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Bicycling Through Japan During Covid: It's a Trip, Y'all




For the coming three weeks I will report once in a while on what I witness as I travel Japan by bicycle from Kyushu to Tokyo. My reports will be summarized through this blog, photos, and linked video content. It is about a 2,000-kilometer journey, including the circulation of Kyushu.


I have completed about 700 kilometers so far, and this report is from the hot springs city of Beppu. 



Why Now?



I know, I know, I should stay home. But I’m an old-fashioned guy that still inexplicably and naively believes in freedom of movement, expression, and thought. And a free press. So here I am — I am the press for this journey, reporting on the situation in Japan, on the ground. 


The reason I am doing this is because some sobriety is desperately needed. What is the impact of COVID-19, not just on our lives, but on our towns, cities, businesses, and culture?


I am venturing deep into the inaka (countryside) of Japan to find out.





But Where?!


My trip began in Fukuoka on April 25. I flew my bicycle there from Tokyo using Skymark Airlines, a great airline that honored the ticket it sold me.


From Fukuoka, I circumnavigated Kyushu counter-clockwise, visiting all seven prefectures.





As expected, I received warnings from friends and colleagues. My family? They gave up on me long ago!



One Japanese corporate client of mine issued a very sharp warning about the trip. During a meeting, he commented on my revelation by listing three reasons it would be ill-advised to go:


  1.   Locals in Kyushu would be very, very upset.
  2.   The client company would not look favorably upon my actions.
  3.   If I go, I should expect my future business opportunities would be affected.


Another business associate, upon learning that I was joining the conference call from Kagoshima, launched into a diatribe while the 10 other participants listened in: “You could be COVID-positive. What if you spread COVID? Don’t you have a conscience? What about all the doctors on the frontline working to save lives? Don’t you think about them at all? Selfish!”


To be fair to her, everyone in the world is stressed and emotional right now. Regardless, I am now on the road, and the only way is forward.




Fukuoka ~ Kumamoto


My first three days were largely uneventful, thanks to COVID-19. Most towns I passed through were literally ghost towns. Very few shops or restaurants were open. Of the few that were, most were open only for take-out. A tiny minority allowed eat-in.


I’ll never forget the yakiniku restaurant in Saga prefecture, an obviously once-popular place, where I was the only customer that evening. I paid a meager ¥2,700 JPY (about $25 USD) for the most delicious dinner of Saga beef, pork bowl, chicken, and beer. It’s sad to think how the solitary elderly lady who served me that night will make ends meet in an age of physical distancing.




Zombie Businesses



To get from Shimabara in Nagasaki to Kumamoto, I took a 30-minute ferry ride. It was a large ferry capable of seating around 250. I counted about 12 employees to 4 customers, while the fare was ¥800 JPY (about $7.50 USD). Certainly, the costs of running the ferry exceeded our fares.


My concern is that the COVID-19 response will create more zombie businesses all around Japan and the world, making more companies dependent on government handouts. My only fear (that’s right, I am not at all fearful of COVID-19) is that this is symptomatic of a world transitioning to a manic kind of socialism — like in China under Mao — where businesses that choose to remain open, or travelers like myself, will be punished.




The Views of Locals


The first AirBnB I stayed at was in a small town about 30 kilometers west of Fukuoka. The hostess was very pleased that I came, as her revenue base had tanked with the vanished tourist economy. Before she showed me to my quarters, we got into a long conversation about COVID-19. I told her I didn't believe the hype, that I thought it was inviting Leninist socialism worldwide.



It was a moment of relief for both of us — a truly Orwellian moment as she said, “I also think it’s fake news.” We discussed the implausibility of the situation, the relentless 120 days (and counting) of fear-peddling. I told her how my father, who reads the New York Times, has turned his home into a hospital, buying up medical gear on Amazon.


I doubt people will be able to overcome the trauma of COVID-19 for at least a generation, and maybe more. Such is the “new normal.” But I cannot accept that this is the way of life in 2020. Instead, I am cycling — to know first-hand the impact of corona on the countryside, starting with Kyushu, Japan.



(To be continued)



Author: Julian Israel

Julian's videos of his trip are available in Japanese only on his YouTube channel here.


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