Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Riding into the New Year

Readers of BEnB will no doubt know that it is lead by members of Tokyo metalers Retch. To ring in the New Year, two of us heathens biked our way up to Utsunomiya. As a newer contributor to this blog, it seems fitting that my inaugural post recount this recent New Year's trip.

Initially, the trip was being planned with trains in mind, but we ran into a problem at pretty much every turn - money. Sometimes though, these kind of limitations work out for the best. I thought, although it's chilly outside, maybe we could brave it and bike to our destination to save some cash. The both of us bike daily, but neither of us had ever biked very long distances before in Japan, so this was to be a true pilot case. Once we committed to the ride, we proceeded to map out routes to our destinations mostly based on distance and terrain. For these reasons, we switched from riding the mountainous path south to Shizuoka in favor of the relatively even terrain between Tokyo and Utsunomiya, just a bit north in Tochigi Prefecture. Much of the trip and it's purpose was the biking itself, but we wanted to to have time after the ride to relax and explore the city we were stopping at. We decided to split the distance over 4 days of riding. Koga City, in Ibaraki Prefecture, was to be our first stop of the ride.

Nursing mild hangovers, we woke at a reasonable hour, ate breakfast, and made our way out of Tokyo. We planned to bike by the light of day and use the midday heat of the sun to keep warm, so leaving later than a seasoned roadie would be inclined to suited us vacationing booze hounds just fine. The plan was to check into our hotel in Koga by sundown.

Heading north from Shinjuku we rode the well-worn Tokyo streets until we hit the city limits. From there, we relied on our phones' GPS to navigate through the Saitama Prefecture countryside. We discovered soon enough that Google Maps' walking directions don't go out of their way to tell you when you're about to muck through a mud road in the middle of a rice field, but for the most part it got the job done. At the busier junctions, the Japanese highway systems resembled an unkept knot of power cables stuffed absentmindedly under an office desk, complete with the perennial favorite - six-way (or more) intersections. Still, just after the sun went down, we checked into our hotel, fed ourselves at a kaitenzushi restaurant, and looked for any signs of nightlife in Koga.

A helpful cabbie pointed us in the direction of the local bars and clubs. He laughed at the idea of driving us what was certainly less than 10 minutes on foot, but obliged nonetheless. After being denied at clubs with a no foreigner policy (seriously, talking small town here), we found a few bars on a small dead end street. Looking at a half dozen doors that appeared to be open for business, we chose the one with the most noise coming from inside. It turned out to be, you guessed it, a small karaoke bar.

Situating ourselves at the bar, we hatched a plan. "Ok, so we'll wait until we're a couple drinks in, then win them over with a little karaoke" but before we could even finish our first drink, the other patrons started requesting the songs we were thinking of, and we almost immediately got invited to sing along. After an ice breaker like that, everyone was quite friendly and asked us to join their table. Noting we were dressed in black and had long hair, they asked to hear the real deal. Already a few drinks in at this point and all inhibitions shed, we did a wailing version of "Hit the Lights," "Ace of Spades," and a blur of other odes to nostalgia. After taking our seemingly bottomless ryokuchahais  (really, the waitresses were on our pint glasses like hawks) and several sloshed performances, we returned to our hotel to turn in for the night.

Rising for a sub-par hotel breakfast (of course), we hit the road to Utsunomiya by 10:00AM. The order of the day was getting some tunes going. We hooked up a speaker to one of our phone docks and thrashed out the bulk of the ride with some Toxic Holocaust and... I forget what else, Cianide? After a day of riding yet again through numerous muddy rice field roads, and our destination still a handful of kilometers away, I spotted a Yamaya. We picked out a few nice brews and a suitable parking lot and began the New Years Eve pre-game with some jams from Tokyo Black Thrash perverts, Abigail.

Checking into our hotel before the early winter dusk, we finished off the rest of our beers and contacted a friend who lives in the area, the drummer for the Tokyo-based Black Metal adepts Funeral Sutra. Seeing as how the city is famous for gyoza, we found a local spot and met him there. By the time he showed up, we were already pretty hammered and so, in a relatively natural progression, the conversation turned towards the underlying meaning of Black Metal. We chatted for a bit, and after our friend left to tend to his New Year plans with family, we regrouped at our hotel. Exhausted, we lay down for a minute to think of what to do to celebrate NYE. When we woke, it was 3am. Oh well, not the first time that's happened.

New Year's Day hotel breakfast turned out to be a heavier assault on the taste buds than the previous. Either they were dealing with a crippling budget, or they were simply not good cooks. The only nutrition we were able get was several glasses of tomato juice. Adding to the fun, that morning the key to one of our bike locks decided to break. Amazingly, it wasn't too hard to pick up a new one, and we were on the road again by 11:00.

The ride to Tsuchiura was quite enjoyable and we even found a bike path that went on for quite some time; a lot of nice rural farmland and fresh air to take in that day. When our malnourished bodies started to talk to us, hunting for food on New Year's Day proved to be a challenge. We managed to find a Chinese restaurant and had some ramen and beers before getting back on the road.

Arriving in Tsuchiura, we got a strong sense that most of the city was shut down for the holiday. We had a street beer and poked around until we were able to find a decent looking izakaya. Horse meat, oysters, french fries, and a flurry of drinks had us primed, and we left that joint, satisfied, to see what else the city had to offer. We were keen to check out a craft beer bar close by named Dog Fish, but they were closed. Luckily, while wandering the freezing empty streets, a place we had passed before had opened for the evening. A weird looking spot with a Caribbean pirate theme offering pizza and one coin drinks - SOLD!

As we entered, we unfurled our sails and took on a second wind. Noting a spicy pizza on the menu called "Death Pizza", we ordered at once. This pizza was no joke. Our mouths were aflame and we both sweated, but were delighted that the pizza was actually as punishing as advertised. It was almost as if in place of tomato sauce, they had simply globbed on a bunch of Death Sauce (which is good by all means, but Insanity Sauce is better). A drink or two later, the waitress brought over drinks from a kind ojiisan at the bar. We ended up moving to another table together, chatting and drinking with him and his friend until we all couldn't see straight. Another successful night of talking to locals and feeling the atmosphere of a new city. 

Going back home after a good trip is always a bummer. Muscles sore and taints thrashed, we rode on to Tokyo. This turned out to be the most boring leg of the trip. Pretty much a straight shot through Tokyo suburbs with only chain family-style restaurants as food options and a lot heavier traffic than we encountered elsewhere on our ride. Cranky and tired, we found another pizza joint within Tokyo. I won't bore you with the other details, there's not much to tell really. Oh, except we did find some brutal roadkill.

We've toyed with the idea of making this more an institution and having regular rides, perhaps calling it Ramen Riders or something fun. If you're reading this and want in on the next ride, hit up BEnB. I'd like to try a ride that involves camping, but that would require a serious equipment investment. Who knows? It's a new year and the possibilities are endless. Happy New Year all!

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