I LEARNED physics in Shimanami Kaido. A famous destination for foreign and local cyclists in Onomichi, this two-day cycling route deflated my fit ego and weakened my unprepared knees.
From the very start, I had a hard time choosing the right bicycle for myself: there is the lady bike, an electric bike for the unprepared, and the typical manly mountain bike. After several changes of mind, I settled for an alloy foldable bike, similar to what I had in Cebu, though I knew I should have picked the electric bike. But unlike the rowdy Bisdak, my stubbornness could not be tucked in completely.
The uphill was unforgiving on my knees. It was the second day of my period. There were three islands to pedal through. I was the last in the pack.
I struggled. I panted. I sweated.
Unable to bare the sight of my idiotic struggle, Hide-san, the designated tail of the trail, advised that I should position the shifter to 1 if we were on an uphill battle and, 5 if the terrain was flat.
For a slow city like Onomichi, cyclists—some in their 50s or older—overtook me and pedaled on until they disappeared at the curve.
My feet found reasons to take a break from pedaling. To our right was the bay adorned with outcrops in their autumnal splendor. Leeks, carrots, and other produce accented the fields to our left. Orchards of hassaku, little seedless oranges Onomichi is known for, punctuated the fields that thrived in this saline season.
Hide-san covered his eyes, comical as he was, pretending he did not see me stopping once again to gaze a bit longer at the things around us. Our companions blazed on.
Pedaling through Mukaishima, Innoshima, and Ikuchijima—three islands out of the six-island cycling route—was relaxing in most parts and taxing in some.
Cycling this part of Hiroshima became a summary of sorts on how the locals lived their lives in the countryside.
I remember Tomoko Sato from Saitama, a student in her 60s, who taught yoga and walked around with a pedometer attached to her waistband and would never go to bed unless she reached 10,000 steps a day.
We would start our Skype lessons with her narrating how her day went. Sometimes she would show up by my computer monitor, catching her breath.
“I took a walk outside with our dog,” she would say between breaths.
Old age, for most Japanese, is never a reason to be sedentary. Sometimes this principle is rather stubborn. More than once, I found myself staring at the old people of Onomichi about to ride their bicycles. Could they make it? Or would they topple down from the sheer effort of pedaling on? Their deliberate slowness, which is understandable for their age, made me think of a bicycle that badly needs oiling.
But more than once, they proved themselves to be more than capable. In their autumnal attire, they mounted their bicycles with a basket in front and went off, leaving me amazed at their willful stubbornness.
An old woman passed by and gestured if we wanted her to take our photo. We were in the port below our hotel. I returned her warm smile and said it was okay, we were about to be done. She continued her way to the ferry, still smiling. Our smiles, I hope, conveyed the sweet message our contradicting languages failed to do.
I was not prepared for such a warm greeting. Especially on our first morning. Feeling embarrassed about my own prejudices against Japan, I kept reminding myself that this was not Tokyo.
Or even Tokyo itself, I would like to believe, had parcels of warmth tucked somewhere.
A place has no singular face.
Coldness, like winter over Hokkaido, can be as real, yet as scarce a character trait among the Japanese. Coldness cannot be equated with busyness.
“Tokyoites are very busy. Always work, work, work,” my students, mostly businessmen and working moms, sometimes commented. One time, a Japanese businessman took his English class over Skype while walking the busy streets of Tokyo. To make the class entertaining, he videoed the scenes before him: men wearing the same tailored black suits walking in haste.
Everyone rushed towards their destinations. Shibuya Crossing was the metaphor I had in my head. Even my young students, aged six to ten, had a scheduled life: wake up at five, study, prepare for school, go to Kumon, do homework, have dinner, attend an English lesson on Skype, take a bath, and go to bed.
The Japanese have a special word for death by overwork: karoshi, a word my Tokyoite contacts knew all too well.
Tokyo, through the Skype lens, was too hurried, like a photo of a busy street in 1/8 shutter speed. But this megacity’s busyness could not be felt here in Onomichi.
Even the energetic Hondori Shopping district did not have the bad vibes, did not have the paralyzing restlessness found in big cities. Like a river taking its time to flow downstream, the local shoppers, be it walking or riding their bicycles, take their time to look at the yellowing of the leaves, at the so-called unessential. And this is how Onomichi got me.
Most shops looked like places run by artistic homemakers, like they cared more about their shops’ look than at how much they earned at the end of the day. Succulents in tin cans in a wooden DIY shelf. Rows of potted plants, some in their autumnal fervor. Candles, dried herbs hung upside down in a café. Two potted trees—one was a tamarind and another I could not recognize—made a barbershop look like someone’s posh living room.
At Sobako, a soba restaurant, four Leica cameras were hung next to the kitchen door. Black-and-white photographs of the locals attending to their everyday lives adorned the walls.
One particular photograph captured the morning light casting a shadow on the little alley leading to the bay. Who took these photos, I wondered.
The two owners of the soba restaurant emerged from the kitchen to ask us about our buckwheat noodle dinner. Each held a camera. My question was answered right away. The owners, the cooks themselves, moonlighted as photographers, documenting the lives of their little city.
For someone who sought energy from creative individuals, the people in Onomichi became an inspiration. Creativity is the core value of their work.
It was the back alleys photographed by the Sobako owners that made me see Japan in an entirely different light—the early morning kind of light: soft and kind.
One morning, I approached an old man angling by the bay. His dog, a dachshund, curled up by his feet. Like him, the dog was calm and did not mind me, a stranger, petting him. Like the old woman by the jetty, the old man gave a soft smile, never uttered a word, and continued with attending to his line.
Not far, by Toshio Yodoi’s Beach sculpture were five grandpas chatting while looking after a toddler who was so amazed by the marigolds blooming in the little garden below the sculpture. Across the street, a woman bought a loaf of bread in a little bakery and rode her bicycle, her gaze fixed in front.
In front of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, old locals ran a bazaar of used clothes and snacks. The air had the faint smell of fried sweet potato. A yacht’s machine hummed nearby.
Everyone, the way I felt and saw them, was wrapped in their own comfortable silences. For the restless, it made me wonder, how did they achieve such?
The elaborate tea ceremony and zazen (seated meditation) we tried in Senkoji Temple might explain this relaxing, elaborate slowness of everything.
Our last day in Onomichi had the chaos and ruckus of goodbyes. As our multicultural team exchanged hugs on the boardwalk facing the bay, a woman in her 60s sat alone on the bench, a notebook laid open on the table in front of her. She remained oblivious of the loudness around her.
Her gaze was fixed, her right hand busy sketching the bay before her.
As the bus was slowly roused to movement, I kept looking at her, thinking silence, the internal kind, is the most sought-after, yet the hardest to achieve.
*Jona Branzuela Bering is from Cebu, Philippines. When she is not traveling, she gardens, teaches, and becomes the slave to four cats. She is preparing for her year-long trip abroad this December. Follow her travels on Instagram @backpackingwithabook, her blog Backpacking with a Book or BWAB’s Facebook page.