Responses from people I know to my plans to travel Japan by bicycle, learning about the local music scenes, can be classified in three main ways.
The first goes something along the lines of, “Wow, that sounds so idyllic!”
The second would usually be more like, “What sort of bike do you have? What sort of camera are you bringing? What route are you taking? No, that’s wrong. Instead you should…”
The final type of response takes the form of a suspicious glance as the person takes my measure, before saying, “You be careful, OK?”
Of these three responses, the first two are really about the speaker and nothing really to do with me. The first person is imagining themselves cruising along a country road, rice fields on either side, green hills and mountains rising up in the distance. The second is eager to help, but they’re also enjoying making a performance out of their own specialist knowledge. The third response, however, indicates someone who knows me reasonably well and recognises how ill-equipped as a human being I am for such an enterprise. And make no mistake, I fully expect to die on this trip – if not at the hands of bears, snakes or truck drivers, then through my own stupidity (possibly working in tandem with one of the above).
The reason for this preamble is to help you understand the significance with which this fear and knowledge weighs down even the smallest of incidents. The first such incident occurred before I had even left Tokyo.
My plan was to take my bicycle, recently kitted out with all manner of bags and accessories, and ride the train to Sapporo, from where I would slowly make my snaking way back across the country to Tokyo. I left my flat in Koenji to the sound of thunderstorms at 7:00AM and arrived at Tokyo Station in plenty of time to catch an 8:30 Shinkansen to my first change at Shin Aomori. All I had to do was remove the front wheel of my bicycle and wrap everything up in a special bicycle transportation bag. Easy. Ahem.
OK, well one difference is colour. Fortunately, colour doesn’t affect the functionality of an Allen key. The difference is that the silver one on the right has the little indentation that allows me to take the wheel off my bicycle – a theft-prevention measure that deters thieves by the simple method of making the bike useless and annoying even to the legitimate owner – while the black one on the left does not.
I had not noticed this before, and with the key supplied with my bicycle a year previously now mysteriously vanished, I found myself frantically biking all over Tokyo, trying to find a replacement. One shop said I’d need to order it from the manufacturer; online ordering would delay my departure by an extra day or two, but seemed the most likely option. On the off chance, I returned to the shop where I had bought the bicycle and gave them my sob story.
“Oh, we don’t stock them, but here, have mine.” Well, that was easy. And also important.
This was an early lesson in something I’d long suspected: that whether I like it or not, I will be falling helplessly on the good will of complete strangers very, very often on this trip. That it happened before I had even left seemed to point toward it happening even more often than I’d suspected.
This early nightmare and ensuing delay meant that I made my frantic ten-hour dash by train from Tokyo to Sapporo on an empty stomach, during which time I learned a hell of a lot about lashing a disassembled bicycle to various fittings in a train. I watched out of the windows at the landscape flitting past and imagined myself making the two-wheeled reverse journey. Every blackout as we entered a tunnel was a mountain I still don’t feel prepared to deal with, and I have every intention of cheating at various points as I make my way through some of the more inhospitable parts of Japan’s countryside. I may be an idiot, but I’m not suicidal.