Updated: Aug 4, 2021
I was holed up in a capsule hotel nursing an injury. The pain in my right knee was unbearable. It felt like pieces of glass cutting the meat between the bones. The pain was bigger than ego which thought it could push past it. I limped to the communal bath and peeled off the cycling jersey and shorts. Two wrinkled old men soaked in the bath. I waded in. We sat like pink faced macaques in mountain hot springs. The water bubbled and swirled around me, massaging my weary legs and stiff lower back. Half an hour later, I crawled out, slipped on the Japanese robe, and hobbled back to the capsule.
Capsules, one writer wrote, look like oversized tumble-dryers stacked two high. I crawled into mine. I had over-exerted myself, cycling 180 km in 18 hours. 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 in my coffin like chamber still weary. Capsule hotels are for people who can sleep soundly in trenches, not for lightweights like me who are easily roused by the sounds of jangling keys, snores, and talkative drunks who bring their noise in with them. I crawled out, gathered my things, took 2 Tylenol, and left the hotel.
I decided to ride. If the pain in my knee persisted, I’d have to concede and return to Gifu by train. I mounted my bicycle and started pedaling slowly. The pain stung.
I cycled slowly past Genbaku Dome, the building which survived the atomic attack. The blast peeled back the skin of the dome and left the skeletal steel frame exposed. My spirit mourned for the innocent civilians who were killed. The building looked out of place in the new shiny metropolis that grew around it. That incongruity was a tribute to the power of the human spirit, the indomitable human spirit.
I pedaled slowly down the main road out of the city. Old men with cigarettes dangling from their lips and schoolgirls in pleated skirts pedaled past me. Office ladies on steel framed bicycles signaled with bells before they overtook me. Shops were opening; trolleys chugged down the tracks. Slowly the city receded and so did the pain in my knee. I had collared my attention and fixed it on the present moment, mindful of each pedal stroke. I narrowed my goal to the next mile, then the next one. Mile by mile, one mile at a time, I rode another 60 to Fukuyama.
Then I got lost… again. Japanese roads were unmarked labyrinths, bending like streams around the hills that pimpled the country, branching off and winding through the cities and towns, narrowing into alleyways, sometimes forking abruptly, sometimes converging with other streets and spilling out into large intersections.
Before the injury, I was following a rural road that ran parallel to the expressway. The paved, auxiliary road I was on became a dirt trail that cut through a bamboo grove. The GPS unit I navigated by pointed in the same direction as the expressway. So I tossed my bike over the fence, hopped on the expressway, and raced through a tunnel. I was stopped on the other side.
Three police officers wearing ping-pong-ball-like helmets rolled up in a black, mid-sized sedan. The senior officer wore a permanent frown on his wrinkled face. An avuncular old man in glasses and a thirty-something with chevrons on his sleeve flanked me. They didn’t have muscles, or batons, or badges on their chests. They didn’t look like cops. The senior officer asked me if I spoke Japanese.
“Gomen nasai. Nihongo o wakarimasen.” I’m sorry. I don’t understand much Japanese, I said in that deferential tone which men of his rank expected.
“We are police. We take you to police house,” he said, and they escorted me to the car.
The police house looked a lot 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 was I going. I explained as best I could in caveman-like Japanese. They also wanted to know how many kilometers I had cycled in a day, where I slept at night, and that question most often asked by Japanese: how did I like Japan? They wrote a report and took my fingerprints- as a formality, the sergeant explained. I thought I’d be slapped with a fine, but I was released with a kindly, “Kiotsukete!” (Be careful!)- a common farewell that parents often give their children before they set off for school.
I hopped on my bike and continued riding, legs flexing and extending. The in and out of my breath would naturally fall into rhythm with the up and down stroke of my legs. In and out, up and down. Mantras would then suggest themselves, like melodies to rhythm. A new breath, a new moment, new possibilities. A new breath, a new moment, new possibilities. I would move like this through the fabric of space time- never quite sure where I was going.
