Biking Zen Country - On a journey through southern Japan, a group of cyclists finds wild beauty and cultural paradoxes

RICHARD BANGS, <i> Excerpted from "Islandgods," by Richard Bangs and Pamela Roberson, published by Taylor Publishing Company. Copyright c 1991 by Richard Bangs and Pamela Roberson. </i>

It is a land as intangible and intoxicating as perfume, a paradox as large and implacable as the Sphinx, and I hoped to explore it on the back of a bike. The only problem was the last time I rode a bike it had a little bell on its handlebars.

Now, 30 years later, I was mounting the chrome-moly steel frame of a mountain bike with fat tires and low center of gravity. It was not too different in appearance from the Schwinn I rode to Wood Acres Elementary School, except this version had 17 additional gears.


It was May of last year and I was at the top of a hill in a south-central district called Kinki, a prefecture called Wakayama, on the island of Honshu--perhaps, to the Westerner, the most enigmatic acreage in the world. While the island itself may not be familiar, some of its landmarks are: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto. Yet it is much more than the berth for some of the world’s most celebrated cities; it is an island of rugged mountains and rip-roaring rivers, and vast expanses of dense forest. It is an island of oxymorons: samurai and monk, chrysanthemum and sword, iron lanterns and neon, an ineffable aesthetic refinement coupled with a lust for Madonna memorabilia.

I wanted to see if I could claim just a sliver of understanding with a passage through Honshu. I figured an ideal way would be by bicycle. Cars were for cities and freeways; walking for wilderness. I wanted to explore the in-betwixt, the central Kabuki principle of ma-- the space and/or time between--and the vehicle of choice itself defined a middle ground. So I signed with a company called Travent Tours of Waterbury Center, Vt., an organization specializing in overseas bicycle trips. It was led by Tada Yasue, 45, a short, oaken Honshu native with a conspiratorial grin and legs like piano wire. He is perhaps the preeminent backcountry biker in Japan.


As I pulled on my newly purchased gloves and adjusted my tortoise-shell-shaped helmet I looked around. I could not quite believe this was Japan. We were 2,700 feet above sea level on a mountaintop called Tentsuji, 22 miles southwest of the city of Gojo. Looking down on all sides we could see nothing but forest: maples, pines, incense cedars, spruce and other evergreens. The area is called the Tibet of Japan. I had never imagined an island as populated and crowded, with million-dollar-a-square-foot properties, with twice as many television sets as people, could offer so much wilderness. It was exquisite.

Patrick Delaney, the assistant leader, a 24-year-old cherub-faced Coloradan, noticed I was fumbling with the equipment. “Know how to shift gears?” he asked. “Shift, no,” I smiled. He gave me a crash course, playing the two levers like piano keys, telling me that the ideal rate was to have my legs moving at 60 to 100 hundred rotations a minute whatever the grade.

Then all 12 of us donned our helmets, hopped on our horses and headed downhill. Our route would take us from the heights of the Yoshimo mountains of southern Honshu to the Pacific, literally a journey from summit to sea.

The first few miles were easy enough. Tada, our elfish guide, had given us each a photocopied sheet of photos of landmarks along the way, signs in kanji (Japanese characters), buildings, bridges, tunnels, so that we could keep track of our route. He rode in front of the pack; Patrick brought up the rear, and each was in contact with the other with walkie talkies. It seemed fail-safe.


Ah so, not so. In the first two hours of riding we somehow lost Valerie Pringle, an energetic redhead who hosts a popular midday talk show on Canadian television. Her husband, Andrew, panicked when Patrick, who had been in the rear, pedaled up to the roadside vending machine where a few of us had stopped for refreshments. Valerie had been between Andrew and Patrick, and hadn’t been seen for several miles. While Patrick and Andrew headed back to find our first lost soul, I lingered at the vending machines on this lonely highway, and widened my eyes at the contents. Not only soft drinks and hot drinks of every kind, including many I’d never dreamed of (honey-pomegranate; bean-yogurt; something called Pocari Sweat; a vegetable drink called Toughman), but also beer: Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi Super Dry and the like, in all sizes, from pint to liter and beyond. What kept kids from using these machines, I wondered? How could they offer this on a precipitous mountain highway?

