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Day 13—Sanjo

I do not recall how the day started but I believe it was granola and yogurt from the convenience store on the corner so that we could catch an early train to Sanjo. Sanjo is located just outside of the city of Niigata. It is known for its blacksmith craftsman and in the months before our trip, Jason arranged for us to visit and take a class at the Sanjo Blacksmith Dojo. Japan has a strong tradition of regional crafts and the government has set up a designation called DENSAN that recognizes and promotes them in order to keep them from dying out. Our visit to Sanjo is one of two destinations plotted along our course for the sole purpose of experiencing a Japanese craft. There are several more of interest that we will have to go back for.

We walk to the train and find it running on time to the minute. Efficiency is not lacking in Japan; neither are beautiful public signs. The ride to Sanjo’s Kita-Sanjo station is just about an hour on the Yahiko Line and lands us just a block from the dojo. The area is peaceful, quiet. A contrast to the bustle of Niigata. I photograph some flowers outside of the station while I wait for Jason to return from the restroom.

 

(sign seen at the train station in Niigata)

We are here early with the intention of eating something before our class. We don’t have to go far. Just across the street from the station is a compelling structure from which the smell of spices emanates. Indeed, it is called the Sanjo Spice Laboratory, a curry restaurant whose four sides are open to the perfect day outside. We enter to the warm glow of light reflecting off the entirely cedar building which is adorned with beakers, plants, and books. We are encouraged to take a seat and given water and menus with some introductions. English is spoken here and the menu reflects an Indian influence. We order and Jason heads to the dojo to confirm that everything is all set for us. It is and he returns to a beautiful plate of one of the best lunches I have ever tasted.

 

 

After our meal we head the one block to the dojo, a large gray garage-style building on one side of a parking lot. We are greeted by the manager of the dojo, a middle-aged man with a weathered and friendly face who wears jeans and a chambray shirt. Aside from the Japanese features, he reminds me of my father who wore the same look on a daily basis. We sign some paperwork at the office window and then are led to the shop where we are given safety glasses, an apron and cuffs. We are introduced to two blacksmiths who will be our tutors for the instruction. We are making letter openers from nails.

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(hammering the heated nail to flatten it; buffing the edges; stamping the mark of the dojo; the one missing step is a machine in which you sand the surface)

(nail to letter opener; holding a traditional nail turned snake as a gift for us from one of our tutors—making of video below)

This was one of the truly enriching experiences of the trip. Jason and I share a passion for making things, working with our hands; perhaps we each got this from our respective fathers. I connected with Jason’s dad when he taught me how to turn a pen and I connected with my own father less with words and more with working on projects together. Observing the speed and efficiency of the blacksmiths at work was greater appreciated having attempted the task ourselves and, despite the language barrier, we connected with one of the tutors whom we spent a fair amount of time afterward talking about the process of making Japanese knives and viewing various examples.

We remove our apron, glasses and cuffs and thank our teachers. We ask the manager about his recommendations of where to find knives made in the area by the DENSAN artisans. He walks us around the corner and down the block to a tiny shop that looks like the real thing but unfortunately it is closed. He is apologetic and recommends another store in downtown Sanjo. We thank him and embark on a very long walk through neighborhoods, across a bridge over the Shinano river, and to an outlet-size shopping district— large electronic and clothing stores, one of which advertises “American Jeans!”, car dealerships, and a mall. Inside the mall is the place we are looking for. It is fairly nondescript; white and minimal and full of glass cases, counters, and shelves of items that range from manufactured cutlery and knick knacks to hand-crafted knives and art pieces. Jason spends some time comparing the artisan’s seals stamped into the DENSAN certified knife selection. He holds each to feel the weight and balance of the forged steel and to test the rock of the blade. He selects a kitchen Deba knife for us and a wood-carving knife for his father. I find a tiny spoon and a pair of sewing scissors.

We leave the store and locate the closest transit station. I am dragging a bit but finally we are on the train and heading back to Niigata. The man I am sitting next to strikes up a conversation with me. He is from Sanjo but traveling to Niigata for a work event in the city, as far as I understand. I speak lovingly of Sanjo and he is touched and proud. Consistently I experience this reaction to my admiration of Japan. He asks about our journey and is impressed by where we’ve been, where we are going and the things we have chosen to see. I ask him if he knows of a good place to try Hegi Soba which is a regional noodle dish of Niigata. He does and has an insider tip: Niigata, which is both the name of the city and the region, is so identified by and proud of its Hegi Soba that they offer visitors vouchers to to several restaurants in order to try it. Our temporary guide brings us to a kiosk at the train station where we can retrieve these vouchers. He then walks us to one of the participating restaurants and inside where he speaks to the host before saying good bye and heading off to his event.