Now on a quiet mountain road, I came to a fork. The sun had set. Rain pissed on my gear. The wind tugged at my sleeves. I stopped at one of the ubiquitous vending machines and stood under the awning sipping Pocari Sweat, a sports drink. Do I take the right road or the left? Do I really care? The only problem I had now, to borrow a line from Dale Carnegie, was “choosing the right thoughts.” I continued pedaling in the rain and into the night chanting the words that had become my mantra: a new breath, a new moment, new possibilities… Despite the rain, the pain, and setbacks, I was where I wanted to be: fully present, fully alive, equanimous- indifferent to pain, the rain, and being lost.
Japan was home to Zen. Kagami-sensei, one of my colleagues, would occasionally practice zazen with his students. Just sitting. Other teachers and students would practice traditional meditative arts like the tea ceremony or flower arranging. To find perfection in the mundane was an aspect of Japanese culture and one which I found agreeable.
I kept my apartment simple and sparsely furnished. I lived Zen-like. I had few distractions. I embraced minimalism and practiced daily mindfulness. I’d rise from my futon and marvel at the grace and flexibility of my body. I’d reach for my sheets, aware of their coarseness. I’d feel the cool breeze circulating through the room, aware of the grass like smell of the tatami mats that were arranged like puzzle pieces on the floor. Seems the more present I was, the more fully I could enjoy the moment. I’d sit and let my thoughts pass away, watching a crow I had befriended alight on the balcony rail to snatch a morsel of food I’d leave out every morning. It was this state of presence I wanted to bring with me to the classroom.
Sometimes, I’d walk to school. Time would slow. I’d notice things I hadn’t appreciated before: bamboo groves, abandoned nests, the scale-like bark of the Japanese Black pine, which looked like an oversized bonsai tree. Routes I had regularly cycled through now seemed unfamiliar. Quaint houses sprang up where once there was only a blur. I suspected that there was more beauty and power in the commonest objects than I had ever imagined.
Preoccupied with the usual stupidities and giving more attention to banalities than I should, I’d sometimes forget how magical and marvelous life was. It seemed sinful to be so ungrateful and unmindful.
In Japan, my life was becoming deliciously simple. I’d notice a line of sparrows perched on a telephone wire and vapor rising from the railroad tracks, dew on a spider’s web, and the reflection of a cloud in a rice paddy. Noticing the details was a daily delight.
I was home. My mind was an inner refuge, a Zen-like garden to which I would return again and again.
I came to Japan wishing to fill my journals with tales of derring-do. I also came to rope and train the mind. Like the young oxherder depicted in Zen paintings which represent the stages on the path to liberation from the oppressiveness of thought, I sought to train the mind, the ox- a powerful animal that, domesticated, can serve a farmer well, but wild, can be a great danger and cause considerable damage. I did not train at a temple or monastery. I let everyday experiences teach me.
A few months later, I was on a train. The bicycle was disassembled and packed in a nylon carrying bag. I had the bicycle outfitted for a tour from Hokkaido to Gifu. Over the years, I had become a minimalist. I was traveling light: tent, sleeping bag, change of clothes, tools, journal, pen. I packed no food or drinks. Convenience stores and vending machines were ubiquitous.
But I did pack tenacity and the will to win. Ganbare! I’d do my best. The Japanese respected tenacity. Perseverance was one of the virtues they admired highly. Ganbaru was one of those words which I thought could be imported into the English language. It meant tenacity, perseverance, a sincere intent to do one’s best.
The mountains, I knew, would intimidate me, the winds would discourage me, the rain would punish me, the sun would pummel me during the day and the cold would harass me at night. But, I was mentally ready. I had trained my mind to not only endure suffering, but to transform it.
The train chugged along. We rolled past bamboo groves and patches of wilderness and mud brown rivers with wide banks. Along the banks, life breathed. Ants foraged. Cicadas buzzed. Crows cawed. Each with a consciousness. Each with perceptions different from mine, indifferent to the ambitions of men.
I peered out the window musing. If I were independently wealthy, billionaire rich, if I had enough money to do anything I wanted to do, I would be doing exactly what I was doing now.
And I had just enough money to return home.
