I reached Tokyo a few days ago, and just as happened when I arrived in Hong Kong, I was slapped in the face by a tidal wave of homesickness and nostalgia. Japan is not the slick agglomeration of plastic and neon that stereotype had led me to believe – in fact, parts of it feel very much like England, not least the rhythms of the traffic, which I notice and respond to as most people will appraise the quality of the air or the taste of the water.
They drive on the left in Japan, and it was a distressing sign of how long I’d been away from home that I took a day or two to get used to this again. The drivers follow the rules – unlike in South Korea, where a red light is treated more as a guideline than a prohibition – and are used to seeing cyclists on the road. For a few days, constrained by the deadline of my friends’ flight home, we followed boring urban highways between the ocean and the mountains, and I was reminded of Day 3 of my trip, when I followed the (utterly uninspiring) A4 between Bristol and London. Kate and Jen grumbled resignedly about the endless traffic lights and the lack of scenery, but I found myself surprisingly contented, as in love with the road when it’s at its worst as when it’s at its most beautiful and seductive. I rediscovered the thrill and satisfaction of wending my way through slow and stationary traffic, and of handing over control to my sixth sense, no longer worrying about the proximity of trucks and buses, because my instincts know far better than I do how to avoid them.
With a day’s ride to go till the capital, Kate and Jen put their bikes on the bullet train, keener to gain an extra day of shopping and sightseeing than to spend another 100km plodding through one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. They didn’t miss much. But as I drew closer to the bright lights and busy intersections of central Tokyo, even though I was shaking with exhaustion, I found myself growing more and more excited. The traffic thickened, and more than ever before on this ride, I felt that I was back in central London. My riding style changed, and I found I was throwing my heavy, ponderous tourer around the same way I used to ride my skinny inner-city fixie, steering from the hips and waist, flicking the bike back and forth between the lanes of traffic, cornering so tightly at times that I knew I was in danger of overbalancing entirely. My excitement was tempered with a calm, glowing, comfortable sense of familiarity, of coming home.
I spotted the first cycle couriers I’d seen since Ljubljana and Salzburg, more than a year ago. As I waited at a junction on my way into Shibuya, a lean and unmistakable silhouette flashed past me and my heart clenched with recognition. A minute or two later I saw another, resting astride her bike, one hand on the bars, one hand on the button, head cocked towards the radio, oversized bag like a turtle’s shell strapped to her back and I was surprised to feel tears coming into my eyes. Visually, this courier was so familiar that it was as if I’d spotted one of my brothers or sisters across a crowded room in a foreign country. But I also knew her posture intimately from the inside. I must have stood like that thousands of times, left foot on the ground, right foot on the pedal, top tube pressing against my inner thigh, giving the radio a nonchalant squeeze and muttering “one-four, one-four … roger-rodge” before swinging the weight back onto my right foot, pressing the bike back into motion and swooping off into the traffic. I was crying as much in recognition as with a sudden heartstopping urge to be back as I was, as perhaps one day I will be again.
Further down the road I passed another courier, standing next to his bike, package in one hand, cigarette in the other, mindlessly scanning the traffic. Another was waiting for me at the next lights, and I admired the taut muscular calves emerging from his ragged shorts, before I pulled up next to him to ask for directions, managing to drop in just before the lights changed that I had been a courier myself, more than a year ago now, in a city far far away.
Tokyo has welcomed me with open arms, and I already have enough speaking engagements, dinner plans, coffee dates, bike rides, errands and meet-ups with friendly friends-of-friends to keep me busy for at least another couple of weeks. I’m hoping to borrow or rent a track bike for a few days (to indulge my homesickness even more), and my host is even insisting that I stay long enough to catsit for her over Christmas and New Year. And as well as all of this, I’m well aware of the enormous blogging backlog I’ve built up, and am in danger of becoming one of those bloggers who prefaces every post with an apology for being too busy, and not writing more often. So I’ll attempt to spend the next few days remedying this. An awful lot has happened since I flew to Hong Kong – watch this space, and I’ll tell you all about it.