Sunday, May 16, 2010

Himeji Riiiiide

A look back at a wonderful day.

I wrote this for the Hyogo Times (of which I am becoming Junior Editor!) although I need to pare it down. I figured the full version could be for you all.


When I arrived in Japan, it was like college all over again. I was entering a new world, a world in which I did not yet have a life, so I threw my e-mail address at any and every list that sounded even remotely like something I would want to do at some point during my tenure. I'd heard the stories and I was determined not to suffer the indignity of not having enough to do.

Of course, after a while, things picked up, my job became involved, and I even made friends; in short, I got a life, which was bound to happen but which also cannot be rushed. Once I had 'a life,' I was still on everyone's mailing list, though, and occasionally, if work were slow, I would spend a few minutes quickly reviewing what activities and events were on offer. No, I would think, that's the weekend of Cat's birthday… no, that's all the way out in Tokyo. No, this one happened last week… In this way I absolved myself of the guilt I would otherwise bear picturing how crushingly disappointed these groups must have been at my absence.

I came upon an e-mail with did not include a date nor a location, but which did include the words "Hyogo," "bike," and "PEPY."

PEPY is an organization about which I knew a little bit. I'd seen their displays at some JET things (like orientation-- which is probably how I got that e-mail in the first place), but I'd read more about them while trying to educate myself about Cambodia and land mines. This is a topic in the middle-school English book, of course, and as such, I (the World Citizen) was going to give a knowledgeable summary of it to the rapt audience of my 2nd grade classroom.

There were two things I really liked about PEPY. The first was what I will call their 'attention to detail.' The organization is all about educating kids in Cambodia. But instead of just building schools and training teachers (which are admittedly important and which they also do), they also look into all these other factors that affect kids' ability to go to school and learn there. I remember reading about a water filter program that they implemented in villages which, once in practice, increased kids' attendance in school. They were getting sick less and going to school more. PEPY also has a program to give bicycles to older students to encourage them to continue on to high school; with a means of transportation, they are better equipped to get there. PEPY pays attention to how things work "on the ground."

The other thing that caught my attention was the PEPY tour. There are several different tours, but the basic idea is you travel around Cambodia in such a way as to be ecologically low-impact (so, you spend some time on a bike, for example) while seeing more than just the tourist attractions offered by the area. You can even do overnight homestays in village homes. This appealed to me simply because, while I love me some touristy stuff, I also like the feeling of getting a little off the main path, exploring what is 'real' about a place. PEPY tours are reasonably priced and come with a required donation; you're going to learn something, travel, and do something good. Win, win, win.

I sent an e-mail inquiring about time and location, partly because I was interested and I like PEPY, partly because I wanted to know if this would go gentle off my events radar. And hey, I liked bikes. I had one that I used to get to the bus stop sometimes, and I'd had one as a kid. I'd even had one in Nashville, for college! So what if I didn't ride my current piece further than the post office in my little inaka town? I could dismiss the event if it turned out to be a 100-km hill climb!

I more or less expected to hear any of the details and dismiss the event, though there was some chance that it would all line up with my schedule and ability level and allow me to participate.

What I did not expect was to be offered the opportunity to organize and plan the event myself. I wanted to, really, but I didn't know anything about bikes, or routes. My first mental image was a bunch of JETs cycling around my train-stationless town. Where are we gonna rent bikes here? I wondered.

The previous year's ride had been in Himeji, though, which was comforting in one respect (I know it can be done there) and difficult in another (what do I know about Himeji?). Providence had it in for me: I had recently made the acquaintance of Illustrator JET. Illustrator knows about bikes AND teaches in Himeji.

I wanted to plan a bike ride that would suit me. I figured, if we made something I could do, then anyone could do it. I also figured, in case no one else showed up to the event, I would at least have a fun and challenging day of biking. I also wanted to follow PEPY's tour example by making it a sort of tourist trip of less-well-known Himeji attractions. He knew Himeji's roads and attractions. He'd been on the previous year's bike trip and immediately was providing recollections and suggestions. We met one afternoon and plotted a route. He showed me which of the major roads had better sidewalks, and how there is a no-motor-vehicle-access path along parts of the Yumesaki River.

The rest is, as they say, history. April 17th was the day of the ride, and the weather was perfect. The cherry blossoms were in their late phase, which meant we got to ride through pale-pink blizzards. We visited a shrine near Himeji-jo, then rode around the castle to pick up the road headed toward the river. We stopped for lunch on the riverbank where we had bento contest winners (criteria: healthy and eco-friendly). We followed the river northward to Mount Shosha, where we enjoyed Temple Engyoji for a while before heading back down. A quick stop at my eikaiwa student's taiyaki shop, and we headed back into the city to conclude our trip with a visit to Tegarayama Park and the "dark castle" contained there. The park also offers a view of the soon-to-be-wrapped Himeji-jo! A few stragglers stuck around for milk ramen closer to the station.

The group was excellent, and ranged from serious bikers to people who hadn't even hopped astride one since they were kids. Everyone was energetic without being pushy.

Each participant was required to donate at least 2000 yen, which they could procure in any way they liked (it was a kind of don't-ask/don't-tell situation, you see), and beyond that the costs of the ride were 300 for the bike rental, 500 for entrance to Engyoji, and 900 for the ropeway up to the top of Shosha; these three were each optional in their own ways. We had a total of 17 participants, although some joined us later and a few ducked out early. We covered about 25 kilometers. All in all, the day was actually rather perfect.

Long term effects include the furikomi of 40,000 yen to PEPY, and my personal decision to invest in a bike not entirely made of rust. I hope that others who enjoyed the ride were positively impacted as well.

And for all those who missed out on the ride (I mean, you might have gone to Yoshino that day, or something)… keep an ear out for future PEPY bike events! The next might be in Himeji… or maybe not. Stay tuned.

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