“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” is attributed to Daoist philosopher, Lao Tzu. And so in the summer of 1986 Mayumi Yamada-Shimotai began with that one step, or in her case, when she first loaded her bicycle with essentials for travel and began a journey that would take her far from her native homeland of Japan and across four continents traveling a total of 35,000 km or 21,747 miles.
She was in back in West Calcasieu in December for her second visit — some 30 years after her odyssey, to reunite with a Sulphur family and to share copies of her books with a local library.
Born into a rice farming family in the very isolated and conservative village of Niigata, Japan, Shimotai was the only daughter born of her parents with a brother two years her senior. As a child she was often led to question the different roles set down for girls and boys. Whereas her brother was encouraged to continue his studies and eventually take upon the responsibilities of rice farming, Shimotai was expected to follow a very different path.
Wanting to be independent of her parents she enrolled in Niigata University, completing two years and working odd jobs to help with tuition.
“In Japan at that time, people had the idea that the woman or girls shouldn’t be very equal as men. So although I was not bad in study, my parents did not want me to keep studying.” Her mother told her that her role in life was to get a job, marry, and raise a family. “My father was a little different, but he was also conservative and they could not support my wish to keep studying and to become a researcher or an academic person.”
Even her professors regarded her goal as a researcher to be unattainable. “Maybe you can be an assistant,” one told her. As far as she could see, there was no hope in Japan and Shimotai felt as if she were being choked. Of that time in her life she says, “I was at a serious dead end. So I started wishing to see something different from what I had seen and had.”
First she thought of going to Africa but she was too young at 18 to join the Peace Corps. Having no money and no other options, she decided to quit her university studies and work full time, save money and lay the groundwork for her future. She took a job at a bank in Tokyo as a computer programmer and moved into a small flat of her own.
After saving up several thousand dollars she bought a sturdy bike and a plane ticket to California. Armed with knowledge from a friend who had traveled the world on a bicycle, she set out on the first leg of her new life.
“In August of 1986 I decided to leave with the money I had saved and the bicycle and mountain climbing gear, because I was a climber in Japan.” She was just 19 years old.
Landing in Los Angeles, she had in mind a starting point of the Mohave Desert. After a failed attempt to begin that journey because of extreme weather conditions, she instead hopped a Continental Trailways bus headed to Daytona Beach, Fla. — leaving the Mohave Desert far behind.
Shimotai describes the countryside she traveled through with awe. In the area of Japan where she grew up, mountains blocked the view all around in her tiny community, so seeing wide open spaces was a completely new experience for her. From landing in Daytona Beach she had traveled to Key West and back up along the Gulf Coast.
By Thanksgiving Shimotai found herself in Southwest Louisiana which is where she was fortunate to cross paths with her Sulphur family, maintaining a friendship now for more than 30 years.
Shimotai was looking for a campsite near Westlake and not having any luck. With the I-10 bridge looming ahead she accepted a ride with Jeanette Hartley and her young son, Matthew.
Hartley was a school bus driver at the time and had noticed the young woman on her route earlier in the day. Pedestrian traffic over the bridge was forbidden and Hartley was determined to help this humble stranger, otherwise Shimotai would most certainly have declined the offer of a lift to the other side.
Before all was said and done, she found herself invited as an overnight guest of Jeanette and her husband, Bill, which eventually turned into a one-month stay. Much more than Shimotai had ever intended, but appreciated just the same. After spending many nights in her tent and traveling with heavy gear, a soft bed was a great luxury.
After Bill dropped her off in Beaumont, Texas, a month later, she then bicycled to San Antonio and traveled for the next two years from the southern portion of Texas to Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, and South America.
In the states she spent between $10 and $20 a day for necessities. “After a few months I realized that if I am spending $15 or $20 a day, I would only be able to travel for a year. But I found that after Mexico you can’t spend even pennies because on the way there were no products, no nothing, no shops. Mexico at that time was so poor. Most of the people I met were eating frijoles, the beans and tortillas. Every day, three meals a day. There I didn’t have to spend but about $2 a day.”
At the beginning of her journey into Mexico, the language barrier almost proved too much to overcome. “I thought that I should go back to the states, but people were kind. Very hospitable. They did not have enough food or enough space or nice comfortable houses at all, but they tried to offer whatever they had.”
She said that she rarely felt threatened during her time on the road. She was on the receiving end of a few incidents which only heightened her sense of awareness and kept her sleeping in woods in her tent and other out-of-the-way places along the road. In fact, at that time, animals proved to be more of a threat to her well-being than humans. A close encounter with alligators in Florida — they are not bumps in the road — and pumas in Mexico, which thankfully kept their distance, were just two of the close calls with critters of the four-legged variety.
Spending days on end carrying everything you need to survive on a bicycle began to wear her down physically. Many times Shimotai existed on a diet of onions, carrots, rice, honey, butter and cheese. Sometimes a slice of bread dipped in sugar was supper.
With the end of her trip in North and South America coming to a close, she set her sights on Italy, and after a 17-day journey across the ocean, she landed in Genoa.
From Genoa her paths carried her to Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, England, and Paris where she lived for eight months working as a baby sitter then as a broadcaster during the winter of 1998-89.
It was in Turkey that she finally admitted that a rest was sorely needed. “I started to think about how I should end my bicycling,” she said. “‘Maybe tomorrow I should finish,’ then the next day I would think, ‘maybe tomorrow,’” So I just kept extending day-by-day. Finally in Turkey I ended it because it was snowy and my back was weak.”
On the advice of a friend she met in Paris, she traveled to Cairo, Egypt to work as a tour guide, eventually extending her time there to three years. Finally in 1993 she went home for good — closing the chapter on her globetrotting for the time being, but always with the hope to bicycling around Africa still burning in her heart. She had tried several times to go there, but civil unrest caused her to delay that trip. Altogether she was a Japanese vagabond for a little less than four years.
Since returning home to Japan, she has settled in Satama. Shimotai has led a varied life, at times it seems she has done everything at least once. She has worked as a correspondent in Japan for the British newspaper “The Daily Telegraph,” has been a travel writer for three or four years for a Japanese guide book, lived in India for three months and visited Indonesia for one month. But she said, “You cannot have the idea of having your family if you are traveling all the time, and I was getting a little tired.”
In 1998-99 while working on a peace boat, whose purpose is to take passengers from Japan and travel all over the world to give the travelers a chance to learn the culture and lifestyles of other countries, Shimotai met her future husband, Tomotaka Shimotai. They were married in 2000 and now live in Satama, Japan.
After all these adventures, one would be right to conclude that Shimotai is a rare women indeed. Questioning long-held cultural values, accepting challenges, she is determined to complete a task she has set before herself — all wrapped up in a tiny, humble, but determined woman.
When asked where she got the fortitude to accomplish all that she has in her life she said with a laugh, “Because I was too young and ignorant.”
In 2014 Shimotai finished writing “A Japanese Vagabond —Bicycling 35,000 km Around Four continents, Part 1,” a book that was 10 years in the making which details her many experiences on the road. The book is a pretty hefty read at over 900 pages but is sure to grab one’s attention from the first page to the last. S
he recently completed a continuation in her second release, Part 2, which is a bit smaller at over 300 pages of pure entertainment. Sulphur Regional Library has copies of both or they can be purchased online. Shimotai can be reached by emailing her at email@example.com.