When writer Chris Pady decides to slip away for a few hours on a friend's bicycle while vacationing with his wife and kids in Kaoshiung, Taiwan, he discovers the Ai He (Love RIiver) path. What begins as a hot and steamy fling in the form of daily cycling escapes, ends with knowing Kaoshiung a little better. And the best part: No guilt.
Since childhood, everything about Japan has enthralled me: food, traditional clothing, bonsai trees, ikebana floral arrangements and, of course, the people themselves. The poster in the window showed verdant, bucolic rice paddies being tended by women in traditional bonnets and straw hats. For dramatic relief, a snowcapped mountain hung in the background and the caption promised that I would “See the real Japan. Become immersed in the mysterious Orient by cycling the back roads of rural Shikoku – an island that outsiders rarely visit.”
It took about a nanosecond for me to walk into the travel agency and pay a deposit.
A few months later, in the baggage claim area of the Tokyo airport, a man met the luggage as it tumbled onto the carousel. Carefully setting suitcases upright, he snapped the tired handles to attention, briskly swished each piece with a white cloth, and then released it to rumble properly along, seeking its owner. He wore white gloves.
As my soft turquoise pack thumped limply to the bottom of the ramp, it exuded a cloud of Indonesian dust. The luggage man yanked it upright, but the bag sagged forward, weighted by its overstuffed outside pockets. He set it up again quickly and as he turned his attention to the oncoming pieces, mine slid onto its back with a slightly inebriated air. Threading my way through the crowds to claim it, I could see him do a double take; the horizontal piece must have offended his sense of alignment. He sprang into double time, sprinting along the carousel edge to catch up to the limpid piece. Jerking it up sharply and with a stern little shake, he wedged it upright between two stoic suitcases standing on their own. As I pushed my way through the throng, I saw him look down at his white gloves and, with compressed lips, clap them together to get rid of the dust. When he saw me, however, (and for some reason he immediately identified me as the owner) his face smoothed over and he gave a low, dignified bow, which I’m sure, in his mind, I ill-deserved for having such badly behaved luggage.
Had I known at the time, I would have recognized that this one incident told me much about the Japanese psyche.
words + photos by Janet Schneider
On a recent 20-mile bike ride along Torch Lake Drive in Northern Michigan, I expected to see beautiful views of what National Geographic has called “the third most beautiful lake in the world.” However, from the road, I saw very little of the lake. Most of the houses were also concealed from sight. Instead, I noticed the wooden signs sprouting at the end of driveways like mushrooms, or attached to mailboxes like antlers.
These signs contained not only the homeowners’ but their properties’ names as well. Similar to the language found on boats, these often were terms of endearment or hopeful expressions of escape, fun and abandonment. While admiring these intricately decorated signs, I speculated about the inhabitants’ lake lives and recalled my own memories of lakeside cabin life.
From my bike height perspective, I was in the perfect position to focus on these owner-selected symbols of lake activity. It was clear from the choices made about their signs: shapes, materials, colors, font styles, and images, owners took tremendous pride in these homes. These signs were primarily made of wood, engraved with colorful scenes of lakes and their wildlife including birds such as loons, herons, or eagles. I cycled by painted images of natural settings with sand, plantings, the sky, and the sun. I slowed down at one memorable sign, an enlarged photograph of a golden sunset over a lake.
It is common for Southeast Michigan residents to own a cabin “Up North.” Many of these have been passed down and bring to mind happy inter-generational family memories. Families travel to these special places on weekends throughout the year and in the summer. They only differ by size, location (lake access the most treasured), and amenities such as a dock, deck, screened-in porch, or remodeled kitchen.
It was a perfect day for cycling – 70 degrees and overcast in late afternoon.