By Sean Toland
The end of an academic term is usually an excessively busy time for most Japanese university English language instructors. There are piles of papers to grade, scores of presentations to see, and monotonous meetings to attend. In addition to these unavoidable job tasks, I was supposed to co-write a research paper with my highly organized and efficient colleague. I realized her patience with my procrastinating was running out from the terse tone of her latest email. As soon as my Thursday afternoon class finished, my colleague ambushed me in the corridor with these words: ‘Are you in the witness protection program or something? I’ve been playing detective all week trying to track you down. Are your sections finally done? … You must be joking! What’s taking you so long? The deadline is on Monday. You know that right?’ I tried to reassure her with vague promises like: ‘no worries … it’s coming together’ and ‘it’s all good … you’ll get it within the next day or so’. Even though I uttered these words with lots of conviction, the reality of the situation was something entirely different.
For the previous couple of weeks, I had sat for hours upon hours in front of my computer either staring aimlessly at a flashing cursor on an empty Microsoft word document or watching the idiotic antics of people on YouTube such as the New York City ‘train surfer’. For some mysterious reason, I was trapped in a state of mental paralysis and the whirlwind of activity in my mind was unable to find its way onto a PC screen. Suffice to say, the rapidly approaching submission deadline hovered over me like a hangman’s noose.
With only three days remaining, I needed to shake off my writer’s block and get back on track. In the past, I’ve found that a change of scenery has often helped to kick-start my writing engine. Thus, I decided to hop on a JR train and head to Kyoto for a couple of days. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that a long walk along the Kamogawa (Kamo river) or a stroll amongst the peaceful bamboo groves in Arashiyama would inspire me to finally put my thoughts on paper. If that failed, I could sit on the patio of a crowed café, down an insanely over-priced cup of cappuccino, and watch the throngs of people float up and down the streets of this quaint tourist hotspot. Perhaps the caffeine would jolt me into an apocalyptic flurry of non-stop writing. A quick visit to The Hub pub might also be a good way to start my Kyoto visit. I’ve heard that a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s best ideas emerged when he was anchored to a bar in Havana guzzling mojitos. On second thought, it’s probably best that I make a pub pitstop after I finish the paper. If I bump into someone I know, there is always the possibility that one pint could snowball into three or more.
As I was walking towards the Kamogawa, I spotted a middle-aged couple on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle stopped at a traffic light. These modern day Easy Riders were outfitted in boots, matching black insignia-free riding leathers, sunglasses and shell helmets. However, the thing that really caught my attention was the tremendous amount of camping equipment that was carefully attached to the Harley’s studded saddlebags. Clearly, this adventurous duo was in the midst of an extended and cost-efficient road trip. Where were they going? How long would it take them?
After a long and refreshing walk, I found myself in search of the previously mentioned caffeine fix. Fortunately, in our java-obsessed society, a coffee shop, especially one that has a green sign with a mermaid’s head, is always within striking distance. Within about ten minutes or so, I was armed with a piping hot cup of French roast and my smartphone was firmly affixed to my hand. I skimmed the Yahoo News headlines and decided to ignore the articles that focused on President Trump’s narcissistic tweets or his predisposition for pontificating and prevaricating. Instead, I read a couple of sports reports and caught up on my work emails. When my coffee was finished, I decided to take one last look at the local scenery before setting off for my hotel and into a world of looming deadlines.
Along the way, I once again spied the camperized Harley parked on a side street. I ended up venturing across the road to take a closer look at the bike. No doubt, the Harley-Davidson enthusiast was having a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant and would not appreciate someone taking an overly excessive interest in his pride and joy. Many years ago, I eyeballed a funky looking chopper and the owner, who looked like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy, screamed at me ‘Hey a******! What the f*** are you doing? Move away from bike before I kick your f***** a**!’ Not surprisingly, I did an impersonation of a human cheetah. I was not too worried about a repeat of this episode as I assumed Japanese bikers had to be more polite than their North American counterparts.
After checking out the machine, I started to feel a tad envious that the road warriors had the freedom to jump on their bike and drive wherever they wanted. Perhaps my jealousy stemmed from the fact that for the last handful of years, I’ve been stuck on a hectic merry-go-round going from one contract teaching position to the next. Ultimately, I had no right to complain about my current gig or even being stuck in one place for an extended period of time.
