Ian McKittrick is a good friend of mine, 26 years old, who works as a biological researcher for the University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver, Colorado. We became good friends over the course of the years that followed his moving out to Colorado from Illinois when he was in middle school. After finishing high school, we both went to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Today, Ian volunteers as one of the Directors of the Seize The World Foundation. After what began as sort of an offhand comment many months ago by Ian: “It might be nice if I could tour with you for a little while in Japan,” or something similar, we are now living the dream. It is exciting every single day. I do not think that either one of us can quite believe that we are actually in Japan. Or perhaps it is just me that feels that way. Or rather: to be in Japan, and to have Ian here too…unbelievable.
Japan…It is my first time back here since I visited when I was three years old. The only things I remember since that visit are a vague – but intense – excitement about the Shinkansen – Japan’s bullet train – and Tokyo Disneyland.
This time, my friend Ian McKittrick has flown out to join me for two weeks of cycling in Japan. It has been some incredible time, characterized by frequents hilarious moments and liters of coffee every day. Ian and I are both really into coffee as, it seems, is the nation of Japan, which means that we have been enjoying hot cans of coffee each morning from Japan’s endless supply of coffee robots. There are vending machines here, placed in pairs or in threes, that can be found at 500-meter intervals throughout the country. In addition to hot and cold cans of coffee, they also sell energy drinks, coke, mountain dew and water. We have not yet tried the water.
Our journey began at the Narita Airport. If you book a flight to this airport, it might be called the “Tokyo Narita Airport.” This makes a certain amount of sense because the two cities are fused together conveniently by one of Tokyo’s railway services. Whether it is a subway or a train I am not sure – we rode our bikes. Tokyo’s subway system is far and away the biggest and most heavily used in the world, getting more than 3 billion rides every year, more than 8 million each day. After spending two days in the city with Ian, I am prepared to say that these figures are inaccurate. Way low. Ian and I rode the Tokyo Subway at least 8 million times during the two days we were there. We saw lots of other people on the trains too. Click here for the full story on Subways…
Resuming the story in Narita’s airport, I was very glad to see Ian as he dragged his bike box out of baggage claim, looking calm and upbeat as he always does. I gave him a hug, he gave me some letters from my friend Bruce as well as replacement debit cards that my Mom had mailed out to him before his flight. He began to put his bike together, and things were coming together well. I was feeling euphoric.
An hour later, Ian and I wheeled our bikes out of the sliding glass doors of the airport in search of the Narita Airport Hostel. It was dark outside, but we only had 3 miles of riding to get to the hostel, assuming we could avoid getting lost. We got lost, of course. 2 hours later, we had arrived. The hostel was empty, so we just started hanging out in the empty living room of an empty house. Walking into such a house in the middle of a forest felt like the beginning of a horror movie, but this was real life, so I felt safe enough in doing so. Besides, Ian was with me. We just sat down, and listened to the music that was already playing in the living room.
30 mins. later the good staffer of the Narita Airport Hostel, Homa, arrived. As it turns out, Homa was, himself, a bicycle tourist, who taught us some invaluable info about touring in Japan. He told us the best roads to use for getting from Narita to Tokyo, he advised us about whether to ride on the coast or inland, and he told us about the logistics involved with taking trains with bikes in order to return from Kyoto to Tokyo – our plan was to ride from Tokyo to Kyoto and then take a train back. In short, Homa proved an invaluable resource. Perhaps most valuable of all, he taught us how to say “Doku Deska,” which means, “where is” in Japanese. Used that one a lot to get out of Tokyo… “Kyoto Doku Deska?”
Ian pulled off a heroic effort that evening, staying awake in his jet-lagged state until about 9:30 p.m. (That’s like . . . 7:30a.m. in Denver, which is where Ian had come from the day before, after 25 hours of travel). I stayed up for a bit longer, listening to stories from other travelers in the lobby about their favorite foods, people, and experiences in Japan. I was getting more and more excited about various things that might be expected in the days to come.
Ian and I were on the bikes the next morning at 9:30 or 10 after some last minute advice and conversation with Homa, the receptionist/driver/housekeeper at the Narita Airport Hostel. We had resolved to visit the Narita-San Temple – a site that we thought it might be interesting to see. It was that. I suppose that I had an idea in my head of a typical Japanese Garden, and perhaps an idea of what a pagoda should look like. However, those ideas changed after I visited Narita-San. After seeing the temple in Narita, I realize that my ideas were nowhere close to as exciting as the visions of the people who built this facility. To see Narita-San in late November, in fall colors – awesome.
Ian and I took off at noon, making a stop at Yoshinoya, one of Japan’s sort of high quality fast food chains that is actually a sit down restaurant with well-dressed servers who are really polite. Of course, everybody in Japan is really polite. Ian and I have been stopping for one meal a day at such restaurants, and getting the remainder of our food at either 7/Eleven, Mini Stop, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki, Lawson Store, or similar extremely-high quality convenience stores of which Japan has millions. We cannot avoid conversations about the quality and quantity of these stores each time we enter one. Each store has one or two people whose job it is to make constant rounds of the store rearranging inventory, and another person who sells things at the register, and greets people: “Ohio Gozaimas-ta!….Arigato Gozaimas-ta!” Always with their eyes bowed, change given with two hands, with a small bow of the head. It is a very different world even as some things are very similar.
7/Elevens all have heated Washlet toilet seats. 50% of the other convenience stores have Washlet toilet seats as well. Before coming here, I was briefed on Japan by a couple of sources. Some of the things I learned about Japan were from my Mom, who told me a bit about what it was like to take me here with my Dad and my Sister when I was 3 years old. One of the things that she mentioned was that people were very polite; another was that toilets could, at times, be a bit difficult to handle. Squat toilets…not so clean, etc. It is my great pleasure to report that times have changed in Japan since my last visit. Squat toilets have now been replaced with Washlet heated toilets in almost all locations. Washlet heated toilets seem to be points of pride as well as marketing devices. When I was searching for a hostel for our first night in Tokyo, I found myself browsing through listings that featured three-line descriptions of hostels that included mention of heated toilet seats. Naturally, I chose a hostel that featured heated toilet seats. The seats are really good. I have only used a toilet with a cool seat once during my visit to Japan. Though it is occasionally good to have such experiences to build character.
Enough on toilet seats for now. Ian and I are looking forward to a nice road out to Kyoto. We are riding along the coast of the Philippine Sea on Japan’s Highway 1. It is an extremely busy road, and today we found ourselves riding through driving rain on what must be the world’s most amazing bicycle path. The path that follows Highway 1 along the Philippine Sea in Japan goes right down the middle of a 10-lane highway that is itself bordered by a set of two electric railroad tracks off to one side. The bicycle path is protected from the ocean by a sea wall to ward off high tides. There are complicated interchanges overhead at regular intervals. To ride along this path at 4:30p.m. as darkness was falling, and to do so in 40-degree weather through drizzling, freezing rain, with the flashing lights of passing cars and trucks and their accompanying noise, was an experience that I will always remember. I hope that a similar path will take us all the way to Nagoya, 200Km away. Strange to wish for 200Km of riding in close company with heavy traffic…but under these conditions, it is just a really cool experience. From Nagoya, Ian and I plan to catch a train the rest of the way to Kyoto where we will spend a day or two seeing the city before reversing our route (by train) to Narita and then flying to Seattle on the 8th. The coming days will be great I have no doubt. Check back here often for more news.