3/22/12   –   21:16


Says Takemoto from one of the anime that I will admit to having watched.

“When I was a kid, I wondered to myself how far I could really ride without looking back?”

When Tina told me about the possibility of cycling the roughly 100 mile circumference of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, using a rented bicycle, I thought pretty much the same thing. The thought of just getting on a bicycle and going as far as you could appealed to me for some reason and I thought, what better time than spring break to go on this mini-adventure?

I suppose I’d gotten not only used to but tired of the safe and contained tourist activities that I’ve been limiting myself to. I set out poorly prepared without a real map, a real place to stay, or a real destination. The freedom was refreshing, and also a little terrifying. But that’s the thrill of it. I guess I miss the feeling of danger, getting by with only your own physical strength aided with your own knowledge of the language. This isn’t something you experience while you’re stuck on a tour bus.

In any case, I set off Tuesday morning on a train to Katata on the west side of the lake, and once there, I was met with disappointment. “Already?” you ask. Yes. So the one place I was going to rent my bicycle from was not only very very far from the station but also unfortunately told me that all of their bikes had been rented out already. I freaked out about where I was going to go, distraught about the idea of having to head back home after coming all the way here until I asked the lady at the tourist office at the station about bicycle rentals. She gave me a map specifically for cyclists and pointed me towards Kusatsu which was on the other side of the lake. I went there and after a rough start, I finally received… my noble steed.

Whomp whomp… It sort of looked like the first bike I ever got when I was a kid. Complete with half-inflated tires and an added basket. As I headed out of the station and towards the lake-shore, I pedaled on with my no-gears and wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Soon enough, I got to the lake though and things got beautiful.

Really beautiful. I wasn’t really expecting the gigantic field of flowers by the lake and the snow capped mountains to top that off. People were walking through the waves of yellow and it looked like a movie. Or a dream. It also reminded me vaguely of a picture I took in Switzerland except this time I wasn’t on top of the mountain. I won’t lie, the scenery wasn’t this picturesque the entire time, but it didn’t really matter. The sun was shining, the air was brisk, and the cycling was going smoothly. No muscle cramps here. I mean come on, I ate a banana.

Around halfway to my intended destination of Hikone city, there came a fork in the road. A sign said that I could go visit Chomeiji Temple if I went left and seeing as this was the path that hugged the coast, I decided why the hell not. Fatal mistake. But I will get to that later.

Chomeiji itself was pleasant… and on top of a mountain. So. I parked my bike at the bottom and lugged myself up a kilometer and a half of upward trekking until I reached the temple. It was nice and all. There was a great view of the lake from the top. I got to eat the onigiri I made the night before and listen to the sound of faint mantras and bells being rung. Very very peaceful. I sort of wanted an omikuji from here but alas, I don’t think they had any. The trek down was a lot more pleasant, but there is no rest for the [Ryan]. Once I got back to my bike, I wobbly made my way back to the coast.

This peninsula that had Chomeiji on it was dotted with resorts of all kinds that were of course closed because it was still cold as hell. It was sort of depressing to see the abandoned camp sites, small beaches, barbecue pits, and playgrounds all along the shore. This place must be a blast in summer. At this point I was in the city of Omi-Hachiman but I didn’t know that until i saw this sign. Apparently a lot of people get lost here or just basically don’t know where they are because on the top of the sign is an exasperated “WHERE IS THIS?!” And there I was.

What I also was was unprepared for this tricky little mountainous peninsula. After climbing up and down to the temple, the road leading back to the main one was long and winding, waving both horizontally… and vertically. So while this made for a whole bunch of fun glides down car-less slopes, it invariably  meant a whole bunch of pumping up hill with my legs becoming more weary with each push. By the time I reached the road again, I had finally given up on the idea of doing the entire lake circuit in two days and decided to crash at Hikone before heading back home the way I came. The only problem was getting to Hikone. I was losing daylight quickly and the road seemed to stretch on and on into endless agricultural fields.

What was I to do but keep going? It was a hard trek even through the fields, but once I got back to the shore, it got even worse. The wind from the lake was blowing at full speed. Shiga is known for its strong winds. Sometimes even the trains are stopped due to 強風. If trains can be stopped by these gales, you can imagine how crazed I was to try and pedal towards Hikone with this wind threatening to blow me away. The sun sank lower towards the mountains and it began to get cold. Really cold. And I was seriously panicking because I didn’t have a place to stay for the night and even in my warmest clothing I was shivering and my pace was getting slower and slower.