Minutes later Valerie was found. She had correctly followed a route marked “detour,” while the rest of the party had missed or ignored the sign.

We continued the downward trek, down a road like a log chute, through the Yoshino Kumano National Park alongside the Nyu River. I realized I liked this mode of travel: the crackling landscapes, the delicious wind in my face, the smell of pine tar and creosote packing my nostrils, the snapping sound of the triangular flag attached to my rear fender, the sound of speed. There was an inner calmness to it all, as though lounging in the eye of a hurricane.

Then someone yelled “Car back,” cyclist slang for “Watch out, a car is approaching from behind.” I tensed up, and pulled as close to the left curb as I could as a Mitsubishi van whizzed by, missing my pedal by inches. It brought me back to reality, and reminded me of the flip side of this activity, and this land--danger and violence. The island whose side we were spinning down, though even-tempered and peaceful on the surface, is one of the most seismically active in the world. It floats atop the eruptive Pacific Plate. And the people, as genteel as anywhere--the babies don’t even seem to cry--have a history of blood and brutality as extreme as any in the world. Minutes later, as if to illustrate this thought, Jan Strauch, the most experienced cyclist in our group, wiped out while steering onto a sidewalk, nastily scraping his elbow, knee and thigh.


We next stopped at Tanise no Tsuribashi, where the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world sways over the Nyu, and pulled out various snacks. The Westerners munched on trail mix with Reeses Pieces and peanut butter and crackers, while Tada crunched on a dried yam. Japanese tourists, here to see the famous bridge, turned their cameras on us. As we snacked, dozens of cameras clicked furiously, capturing our every bite and movement. For the first time in my life I felt like an animal in a zoo, or like the hundreds of people I’ve photographed in Third World countries over the years.

The journey continued, as we coasted down a quiet Route 168, as scenic as any stretch of the California coast’s Highway 1. The ride was graced, almost transfigured, by a beauty that touched the heart. It could be called wilderness, except for the step dams that sliced up the river, the tunnels that bored through cliffs, the convex mirrors at every bend in the road, and the never-ending vending machines. At one I sampled a Suntory all-malt beer “For a Refreshing Day,” as its label promised.

The last stop of the day was Kumano Hongu, an ancient Shinto shrine. Inside we watched a parade of monks in black and gold robes padding by. They moved within a realm of rarefied abstraction, reserved and in control, but I knew that this might be appearance as much as anything in Japan. Just a few days previous, while in Kyoto for sightseeing and a warmup to the main trip, we had cycled the cherry-lined Philosopher’s Walk to one of the city’s 1,700 temples, a classic Zen temple called Nanzen-ji, built in 1921. While wandering through the complex, Pamela looked for a bathroom but could not find one. So Tada poked his head into a monk’s hojo (retreat) and asked if Pamela might use the facilities. At first the monk said no, but when he saw Pamela and her obvious discomfort, he nodded for her to come inside. As she stepped up the stairs the monk threw a small fit because in her haste she had neglected to take off her sneakers. The monk forced her to backtrack and start again.

While Pamela was down the hall I walked into the monk’s sparse main room, admiring his hanging scrolls and arranged flowers. When he returned through a sliding door I gave him a broad smile. He looked back with a deep sadness, and then started to speak in the most fractured of English about his wife. She had suffered an aneurysm six days ago, and just this morning had eaten her first food. When Pamela returned to thank the monk, his face suddenly went glassy. He collapsed in my arms and began to sob uncontrollably. I hugged him, patted his back, and tried to comfort him, but for several minutes he clung to me, desperate for human contact. Pamela took the monk’s hand and explained that two of her friends had suffered aneurysms and had made complete recoveries. He finally regained self-control, bowed low several times, and thanked us both for our understanding. He was still wiping tears from reddened eyes as we departed. I had thought public emotion was heresy for a Japanese; for a Japanese Buddhist monk it had seemed unfathomable. But it demonstrated the very human side of a man who at his core was like any other on the planet, and it touched me deeply.

