Bike Accident. . .

Well, I haven’t written in a while partly because I’ve been sick, and then got into an accident.  As I’ve mentioned, I’m very excited about my new bike, and have been on it every second I can spare.  On Friday I biked to the next prefecture over after school, and spent the night (avg 29 km/hour but I felt most of the time I was actually going over 40.  High speed of 49km/hr, breaking the speed limit).  I got there in the same amount of time it takes to drive!  My goal is to be able to get anywhere FASTER than the cars on the roads (which is easier than it sounds because Japan has the lowest speed limits in the world).  In cities across the globe couriers pride themselves on getting anywhere in the city faster than any cars, so it’s not too ambitious actually.  Anyway, so at 5am on Saturday I set out for a LONG day of riding.  I was going to ride through 3 prefectures all the way to Tokyo.  But after only 1 hour of riding I realized it was not the day for it.  I have 2 bad knees, and though my right knee was injured more recently, my left knee is (and always has been since I was a kid) the more problematic one.  Ever since I got seriously into biking I’ve noticed the problem with my left knee on long distance rides.  It hurts a lot during the ride, but it isn’t until the next day that I realize I can’t pedal another stroke.  So thinking about my trip to Tokyo I realized I’d be pretty well stranded if I could not bike home on Sunday.  The trains in Japan don’t allow bikes and in theory I wasn’t even going to have a lock with me so I couldn’t go home alone with out the bike.  On top of that I got really sidetracked along the river where there are ALL kinds of fun activated to watch.  Strangely, among the 2 glider airports, the jet skiers, the windsurfing, the immaculate golf course, and the paragliders, the activity I was drawn to the most was a bunch of guys mowing the grass.  They were mowing it for good reason, but I never bothered to stick around for them to start flying their model airplanes and helicopters.  I just thought it was great to see people mowing grass again!  See, in Japan they don’t believe in grass.  They think it’s a weed that should be torn up as soon as possible!!!  Seriously!  They literally prefer dirt yards, and parks, and fields!!  Amazing.  So much for Japanese aesthetics.  They have zero sense of aesthetics as far as I have seen.  The only Japanese who are aesthetic are foreigners, who have probably merged they’re strange Japanese sense of minimalism with European ideas of grace, and art.  As I’ve mentioned before I was stunned to see the school grounds when I first started teaching.  Just dirt.  A huge patch of spotless dirt.  When I asked I was told it was because it kept the budget down if they didn’t need to manicure a grass field.  Fair enough.  But I have since come to realize that’s not true at all.  The children are told to go outside and rip up any offending piece of grass that has sprouted up, because it is a weed!!  I see kids with handfuls of nice, green grass on outside cleanup days.  So sad that they are trained that grass is dirty, and dirt is clean.

Well, so seeing these RC enthusiasts mowing the grass just satisfied something in me, so I sat down and watched the entire process.  The smells, and rich greens of this enormous field were so pleasing, and almost nostalgic.  I realized I hadn’t smelled this smell since my summers spent back in America!  And I hadn’t seen green like this for years (Japan, Nepal, and winter in America are all very brown).  So I stopped my biking for the day and parked my butt at the top of the hill overlooking the scene.  There was something else satisfying about it all.  In a country of rules, and laws, and regulations about everything, it stuck out in my mind that these men had just showed up at the riverbank.  Pulled 2 old lawnmowers (where they even GOT them, I don’t know.  I’ve never seen one in Japan) out of their vans, and started mowing down the tall grass and weeds.  You have to understand this is not a park in the sense that it has public paths, and rolling grass, and trees, and PEOPLE.  It is the overflow plain of the river.  The hill I was sitting on was the levy on the side of the river.  They use the overflow plain during the dry season for whatever people want.  But then each year I suspect it all becomes part of the river (in July).  So the city doesn’t use it for anything, and only the golf course has actually invested any money in making something of it.  Mostly it’s wild.  Occasional dirt paths carve there way through the tall weeds to little fishing spots, or boat put-ins, and there are numerous soccer fields and of course the 2 grass airports for the gliders.  But this is public, un-manicured land.  So it struck me that these people were mowing it down, as if they were some sort of pioneers in unclaimed land, doing as they pleased without a sideways glance.  It is VERY un-Japanese.  I would expect this in an unruly place like Nepal, but in Japan (or America for the most part) it was just surprising to see people mow down public lands.  I enjoyed that feeling of… freedom?

