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Rain drops fall heavily on my jacket as I weave my way through throngs of haughtily dressed Japanese women, each staring disapprovingly at me though their transparent Hello Kitty umbrellas, as they go about their upscale shopping in downtown Kobe city.
I am searching for an elusive Coffee/Bike/Dog Grooming/Hair Salon that is rumored to hold the best coffee in the Kansai region of Japan. It is closed. I end up at a eerily familiar Mr Doughnut and, two cups of grime and five doughnuts later, I make my way back out into the rain and begin my search for home.
I am in Japan for 12 days, competing in the Kansai Cyclocross Meeting, Yasu round, a category 2 UCI event and the biggest cross race in Japan. Accompanying me on the trip is the youthful cyclocross slayer with a penchant for knitted caps and nylon pants, Adam McGrath, and a documentary film crew from Brian Vernor’s epic film empire. Vernor put this trip together to explore the cross scene in Japan, and to try and meet some nice Japanese women. So far he has been 50 percent successful in achieving those goals.
The ‘cross scene in Japan is pretty impressive, and is gaining momentum. One of the big name Japanese riders, Keiichi Tsujiura, the six-time Japanese national champion, has made in-roads into European racing where he is a regular top 30 finisher in World Cups. We visited Keiichi in his home town of Matsumoto near Nagano and went for a short snowy training ride and had a bath at the local hot springs bath house. Keiichi’s perspective on cycling culture in Japan, his experiences racing in Europe and what it means to be the Japanese national champion will all be covered in the upcoming film, but I will comment on his dedication to the sport.
Keiichi is living like a true professional, training diligently, and is a student of cyclocross. He embodies the traditional Japanese work ethic in cycling form and I have immense respect his approach. Living alone in a one room studio apartment is not exactly fun, even if it is near the best training terrain in Japan. Keiichi gives himself fully to the sport, and is really an impressive example of a true professional bike racer.
He also kicked my ass riding on the beach two days ago.
The Kansai cyclocross series is the biggest cross series in Japan, and the Yasu round is the premier event of the series. Held at Lake Biwako, the largest lake in Japan, the race is also known as “Sandy Hell.” About 90 percent of the race is decided on a single 500 meter section of beach that is interrupted by fencing that requires one to leave the relatively easy packed sand along the water and venture up into the bottomless fluff away from the high water line. I was able to power my way though for a few laps before the lightweight Keiichi gapped me for good, floating away as I bogged down and lost momentum, losing 30 seconds to him by the finish.
Japanese cycling culture definitely has its distinct take on the classic cyclocross form, and I feel like that is a great thing. I didn’t want to travel to Japan and have it mirror the experience I have when I am racing in Belgium or in the United States.
Part of what makes each place special is the unique perspective they bring to cross, and Japan had plenty of that. From the call up grid to the word Go! my nerves were getting the best of me. I was worried that I was about to get my ass handed to me by a bunch of guys half my height riding through moon sand that I had never seen before while wondering what would have happened if I had pushed that other button on the toilet when I was done with my business and wondering why every single spectator had a $2000 camera and wanted to take pictures of me giving them the thumbs up. In the end though, a bike race is a bike race no matter where you are in the world, and aside from eating smoked fish and rice balls as my pre race meal, it was business as usual.
Japan on the other hand is far from business as usual, and I have been experiencing all sorts of new things here, from food to transportation to toilet technology, it has been an eye opening experience for sure. Next time though, I am going to make sure I get an adequate description of each food item before chowing down, so I can avoid eating things like Shirako, which, it turn out, is boiled cod sperm and is considered delicacy in Japan.