After touring Kumano Hongu we cycled another three miles before pulling into home for the evening, the Kinokuni Hotel in the spa town of Kawayu. We had cycled almost 60 miles, more than the sum total previously pedaled in my life, and I could feel the tally. We checked in at the desk and were told through Tada (nobody spoke English in this part of Japan) that we didn’t need keys, as theft in the countryside was unheard of. Nonetheless, when I slid back the door to my tatami-lined room, I was met with a low, lacquered table, a television set, and a thick, gray safe. I changed from my Lycra into a floppy-sleeved yukata (a printed cotton kimono), slipped into a pair of the requisite leather/tan one-tiny-size-fits-all Japanese slippers, and wandered downstairs. I found my way to the onsen (hot springs) at the edge of the river for a much-needed soak and some sake.

This was the third hot soak of the trip, and the first co-ed affair. It was impossible to be modest as the towels provided (tadru) were no bigger than washcloths. Our group consisted of some conservative souls, several veterans of cycle trips through France and Italy where each evening was spent in elegant, private-quartered chateaus, and now the concept of co-ed bathing wasn’t overly appealing. But I saw it as a moment of unalloyed egalitarianism, and agreed with the Japanese saying, Hadaka to hadaka no tsukiai-- “Relationships between naked people are honest relationships.”

Still suffering a bit from jet lag, and my neck a bit kinked from sleeping on the Japanese husk-filled pillow, I awoke early in Kawayu. The river outside my window was spinning its currents with a sound like a wind chime. Everyone else was still asleep, so I wrapped my striped yukata around me and wandered downstairs to the breakfast room. It was 5:45, and service wouldn’t start until 6, but the attendant allowed me in just the same and served me green tea. I sat back and sipped while perusing my guidebook, searching in vain for some reference to this area. Hearing a chorus of voices, I looked up. In a corner were all the hotel attendants and employees, gathered in a circle and chanting. The leader would read something from a small book, and then the group would cheer in unison. It was like a pregame psych-up, and it went on for 15 minutes. Then, with one last shout, the group split and members busily went their way. I was instantly served another cup of tea, then a raw egg, miso soup, pressed seaweed, dried fish, pickled plum, tofu and boiled rice.

The day was a layover, a chance to explore an area few Westerners ever see. I rode my bike around a bit and wandered around the village, up and down the river.

The next morning, day broke foggy and wet, the smell of wood smoke and rain drifting in the open window. It was supposed to be our first attempt at a serious 12-mile uphill ride for the first hours of the day, but the rain squelched that plan, and I was privately happy for it. Instead, Tada arranged a bus, and we all rode in comfort to the top of the Kobiro Pass to a brand-new blond-wood Western-style chalet, a dojo built by a friend of Tada’s.

By early afternoon the rain was gone and everything was mute. The distant mountains were veiled behind a screen of clouds that sometimes thickened, sometimes parted, sometimes drifted across the tops to register the changing moods of the landscape. As we clambered aboard our bikes the sun peeked through, and we pointed our panniers towards the sea. We barreled down Highway 3, the ancient road the emperors had traveled to visit the hot springs. Once again the ride was almost all downhill, so I never had to pedal to prove my mettle, just perfect my braking technique, for which I discovered I possessed a natural talent.

The afternoon was the most glorious day of cycling of my existence. Never mind that I could count less than half a dozen. It was the most spectacular road I had ever traveled, winding through cathedrals of cypress and chestnut, groves of bamboo, by whiffs of orange blossoms, with the roiling and quite inviting Hiki River beneath us. The river leaped with rapids for long stretches, then purled into eddies, pools of quiet water that when painted with the afternoon sun looked polished with the impossible finish of a lovely lacquered screen. The surface of the river at these spots was as exquisite as it was opaque, much like the land through which we passed. The region reminded me of the Sitka National Forest in Alaska, as pristine and lyrical as any I had ever seen.

