3 months ago I had never ridden a motorcycle. My friend Will had mentioned in passing that he had planned a trip across Japan with a friend but it ended up falling through. I guess that motorcycles are dangerous and girlfriends and wives generally aren’t the biggest fans. I didn’t think much of the comment until he showed me the google map he and his friend had made… 500MB of cloud-hosted, interactive, online gold. Will was Che Guevara without a motorcycle partner, and I wanted to fill that spot on the roster.
So I told him I wanted to do it. Hundreds of dollars in bike lessons and licensing fees could not keep me from something I had wanted for almost 2 weeks. A year of saving had money burning a hole in my pocket, and July in Boston only stoked the fire. So on a beautiful summer weekend I found myself in a scorching parking lot in North Cambridge, wearing my thickest jeans and leather boots and a jacket, and wondering at what point sweat stains start to show through Levis. My instructor Shamone thought we all had a knack for biking, and was eager to give even the most wobbly and insecure riders their licenses at the end of the 2 day course. I learned an incredible amount during the short class, and soon I was holding onto an international drivers permit and a class M drivers license. I was energized and ready to risk my life for the sake of adventure.
A month later we were exchanging hugs in a friends two bedroom apartment above a ramen shop in eastern Tokyo, ready to get on the road. We took two days in Tokyo to get our bearings, then headed to a suburb called Ikebukuro to grab our bikes. When we saw our bikes at Rental819 I was terrified. This bike was a sleek beauty but palpably dangerous, its blue and black paint job glittering in the sun of a Tokyo summer. I didn’t know if I would be able to control this thing going faster than 60km, let alone take a left-side turn in the congested mayhem of the city.
So we quieted our nerves, got on our bikes, and took the first heart-pounding loop around a Ikebukuro block. Fear turned to excitement, and we were so giddy after that first block that we tore right past our apartment on the way back to grab our bags. We pulled a U-turn driving on the left side of the road, dodging motorscooters and tiny Japanese cars, and missed the house again. The third time we missed the house we were sure that the house had disappeared into the Japanese Bermuda triangle. It was about this time that we realized that even simple navigation was going to be very difficult in Japan. We had one phone with GPS service, and no way to mount it on the bikes. This meant that we needed to memorize all the directions for the route, or pull over every 30 minutes to confirm that we hadn’t been going the wrong way. Millennial are known for being great at some things — acting entitled, multi-tasking poorly, playing ping-pong… navigating without GPS is not one of those skills. Will and I didn’t realize it yet, but we were in for a dark and difficult night.
By the time we grabbed our bags the sun had almost set, and we were about to merge into a highly convoluted network of highway on and off ramps, in the pitch darkness, with signs written in a mix of Kanji and Hitakama. Oh and it was raining. When we made it out of Tokyo nearly 5 hours had already passed since we picked up our bikes in Ikebukuro, and the sun was down.
So we were off, speeding down the highway on our new bikes in a light rain. This was the easy part, or so I thought. 15 minutes into the highway ride I started noticing the sweat on my back and neck and an itch near my nose that was inaccessible because of my helmet visor. 1 hour in my neck began getting stiff, exhausted from lifting up a 5 pound helmet. 2 hours in that stiffness became a sharp pain that sparked down my spine whenever I lifted my head upwards. When we stopped after 2.5 hours, I had to fashion a neck sling out of an old t shirt and I told Will that I was in danger of falling asleep on my bike and we needed to crash at the next motel. 4 hours in I fell asleep face down on a rest stop table next to a fast food dumpling shop, my neck muscles quivering and searing and my legs feeling like lead. 5 hours in our phone battery was dying and we were 9% of a lithium battery away from sleeping on the side of the road underneath our backpacks. Luckily, with some memorization and strategic stops we managed to make it to our AirBnb in Shizuoka prefecture at 1AM Monday. A Japanese woman ran out of the bar (where she was still drinking) to guide us and our bikes over to the apartment. We passed out immediately on the single mattress.
