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Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008

Avoiding flat tires


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
JAPAN: 6,000 Miles on a Bicycle, by Leigh Norrie. Printed Matter Press, 2008, 229 pp., ¥2,000 (paper)

The worst account of a bicycle trip ever written about must surely be Bernard Magnouloux's "Travels with Rosinante," a five-year, 199-puncture journey around the world, in which the author struggled more with the language of his account than the traumas of Himalayan passes, muggings in Mexico and military dictatorships.

And the best cycle book? That would be Dervla Murphy's magisterial "Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi by Bicycle," an account of her 1962 journey through a world of vanishing tire tracks, political chaos, and moments of unexpected kindnesses. It was a journey that maturated over a two-decade period: "On my tenth birthday," the book begins, "a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India." Several books later, including the cycle tour described in "One Foot in Laos," she remains at the top of her form.

Leigh Norrie's book, an account of a 6,000-mile journey across far better surfaced roads than those undertaken by Murphy, is closer to Josie Dew's 1999 "A Ride in the Neon Sun," though this newer offering is less travel book than blog. Here itinerary subsumes place. A typical entry reads, "Got to Sendai about four thirty. Had a look around a huge park next to a lake. Found a place to sleep under a bridge and went into the city centre. Seemed like a fun, busy metropolis. Took a quick look around and back to the park." That's it for Sendai, off now to Matsushima.

When Murphy traveled through Eastern Europe and Central Asia she carried a pistol to defend herself against wolves. Norrie's journey is a little tamer, the writer carrying nothing more lethal than a cell phone to call his girlfriend. Unless you count reckless truck drivers and claustrophobic tunnels as life threatening, cycling in Japan is not quite like crossing the Empty Quarter or negotiating the Darian Gap.

Norrie is not a seasoned cyclist. At the outset of the journey, he admits to not knowing a "derailleur from a crankshaft." This makes his account more appealing. We do expect our travelers after all, even the monumentally scholarly ones like Richard Burton and Colin Thubron, to be partially unprepared for the new worlds they meet.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that the great affair was not to travel but just to move, to "feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly, to come down off the feather-bed of civilization and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints." Coming down off the "feather-bed of civilization" is clearly not that simple. Sleep is a recurring problem for Norrie, who has a tent but prefers his creature comforts. As he discovers though, the welcome sign, particularly if you are a foreigner materializing out of the dark, is not always hanging at the entrance to guesthouses and inns in Japan.

The simplicity and monotony of the road, mistaken for real depravation, induces fantasies in the author, the desire for "an oasis of luxurious hot springs in different colours with champagne trickling down the mountain side and into my mouth as nubile vixens massaged my tired joints and nether regions."

There are shocks for anyone thinking of traveling into heartland Japan, where nature has been ravished and left indecently uncovered. Winding through the electric pylons, tetrapods and garbage dumps in high summer, Norrie spends the "early hours of the morning drinking green slush," resting briefly "to watch the waves crash into the filthy beach."

Norrie is not an infallible traveler, but by the end of his journey you come to trust his firsthand judgment. And you admire his feat of having cycled to Cape Soya, Japan's northernmost extremity, and then take his bike all the way down to Okinawa. You'll have to pedal fast to keep up with this brisk account.

The wheels turn. Spokes blur. Japan rushes by.



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