On the morning of December 27th I awoke at 5:45, an hour before sunrise. I packed my regular school backpack with my laptop, my digital camera, one change of clothes, and a small map book. Dressed in full winter clothes I went outside to scrape the ice off of my worn-out shopping bike’s seat. The plan was to ride it to Kobe some 95km away by sundown.
When I pulled out onto Kinukake-no-Michi, the street running from Ryoanji past my apartment and down to Ninnaji, the city of Kyoto was still very much asleep. Aside from the occasional jogger or high-school student on his way to baseball practice there was no one in sight. Every store was closed. Except for the combini, of course. I popped into the first Lawson I passed and grabbed a quick breakfast of Manjuu, Melon-Pan, and Onigiri.
By the time I made it to Katsura Gawa, the river running through Arashiyama, the sky had just started to light up and the lightly falling snow had subsided. I followed the river South as planned and before the clock on my cell phone read 7:35 I had reached the familiar scary scarecrow that I discovered here almost one year ago. I was right on schedule.
A few minutes later I crossed under the bullet train tracks and the Meiji Expressway, marking the farthest South I’d ever been by bicycle. I continued South stripping off layers of clothing as the air continued to warm up. I was worried that the winter weather would prevent me from completing the ride, but so far it was turning out to be a nearly perfect day.
That is, until I hit a dead end. The three major rivers in the Kyoto prefecture – 桂川 (Katsura Gawa), 木津川 (Kidzu Gawa), and 宇治川 (Uji Gawa) merged into one, as I knew they would. It just happened much earlier than I expected.
I was riding on the Katsura’s East bank when the other two rivers joined, squeezing me in and leaving nowhere to go except back. The trip back to the previous bridge only took 20 minutes off of my schedule, but considering how much road I had ahead of me, and that I had never even attempted a long distance ride before – let alone by myself, without any training, and in the winter – left me a bit weary whenever something didn’t go perfectly.
As I continued South the old-fashioned houses and temples slowly transformed into industrial factories and lumberyards, and the small household gardens transformed into huge opened crop-fields. Occasionally I’d pass a farmer huddled over a campfire down by the river.
I stayed off of the main roads for as long as I could, riding along the small bike-path that skimmed the river until I passed a sign telling me that I had reached Hirakata, the first city I lived in when I moved to Japan. By a total coincidence that was exactly one year ago today. I decided to take a small detour and drop by my old dorm. Along the way I passed the street corner where I waited with anticipation as the dorm’s caretaker came to greet an excited gaijin ready to start his new life in Japan. It seems like so long ago…
I was back on the road in good time, and the pleasant little bike-path soon disappeared giving way to a highway busy with long-distance trucks zooming past only inches away from my dangling camera bag. I realized that I had just crossed through the small opening between two mountains that I used to look at from atop the Fushimi Inari shrine and say “You see that opening? On a clear day, you can see Osaka through there.”
Then a sign told me that I had entered Osaka prefecture.
I was surprised at how long it took from the beginning of Osaka prefecture to reach the actual city, but sure enough the scenery eventually transformed once again, this time giving rise to towering skyscrapers and tightly-packed commuter vehicles.
I skimmed by the Northern part of Umeda and rode for another hour or so until 12:30 when I entered the next prefecture, Hyogo-ken. Even though I had been on my bike for nearly six hours I was surprised that I wasn’t feeling even slightly tired.
A look over my shoulder revealed a sign that said I had already ridden 60km since Kyoto; I was well over half-way there. I decided it was time for a break at Mr. Donut’s. For some reason all that riding has been making me crave carbs even more than usual. 😉
It was in this donut shop that the runner’s high which had been keeping me going all day finally wore off. I suddenly felt like I had run into a brick wall; severe headache, severe leg pains, the works. I don’t claim that what I did was a particularly amazing ride, but you have to keep in mind the type of bike I’m riding – definitely not built either for distance or comfort – and the fact that I basically just woke up the other day and thought “Hey, I’m going to ride my bike to Kobe.”
But I knew that I had to get moving; the weather might have been nice during midday, but these days the sunlight hours are short, and after sunset the temperature would drop substantially. The melted snow on the streets regularly refroze in Kyoto, and I didn’t particularly want to try navigating unknown territory with the added challenge of icy roads. So I finally forced myself to leave.
Once I got my blood pumping again I got right back into the rhythm and made it to Kobe in good time, arriving just after 3:00pm. I popped into a department store for a snack and realized that by a total coincidence it was the very same store I ate at when I came to Kobe for the first time with Daniel in January.
But downtown Kobe (aka Sannomiya, for those of you who are familiar with the area) was not actually my final destination: I intended to ride 10km past the city (thus the 95km total) to Tarumi where I could stay at the same hostel I stayed at with David J before taking the boat to Shanghai.
I got there just as the sun was setting. I had been on my bike from sunup to sundown and was more than ready for some relaxation. So I kicked back, pulled out my laptop, and watched the episodes of 24 that I had ready and waiting for this very situation.
The next morning I awoke at 7:00 and realized just how far I had pushed my body on the previous day. To cut down on cold winds and make the ride more comfortable, I had often rode leaning forwards with my elbows resting on the handlebars. When I got up I had visible bruises there as well as my upper thighs from the seat. Take my advice: if you ever plan to do a long-distance ride in a short period of time, invest in a good, comfortable bike seat. Your body will thank you for it later.
I had reached my destination. I was satisfied. All there was left now would be to turn around and head home.
Or was there?