A couple of months before 9/11, I quit my teaching job in Canada and decided to pursue a new direction. The burnout factor in conjunction with a serious illness forced me to scrutinize my life under a more critically reflective lens. Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, once said “the only way to unravel is to travel.” Keeping these words in mind, I decided to take a two-week ‘time out’ in a tropical place where I did not need to see any snow.
I ended up spending two years living out of a backpack as I did an impersonation of a wandering vagabond throughout Southeast Asia. I travelled by local transportation throughout this fascinating region without ever having to worry about any work deadlines. In amongst the diverse cultures and sites of scenic splendor were constant reminders of the grim socioeconomic hardships that exist in developing nations. At different points on my trip, I did volunteer work with underprivileged children and adults. Although I did not realize it at the time, these enriching experiences rekindled my desire to get back into the teaching game.
My Southeast Asian pilgrimage was the last thing on my mind when I visited Kyoto. Instead, my head was filled with visions of being on the open road driving from Hokkaido to Okinawa without any timetable. In short, I had mentally created my very own Motorcycle Diaries as I stood in front of the Harley. This fantasy lasted for about five minutes before my mind suddenly shut down. I was overcome by an eerie feeling so I decided to find a quiet spot along the Kamogawa and let my thoughts drift back to another time and place. Over twenty-five years ago, I had an experience that I have never been able to fully comprehend or even explain. However, it’s something that will forever be etched into my memory.
Early 1990’s – West Coast of Canada
During my second year of university, I managed to read Robert Pirsig’s (1974) Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values and it planted a seed in the back of my mind. This seminal book of self-discovery highlights a college professor’s journey into madness as well as a motorcycle trip across America with his young son. This novel, in conjunction with the fact that I had owned a small dirt bike for a couple of years when I was a teenager, inspired me to purchase a touring motorcycle as a way to explore the majestic beauty of Vancouver Island. With my own vehicle, I would have the independence to take off for the weekend and go camping at Long Beach, a breath-taking spot that always seemed to make me feel energized.
My best friend agreed to let me do the homeless bum couch-surfing routine for the first few weeks of my stay in Victoria. By the end of the second week, I had secured my own place and was working as a cleaner in a government office building.
My next project was to buy a bike. I started to scan the classified ads with a careful eye and eventually found a bike that might be suitable for my needs. I made an appointment with the owner and ended up taking a bus to an out-of-the-way location. Although the motorcycle was advertised as a “dream machine,” it was a far cry from being in a dream-like condition. A brief test drive confirmed my suspicions so I decided not to purchase it.
A couple of evenings later, I found myself walking to the local 7-11 convenience store to buy a newspaper. I wanted to upgrade my minimum wage janitor job and see if any new bikes were listed in the classifieds. I bought a daily and a grape flavored popsicle. On a warm summer evening, the frozen treat would definitely hit the spot.
I came to a busy intersection and opened the popsicle as I waited for the pedestrian signal to change. The next thing I knew, the air was filled with the sickening sound of screeching tires followed by a thunderous boom. I turned my head just in time to see a motorcyclist being steamrolled by a pickup truck and thrown from his mangled machine. There was a sea of lime green and yellow plastic shrapnel scattered all over the road.
I dropped my popsicle and became lost in a type of slow-motion time warp as I glanced at the lifeless body on the pavement. Every second seemed to feel like an hour and all of my senses were under a full-fledged assault. I suddenly snapped out of my brief daze and headed towards the steaming motionless figure on the road. Before I got there, a motorist took charge of the situation and instructed me to call 911. I sprinted as fast as I could to a nearby shop and relayed the information to a clerk. Within a matter of minutes, the paramedics were on the scene trying in vain to resuscitate the motorcyclist.
A large crowd had gathered and a police officer who had appeared out of nowhere kept the curious spectators at bay. A short time later, the ambulance attendants put the accident victim in their vehicle and whisked him away to the nearest hospital. For whatever reason, I knew that he would be dead on arrival.
More first responders came onto the scene and a short time later, all of the witnesses were rounded up and interviewed. As I was being questioned by a young female police officer, I kept staring over at the driver of the pick-up truck. He was absolutely devastated and sobbed uncontrollably into the palms of his dirty grease-covered hands. It was not an everyday sight to see a middle-aged giant of a man dressed in a pair of work coveralls and safety boots in the midst of an emotional breakdown.
