When I lived in London, for two years I commuted to work by bicycle, but the distance was probably no more than about a kilometre and it took less than ten minutes one way. The bicycle that I used at the time was, I believe, a 12-speed cross bike on which only one of the gears actually functioned. This was partly because I was not serious about cycling, so didn’t want to spend money on something more sophisticated, and partly because in London, your bike is likely to be stolen.
When I came to Japan and moved away from Tokyo with the Mariposa – about which I have written at great length in my forthcoming book Charinko – I tried to cycle to the various schools where I worked at least three or four times a week, and this proved to be good training for when I embarked on the tour about which the book is written.
Fast forward to 2011, when Mrs M and myself returned to Japan after a few years in the UK, and I was even more serious about cycling. For the next three or four years I cycled to and from work at distances of up to 11 or 12 kilometres almost every working day of the year. At the time we only had one car and particularly once M Jr was born, Mrs M used it to take her to nursery and go shopping. So I would cycle to work no matter what the weather was like. In the snow I slipped and fell – not seriously and not surprisingly.
On another occasion, a typhoon was approaching Ibaraki and I cycled home from work not quite in the eye of the storm, but in very heavy rain and very strong winds.
In those days I didn’t care that much about how clean I kept my bicycle or how well the gears worked. I merely applied more oil to the chain and sprockets once every few months, and when they stopped working properly, I left the bike with a scrap merchant. In around 2015 I was fortunate enough to acquire another one from Mrs M’s older brother and that was when I began using a trip computer.
I have to admit that I took the whole business of how much time it took me to get to a particular school far too seriously. But it gave me something to concentrate on other than looking at the scenery and thinking about what I may have to do that day, and over the years I improved my fastest times to those schools little by little, so that on a good day with a following wind, I was covering nine or ten kilometres in about 20 minutes.
One of the closest schools to where I live usually took 12 or 13 minutes to reach. One morning I woke up, looked at the weather forecast, looked outside, and realised that today might be the day when I could break the ten-minute barrier. So I got on my bike, cycled away as fast as I could, and about a quarter of the way there, for the first and only time in my entire life, one of the saddlebags got caught in the spokes on the rear wheel. I never did break the ten-minute barrier for that particular school, much to my chagrin.
Over the years I found more obscure routes, mainly to avoid traffic lights, but also to avoid traffic and to find more attractive scenery. So I rarely came across other vehicles, people, or cyclists. I did occasionally get angry if a car passed by a little too close to me when it overtook or came towards me from the opposite direction. On one particular occasion I turned round, chased after the offending motorist, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should give fellow road users more than about a centimetre of space. Perversely, I enjoyed cycling in the pouring rain or in the hot and humid summer months. The only real hardships were when there was a headwind or when I had trouble with the bike. Having said that, even cycling 15 or 20 kilometres, four or five times a week for several years, I had an average of about one puncture per year.
In the final one or two years of working as an ALT, I kept myself company by putting my smartphone in my handlebar bag and listening to podcasts, NHK news, and so on. It’s now been just over six months since I quit that job and apart from human interaction – which is something that I’m sorely lacking now that I work from home – the only other thing that I really miss is the commute. In fact, you could almost say that I became one of those people who enjoys their commute more than the work itself. And while I did drive more often in recent years to avoid getting soaking wet or freezing cold, I still looked forward to my morning and afternoon rides more than I looked forward to my daytime teaching responsibilities.
At some point in the future, I may decide to rent or borrow some kind of office space from which to conduct my translating work and when that happens, no doubt I will cycle there and back. But for the moment, on some days the only exercise that I get is standing up to use my computer rather than sitting down – as a distinctly middle-aged member of society, I have to take more care than I used to about things like my lower back.