The dish did not disappoint and is much about the experience of how it is presented and eaten. Bite-sized twirled bundles of soba noodles are served on a traditional tray lined with a bamboo mat and accompanied by a sauce—this is where the magic happens, as Jason says. The sauce can be modified to your personal taste with the provided mustards, wasabi, and red pepper flakes and is what gives the mouthful its flavor. Additionally, we chose to have ours with nori (shredded dried seaweed) served on top of the noodles. Using your hashi, you pick up an entire bundle and douse it in the sauce before bringing it to your mouth and enjoying. It reminds me of the way my friend Nhu-y taught me to eat Pho. I will note here, as I could have during earlier experiences with ramen and other noodle dishes, that slurping is a tradition in Japan. The more you slurp, the more you allow the flavor to circulate your taste buds and the easier it is to tolerate the hot broth as it cools just enough in the process. It also shows respect to the chef and impresses native Japanese. Jason has bragged about being complimented for slurping like a Japanese person by a Japanese friend of his. Admittedly it took me some getting used since in America slurping is considered to be rude, at least where manners matter. But once adjusted, it is quite fun.

After dinner we are back to the hotel and to bed (well maybe there was a stop at the convenience store for some dessert treats). We are squeezing in a trip to a sake distillery in the morning before heading to Tokyo via Shinkansen, high-speed bullet train.

 

Day 12—Kidnapped

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(view from our tent, photo by Jason)

We wake to full sun. This proves to be one of the warmest days of our trip and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We are in the perfect place to body surf and have been eagerly awaiting to do so ever since we spotted the sea.

First, though, we pack up. We have a long day ahead. We are 75 miles north of our next destination, Niigata. Jason and I decided last night that I would ride the full 75 miles and he would take a train partway. In addition to looking forward to a long ride on my own along the coast, I am desperate to avoid disassembling my bike and dragging it through a train station more than is necessary.

(wait for it…)

We make our way to the rock formation which Jason explored last night beneath stars while I slept. The seaside of the rock flattens out and is dotted with pools and eddies exposed by the receded tide. We check each pool for the wildlife it may hold and we are rewarded. One of the pools contains two small fish. Jason is sure that they will not survive if left there and decides to rescue them. After some maneuvering and cornering, Jason manages to nab the more decorated of the two. As he lifts it from the water, it expands. It is a puffer fish (fugu in Japanese). Jason can now add fugu-noodler to his long list of talents. After some photos we set it free in the ocean and imagine the long life it will now lead. After some less enthusiastic attempts, we give up on the other fish who darts and hides with a speed the puffer did not. I try not to imagine what will happen to him.

Good deed for the day done, we head to the beach. The water is cool but not cold. We fight through the breakers and dive into the base of oncoming waves. We saddle the ones we can, rising into the air and then tumbling to the shore, again and again. It is glorious and perhaps the most unbridled fun we have on the trip.

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We rinse in a freshwater stream that joins the sea at the edge of the beach. After a breakfast of yogurt and granola and chocolate (always) I change into my riding gear and load up the bike. It is just after 10am. Unfortunately we did not bring the map for the section entering Niigata and Jason will be holding onto our mobile hotspot, but I’ve taken screen shots and looked at the route which is fairly direct—follow the coast. Jason stays behind and takes pictures of his pirate’s bootie. He is a very big fan of the various snacks and their packaging. Every trip to the convenience store is a hunt for the most bizarre “treasure” he can find.

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(photo by Jason)

If ever you plan to ride 75 miles I suggest you do it along the coast of the Sea of Japan, wind at your back, on a partly sunny, 60-degree autumn day. The next two hours are glorious. I trace the rolling coast with my two wheels, gradually rising and falling with the road. The terrain to my right is rugged and wild; breathtaking. The scenery to my left is lush and green. I feel free. I have settled into a rhythm and I move forward swiftly with little effort. I wonder how I will go back to Chicago and do the same long rides over and over now that I have rides like this to compare them to.

After some time, the way dives from the coast and inland. I still catch glimpses of the water but mostly I am surrounded by roadway and trees as I conquer a steep hill and then drop into a valley where I come to an intersection with a traffic light in a small town. The sun is bright. I turn left, further inland. Mountains flank the road and I feel that I am traveling in the wrong direction. I take a look at my Garmin and confirm my suspicions. Many wrong turns on this trip are rewarded, however. Just after I pull a u-turn to head back to the intersection from whence I came, I see school children racing one another from a school bus to a small building that appears to be connected to a farm. They all wear royal blue shorts and white shirts, some are in red caps and others in white. Whenever we see groups of school children in Japan they are in similar uniform and hats whose colors seem to correspond to grade level or class.

In addition, as I reach the red light, a man in the car ahead of me rolls down his window and with a large smile asks where I am from and then where I am headed. “Niigata!” I say. He responds with an astonished laugh and a hardy “Ganbatte!” It fills me with joy. Another wrong turn redeemed.

