a steep mountain pass in driving wind and freezing rain -- that's the stuff that forces you to come face-to-face with your deepest, darkest self. What happens when you hit the pain barrier? What do you do? Push through or back down? The trick with long-distance cycling, and endurance sports in general, is learning how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you can do that, you can tolerate all kinds of misery.)

But I digress . . . I wanted to bike across Canada but not without testing the waters in Japan first. The only hitch was that I didn't have enough money to buy a proper touring bike. What to do? What to do? I was mulling this over when it hit me: Wait a minute! I already have a bike in Japan!

When I left Sakawa two years ago, I lent my mountain bike to my friend Sachi. As far as I knew, she still had it. What if I went back to Sakawa, picked up my bike and rode it back to Kyoto? The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. There was no reason I couldn't do this. Cycling from Sakawa to Kyoto wouldn't require any skill. Just stamina.

I could take the train to Sakawa and then ride my bike all the way across Shikoku. And then when I hit the easternmost point of the island, I could take the ferry to southwestern Honshu and ride up to Kyoto from there.

The more I researched it, the more doable it seemed. The total distance between Sakawa and Kyoto is about 500 kilometres. I figured I could comfortably do it in five days. Golden Week -- a string of four national holidays all occurring around the same time -- was right around the corner. I'd have to skip two days of school to make the trip work, but the timing was perfect.

Sachi gave me the okay to borrow my bike. She even took it to the local bike shop to get it checked out and tuned up. I started buying maps, plotting out a route and booking hostels. This is the route I eventually decided on:

It looks straightforward. But don't let my crude maps fool you. Most of the mountain roads through rural Shikoku resemble coiled intestines. I'll be riding Routes 439 & 438 for three days straight. I suspect I'll be pushing my bike up a lot of these hills. If it gets really bad, I can always throw my bike off a cliff and hop on a bus back to Kyoto.

My limited budget dictated a bare-bones trip. But I decided against camping mainly because I didn't want to spend money to buy stuff I already have (unfortunately, all of my outdoor gear is sitting in a storage locker in Vancouver). I wanted to spend as little money as possible but there were certain things I couldn't scrimp on. A pump, a patch kit, some basic tools, painkillers, gloves, padded bike shorts. (Especially padded bike shorts.)

There were other things I decided I could live without. Leg warmers, arm warmers, an odometer, panniers, bottle cages, booties, clipless pedals, bike shoes.

Yes, this means I will be doing the whole trip in running shoes while wearing a backpack. It's not ideal. But it could be worse. The guys who rode the first Tour de France raced their single-speed bikes on dirt roads without a single stitch of spandex, gortex or coolmax on their backs.

I may not have any fancy equipment but at least I have gears and quick-dry fabrics. Besides, this is just a rehearsal. A prelude to the real thing. If all goes well, it will galvanize my plan to ride across Canada. Or not.

I'm heading out to Sakawa tomorrow and I'll start riding on Thursday. I hope to arrive in Kyoto five days later on Monday night. Adventure awaits . . .

Day 1

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One door closes. Another door opens. And so it goes

A couple of weeks ago, I was told I couldn't join Kyoto University's swim team because it was for Japanese only.

I didn't want to fight it but I didn't want to throw in the towel either. So I went back to the sports office to try again. But instead of trying to force my way onto the swim team, I thought I'd ask if I could join the long-distance running team.

The swim team is a varsity club and the long-distance running team is a recreational club so I thought maybe I'd have more luck joining a less competitive club. It was either that or the "life philosophy" club. (Also, they have a "mushroom study" club. How awesome is that?)

When I went to the office to ask about joining the long-distance running team, the same guy who told me the swim team was off limits to foreigners was working behind the desk. He gave me the same frustrating speech about why it would be "difficult" for me to join the team. He didn't tell me outright that I couldn't join the long-distance running team. But he didn't tell me that I could join it either.

Eventually, we came to a compromise. He said he would take down my name, phone number and email address and pass it on to the running club. And then it would be up to them to contact me. I left the sports office not entirely convinced that he hadn't immediately thrown the slip of paper with my contact information on it in the garbage.

