Tour de Shimanami Kaido

Nonfiction. Borderline a travel blog post. Actually, that's just what it is.

Cycling with an unwieldy, tent-filled pack is how weak horses must feel to be ridden – speed and grace are hard enough without the injustice of dead weight. My need to complain is burning, and I would – trust me, I would – if only I could breathe. The spiralling climb to the Innoshima Bridge is hot wet agony. It breaks my heart. Up and around and up and along with no indication of when the hill might end, or if it ends at all. The incline finally dies on the bike path beneath the mighty bridge, and vision of the zigzagging sea makes it all worthwhile. Or at least it would if I wasn’t "sweating out my eyes".

The bikes were only ¥1000 a day and the ride was flat and hot in the beginning. Mid-afternoon Japanese summer bore down on us as we pedalled beside the water, as grave packing mistakes slowly dawned on my shoulders.

There are a series of bridges to be negotiated on the Shimanami Kaido. The Innoshima bridge is the absolute worst, and first of many, taking us down to the Daihamasaki Campground in a cove beneath the Bridge. A short walk from the tents is an empty, empty shore. August is off-peak for Omaha Beach; there is literally no one on it. A stone jetty shoots out from the sand with a jumping platform at its end that’s difficult to refuse. Some hours pass here, swan diving and splish-splashing around a ghost white jellyfish the size of a car tyre.

The sun sets behind the island mountains. The scene is like a bit of stage design that is so real and endless it begins to look fake. On the water are four or five dragon boats, rowing and shouting to the beating of a drum.

It's a lovely place, made all the more lovely by the intense pain in my shoulders and quads that seem to say, “Really fucking think twice before downplaying this, eyes, I did a lot to get you here.”

We play cards in the fairy-lit campsite and fall asleep to the sounds of the barges and the cicadas.

Wowzer. Dragon boats. Setting sun. No justice done to the scene by my camera phone.

This is our second week in Japan. Seasons are true to their word in this country, and the summer is sticky and bright. There are so many people here, bustling between train platforms, moving through city streets in great waves, and none of them seem fazed or dampened at all by the heat.

Though I feel a great many things about Japan as I traipse through its interminably polite people with deep sweat stains and a gigantic backpack, the two things that strike the deepest are:

1. This place is so clean.

2. This language is unbelievable.

Written kanji, to the ignorant tourist (me), is from outer space. It is art pretending to be an alphabet, with its depth and shapes and strokes that carve meaning out of thin air. Kanji is to written English what rain is to a shower. And the train announcements and conversations of other passengers make spoken Japanese seem like a liquid. Speakers shoot out fast flowing rivers of smooth, smooth sounds that are broken only by breath or exclamation. I can’t understand a thing that I read or hear and it feels like a good kind of drowning.

Wrapped completely in casual, impenetrable Japanese, languages start to feel like the weirdest thing in the world. Because how did we ever write the first phrase books? Also like how do human beings understand each other at all? And but why do incomparable sounds and shapes drawn upside down come to mean the same thing?

I felt all this on the train from the airport to Ueno. The Earth was so strange and big. And it seemed insane and ridiculous and somehow nothing at all that I had been on two different planets in one day.

It's day two of the ride and I learn the following lesson: Bugs here do not fuck around. They’re big and loud and eager to fly straight into your face. I have never seen insects like these, and they’ve probably never seen flesh as milky as mine before. Like the regional Japanese children, the bugs seem desperate to ogle me at close range until I make sense.

We ride.

The road carries us past seafaring towns and big manufacturing silos and stone fruit trees. For a while we make no sounds beyond heavy breathing and the singing of spinning wheels, both of which are drowned out by the cicadas anyway. Everything but the road is bright green or bright blue.

The next ascension is a doozy, but Japanese bike paths are subjected to the same laws of gravity as the rest of us. That the ascension to the bridge was a doozy and that I walked beside my bike for a good portion of it meant some gravitational karma was due. What goes up to cross the Ikuchi Bridge must, of course, spiral and wind and plummet back down. We rip through dense and humid green with the insects and birds lining the pavement like a grandstand of tropical noise.