I transferred at a station in Aomori and waited to take the train that would worm its way beneath the sea to Hokkaido. In the waiting room, I watched spiders spin webs near the lamps which attracted moths and other flying insects drawn by the light. I saw a black spider with a swollen abdomen consuming its victim. Another insect wriggled free from the web. I waited for my train in a room where a hundred worlds co-existed. A schoolgirl texting her friends was unaware of this fascinating micro-world where the drama of life and death was playing out.
There is a wasp I read about, a locust eater that paralyzed her prey with her stinger. She would drag her victim to her dugout hideaway. She glued her eggs to the creature’s belly for her larvae to feed upon. The larvae would chew the locust’s soft belly while it yet lived.
All that tortured us were our own undisciplined thoughts. We allowed in memes that glued their eggs into our minds. The memes would chew on our spirits while we yet lived and we remained dead to the wonder and beauty that surrounded us. These memes live in what Buddhists call our store consciousness. From this store of memories, beliefs, and assumptions we form perceptions. It is often these false perceptions, built atop fragments of borrowed knowing that we construct meaning and from which we "see" and filter sense data. We do not question our biases or assumptions, we do not challenge our cognitive distortions or examine our heuristics. We think our thoughts are true, even suicidal ones that would destroy us.
I arrived in Sapporo and found a hotel. Then I toured the town by bicycle. I stopped at the botanical garden. I saw a tree kneaded as if by a potter’s hand; there a shrub with leaves shaped like butterflies; here a tree with a trunk laced like the skull of a cantaloupe. Each tree was a sun worshipper with it’s own history- and I wanted to learn them all.
I felt connected. The trees and I, after all, were made up of the same stuff, sharing a long, but divergent evolution. I was one with all things. “Tat tvam asi.” “I am that,” as the Hindus would say. Or as evolutionary biologist EO WIlson wrote:
All other species are our distant kin because we share a remote ancestry. We still use a common vocabulary, the nucleic acid code, even though it has been sorted into radically different hereditary languages. Such is the ultimate and cryptic truth of every kind of organism, large and small, every bug and weed. The flower in the crannied wall- it is a miracle… Every kind of organism has reached this moment in time by threading one needle after another, throwing up brilliant artifices to survive and reproduce against nearly impossible odds.”
I sat on a bench preparing myself for the ride ahead, observing and musing. We walk with swinging gaits and worry about the girth of our incomes. We fill our bellies with fruits and fish and shiver when temperatures drop below 30 degrees. All of these are adaptations as unintentional as octopus tentacles and chlorophyll and knotted branches. Or is there intention in them? I pedaled back to the hotel to prepare for next day’s ride.
I opened my journal and began writing:
I am grateful. I have the time and the strength and the freedom and the money to cycle across Japan, to dine at restaurants, and to lodge at hotels. Billions of men and women suffer unimaginable miseries while I pedal up hills and whistle my songs. I am humbled and grateful. May all beings know peace.
The following day, I cycled 84 miles to the wharf where the ferry was moored that would take me back to Honshu.
Mist bordered pine woods
A Buddhist temple
At water’s edge
Willow trees fishermen’s huts
Zen monk with
Empty bowl after noon
Old fishermen drying nets
In the setting sun.
I cycled, but my mind was elsewhere. Breathing in, I turned my awareness on. Breathing out, I turned my thoughts off. The incessant mind noise grew quiet, the reveries ceased and I could hear the crickets chirping and appreciate a dragonfly with a red abdomen perched on a leaf. The smell of the wet grass reminded me of mint. I was on point.
When cycling, the mind would fall into a trance. Pedaling was repetitive. To relieve myself of boredom, I would fix my attention on the senses and move my awareness from sense to sense. The brain fished for sounds, trapped them and dragged them in. For another mile, I would focus on the sense of smell, trying to detect the faintest scents that brushed my olfactory nerves. It was one of many games I played while cycling. It is the nature of the mind to wander. Cycling helped me concentrate my mind. It was a meditation of sorts.
