Travelmag Banner
Archives
Search
 Features

Rural Japan: a bike called Sybil and a girl called Peach


“Are you doing okay back there?” Chelsey calls back to me.

With the wind whipping my face and the distance between us I can hardly hear her, but I give a shout of acknowledgment and push on forward.

We’re biking along a rural road in the countryside of Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku, the lesser known of Japan’s four main islands, where Chelsey lives and where I’ve come to visit her. While we’re both English teachers in Asia, our lives are in many ways mirror opposites: while I chose to live and teach in a large city in South Korea, Chelsey chose to live and teach in rural Japan. Visiting Chelsey is like looking in a funhouse mirror: the experience is at once both familiar and strange. Whereas my morning commute to the school where I teach in South Korea involves a hectic bus ride through busy city streets, Chelsey rides her bike through the wide open spaces of country roads and fields. My life is set in cityscapes; Chelsey’s in farmlands.

Chelsey turns back again to check on me and my bike and bursts into laughter. It’s not hard to figure out why. I must make quite the Kodak moment right now: the ear flaps of my bright red toque flapping wildly, hair blowing in the wind, the determined — maniacal? — smile on my face, white knuckles frozen to handlebars, the absurd way I sway side to side as I try to will more power into each pedal. I am a spectacle.

Sybil is not making things any easier for me. Chelsey procured this aging, lumbering bicycle for me from a friend in a nearby town, cycling the heavy beast 12 kilometres back to her town so that we would be able to get around more conveniently. My first course of action was to name it. Sybil seemed an appropriate name — like a crotchety old lady you’d see arguing over coupons at the supermarket checkout counter or telling bawdy, politically incorrect stories of the golden days of her youth at somebody’s awkward family reunion.

Shikoku, JapanThe name seemed even more appropriate when Chelsey, classical studies nerd that she is, pointed out that Sibyl is a prophetess in Greek mythology who was granted a centuries-long life but, because she forgot to ask for eternal youth, spent the majority of it a withered hag. The Sibyl would write her prophecies on leaves but, if they were scattered by the wind, wouldn’t help to make sense of them.

From Heraclitus: “The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.

Frenzied. Unadorned. Unperfumed.

Perfect.

Sybil is my connection to the Japanese landscape around me, but the connection is rough and uneasy and I often don’t understand it. I don’t understand the language, or the culture, or how her heavy, unforgiving frame can make turning and braking so goddamn difficult. And I don’t understand how, despite all of this, I still love the idea of Sybil.

She’s not a state-of-the-art bike by any stretch of the imagination, but she does have a battery pack which, when turned on, gives a nice boost to each of my peddle kicks. Of course, when the battery dies, moving Sybil is like moving an ornery camel: difficult and exhausting, resulting in strange groaning and cursing noises from both master and beast. The mountainous terrain of Shikoku is not a convenient place for a heavy bike with a heavy, dead battery. Nonetheless, what Sybil lacks in weight category, technology, and youth, she makes up in character. Or so I tell myself.

Heading up an incline towards a bridge, Chelsey shouts back at me to turn on the extra boost button, adding, “And make sure to –” but the rest is cut off by a sudden whoosh of wind. I flick the switch for the boost, but nothing happens. The only alternative then, is to lean forward, put a bit more sway into my leg lunges, and embrace the spectacle.

———————————-

I pull Sybil into a gravel lot next to a small building and park her next to a fence where Chelsey is waiting. We’re already twenty minutes late for our lunch date with her friend Michael, so we lock the bikes up quickly and hurry into Momo-chan’s.

The Chinese restaurant isn’t actually called Momo-chan’s, but that’s what Michael and Chelsey have dubbed it. Momo-chan is a little girl who, when not at her elementary school, works as a waitress in her parents’ restaurant. While the food at Momo-chan’s is really good — the best Chinese food in this little Japanese town, I’m told —it’s Momo-chan who makes the meal memorable.

Shikoku, Japan

Her name means peach, a fact which is at odds with her approach to waitressing. As names for waitresses go, I would imagine one of two personas for Peach: an apathetic middle-aged waitress with smoker’s lung working at a truck stop diner off the interstate just outside Nowhere, America, or an exhaustingly bubbly woman with a penchant for bright colours and ruffles working at a family friendly chain restaurant where she is the only employee who actually enjoys participating in the mandatory “Happy Birthday” song-and-dance routine. But maybe that’s just me.

Instead, Momo-chan is the pinnacle of professionalism. She is the most businesslike waitress I have ever seen. It’s like she’s embroiled in the most determined game of house any little girl has ever played. I had been told beforehand about Momo-chan’s very unique brand of professionalism. I still wasn’t prepared for it.

Momo-chan walks up to our table to take our orders and the first thing I notice is that she is not much more than a foot taller than the table. She fills our water glasses confidently and then stands in front of us silently, her expression completely neutral. Michael explains in Japanese that we need more time to decide, so she turns around and walks away, not a word spoken.

It’s not because we’re strangers, and it’s not because we can’t communicate. Michael and Chelsey come to this restaurant all the time — Michael is her English teacher — and they both speak enough Japanese to order food comfortably. This is just Momo-chan, as is, on any given workday.

A few minutes later, she comes back to take our orders again. Michael orders everything in Japanese, while Momo-chan studiously writes it all down. There is a pause after Michael speaks. I watch Momo-chan carefully, curious to see what she’ll do next, trying to read her inscrutable expression for any key indicators or signs. But there’s nothing there. She looks up from her notepad, nods in finality, and walks away.

While we wait for our food, Michael explains that he’s seen her speaking and playing happily with friends and classmates at school; it’s only when she’s a waitress at the restaurant that she’s silent and stoic.

Later, Momo-chan returns with our food, the stacked bento boxes appearing oversized in her tiny arms. Just as she’s about to walk away, Michael asks her in Japanese how old she is. She turns back and replies that she’s ten.

And just then, for the shortest of split seconds, I think I might see… something. A twinkle in her eye? The shadow of a smile hidden somewhere near the corner of her mouth, behind that tight-lipped expression? An almost imperceptible smirk signifying that she knows that this is all a game, a joke she’s playing on us and the rest of the world — that she knows she’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a strange little Japanese girl and she likes it?

But then it’s gone and she’s turning and walking away.

“She’s a trip,” Michael says.

Yes she is, I think to myself. And so is Shikoku.

Shikoku, JapanPhotographs courtesy of Shutterstock.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific