Tatsuya is not a monk, though there are times when you could easily believe he is one. He has the look of a monk, with his bald head and his flowing robes. He has the bearing of a monk, too, the poise of someone who has discovered a higher plane, who has transcended the struggles of the everyday world and seeks to gently draw everyone up alongside him.
Tatsuya is a Zen Buddhist, but he's not a monk. In truth, he's a cycling guide, a leader of tourists, an organiser of the perennially confused, an escort both physical and spiritual for strangers in a strange land. What is this place, we all want him to explain. How does it work? Why does it work? And how is that we all struggle to cycle up the hills, puffing and straining, and yet you just seem to gather speed when you hit them, to power up the steepest slope like it doesn't even exist? How do you find the right gear?
"You don't need to find another gear on your bike," Tatsuya intones. "You need to find another gear in your mind."
People smile at that. They lean back in their chairs in the little bar we've gathered in at our hotel in the town of Wajima and ponder that philosophical gem while finishing off their beers and eating their snacks. Another gear in your mind. It sounds so simple. Trite, almost. It also sounds like the sort of thing we'll have to put into practice tomorrow, when we hit the big climb, the hill we've been talking about and mentally preparing for for 10 days now. Welcome to a cycling tour, Japanese style. This two-week journey, managed by Intrepid Travel, is one that will reveal much about an amazing country and its people, but also about ourselves. The tour is partly about scenic beauty, about seeing the likes of Kyoto and Tokyo and Kanazawa by bicycle, but under Tatsuya's guidance it's also about inner beauty, about inner strength, about discovering a love for small mercies – and finding that extra gear.
Tatsuya is our Zen master, and our guide. He's not a preacher, but a leader. He doesn't espouse the principles of Zen Buddhism, not vocally anyway, but it isn't long before we begin to notice how they manifest themselves in the daily pulse of Japanese life, and how often they apply to the simple art of riding a bike.
Zen lesson one: observe your breath. You're always aware of your breath on a bike, whether it's coming in calm, measuring bursts on an easy, flat section, or in laboured heaves as you climb a hill, searching for that extra gear. My breath seems steady as we mount our bikes in Osaka on day one of the tour, and prepare to ride 50 kilometres to Kyoto. This day will be flat and easy, a gentle peddle along bike paths by the river in Osaka before we veer into the countryside and pass sports fields and rice paddies on the way towards Kyoto. Breathing comes easy, in a gentle rhythm. It gives you time to take in the scenery, to appreciate the rest stops for water and snacks, to savour the chance to see the famous Fushimi Inari shrine – a series of hundreds of red Shinto gates in the hills behind Kyoto – before eventually reaching our ryokan, a traditional inn on a quiet street in the suburbs.
Zen lesson two: observe the mind. It doesn't take long to reach a meditative state while you're riding a bike, when the rhythm of pedalling and the gentle thrill of movement lull you into self-reflection, making the journey around the forested outskirts of Kyoto the following day as much about our own expectations and desires on this journey as the beautiful setting itself.
Tatsuya long ago mastered the art of bike-driven meditation. He's a quiet, serene guy who, we eventually learn, has done some big, bold things. He once rode a tiny fold-up bike, solo, from Perth to Sydney. He has cycled from Alaska down to Argentina. He was robbed at gunpoint in Colombia, lost his bike and everything he owned, and yet the universe looked after him, gave him another bike through the help of a sponsor, allowed him to continue his journey. Tatsuya well knows the peace that two wheels can bring.
Lesson three: awareness. The sounds, the smells and the sights of Japan invade your consciousness when you're on a bicycle, they bombard you with stimuli. You can't help but be aware of them, aware of the simple beauty of a country you're so used to seeing at breakneck pace, aboard a bullet train, packed into subway car, hustling along a pavement. But here it's so much gentler.
Soon we're in Kanazawa, an ancient town on the northern coast of Japan's main island of Honshu, a smaller, quieter version of Kyoto with its own teahouse districts, its own geishas. This is a place to relax away from the tourist population, but it's also a place to prepare for the coming days when we'll tackle the bulk of our cycling, doing a loop of the Noto Peninsula, a small arm of land that's known for its spa towns and rural vistas.There are between 60 and 80 kilometres to ride each day at an easy pace, a pace slow enough to be mindful of your breathing, to relax into that meditative space, and to consider the climb on the third day.
Zen cycling, you find, makes you appreciate small mercies; it shows you the beauty in the everyday. You realise there's something indescribably lovely about a row of Japanese vending machines laid out next to a park bench, about the chance to slot in a few coins and be given an ice-cold sports drink and a couple of chocolate bars in return. There's also true beauty in a long stretch of open road, in being able to settle into a rhythm and smile at strangers and take in the countryside at ease.
We spend each night in traditional accommodation, in family-run inns with attached bathhouses and their own little restaurants. The food we eat is prepared by those families and it's spectacularly good – plate after plate of seafood and tofu and vegetables, cooked with love, eaten with deep appreciation.
In the town of Wajima we discover our inn has its own karaoke bar, where we sing bad '80s ballads and drink beer and listen to Tatsuya as he quietly intones that tomorrow, we have our biggest challenge – though really, it's not that big. It's a two-kilometre climb up a steep slope, the sort of spot where we'll need to concentrate, to put all of that meditation and breathing and inner peace into practice, to find that extra gear in our minds. The funny thing is that Tatsuya, Zen master, cycling guide, and quiet achiever of great things, is right. Every one of us does have something extra inside. We do have more strength, more power. The extra gear exists, and like this whole experience, the beauty, the will, the appreciation and the wonder – it's in our minds.
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Intrepid Travel's 14-day "Cycle Japan" tour takes in Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, the Noto Peninsula and Tokyo. Tour prices are from $6950 per person, which includes many meals, a qualified local guide, bike hire, a support vehicle, plus train transfers, as well as accommodation in hotels and traditional inns, and many sights and activities. For more information, see intrepidtravel.com/au/japan
Qantas flies daily from east coast ports direct to Osaka and Tokyo. For bookings and information, see qantas.com, or call 13 13 13.