I traded in my 21-speed mountain bike last July. It was the first bike I could truly call my own. I had bought it brand new, broken it in, worn it out to the point of broken pedals. I even cleaned it regularly, though that started only after being admonished by the bike shop guy. I customized it to the tune of a bell, a headlight and tail light, and a bottle holder. We had gone through a lot together: I rode it drunk a few times (terrible idea), basically blind at night once (the lights came shortly thereafter), and through the rain and snow. I’d fallen off a few times, nearly gotten hit on multiple occasions. I contemplated buying a rack for it for the cross-country drive back, but that ultimately wasn’t a viable option. I sold it, but made sure to take a couple of pictures first.
I was glad to leave the rough streets of Boston.* But I was much more reluctant to say goodbye to the confined trek that was the Minuteman Bikeway. Over the course of several months, I had come to know its every contour, come to treasure its countless views. I loved going under this little overhang that stretched from a chapel on the other side of the path. I loved seeing the railway car that marked the final curve into Bedford Depot Park, where I would sit a moment and munch on a Nutrigrain bar before turning back. Sure, I dreaded the route through Cambridge to get to the Bikeway, and even moreso the route back, with the final incline home serving as a weekly fitness final exam of sorts. But I loved the Bikeway itself.
*Literally rough. The official mascot of Massachusetts should be a pothole with an accent.
I find myself on a single-geared mamachari now, which are ubiquitous here in Japan. I bought it because it was the cheapest available option, found it used at the local bike shop. Its conveniences include a dynamo light and a lock integrated to the back wheel, though I’d imagine the sheer size and weight of the frame precludes theft from ever becoming an issue (that’s not to mention style, or lack thereof). With an attached basket in the front and a small rack in the back, it’s perfect for transporting groceries: in fact, the name literally translates to “mom’s bike.” I’ve seen ladies in theirs 70s, if not older, on versions nicer than my own. Still, I didn’t last more than a few scant weeks before deciding to take the behemoth out of its comfort zone, away from the city.
The streets of Tokyo – even Western Tokyo, far from the hustle and bustle and downright madness of Shinjuku and Shibuya – were no place for a cyclist. Streets were narrow, intersections razor sharp, with sheer density lingering even in the absence of verticality. It wasn’t so much the relative lack of bike lanes, as they had been a luxury even in Boston. No, it was the uncertainty of it all: the blind turns that were the norm, the unwieldy mirrors that hovered over every block, taunting us with their uselessness. Worst, it was the utter lack of conscience on part of fellow riders. They were on cell phones, reading books, holding umbrellas, one even dragging along a full-size, check-in piece of luggage – all on their bikes, and all without helmets. It’d be impressive if it weren’t terrifying.
I ended up finding an oasis just three miles south of where I lived. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the preponderance of greenery, of mountains, of hiking trails, and simply of nature that exists within arm’s reach of the metropolitan monstrosity. Still, I admit I was rather taken aback by the sight of the Tama River, and more relevant for our purposes here, the picture-perfect bike trail that lay strewn on one side. The river itself was a strange phenomenon: a meager little thing, dwarfed by its levees and banks, overshadowed by its splits. But it managed to flow, to endure really, for about 15 miles in either direction. It felt kismet. My regular Boston ride to, on, and from the Minuteman, after all, had been a 30-mile affair.
After a trial loop on either side, I quickly opted for the path eastbound. The trail west was adventurous, too adventurous. It was narrow, rough, interrupted a few times as it wound its way north. I had to maneuver through a parking lot at one point, a town in another. It was great for exploration, terrible for consistent exercise. Eastbound by contrast was simple. Basically a straight shot for 10 miles, it went underneath a series of bridges, was escorted by countless parks and sports fields and playgrounds. It was pretty enough, if repetitive. Thankfully, the last few miles provided character at the cost of a rougher road: a small communal farm, later a road course for a driving school, and then a junkyard. I quickly found comfort in the sights.
I bike along the Tama once a week now. I get to the end of the eastern trail, sit and have onigari (a rice ball), then head back in the direction of home. If you can get past the artificial aspects, the setting and the people and the scenery and so forth, it might seem as if nothing has changed. But the truth is everything has. The ride feels different in a fundamental way here in Japan. I find myself needing it more psychologically than I do physically. The 30-mile trek has become a way for me to get away from my thoughts and paradoxically give into them at the same time, to confront my loneliness and isolation and dissatisfaction and frustration and sheer foreignness. Against all odds, I find myself not just willingly, but actively seeking out introspection.
I spend three hours every week in search of a moment, in search of clarity. I’ve thought a lot about my relationships with people: friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances alike. I’ve thought about how unrequited love is oftentimes not completely unrequited, but just returned in a different form. I’ve thought about life and motivation and meaning and hope and hopelessness and everything else you could possibly imagine. No, I don’t solve my problems every week. But for those 30 miles, I look for some semblance of a revelatory nugget. And when it comes, no matter how important or how trivial it is, no matter when it comes in the first mile or the last, it makes the entire trek worthwhile. I’m a long way from Boston. In every sense.