But a few days later, I got an email from the running club. The message was written in Japanese but it was filled with smiley faces and exclamation marks. The president of the club invited me to come to a meeting for new members on Monday night. They would be more than happy to have me, he wrote. The club was open to any student at Kyoto University.

"Maybe they read your blog and were too terrified to reject you," my friend Seema joked. Or at least I think she was joking.

Excited about finding a group of people to run with regularly, I went to the meeting on Monday night. The long-distance running team shares a clubhouse with the climbing team in a small portable squeezed between the tennis courts and Building 4 (yes, that's its official name) at the south end of campus.

I showed up at the clubhouse promptly at 6 p.m. I poked my head in the door to see 12 unnaturally skinny guys sitting on the floor around a pair of low tables. Intimidated but unbowed, I stuttered my way through broken Japanese.

"Um . . . I'm here for the meeting? To join the running club? Morita-san emailed me and told me to come? Is it okay?"

A couple of guys immediately jumped up and ushered me in.

"Come in! Sit down!"

I was bombarded with questions. Where are you from? What's your favourite Japanese food? Can you drink alcohol? Do you read manga? What’s your favourite movie? Can you eat raw fish? What do you think about Japan?

I felt like I was on a first date. With 12 Japanese guys. Who were all at least a decade younger than me.

I spent a good hour sitting in the clubhouse answering their questions. When they ran out of questions, they handed me a sheet of paper listing their social events for the next month. Barbeques, parties and (my personal favourite) a 40-kilometre forced march from Nara to Kyoto starting at midnight.

It all sounded great but I was a little confused. I thought this was a running club, not a social club.

"So when do you actually run?" I asked.

"Oh, we don’t have any official practices," one of the guys said. "You can just drop by the clubhouse after class and see if someone is around and wants to run. Otherwise, we just run on our own."

Before I could tell them this wasn't exactly what I was looking for, they offered to treat me to dinner. Who was I to turn down a free meal? And so off we went to the cafeteria.

After dinner, they told me they were having a little party back at the clubhouse and would I care to join them? They offered to buy me drinks. Who was I to turn down free drinks? And so off we went back to the clubhouse.

A few drinks later, I tried to beg off. I had a kanji test the next morning and I needed to study.

"We will help you study!" they declared. Before I knew it, three guys were writing up an impromptu kanji quiz. And so I spent the next hour writing and reading various kanji characters to the delight of my new friends.

They were so nice and so welcoming that I felt like I couldn't back out. I'm the newest member of Kyoto University's long-distance running club whether I want to be or not. I joined the club thinking it would help me stay in shape. Instead, I feel like I'm in a Japanese study group. With beer.

The long-distance running club will be good for my Japanese. But bad for my liver. As for the running, I guess I'm on my own. Oh well. At least I found a club that happily accepts foreigners.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The girl and the construction worker

I'm in love with a geriatric construction worker. Although, describing him as a "worker" might be a bit of a stretch.

His job entails little more than standing in front of a half-finished building, waving a red baton to let drivers and pedestrians know it's safe to pass. It's a completely redundant and unnecessary job. The construction project is taking place on a quiet side road where few cars go.

I've never seen him actually stop traffic. Why would he? All of the work is taking place on a plot of land set back from the mostly deserted street. There's no traffic and nothing to divert it around.

But still. He seems to take his non-job very seriously. He stands in front of the construction site directing the non-existent traffic day after day. He wears a navy blue uniform and a white hardhat. He even wears those ubiquitous white gloves that cover the hands of every taxi driver, train attendant and police officer in Japan.

If I had to guess his age, I'd say he's probably pushing 70. Seventy years old and 100 pounds soaking wet.

I pass him every morning on my way to school. He waits until he catches my eye and then he bows deeply at the waist and wishes me a good morning with a hearty "Ohayo gozaimasu!"