The next day we woke up in the small town of Shimizi in the Shizuoka prefecture. It is a speck on the coast with a reputation for packaging incredible green tea and cooking traditional Japanese tempura dishes. We went into a green tea wholesale shop and entertained a clerk who told us a strange legend about a Yakuza gangster who brought industry and protection to the town in the 50s and is now the patron saint of the town. After eating dessert for breakfast, we had lunch in the bottom floor of an old Japanese woman's house, and ate a meal unlike anything I have ever tasted. Fat fresh caught tempura shrimp and soft tempura eggplant next to light bitter greens, baked tofu sitting elegantly in a delicate broth, and of course unlimited sweet matcha tea. We got back on our bikes full and happy and ready to make our way to Kyoto.
On our way to Kyoto we passed by countless traditional towns — picturesque and magical, their dark black roofs and red woodwork peeking out of the foliage of lush hills. We had a little bit of extra time before sunset, so we decided to break off the highway and explore one small town in the woods.
We parked our bikes in a Japanese high-school parking lot in the center of town as light began to fade over the hill. We started walking slowly through thin, half-paved, windy roads in absolute silence. The only sounds were warm wind in the trees, and the muffled rustle of motorcycle layers peeling off so we could feel it in our hair. As we walked past perfectly manicured gardens and carefully arranged arches, we couldn't help but notice the near undisturbed silence in every home. Not the smallest hint of dinner conversation, not the sound of children playing in backyards or even T.V.s glittering through living room windows. It was eerily quiet and intensely serene. A bit further we saw a path trailing off from town into the now-darkened woods. At the end of it we were able to make out a 3 story temple looming in the dusk. The temple was empty and nothing moved as we crunched across the lawn of polished stones towards the massive red structure. It seemed like even the wind had died at this point. Incense lay burnt in holders on the stone lawn, dragon statues stared us down over ritual basins of prayer water. It felt like we were strangers on a strange planet, totally unable to fathom the meaning of this place but able to feel it in so many small details. We grabbed our bikes and rode through the gate out of town.
Within the hour we had arrived in Kyoto. Kyoto’s beauty was in its cultural consistency. Unlike the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, Kyoto feels very in touch with its roots. Food seems even more revered here and the architecture reflects a care for preservation of the past. We even slept on a traditional shiki futons on the floor of our airbnb to be more invested in the cultural experience. We spent a full morning in an enormous indoor food market called Nikishi market — eating things like candied whole baby octopus and flavorful mochi, deep fried fish-balls decorated with mayonnaise and tuna flakes, Onigiri rice balls packed with fish eggs or meat. In the market every vendor takes great care with immaculate presentation of their food and interesting new combinations of foods are expected. We went to a local sushi bar for dinner, and ate our sashimi, ginger and wasabi directly off a pristine countertop. No plates required.
As soon as we got to know Kyoto we were gone. On Wednesday we tore off towards Tokyo with our bikes feeling like extensions of our bodies and our hands heavy on the throttle. We had come a long way since day 1. We had breakfast at a fast food joint on our way out of town and ate rest stop rice balls and snacks all day until dinner. We did 155kmph in 80 zones. We rode straight through the rainy darkness for about 10 hours. Nothing was going to keep us from making it home.
Only when I was leaving Tokyo did I finally think about the trip in an abstract way. What it meant to me, what did I learn from it?
In some ways I feel like it was an insanely selfish thing for me to do — I spent hundreds of dollars of essentially surplus money and spent it to whip around on roads that I could have taken a bullet train across — but in other ways it feels like a fantastic exercise in self growth and an investment in myself.
It is empowering to learn an entirely new skill and put it to use immediately. It is exhilarating to operate on the edge of disaster for hours at a time and never make a mistake. It is humbling to sit at the foot of thousands of years of history and think honestly about the shortcomings of your own style of life.
In Japan you feel tiny — at the same time isolated and entwined in a tight and intricate cultural fabric. It’s an experience worth having, and I don’t need to examine it more than that.