A Welshman’s 10,000-km tale of Japan

by Angela Jeffs

What on earth would induce anyone to cycle around a country for six months?

“Good question,” replies Leigh Norrie, who did just that in 2005, and now has a book that tells the tale. “Japan: 6,000 Miles On a Bicycle” was published earlier this year by Printed Matter Press, and he makes no apologies for it being self-published.

“Some people pull faces at the idea of self-publishing,” he notes. “But at that time I was unwilling to trail around agents and publishers. Nor was I happy about some editor saying he didn’t like this and perhaps I should change that. I knew how I wanted my book to look and read.”

A very funny book it is too. Though whether everyone will find it as amusing is in part at least dependent on an appreciation of dry, droll, self-deprecating British humor.

From Llandudno in North Wales, Norrie trained as a primary school teacher without doing much toward any career move. “It was my mother who got on my case. There I was in 1997, quietly having breakfast, when a copy of the Times Educational Supplement landed with a thud next to my cornflakes.”

Glancing through the ads, nothing appealed, until the word Japan jumped out. Sending out what he describes as “the most dreadful resume” — littered with the likes of “I like playing badminton” — one eikaiwa English school apparently found it appealing.

The years in Japan passed pleasantly enough, so allowing Norrie to pass into his 30s in distracted playboy mode. Then in May 2003, he met a young Canadian woman who told him she was set on changing the world.

“When Sylvia (Charczuk) did just that, adopting a hill tribe village in Laos and setting up a foundation, naturally it had an effect — made me question what I was doing.”

Four months later, a friend from the U.K., Bob Arnold, came for a visit and told him about Alan Booth’s book, “The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk Through Japan,” describing how Booth walked the length of Japan in the 1970s.

That, Norrie believes, was an initial epiphany, when his heart started racing. At school, he began telling people, “I’m going to walk from North to South,” until a student told him to stop being ridiculous and buy a good bike. From that point on, Norrie says, “the trip became a different beast.”

Friend Shuichi Wakayama, the grandson of tanka poet Bokshi Wakayama, spent a year helping Norrie plan his route. Others were less enthusiastic: “They’d say things like, ‘What, you, ride a bike? You won’t get 10 miles.’ There was a lot of p*ss-taking.”

But Norrie was not deterred. He was careful in choosing his mode of transport, settling for a Trek 520, which he bought in Thailand because it was cheaper. Ironically he might not have bothered, being hit for excess baggage, but the bike was a beaut and he named her Babe.

When he set off of May 24, 2005, from Kawagoe — because that was where he was staying, with the Wakayamas — Norrie knew exactly why he was doing the trip. As he writes, “I wanted to experiment on myself by going on a long, tough adventure, completely self-reliant and alone.”

His only real plan was to cover Japan’s 47 prefectures. There was no fixed schedule, no finishing date, most certainly no thought of a book. “Yet when I thought of the alternatives — continue teaching, find a new bar, hang out on a beach — there seemed nothing more important than to pedal.”

Again, as he writes, “The sun was out, the road was clear — I rode through parts of Koga to cross Ibaraki off the list. Half an hour later I was in Tochigi. Suddenly, it was six o’clock. Being new to this I really did wonder where I was going to stay. I’ve never had a hard-on for camping.”

He says he knew from Day 2 that life would never be the same again. He found himself questioning how we are supposed to live, ruled as we are by technology and the man-made. “We don’t really need anything. As I challenged my mum, two fridges?”

Having said this, he did accept the necessity of gadgets to record the trip and keep in touch with family and friends. Camping equipment was for emergencies only; most of the time he booked into hotels, love hotels and pensions. “I know it’s a contradiction but when wet and cold, tired and frustrated, comfort and a hot shower won out every time.”

Unlike Alan Booth, Norrie spoke only rudimentary Japanese. His conversations with people met along the way — some warm and friendly, others not — are, therefore, on occasion, very amusing. Trying to explain where he was from, for example: Even if the word Igirisu was familiar, Wales was a total bafflement.

“In editing my blog for the book, I tried to remain as honest as possible. Of course I wanted to be seen as the good guy, but sometimes it was tough, especially when some hotelkeeper wouldn’t let me in and I lost my rag.”

Visiting famed locations provided relief from days of cycling through countryside that “could have been anywhere.” Surprising then that he went through Nikko in no time at all.

By contrast — having toured Hokkaido, where he’d experienced gray skies, anger and depression, and pedaled back down through Saitama — he took time out in Kamakura to see the Daibutsu (Big Buddha). “Arrived at the temple around 7 a.m. Seeing this quite awesome spectacle after no sleep was quite something. I was alone for the first 10 minutes — an honor.”

Nara also left an impression — “Left the cool city — with vivid images of deer, temples, and a thin man with something growing out of his arse, emblazoned across my mind.”

In Kyoto, he “couldn’t imagine a better place to be.” By contrast, Hiroshima proved a reality check — “Everyone in the world should go to the Peace Park.”

Mostly, he says, the book is about a guy with a bad back who drank and smoked a lot and missed his girlfriend. But there’s more to it than that.

“As I wrote towards the end of the trip, making sense of what I had done was simple: I never wanted to get to age 65 and look back at what I could have done. I know the experience has changed me profoundly. I’m still processing exactly how.”

It was after he came back from seeing his girlfriend in Switzerland, that he began to look through his laptop and thought to write a book. “Looking through the finished product, with my photos and a few poems, I can truthfully say that I have said what I wanted to say. It provides closure to the trip.”

So that is it. The end?

Apparently not, because Norrie is planning to cycle around Europe in 2011, and is now fully concentrated on saving money to this end, and using his Japan book to interest a commercial publisher.

He will be taking time out on Sept. 14 to talk about “Pedal Pushin’ Around Japan” at Good Day Books in Ebisu.

In the meantime, Babe is taking a well earned rest. Learning Welsh in Wales. And practicing the word for puncture in at least a dozen more European languages.

Phone or fax Good Day Books for details: (03) 5421-0957 Web site: www.gooddaybooks.com Twenty-five percent of book sales go to the The Chiki Foundation: www.chi-ki-org Books available from: leighnorrie@gmail.com, info@printedmatterpress.com, or www.printedmatterpress.com. Anyone interested in following this trip on Google Earth can download the file at catalist-solutions.com/ GoogleEarth/Japan.zip