I bow and say “Ohayo gozaimasu” in return. And then we smile at each other. I think he has a grandfatherly crush on me because I've never seen him saying good morning to anyone else walking past the construction site. He simply waves them by with a flick of his baton and a little bow from the neck. He saves the deep bows, the chorus of good mornings and the smiles for me. Maybe this is the Japanese equivalent of catcalls and wolf-whistles.

I have no idea what it is they're building exactly (an office building? an apartment? a house?). It's all hidden under layers of scaffolding and blue tarps. Whatever it is, it's taking forever. Our morning ritual has been going on for more than four months now.

I look forward to seeing him on my way to school. It's the only male attention I get in Kyoto. Not that I'm the kind of girl who bases her self-worth on her attractiveness to men. But when no one looks at you when you walk down the street, you start to feel invisible. Like you don't really exist. Or you exist in a paradox: a strange halfway place where you're highly visible as a foreigner but invisible as a woman.

The only eyes that follow me down the street belong to a 70-year-old construction worker. Who wears thick glasses. And who is probably bored out of his mind. But who somehow manages to make me feel special.

(Has it really come to this? Am I so hard up for male attention that all it takes is a bow and some eye contact from an elderly construction worker to make my heart flutter? Have I become so starved for affection that I'm grateful for any scrap thrown my way?)

Anyway, after months and months of this morning routine, my construction worker friend had a little surprise in store for me on Friday. As usual, he waited until he made eye contact with me before we began our daily exchange. But this time, instead of speaking in Japanese, he said "Good morning!" in English.

It was the first time he had ever greeted me in English. It was such a sweet gesture. I wanted to hug him. It was like he had been practicing it in front of the mirror for weeks before screwing up the courage to finally test it out on me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And when I thought about it, it made me smile.

One day soon, I'll walk past the construction site and all of the scaffolding and tarps will have been torn down to reveal a shiny new building. The construction crew will have moved on to another project. There will be no old man waiting to shower me with deep bows, a chorus of good mornings and smiles. I'm going to miss him when he's gone.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Going, going, gone

Same tree, different day. The first photo was taken two weeks ago. The second photo was taken two days ago. Fleeting pink has given way to lasting green. Kyoto's cherry blossom season is officially over.

Blindingly beautiful and then gone.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Old-school racism?

I realize what I'm about to say is going to be somewhat controversial and sensitive. So I'm going to write it carefully. And I hope you'll read it carefully too.

I'm not writing this post to single out Japan as a racist country. Racism is alive and well the world over. But the truth is I've had a few brushes with racism in Japan that range from the mildly backwards to the downright ugly.

Before I get into it, I want to stress that living here has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The vast majority of people I've met have showered me with kindness and generosity. I have Japanese friends who treat me like family. My day-to-day life is generally smooth and uneventful.

But it would be dishonest to only write about the good stuff. The isolation and alienation are just as much a part of the experience as the fun and adventure.

I once wrote that sometimes I feel like my life in Japan has been a lesson in loneliness. As much as you try to fit in, you never really will. You are an outsider living on the fringes of a world you are part of but don't really belong to.

No matter how enmeshed in the community you are, no matter how good your Japanese is, you are constantly being pushed back into the gaijin box. It can be as benign as having no one sit next to you on a crowded train or as blatant as being refused entry into a bar.

It seems counterintuitive but I've experienced more xenophobia in Kyoto than I did when I lived in a small, rural town in the south of Japan. I may have been followed around with stares in rural Japan but I was never once barred from a restaurant or told I couldn't join a club because I wasn't Japanese. Never. I was welcomed into the community with open arms.

It's a different story here in Kyoto. During the last six months, I've had three brushes with blatant racism. It was never a hostile or confrontational experience. It was a calm "this is the way things are and it's not going to change" experience. But this normalcy is what makes it that much more profound.

The first time it happened was in November. My friend Kathleen and I had spent the day taking in the fall colours. That night, we decided a few drinks were in order. We picked a bar at random. We slid the door open and asked the hostess for a table for two. She told us to wait while she conferred with the manager.

The hostess disappeared behind a corner. Kathleen and I heard a male voice asking her if the two women waiting for a table were gaijin. Kathleen and I are far from fluent in Japanese but we both understood that part loud and clear. The hostess confirmed we were foreigners. The manager then said something else neither of us could catch. The hostess came back and told us there were no seats.

