Very long bike ride

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11 August 1999

To say I was a bit high strung when I woke up is an understatement. This was the big day...biking 40 km from Imabari to the island of Innoshima in the middle of Setouchi—the Seto Inland Sea. It would be a test of my endurance, my biking ability, my will power.

I had another round of bathing at the hotel and my first Western breakfast of the trip. Sausages, scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, yogurt and coffee. Plus a salad with a shrimp and a raw scallop (even Western food has a Japanese flair).

I went to the station and caught the first train to Imabari. It was a “one-man,” a local diesel train with only one car and the eponymous one man at the controls. Although I had never encountered a one-man in Tokyo, where all trains are six to fifteen cars long and have conductors plus drivers, they are the norm for local trains in Shikoku.

But they are slow. The trip which took 30 minutes on the express train the day before was stretched to 75 minutes on the one-man. Giving me more time to fuel my morbid fears about failing at my task and being driven off the bridge by a passing truck or falling off my bike and breaking a limb and having to explain in Japanese to the hospital staff what’s happened to me. So by the time I got to Imabari I was even worse than I was when I woke up.

But dammit, I was going to do this. I was determined (or maybe just stubborn) and I knew that riding a bike over some bridges really wasn’t outside my capabilities. No matter how morbid my imagination was painting the scene, I could do this.

Shimanami Kaido is a series of seven bridges that span ten islands from Shikoku to Honshu, Japan’s “mainland.” This bridge route has been under construction for ten years and the final bridge was finished this April. So this summer there are a number of events taking place on and around the bridges-—walks, bike rides, marathons, special island-based events.

I was armed with the locations of the cycle rental terminals, the name and length of each bridge and I had planned my course to take me as far as Innoshima where I had a reservation at a hotel that night. Now all I needed was a bicycle. Crossing over from the Imabari train station, I checked in at the bus terminal.

“I’d like to go to Itoyama Events Site.” I explained to the ticket woman.

“Ah, I see. Are you going to rent a bicycle?” she asked.

“Yes, I am riding to Innoshima today.”

“Oh! That’s a long way. You must be very athletic. But I’m afraid the next bus doesn’t leave until 1:20 this afternoon.”

“Really? That’s a very long wait, isn’t it? Well, I’ll buy a ticket now, thank you.”

I was going to have to wait almost three hours for the bus. This did not bode well, as I’d planned to be on the bridges by noon at the latest. I was getting used to a slower pace than back home in Tokyo, but this was too slow!

I walked away from the terminal and back towards the train station. Although I wasn’t hungry, maybe I could fill some time with a coffee or a snack. As I passed through the driveway , my eye was caught by a sign at the taxi queue that listed the fares to nearby tourist destinations. Although the cycle terminal wasn’t listed, I ventured to ask the taxi driver how much it would cost to go to the cycle terminal. The 1600 yen fare he quoted was definitely worth saving three hours! I got in and we were at the rental shop in 20 minutes.

I filled in the rental forms and paid for my bike. I could rent it one way as far as Omishima, about 25 km away. Then I would have to turn it in and rent another one-way cycle to the next renal shop. To make it all the way across the bridges from Shikoku to Onomichi on the mainland would take four or five rentals.

However, when I was told that the only bikes left today were three-speed shopping bikes with bell and basket, I was glad that I would have to change bikes. I picked up a map of the bridges that included not only details of the distances, but schematics of the cleverly designed bike and pedestrian interchanges that minimized the slope to each bridge by creating curlicues and vortices of roads leading upwards.

I hopped on my bike, tested the brakes, and was off. The first thing I did wrong was to go up the motorbike ramp. I didn’t know the kanji on the signs so I couldn’t tell which way was for bicycles and which for motorbikes. But I wasn’t the only bike up there, so I only felt slightly foolish. And I managed to ride up the steeper incline without too much fuss.

The first bridge was a long triple span suspension bridge. In fact, it’s one of Japan’s superlatives—”the longest suspension bridge in Japan.” It is just over 4 kilometers from end to end. Once I was at the top, it was a lovely ride. There was a breeze and the view of the tiny islands of the Inland Sea was breathtaking.

The Inland Sea was a place for pirates I had read and now riding over it I could understand why. Countless pinpricks of islands dotted the calm sea. Perfect places to hide treasure or more importantly, escape from the authorities. I didn’t see any jolly rogers as I cruised over the bridge, though.