I cycled 200 km the following day and 184 km the next. Human beings were built tough. I respected God’s design and pushed my body and mind to test their limits. As respectable as these numbers were, I suspected I hadn’t even come close. I could go farther, ride harder, push past perceived fatigue, and endure much more. We were well-designed. This was a body designed to endure greater hardships. It was the same model worn by the Cherokee, the Bedouin, the Vikings, the Samurai, the Bushmen. We are of the same stock, descendants of a common ancestor hammered by evolution to survive and thrive.
The road followed the winding river. The rivers sculpted the mountainous landscape. From the mountaintop, I could see meander scars and floodplains etched in the valleys below. The rivers meandered in wide loops and bends. I followed each line of prose in rock sculpted by water.
Appreciation of detail was another saddle game: my reflection in a child’s eye I met at a stop, the crease in a woman’s arm. Celebrating the day, I found perfection in the imperfect and beauty in the mundane.
Why it’s but the motion of the eyes
And brows! And here I’ve been
Seeking it far and wide. Awakened
At last. I find the moon above the pines, the river surging high.
When I returned to school, one of my colleagues, Hiramitsu sensei, invited me to a temple to practice Zen meditation. The temple was old, but comfortable, like a well-worn shoe. A Nepalese student joined us. We sat on cushions and meditated. A fly buzzed around my ears. I let my attention rest on sound, then, when my attention would wander, I’d gently bring it back to the breath or movement or one of the other senses. The fly would land on my arm and I would feel the pitter patter of it’s tiny feet. What might have been a nuisance to an untrained mind, was joyful. The entire experience was very pleasant.
With each passing month, I became more attuned, more aware. I’d appreciate the flowers and trees dressed for spring, celebrate the swallows returning to their nests and notice the gray stratus clouds sheeting the sky. It would begin to rain. Tsuyu- the rainy season. As temperatures climbed through July, the cicadas would emerge from their subterranean hideaways and fill the air with their buzzing cacophony. I enjoyed the change of seasons, listening for new sounds, antennae outstretched. Los Angeles, California was warm all year long. Changes in weather were subtle- winds blowing from the east instead of from the west, cooler nights. Few noticed the bird with the red crest that returns to its nest in spring. To my untrained eyes there was little difference between summer and spring. But in Japan, the changes were dramatic and obvious- brown-eared bulbuls squabbling in the trees in winter; cherry trees blossoming in the spring, gingko trees losing their leaves in fall; cicadas buzzing in summer. Each season had its own music and color. And when summer came, I returned to nature.
A Buddhist monk in straw sandals boarded the bullet train. He held a conical sedge hat. He was well over 6 feet tall, bald, young, calm, beautiful. Without a word, without even a glance in my direction, he reminded me to remain grounded in the present, where peace and joy wait to be discovered.
I planned to paddle from the coast of Honshu to some of the islands off the coast, and decided to take a week off to paddle the Sea of Harima to Shodoshima, a quaint little island famous for its olives. Every prefecture has something for which it was “famous.” Tell a Japanese you’re going to a place and they would likely respond with some fact about its history, geology or economy.
I didn’t know the Sea of Japan as well as I knew the coastal conditions off of southern California; didn’t know its temperament. In which direction did the winds generally blow? How strong were the currents? How large were the swells? How did conditions change over the course of a day? As soon as I got off the train, I appraised the weather. Every pinch of wind, every unfurled flag, every gray cloud unnerved me.
To train, I had paddled the Nagara River, famous for cormorant fishing, from Mount Kinka to where the Nagara converged with the Ibi and Kiso Rivers. By night, I had paddled the length of Biwa Ko, the largest lake in Japan, stopping to explore a floating temple in the middle of the lake which I happened upon as I paddled in darkness.
I began the day with a prayer and a song- except my prayers were a bit more fervent than usual. Could a small prayer calm the seething seas? Maybe not, but it could calm the mind. The songs bolstered up my spirit and set me straight. It was just the stuff to calm rattled nerves. Didn’t want to think of the wind as an adversary, but to accept whatever blew my way with a detached mind.
