We’d just started walking our bikes toward a tunnel under the Kanmon straight to Kyushu when she appeared, overflowing with enthusiasm and kindness but speaking rapid excited Japanese without any miming or English. We showed our introduction letter but she couldn’t read well without her glasses. She said, ‘Africa! Europe!’ while reading it, and moments later was running across the road and straight inside the ticket attendant’s both for the tunnel. We decided that she either had cycled in Europe and Africa herself or was crazy. We crossed the road too and figured we’d see what she was on about. She came out of the ticket attendant’s booth just as excited as she went it. We stood with our bikes as she waited impatiently, smiling back warmly to us every few minutes and scanning the parking lot and road looking for someone or something.
She wasn’t crazy and she hadn’t cycled in Africa or Europe. Her son Ryoo arrived and it all made sense. He got back from a tour starting in northern Norway to the Cape of Good Hope a couple months ago. We took a couple photos and raced off to his house. Ryoo’s story, the guy he is, his family, how they treated us, their amazing home, that whole afternoon-evening-morning, right to saying goodbye made a enormous impact on us. It will stand out years from now, I’m sure it’ll be the thing I talk about most from this time in Japan. The effect of his family’s generosity, not just of giving us food and a place to stay but their total acceptance of us, how easy they were to laugh about anything, it was almost too much to absorb. We rode away feeling unbalanced and needing a long nap. I could ramble for a hours about how funny and cool they all were but I don’t want to overgush and drown it under too many words.
We arrived at his parents place in the mountains but I didn’t realise why we’d stopped. The car was parked on the side of the road next to a hedge. We unloaded the car and I saw Ryoo’s mum slip through a small space in the roadside hedge like she had gone into platform nine and three quarters. We walked after her into a shady forest garden and met his father and sister who both made us welcome and showed us inside. I hadn’t noticed through the windows but when I looked up after taking my shoes off I was in a cabin library. Row after row of floor to ceiling books, I couldn’t see rooms, just books and shelves. I just walked through the rows in awe for a while. The living room was a space to the right of the last bookshelf and the kitchen was to the left. I’ve never been in a house as close to what I fantasize living in as that. They let us have a bath in the cauldron outside before dinner. It was down a pathway through the bushes in the dark, a small old gas lantern lighting it up enough to see the steps up to the wooden platform. There was a small wood stove under the huge pot blazing away, glowing intensely underneath. I did the Onsen squat scrub in the cool air and gingerly lowered myself into the steaming hot cast iron cauldron. My mind went to mush like my bones and I drifted away into a peaceful, happy blur.
Ryoo asked us in his soft, patient voice, why we both wanted to cycle around the world as we were winding back down out of the mountains the next morning from his parents place back toward the tunnel where we had met his mother. After he listened to our lightweight answers we asked him the same question. His family has always been poor, old clothes and shoes, no TV, no computer, no big vacations, but always surrounded by books (the house is more library than living space). His mother, Setuko, and father, Tokihiko, love reading about other cultures and countries, they have a whole wall worth of travel writing, atlases, books about cities and countries all over the world, but they never had the money to travel abroad. Ryoo grew up with his Mum and Dad talking about other places and reading about them and staring at pictures in National Geographic and then his family bought him a new bicycle one year and the dream was born. More than a decade later he’d saved enough money, got on a plane with his bike and eventually landed in Alaska and rode all the way to Chile. I’ve been thinking about doing our trip for 3-4 years and it seems like a lifetime, and here’s Ryoo dreaming of it from boyhood to his early 20s, taking years to do it, interviewing survivors of genocide and prisoners, telling their stories to an audience in Japan that would never hear those personal perspectives otherwise.
It’s hard to describe Ryoo. Read what you can from the photo but there’s so much more that comes out when he starts speaking and after meeting his family. He told us about training to swim from Japan to Korea, how his knee injury was too bad to swim that far but how he’d swim for hours at a time anyway, how his injuries had changed the way he thought about his body, how he noticed the pain while cycling or swimming, how that made his perspective of himself altered, and how it had made him grow. He spoke like that occasionally and just knocked my mind over. He talked about his other dreams with a purity and simplicity that was like a child who’d been reincarnated, who’d lived 10 times already, and had scrubbed all the bullshit and distraction off but hadn’t developed any superiority. He got back in June after 3 years doing Norway to South Africa. He’s waiting to do his last leg, Asia-Oceana, in retirement, before that he’s getting a job and starting the helping children part of his life/dream.
As inspiring as Ryoo was and how relatable and encouraging his experiences were, his family had just as much affect on me. In his youth, Ryoo’s Dad, Tokihiko would hike in the Japanese Alps for weeks without coming down into towns, carrying all the food he needed on his back and getting fresh water from streams. He was a born adventurer. We saw the photo book Ryoo made for his 60th birthday, pictures of him from first day of school, to a hiking superman, to the guy infront of us that evening, warm smile, grey beard, and the same tiny jean shorts. Tokihiko had a lot of happy gravity. He was always chuckling and smiling and nodding. It was easy to see his lightness and curiosity had spread through the rest of the family. Shuri, Ryoo’s sister, had the same easiness and humour with her own distinct strength. She was home for a couple months after 2 years working as a nurse and midwife in Benin and was heading back to live there permanently. She spoke French with a beautiful accent. While I’m writing this it seems like they might come off as smarmy, over-nice Japanese versions of Flanderian do-gooders, so kind and nice that it’s creepy; believe me when I say they weren’t. They were kind and happy and cool.
Setuko only slightly dialled down her excitement from when we first met her to when we said goodbye. Because so many people had helped her son while he’d been cycling for years she was ready for this moment to repay some of all those strangers help. She was in her element. In the supermarket buying dinner we tried to buy beers as a way of saying thank you but she made it clear that what she wanted from us was to pass on kindness and generosity to someone else, not to her or her family. We broke the rule a little bit when we gave them one of the embroidered maps we’ve been making. She was in tears over breakfast while we were explaining through Ryoo how happy we were to meet them and how thankful we were.
I don’t know how to stop writing about them. The Nishino family were incredible.
Our interactions changed after that night. I guess we opened up to people more because ever since strangers have been going out of their way to help us and talk with us. We had an elderly couple track us down to ask if we wanted a shower, more and more food handed over to us during the days, and meeting more cool whiteys on tour. We met a swiss couple who showered us with Korean maps and tips, and a cool Texan couple that we’re trying to convince to get bikes and ride with us.