I continue on with renewed sense of adventure. At just under the halfway point I stop outside of central Murakami, the namesake of one of my favorite authors whose book title inspired the name of this blog. I spot a beachside outhouse just when I need it and I am able to take in the view from a stationery point. I down some cereal bars and enjoy the efficiency of my body and bike. Across the street I see one of the many roadside shrines we pass on our journey. I take the opportunity to photograph it.

Soon after getting back on the road to Murakami, just as I reach the crest of a steep hill, I spot a woman who has pulled over on the opposite side of the road and is standing beside her car gesturing…to me. She waves her arms frantically with a big smile on her face. I pull over, somewhat reluctantly. I am in a zone and want to stay there but I remind myself that I came to Japan to be in Japan and follow the adventure wherever it took me. She begins to speak excitedly in Japanese. I am trying desperately to capture a word or two, failing miserably. I pull out my maps and point. She does not look and I quickly realize that she is not interested in communicating with me, despite her continued chatter. Eventually we establish that she would like me to follow her. I do, pedaling hard to keep up and she pulling over in her car occasionally to wait for me as we enter the small city. I am navigating the traffic and all the while thinking “Well, she better feed me”. I know, I sound ungrateful, don’t I? But I had just begun thinking about how hungry I was when I came upon her and the further along in following her I went, the more I thought about the miles yet to cover and the peaceful zone I had been ripped from. It is not long, however, before we are pulling into a shared driveway. We are at her home. it appears to be one of two apartments in a small building. It is modest but sweet. She is very excited, almost breathless. I lean my bike against the wall in her entranceway. I come in, remove my shoes, and she immediately gives me a large glass of ice water and has me sit on the floor at a table in what seems to be her living room. She says “my friend, my friend” and puts a finger in the air to let me know she will be right back. I hear her in the kitchen on the phone or perhaps yelling up a stairway or through a door. She returns and again chatters at me. I am a bit frustrated that any attempt to communicate has been abandoned. Moments later she is running to the door to let her friend in who produces a container of sushi and places it in front of me. They watch me eagerly as I eat, both smiling and chattering at me. I thank them for the food and they encourage me to continue eating as they pull out a pad of paper. I see a list of names, addresses, and birthdays in various handwriting. They want me to write my information down. I do and also hand them my name card. I am not sure I ever really catch their names. They give me fruit and I continue to eat, starting to feel quite full. Eventually they show me a photo of a bike-touring couple sitting at this very table and I realize I am not the first victim. The smiles in the photo seem forced but I am probably projecting. Ironically, I had just days before found this couple’s blog while perusing the Japanese Bike-Touring Page on Facebook and so I recognize them. They are from Canada and if I wanted to send them a card on their birthday I now could; their information is laying out in front of me where I’ve just entered mine.
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(my captors: on the left the woman who originally flagged me down, to the right her friend)

The friend places bread in plastic wrap on the table and indicates that she made it herself. I thank her and have a bite and then wrap it back up for the road, indicating that I am very full. My muscles are cold now. Riding 35 miles and stopping to kneel for 30 minutes has me concerned about the next 40 miles. My legs feel deadened and I feel a bit exasperated at the whole encounter. I thank them and let them know I have to go but they want me to wait for one more thing—they put their hands together in prayer and point upward. Soon I am being led up a narrow staircase to a single carpeted room that is bare except for a large altar at the front of it that nearly reaches the ceiling. I do not find anything upon it to indicate the faith it honors. They have me kneel beside them, all of us facing the altar, and they place a string of beads between the fingers of my two hands. They hand me a book full of Japanese characters which of course I cannot read. They hold their own books and beads. The friend begins to whisper frantically and I hear my name used at the end of sentences. I presume they are praying for me. She then opens her book and begins to chant. The melody has the whirring quality of a machine cycling through a chain of perfunctory movements. I make a point to imprint the melody so that I can repeat it for Jason’s friend in Tokyo whom we will see in a few days (I do and he tells me that it sounds as though these two were Buddhist. He is not surprised that I felt proselytized at and says it is as common in the rural areas of Japan as we might find in the Bible Belt of the United States, for example). I am urging myself to appreciate this window into a section of Japanese culture but I am distracted by the passing time and my sore, deadened legs. It goes on and I flip the pages when they do, mimicking some understanding where there is none. Eventually it ends and I thank them as they lead me back down the stairs and to the front door. I return to my bike and the friend waves enthusiastically as the woman who brought me here returns to her car to lead me to the road which will take me to Niigata. I follow her until she pulls over one last time and points ahead and nods. We say good bye and she returns to her car.