So, there I was with the whole day ahead of me, and nothing to do now that I scrapped my plans for Tokyo.  Well, I bike on this river path a lot.  It’s my gateway to many destinations, and it always irks me that it is so poorly maintained.  They built the damned thing, but don’t cut back the weeds growing out of the pavement, or keep it clear of gravel and rocks from cars (which occasionally drive across or on it).  So I thought, today would be as good a day as any to sweep away some of the bigger rock deposits.  I went and bought a broom at a local shop, and started sweeping.  It was weird.  I know.  Maybe I was spurred on by the sight of the lawnmower men making the park their own.  I wanted to make the path my own.  I’m one of only 5 or 10 people in ALL of Japan who actually bike on the path, so in a way I feel it is kind of mine.  So there I was sweeping rocks and gravel and sand off the side of the path at major intersections.  A few Japanese passed, and one of them asked why I was doing it.  I explained that it was just for me (I wasn’t sent there to do community service ours by the prison or anything).  He seemed kind of pleased.  Probably because gaigin NEVER take it upon themselves to improve their community, whereas the Japanese are always out in the early morning cleaning up their neighborhoods.  It felt nice to be of service.

After 3 hours and making it only 1/2 a kilometer down the path, I gave up.  I was exhausted, and hungry, and thirsty, and very badly sunburned (as I realized later).  So I collected my broom and bike, and started my tired ride to the nearest sushi shop.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!!!  I should have known!!  When I bought the broom I thought, gee, I probably shouldn’t bike with this thing hanging down to the ground.  Especially on my nice bike.  I DO have a crappy $100 Japanese bike.  But I wanted to get some extra miles in on my road bike, so I didn’t go home to switch bikes.  Well, as you know by now, I got in an accident.  By myself.  When I tell Japanese they ask what I hit.  They are very confused when I say “nothing.”   I was speeding down a hill when my broom blew into my front wheel.  Of course I didn’t see it.  All I knew was I was suddenly catapulted into the air, and I instantly knew what had happened.  In a split second I remember thinking: “Oh shit.  I’m in the air.  I know what happened.  There’s the pavement. Maybe I can land.  Oh no, I can’t unclip from my pedals.” Crack!  I heard a huge crack in my head as I landed with all my force on my chin.  I thought, gee, that didn’t hurt too much, aside from passing out for a second.  Then I went to touch my chin, and realized there was a steady stream of blood pouring out of it.  Shit.  I’d never seen blood pour out of my body before.  That made me pass out again.  I was covered in blood.  My bike was covered in blood.  My gloves were blood-soaked.  I was awesome.  I couldn’t move my jaw, but there was no pain to speak of.  Just a massive headache, and light-headedness.  But when I tried to move my bike to the side of the street, it was all locked up.  The carbon fiber fork had shattered, and the derailleur cables had shredded.  The front wheel was warped.  “Shit.  There goes $1000″, I thought.  Then I thought, “shit!  I hope I don’t have to go to the hospital.  Another $1000!!”.  So I stood and sat at the side of the road for a few minutes as my bleeding slowed down.  I ripped all the cables out and bent some things back into shape so the bike would roll.  Needless to say it was unridable.  Aside from the obvious, the fork could barely hold the weight of the bike.  It would have collapsed to the ground if I sat on it.  I was far from home, and had bike shoes on (not good for walking).  So I tried to think of how to get home.  A taxi was a possibility, but I much preferred to try to hitch a ride in a pickup truck.  I stopped at a temple to use their fountain to clean myself up a little.  Japanese are scared of gaigin, and it wouldn’t help if I looked like some freak covered in blood.