No seats in a half-empty bar? Kathleen and I were dumbstruck. I think Kathleen tried to ask if there was a waiting list. But we were told again, adamantly, there were no seats. So we left. Neither of us could believe we had just been banned from a bar because we were foreigners.

"Maybe all of the empty tables are reserved?" I said, holding out hope that we had misread the situation, although we both knew we hadn't.

We eventually found another bar that was more than happy to have us. But, still, it left a bitter taste in both our mouths.

My second brush with racism happened at a travel agency last month. My friend Elena and I were using a Japanese travel agent to book a trip to Hong Kong. The travel agent printed out a quote for the plane fare. A few minutes later, she realized she had made a mistake and had given us the wrong quote.

"Sorry," she apologized. "That price was for Japanese only."

She quickly printed off a second quote, which was $50 more expensive than the original price. Once again, I was dumbstruck. How could there be one price for Japanese people and another (more expensive) price for everyone else? Was that even legal?

Once again, I didn't fight it. I just accepted it. Why take our business elsewhere when every other travel agency in the city probably had the same policy?

My third brush with racism happened last week. I went to the sports centre at Kyoto University to ask about joining the swim team. The guy in charge wasn't affiliated with the swim team itself. He's an office worker at the sports centre, but you have to go through him to get to the sports clubs.

He hummed and hawed.

"The swim team trains very hard," he said. "They swim almost everyday. They are very serious. It's not for fun."

"Yes, that's the point," I replied. "I used to train like that back in Canada and I want to do the same thing here."

Seeing that I wouldn't be easily dissuaded, he broke down and told me the real reason I couldn't join the team.

"It's for Japanese only," he said.

Japanese only? What is this? 1950s America redux?

Once again, I was dumbstruck. I didn't even know what to say. So I said nothing at all. I just left. But I can't stop thinking about it. Should I complain? Or should I just let it be?

Again, I want to stress that these are isolated events and not an everyday occurrence. I don't want to come across as being gratuitously negative. Japan is no more or less racist than any other country.

The thing is, I'm not really that angry or upset. If anything, I feel sorry for Japan. Sorry to see this kind of stuff is still going in 2009. It's all just so stupid.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Cherry blossom fatigue

What I'm about to say probably borders on blasphemy in Japan. But I want the cherry blossoms to hurry up and die already.

It's not that I'm anti-flower. It's just that the cherry blossoms in Kyoto are so blindingly beautiful that you can't not admire them. It's all I've been doing during the past two weeks. I want my life back!

There's no escape from the sakura. The blossoms are absolutely everywhere, turning an already lovely city into a gossamery dreamworld. Even the garbage dump behind my apartment is covered under a canopy of fluttering flowers. Trash has never looked more magical.

Different trees have been blooming at different speeds, so while some petals have already passed their peak, others are just beginning to flower. There's no end in sight!

And the parties. Don't get me started on the parties. There's only so much sake you can drink while contemplating the ephemeral nature of life under a cherry tree. Celebrating all of this fleeting beauty is starting to become monotonous. It feels like there's nothing fleeting about it.

I feel like a kid who has overdosed on candy. The first taste was so sweet and wonderful that I gorged on it to the point of revulsion.

Despite my cherry blossom fatigue, I have agreed to go to two more flower-viewing parties. One tomorrow night, and one that starts at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning and ends never. (I'm not exaggerating. People actually set up tents under the cherry trees and camp out until the last petal falls.)

After Saturday, I'm swearing off cherry blossoms for the rest of the season. No more photos. No more parties. No more gorging on beauty until I feel sick. I can't take it anymore!

As always, you can find the rest of my photos on flickr.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A sparkling spirit

There are some people who are filled with so much personality and positive energy that it practically oozes out of their pores. You can tell they are special without exchanging a word. Maybe it's the way their eyes sparkle. It's always the special ones whose eyes shine the most brightly.

