by Harrison Maddox
It’s 5:45 p.m. on a Friday in downtown Tokyo and I’m lurching down the bustling sidewalk with 50-pound box packed with my bicycle and everything I’ll need for a ten-day ride around Japan. I know I’m looking for Sophiearth Hostel, but I have only the faintest idea how to get there (think cardinal directions). Cell service is nil, as expected — the nearest T-mobile cell tower is an ocean away. I stop every few hundred feet to get my bearings by cross-referencing the screenshot I took of a map pinpointing the hostel and the tourist map I have, and to give my shoulders and arms a break from the heavy load.
When you say “adventure,” a lot of people probably envision rugged and remote mountains, rushing streams, wild animals, scrapes and bruises. But here I was, in the largest city on Earth at rush hour, facing greater physical and mental challenges than I have on any outdoor excursion.
After an hour of lugging, I have a hunch that I’m in the right neighborhood. I circle the block four times before I break down and mime my way through a conversation with a restaurant host smoking on the sidewalk. He points and I do my best to follow his vague bearing within the confines of the centuries-old alleyways that twist and turn in every direction.
Success: just when I begin to think that the gutter looks awfully comfortable, I spot the hostel and feel a sort of relief I didn’t know existed. I check in and collapse for several hours before heading out to explore the Tokyo nightlife unburdened.
Two days later, a bus drops me and my bike off at a drab shopping center outside the city. I unbox my trusty Surly Cross-Check and spend the next hour putting it together, parts strewn all over my little corner of the parking lot, busloads of people gawking, some stopping to attempt conversation. This is the part where I admit that I didn’t exactly have my act together before I left on this trip. My preparation consisted of “I might need this, so it goes in the box.” There were no shakedown rides, no gear testing, no backup plans. Just pure, American fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. So I get crafty. A few zip-ties here, a few washers made of old inner tube there, a few curse words that nobody around me can understand, and I’m set to go.
Except for the map.
Remember how this trip was running on 100% American fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants? This is now officially “A Problem.” My GPS route for the first day of riding, which I spent hours painstakingly plotting, isn’t on my Garmin Etrex. Day two’s route is. So is day three’s route. The entire route is on the device, except for day one. I have no paper map, because I am a textbook rookie. I don’t know what to do at first. I kind of want to punch the air. Not helpful. I swear a lot under my breath (not all that helpful either).
I walk to the nearest coffee shop, sap some Wi-Fi and manage to plot my way from Gotenba station to Kawaguchiko. It’s not my preferred route and certainly not the safe, backroad route I had planned on, but it’s a route. It‘s late afternoon at this point and I’m not sure if I’ll make it by dark. After a series of poor ordering decisions at the first restaurant I see (a Denny’s, because why not?), I put the pedal down for Kawaguchiko. Maybe it’s the sugar high from my peach pancakes or maybe I’m elated at my ability to fix my situation at a time when I thought it un-fixable, but the first 25 miles of my ten-day bike tour across Japan are sublime — the complete opposite of the rock-bottom I’d felt only hours before. I pedal through charming hamlets and climb my way up into the foothills of the Japanese alps, stopping at every roadside shrine I come across (I quickly tire of this — there are so many shrines!). The scenery reminds me of the Appalachians I love so much, and it’s remarkably easy to ride here, with plenty of separated paths, wide shoulders and courteous drivers.
As predicted, there’s no way I’ll reach Kawaguchiko before dark, and what little navigational success I’ve had thus far will surely disappear with the sunlight. I had planned to camp at Kawaguchiko, so I have no sleeping arrangements for the evening. As I roll into the town of Fujiyoshida at dusk, I realize that this will be a problem. I sniff out a 7-11 (which, along with FamilyMart and Lawson Station, will become my rock for this journey) and buy some snacks while using the Wi-Fi to find a place to sleep, with no luck. I decide to try asking the man behind the counter, and though he can’t understand my English, he summons his daughter, who’s studying English as part of her high-school curriculum. After relaying my situation to her father, he calls around town and reserves me the last bed in a hostel down the road. Then, through our teenaged translator, he tells me he can drive me there. Awestruck at his generosity, I accept. We wedge my bike into the back of his minivan and and we do our best to make small talk on our way there.
I check into “Mount Fuji Hostel Michael’s” a little after 10 p.m. and head downstairs to the pub, where I meet the hostel’s namesake tending the bar. He has a Yankees game on the TV and a thick New York accent, but I ask him where he’s from just to start a conversation. He married a Japanese woman while serving in the Navy and the two of them settled here in this town near the base of Mount Fuji. Michael opened the hostel to serve travelers and climbers who came to see and conquer Fuji. I get the sense that he’s a minor celebrity around here, as the bar fills up with locals who practice their English with him. His best friend shows up — a millionaire who’s made his fortune recording the automated voices you hear on all of Tokyo’s metro trains and buses. I’m seated with one other traveler, a woman from Norway who I learn is the country’s female fencing champion. It’s a party. Michael serves us beer and stories for hours here in this little American-style pub of a refuge he’s built for himself in the middle of Japan.
I turn in late and sleep well.