Bike in pieces


I walked a ways and came across an old farmer couple doing yard work with a pickup truck parked in their driveway.  I asked if it was theirs, and if I could have a ride.  They ignored my bloody face and seemed to think I just needed my chain put back on.  I had to explain that, no, I was in pain, and needed a ride.  They weren’t sure about this idea, and decided to play it safe, and say no to the strange gaigin (likely, the first they had ever spoken to in all their 80 years).  But a few minutes down the road, the old man showed up in his pickup and offered me a ride after all.  He brought a new white towel for my chin and I fell asleep on the ride home.  When he dropped me off I tried to pay him, and give him a new towel (small white towels are common gifts in Japan for some reason, so we all have a few lying around our houses wrapped as a gift), but he refused.  But it was the first time he smiled, and seemed less suspicious.  He had asked many times during the ride if we were ONLY going to my house, and not changing plans.  He was definitely scared of getting chopped up into little bits by some crazy gaigin.  They REALLY don’t trust or understand outsiders in Japan.


Shattered fork


Before I got home I think the adrenaline was keeping me alert and pain-free, because as soon as I got home I realized I was in great pain, and extremely tired, and faint.  I knew I had to go out to get some ice, but I collapsed on my bed anyway.  When I woke up I forced myself to get out and buy Band-Aids, Bacetracin, and ice.  I spent the next day in pain - mostly from the extremely bad sunburn actually - with ice all over my face and body.  It sucked.  Now it is Friday and my sunburn has begun to peal and my face doesn’t hurt anymore.  But I still can’t close or open my jaw much, so I can’t eat anything my tongue can’t squish.  I’ve had to grow a goatee because there is no way to shave the pus-ie cut on my chin.  The school nurse looked at it and said I HAVE to go to the hospital, but that just isn’t happening.  I know they’ll sew it up, and it will cost a fortune… and they might ask about my insurance (or lack thereof) which could get me in a lot of trouble and a hefty $2000 fine.

Bloody bike tire


So that’s my crappy weeks story.  On a lighter note, I bought a new camera lens and am VERY excited to get it in the mail.  It is reviewed by most photographers to be one of the best lenses out there, and THE best walk-around lens.  It’s a Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L series.  If you know cameras, you know that’s a SICK lens!!!  I’m psyched!!!  Hope to get it in the mail next week.  And today I am picking up my super large (poster-sized!) print of one of the YAUC kids.  I hope it comes out well.  The last one I blew up to this size was totally grain-free to my surprise!

Tomorrow I go to a picnic with one of my old kindergartens, just for fun (and to pick up last years yearbook and school DVD).  Hope it doesn’t get rained out.

Satellite Weather

Cool!  Now you can see what weather I’m experienceing in this part of the world.  And if you look REALLY close, you can even see me riding my bike!  SEE?!  …Oh, that’s probably just because I’m going so FAST!

cloud image

This is the latest cloud picture from the Himawari weather satellite, courtesy of Kochi University. Check: the number in the top left corner indicates the date as year-month-day-hour; JST=Japan Standard Time (GMT+9). (More info: Kochi University)

Golden Week

It’s a bit late to be writing this (a month late actually), but better late than never.  

Golden week is the famous vacation time in Japan when almost everyone gets time off.  In many cases it’s the only vacation time they get all year so people look forward to it zealously.  It’s also still possible to see the cherry blossoms they are so crazy about if you go up into the northern mountains, so it’s a tour bur frenzy all over the country for these precious 5 days.  Technically Golden week isn’t even a week!  It’s 3 days.  So if it falls in the middle of the week (like it did last year) you still have to go to work on Monday and Friday!  Lame. 

Well I had grandiose plans to take a huge road trip down to Kyoto and Hiroshima, and everywhere in-between.  I’ve been here over a year with a car (which is pretty unusual for expats and English teachers), but have never had the time to drive down that far.  My previous Golden Week was only 3 days, so I went to Mt Fuji and some even more impressive areas around it.  But all my longer holidays have been spent traveling outside Japan.  So this was the perfect opportunity to finally see those parts of Japan that are further away.  I was telling everyone my plans, and had convinced 2 of my Japanese friends to come with me part way.  But last minute they cancelled, and I realized the reality of traveling in Japan.  Last year I had very little money to take that Mt Fuji trip, so I brought a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of spaghetti and a few sauce packets, and lived out of my car for 2 nights and 3 days.  It was fun, and I only spent money on gas, which is expensive in Japan, but it ended up only costing me $100.  Trust me.  That’s cheap.  But this time I was going to have to use expressways to get so far away.  And this is one of my most loathed aspects of driving.  The expressways are clean, and big, and fast, and empty… for a reason.  It would have cost me over $300 to drive to Kyoto and Hiroshima!!!!! 

