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Dreaming of Japan

From issue 26 • Words by John Madruga with illustrations from Matthew Burton

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Japan. Hear the word spoken, or even say it internally, silently, and distinct images will immediately spring to mind. For me, the images are of simple, singular things in perfect relationship to one another, objects merging to form something of greater significance and value than the individual parts alone. I think of a single serving of maguro on sushi rice, a maple tree planted near a still pond, the joinery of a handcrafted piece of Japanese furniture. Perhaps it is the way in which elements unite more simply, more naturally and more beautifully in Japan than any other place in the world that draws me in to the idea of the place. And perhaps it is the thought that, for me, these images are all contextualized in my mind by how they seem to strive toward a feeling of serenity, having a kind of in-built quality or directedness for peace—this also draws me in. Who wouldn’t want to live in this uniquely Japanese state of being, where essential elements seem to find perfect harmony, where patience and perseverance and humility (gaman) are not just ideals but the actual lived values of the people, and where an individual’s respectful awareness of the life energy (qi) of the entire nation determines how one chooses to act in a given moment? This is the Japan of my imagination—at once enigmatic, and yet also fertile ground, a place that feels familiar and true to me even though I have never stepped foot into the country. Perhaps one day I will.

And then, almost as an affront to the idea of Japan as a country of solitude and serenity, I think of Tokyo—the pulse of the nation that rages on with such a frenetic pace and hyper-stimulated energy that the prospect of finding any sense of calm here would seem impossible. Tokyo has been described as “a tangle of blind alleys and concrete slabs extending to the horizon,” a city that “converges not on an open plaza but on a spiral of expressways encircling a hidden center, the emperor’s palace.” Added to Tokyo’s imposing physical characteristics of verticality and entanglement and spiraling is the fact that this is the most populated city (Tokyo-Yokohama) on the planet, with over 37 million people living in a space of 3,300 square miles. Amid the buildings, traffic and overwhelming density of humanity, just how possible is it to find solace here? It would seem that my original thoughts of Japanese elements merging naturally toward serenity and beauty would simply no longer apply here, since thinking of Tokyo brings to my mind images of things (and people) that are stacked, hurried, forced and confined together. Again, where, in this place, is one to find any sense of calm? Maybe the answer lies in a standard cliché attributed to Eastern philosophy: calm comes through awareness from both outside and inside the self.

What many people don’t realize is that open space covers over 67 percent of Japan’s land area, offering Tokyo’s masses an opportunity to venture out of their ever encroaching urban reality and into new ones dominated by picturesque mountains, lakes, forests, coastlines, meadows, rivers and fields. And given the country’s well-deserved reputation for having world-class infrastructure, nature is accessible by shinkansen (bullet train), making the task of escaping the city efficient, quick and easy. This means that surfers in Tokyo can be in the water at Shonan whenever a nice swell rolls in, mountaineers and backpackers can explore Daisetsuzan National Park while the wildflowers are in bloom, and skiers can be in Nagano whenever snow conditions are best, carving down the same downhill runs raced on during the 1998 Winter Olympics. However, when it comes to cycling in Japan, riders will gladly trade the 150 mph speed of a high-speed train for the slow, vivid experience of riding some of the most beautiful and sacred roads anywhere in the world.

Eric Kent, an American-born businessman who first came to Japan in 1984 after having graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, has ridden the roads of Japan for nearly 30 years, and he has seen the recent increase in popularity of cycling in the country, particularly with adults between the ages of 35 and 60 who may want to recapture their past bukatsu experience as a high school or college student. Bukatsu refers to after-school activities emphasizing highly strenuous and focused training within a structured environment, where the first and second year students often serve the needs of the sanensei (seniors). “I think cycling is the new, more active form of bukatsu in Japan,” Kent says, “where camaraderie and a sense of belonging to a group is important to many Japanese people.” Kent, who typically rides between 100 and 200 kilometers with a small group of avid cyclists, definitely appreciates the camaraderie of his small peloton and values the friendships there, but in the Japan of my imagination there are a wide range of other motivating aspects to cycling here—and they all are informed by a particularly Japanese mindset that places emphasis on much larger, more important values and ideas than simply turning the cranks in order to track one’s mileage/elevation numbers on a chosen cycling app. “I do think there is an element of self discovery and clearing the mind to find solace here more than other countries,” Kent says.  “Being at one’s threshold, working through pain, maintaining total attention to body, mind, and surroundings requires a complete clearing of the mind, and I think that’s a big part of the surge of Japanese people who have gotten into cycling.”

Kent fondly recalls the riding he did as a younger man in and around the East Bay area of Northern California, and the challenge of taking on the difficult 3,864-foot climb of Mount Diablo. But these days his cycling terrain is altogether different. While the physical aspects of his rides—distances, time in the saddle and elevation gain—haven’t changed that much, Kent now rides across the entire of span of Japan, sea to sea, climbs Mt. Fuji, and travels a 60-km bike path that spans six islands and offers spectacular views of the sea. These places are the backdrops of where Kent rides, the environmental contexts of where he finds himself cycling with friends, and the roads, views, villages and lunch stops are all extraordinary. And yet, I imagine that what is just as important is the unseen awareness, energy and intention that fuels these rides as well. This is Japan, after all, where concepts such as gaman, qi and mu (meaning “no thing”) are ingrained into the culture and would naturally find their way into the experience of cycling here—just as they inform all other aspects of Japanese living as well. Now, to inspire cyclists outside of Japan dreaming about what it would be like to ride in the Land of the Rising Sun, Kent shares his three most memorable rides.