But eventually I saw the signs saying 彦根城 and I was saved, no longer succumbing to the cold and the wind. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote from the hotel room that night:

” First of all, in an unprecedented twist of events, I found it necessary to actually buy a hotel room on the fly without doing any research. The first price I got was 4800 yen for a night. Countless people have died of too much pride and not only has this spirit of self-preservation gotten me to turn back once I got to Hikone, but it also has me sitting in my room in the Hikone Art Hotel, facing the northern rampart of Hikone Castle. I decided that it was too cold and windy and about to storm outside for me to survive a night even with my warmest gear [which isn’t very.] No Hunger Games for me tonight. No sir. I figure I’ll make the most of it. I’m gonna use the お風呂 [bath] for a long-ass time and watch Parks and Recreation. And chill in my complimentary yukata and do other hotel things like make tea and coffee.”

And I did just that. I went back outside for a bit to grab a beer and some green tea ice cream from the super-market down the street and I came back, showered, ran the water for the bath and wrote the above paragraph. In retrospect, Julia told me that alcohol + hot baths = “That’s how people die, Ryan.” but at the time it was probably the best idea in the world. My sore muscles were relaxed immediately by the hot water. The drink put my mind at ease, the ice cream was delicious, and Parks and Recreation was entertaining as usual [even though Adam Scott has yet to appear which makes me a little annoyed, but not at the time.]

Afterwards, I took another walk around by the station and found this bad-ass statue of a samurai war lord on his steed which was not a bicycle. Hikone played a big role in the warring states Sengoku period of Japanese history but I have not taken enough Japanese history classes to bore you with the details. :/ Anyway, it was good foreshadowing for my visit the following day to Hikone’s pride and joy, Hikone Castle.

As in Nara, the plum blossoms were in bloom all over the grounds. This was my first visit to a Japanese castle and it’s just as if Samurai Warriors [the video game] came to life. Which is an ironic thought because Samurai Warriors is a replica of this reality. Never mind the faux deep thoughts. Look at the pictures of pretty flowers.

The castle tour was cool too. I pictured being under attack, aiming my arrow through the holes in the castle walls, shooting at the invading army with the peaceful scenery of Lake Biwa in the background. I wonder if that was really as glamorous as I make it out to be in my mind. I wonder why American battles never seem quite so epic to me.

In stark contrast to the gruff martial majesty of the castle is Hiko-nyan, Hikone’s samurai helmet-toting cat mascot. He’s so cute! Japan’s particularly good at making cute mascots [except for Nara… that one’s sort of botched and creepy]. Mika, my speaking partner, had already given me a Hiko-nyan stuffed animal so I wasn’t planning on getting anything but I found Hikonyan’s brothers. There was one especially, a black cat that loved to eat and drink sake.  That was the one for me. I’m not sure of the name but he’s supposed to represent one of the local warlords. In any case, Hiko-nyan’s on the left here and below are black-cat-warlord-nyan, Nara’s mascot, and randomly Gunma-chan the horse from Gunma prefecture because he’s cute as well.

Besides the cats, I shopped for real souvenirs for my friends that asked for them aka a bottle of plum liqueur for Aiko and some Hiko-nyan cookies for the clarinet section :3 I also got to try 近江牛 which is beef raised in this region and is supposed to be one of the 日本三大和牛 or “Japan’s three great beef…s.” One of them is of course Kobe beef which I have already had and now I had gyuudon with this type which was not as succulent as Kobe’s but still very high grade, almost sweet with a very smooth texture.

After my stint at the castle, it was time to head to Kusatsu again. The way back was more pleasant and seemed shorter because I didn’t stop to hike a mountain on the way and I was also able to set landmarks like: “I’ll stop and eat a banana when I get to Chomeiji, or that 7-11 by the crossroads, or the pooping fields.”

Oh yeah. The pooping fields. Most of Shiga is agricultural and as such there is lots of manure everywhere. Even on some of the bike path. One part was just strewn with sun-dried fertilizer and it was hell trying to get around everything. This section I affectionately called “the pooping fields.” And it was shortly thereafter that I ate my banana.

When I reached Kusatsu station to return my bike I got on the train not only with severely ravaged leg muscles, but also a greater appreciation for distance runners, fully inflated tires, and well-paved roads.

Also, I’ll think twice about not wanting to visit places that I think are in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes they turn out to be wildly photogenic. Thanks, 滋賀県.


As an appendix to this entry here is some unrelated news.

– Shotaro invited me to go drink at Takashi’s with some other band guys. I love our little gatherings like that. Especially when they include Misaki-kun and his Nintendo 64 with Super Smash. Things got a little heated and then Takashi’s neighbors came by and yelled really scarily at him for being noisy. That’s when I came to the conclusion that people angry in Japanese are so much scarier than people angry in English [as far as my experience goes]. But then we got over it and went back to playing Smash.


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