My last-minute research found this out, and I was shocked.  Furthermore the price of gas jumped up 60 cents per gallon (15 cents per liter) the day before Golden Week!  Fuckers!  It turned out that right there cancelled many Japanese family trips!  And all together I would have spent over $500 just for the car!  That’s not a cheap trip.  And I’d STILL have to subsist off pre-cooked spaghetti and be sleeping in my car!  So there went my big plans. 

So I decided to make it a mellow 5 days and take in a few of the local sites I’ve been ignoring for a year.  So aside from lounging around, I went to the famous Ashikaga Flower Park, the not-so-famous (and rightfully so) Tatabayashi Flower Park, and the very famous Gyoda Tomb Site (Sakitama).  The Gyoda Tomb Site is ok, and I’d been there before, but this time they were having a huge festival which turned into the hands-down highlight of my Golden Week. 

The Ashikaga Flower Park is famous because it has Fuji flowers.  Now, understand that the Japanese are gaga over flowers for some reason.  Most don’t seem to think other countries even have the same flowers (everyone is constantly amazed that the US has cherry blossoms too.  They’d be totally stunned to hear we don’t give a shit about them… so I don’t mention it).  The cherry blossom is the most iconic of the beloved flowers of Japan.  People will travel over an hour to see some ratty cherry blossom tree in the middle of a defunct parking lot, and are herded in droves to the more scenic viewing points.  But there are plenty of flowers to fawn over, and this Fuji flower is a major one.  However, I will admit that it’s a beautiful flower tree.  I think it’s way more interesting than the over-hyped cherry blossom.  I went with an old student from last year, and we went at night, so all the colors popped a lot more than during the day.  This flower tree is low laying and pretty 2-dimentional.  The trunk looks like any tree, and rises to about 3 meters and then all the branches spread out horizontally.  All the purple flowers dangle like grapes from these horizontal branches.  They kind of look like hydrangeas, but more delicate, and flaccid.  So the park was full of these trees and we just strolled under all their terraces of Fuji flowers.  It was nice.  

Fuji flowers in Ashikaga



  The Tatabayashi Flower Park was lame. Lame. Lame.  I went to suck up to my company owner a little and see what kind of a shop she had there.  She had told me the previous year that she and her rich family maintained a shop there but only opened it during golden week.  For whatever reason I remembered that and decided to drop by.  I had also been by this park many, many times on my way to work, and thought this would be a good time to check it out (and check it off my list).  Well, as is the case for many tourist sites (and even more so during Golden Week) the objective if to strip you of as much cash as possible as quickly as possible.  So I parked and then realized it was $5 parking.  I avoided eye contact, and somehow was ignored because I had come in the back way (lucky accident).  But when I got to the park, it turned out that cost $5 as well.  The rest of the year it was just a park.  But during G.W. they decided to charge.  Well what do you get for your $5?  Food stalls.  Lots of food stalls, and paddle boats in a small roped off area on a medium sized lake.  I supposed there were flowers there, but they were truly dull, and could be seen everywhere (including the roadside!) for free!  So why plant them here and expect people to be thrilled to pay?  I don’t know what they were, but they seemed to be the equivalent of buttercups in excitement level.  Would you pay even $1 to look at a shit load of buttercups and stroll among food stalls?  So I found the owners stall, got some free udon noodles from her, played with her granddaughter (previously my preschool student last year), and split.  Probably $20 poorer, and none-the-wiser. 

