Utsunomiya: Mickey Cycles

September 6, 2011

Sometime in the 1970s, a Japanese high school girl named Kikue approached an American tourist named Rod at the Toshogu Shrine, asking him if she could practice her English with him.  Rod said yes, and so was born a friendship and correspondence that would last for decades.  When Rod passed on, his daughter Nicki “inherited” Kikue, and they continued to write to one another and exchange gifts at holidays and birthdays.

Nicki, my mother’s college roommate, encouraged me to contact Kikue when I visited Japan, and I was immediately impressed by Kikue’s warmth and energy over email.  Kikue invited me to stay with her family in Utsunomiya (宇都宮, literally, “heaven capital”, or “heaven shrine”), a city north of Tokyo.  With a still valid JR “gajin” pass, I hopped on a Shinkansen after work one afternoon and headed toward Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県, “horse-chestnut tree”).

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The first thing I noticed about Tochigi-ken was the relative lack of humidity: the prefecture was surprisingly dry and pleasant.  Numerous strip malls, big box stores, and other features of suburban life sprawled along the straight roads, intermingling with rice paddies.

Kikue and her husband, Mitsugu, greeted me at the train station.  Together they run a motorcycle repair shop on the first floor of their home called “Mickey Cycles” (from the combined first syllables of their first names).  The first thing they did was proudly show off their 1958 Rikuo, a Japanese motorcycle built by Harley-Davidson.

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He didn’t know what to expect as I tapped his left thigh to signal a turn onto the narrow mountain road. It’d been years since I had last driven up the winding route to the top of the ridge, so, neither did I.

The “SPEED LIMIT 15” sign should have meant something to him, but he blatantly ignored it as he poured on the throttle, accelerating to a speed probably twice what was posted. We roared up to the first turn, a steep hairpin which lacked any sort of banking. An abrupt downshift almost threw me off the back of the bike as the curve presented more than he expected. The second hairpin, like the first, was also accompanied by a rapid decrease in engine revolutions as I clung to his waist and tried to mimic his lean. By hairpin number three, he’d gotten the hang of the curving strip of pavement and I was able to relax a bit my white-knuckle grip on his jacket.

While the asphalt wasn’t as smooth as some other roads we’d ridden, it lacked potholes and most importantly, other cars. We twisted and rumbled up to the peak, where we parked and walked around the summit of my favorite Inverness hill. Douglas irises, coyote brush, moss, lichen, bishop pine trees, pumpernickel flowers, and poppies shone in the bright afternoon light. We could see to Hog Island and Dillon Beach along Tomales Bay, as well as to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Chimney Rock, Mount Saint Helena, and most of the hills of wine country. “Heavenly,” he declared the vista.

The descent was an entirely different matter: My sunglasses, combined with the face shield on my borrowed helmet, made the reflections from leaves appear pink, blue, yellow, or vivid green. I imagined what the oak trees would look like with indigo blossoms the size of magnolias or the ceanothus with pink foliage. As soon as we began to drop in altitude, he turned off the engine and we quietly coasted down the road in neutral, only turning the engine for two brief uphill portions. It was strange only hearing the rush of wind, rather than the usual skull-shaking throb-THROB-throb-THROB of the engine, as we silently rolled toward the main road amidst a riot of pinks, blues, and greens.