I assembled the Feathercraft Kahuna, a folding kayak which I carried in an oversized backpack. I launched at 9. The winds were strong. I shuddered and prayed, but launched anyway. I thought I’d find some respite in the lee of any of the many islands which I spotted off-shore. I paddled out to the first island, but was disheartened. The wind hadn’t abated. The currents were strong and contrary. I beached the kayak and sat dejectedly trying to decide whether to return or continue. It seemed more perilous to continue… but cowardly to return. The winds were strong, but they would hasten me along to Shodoshima.
I practiced the same techniques recommended by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale which I had applied when kayaking the Salton Sea in California. It was a technique designed to empty the mind of fear, impatience, stress, or whatever was troubling it. I would repeat to myself over and over: “With God’s help, I am ridding my mind of anxiety…” until I felt my mind being emptied of fear. Then I would repeat: “My mind is empty of fear” until I believed this. Finally I would utter: “With God’s help, I am filling my mind with confidence.” I repeated this until the mind was convinced. This was all I needed to correct my course and to disconnect that propensity to worry.
The sea would undo the man who lacked a disciplined mind. A disciplined mind was indispensable. A disciplined mind was an invaluable asset. With such a mind, a man could check his anxieties or any other negative thoughts which siphoned off his energies.
The sea was an unforgiving and hard taskmaster. The sea kept my mind from straying too far. At sea, I felt fragile and small. With every launch, I flirted with mortality. A heavy sea could swallow me up, toss me, crush me, pummel me. The sea reminded me of the impermanence of life. Life seemed all the more precious, fragile, and brief.
There are meditation practices on death which I practiced often. At sea, the practice was more intense because the possibility seemed less remote. I breathed. I imagined my lungs stopped up with the briny sea. I moved. I imagined bloated, lifeless limbs. It was as if I experienced the world through a dead man’s eyes. I felt the breeze caressing my face. I felt the warmth of my hands in my gloves and I wanted to relish the moment and savor every second of life. How I would miss it all, I thought.
I paddled for hours entertaining these reveries. I got to the island and paddled past the breakwater into a marina. I beached the boat and met some people having a picnic. I asked them where I might find lodging and they gave me directions to an inn not too far from the marina.
I’ve just had a bath and am comfortably installed in a Japanese inn. My room is tatami-matted. I peer out the window and see, behind a gray tiled roof, wooded hills. I’m wearing a yukata (summer robe). The vest is thick-sleeved and patterned with dark colors. I paddled for 5 hours. My body wasn’t as conditioned as well I had thought, but it held up pretty well. I have no aches or soreness, only fatigue. I’m interrupted by the lovely song of a Japanese wagtail. I pause to listen.
What a gift! What a precious life! If history hadn’t unfolded as it had, with its horrors and joys, if my parents hadn’t met, I wouldn’t exist and neither would the world as I’ve known it. I’ve misspent many precious hours. How many days have I truly lived? How many more days do I have to enjoy? When I die, I leave behind all attachments and all impressions- colors, smells, sounds, sentiments, pleasures, animosities, friends- or do I? I leave behind all perceptions and notions- movement, balance, hopes, fears, memories- or do I? I’m like a child in an amusement park. I don’t want to leave. I haven’t seen all of the attractions and I want to hop on some of the rides again. But Mother Death, apologetic, takes my hand. “We must be going soon.”
This adventure promises to be magical if I am open to receive the blessings. But to sing, to walk, to shit, to breath, to read, to sleep, to think, to love, to listen is magical. I am of dust and unto dust shall return. Is it not a miracle that the dust can speak and that the dust can laugh, as Prem Rewat once said? What more do I need? Winged fairies? Whispering trees? Flying carpets? Considering odds against me being born were one in a ten million…
The trip was magical indeed. I didn’t have a bicycle, but asked the Universe for one. The hostess loaned me hers. I prayed for friends and met some folks along the way. All of these wishes, it seemed in my imagination, were granted by the Force that pulses through the universe and gives it breath, the Oneness of which I am an expression.
I cycled the island. Next day, I paddled seven hours to a small fishing village in Himase. Then I continued to Himeji. I had accomplished what I had set out to do: bringing order to a scattered mind.