Yummy food at gyoda festival



  However, I was totally impressed by the festival in my little city of Gyoda. All I knew was that it was being deemed the “fire festival” by other expats.  The Sakitama itself is the site of ancient burial mounds of kings.  The mounds are enormous and mostly in the shape of a keyhole from a birds eye view.  There are a bunch of these, and a museum, but honestly, it’s just a nice park as far as I’m concerned.  But on this particular day they had a festival.  I went during the day and it was your standard row of food stalls and then tents of local crafts and famous things from Gyoda.  There was a big stage with musicians playing decent rock ‘n’ roll.  And in the middle of all this they had built a big house out of straw.  It was fenced off, but you could see inside that it really did have a room inside.  But that was all that was happening in the afternoon.  It was packed with families and a team of kids doing martial arts with their teacher.  I took some pics and went home. 

Straw house at festival



  Later that night I returned with my friend, Casey, from Ashikaga.  Man, what a spectacle!  It was dark now, and they were pumping strange satanic music through walls of loudspeakers.  It was a mixture of very, very old Japanese music, which I had never heard before, and sort of modern beats, and rhythms.  Soon, torches appeared from the top of the burial mounds and began to be walked down by hundreds of people.  The long line of torches was never-ending!  The people were dressed in pure white.  It all seemed very sacrificial… as it turned out to BE!  Eventually the whole field was filled with hundreds of white-clad, torch bearing Japanese walking in a big circle around the straw house.  The music continued.  I never got the full story, but it seemed to be a sacrifice of a man and woman.  Perhaps lovers.  Essentially they were carried in on a beautiful platform and walked together into the straw house.  Which was immediately set on fire!!!!  It was a reenactment of something I gathered, so of course they didn’t stay in the house and burn.  But the idea was that originally they had been burned alive.  It was creepy and weird, and awesome!!  Casey and I hung around for a few minutes, but after some fireworks, the whole festival cleared out in less than 10 minutes!  So we split and headed to Kumagaya (the real city next door) to an MC battle at one of the clubs.  It was an interesting night, and a fantastic satanic festival!!   

Torch barer at festival



Biking in Rural Japan

So, I finally got my new bike, and am very excited to be back at it after nearly 6 years of just getting fat and lazy. I used to be extremely into biking of all sorts (road, mountain, cyclocross, single track) and put a lot of my spare time into my bikes and the sport. As many other fanatics, all my jobs were at bike shops where I built, fixed, and sold the latest gear. Going to university put a damper on things for 2 reasons, though. First, I gained an incredible 100 lbs (50 kilos). And second, my pride and joy Fat Chance Ti got stolen. For whatever reasons I ended up kind of giving up on the sport, and got in a funk. Well after seeing the beautiful roads in Japan last summer, I wanted badly to get back into it. But it didn’t happen in time, and the winter here is brutally inappropriate for any sort of biking. But throughout the winter I fantasized about spending my summer racing all over the back roads. Obviously Japanese prices are outlandish, and they don’t even have racing bikes here, so I ordered mine through Ebay. Long story short, it cost me an ENOURMOUS sum to ship the thing here ($300!!!), and cost my dad a full weeks worth of driving around to bike shops and postal companies to figure out how to ship the damned thing (eventually it had to be completely disassembled and sent in 4 separate boxes!). Christ!!

Broken down bike as it arrived in Japan

But I have received it, and immediately began upgrading it, personalizing it, and of course, riding it! My city of Gyoda is actually not urban by any respect. It’s a farming town that, like many areas of ov er-populated Japan, has swallowed up other surrounding farming towns and expanded it’s boarders to make a really big town. But still a town, and not really a city. Of course I’m close to Tokyo, and there’s a real city right next to my town, but I essentially live among rice patties. This is actually a great thing for me. I love being in a rural area (as long as I have easy access to an urban area). And it’s great for biking. At this time of year Japan does not make rice in their rice fields. Almost all the rice fields are planted with wheat. Wheat grows really fast though, so in only a few days time the fields went from mounds of dirt to golden wheat fields rattling as the wind blows through them. I like these fields a lot (though they’re short lived). They smell fresh and clean, and look beautiful as the wind cuts graceful shapes in them. When I’m in my car I don’t notice, but on my bike, I hear the calming sound of dry wheat heads rubbing against each other by the wind. It sounds kind of like one of those rain makers (from the Amazon?). It feels very natural and triggers something in me that just makes me happy. Many people say humans need nature, and it’s bad for you to be surrounded by the concrete and glass of a city. I’ve never felt closed in or stressed living in cities, but I do always feel something lifted off my shoulders when I get into the country.