Yes, I lost my drink bottle on the climb to the Ikuchi Bridge. No, it was not an issue. Even in this relatively regional part of Japan, vending machines come colourfully and often. And though I was shedding buckets in the sticky August sun, producing enough fluid to make me think I had actually transcended perspiration and my skin was beginning to melt, Pocari Sweat is pure electrolytes and markets itself accordingly. “Ion Supply Drink” it reads in no nonsense English, and I live to ride again.

Spend enough time in any place doing any activity and it will begin to feel routine. As we carry on in slight ups and downs beside the sea, beneath outrageous scenery and thick humidity, me bringing up the rear as always, I get lost in everyday thoughts: what dinner might be, concerns about sun protection, overanalysing slight, probably unnoticed social faux pas. We cruise by kilometres of old Japanese buildings and villages that I look at but maybe don’t see.

The sun sets again. With the heavy bags left at the hostel we race the dying light to higher ground. Up we zip along increasingly unloved bike paths, past fields of lime trees, past a barren damn. A break in the trees provides a natural lookout from which to see the island. Its scattered bright lights are gorgeous in the fading dusk.

On the third morning of the Tour de Shimanami Kaido we set up on Sunset Beach. It's small and pale and flat, the kind of beach that Bondi would have bullied in high school, but I think it's nice. There are two big, floating slides that loll in the gentle swell. Kids build powdery sandcastles and scream when the meagre tide licks their feet. Some men in a boat look suspiciously at the water for a while, then come back with two big jellyfish in their nets and bury them in the sand. We sit in TheShack, a hybrid bar/shade tent, which plays an endless mash up of Western Top 40 hits from the last five years. This seems a strange choice to me. I think about a milkshake but am too contented to rifle through loose Yen, and the cool, slightly Ion infused water I drink from an old Pocari Sweat bottle is paradise enough.

We ride to the ferry terminal at 11:30 a.m. and break off into small squadrons for lunch. A strictly monolingual group seeks directions to an ATM from a well-to-do woman who, reasonably, can only offer said directions in Japanese. All parties express guilt and apologies in hand signals — we feel incredibly rude the whole time and probably don’t deserve the Yen we eventually withdraw.

This ferry is much longer, much more expensive, and has a very low ceiling. My shoulders breathe a solemn sigh of relief when we return the bikes but the rest of me is sad to see them go. The train back to the city is as fast and as pretty as always.

There was not a bed in all of Tokyo for our last night in Japan. No cheap or easy ones, anyway, and manger/stable situations aren’t practicable in this sea of neon city. We have to ship out to the waterfront and funk up the beautiful marble lobby of the Tokyo Disney Hotel. Complimentary hand-squeezed lemonade in the foyer? High, high ceilings? Spiralling staircases wrapped by well-treated oak bannisters? My wallet quakes; I should have taken out way more Yen. 

The room is shiny and wide with amenities: toothbrushes, combs, and fancy soaps and creams. The complimentary striped pyjamas “one-size-fit-all” claim is really put to the test by us big Australians, but Japanese engineering outdoes itself once again. We get bento boxes from a 7/11 for lunch. The fried chicken was something else.

And I can’t know then, in the Tokyo Disney Hotel, in my soft, stripy pyjamas, that in 24 hours time I’ll sit on the airport link train home thinking about that fried chicken. I’ll be truly alone for the first time in twelve days, smelling like a sleepless medium-haul flight, so absent and tired that I won’t even realise I can understand the station announcements until I'm halfway home. Even the train itself will feel sub-par. When it rolls in to Central Station's Platform 16 I will not feel like the future had arrived as I’d become accustomed to in Japan; the train won’t have a conical, rippled nose like the Shinkansen, it won’t be painted zany colours like the Shinkansen. There will be no kanji anywhere on the North Shore line to Hornsby.

But I wasn’t thinking about anything while I ploughed through my lunch; I was watching Saturday afternoon junior baseball on TV. All my Japanese experiences were rolling into one warm sensation in my mind, on my palate, and the fried chicken was doing it all justice.