I met a sparkling spirit at the pool yesterday. Swimming is not something I do very often in Kyoto. Japan is a country of contradictions and rules. One of the biggest rules is that there is a season for everything -- and summer is the season for swimming.

There is a beautiful 50-metre outdoor pool at Kyoto University. But because there is a season for swimming, the pool is only open two months each year. Never mind the fact that it is warm enough to swim outdoors from April to November. You can only swim in July and August. That is the rule. Obey it.

I figured there had to be a few indoor pools in Kyoto so I went to the tourist office to ask. The woman working behind the counter handed me a list of all of the swimming pools in the city. There are 10 pools in Kyoto. Nine of them are only open in July and August.

The one pool that is open year-round is inside a massive sports complex in the southwest corner of the city. It takes three trains and 45 minutes to get there from my apartment. The complex is home to the only 50-metre indoor pool in the city. But because there is a season for swimming, the pool is converted into a skating rink from October to May.

Those of us who like to swim in the off-season have to make do with a smaller "side pool" until June.

It's not ideal but I need to swim. More for my mental health than for my physical health. When I swim, I can only focus on getting enough air to breathe. It is difficult to think about anything else when you are in physical pain. I think this is why I push myself so hard when I run or swim. It quiets my mind and distracts my thoughts.

I'm not one to give astrology much credence but I'm a Pisces -- the fish -- and I think maybe there's something to that. I feel more powerful and free in water than I do on land. I've been swimming since birth. Literally. My mom gave birth to me in a tub of warm water. I swam competitively through grade school and high school. I quit competitive swimming in university but I still woke up at 6 a.m. every morning and swam on my own for an hour before classes.

I have always been drawn to bodies of water. Oceans, lakes, rivers. A rectangular box dug into the ground, lined with concrete and spiked with chlorine, is a poor substitute for the real thing but it will do.

Anyway, all of this is a long, rambling preamble to the point of this post -- the sparkling spirit I met at the pool yesterday.

It is spring break here in Japan, a fact I didn't realize until I stepped on the pool deck. Just like in Canada, spring break and public pools go hand-in-hand. So I spent a good part of an hour swimming around kids who slipped under the rope separating the play area from the lap swimming area. The lifeguards would yell at them to get out of the lanes. So they'd swim where they were supposed to and then pop back in the lanes when the lifeguards weren't looking. It was like swimming through an obstacle course.

The only other person swimming laps in my lane was a very young boy -- the sparkling spirit.

He was swimming laps by himself. He seemed to have come to the pool alone. No adults checked in on him. No kids asked him to play. He was very intense and very serious. He was wearing a cap, goggles and a little speedo. He couldn't have been older than 10.

All of the other kids in the pool were splashing around in the play area, or taking turns going down the waterslide. Not this kid. He was spending his spring break swimming laps in the pool by himself. And he seemed to be enjoying it. Really enjoying it.

I slipped into his lane and started my workout. I was about a quarter of the way into it when I noticed that the kid was following right behind me, swimming his heart out to stay on my feet. I was doing a set of 6x200 (alternating 200 metres freestyle and 200 metres IM). My little friend swam right behind me, arms churning like windmills, swimming the exact same workout.

I grabbed a kickboard and did some dolphin kick. He grabbed a kickboard and did some dolphin kick. I swam some freestyle sprints. He same some freestyle sprints. When I rested, he rested.

When he lifted his goggles from his face, I saw that he had the most beautiful shining black eyes.

I didn't say anything to him. I could have told him he was a great swimmer. But I didn't need to. We understood each other. We were both enjoying the feel of the water and the pain of a punishing workout. We were swimming the same strokes, on the same intervals. He was following me and I was letting him follow me. What did we need to say?

I could tell he was having fun trying to keep up with the only foreigner in the pool. He could tell I was having fun pushing the little Japanese boy whose fingertips were always inches away from my toes.

After an hour, I got tired and left. But the kid stayed in the pool. Churning up the water with as much energy and intensity as before. You could tell he was a special kid. A sparkling spirit. A much-needed ray of sunshine on an otherwise dark day.