The end of the day brought us to the rolling Pacific, and we pedaled the last few kilometers along an old cement strand, passing what appeared to be bunkers left from the war. We were on the southern stretch of the Honshu coast, and Okinawa wasn’t all that far away. If the war had continued, this might have been a beachhead for the Allied Forces.

The Kokuminshukusha Furusato Hotel was a run-down affair with cracks in the cement walls and water stains creeping across the ceilings. Still, it had Western-style toilets, which had a few in our group excited.

The next day we rode southeast, along the Karekinada coast road, Route 42, towards the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula. The highway stitched across coves and little bays, passing fishing villages and vending machines. At one overlook we stopped to admire a string of giant paper streamers shaped like koi flapping over a surfers’ beach. They were leftovers from Kodomo-No-Hi, Children’s Day, a national holiday in which the characters of the carp, strength and determination in its upstream swim of life, are celebrated as hopeful qualities in Japanese youth. Down the road, for the first time we passed warrens of roadside homes: low, light, wooden structures with brightly colored roofs, their first stories open to the street, and thin awnings sloping back to miniature balconies on paper-screened second stories.

At lunch Pamela and I parked at a restaurant on a cliff overlooking the ocean, a spot called Lover’s Cape. There was a sign pointing southeast that stated we were 10,000 kilometers from San Francisco, my home. Late afternoon, I stopped at another of the ubiquitous vending machines. I was amazed to encounter one offering hard-core pornographic magazines, again right on the road, for anyone to purchase. (Even correct change wasn’t required, as the machine would change most any paper yen combination.)

We finished the day with a 4-mile uphill climb, the hardest yet. It led to a plateau, Cape Shionomisaki, the spit of land that marks the farthest point south of the island, the nubbin on the bottom of Honshu. Next to the lighthouse was a lodge called Nishida, where we unwound while Tada, famed for his ample appetite, went spear-fishing and returned with isagi fish to supplement dinner.

The final day of cycling had us continuing east along the coast. We stopped briefly at a Dairy Queen, across from the pachinko (pinball) parlor in the resort town of Kushimoto. Not long after, we stopped for a group photo at the coastal rock formation Hashi-kui-iwa (bridge pillars), a row of about 30 rock columns chiseled by the sea that looked like a procession of hooded medieval monks.

An hour or so down the sinuous coast road I stopped at another vending machine, this selling hard liquor: whisky, Scotch, sake and such. Again I wondered how the Japanese kept these privileges from being abused, but reminded myself that too much knowledge is painful; it is in small knowing that one finds happiness, in that and in nature, and I bought a Coke and continued.

Finally we turned back inland, for the concluding four-mile uphill stretch. Tada warned that this was the toughest climb of the trip, and recommended we consider riding the support vehicle. Addie, an engineer from Virginia, jumped at the chance. Pamela, THE PHOTOGRAPHER FOR THE EXPEDITION, who had once spent nine months cycling from London to Beirut, also opted for the truck. That left 10 for the final stretch.

We started out together, slipping through the back streets of villages, riding along the edge of rice paddies, slowly working upwards. After a few miles I fell behind. Most everyone on this expedition was an experienced biker, except Peter, a member of the Central Park Track Club who evidenced no trouble with the rigors of cycling.

Soon I was alone, far behind the crowd. I began to wonder if I could make it, if the truck-not-taken was the wiser road. Then I saw the other bikes parked by a path at the seven-kilometer marker. I dismounted and followed a stairway of mossy stones down to a magnificent sight: Nachi no Taki, 436 feet in height, the highest waterfall in Japan. Japan’s mythical first emperor, Jimmu, supposedly worshiped at these falls, and now I took out my camera to do the same. The others had already left for the final kilometer to our ultimate destination. I had managed the previous seven kilometers, so I figured I could handle the final fling.