At the end of the bridge, I was already feeling the heat of the day. It was noon and the sun was beating down. My sunscreen has perspired off and I was happy for the shade provided by the hat I’d pinned to my head. My sunglasses slid down my slippery nose as I rode.

The next phase of the ride was a long 11 km trek across the island of Oshima. Oshima is very hilly and I thought that between the heat, dehydration and exertion I was going to collapse. This is when I discovered that I lie to myself.

“Kristen, why did you want to do this? This is terrible!” the intellectual part of me complained.

“You can do it. This is good exercise,” the other half encouraged.

“Sure. Until it kills me.”

“Now, now. You’re stronger than you think. Look ahead...see that little shadow there? If you get there you can stop and have a rest,” I encouraged myself aloud.

“OK,” I capitulated. I knew I really didn’t have a choice. I had to get the bike to Omishima to turn it in.

I pedaled as fast as I could uphill on the shopping bike (which wasn’t very fast!) and reached the shady spot. But that nasty, masochistic part of me was already looking ahead.

“Hey, if you go just a little farther, I’ll bet you’ll find a drink machine,” she said as we passed by the shady spot without stopping. I pedaled on.

Sure enough, there was a drink machine. But did I let myself stop? No. A place for lunch must be just up ahead. A bowl of noodles would be very good. So ever onward I pedaled.

I sweat. I drank. I stopped to rest. I walked my bike when the hill was too steep to ride. I did eventually find a place to have lunch. I chatted with two other bridge crossers while we ate. Then it was back on the bike for a short downhill stretch.

The downhill ride was a tease. Ahead of me was the longest hill I’ve ever had to ascend on a bike. Lying Kristen was with me the whole way encouraging me to keep going. I nearly passed out but I did eventually reach the top of the hill. There was a viewing point with a view of the sea and more pirate islands, but I was too beat to appreciate it.

I was now 15 km into my 40 km ride. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. I was averaging 7.5 km an hour after factoring out lunch. I had better ride a little harder if I was going to make it to my hotel before dark.

The next bridge was beautiful and I appreciated it despite my heat exhaustion. I stopped to take a picture of it at the same time as someone heading in the opposite direction. We traded cameras and captured souvenir photos with the bridge in the background. This turned out to be the only proof I have of being on a bicycle over the bridges so it was a lucky encounter.

Another stretch of island. By this time I was walking my shopping bike up hills I should have been able to ride. Drink machines were few and far between.

I must have looked quite a sight. People stopped to ask me if I was OK. I’d smacked my healing wound (from the last bicycle expedition) with the pedal of the bike and opened it up again so a small torrent of blood leaked out. My fair skin which flushes at the least provocation was beet colored with exertion. My arms and legs were getting sunburned. I just kept answering “Yes, I’m fine, thanks.”

I was too weak to make this ride. I should have trained. Or gone on a day that wasn’t 35 degrees. In cooler weather I might have sustained a better pace. I walked my bike up hills on Hakata Island that I ought to have been able to ride up easily. Thankfully this island was not quite so hilly as the first one, and soon enough I was flying over the Omishima bridge and cruising along a nice flat coastal road on my way to turn in my bicycle.

“After I turn this bike in I’m not pedaling another meter,” I told myself firmly.

“Maybe that’s a good idea. I guess we’ll see what happens,” the vicious Kristen answered. I knew she had no good planned.

I returned in the bike at 2:45 (four hours after I’d rented it) and was surprised to receive a gift to commemorate my struggle—a t-shirt! That was probably the high spot of my afternoon since it meant I would not have to do laundry that night.

After resting in the air conditioned bike rental lounge, I checked on the availability of buses to Innoshima. The staff at the information desk were very helpful—they even called my hotel to figure out which bus would get me closest. But I had just missed a bus and would have to wait until 5:30 for the next one.

“That’s OK,” I told myself. “I don’t want to ride any farther. I can’t do it. 25 km is enough.”

“But you failed to meet your goal. You could ride to Innoshima in 2 1/2 hours and beat the bus there.”

“No, I could not. Now shut up and let me go buy some ice cream.”

