I was holed up in a capsule hotel nursing an injury. The pain in my right knee was unbearable. It felt like slivers of glass pricking the meat between the bones. I limped to the communal bath and peeled off the cycling jersey and shorts. Two wrinkled old men soaked in the whirlpool. I waded in. We sat like pink-faced macaques bathing in mountain hot springs. The water bubbled and swirled around me, massaging my weary legs and stiff lower back. Half an hour later, I left the bath, slipped on the Japanese robe, and hobbled back to the capsule.
I had over-exerted myself, cycling 180 km in 18 hours with shoulders hunched and rain pelting my back. I began cycling from Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu and had planned to ride back to my flat in Gifu, the belly button of Japan. Two days later, I was convalescing in a capsule hotel near Hiroshima’s red light district. I wanted to continue, but my knees ached. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
The next morning, I woke up still weary in my coffin-like chamber. Capsule hotels are for people who can sleep soundly in trenches, not for lightweights like me who are easily roused by the sounds of snoring, jangling keys, and talkative drunks who bring their noise in with them. I decided to leave, and if the pain in my knee was too intense to cycle, I’d return to Gifu by train.
The sun was just a suggestion in an overcast sky. I cycled slowly past Genbaku Dome which survived the atomic attack. The blast peeled back the skin of the dome and left the steel skeleton of the frame exposed. It looked out of place in the new metropolis that
I pedaled slowly down the main road out of Hiroshima. Old men with cigarettes dangling from their lips and schoolgirls in pleated skirts pedaled past me. A trolley car clanked down the street. Office ladies on steel framed bicycles signaled with a ring from their bells before they overtook me. Shops were opening; the Pachinko parlors, where the Japanese go to gamble, were closed. Slowly the city receded, and so did the pain in my knee, so I rode 100 kilometers to Fukuyama.
Then I got lost.
Japanese roads are unmarked labyrinths. They bend like streams around the hills that pimple the country, branching off and winding through cities and towns, narrowing into alleyways, sometimes forking abruptly, sometimes stopping at dead ends. Hiroshima was the exception, but I was now miles from the checkerboard streets of the city.
Days ago, before the injury, I was following a rural road that ran parallel to the expressway. Abruptly, the auxiliary road I was biking on ascended a dirt road that cut through a bamboo grove. The handheld global positioning satellite unit that I navigated by pointed northeast, following the expressway which dipped into a tunnel. So, I hopped on the expressway and raced through the tunnel. I was stopped on the other side.
Three police officers wearing ping-pong ball helmets on their heads rolled up in a black, mid-sized sedan that looked more like a taxi cab than a squad car. The senior officer wore a permanent frown on his old face. A kindly-looking old man in glasses and a thirty-something wearing chevron stripes on his sleeves stood beside me. Save for the dark blue khaki fatigues and the polished boots, there was nothing in their appearance to suggest that they were cops. They didn’t have muscles or batons or badges on their chests. The senior officer asked me if I spoke Japanese.
“A little,” I said in that deferential tone which men of his rank expected.
“We are police. We take you to police house.” And taking my arm, he escorted me to the car.
At the police house, which looked like a teacher’s lounge in an inner-city high school, they peppered me with questions. They wanted to know why I was on the expressway and where I was bound. I explained as best I could in caveman-like Japanese. They also wanted to know how many kilometers I cycled a day, where I slept at night, and how I liked Japan. They wrote a report and took my fingerprints – as a formality, the sergeant explained. I expected to be slapped with a fine, but I was released with a kindly, “Kiotsukete!” (Be careful!) – a common farewell that parents often give before their children leave for school.
Now on a quiet mountain road, I came to a fork in the road. Do I take the right road or the left? Rain pissed on my gear and the wind tugged at my sleeves.
Less than a week ago, I was cycling up a hill on a wet night similar to this one. Cars and trucks rumbled past me. I heard the screeching of tires and saw a car slide across the wet pavement like a hockey puck, spraying orange sparks from a dropped rear fender. It slammed violently into the concrete wall and skidded to a stop near the center divider just a few meters ahead of me. The air smelled of burned rubber. I raced up the hill and saw the driver standing beside his knocked-out ride calling for help on his k-tai. He was unnerved, but unscathed. Passing motorists stopped to offer aid, so I continued on. “Live each day as if it were your last,” is a saying that has a lot more meaning when you’re always just a few inches from becoming road-kill.
But there were few cars on the road now. I stopped at one of the ubiquitous vending machines and stood under the awning sipping Pocari Sweat, my favorite oddly named sports drink. The only problem I had now, to borrow a line from Dale Carnegie, “was choosing the right thoughts.” It was dark, but I had a flashlight which I duct taped to the fork of the bicycle. I couldn’t stop the wind or rain, but I could weatherproof my thoughts. I was lost, but on a road that went somewhere.
I continued pedaling, chanting the words that had become my mantra: a new breath, a new moment, new choices. Despite the rain, the pain, and the setbacks, I was where I wanted to be.