A guard of honour

When I’m on the road, usually I can’t wait to find something like civilisation, but upon arriving in a city, more often than not the first thing I want to do is get back out on the road. A few days surrounded by urban convenience though, and the countryside starts to take on an aura of mystery and danger once more. It’s an illusion, but it’s a powerful one, especially when night draws in.

My last night in Sendai was coloured by trepidation at the looming step into the unknown that the next day promised, and also by a growing exhaustion at the pace of my travel – not so much from the cycling itself as from constantly sleeping in new places and being tied to the timetables of hotels and events.

I met up with Kamata for a bite to eat, and walking around town as his guest, I noticed how often he would be stopped and called out to by people in the street. When I have friends visit me in Koenji, I get a little tingle of pride every time the same thing happens to me. It’s not just being able to say, “Look, I’m famous!” It’s also the way it marks your territory – not in a possessive way, so much as in the sense of reinforcing the sense of being bonded to the place. This is where everyone knows my name. In the face of your guest, you can see your sense of belonging reflected back. It’s a nice feeling, and it’s weird to be on the other side of it, in the role of the mirror.

Mountains, ever-present
Mountains, ever-present, if often hidden

The next stage would take me to Koriyama, the largest city in Fukushima Prefecture, with a one-night stop-off in Fukushima City. Once out onto the road, it seems a far less feardul place and something else takes over: I’m in control of my rattling, squeaking, blue machine, and what I find myself with some shame referring to as nature’s grandeur makes everything else seem insignificant. Mountains, which you can see distantly and vaguely on a clear day from Tokyo, are a ubiquitous presence, casually dwarfing the most majestic human constructions. The sky, and especially the clouds, become living things.

The feeling of control that takes over when on the road is also an illusion though, and my arrival in Fukushima was delayed by an accident – an oblique product of one of Japan’s sometimes dangerous rural highways.

Fighting my way up a series of hills as I approached Fukushima, the road became busier and narrower, trucks hurtling by and the hard shoulder dwindling first to a narrow margin and then to nothing. The other side of the road had a pavement, and with pavements usually dual use on country roads I weighed up the poor quality surface against my current peril and decided that safety trumped tarmac. The trouble is that these roads are dangerous to everyone, and they suck up the focus of all who use them. By positioning myself on the pavement, I rendered myself invisible to the attention of one driver trying to pull out of her driveway and took what I believe is technically termed a “prang”.

There is danger in the hills
There is danger in the hills

As prangs go, it was a mild one that didn’t even knock me off my bike, but it did knacker one of my side bags, necessitating a precarious, jury-rigged network of straps to keep it attached for the final 20km into town, where Mission Control was waiting for me.

While Fukushima City, along with the more coastal Iwaki, is a sizeable city with music to offer of its own – not to mention a rather nice one, with an almost European vibe to the town centre – I was determined to push on to Koriyama, so Mission Control and I devoted the evening instead to Chinese food and preparations for the next stage.

You know a restaurant is going to be good when there's a mummified shark in the window
You know a restaurant is going to be good when there’s a mummified shark in the window

Despite the alarming proliferation of broken glass and shattered tail lights scattered across the road to Koriyama, my bike, my broken side bag’s tenuous confusion of straps, and I all made it in one piece, entering the city to two columns of policemen and a collection of assorted municipal dignitaries, who were obviously expecting someone else, but who nonetheless ushered me down their guard of honour, saluting me as I passed. I wondered how long they’d been waiting and how many other people boredom had led them to distinguish with the same treatment. For that matter, who was the royal guest they were anticipating?

In any case, after petty trials the roads of Miyagi and Fukushima had put me through, to make my entry to the city through someone else’s honour guard felt like fate giving me a slow, sarcastic handclap. You think you’ve had it hard? Here you go, boy, I salute you.

I saluted them back. If fate is going to play jokes on me, I’m going to be one of those annoying assholes who insists on being in on it.

Big sky
Big sky

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