My two halves don’t get along very well in the face of adversity, you see. But the tired one won this time and I had an ice cream, bought some post cards which I wrote to everyone whose address I have memorized (only three or four!) and watched kids playing along the shore. The bus to Innoshima dropped me off a block from the hotel.

I was so happy to reach a place where I could have a bath! The road grime and sweat from my travels had cooled and crusted and all I wanted was a hot shower. But the hotel didn’t have my reservation.

This was the only hotel on my trip that I hadn’t been able to prepay at the JTB travel agency. Not many people come to Innoshima. So even though JTB had called, made a reservation in my name and gotten a map faxed over for me, the hotel didn’t know I was coming. I showed them the map they faxed. I wrote my name in Roman letters and in katakana. To no avail, There was no reservation. And no room.

I have to admit with some embarrassment that I was not the most gracious of Americans at this point. I didn’t raise my voice or scream but I was very snippy. I implored them to look again. I explained that JTB had made the reservation for me. I gave the date the reservation was made. I was insistent in a way that Japanese are generally not.

Eventually, they found a room for me. It was a Western style room that was dirtier than I was. But I was so exhausted and distraught that I was happy to have it. There would be no dinner for me, as I didn’t have a reservation, but I could have breakfast in the morning. OK, fine. Whatever. Just let me go upstairs and have a shower, please!

In my room, it took me all of 30 seconds to strip off my clothes and start the shower. But in that 30 second interval, there was a knock on the door. I threw on the yukata and answered. The maid was bringing water for the electric teapot.

Dispatching her, I stepped into the steaming shower. I tried to ignore the mold on the shower curtain and the creepy black stuff in the corners where the tub met the tiled walls. The crud that covered my body melted off and I shampooed and soaped my way back to feeling human.

I thought I heard the phone ringing but I wasn’t sure. But when the knocking on the door began, I knew someone was trying to get my attention. I threw a towel around myself and, dripping, opened the door a crack.

It was the desk clerk. “We have your reservation, Kristen-san.”

“Great. I’m showering right now. Thank you.” I rudely closed the door before he could go on. After I was dressed the phone rang again. It was my new friend the desk clerk. “Dinner is OK for tonight. Come to the front and I’ll show you which room it is.”

At the desk, the clerk told me that they could move me to the Japanese room I had reserved and that dinner was in the Seto Room down the hall. This all just seemed too much, but I was glad I didn’t have to find dinner on my own. I went off to dinner, anticipating my post-dinner room change.

I walked to the room where dinner was being served, but the door was closed. I wasn’t sure if I should open it--it had been standing open when I passed by it earlier. I waited for a staffperson to come by and I asked which room dinner was in.

“Oh, you have to have a reservation,” she said.

“I have one,” I said.

“I don’t think so. Are you sure? Let me check. Just a minute,” she said as she disappeared down the hall.

I slumped against the wall and my eyes filled with tears. Surely this wasn’t really happening to me. By the time the waitress had returned with the “all clear” from the front desk, I had pulled myself together.

Dinner was not stellar and I wasn’t really very hungry. A bit of lukewarm steak that had been sitting out too long, miso soup, rice and pickles. I ate the rice, soup and pickles, then went upstairs to repack and switch rooms.

With my backpack slung over my shoulder, I presented myself to the desk clerk.

“I can change rooms now,” I suggested.

“Oh? I thought you said you weren’t going to change rooms. We gave the other room to someone else.”

“Oh.” What else could I say? “My mistake.”

“I’m sorry. I hope that’s OK. Is it OK?”

My answer was a pretty unconvincing “Yes, it’s fine. It can’t be helped, can it?” as I turned my back on the desk and went back upstairs where I proceeded to call Tod and unload my terrible day to him.

I took a walk around the quiet harbor neighborhood, checked the morning bus schedule to Onomichi (I was definitely not going to bike the remaining 20 km!) and bought myself some consolation ice cream and cookies to nibble on while I watched TV in bed. And that was the end of my very long biking day.

1 Comment

Oh dear, Kristen. You did have a tough day. The hotel staff should be compelled to watch the classic British comedy "Fawlty Towers" (you'd enjoy it too, if you haven't haven't seen it). For that hotel it would be a training film for a level of service to aspire to (on the other hand John Cleese does training films too, so perhaps they did see it by mistake)

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