Thursday, September 11, 2008

Japanimation

... alternate title "What It's Like When a French Bartender at a Mexican Restaurant in Tokyo Tells You the Bar is Closed."

So, yeah, it's OLD news now but a few weeks ago I spent a week in Japan. It was work, don't get me wrong. But when you work for a fun loving, outside-the-norm bike company that has a slight reputation for partying ... well, let's just say I wasn't donning a coat and tie to sit in meetings everyday. Here's the play by play, in gory detail.

This was my first trip to Japan. In 8 days I visited Nagoya, Kyoto, Tokyo and Chiba City. I traveled with my boss who lived in Japan for 7 years and functioned also, luckily, as a guide. We toted Travelers Checks; their soft backpack cases also served as luggage. We rode the shinkansen from city to city with our bikes packed and then assembled them at our destination. I stayed in hotel rooms that ranged from your average American mid-price to downsized dorm rooms with bathrooms barely larger than an airplane crapper. I ate some of the most unbelievably good food I've had in my life -- definitely the best consecutive meals I've ever had on a business trip. These included homestyle miso, squash and vegetables; burgers Japanese style (open face with a bowl of rice); Korean barbecue (vegan friends will cringe, but Japanese meat is leagues beyond what we eat here); sushi of course; and we even ate at the only Czech restaurant in Japan. For those in the know, I tried 'natto' as well -- a rancid bean curd that has a distinct aroma and is reported to be extremely good for one's health. Its helpful to keep that in mind while its slimy consistency is clinging to your esophagus as you work to swallow it and keep it down.

I had been told that Japan is the land of vending machines. It's not just sodas and salty, sugary snacks either. There are herb drinks, noodles, dried fish snacks, rice and soy milk, coffee drinks, electrolyte beverages (handy since it was hot and humid as hell) and beer. There was also chuhi. Oh, chuhi ... nectar of some jolly god that descended the celestial plain, plucked a couple lemons along the way and created the ultimate thirst quenching toddy. At 150 yen ($1.42) from the machine and 100-125 yen at the store it was a bargain. And it was always right around the corner from the hotel room door.

Ride highlights: We rode the most in Kyoto. Some Surly loyalists had organized an alleycat/scavenger race. It was a photo contest actually. In teams of 4 we had to scour the city looking for the best photo image from a list of required subjects. We pedaled the narrow, traffic laden streets of Kyoto, up steep climbs to temples, over bridges along the riverfront. The sun set and we stocked up on food and beverages for an afterparty and slide show of each team's efforts at artistic expression. Our party progressed to the river where we lit sparklers, chatted and sipped beers and more chuhi from our messenger bags. The night was still, clear and much cooler than the heat of the day. I was so far from home but probably the happiest at that moment of my whole trip. Kyoto felt like a home away from home. We sang karaoke and got to bed way too late, reeling from the chuhi. The next day we rode 45 minutes out to Ryoanji Temple to take in the grounds and the famed rock garden which us groomed every morning by Zen monks. The history and energy of the place was astounding.

Afterward we rushed off to the train station to catch the "bullet train" to Tokyo. Packing our bikes in the plaza was unnerving since the humidity made me feel like I was working inside a sauna. My clothing was seldom dry in Japan except when I was inside an air-conditioned hotel room at night.

Courtesy of our Japanese distributor we had a fairly full schedule of meetings/presentations and dealer visits. During the course of our trip we were asked to sign bike frames, shop walls and even customers' t-shirts. This was a bit odd and kind of freakish to me that we were afforded a certain celebrity status, but I went along with it. I think I promised a guy he could borrow one of my bikes the next time he's in Mpls. That's okay. I was extended such hospitality while in Japan that the least I could do is try to return some in kind. The hospitality was truly beyond measure and it reminded me that American culture has lost a great deal of our hospitable civility, if we even had that much to begin with.

Riding a bike in Japan was a blast because cycling is such a part of the culture. Bikes are everywhere on the road, and by that I mean cheap, heavy town bikes adapted with racks and kid seats to haul whole families and loads of all kinds. Hipsters and recreational riders are more prevalent in the urban areas, but they are still the minority. What was most noticeable was the acceptant attitude of motorists. The streets are very narrow in Japan (most -- but not all -- cars are smaller, too) and people don't exactly drive slowly. But the presence of bikes is accepted. Bikes part the gap between lines of stopped cars -- no problem; bikes ride against traffic on a one way street -- that's fine; bikes roll stop signs and intersections when it's clear -- no honks or indignant screams; bikes cut from the road onto the sidewalk and back to the road to dodge a stopped car -- bully for you!

In short -- bikes are everywhere in Japan. Motorists acknowledge and for the most part seem to respect cyclists. Taxi drivers are a notable exception -- they're impatient like everywhere else. But the entire time I was riding my bike or being shuttled by car in Japan I only saw one driver get pissed, speed and swerve through traffic. And that's something you can witness dozens of times per day on an average commute around the Twin Cities.

Why is this, I wonder? I think the fact that cycling is (and has historically been) a dominant mode of transportation is one. I also talked with a couple of Japanese about driving. It is not cheap to own and operate a car in Japan. Petrol was around 185 yen/liter. That's about $6.85 per gallon. Licensing runs, I'm told, the equivalent of approximately $2000 US. In short, there's more training and it's more strict to get a license. Plus, once you get a car the expenses don't quit racking up. Our driver in Tokyo said he pays over $400 a month just to park his car -- at his residence no less -- and that does not count parking at destinations in the city.

Still, I appreciated the tolerance of Japanese drivers. I admired the variety of tiny cars, trucks and vans -- intelligently designed vehicles that we would laugh at in the US as toys or devices meant to curb the necessary luxury and roominess we associate with a "proper" automobile. You've never seen people park cars in the tiniest available spots the way they do in Japan. Space is at a premium. That struggle has not been answered by kicking bikes and pedestrians out of the picture or segregating them to separate lanes/paths, but through consciously maintaining an attitude that all road users deserve the right to get from point A to point B.

And do you think gas prices aren't affecting other drivers around the world? Well, I already related the price of fuel in Japan. Our Tokyo driver also told us that traffic in the city is comparable now to what is was 30 years ago. That's a subjective estimate but impressive nonetheless. Have high fuel prices had such an impact in the US? Gas has trended down in cost (just in time for elections!) You still hear a little prattle of people radically altering their driving habits, but we have a long way to go.

It's good to be back friends. I hope you're well. There are too many great things to relate about my trip to Japan and some stories I'd probably not care to divulge on the blog. We'll save those for the next party we host ...

And as a side note: Sorry for the lack of updates. I just returned from Eurobike in Germany this past Monday. I also missed coverage of our annual family bike vacation. I have some catching up to do but more work travel is coming up. Maybe I'll post news of the fun happenings by Christmas. Ha!

3 comments:

jbagression said...

AHHHH, Welcome back brother... c u @ I-Bike??? AAARRR! The pirate bar awaits...

Snakebite said...

Good times had by you! Sounds like you had many.

Patch O'Houli said...

JB,

Yes, you will see me at I-Bike. Keep the beer cold and your hook handy.

Snakebite, you should figure out an angle on Interbike ...

Fleck