Wheat in Gyoda

Yesterday I went out and the whole city was on fire! Most farmers had cut their wheat fields, and were in the process of burning the remaining wheat stalks. It smelled great and filled the sky with pockets of smoke over the various fields all over the region. Next will be rice. Rice isn’t as graceful as wheat, but it’s intense green color and perfectly spaced rows are beautiful in a very symmetrical and orderly way. After I get through all the fields, and out of Gyoda, I arrive at the river. This is a big river like the lower end of the Charles River in Boston, and it’s the sports center of the whole region. I use the bike path to do my thing, but I love watching the other activities as I go along the river. There are jet skis, windsurfing, speedboat racing, water skiing, fishing, sailing, running, biking, golf (on a swank golf course), motorized paragliding, RC hobbies, and even 2 airfields full of gliders! Everything from the land to the water to the sky is full of people doing their sports! It’s great to pedal past them and watch the long stretch of riverfront being used so well. In fact, this is the only river I’ve seen ANYWHERE in Japan that is being used for any sports! And this one’s got them all! I stopped to get a closer look at the gliders a couple times, and MAN, they’ve come a long way since I rode in one 15 years ago. The cockpit is full of instruments, and computer screens. It looks as complicated as a real plane! I don’t know what the story is, but I wouldn’t mind making friends with someone who could take me up. If it happens, you can be sure I’ll write all about it!

Burning wheat fields in Gyoda

At the end of the bike trail I am close to a few useful cities, and only 1 city away from my old city of Ashikaga. With all the stop lights and slow traffic the cars get stuck with, it ends up only taking me 10 minutes longer to bike to Ashikaga than it does to drive. Where I live is flat, but Ashikaga is the beginning of the mountains that eventually become the Japanese Alps in Nagano (1996 Winter Olympics). The roads there are great, and totally empty. Some of them must only see a few cars per day! So as I get more in shape I hope to be able to bike the 50 minutes to Ashikaga and then spend the day biking the hills before returning to Gyoda. The one day I biked that far it took too long. I left after work, and went in a big circle of 40 miles (I’ve really got to figure out how to switch my cyclometer to kilometers!). But after 2 hours it was dark, and I don’t have any light on my bike yet. I was exhausted (and slightly lost)! When I finally made it back to the river bike path in the dark I couldn’t peddle o ne more time. I collapsed in the grass and fell asleep in the dark. It sucked. I felt like I had biked way more than I had. I am so out of shape!!

Lonely mountain roads in Ashikaga

Yesterday I biked to Ashikaga and could have made it back but I ended up going to my friend, Kaichan’s, baseball game (you gotta check out at least one baseball game if you’re in Japan!). By the time it finished it was pitch black outside, and I had drank 4 beers. So I decided to continue the fun and join the team for some drinks and food after the game. I ended up just crashing at my friends place, and biking back to Gyoda at 5:30 this morning. As I’ve said many times before, my new job is much better than last years job. It offers lots of free time, and often even allows me to go home early. They just told me to go home early again today, so I’m free to bike at 1:30 this afternoon. Should leave plenty of time for a nice long ride (maybe to Ashikaga again). One of the ulterior motives for staying strict about my cycling is that I agreed with Noel, my old Ottawa roommate, to meet in France next summer and bike around during Le Tour de France. So I have something really fun to look forward to if I can get back in shape in the next year!

Watch These

So, I’m NOT actualy bored, but since many of you might be, here are some videos worth watching.  Mostly funny.

You’re Wrong:

Need Glasses?:

Loose Change (1hr  20min):

An Invonvenient Truth preview (in theatres June 2):

America Number 2:

Confronting The Evidence (2hrs 40min):