Mount Fuji to 5th Station
Cyclists everywhere dream of riding certain legendary roads. What would it really be like to jackhammer across the cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix, tackle the 21 switchbacks of L’Alpe D’Huez, or ride in the midst of the dry, barren, lunar-like landscape that is Mont Ventoux? These roads, and many others like them, have achieved their celebrated status though a long history of remarkable stories tied to them—stories of superhuman effort, of races won or lost, and of riders being brought to their limit, unable to go on. Think of George Hincapie’s disheartening crash on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix due to a busted steerer tube in 2006. Think of Christophe Riblon’s double-D’Huez stage win at the Tour de France last year. Think of Tom Simpson’s demise on Mont Ventoux. These are indeed hallowed roads, known and revered in terms of their specific cycling history, and as much as we would like to experience the road itself, we also want to engage the history the road offers, and to somehow know for ourselves the feeling of that history out on the bike.

But what if the rode was considered hollowed ground not in the context of cycling history, but in the mindset of an entire culture? Mount Fuji (Fujisan) rises 12,389 feet (3,776 meters) as a conical volcano, and for Shintoists it is the incarnation of Gaia spirit, a god, and therefore sacred ground. Surrounding the northern base of the mountain are the Five Fuji Lakes—Yamanaka, Kawaguchi, Saiko, Shoji and Motosu—and they add to the beauty and mystique that Fujisan herself offers. Imagine riding here. “Fujisan is indeed one of the most important symbols of Japan,” Kent says. “It is revered and holds a sacred status, steeped in history. Thus, climbing on or around Mt. Fuji imparts a special feeling for all cyclists … one feels a certain serenity and sense that is a unique experience.”

At 168.5 kilometers (107.7 miles) with 2,926 meters (9,599 feet) of elevation, the climb to the Mount Fuji 5th Station seems daunting, but Kent claims it is possible for even less experienced cyclists: “The Mount Fuji 5th Station ride, while being physically demanding, can also be enjoyed by beginners and intermediate riders if they pace themselves,” Kent says. “The Zen-like quality of riding on the sacred mountain can’t be easily described—it’s best to experience it for yourself. This ride is a wonderful combination of endurance, natural beauty, and inner-reflection on one’s life and existence. While some riders will want to push themselves to their physical limits, most cyclists attempting this course will be content to enrich their lives on this energizing route.” Upon reaching the 5th Station summit, you may be reminded, hopefully, of the focused manner in which you faced the challenge, as the Japanese for word for summit (zenjo) fittingly translates to “perfect concentration.”

The deeply ingrained Japanese attitude of gaman means to display calm, self-control and dignity in the face of hardship or difficulty. In the grandest sense, the world saw how the country faced the devastation caused by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsumani with gaman spirit, collectively protecting the nation from panic and despair with this shared mindset. Gaman can be applied to any challenge, even those involving matters of personal struggle, with the key idea being to persevere with grace and humility. And Kent’s self-titled Sea-to-Sea Stupidity (SSS) ride, an epic annual adventure covering 314.9 kilometers (195.6 miles), 1,998 meters (6,555 feet) of elevation and nearly 12 hours in the saddle in the course of one full day, definitely demands perseverance. He describes the challenge this way: “Once a year, we ride from Tokyo to the Japan Sea Coast, traveling past Karuizawa and through Nagano to Naoetsu. Once we get to Naoetsu, we put our bikes in Rinko bags and return to Tokyo via shinkansen. The goal of the SSS is to complete the trip within 24 hours.” Completing the ride is tough enough, but doing it under a time constraint just adds to the challenge, as Kent further points out: “We start around 2:30 a.m. and ride with lights for the first part of the journey until dawn comes. The route takes us through river valleys and over several mountain passes; the scenery is beautiful and the sense of teamwork taking turns at the front is exhilarating. This ride has it all: Ironman-like distance, outstanding scenery, mountain climbs for the rabbits and long flat stretches for the sprinters/time trial enthusiasts, and the relaxing shinkansen ride back to Tokyo, rehashing the journey while sipping a cold beer!”

Shimanami Kaido
Kent describes the Shimanami Kaido as “a cycle-traveler’s dream come true.” It is a 60-kilometer toll road that “connects Honshu with Shikoku Island, traversing six small islands in the Seto Inland Sea.” While riding Mount Fuji is ultimately about sacred ground and the SSS ride is about facing a difficult challenge with poise, riding the Shimanami Kaido is about taking in the views, respecting others on the path (other cyclists in the group, as well as the people met along the journey), and emptying the mind to connect with what is beautiful. As Kent says, “The views from the bridges are spectacular. The ride is about enjoying the views and cruising along the course at a gentle pace, interacting with fellow cyclists who come from all over Japan. It’s a wonderful experience that I like to do every year to get rid of stress and recharge my batteries.” Seiichi Eguchi, one of Kent’s closest friends and owner of EX-bicycle, a Tokyo bike shop specializing in restoring classic Italian steel road bikes, furthers the point by stating what is important to him as a cyclist: “Going to beautiful places with a beautiful bike. Have respect for local people and keeping my mind still as I see the beauty of nature. To respect everything in this country and try to keep it clean. We must finish this journey safely because I must go back to see that wonderful Shimanami tide and great sunset with my best friend.”

These are the main ideas that inhabit the Japan of my imagination: respect, resolve, calm, merging, beauty, empty mind, sacred ground, stillness. I know that for me these ideas and images will remain as a kind of dream made up of the thoughts I have gained through conversations with friends, pages I have read, and pictures I have seen. But as Roland Barthes wrote about Tokyo, “… you must orient yourself in it not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience; here every discovery is intense and fragile, it can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you.” To acquire that trace means going to Japan. Perhaps one day I will.

From Issue 26. Buy it here.