But I quickly found it was something different. This last stretch was the steepest grade I had ever seen, steeper than San Francisco’s Lombard Street. I clicked to the end of my gears and pedaled as hard as I could. My heart pounded. It was impossible to make a straight line, so I zigzagged, tacking the bike upwards. I thought of just quitting and walking the rest of the way, but I knew the others in front of me had made it. Besides, this was Japan, the estate of mind over body, of the unbending will, Zen and art of bicycling. My lungs burned. I thought of cheeseburgers, of my Australian blue shepherd, of forks and spoons, of CNN and hot buttered popcorn. Slowly I continued, erasing all thoughts of quitting. I thought of blue eyes, the Sunday paper, of large terry-cloth towels, of room service. The sweat from my brow streamed into my eyes. And suddenly I saw the sacred summit and our entire group gathered, awaiting my arrival. I straightened the bike, and with a last burst, rode like the wind through the bright red torii gates into our cheering group, right up to a monk who was shooting my arrival with a video camera. “Did you make the final kilometer without getting off the bike?” asked Valerie. “Yes,” I puffed, bent over to catch my breath. “Amazing.” she continued. “You and Suzanne, the smallest person on the trip, are the only two who made it.” I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. Somehow I had bloodlessly ascended to this lofty perch, to the Sonsho-in Temple, a wilderness retreat overlooking a landscape of the gods.

We spent the following day wandering around the temple, bathing in its busy incongruities. Robed priests waved incense before a Buddhist cenotaph, and schoolgirls in middy blouses knelt and bowed deeply. A few yards away a forest of curio shops hawked omiyage, cheap trinkets: back scratchers, ear picks, bird whistles, pornographic key chains and suggestive wooden carvings.

But the ultimate schizophrenia came with our final banquet. The monks, with heads shaved much like the Yakuza’s (THE JAPANESE MAFIA), decided to throw a barbecue at the base of the Seiganto-ji Temple, an ornate orange pagoda overlooking Nachi Falls and the various shrines of the compound. As two of the monks stirred the meat over the coals, another handed out ice-cold beers. Yet another recorded the events with his Sony camcorder while leaning against his Nissan Excel Skyline. As the night progressed the karaoke machine was rolled out, and we were all enticed to get up and sing Beatles songs with the monks. But as I danced and crooned, my arms around the shoulder of a holy man on a mountaintop, there was a tranquility that flowed through me. The words of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” became an elegiac ode, and I felt I was reaching the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit, getting closer to the flame of paradise, and feeling its chill. In my sozzled stupor thoughts fell away, or were gentled into something purer. And the air was filled with something more than music and wonder: peace, and the drift of meditation, among the chaos.

And somehow at that instant, like a profound dream that erases with morning, it all seemed to make sense.


Some Firms Offering Bike Trips in Japan

Travent International, P.O. Box 305, Waterbury Center, Vt. 05677, (800) 325-3009, is the U.S. booking agent for our trip. Nine-day 1992 tours led by Tada Yasue are being offered in May, October and November. All-inclusive land price is $2,275, covering bikes, meals and accommodations.

Asian Pacific Adventures, 826 S. Sierra Bonita Ave., Los Angeles 90036, (213) 935-3156 or (800) 825-1680, offers a 16-day tour, April 22-May 7, 1992. Land costs: $3,198, including accommodations and meals.

Worldwide Cycle Tours, Box 1978, Canmore, Alberta, Canada, T0L 0M0, (800) 661-2453, offers a cycle tour in Kyushu, Japan’s westernmost island, Nov. 15-25, 1992. Price is $2,500 for 10 nights, all-inclusive of accommodations and all meals but two.

Worldwide Nordic Cycling, P.O. Box 1129, Maplewood, N.J. 07040, (201) 736-8488, offers two 12-day tours, July 24-Aug. 4 and Sept. 25-Oct. 6, 1992, of Hokkaido, one of Japan’s northernmost islands. Cost is $1,700, including accommodations, breakfasts and dinners and bikes.

Regarding tour prices: Don’t be afraid to inquire about discounts. Biking tours, as other guided trips, work on an optimum-number basis. If sufficient numbers don’t sign up, discounts may be available.