When I finished giving the officer my limited account of the accident, I decided to go for a long walk along Dallas road. My mind was in a state of flux and I needed some time to digest what I had just witnessed. Eventually, I stopped at a quiet spot that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. I sat on a bench, listened to the waves and stared up at the bright moon. I contemplated why certain individuals’ timelines are tragically short, while others live a full life into their 90s. By the time I got home, the accident was filed away in the recesses of my memory.
For some inexplicable reason, I was forced to recall this tragic incident four months later during a meal at a local Denny’s restaurant. I was out with a group of friends and one of the people at our table got into a conversation with our server. Apparently, the two were once high school friends and had not seen each other in a couple of years. After exchanging the typical pleasantries, the waitress started to tell a story that ended up sending shivers down my spine. This individual was really ‘bummed-out’ because she was supposed to be a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding party and the dress rehearsal had been scheduled on that very evening. Instead of enjoying a special night with her friends, the Denny’s employee was serving strangers food at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night. Sadly, the wedding had to be cancelled because the twenty-two year old groom-to-be had been killed on impact after being struck by a pick-up truck four months earlier. I sat there in stunned silence as I listened to the rest of this familiar tale. There was no mistake; it was the same accident that I had witnessed.
Three years later, I would once again be left in a state of shock when I had another chance encounter with a military friend of the accident victim. I had recently relocated back to Victoria after finishing my studies in Montreal. The economy in British Columbia was not exactly booming at the time so I begrudgingly accepted a job at a busy hotel restaurant busing tables and washing dishes. Every shift was a humbling and mind-numbing grind. The only bright spot of the ‘McJob’ was that it included a free lunch, which I would usually have with a couple of the maintenance guys and one of the servers.
During one of the meals, the subject of motorcycles came up and I could not believe my ears when the head maintenance worker started to tell a story about his friend’s tragic demise on a Kawasaki Ninja sport bike. I stopped him and filled in the rest of the facts from the incident that sparked this heartbreaking tale. He sat there for a moment in a state of wide-eyed silence and then peppered me with countless questions to verify what he had just heard. It was an uncomfortable and eerie feeling for everyone sitting at the table. I also learned new details about that unforgettable night. For starters, I found out that the pick-up driver was not at fault and had actually been travelling through a green light when a bike suddenly appeared in his path. Added to that, I was saddened to hear that the young motorcyclist had been “legally impaired” on the night of his untimely death.
The Present – Kyoto, Japan
When I was a child, I spent countless hours listening to my grandfather reminisce about his colorful adventures in the outback of Australia as well as the brutal hardships he experienced and witnessed during the Second World War. He was a gifted storyteller who always seemed to generate lots of smiles and laughter. His stories were not only entertaining, but always provided listeners with a tremendous amount of food for thought.
Shortly after arriving back in Canada from my first teaching stint in South Korea, I remember my grandfather telling me the following: ‘son, you can walk into any crowded room and every person will have experiences that will make you chuckle … shenanigans that will make you blush … and at least one tale of misfortune that will bring tears to your eyes …’. These words reminded me that suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition.
Every single day, people are killed in traffic accidents all over the world. These victims leave behind grieving friends and family members who can’t comprehend their loved ones’ sudden and unexpected deaths. Traffic fatalities also produce shocked eyewitnesses who are thankful that they are alive and not a lifeless body sandwiched in between a mangled mess of metal. Clearly, the fact that I had witnessed a fatal accident is not at all uncommon. However, what I’ve never been able to fully understand is why I came to learn so much about a deceased motorcyclist’s life through a couple of random encounters with strangers. Was it nothing more than an unusual coincidence or something much deeper and more complex? Although I’ve been on a motorcycle a handful of times since this event, I never ended up buying another one.
I snapped out of my daydream and decided it was finally time to tackle the problematic paper. As I made my way to the Shijo bridge, I passed numerous couples chatting and walking hand in hand along the riverbank. I wondered where the shell-helmeted road warriors would be headed next. Wherever it was, I hoped that the adventurous duo would have a safe and enlightening journey. When I reached my humble hotel twenty-minutes later, I had a giant smile on my face. The Kyoto getaway was a wonderful idea and my writer’s block was no longer an insurmountable barrier. I sat in front of my laptop and started to write …
 Sons of Anarchy – an American TV series that ran from 2008-2014 about a fictional motorcycle gang.