Though I’ve been flip about my conflicted feelings around this encounter I want to elaborate here. I spent the following days grappling with the guilt around my lack of gratitude, my inability to fulfill a sense of obligation I felt to illuminate the retelling of the encounter in a positive light. Indeed I wanted to connect with these strangers but, the truth is, we did not connect. I felt very much a specimen, a novelty, one of a collection of travelers these women had “saved”, another submission into their notepad and photo in their album. They made no attempt to communicate nor did they welcome my own attempts to. Instead they filled nearly an hour with words I clearly could not understand. I experienced several authentic connections with people in Japan that I had only a fraction of the time, where many fewer words were spoken. This interaction was artificial and it contrasted the spiritual moment they interrupted in such a way that it was particularly jarring. I was reminded that all of us have our own motivations and manifestations of them, no matter where in the world we are, and they will not always align.

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(food photos by Jason, this is what his mid-ride lunch looked like)

I spend the next 15 miles warming my muscles up and trying to find the zone I was previously in. I never really do in part because the way is no longer quite as picturesque as it had been and because I am now on a mission to make up time. I rarely see the water again and instead find myself on inner, two-lane roads with very little shoulder between a wall of trees and being constantly passed by very large trucks. It is hard to enjoy the scenery when I must be so focused on keeping my line, bracing every time I hear a truck approach and then whisk past.

IMG_0674(huge statue that Jason does not recognize from his route)


(above two photos by Jason)

Eventually the way becomes multi-laned and full of traffic. I am approaching an interchange and I have nothing to go by but the the road signs which say Niigata and the sense that the coast is to my right. I ride along the shoulder of an on-ramp to what we would consider an expressway. I do not want to be here. There is a very wide should but cars and trucks honk and holler at me as they speed by. I know I must get off as soon as possible and I do. Thankfully I have exited to a travel stop. I enter the building and immediately find an information desk, though no one is there. I begin to look at maps and feel quite helpless. As I pace the indoor area I can see a police car pull up. I run out and communicate to the men that exit the car that I need help. In fact, they seem to know about me. I imagine they have been notified about “a crazy person riding her bike on the expressway”. One of them speaks relatively good English and asks to see my map. I confess that the one I have does not include the area that I am in but I explain to him where I am going and show him the screen shot of the hotel’s name Jason and I are staying at for the next two nights. Inside, the policemen find someone who directs us to a pile of local maps. I am at the outskirts of Niigata, about 10 miles away. Between the three of them they find a suitable route for me and I am grateful. The four of us return to the parking lot and the travel center workman moves a road block to allow the police car and myself following on bike to navigate the access road behind the travel center. We make our way along a narrow road and under an overpass before reaching a main, but less dicy, road which I use to take me into Niigata.

I arrive at the hotel and ask if my husband has checked in. He has not. I check in and am told that if I would like to use the public baths I will need to put bandages on my tattoos which the receptionist can see peeking out from beneath my short-sleeved jersey. She hands me three band-aids and I accept without clarifying that I would need 10 times that to cover what my jersey is hiding. I plan to use the shower in our room instead. As my phone accesses the lobby wi-fi, Jason’s messages come in. He was making good time and feeling strong so had decided to ride the whole way as well. He arrives just an hour after me. We share our experiences from the day, his much less eventful than mine. He showers and goes to the garage were our bikes are to disassemble them for our trip to Tokyo in two days via train. I do some journal writing.

We find dinner after two attempts, turned down by the first for not speaking Japanese, in a neighborhood full of neon-lit alleyways where women urge businessmen to enter their establishments. After food and sake we return to our room for a long sleep. What a thing to have started the day frolicking in the sea and end it among the cemented city.

(The above is the otōshi that we received at the izakaya where we ate. Otōshi is a compulsory appetizer served at izakaya, curated by the chef and served once you’ve ordered your first drink. It is typically $2-5/person and acts as a seating fee. Sometimes they are well done and delicious, other times they are quite disappointing.)

Day 11—Persimmon

We wake to the sound of rain hitting the roof of our Sierra Designs Lightning 2 FL (worth noting if you’re in the market for an easy-to-set-up, lightweight tent-for-two). Our motivation to venture into the rain and manage our wet things is low. We move slowly. When we unzip the door we smell earth and fresh ozone. We see a rotund man in a wool sweater, galoshes and cap who is carrying a plastic bag and bending to forage. Eventually he makes his way to us and we exchange greetings. In my naiveté I point to some large white fungus growing nearby that, to my untrained eye, look like what he shows me in the bag. He shakes his head “no”, they are not the same. We have seen a number of people foraging while in Japan and for two people who love mushrooms it would have been a handy skill to bring along. He eventually hands us the bag as a gift, or perhaps he worries that if he doesn’t we’ll get sick munching on the wrong thing. Either way, I am warmed by the generosity of a stranger yet again.

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